Posts Tagged ‘profile’

Profile of Barun Ghimire, human rights defender from Nepal

July 5, 2021

The rights of migrant workers is a global problem, and actors in different jurisdictions have to come together to make a difference in this particular area,” says Barun Ghimire, a human rights lawyer based in Kathmandu, Nepal. “And we need to create a collective narrative that is based on a rights-based approach of migrant workers”.

Barun Ghimire is a human rights lawyer and programme manager at the Law and Policy Forum for Social Justice. Barun works for the protection and defence of the rights of migrant workers in Kathmandu, Nepal. 

In this video, Barun explains his work in relation to the rights of migrants, as well as how Covid-19 has affected this group, which is facing even stronger vulnerability. He also calls the international community and other actors to come together and help improve the situation of migrants workers as well as their families.  To achieve this goal, it is necessary to create a new narrative and defend and promote the rights of migrant people in vulnerable situations, especially during and after Covid-19.

Barun was also a participant in ISHR’s Human Rights Defender Advocacy Programme (HRDAP) in 2020.

https://www.ishr.ch/news/human-rights-defenders-story-barun-ghimire-nepal

Olga Sadovskaya is the 2021 OAK Human Rights Fellow

June 15, 2021

The Oak Institute for Human Rights has named Olga Sadovskaya, a Russian human rights lawyer, as its 2021 Human Rights Fellow. Sadovskaya, vice chair of the Committee Against Torture, the largest and most notable anti-torture organization in Russia, has worked on issues surrounding torture for more than 18 years. In 2017 she was shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sadovskaya, who hails from the city of Nizhny Novgorod in western Russia, will join the Colby community in August and will engage with students, faculty, staff, and the greater community throughout the fall semester.

Olga Sadovskaya, the 2021 Oak Human Rights Fellow, will join the Colby community for the Fall 2021 semester and raise awareness on issues of torture and incarceration in Russia and around the world.

“The consistent violation of human rights in the carceral system is not only a major global problem but it is an urgent issue in the United States. There is a pressing need to confront and find better solutions to our current prison system,” said Valérie Dionne, director of the Oak Institute for Human Rights and associate professor of French. “We are lucky to have Olga Sadovskaya coming to campus to share her experience combating torture and to explore potential solutions with us that could replace the current carceral system.”

The Committee Against Torture (CAT), established in 2000 by Sadovskaya and three other activists, created accountability for torture previously missing in Russia. Torture was scarcely discussed, and victims were often scared, ashamed to speak out, or believed justice was unattainable. Even with CAT’s work, however, the practice of torture prevails, and investigations into torture are still inadequate. This problem is amplified in the Chechen Republic, where CAT is the sole organization working on cases of torture and abductions. 

Sadovskaya and her dedicated team have won many international awards: the PACE Prize of the Council of Europe, the Martin Ennals Award, the Frontline Defenders Human Rights Award, and the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize. Sadovskaya herself has received the Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award. See: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/D1B800F8-72AE-F593-868A-57F650E2D576 and https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/5E2006EC-8C84-6024-F77C-52D17819BB10

During her early years at the organization, Sadovskaya’s role as an investigator included collecting evidence of torture in prisons, penal colonies, police stations, and psychiatric institutions. Over time, she transitioned to analysis and international defense work with the European Court of Human Rights and various UN bodies. Sadovskaya also trains lawyers on how to work with the European Court of Human Rights. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2015/12/02/russian-olga-sadovskaya-keeps-fighting-torture/

Drawing upon years of experience with torture cases, Sadovskaya and her team wrote and published a methodology for public investigations, widely used by human rights organizations in Russia. Sadovskaya has personally represented more than 300 victims of torture before the European Court of Justice. Two of the cases were included in the list of the 20 most important cases that changed Russia (Case-Law of the European Court of Human Rights, Special issue, 5, 2018).  

While working against state-sanctioned torture, Sadovskaya has faced personal threats, including threats of murder, particularly for her work in Chechnya. The committee’s office has been burned down several times, and members’ cars have been destroyed. Sadovskaya is also periodically monitored and constantly at risk of being accused of baseless crimes. 

The Oak Human Rights Fellowship will give Sadovskaya a much-needed respite to return to Russia with renewed energy. As the 2021 Oak Fellow, she will connect with Colby students and raise awareness on issues of torture and incarceration in Russia and around the world. 

http://www.colby.edu/news/2021/06/11/olga-sadovskaya-named-2021-oak-human-rights-fellow/

Documentary Film Calls for Justice for Kyrgyzstan’s Azimjon Askarov

June 3, 2021
Azimzhan Askarov Pictured here during hearings at the Bishkek regional court, Kyrgyzstan, October 4th, 2016.  
Ethnic Uzbek journalist Azimzhan Askarov. Pictured here during hearings at the Bishkek regional court, Kyrgyzstan, October 4th, 2016.© 2016 AP

