African Activists' Struggle to Improve Maternal Health

Activist Juliette Compaoré says the MDG summit will have an impact in Burkina Faso © Amnesty International

New UN statistics released last week show that world leaders are struggling to keep their promise of cutting the maternal mortality ratio by 75 per cent by 2015. For activists in Sierra Leone, the slow progress is no surprise.

Many people don’t understand that maternal health is a human rights issue and so many other factors contribute to these deaths. Discrimination, lack of facilities, domestic violence and poverty… if these underlying issues aren’t addressed, it will undermine the good work that is being done,” says Victor L Koroma, an activist based in the capital Freetown.

Koroma’s small organization, the Campaign for the Promotion of Health and Human Rights Activities, campaigned to abolish medical fees in Sierra Leone. In April, the government took the landmark step of introducing free healthcare for pregnant and breastfeeding women.

However, Koroma warned world leaders gathering this week in New York to discuss progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that more still needs to be done.

“We need to go beyond free healthcare because there are lots of problems. Many midwives are not properly trained and drugs and blood are not available. Nutrition is completely ignored. Drugs are unevenly distributed and there is discrimination – whether on the basis of tribe, gender, social status or political affiliation.

“World leaders, donors, the UN and the World Bank all need to do their bit if a country like Sierra Leone is to be saved from the ravages of pregnant women dying every day.”

Koroma paints a harrowing picture of the scale of the maternal health crisis facing MDG decision-makers.

“Sexual and gender-based violence is rampant; women and girls as young as five are being raped. Many then become infected with HIV. Yet the government does nothing. In the last year only two people have been sentenced for violence against women out of probably thousands of cases,” he says.

The UN statistics show an average annual decline of 2.3 per cent since 1990, falling way short of the 5.5 per cent decline needed to reach the 2015 target. Although a woman is no longer dying every minute, the new statistics show that one woman is still dying every minute and a half.

Severe discrimination and the low social status of women also fuel the high rate of maternal deaths in Sierra Leone, where women’s health needs are given low priority by their own families and community leaders.

Most maternal deaths in Sierra Leone take place in rural areas cut adrift from hospitals. Most women die in their homes. Some die on the way to hospital; in taxis, on motorbikes or on foot.
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Amnesty Activists Detained at U2 Concert

Five Amnesty International activists were detained by police yesterday before U2′s first ever Russian show in Moscow.

The detained activists had been holding placards inside the concert venue and collecting signatures for the ‘Demand Dignity’ campaign, which aims to end the human rights violations that drive and deepen global poverty. They were trying to raise awareness about human rights and collecting signatures to a petition.  The Amnesty International official concert stall was also shut down.

Amnesty is present while U2 performs the European leg of their 360 tour.

And while Amnesty International’s activists were invited by U2 to join their European leg of their 360° tour, police officers ignored the activists’ protestations that they were there invited and forced them to close their stalls.

Although no-one resisted the police’s demands to close down the Amnesty International stall, Amnesty’s Moscow office staff member and four volunteers were taken to a local police station. They were ordered to provide a written explanation for their actions, issued with an official warning for organizing a public action for which no prior official permission had been obtained, and released over an hour later.

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident; rather, it reflects the continuing difficult climate in Russia today for people seeking to express views that the authorities regard as difficult, dissenting or sensitive. Amnesty International is concerned that the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are restricted in Russia for members of the political opposition and human rights activists; we are also concerned that Russian authorities such disallow such activities unless they take place with their explicit sanction, and crack down hard on those whom they regard as violators.

Iranian human rights defender Abdolfattah Soltani released!

Abdolfattah Soltani, an Iranian human rights defender, was one of hundreds of people who were rounded up and imprisoned in the crackdown that followed Iran’s presidential elections.  Plain clothes Iranian security officials arrested the leading human rights activist in June along with countless others — students, opposition politicians, journalists and rights activists — and threw them in prison.

Soltani has for years stood by victims of Iran’s repression. And by putting himself in the line of fire, he too has become a target of the Iranian government crackdown.

