The remarkable crackdown on lawyers in China in July 2015

July 29, 2015

On 10 July 2015 over 250 lawyers and support staff were detained or questioned by the police in China in one of the largest crackdowns in recent years. Many newspapers and NGOs have reported on this phenomenon. This is the situation on 29 July: Read the rest of this entry »


Elsa Saade talks about her work for “Gulf Centre for Human Rights”

July 28, 2015

On 26 June 2015 the ISHR (International service for Human Rights) featured a portrait of Elsa Saade, a woman human rights defender who works for the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), an independent, non-profit and non-governmental organisation that works to provide support and protection to human rights defenders in the Gulf region by promoting freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

Elsa, who has worked closely on the issue of women human rights defenders in the Gulf and neighboring countries, explained how women human rights defenders are at particular risk. E.g. she  received a message from a women defender stating that she could no longer talk, that she was going underground. ‘They are threatening to kill me’, she said. ‘They will arrest me. I need to disappear.’ Elsa confirmed that she could not mention the defender’s name or where she is from as it would endanger her life, however highlighted how women not only face pressures from the government or non-state actors when she stands up for human rights, but even faces societal and cultural clashes which could be reflected inside her home.

Elsa explained how States in the Gulf region are mostly patriarchal. The simplest example of patriarchy is the fact that women in Saudi Arabia cannot drive. Two women defenders in Saudi Arabia, Maysaa Al Amoudy and Lujain Al-Hathlol, who were caught driving as a statement to allow women to drive, were arrested and tried in the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, which deals with cases of terrorism and State security. They currently await sentencing.

Elsa referred to the situation in Iran, KSA, and Syria, which she considers is especially bad. ‘If we hadn’t publicised certain cases, some of our human rights defenders would already be dead. If no-one knew their names, the government wouldn’t consider them, as if they didn’t exist. Those who exercise their right to freedom of expression face death threats, flogging and indefinite prison sentences.’..‘Some defenders fall silent but others gain confidence when bad things happen – it confirms the need to struggle for their rights. Although the conditions are depressing, it is inspiring to see how tragedies motivate women to raise their voice. Out of their misery they create something beautiful.’

At this point, Elsa further referred to cases of women Syrian refugees in Lebanon and how important their role in the house, family and society was. On that account she mentioned several challenges that humanitarian people who help Syrian refugees face. Having worked in the field she highlights that they are often at risk.

As a result of my work I have personally experienced challenges. I was put in a situation were I could have been beaten several times, just because I was helping the Syrian refugees.’ As a woman, and especially after having widened the scope of interest in the region’s several HRD cases, Elsa has begun to feel increasingly vulnerable. The greater the exposure, the greater the risk. In Lebanon the situation is not so bad for women. But on a recent trip to Egypt I felt incredibly paranoid. I was on the constant look out. That is why so many women defenders prefer to stay on the low.’

Elsa is adamant, however, on the necessity of continuing her work to support human rights defenders.

Without human rights defenders, the reality would remain hidden. There is a clash between three concepts: reality, delusion and myth. You have the myth, the image that the State wants to portray; the delusion, as people keep quiet to put bread on the table; and the reality on the ground. Human rights defenders, be they journalists, bloggers, lawyers, teachers or women defenders, portray this reality. They are the ones who ask for accountability, for independent judges, for basic human rights.’

[The Gulf Centre supports and protects human rights defenders in different ways to eventually create a community of strong and safe human rights defenders protected by international mechanisms. Firstly, it can mobilise a network of prominent human rights defenders to generate support amongst each other. Secondly, it runs UN advocacy projects and provides funding and technical assistance for HRDs to attend UN meetings. Thirdly, it allocates private funding for relocation, personal finance, appeals, and assisting with the provision of safe havens in case they are in danger. Fourthly, it runs training workshops on various issues HRDs are in need of and specifically on how to engage with UN mechanisms and protection mechanisms.]