Philippe Dam, Advocacy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, on 2 June 2O21, writes aavout Azimjon Askarov, a 69-year-old human rights defender from Kyrgyzstan, who died in prison after contracting pneumonia. Askarov had been in prison for 10 years, having been given a life sentence following an unjust and unfair trial in 2010, in retaliation for his investigations into the tragic wave of inter-ethnic violence that year in southern Kyrgyzstan. [see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/D8B31FA3-E648-4F92-81B9-8C3A4270F80E]

His death was the result of cruelty and negligence by Kyrgyz authorities. A screening this week of a documentary about Askarov, to be attended by senior European Union officials, is a reminder to Kyrgyzstan that it is responsible for his death and needs to show accountability and to the EU to press Bishkek on this issue. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/31/mary-lawlor-calls-death-of-human-rights-defender-askarov-a-stain-on-kyrgyzstans-reputation/

Askarov’s trial in 2010 was marred by serious procedural violations and allegations of torture that were never investigated. A United Nations human rights body ruled in 2016 his detention was illegal and called for his immediate release, but Kyrgyz authorities looked the other way.

Since his death, many have called for a full inquiry into the causes and responsibilities for his death.  A toothless internal inquiry ordered by Kyrgyzstan has gone nowhere. The documentary “Last Chance for Justice,” by filmmaker Marina Shupac, is a touching portrayal of the fight by Khadicha Askarova, Askarov’s wife, for justice and his release from prison.

The screening is on June 4 as part of the One World Film Festival in Brussels. The panel discussion of the film will be joined by Eamon Gilmore, the EU’s top human rights envoy; Heidi Hautala, a European Parliament vice-president; and a representative of the Office of the EU’s Special Representative to Central Asia.

On the same day as the screening, the EU is set to hold its highest-level annual meeting with Kyrgyz officials. This is a crucial opportunity for the EU to make it clear that closer ties with Kyrgyzstan will depend on the resolve of Kyrgyzstan President Japarov’s administration to investigate Askarov’s death, clean up his judicial record, and grant compensation to his family.

This week’s high-profile screening makes clear: Kyrgyzstan will continue to be in the international spotlight on Askarov until it fulfils its human rights obligations to account for his death.

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/06/02/documentary-calls-justice-kyrgyzstans-azimjon-askarov

In-depth interview with Ron Deibert, Citizen Lab’s founder

May 31, 2021
a smiling man in a collared shirt standing in front of a staircase

Ron Deibert is director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. (Courtesy of Ron Deibert)

On 25 May 2021 Nathaniel Basen for TVO.org spoke with professor Ron Deibert about internet censorship, espionage, and getting threats from authoritarian regimes. It is a long but rich interview: In 2001, Ron Deibert, a professor at the University of Toronto, founded Citizen Lab to help understand and track the spread of digital human-rights abuses around the world. 

In the 20 years since, the interdisciplinary lab has made headlines for protecting journalists and human-rights defenders from digital attacks; one of its researchers helped identify members of the group that attacked the United States Capitol earlier this year.

TVO.org: Let’s start at the beginning. How and why did Citizen Lab start, and what did it look like at the time? 

Ron Deibert: Back in the late 1990s, I was doing what I would consider to be conventional academic research — the lone professor studying a topic. A lot of desktop research. A student was taking a course of mine proposed doing a paper where he would explore censorship in China. This was a new topic back then — there was not any evidence really that China was censoring the internet — but people assumed they would, and there was a lot of uncertainty about what was going on there. 

He was kind of a self-taught hacker, and he put together this research paper where he connected to computers in China using some proxy servers and started comparing the results he got to what he could see here in Canada, doing it very systematically. It opened my eyes to the ways in which methods from computer science and engineering science — technical interrogation tools and techniques — could be used to surface real primary evidence about what’s going on beneath the surface of the internet around information control. Especially what governments, and also private companies, are doing that isn’t in the public domain. No one was really doing that at the time, and a lightbulb went on, where I realized that this is a really powerful way of surfacing primary evidence and data in a way that really no one else was doing. 

So I put together a prospectus for a lab that would be interdisciplinary, that would bring together people who have these skills to work systematically on uncovering information-control practices and look at surveillance and censorship and information warfare, from the standpoint of risks to citizens from a human-rights perspective. I was very fortunate at the time to get support from the Ford Foundation — I got a grant from them in 2001 — and I put the proposal together for the Citizen Lab from that. 

TVO.org: And at the time you were in a pretty small basement lab.

Deibert: Actually, it was my office in political science where it all got started. When I got the grant, the Munk Centre was just being established, and the building at Devonshire [at the University of Toronto] was under construction. I went over to that building and scoped out what I thought would be a room that no one else would want, to increase my chance of getting approval. I found this space, and I went to Janice Stein, the director, and said, “Hey, I’ve got this grant. I’ve got this idea. I need some space.” And she said, “Okay, you can have it.” 

So she supported the idea and took a risk. Space is a very valuable asset on campus. And even though it sounds less glamorous, we were really happy to have that room.

After 10 years, we moved to the new Munk building, the observatory, where we’re located now, and that was really great, because we needed more space. Security is not perfect — where we are there are lots of problems — but it is much better than it was in the old building, where people would just wander in and could easily locate us. Now we’re wrapped behind several layers of access control…..