Tens of thousands of Amnesty members took action in response to news of his arrest. And last week, Soltani was released. While we continue to have a number of concerns about human rights in Iran, we have found Soltani’s release, along with last month’s release of human rights defender Shadi Sadr, profoundly encouraging.

Amnesty members helped counter the climate of fear instilled by Iranian authorities with a spirit of hope. They sent a vital message of solidarity to Soltani and other human rights defenders like him in their hour of darkness, reminding them that they were not alone.

We sincerely thank everyone who took action on Soltani’s behalf.

Iran: Release Soltani

Abdolfattah Soltani was arrested at his office in central Tehran, at around four in the afternoon, on 16 June by four plainclothes security officials. The officials, who did not have a search warrant, a summons or arrest warrant, carried out a search of his office. They confiscated his files, his briefcase, his computers and his mobile phone before taking him away.

Abdolfattah Soltani is a member of the Center for the Defense of Human Rights which Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Shirin Ebadi and many other leading human rights activists founded in 2002. It was forcibly closed in December 2008 shortly before the center was to hold an event commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The CHRD, whose members continue to work under the name of the center, has three stated roles: reporting violations of human rights in Iran; providing free legal representation to political prisoners; and supporting the families of political prisoners.

Abdolfattah Soltani was represented the cases of prisoner of conscience Akbar Ganji, an investigative reporter who uncovered the still unpunished complicity of various governmentofficials in the murder of intellectuals and journalists in the 1990s, and the family of Zahra Kazemi,an Iranian-Canadian journalist who died in custody in Evin prison in July 2003. In Zahra Kazemi’s case, a Ministry of Intelligence official was tried and acquitted of her ‘semi-intentional’ murder. Hehad been considered a scapegoat for a senior judicial figure, and following the acquittal, Kazemi’s family, represented by Abdolfattah Soltani, appealed to the Supreme Court, to launch a newinvestigation into her death in custody.

Mr. Soltani was arrested in 2005 and spent 219 days in detention, of which 43 were in solitary confinement. In July 2006 he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment by Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court for “disclosing confidential documents,” for which he received a sentence of four years; and one year’s imprisonment for “propaganda against the system.” The evidential basis for the charges brought against Abdolfattah Soltani was reportedly not made clear in the charge sheet or by the prosecution during the trial. According to reports, the verdict was issued with neither Abdolfattah Soltani nor his lawyers being summoned to court to hear it, and they were not given a copy of the verdict. Of his trial and the verdict, he said, “Neither me nor my lawyers were called for the court session mentioned in the verdict. We were unable to defend my case because we never saw the main evidence listed in the indictment.”

Abdolfattah Soltani has stated “my crime is accepting political cases including cases of journalists, students, and two nuclear defendants, otherwise, I did not break the law. They are trying to treat me in a way so that no other lawyer would accept political cases.”

To take action on his case, click here

Not So Merry Go 'Round of Justice in Zimbabwe

It’s a bad time to be defender of human rights in Zimbabwe.

Late last year, Zimbabwe authorities abducted eighteen human rights defenders and political activists.  Their families feared them dead.   Those seized were eventually dropped off at police stations and processed for crimes against the state, including sabotage, terrorism and treason.  During their four months in captivity, the activists claim they were tortured and ill-treated by state agents.

Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was one of those abducted last year.

Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was one of those abducted last year.

Thankfully bail conditions were settled in March and April for most.  However, three of those originally detained – Kisimusi Dhlamini, Gandhi Mudzingwa and Andrison Manyere – were released only to be re-arrested in their hospital beds three days later.

Earlier this week, the eighteen activists reappeared in court where new indictments were filed by the Zimbabwe Attorney General.  Based on the new indictments, bail was revoked and they were all returned to prison.  Following immediate international condemnation, most of the prisoners were granted bail again on Wednesday when President Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai intervened and ordered the Attorney General to allow bail.

Not to make light of an awful situation, but the Zimbabwe government might want to consider putting  revolving doors on the courthouse and prisons because apparently, being a human rights defender or political activist in Zimbabwe grants you a “go straight to jail, do not pass go” card on a regular basis.

The humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe escalated drastically following elections in March of 2008.  State sponsored violence led to large numbers of torture, disappearances and sexual assaults. Regional authorities negotiated a power sharing agreement in October; however activists and human rights defenders continued to be targeted for their efforts to provide a better quality of life, such as equitable food aid distribution for Zimbabweans.

Listen to a 30 second audio clip of activist Jestina Mukoko after her release in March, discussing the support her and her family received during her ordeal from Amnesty International members.

Written by Sarah Hager, Southern Africa Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA

Iranian Women Fight for their Rights

Shirin Ebadi

Shirin Ebadi

As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8th, it’s time to recognize the struggles and achievements of women’s rights activists around the world.  One of the most vibrant women’s rights movements is in Iran, where every day courageous women risk their freedom and safety to fight for their rights.  While most use peaceful means to end discriminatory treatment of women in Iranian family law, they face increasing persecution from the Iranian government: Women are routinely arrested, imprisoned, threatened and banned from traveling abroad.

Even the most prominent women’s rights activist in Iran, lawyer and 2003 Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, is not immune to this mistreatment.  She has been repeatedly threatened in government-controlled media in recent months and the Defenders of Human Rights Center, that she operates to provide legal assistance to victims of human rights violations, was forcibly shut down by the government last December and her papers and computers seized.

Why is the Iranian government so afraid of its own women citizens calling for equal rights? The government trots out preposterous charges against them such as “acting against national security through propaganda against the state.” How can women walking around a mountainous area north of Tehran to collect petition signatures possibly undermine the state?  How could Alieh Eghdamdoust, recently taken into custody and forced to start serving a three-year prison sentence for participating in a peaceful demonstration in June 2006, possibly be a threat to the security of Iran?

As the Iran country specialist for Amnesty International USA I am constantly challenged on how to craft actions and mobilize activist to combat this disproportionate and seemingly irrational repression of non-violent human rights defenders. And like many human rights activists, I am often frustrated and confounded.  But I am also always inspired by the unrelenting courage and pluckiness of women activists in Iran.  When asked by the judge at her trial why she participated in the demonstration, Alieh Eghdamdoust replied to the judge, “You should participate as well.  Why didn’t you defend your daughters and wife’s rights by attending the legal peaceful gathering?”

I think of Ms. Eghdamdoust’s spirited response as International Women’s Day approaches and I ask you to take action to support our sister activists in Iran.  Please write to the Iranian government and call for an end to the harassment of peaceful women’s rights activists in Iran.  Thank you all and please let us know what actions you have taken and any suggestions you have.

Interview with a hero

One of Amnesty International’s most important responsibilities is to support the human rights activists doing the difficult work on the ground in the countries around the world.  Increasingly, particularly in the Middle East, it’s become the opinion of Amnesty International country specialists that our ability to change the world depends on our ability to create space for these grass-root activists to exist.

Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad

Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad

One such activist is Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad, a 57 year old Egyptian lawyer and one of the founders of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, named after another Egyptian human rights lawyer.  He has been an engine driving legal attacks against torture, arbitrary detention, mass and arbitrary arrests and other human rights abuses.

In an interview with Amnesty International posted this week, Ahmed Seil El-Islam Hamad says working on human rights in Egypt and the Middle East is easier now than two decades ago because the Arab public has come to recognize that these rights are part of their own culture.

“In the 1980s, the political elite and society at large used to see the Egyptian rights movement as representatives of Western values within Egyptian society, so they treated it with caution, preferring to stay away from it,” he tells Amnesty. “The government manipulated this skeptical attitude in an attempt to isolate the rights movement from its natural environment. Things have changed since 2000, and that barrier has now ceased to exist.”

His work is a story that we have to tell and American policymakers should listen to.  It is the voice of the people who know speak of human rights and democracy in a language that speaks to Egypt’s tradition, history and culture.  It’s a reminder that we don’t have to import these ideas — they’ve been there all along.

To read the full interview with him, please click here.