Last week I had the opportunity to attend the trial of retired General Muchdi Purwopranjono in South Jakarta, Indonesia. Gen. Muchdi, a former senior intelligence official, is charged with ordering the fatal poisoning of one of Indonesia’s leading human rights defenders, Munir, while he was traveling abroad in 2004. Many of you have taken action as this case has progressed from inaction to investigation to trial over four years.
In addition to the news crews, spectators, and family members filling the small courtroom, there were two groups of onlookers, some in red shirts, some in yellow. The red shirts were worn by Munir’s friends and by some of the victims of human rights violations that Munir had helped. They featured the young lawyer’s serious face on the front, and, on the back, the words “Justice for Munir is justice for all.”
But there were also people in yellow shirts sprinkled around the crowd. Their shirts expressed solidarity with Gen. Muchdi on the front, while on the back they read: “Reject Foreign Intervention.” The shirts echo a defense argument that Muchdi’s prosecution is the result of interference in Indonesia’s internal affairs from abroad.
However, like the other international organizations and embassies that have sent observers to the trial, Human Rights First was not there to interfere. The murder of an internationally known human rights lawyer, aboard an international flight and in contravention of Indonesia’s international obligations to protect people from extrajudicial execution, naturally and appropriately draws the attention of the world. Even then, our presence is meant to support the work of the police, prosecutors, and judiciary in their pursuit of a fair process to obtain justice for Munir, his family, and the people of Indonesia.
Accountability in this case, as in Guatemala and the other past cases mentioned below, is essential. But a forward-looking approach is often also necessary, prompting our efforts to help make the next ten years of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders more effective. This focus on the future is also why at our annual dinner in October we honored to two young activists who are using new media and creative strategies to carry on the work of Munir and many others who have given their lives to advance human rights around the world.
The participation of online activists like you can help move us towards the day when there is justice for Munir and, one day, for all.
On October 23, Human Rights First celebrated our thirtieth anniversary at our annual dinner along with over 900 guests at Chelsea Piers in New York City. The dinner’s theme, “Advocate, Celebrate, Participate,” invited guests to look back over the organization’s history and look forward to our next thirty years.
Distinguished human rights defenders and longtime friends of the organization Asma Jahangir and Saad Eddin Ibrahim presented the 2008 Human Rights Award to young defenders Nora Younis and Oleg Kozlovsky. Younis, 31, is a blogger and activist from Egypt, and Kozlovsky, 24, is a leader in the Russian pro-democracy youth movement. Both use new media such as blogs, Flickr, and YouTube to spread their message and connect with other activists and the public.
Younis and Kozlovsky also met with top policymakers in New York and Washington, DC. Younis raised concerns about freedom of expression and information, as she discussed the arrest, detention and sentencing of fellow bloggers, journalists, and activists in Egypt over the past few years. Kozlovsky stressed the importance of securing space for civil society in today’s Russia, highlighting incidents of harassment of activists and the increasing difficulty of registering non-governmental organizations. As Kozlovsky stated, “The movement that was born three years ago lives on and its activity, its very existence proves that every nation deserves justice, democracy, and freedom.”
Marking the Tenth Anniversary of UN Human Rights Defenders Declaration
December 2008 will mark the 10th anniversary of the UN Human Rights Defenders Declaration. Ten years ago all member states endorsed this groundbreaking instrument, which contains comprehensive protections for the peaceful promotion of human rights. To celebrate the anniversary, Human Rights First organized a panel discussion at the UN on October 24.Entitled “The UN Human Rights Defenders Declaration after Ten Years: Protecting Rights in a Changing World,” the panel featured the new Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, who had just presented her first report to the General Assembly. Human rights activists Oscar Pedraza from Colombia and Nora Younis from Egypt also participated. Speakers highlighted successful implementation of the Declaration, but also noted where it has failed to be put fully into practice. The event was attended by human rights activists and diplomats from some 15 different countries. New media activist Nora Younis encapsulated the challenges faced by defenders: “you feel like you are fighting against a ghost regime and cannot prove yourself [innocent]. We hope that the Declaration will develop a way to deal with the new methods of attacking defenders.”