For previous posts on the Gulf center: https://thoolen.wordpress.com/tag/gulf-centre-for-human-rights/

 

Elsa Saade: Human rights defender from the Gulf Centre for Human Rights | ISHR.


Sergio Vieira de Mello Prize 2015 goes to CAR Interfaith Peace Platform

July 28, 2015

The 2015 Sergio Vieira de Mello Prize goes to the Interfaith Peace Platform for the work achieved to reconcile religious groups in the hope of reaching a lasting peace in Central African Republic (CAR), a country devastated by a war between fractions.

The award [see: http://www.brandsaviors.com/thedigest/award/sergio-vieira-de-mello-prize] was established in Sergio Vieira de Mello’s memory, who was killed in the UN compound bombing in Bagdad on 19 August 2003.

The Interfaith Platform promotes dialogue as a preventive measure against religious violence and a means to pursue peace across CAR. It was established in 2013 by representatives of the three most important religions in the country, the Catholic Archbishop of Bangui, Mgr. Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the President of the Islamic Council in CAR, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama and by the President of the Evangelical Alliance, Pastor Nicolas Guérékoyaméné-Gbangou. Read the rest of this entry »


Fury about US award for Askarov in Kyrgyzstan: backlash or impact?

July 23, 2015

Awarding the State Department prize for human rights defenders to Azimzhan Askarov in Kyrgyzstan has led to a most interesting follow up. [https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2015/07/23/us-state-department-2014-human-rights-defender-award-to-azimjon-askarov-and-foro-penal/]In retaliation Kyrgyzstan has cancelled a coöperation treaty with the USA which has been in force since 1993.

The bilateral agreement that facilitated cooperation between the countries in certain areas was renounced by Kyrgyz Prime Minister Temir Sariev.As a result US aid to Kyrgyzstan will no longer be free of taxes and other custom duties as from August 20. US civil and military aid personnel, working in Kyrgyzstan will be deprived of their near diplomatic status. On Monday, the US warned Kyrgyzstan that if the accord got canceled, it would damage a range of its aid programs in the country.

On 23 July 2015 Tatyana Kudryavtseva of the 24.kg news agency collected a range of reaction from a variety of persons in Kyrgyzstan under the title “Very expensive Azimzhan Askarov“. Interesting to note that almost all ‘expert’ reactions assume that Askarov is guilty with the exception of the Chairwoman of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society. Still, there is almost unanimity that the move by the Kyrgyz Government was ‘unwise’ to say the least. Here follow some excerpts:

Giving the US State Department Award to the human rights activist Azimzhan Askarov has become a real time bomb. It would seem that nothing terrible has happened. But the news about the award was the trigger. It all ended in scandal – Kyrgyzstan’s government denounced the agreement with the USA on cooperation of 1993. Almost all the projects implemented in the country at the expense of American money turned out to be under threat. Read the rest of this entry »


US State Department 2014 Human Rights Defender Award to Azimjon Askarov and Foro Penal

July 23, 2015

On 16 July 2015 Assistant-Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor – Tom Malinowski – presented the 2014 Human Rights Defenders Award to Azimjon Askarov of Kyrgyzstan and Foro Penal, a NGO from Venezuela, in the Treaty Room at the U.S. Department of State.

For more information on this award see:  http://www.brandsaviors.com/thedigest/award/freedom-defenders-award-us-state (note: the name varies).

Azimjon Askarov is known for trying to bring together people of all ethnicities especially Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. He is serving a life sentence for alleged involvement in the killing of a police officer. He won the 2010 Homo Homini award and was a Final Nominee for the MEA in 2011. Due to Mr. Askarov’s imprisonment, his son, Sherzod, accepted the award on his behalf.

