Human Rights First spent much of the past few months seeking to mobilize international support for the work of independent human rights defenders in Russia. The G8 Summit in St. Petersburg in July presented a unique opportunity to encourage the Russian government to uphold the many international human rights commitments by which it is bound. To that end, Human Rights First staff, including Executive Director Maureen Byrnes, traveled to Russia to participate in a series of events with Russian human rights activists.
We produced an update to our 2005 New Dissidents report and testified about our concerns in Congress. We also urged President Bush and other Western leaders to demonstrate their support for Russian human rights activists while at the Summit.
The G8 did focus considerable media and political attention on the mounting threats against human rights defenders in Russia. President Putin dismissed international criticisms of his policies, but continued to pay lip-service to democracy and human rights.
Over the coming months, with the help of our partners in Russia, we will monitor closely the government’s treatment of human rights activists, focusing especially on the implementation of a new law governing the functioning of non-governmental organizations, but also on other methods the government might use to obstruct human rights work. We aim to support human rights defenders throughout Russia, and also to ensure that when Russia takes its place in the various “democratic clubs” of which it is a member, other governments will remind it that persecuting human rights defenders is not a democratic practice. Our capacity to support defenders through the Defender Alert Network is a key element of our continuing work on Russia.
With best wishes,
Senior Associate Matt Easton was in Indonesia for the second anniversary of the murder of Indonesian human rights lawyer Munir, who died of arsenic poisoning on a flight to the Netherlands. Matt joined Munir’s wife Suciwati and colleagues at a press conference calling for progress in the investigation. At a candle-lit open-air ceremony with an audience of hundreds of supporters, Munir’s wife Suciwati read a powerful open letter to the Indonesian President calling for action.
Matt also joined a nationwide meeting of human rights defenders gathered to devise strategies to better protect activists. More than 50 defenders from Aceh, Central Sulawesi, Papua, and other past and present conflict areas participated.
There has been little progress in the Munir case since the conviction of airline pilot Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto in December 2005. After being asked about the case at a recent international meeting, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced that the police investigation would be revitalized, but it is unclear what concrete steps will result. On September 18, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy placed a statement in the Congressional Record noting the second anniversary of Munir’s death and the need for action on the investigation.
The Martin Ennals Award
This year, the jury of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders has chosen to honor two individuals: Akbar Ganji, an Iranian journalist, who was released in March 2006 after serving six years in prison; and Arnold Tsunga, a prominent lawyer in Zimbabwe, who continues to suffer threats and harassment because of his work.
Most recently, Mr. Tsunga, the secretary of the Law Society of Zimbabwe and chairperson of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, has been the subject of a smear campaign in state-run newspapers. Authorities are also prosecuting Mr. Tsunga in relation to his membership on the board of an independent radio station called Voice of the People.
The Defenders Program congratulates both awardees, and hopes that this recognition will offer them each a degree of protection. Human Rights First serves on the jury of the Award together with representatives of ten other leading international human rights organizations.
U.S. Senator Barack Obama Meets with Kenyan Activists
During the 2005 Policy Forum co-sponsored by Human Rights First and The Carter Center, Kenyan human rights defender Betty Murungi met with Senator Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. to discuss the situation in Kenya. She met with his office again after the 2006 Policy Forum. Following that meeting, Senator Obama made a visit to Kenya in August 2006, during which he met with Ms. Murungi and other civil society leaders. During his compelling speech in Nairobi, Senator Obama not only raised the critical issues that Ms. Murungi and the other activists had discussed with him, but cited their meetings and mentioned her specifically.
The aim of the Policy Forum is to amplify the voices of human rights defenders around the world and to provide them with direct access to the most influential policymakers, including members of the U.S. Congress and senior U.N. officials. The impressive results of Ms. Murungi’s meeting with Senator Obama demonstrate what can be achieved when officials connect with local human rights activists who are in the best position to understand the needs of their countries. In her message to us Ms. Murungi writes: “This was beyond our wildest expectations and really strengthens our resolve in the pursuit of better governance. It is very important for us to have the support of The Carter Center and Human Rights First.”
This year, Human Rights First will present its annual Human Rights Award to the Damas de Blanco from Cuba and Suciwati from Indonesia. The Damas de Blanco are the wives and relatives of the 75 human rights activists and journalists sentenced to long prison terms in the spring of 2003, during a crackdown on civil society. The women have since become peaceful advocates for the release of their family members and for human rights in Cuba. Suciwati, the wife of murdered Indonesian human rights defender Munir, has fought for accountability for her husband’s murder and has continued his work, encouraging victims of human rights violations to call for justice on their own behalf. Learn more about the award and how you can attend this year’s ceremony on October 16.