TVO.org: Let’s talk a little bit about your process. How does Citizen Lab decide what to look into next?

Deibert: It’s a combination of factors. First and foremost, we are looking at the topic, at the domain, broadly speaking, which for us is global in scope. We don’t have a particular regional focus. We’re looking at risks to human rights that arise out of information technology: that’s the broadest possible definition of what we do.

That also limits our selection of cases that we want to examine. We assume that, however problematic cybersecurity is for big banks or government, they have resources — they can go hire a private company. But journalists, human-rights defenders, people living in the global south who are human-rights defenders and are advocating for policy change, they really lack capacity. So we put our effort into identifying cases that present the highest risk to human rights and, ideally, affect the most vulnerable parts of the population. 

We divide our work systematically. So there are certain teams that we organize around, though there’s a bit of overlap. It’s fluid, but we have some teams that are more interested in applying network-measurement techniques to uncovering internet censorship, let’s say, and that’s probably the area where we’ve doing the most work for the longest time. Then there’s what we call the targeted-threats group, which is really the most serious stuff around espionage, and it certainly has the highest risk and has gotten us in the crosshairs of some bad actors, to such an extent that we’ve now become a target. We also apply non-technical methods in an interdisciplinary way — we have people who are trained in law and policy. So we’ve done a lot of work around legislation of analyzing national security laws and practices in Canada. 

I would say how things are chosen depends on the opportunities that come up. We may hear about something, some preliminary evidence, perhaps a journalist tips us off or a victim comes forward. Or the team itself decides, hey, this is something we should look into. A good example of that is Zoom. We knew about Zoom: it was a kind of obscure business, networking-communications platform, until the pandemic hit. Suddenly, everyone was on Zoom. So our researchers got together and said, “Hey, we better take a look at this” and indeed uncovered some highly problematic security and privacy issues.

TVO.org: Your work with Zoom is a good example of getting immediate results from your work. If I’m correct, after a public outcry, Zoom cleaned up a lot of what you found. How does that feel to have an immediate impact on the world in that way? 

Deibert: It’s actually super-rewarding in a number of ways. First of all, there’s the gratification to get the message out. Ultimately, we see ourselves as a university-based watchdog group, so if you can publish something and the next day everybody’s reading about it because it’s on the front page of the New York Times? That’s phenomenal. We’ve been actually really fortunate to have high-profile coverage for our research. I think we’ve had, like, close to 30 front-page stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post, other global media, the Financial Times, about different reports of ours over the last 20 years. 

Going further, ultimately, we don’t just want to get attention for what we’re doing — we want to see some change. So there have been so many cases now where we’ve seen consequences, actions taken, policy changes, or advocacy campaigns started as a result of the work that we’ve done. 

Probably the biggest one was back in 2016, when we investigated a targeted espionage attack against a human-rights defender in the United Arab Emirates. He shared with us an SMS message that was tainted with malware that the UAE government was using to try to hack his phone, and when we reverse-engineered it, that malware infected our own device, our own iPhone. We realized that it was so sophisticated and involved what were then three software flaws in the Apple operating system, that even Apple itself didn’t know about. We did a responsible disclosure to them and, within two weeks, they pushed out a patch that affected directly the security of more than 1 billion people. So, to be able to say, “Hey, we were responsible for that” is, I think, quite an accomplishment.

TVO.org: On the flip side, there are people that don’t like the work you do. What has it been like for you to become a target? I can’t imagine when you started this thing that you pictured yourself coming under threat. 

Deibert: Well, first of all, you’re right. I grew up studying world politics as something out there, and I’m a spectator. There were a couple of instances before this, but, really, when we published the GhostNet report in 2009, which was the first public-evidence-based report on cyber espionage, it was the one that involved the hacking of the office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and we uncovered this massive Chinese espionage operation. 

It suddenly dawned on me, okay, we’ve gone from kind of just observing and recording to becoming a factor, because very quickly thereafter, we had all sorts of inquiries and veiled threats and concerns about physical security. From that point on, from 2009 to today, they’ve really only amplified. The worst is probably when we were targeted by Black Cube, the same private-intelligence firm made up of ex-Mossad agents that notoriously went after the accusers of Harvey Weinstein. Now, that’s really frightening to be in their crosshairs. We ended up actually exposing that operation, but to know that something like that is going on, frankly, is very disturbing. It really forces you to change your behaviour, think about practical issues: when you’re travelling, hotels, getting into elevators, who’s accessing the same building as you. 

At the same time, though, I think it’s a mark of success. If we’re not successful, those people wouldn’t care. It’s just something you have to factor into your risk calculation and take all the precautions, and we’re most concerned about the risks to the subjects of our research. Frankly, we go to extraordinary lengths to protect the security in terms of the data we handle, how we interact with them and interview them. But, yeah, it’s just constant. Actually, every day there’s something, ranging from people who, unfortunately, maybe are mentally disturbed, and they read about us and want to visit us, all the way to, you know, the world’s worst authoritarian regimes that are trying to threaten us. 