Foro Penal, a Venezuelan pro-bono network of over 200 lawyers and 1,000 human rights defenders, advocates for human rights and rule of law in Venezuela and abroad. With severe restrictions on the media and internet access, Foro Penal provided timely, critical, and independent information during the 2014 protests, and continues to defend and promote human rights despite risk of government suppression. Founder and Director Gonzalo Himiob and Executive Director Alfredo Romero accepted on behalf of Foro Penal.

For the backlash created in the case of Mr Askarov see my next post.

2014 Human Rights Defender Award Ceremony for Azimjon Askarov and Foro Penal.

 


Donors should work jointly against the wave of civil society repression

July 10, 2015

The Newsletter of the International Service for Human Rights of 5 June 2015 carried an interesting piece written by two representatives of donors that are very active in the area of protection human rights defenders.  Julie Broome, Director of Programmes with the Sigrid Rausing Trust, and Iva Dobichina, Programme Manager with the Open Society Foundation‘s Human Rights Initiative, wrote jointly about much-needed efforts to “turn the tide against the wave of civil society repression”.  The piece follows in toto below, but some of the key points are: Read the rest of this entry »


Human rights defender Khalef Khalifa from Kenya in the spotlight

July 9, 2015

Frontline NEWlogos-1 condensed version - cropped in its July 2015 Newsletter puts the spotlight on Khalef Khalifa, Executive Director of the NGO MUHURI in Kenya.

 

On 8 April 2015, the official Gazette notice listed 85 companies and organisations, including MUHURI and Haki Africa, as suspected of having links to terrorism and linking them as specified entities. On 20 and 21 April, the police raided the offices of both organizations, disabling their servers, carrying away hard disks and documents, allegedly to determine whether they had been involved in tax evasion. On 28 May, the Non-Governmental Organisations’ Coordination Board announced through the media that they had de-registered the organizations. On 12 June the court dismissed all charges against MUHURI and Haki Africa on the basis that there was no evidence against them.

Khalef Khalifa (KK): As you know, on the 12th June was a good day for us as both MUHURI and Haki Africa, were entirely vindicated in court. The judge dismissed all the charges against us and said that there was absolutely no evidence to link us to terrorism in any form and specifically forbade the police or even the Minister to make any such reference in the future. However the outstanding difficulty is that he refused to unfreeze our bank accounts on the basis that we had failed to include the Central Bank in our case against the state. They have now agreed to join our case calling for the accounts to be freed but we have to wait for another hearing before the judge makes his ruling and we can begin getting back to normal.

FLD: Given the various lines of attack that were opened against MUHURI it seems as though the government was out to get you?

KK: ...we were targeted on three fronts: by the police, the Revenue Commissioners and by the NGO Board. So while the government accused us of terrorism, the Revenue Commissioners descended on our office and took away all out financial documentation to look for evidence of tax avoidance and the NGO Board lodged a complaint that we had not kept them properly informed of our activities, and in particular that we had not informed them of new appointments to our board, as required by the NGO Law. In the final verdict, while the judge said there was no evidence of involvement in terrorism, both the Revenue Commissioners and the NGO Board had to concede that we were 100% compliant with the regulations. The only thing the NGO Board could trip us up on was that while we had notified the NGO Board of the new appointments, we had not used the appropriate, and newly introduced, form. What is interesting is that in the early stages of the case the government was totally focused on pursuing a case on the basis of terrorism, but they quite quickly changed tack and started looking for any small technical failures they could find to try and make a case against us. But they failed because we have always operated in an entirely open and transparent way.

KK: The real reason for their animus against MUHURI is that we are critical of the police and have investigated their involvement in extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances. There have been at least 52 such killings and disappearances in the Mombasa region in the last two years. The police claim to be fighting terror but in fact terror is a more accurate description of the way the police themselves work. In one incident 8 people were shot dead in a church. The police claimed that it was an attack by Al Shabaab. However when the perpetrators were arrested it was clear that they were not Muslims and in fact had no affiliation to any particular group. The police then hid the names and tried to maintain the fiction of an Al Shabaab attack.