To further raise the profile of the Declaration and the Special Rapporteur, Human Rights First organized another event with Sekaggya on October 27 at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, DC, focusing on the Declaration’s impact in Latin America. We also organized a meeting for Sekaggya with Commissioners and human rights defenders from throughout the region who were in Washington for hearings at the IACHR. Sekaggya discussed how to increase coordination between her office and the IACHR and received first-hand testimony of the problems facing defenders in Latin America. Sekaggya left with a concrete action plan for how she can work more effectively in the region.
A New Guatemalan Attorney General: An Opportunity to Support Human Rights
In July 2008, Juan Luis Florido, the Guatemalan Attorney General, resigned after failing to combat astonishing levels of impunity for human rights violations and crimes against human rights defenders. Senior Associate Andrew Hudson published an opinion piece in the national Guatemalan newspaper El Periodico calling for the new Attorney General to break the culture of impunity by taking three steps: effectively investigating crimes and attacks against human rights defenders; prosecuting mass atrocities from the civil war; and supporting the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).Jose Amilcar Velasquez Zarate was appointed new Attorney General and has started to vigorously purge his office of corruption and inefficiency. We sent him a joint NGO letter documenting a range of recent attacks against Guatemalan human rights defenders and calling on him to investigate these crimes. We also engaged with members of the U.S. Congress assisting them to send a letter to Velasquez urging him to focus on upholding human rights.
Human Rights Day in Colombia
September 9 was Human Rights Day in Colombia. Our press release recognized the precarious situation of human rights defenders in Colombia who are subject to threats, stigmatization, attacks, and assassinations. We also called on President Uribe to issue a Presidential Directive prohibiting public officials from making false statements about defenders that endanger their lives. The Colombian press provided good media coverage of Human Rights Day and Senior Associate Andrew Hudson was interviewed on Colombian National Radio. “Its vital that the Colombian government recognize the importance and legitimacy of human rights advocacy,” he said.
To further spotlight human rights violations against defenders in Colombia, we submitted a report to the UN ahead of a review by the Human Rights Council on December 10, 2008. The report, authored by a coalition of international organizations, criticized the alarming level of threats and violence against Colombian human rights defenders. We also met with Colombian President Uribe in New York and pressed him publicly to do more to eliminate paramilitaries. Finally, as we had asked, the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in her November visit to Colombia publicly pressured the government to stop using unfounded criminal investigations and stigmatization to against human rights defenders.
In August, 1,432 of you took action on behalf of Amir Yaghoub-Ali, a student, activist, and member of the One Million Signatures Campaign, who had been sentenced to a one-year prison term after being arrested collecting signatures in a public park in Tehran. The Appeals Court reviewing Yaghoub-Ali’s case has suspended his one-year prison sentence for four years, during which time he must report regularly to the Intelligence Ministry. Should Yaghoub-Ali fail to report to the authorities or be arrested again, he will immediately have to serve his prison term. Not only has the Court failed to overturn Yaghoub-Ali’s original conviction, but it also has subjected him to a high level of monitoring and control, with the effectively pressuring Yaghoub-Ali to abandon his activities for gender equality.
We wrote a letter endorsed by twelve international women’s rights and human rights organization regarding the harassment of members of the Signatures Campaign.
1,539 of you took action in September to protest the arrest of women’s rights activist and journalist, Solmaz Igdar, and the sentencing of four other women who wrote for women’s rights websites. Igdar had been arrested while attending a 20th anniversary commemoration ceremony for thousands of executed political prisoners and detained for 12 days. However, she was summoned to the Revolutionary Court on October 15 for interrogation and on November 2, she was sentenced to a six-month prison term.
You also protested the threats and pressures against human rights defender and Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. After pressure from the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Malaysian authorities canceled a series of lectures by Ebadi which were to be held at different universities. Since then, the Malaysian authorities have indicated that the retracted invitation was an “unfortunate mistake,” and have extended their invitation to Ebadi again.