TVO.org: A lot of this work is global in nature, but some Ontarians might be surprised to know a lot of it is quite local. I’m thinking about your work with internet-filtering technology and Waterloo-based Netsweeper. What makes filtering technology so important, and what was Netsweeper up to? 

Deibert: As the internet evolves, there are all sorts of reasons why people want to control access to certain content online — beginning, I would say, with schools and libraries. There are legitimate concerns among parents and teachers that children have access to pornography or other types of content. Service providers like Netsweeper fill the market niche, providing filtering technology to those clients. 

But, very quickly, there grew a need among governments — national-level internet censorship. In the beginning, like I talked about with the Chinese, it was very rare in the 1990s or 2000s. I could count on one hand the number of governments that were doing this sort of thing. Now, it’s routine, and it’s big business. So with a company like Netsweeper, for us, it was, frankly, a no-brainer to zero in on it, and not even because they’re based in our own backyard. There’s certainly a motivating factor there because we’re Canadians, and we want to make sure that, as best we can, we identify businesses operating out of Canada to see if they’re in compliance with Canadian law or Canadian values. Here, we had a company that seemed to be not just kind of stumbling into selling internet-censorship services to some of the world’s worst violators of human rights, but actively courting them. 

They were showing up all over the world, especially in the Middle East. The Middle East is where Netsweeper really profited from selling internet-censorship services to governments that routinely violate human rights and block access to content that would be considered protected legally here in Canada. And they were also doing this in a non-transparent way. 

This is not something they openly advertised, and yet we knew, from our research and technical investigation, we could identify basically unquestionable proof that their technology was being used to filter access to content that would be legally protected here in Canada, in places like Bahrain and Yemen and in the Gulf. 

So we did a report about Netsweeper’s technology in Yemen, and at this time, the main telco, YemenNet, was controlled by Houthi rebels, and of course there’s an ongoing civil war, which at that time was really quite intense. We simply documented that Netsweeper’s technology was being used to actually block the entire Israeli top-level domain — the only time we’d ever seen that in the world, with the exception of Iran. 

We published this report, and we mentioned in the commentary around it that, in providing services to one participant in an armed conflict, who is censoring information, including information related to international news, they’re effectively inserting themselves in an armed conflict, and it raises all sorts of ethical, moral, and potentially even legal issues. Netsweeper sued me and the University of Toronto for defamation for over $3 million. Of course, we thought that was entirely baseless, and six months later, they simply withdrew the suit. 

Coincidentally, their suit came shortly before the Ontario government passed anti-SLAPP legislation to prevent lawsuits that chill free expression, which in our opinion, is very much what it is, because as we were going through the litigation, we couldn’t report on Netsweeper. After the lawsuit was dropped, we then published several subsequent reports on Netsweeper…..

TVO.org: In your 20 years, what is the work you’re most proud of?

Deibert: What I’m most proud of is the staff. I’d say a skill that I have is, I think I would make a good NHL scout or a band manager. I have the ability, for what it’s worth, to identify talented people and give them the support they need. So there’s not a particular report that I’m proud of; I’m most proud of the people who work at the lab. I’m so fortunate to be surrounded by these extremely talented, ethical, dedicated people, most of whom have been with me for over 10 years. It’s rare to have that in a small university. And that’s what I’m most proud of.

TVO.org: The lab itself, as we talked about a little bit, is somewhat unique: you’re working outside of government or corporations and working in the interest of human rights. Others around the world have taken note of your model. Do you hope to export it? 

Deibert: It’s beginning to be surprising to me that there aren’t more Citizen Lab–like organizations at other universities. To me, this is a field with such endless opportunity. There’s so much unfortunate malfeasance going on in the digital world. 

And, yet, you have these extremely powerful methods and techniques, as we’ve demonstrated, that, by way of analogy, act like an X-ray on the abuse of power. That’s the way I think about it. It’s astonishing. 

Sometimes I sit back and shake my head. A lot of the stuff we don’t even publish. It’s remarkable what you can see when you use these very precise, careful methods to uncover and track abuses of power. Why haven’t other university professors jumped on this and tried to mimic it? I don’t really know. I suppose there’s no one answer. There are risks involved with it, and it’s actually not easy to cross disciplinary boundaries. 

So I think that we’re helping to build the field, at least I hope, and you’re right that there are a few other places where I’m seeing either professors or, in some cases, human-rights organizations, attempting to build something like this. That is fantastic. That’s really where my effort and the next phase of my career is, around really field-building by promoting that model and hoping that others build up centres like the Citizen Lab at other universities, while also ensuring the sustainability of the lab.

This is a bit “inside university,” but the reality is, as the only professor in the lab, I’m the weakest link. So if something happens to me, the lab would really fall apart. Not because I’m the wizard directing everything — purely because I’m the responsible principal investigator for the grant, and you need that at a university. What I hope to do is ensure the sustainability of the lab outside of me, and that means recruiting other professors to the lab. We’re actively fundraising to do that and to try to get more tenure-track positions connected to the lab so that it can continue once I move on.