FLD: Will the work of MUHURI get back to normal now?

KK: ...As soon as the accounts are unfrozen we will continue out work as normal. For us it is clear that the government wants to intimidate and frighten MUHURI but we will not be intimidated – we will not give up.

for full interview see: HRD Spotlight: Khalef Khalifa, Kenya | Front Line Defenders.

The more general backdrop can be found in earlier Front Line messages, the 5 June appeal by the Observatory [http://www.omct.org/human-rights-defenders/urgent-interventions/kenya/2015/06/d23190/] and the statements made by NGOs on 26 June 2015 at the adoption by the UN Human Rights Council of the report of the Universal Periodic Review [UPR] of Kenya:

– International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) : Kenya should create an enabling environment for the work of human rights defenders – including repealing restrictions on NGO access to foreign funding and amending or repealing the Information Communication Amendment Bill and Media Council Bill. The statement also emphasised the risks faced by LGBTI people and organisations in Kenya as a result of the criminalisation of same-sex conduct. ‘It is crucial that the voices of human rights defenders are safeguarded and encouraged. This assists to create a vibrant, independent and diverse civil society which is essential to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law’ said Michael Ineichen of ISHR.

http://www.ishr.ch/news/kenya-safeguard-and-encourage-essential-voices-human-rights-defenders

AllAfrica.com reports on Human Rights Watch comments: “We note Kenya’s acceptance of some important recommendations such as commitments to investigate torture and extrajudicial killings, including the killing of activist Hassan Guyo, and to fully cooperate with the International Criminal Court. But we remain concerned that there has been little tangible progress in many key areas. The ongoing abuses and recent threats to civil society illustrate a lack of commitment to implement these recommendations.

http://allafrica.com/stories/201506260835.html

 


Further on Bahrain where the Judiciary is helping the State to repress Human Rights Defenders

July 8, 2015

Further to my post today on Nabeel Rajab [https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2015/07/08/bahrain-freenabeel-campaign-more-urgent-than-ever-in-view-of-resumption-usa-security-assistance/], I draw attention to the recent report by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH/OMCT) “Bahrain: Publication of an International Mission Report: Imprisonment, torture and statelessness: The darkening reality of human rights defenders in Bahrain”.

Report OBS Bahrain_English
44 pages / 870 KB

Human rights defenders in Bahrain are operating in a shrinking space, says the Observatory in a report published on 25 June 2015. The report documents the judicial harassment of 11 human rights defenders including lawyers, teachers, doctors or bloggers. All have suffered or been threatened with imprisonment, torture or statelessness as a consequence of their activities in defense of human rights. Read the rest of this entry »


Portrait of Nasrin Sotoudeh in Iran: Activism With A Defiant Smile

July 8, 2015

Nasrin makes a brief appearance in Jafar Panahi’s recent film “Taxi,  which was awarded the Golden Bear for best film at the Berlin international film festival 2015.

On 8 July FIDH published an update on the situation of Iranian human rights defender Nasrin Sotoudeh:With A Defiant Smile – A Portrait of Nasrin Sotoudeh“. For more posts on her see: https://thoolen.wordpress.com/tag/nasrin-sotoudeh/

Nasrin Sotoudeh is among the most prominent human rights lawyers in Iran (recipient of the 2012 Sakharov Prize, which she shared with the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, and the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award). Known for her work in defending women’s rights activists, minors on death row, journalists, Kurdish rights activists and other human rights lawyers, including the Nobel prize winner Shirin Ebadi, she is a national hero to many Iranians.

In January 2011, she was sentenced to 11 years in prison on charges of “propaganda against the system,” and “acting against national security“. Following persistent calls for her release from the UN, governments, and NGOs her sentence was reduced to six years, to be spent in the notorious Evin prison.

