Since the Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum, held in Atlanta last June, Human Rights First worked closely with Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Democracy and Labor, Barry Lowenkron to strengthen U.S. government support for human rights defenders around the world. We submitted information from human rights defenders that he was able to use in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 8, 2006, and we participated in meetings at the State Department and submitted written suggestions for a set of core principles that would govern U.S. policy towards human rights defenders.
On December 14, we welcomed Secretary Rice’s announcement of the Guiding Principles on Non-Governmental Organizations that will serve as a guide for U.S. policy in this area and enable the U.S. government to assess the actions of other governments.
In the introduction to the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, issued by the State Department on March 6, 2007, Secretary Lowenkron wrote that in supporting “the work of human rights advocates and civil society organizations, we are helping men and women in countries across the globe shape their own destinies in freedom. And by so doing, we are helping to build a safer, better world for all.”
Our program at Human Rights First shares these sentiments and with your support we will be urging U.S. policy makers to implement consistently its support for human rights defenders set forth in the Guiding Principles and in the statements of Secretary Rice, Assistant Secretary Lowenkron, and other senior officials.
FIn a letter sent on April 28, 2007, from the Damascus Central Prison of Adra, detained activists Anwar al-Bunni, Aref Dalilah Michel Kilo, Kamal al-Labwani, Mahmoud Issa, and Faek Al Mir thanked and sent their “heartfelt greetings” to all the individuals and organizations that have supported them.
This support “makes us feel that we are not alone in this struggle, and gives hope to society” said the letter.
They asked for continuing international efforts to press the Syrian authorities to release them and respect human rights.
The jailed activists conclude: “Neither threats, intimidation, and repression, nor long years of imprisonment, will deter us from our convictions and commitments.” Human Rights First is continuing to call for their release.
The following are the imprisoned authors of the letter:
Anwar al-Bunni, sentenced to five years in prison for defending and promoting human rights.
Aref Dalila, serving a 10-year sentence in solitary confinement for exercising his right to freedom of expression and calling for peaceful democratic reforms.
Michel Kilo, detained and prosecuted for exercising his right to freedom of expression and calling for peaceful change. His sentence is scheduled for May 13, 2007.
Kamal al-Labwani, detained and prosecuted for exercising his right to freedom of expression and calling for democratic reforms.
Mahmud Issa, detained and prosecuted for exercising his right to freedom of expression and calling for peaceful change. His sentence is scheduled for May 13, 2007.
Faek al-Mir, detained and prosecuted for exercising his right to freedom of expression and offering his condolences to the family of an assassinated friend.
Colombian Human Rights Leader Released, But Still in Danger
Human Rights First’s supporters contributed to the release from prison earlier this year of Colombian human rights defender Gabriel Gonzalez. On April 4 a judge acquitted him of all charges. The judge found that the rebellion charges against him were baseless and relied on witness evidence and government reports that lacked credibility.
After his release Gabriel told HRF, “I express my deepest gratitude for the campaign you led for my release…. Those fifteen months [in detention] were very hard… and the support you gave me was fundamental in obtaining my freedom… I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your solidarity, your support and your trust that cheered me up in difficult moments.”
But Gabriel now faces new risks. These proceedings have unfairly stigmatized him as a rebel guerrilla, and he is now at high risk of reprisal attacks from paramilitary forces. Your action helped to free him; now it can help protect him.
Support Grows for International Commission to Investigate Illegal Groups in Guatemala
In December last year, approximately 1000 of you called for the establishment of an International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). CICIG would investigate and promote prosecution of illegal armed groups that frequently attack human rights defenders.
After Human Rights First met with key members of the U.S. Congress in March and April, the House of Representatives wrote a letter to the Guatemalan Congress, and the Senate passed a Resolution, stating their support for CICIG. They called it an “innovative mechanism.” Also, after hearings supported and attended by Human Rights First, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the recent increase in attacks against Guatemalan human rights defenders and called for the establishment of CICIG.
Human Rights Defenders from Sri Lanka and Burundi Share 2007 Martin Ennals Award
Rajan Hoole and Kopalasingham Sritharan, co-founders of the University Teachers for Human Rights, have monitored and documented the human rights abuses committed by the Sri Lanka government and by the Tamil Tigers. At great personal risk they have reported on the effects of armed conflict on children, women, minorities and displaced persons over the past 18 years.
Pierre Claver Mbonimpa founded NGOs to help protect the rights of prisoners in Burundi and has campaigned against torture and human rights violations. In a fragile country, where civil war has claimed thousands of lives, Mr. Mbonimpa is often hailed as the only one who stands up for the rights of Hutu, Tutsi and Batwa.
On April 27, 2007, 30 members of Congress wrote to the Guatemalan Attorney-General to ask that he “take action to prevent General Efrain Rios Montt and other former leaders from obtaining immunity… for alleged serious human rights violations.” The letter followed Congressional meetings Human Rights First organized for Guatemalan Human Rights Defender, Ruth del Valle. It was signed by the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and concluded that the prosecution of violators of serious human rights would “combat impunity and therefore protect human rights defenders… who face threats and attacks due to their work.” The letter received media attention.