TVO.org: And what will the next 20 years hold for the lab itself?

Deibert: Hopefully, we ‘ll be able to continue. We know we have the support from the University of Toronto; they’ve been incredible in a number of ways. We live in a time when big university bureaucracies are criticized, sometimes rightfully so — I’ve been critical of my own university in various areas. But one thing I can say, they have been so supportive of work that we do in a variety of real practical ways, including legal support. 

I just want the lab to not be something that is tied to one profession. I want it to continue and to duplicate what we do globally. If we had 25 Citizen Labs sprinkled around the planet, it would be better for human rights overall, because there would at least be another protective layer, if you will, of dogged researchers who aren’t afraid to uncover abuses of power, no matter where they are.

https://www.tvo.org/article/x-ray-on-the-abuse-of-power-citizen-labs-founder-on-fighting-for-human-rights

Ocen Ivan Kenneth from Uganda is Human Rights Defender of the Month

May 24, 2021

Ocen Ivan Kenneth is a Program Director at Foundation for Development and Relief Africa (FIDRA), with more than 10 years of experience working in the human rights field. Ivan’s ambitions for change focus on building inner peace, defending human rights and empowering local communities using theatre and storytelling. He creates a space where people from the community share their personal stories of trauma and resilience as well as identify mechanisms of healing.

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to defend justice.” Ocen Ivan Kenneth Tweet

As an activist, Ivan has faced several challenges including personal threats that sometimes extend to his family and colleagues. His work with victims of conflict related sexual violence also at times takes a toll on him.

“I get moved when speaking to people whose human rights have been violated in some way, or those who have survived sexual violence, or those brutalised by militia. I can see the trauma in their eyes and hear it in their voices. It has always been the most difficult aspect of my job.”

Just like many other human rights defenders, the lack of adequate equipment and limited resources coupled with limited capacity and skills, plus legal restrictions curtail his ability to efficiently execute his work. Despite all these challenges, Ivan’s commitment to keep protecting and promoting human rights remains unwavering.

After decades of armed conflict, now we are facing another attack, this time affecting our health and life. I am motivated because we are strong resilient workers. We keep resisting this new attack as we have always done by staying together, helping each other, and keeping our spirits high,” he says.

He believes that there should be more work done to support human rights defenders through building their capacity and expertise, strengthening their recognition, and protecting them from threats, risks, and reprisals particularly those who are marginalised or most at risk.

I believe that current protection measures for human rights defenders in Uganda are insufficient. Particularly protection offered from the government mechanisms towards human right defenders is insufficient. A mechanism needs to be created and developed, and people working on other protection mechanisms for human rights defenders should truly address the different vulnerabilities for male and female human rights defenders.” Ocen Ivan Kenneth

Profile of Human Rights Defender Elrudia Abdalla Hussein from Sudan

April 16, 2021

By the time Elrudia Abdalla Hussein, a Sudanese woman human rights defender was in secondary school, she had witnessed the killings of countless people. Growing up in Darfur, she observed violence and human rights abuses. “If you do not have power, you do not have rights,” she concluded.  As a result, she decided to join a student association during her tertiary education to raise awareness about human rights and fight injustice.

When strangers entered their family home in 2010, Elrudia and her husband decided to flee to Uganda with their children. As a refugee, Elrudia faced new human rights challenges. Many of the Sudanese refugee women in her community are single mothers struggling financially. Coming from a war zone, they often face mental health challenges. Many of them only know basic English, making it difficult to navigate the Ugandan refugee system. When one of the women in Elrudia’s community struggled to pay rent, she got together with a group of Sudanese refugee women to help out.

We decided to come together as sisters, and all put in a financial contribution to pay two months of her rent. After this, we decided to continue the communal support and founded an association.Sudanese Women for Peace and Development association not only helps refugee women financially, but also with asylum procedures, referrals for support by other NGOs, counselling, trainings, and raising awareness about their rights. It is run entirely by volunteers from the Sudanese refugee community, who also fund the project to a large extent.

As refugees, it can be quite tricky to defend human rights in Uganda: involvement in politics can lead to an investigation that could ultimately revoke refugee status, but the line between politics and human rights is often rather thin. Elrudia’s association clearly focuses on social work, yet they carefully steer clear of any speech or activity that could be interpreted as political – a difficult balancing act sometimes. Another difficulty Elrudia and other exiled HRDs face is how to generate income for their families. Refugees have to rely on informal jobs to cover expenses like rent, food or school fees, so Elrudia often sells food she has prepared – while running the women’s association and also completing her master’s degree in Agriculture and Economics.

What keeps her going is hope: “I see things getting better around me. It’s easier to be in touch with friends and family back in Darfur. That gives me hope. Seeing the impact that we make in our community pushes me to continue, despite the difficulties. And: when I start something, I finish it!