In 2013, after three years in prison, Sotoudeh was unexpectedly released, without explanation from the authorities. During her incarceration, she spent time in solitary confinement and went on several hunger strikes in protest of the inhumane prison conditions and the 2012 travel ban imposed on her husband and young daughter. One of the hunger strikes lasted 49 days and resulted in her losing 95 pounds. Upon her release, despite her weakened physical state, Sotoudeh got right back to work fighting for the respect for human rights in Iran.

Since then she has reactivated the Professional Women Lawyers Association and the Children’s Rights Committee, both of which she had helped found before her imprisonment. However, she has been spending much of her energy on a new campaign to abolish the death penalty in Iran, called Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty (LEGAM). The initiative focuses on amending Iranian legislation to gradually reduce and eventually abolish the use of the death penalty.

Until recently, her ability to push for legislative reforms remained greatly limited due to the Iran Bar Association’s October 2014 decision (under pressure from the Judiciary) to suspend her license to practice law for a period of three years. In protest, Sotoudeh staged daily sit-ins in front of the Bar Association’s offices in Tehran. Her perseverance and that of her supporters finally paid off when, on 23 June 2015, Sotoudeh was informed that the Bar Association had revised the ban and reduced it to a period of nine months [Sotoudeh declared that she would be applying to renew her license].

When asked how she became a human rights defender, Sotoudeh says that as a lawyer, she was forced to make a choice: “When a lawyer witnesses unfair trials, when a lawyer witnesses the execution of minors, either they must turn their back or they must face up to the problem they are witnessing. I think I entered the field of human rights on the day I decided not to avoid such issues.

Sotoudeh seeks to change Iran from the inside, by arguing cases and convincing others that protecting human rights is necessary. As she said recently regarding the conflict with the Iran Bar Association: “The channel for negotiations should never be closed. However, there are prerequisites for negotiations. If they are fulfilled, we should welcome such negotiations. If not, we should not insist only on negotiations. We should use civil action to persuade the other party to engage in negotiations.

In the brief appearance in Jafar Panahi’s recent film “Taxi,” (see above) Sotoudeh explains the trials and tribulations human rights defenders face in Iran all the time with a smile on her face, but a defiant smile!

With A Defiant Smile – A Portrait of Nasrin Sotoudeh.


Bahrain: #FreeNabeel campaign more urgent than ever in view of resumption USA security assistance

July 8, 2015

Nedal Al Salman , Head of International Relations and Women & Children’s Rights Advocacy of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights [BCHR], launched today a day of solidarity for the president of the BCHR, Nabeel Rajab, with videos of supportive MEP’s. There is an urgent resolution adopted by the EU Parliament about Bahrain and in particular the case of Nabeel Rajab. [https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2015/01/20/video-statement-of-troublemaker-nabeel-rajab-who-is-on-trial-today/]

You can join in the campaign by recording your self on video, state your name and the organisation you represent and say a few words about Nabeel Rajab and call for his release. Your video/photo can be shared on twitter under the hashtag #FreeNabeel [https://thoolen.wordpress.com/tag/nabeel-rajab/]

How difficult it is to match human rights diplomacy with geopolitical considerations is shown in the OP-ED in the New York Times of 7 July 2015 by Sayed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy:

“Last week, the State Department announced the resumption of “security assistance” to Bahrain. This ended a four-year ban on the transfer of arms that the United States put into effect in 2011, after the Bahraini government’s harsh crackdown on Arab Spring protests. In a statement, the State Department argued that Bahrain had made enough progress in human rights reform to be rewarded by ending the embargo, even though the human rights situation in Bahrain was not “adequate.” The State Department dedicated 49 pages of its 2014 report on human rights, released last month, to Bahrain.

