We’d like to share some of the small victories and continuing challenges we’ve seen since our last newsletter.
The good news: A retired general who seemed beyond the reach of the law has been arrested in Indonesia for the 2004 murder of a human rights defender. The UN office that supports human rights defenders has survived threats to eliminate or weaken it, and the reins have been passed to a new advocate with a strong commitment to helping defenders. And a Somali activist has won an award for her years of work with women and girls, using the opportunity to advocate on their behalf in the halls of power of New York and D.C. (For a short video on Hawa Aden Mohamed, click here).
At the same time, women human rights defenders and other activists in Iran are increasingly being arrested for collecting signatures and other forms of non-violent activism. Cuban and Colombian activists face continued harassment from the authorities.
While these stories, good and bad, seem like isolated cases from different parts of the globe, they have a few things in common. First, these human rights defenders share common principles of justice and non-violence, and look to a single foundation for their work, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
These individuals are also linked in to a human rights community that grows every year. They gain support and ideas from each other, and they look to activists like you to support them from half-way around the world. Thank you for your participation in the Defender Alert Network.
On May 13 Human Rights First presented the 2008 Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty Award to Somali Hawa Aden Mohamed. This award was in recognition of Mohamed’s courageous work on behalf of women and girls affected by violence in Somalia.
Mohamed founded and directs the Galkayo Education Center for Peace and Development (GECPD), which provides educational opportunities and mobilizes women to defend and advocate for their rights in society, beginning at home. In a country that has known violence and chaos for almost two decades, the Center operates primary and vocational education programs for women and girls, as well as displaced populations.
In addition to providing the only public school for girls in the area, the Center also provides local towns and villages with medical care, vocational and income-generating trainings, and support for orphans. Over 3,000 women participate in the organization’s literacy and awareness learning circles that cover family relations, health, education for girls, and natural resource management.
GECPD has also been at the forefront of the struggle to abolish the practice of female genital mutilation, and the peace and reconciliation movement in Galkayo, working to ensure that the town is not re-divided along clan lines.
While in the United States to accept her award, Mohamed also met with United Nations agencies, elected officials, and other policymakers in Washington and New York to advocate for women and girls in Somalia. We will continue to work with Mohamed to bring attention to these important issues.
Continued Persecution of Women’s Rights Activists in Iran
In June many of you took action on behalf of women’s rights defenders commemorating the second anniversary of a protest in which dozens of demonstrators were arrested. Iranian security forces arrested and detained nine activists on the anniversary date, releasing them after eight hours.
Women’s rights activists, particularly prominent members of the One Million Signatures Campaign, continue to be persecuted in Iran. The campaign was launched in August 2006 to raise awareness about gender discrimination in Iranian laws. Campaign organizers, as well as local activists collecting signatures throughout the country, have been harassed, arrested, and in some cases imprisoned.
Four women’s rights activists will face judges in the near future. Raheleh Asgarizadeh and Nasim Khosravi have been summoned to appear before the courts on July 20 and Nasrin Sotoudeh and Mansoureh Shojaee appeared before the Revolutionary Court on July 14, represented by their attorney, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. The two women have been charged with acting against national security by having unauthorized relations with “Iranians outside the country” and will have to return to court. See our press release here.
More than 40 activists connected to the campaign have been arrested to date, with several given lengthy prison sentences. We will continue to monitor these cases and to pressure the Iranian authorities to allow this important non-violent activism in support of the rights of Iranian women.
Exciting News in the Munir Case
Some of you have been taking action on the Munir case since the news first broke that the Indonesian human rights lawyer had died from a massive dose of arsenic on an international flight in September 2004. Pressure from activists like you has led to slow but important progress in the case. The man accused of administering the poison has been sent to jail for a 20 year sentence, and a top airline official was also convicted for his role in the murder.
But the question still remains: Who planned and ordered the death of Munir?
We may be one step closer to finding out. On June 19 Indonesian police arrested retired general Muchdi Purwopranjono, former head of the feared special forces branch Kopassus and a senior official at the State Intelligence Agency at the time of the murder. His trial may start later this year.
Munir’s friend and successor at the Indonesian human rights organization Kontras, Usman Hamid, worked with Human Rights First to co-author an op-ed in the Jakarta Post that appeared on the day of the arrest. An excerpt follows:
New UN Expert on Human Rights Defenders
On May 1, 2008 Ugandan Margaret Sekaggya started as the new UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. She succeeds Hina Jilani who held the mandate since its inception in 2000. Through letters, reports, and country visits, Jilani helped many of the defenders featured in our alerts, and helped draw attention to challenges facing all defenders.
Sekaggya is a magistrate from Uganda and has been the Chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission since 1996. She helped draw up a Bill of Rights for the East African Community and has expertise on the human rights situation of vulnerable people. In a recent telephone conference with Sekaggya we were impressed with her vision for the mandate, and we are delighted that she has been appointed to the position.
In March 2008, we participated at the Human Rights Council in Geneva to ensure the retention of this important post, and we continue to work closely with the office of the Special Rapporteur.
Many of you took action last year to call for the release of imprisoned human rights activist Principe Gabriel Gonzalez. Although he was released and a judge dismissed the charges against him, the acquittal was appealed and Gonzalez has been in a state of limbo for over a year. Last month, we wrote to the judge urging her to resolve the appeal quickly and according to due process standards. We also sent a letter to the Colombian senate urging it to modify an intelligence bill so that false intelligence reports cannot be used to prosecute defenders such as Gonzalez.
In May 2008, over 1,000 of you took action demanding an investigation into death threats against the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropological Association. We presented your petition in person to the new Guatemalan ambassador to the U.S. We also called on President Bush to urge President Colom, at a meeting they had on April 28, to prosecute former military and police officials accused of mass atrocities. In June, President Colom announced the appointment of a new human rights prosecutor, a move we supported, and which we hope will increase the chances of investigations into both past atrocities and current crimes against defenders.
We started to see concrete results from the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). In June CICIG played an important role in the arrest of three police agents accused of robbery and detention. As we had called for, CICIG announced details of a new witness protection program. We continued public advocacy to enable CICIG to carry out its vital work. We published an Op Ed in El Periodico seeking patience and public support for CICIG’s work, and helped support a Congressional letter requesting technical assistance for CICIG from the U.S. Justice Department.
On April 21, 2008, ten members of the Ladies in White attempted to deliver a letter to the Minister of the Interior at the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana, Cuba. Their peaceful demonstration was forcibly broken up by police. We wrote to the Cuban government expressing our concern about the violation of their freedom of expression. Since the protest, many of the women who participated have experienced increased harassment from state security agents.