Viet Nam: profile of human rights defender Nguyen Thuy Hanh, arrested and charged

April 9, 2021

Responding to the arbitrary arrest of prominent Vietnamese human rights defender Nguyen Thuy Hanh on 7 April , Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns, said:  “The arrest of Nguyen Thuy Hanh is a blatant and politically-motivated attempt to silence one of the most respected human rights advocates in the country.  Nguyen Thuy Hanh is an inspiring activist who has worked tirelessly to support unjustly detained persons in Viet Nam. Despite police beatings and years of harassment, she has remained steadfast in her efforts to help and support those in desperate need. Vietnamese jails are notoriously overcrowded and fail to meet minimum international standards. It is a travesty that Nguyen Thuy Hanh is being targeted for her humanitarian work in support of unjustly detained prisoners. She should be celebrated and supported for this work – not punished. 

We urge the Vietnamese authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Nguyen Thuy Hanh and to end their relentless attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful critics. Authorities must respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.” [see also yesterday’s: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/04/08/worries-about-rsf-laureate-pham-doan-trang-jailed-in-vietnam/

Nguyen Thuy Hanh is a human rights defender from Ha Noi. She founded the 50K Fund in 2017, through which she fundraised support for the families of unjustly detained persons across Viet Nam.  In 2019 she won the Le Dinh Luong Human Rights Award an award given by the U.S.-based opposition party Viet Tan for her work supporting the families of prisoners of conscience.

She was arrested on 7 April 2021 and charged under Article 117 of the Criminal Code for “making, storing, or spreading information, materials or items for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam”, carrying a potential prison sentence of between five and 20 years.  

Nguyen Thuy Hanh is also a vocal advocate for human rights with a popular Facebook account, where she frequently discusses human rights issues. She has faced multiple instances of harassment in retaliation for her peaceful human rights activism. 

Nguyen Thuy Hanh nominated herself as an independent candidate for Ha Noi City in the 2016 National Assembly election. Since then, she has been subjected to harassment and intimidation on many occasions. Amnesty International recently called on the Vietnamese authorities to end their mounting crackdown on independent candidates and other critical voices ahead of the 2021 National Assembly election. 

In January 2020, when police raided the village of Dong Tam in Ha Noi, leading to a deadly conflict, Nguyen Thuy Hanh fundraised for the family of a village leader who was killed by security forces. In retaliation, her bank account was frozen, with her bank reportedly telling Nguyen Thuy Hanh that police forced them to do so.  

In June 2018, while engaging in a peaceful protest against the Law on Cybersecurity and the Law on Special Economic Zones, Nguyen Thuy Hanh was arrested and detained by police. She reported afterwards that she was severely beaten during the interrogation which resulted in injuries to her face.  Police have also interrogated Nguyen Thuy Hanh on her work relating to the 50k Fund on many occasions.   

Amnesty International’s 2016 report, Prisons Within Prisons, documented the widespread torture and other ill-treatment which prisoners of conscience are subjected to in Viet Nam. 

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/04/nguyen-thuy-hanh-arrested-and-charged/

https://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/award-12112019155718.html

Sandra Aceng, profile of a woman human rights defender from Uganda

March 19, 2021

In February 2021 Defenddefenders announced Sandra Aceng as Human Rights Defender of the Month Sandra Aceng is an outspoken and energetic woman human rights defender (WHRD). She is a gender and ICT researcher and policy analyst for Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) where she coordinates the Women ICT Advocacy Group, advocating for internet access for all. In addition, she writes on various platforms such as Global Voices, Freedom House, and Impakter Magazine. Her regular contributions to Wikimedia Uganda often focus on profiling WHRDs, female politicians, and journalists. “After Uganda’s January [2021] elections, many female politicians joined parliament. We want to increase their online visibility. For example, most of the profiles on Wikipedia  are on men, so we need to close the gender digital divide,” Sandra says.

After Uganda’s January [2021] elections, many female politicians joined parliament. We want to increase their online visibility. For example, most of the profiles on Wikipedia are on men, so we need to close the gender digital divide.

Having grown up in the digital age, the 27-year-old is a digital native and mainly focuses on defending women’s rights online. Her employer WOUGNET empowers women through the use of ICT for sustainable development. Their three main pillars are information sharing and networking, gender and ICT policy advocacy, and providing technical support to WOUGNET staff, beneficiaries, and members. As a Programme Manager, Sandra analyses internet and ICT policies to ensure that they are gender inclusive. She has noticed that oppressive patriarchal structures are shifting and perpetuating online. Part of her work is to document women’s rights violations and gather evidence, but she has also learned that it’s not enough to just talk about statistics. To truly understand the problems, it is important to talk to the victims and listen to find out what they face, she says.

Having experienced some forms of online gender-based violence (GBV) herself, she knows how stressful and draining it can be. On top of receiving non-consensual content, she also felt pressure to keep quiet, women are not supposed to complain, she says. As a WHRD, she is used to the subtle pressure that women not abiding by patriarchal gender norms experience. A continuous trickling of seemingly small questions can be rather stressful: “Why are you so loud and outspoken as a woman? When will you get married? How will you take care of your family if the authorities come for you? These kinds of questions make me feel uncomfortable, they make me wonder if I am doing the right thing,” Sandra shares, “but if we want online GBV to end we also need to end these harmful gender stereotypes. Establishing women’s rights is a slow process and keeping quiet won’t speed it up.”