It is a damning document: detailing arbitrary detention, torture, prison overcrowding, constraints on free speech and more. The decision to renew security assistance — in the words of a State Department spokesman, “armored personnel vehicles, MRAPs, Humvees, TOW missiles, arms and ammunition, that kind of thing” — is not only incongruous but also shortsighted, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein of Jordan, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, criticized acts of torture in Bahrain in his opening remarks at a session of the Human Rights Council in June. He called for “an immediate investigation” into allegations of torture in Bahrain’s prisons and for the release of “all those detained in connection with their peaceful activities.”

If Prince Zeid were a Bahraini, he could probably be arrested on charges of “insulting a statutory body” — as happened to the human rights defender Nabeel Rajab after he called for prosecution of officials who committed torture in prison. He now faces at least 10 years in prison on various charges relating to his activism.

I was arrested on March 16, 2011, a day after the government announced a state of emergency, a month after the protests started. A military court sentenced me to prison for protesting and talking to the media. What they did to me in prison will stay with me for life.

On my first day in Jaw Prison, about 20 miles south of the capital, Manama, an officer spat on me, grabbed me by the hair and threw me against a wall. During interrogation, another smacked me in the face and dared me to raise my arms to shield myself. They told me I’d be beaten even more if I did.

While I was in detention, four people were tortured to death, as Human Rights Watch has reported. In the interrogation rooms, we always thought of those who had been killed, wondering who might be the fifth. After my release from prison, I fled Bahrain and in 2012 sought asylum in Britain. This January, Bahrain revoked my citizenship, along with that of 71 others, leaving me stateless.

Bahrain’s situation has not improved since 2011. Last November, an inmate was beaten senseless and thrown into solitary confinement, where he died from his wounds during the night. In March, a prison riot broke out. Prisoners were angry about their treatment in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and about the unfair trials that had put more than a thousand of them there. Prison authorities are accused by prisoners of responding with excessive force.

What happened next was incomparable to what I was put through. According to a report published last month by a coalition of rights groups, including my own, prisoners said that police officers used birdshot and tear gas against inmates inside corridors and cells. Inmates were rounded up, beaten and held in the courtyards, where they spent weeks sitting in Bahrain’s heat. Former prisoners allege that officers forced inmates to kneel and lick their boots. An imprisoned academic named Abduljalil al-Singace has been on a hunger strike for over 100 days, in protest of the ill treatment suffered by prisoners in March. (There are growing concerns for his health.)

In light of the continuing abuses, the State Department’s praise of the release of the political prisoner Ibrahim Sharif as a sign of “meaningful reform progress” is absurd. Never mind that Mr. Sharif, sentenced to five years in 2011, had served most of his sentence, and that as a political prisoner, he should never have been imprisoned to begin with. And as one political prisoner was released, another, Sheikh Ali Salman, received a four-year sentence for his opposition activities. The police also called in his deputy for questioning last week, after he made a speech against torture in prison.

When the United States expressed concerns a few weeks ago to the Human Rights Council in Geneva about “the continuing criminal cases on grounds of political expression and assembly,” Bahrain rejected them as groundless. It is Bahrain’s prerogative to disregard its American ally’s qualms, but must the United States reward such disrespect by renewing military assistance?

The answer lies in geopolitics. Persian Gulf monarchs are on high alert as the United States nears a nuclear deal with their regional rival, Iran. They want to protect their position as the West’s strategic partners and maintain their influence in the Middle East. At the same time, the rise of the Islamic State is a potent threat to their security, which America seeks to bolster militarily. Resuming arms transfers rekindles not only the American-Bahraini relationship but also the hugely important American-Saudi one.

But these diplomatic considerations come at the cost of relinquishing whatever moral standing the United States had in Bahrain. Ending the suspension of military assistance was a misuse of America’s substantial leverage to bring positive change to the human rights situation in Bahrain and the Gulf, which has only deteriorated since 2011. For Bahrainis striving for a democratic country, America’s move is completely regressive.

President Obama promised a “tough conversation” with the Gulf monarchs when he met them in May. Was this the outcome of that conversation?”

Losing Leverage on Bahrain – The New York Times.


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