1,664 of you took action when an Egyptian delegation headed by Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit arrived in New York City to participate in the United Nations General Assembly, to protest the ongoing detention of three bloggers: Mosaad Abu Fajr, Mohamed Refaat, and Abdul Kareem Nabil Suleiman. We also sent a letter to the Egyptian authorities expressing our concern about the arrest and detention of blogger Mohamed Refaat. Since then, the authorities have released Mohamed Refaat, but on condition that he cease blogging.
Please see above for a description of Nora Younis’ visit to the U.S., during which she discussed restrictions on free expression in Egypt, including a draft law on audio-visual materials that subjects individuals (including bloggers) who air materials that could “threaten public order” to imprisonment and hefty fines. Since Younis’ visit, there have been reports of a number of other bloggers arrested in Egypt. These include: Abdel Tawab Mahmoud and Khalifa Obeid who were both arrested on October 27, 2008 and are detained at the Sanouris police station in el-Fayoum; Mohamed Kheiri, arrested on October 22, 2008 and also detained at the Sanouris police station in el-Fayoum.
In September, we wrote a submission to the UN Human Rights Council in anticipation of Cuba’s Universal Periodic Review session in January 2009. In it, we highlighted the situation of Cuban human rights defenders, drawing on examples from our contacts in the human rights community there.
On August 19 we wrote a letter to the senior leadership of the Thai Armed Forces calling for the immediate release of five student activists arrested in Southern Thailand. On August 27 the students were taken from a detention center in Yala province to the local police station to sign some documents, and released from custody. The process was monitored by lawyers, student groups, and human rights activists.
On July 15 the bilateral Truth and Friendship Commission established by Indonesia and Timor Leste submitted its final report, finding that crimes against humanity had occurred in 1999. The Commission was precluded from assigning individual responsibility. We worked with human rights organizations in Indonesia, East Timor, Australia, and the United Kingdom to issue a joint statement. The statement noted that the commissioners had made the most of their limited mandate, and had also declined to recommend amnesties. However, because identifying individual responsibility is an essential element of both justice and reconciliation, the report of the commission can in no way be considered the last word on the subject. The statement was covered in a number of press and radio outlets.
In 2006 you may have taken action on an alert we issued about Operation Dragon, a plot, with some degree of State involvement, to assassinate 13 human rights defenders, including Berenice Celeyta. We have continued to exert pressure on the Colombian government to investigate the case, working with members of U.S. Congress to express their concern. In October the Attorney-General took the significant step of opening a criminal investigation against several retired Army officers alleging involvement in the plot.In July, nearly 1,500 of you took action expressing concern for the murder of a displaced women’s leader, Martha Obando, in western Colombia. The Colombian Ombudsman and Presidential human rights office responded to your emails and told us that they had encouraged the Attorney-General’s office to promptly and impartially investigate Obando’s murder.
As over 1,200 of you recently called for in an alert, the Colombian government appointed a special prosecutor to expedite the criminal investigation into 23 employees of palm oil companies for illegal appropriation of land and forced displacement in the Curvarado region. The unresolved nature of these crimes has lead to intimidation of Colombian human rights activists, such as Abilio Pena, who are seeking return of the land to its rightful Afro-Colombian owners.
We also supported the Association for the Promotion of Social Alternatives (MINGA) by writing a letter to the Colombian government with recommendations to stop the harmful practice of collection and publication of false information about defenders in intelligence reports. The letter received some media attention in Colombia and the Army and Defense ministry replied encouragingly by stating that no intelligence reports exist that allege a connection between Colombian defenders and guerrilla groups.
In August, nearly 1,500 of you took action on an alert about an attack against an indigenous lawyer in Guatemala, Amilcar Pop. We also sent a letter to the Guatemalan government asking them to support his Mayan Association of Lawyers, which has been unfairly accused of a variety of crimes. Amilcar responded to us: “Your intervention is a strong support for our work. Mayan lawyers have been left without a voice given that everything we say is used against us. Your communication gives us some breathing room to allow us to continue litigating.”