Why are you so loud and outspoken as a woman? When will you get married? How will you take care of your family if the authorities come for you? These kinds of questions make me feel uncomfortable, they make me wonder if I am doing the right thing.

There is still a lot of work ahead of Sandra and her fellow Ugandan women’s rights activists. She recently researched digital rights violations during the COVID-19 pandemic and struggled to find female interviewees. Female journalists reporting on politically sensitive topics experienced reprisals like rape, but due to stigma and worries how this will affect their future, they were not willing to speak out. While male journalists on the other hand expressed themselves freely: men are often perceived as bold and brave, making it easier to speak out on reprisals and rights violations they endured.

But the more women speak out, the easier it gets, Sandra is convinced. “It really motivates me when I see that other women have faced the same kind of challenges with online violence, and they have dealt with it. Whatever I go through, it’s not the end of life. Hearing other stories helps me to keep working hard, to be a better version of myself and to go beyond the difficulties.” Fighting the digital gender divide is Sandra’s way to make sure that it gets easier for women to speak out and be loud.

https://defenddefenders.org/human-rights-defender-of-the-month-sandra-aceng/

Profile of Muay: A Laotian Woman Human Rights Defender

March 18, 2021

On 17 a blog post in hrcessex by Sarah Mui profiles Muay: “A Fierce Woman Human Rights Defender”

Houayheung (“Muay”) Xayabouly is not only a mother, small business owner and the primary breadwinner of her family, but shehas also been breaking down stereotypical gender roles by being a fierce human rights defender and environmental activist in Laos.She is viewed as a public figure among her community because of her work to shed light onto the countless human rights violations that she and fellow Lao people have endured at the hands of the national government. In 2019, the Lao government decided to make an example out of Muay and unjustly sentenced her to five years in prison, for which she was stripped of all fair trial guarantees. In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, I urge all who read this to remember her name, learn her fight and spread awareness to demand that all charges be dropped and Muay be set free.

Photo courtesy of Manushya Foundatio

In 2017, Muay began raising awareness on social media over the excessive tolls that she along with other people in her community were being charged when crossing a bridge on the border of Laos and Thailand. The cost of the toll was equivalent to several meals, but Lao people relied on it to travel to and from work each day, including Muay herself. It turned out that the Lao government had given the private international company, Duangdee, the concession to charge the toll when it constructed the bridge in the first place. This concession left her community in an impossible situation where they were perpetually indebted to this private company who took advantage of the bridge’s necessity. Muay’s video about the toll deeply resonated with the Lao people, who agreed that the government benefited from the financial relationship with Duangdee. This made Muay realize the importance of using her voice to speak up for Lao people, and it was then that she made the decision to dedicate her life to fighting for them.   

The Lao government did nothing in response to their people’s outcry over the excessive tolls, but rather chose to focus attention on finding ways to intimidate Muay. Soon after the video went viral, the police were sent to her location to warn her to not criticize it.

In 2018, Muay challenged the Lao government over the corrupt hiring practices of public sector and governmental positions in that they were being appointed on the condition of bribes instead of through proper hiring procedures. This was quite personal for Muay because her own brother had been deeply impacted by this practice. He had always aspired to become a police officer but was cheated out of money and the position of his dreams due to these dishonorable practices. Muay’s video discussing the topic received over 320,000 views as of July last year. 

Soon after Muay’s widely viewed video, she was fired from her job as a tour guide for “unknown” reasons other than the fact her employer had been mysteriously pressured to do so. 

Muay was not going to let the government deter her from helping Lao people. Later that year, she decided to create a school for Lao children to address the dire inequalities that they faced in accessing education. The current practice was for parents to pay a bribe to secure a spot for their children, otherwise they could not provide them an education. She started multiple fundraisers to accomplish this goal, including selling shirts that said, “I don’t want to buy government positions,” referencing the Lao government’s corrupt hiring practices in addition to holding a concert featuring a number of local performers. 

Again, instead of actually listening to the suffering of its people, the government chose to continue to try to intimidate Muay by shutting down the fundraising concert and prohibiting the selling of shirts. 

The year 2018 was also troubling because that summer a dam collapsed in Attapeu Province, which led to numerous deaths, disappearances and displacements of Lao people. The government purportedly underreported the impact of the collapse and restricted access to the scene by the media and independent aid organizations. Muay decided to take matters into her own hands and post her own videos of the disaster and its significant effect on the community. 

In response to the shocking video, Muay was called to the police station and was told to cease all criticism of the Lao government. 

Around the same time, Muay had learned that donations for the impacted families of the dam collapse were being sold by Lao police for their own monetary gain. She could not allow her community to suffer so she started collecting donations for them herself. She documented and shared this all on social media.

Within a few days, the Lao government issued a press statement advising the public against reading “unofficial news” about the collapse. 

In the autumn of 2019, the Lao people who lived close to the dam were again harmed after a tropical storm caused major flooding, leaving over 100,000 displaced from their homes. Again, disturbed by the Lao government’s indifference towards its people, Muay posted another video calling the government out for its slow response and its lack of preventative measures which could have mitigated the storm’s impact.  

Around the same time, the Lao government sent police to arrest Muay without a warrant while she was dining at a restaurant. She tried to post a video about what had happened, but she was forced to delete it. She was then placed in pre-trial detention long before her hearing and was denied an impartial lawyer and the ability to challenge her detention. She was subject to repeated long interrogations where she was coerced to confess to “spreading propaganda against the Lao government.” She was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison, for which she visitation has been limited and closely monitored. She has not been able to see her young daughter but a handful of times and international NGOs have been completely barred.

Photo courtesy of Manushya Foundation

The Lao Government is Using Muay as an Example to Silence Dissent 

Muay is a strong and dedicated woman human rights defender and environmental activist who has fought endlessly for her community. Instead of taking accountability and listening to the suffering of its people, the Lao government has instead chosen to turn a blind eye to its human rights obligations and punish Muay for her significant contributions to her country. Until now, Muay’s story has only been made available by a few NGOs working hard to shed light onto her fervent advocacy and now wrongful detention. To spread the word about her fight, please share this blog, follow #FreeMuay and visit this link to demand that Muay be set free!

About the Author: Sarah Mui is an American human rights lawyer currently in the LLM for International Human Rights Law program at the University of Essex. She is also a research assistant with the Manushya Foundation located in Bangkok. Sarah hopes to work in the field women’s rights upon graduation. 

https://hrcessex.wordpress.com/2021/03/17/muay-a-fierce-woman-human-rights-defender/

UN Spotlight on Killing of South African Environmental Defender Mama Fikile

March 16, 2021

.On 15 March 2021 Katharina Rall, Senior Researcher, Environment and Human Rights at Human Rights Watch, wrote about Mama Fikile’s murder, It is almost five months since an environmental activist, Mama Fikile Ntshangase, was gunned down in her home in Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal province, after raising concerns about a coal mine in the area. No arrests have been made. Mama Fikile had received threats to her life but carried on with what she perceived to be the only way to protect her community’s health and livelihood.

On March 3, the UN expert on human rights defenders used Mama Fikele’s story to begin a new report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva that highlights the risks many environmental defenders operate under, and the widespread attempts to silence their voices.

South African environmental justice groups have urged the government to carry out a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into Mama Fikile Ntshangase’s killing and ensure that those found responsible are held to account. But her family is still waiting for justice.

Beyond the individual tragedy and injustice, there is another reason the UN expert, Mary Lawlor, highlights the South African case in her global report. Killings of activists create an environment of fear and can have a chilling effect on the people around them. Or, as the UN expert frames it, “[t]here is no more direct attack on civil society space than the killing of human rights defenders.

As a community rights defender opposing coal mining in Fuleni, a small rural village not far from the place where Mama Fikile was killed, Billy Mnqondo once heard gunshots at the gate of his house and was warned by community members that he and his family will be in trouble if he continues to oppose mining. When, in 2018, Human Rights Watch visited Somkhele, Fuleni, and other communities affected by mining, some activists confirmed they were afraid to speak out about the impact of mining in their community, especially after Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, another prominent environmental rights defender, was killed in Xolobeni in 2016.

Violence and intimidation against those who raise their voices to defend their right to a healthy environment is endemic in South Africa.  Human Rights Watch, in its 2019 report, published jointly with groundWork, the Centre for Environmental Rights, and Earthjustice,  documented how activists in mining-affected communities across the country have experienced threats, physical attacks, or property damage that they believe is retaliation for their activism. Most of these cases are not widely known and have not made headlines like the killings of Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe and Mama Fikile. Yet, investigations into these killings or other attacks are moving very slowly, if at all. 

Other, less brutal ways to silence the voices of environmental rights defenders are nuisance lawsuits, known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation” (SLAPPs) – baseless cases brought forward by companies to intimidate and burden activists with the onerous costs of mounting a legal defense.

South African courts are beginning to take a stance against these tactics. In February, the High Court in Cape Town issued a ruling that strengthens the constitutional right to freedom of expression. The court held that a defamation suit brought by an Australian mining company, Mineral Commodities Ltd (MRC), and its local subsidiary against three attorneys, two activists, and a social worker in relation to their statements about its operations is an abuse of legal process. The defamation trial may still proceed, but activists can now defend themselves by arguing that the Court should assess the SLAPP nature of the case.

Following this ruling it will be harder for corporations to use South Africa’s legal system against citizens and activists to silence and intimidate them when they raise human rights concerns or seek accountability for past abuses. The government should now do its part to follow the recommendations of the UN expert by bringing those responsible for killings of environmental defenders to justice. Unless there are prompt, effective, and impartial investigations into the killings—and those responsible are brought to justice— human rights defenders will continue to live in an environment of fear.

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/03/15/un-spotlight-killing-south-african-environmental-defender