An Open Letter to Secretary of State John Kerry: Know Before You Go

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

Newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry arrives in the UK at Stansted Airport on February 24, 2013 in Stansted, England. Kerry is embarking on his first foreign trip as Secretary of State with stops planned in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar before returning to Washington on March 6th. (Photo by Warrick Page/Getty Images)

Dear Mr. Secretary:

I know you have a lot on your plate as you begin your first trip overseas as Secretary of StateYou’ll be visiting America’s allies in Europe and the Middle East, by my count nine countries in eleven days. According to press reports, the on-going conflict in Syria is going to be at the top of your agenda, which is as it should be. The latest estimates by the United Nations indicate that at least 60,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since unrest beganHuman rights violations there have been appalling and wide-spread.

While you continue your important work on Syria, however, I hope that you can spare some time for the on-going human rights violations elsewhere in the Middle East.  Sadly, many of these violations are undertaken by America’s allies in the region, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.

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Death of POC Fathi al-Jahmi

Fathi Al-Jahmi became an activist for democracy in the 1970s. When he was a provincial governor in 2002, he criticized Muammar al-Gadhafi’s authoritarian regime, calling for free elections, a free press, and the release of political prisoners.  The same year, he was sentenced to five years for speaking out against the government.  He was released in 2004 and arrested again a month later.

Fathi el-JahmiDespite modest improvements in the human rights field in Libya, all forms of public expression, association and assembly are tightly controlled by the authorities. Any form of group activity based on a political ideology opposed to the principles of the al-Fateh Revolution of 1 September 1969, which brought Libya’s leader Colonel Mu‘ammar Al-Gaddafi to power, is criminalized by law.

Despite his deteriorating health, El-Jahmi never ceased his campaign for change, indicating in a 2005 interview with Physicians for Human Rights Dr. Dan Otter that he is “struggling for human rights, for democracy, for this country [and] will call for democracy and transparency in Libya”.

In a statement, Amnesty International said:

Amnesty International is greatly distressed by the news of the death of Libyan opposition leader Fathi el-Jahmi earlier today in an Amman, Jordan, hospital following his recent “release” and transfer from detention at the Tripoli Medical Center in Libya.

An advocate of political reform, he was detained in Libya in March 2004 and held without charge or trial, most recently at the Tripoli Medical Center.  Approximately two weeks ago, he was flown to Jordan for medical treatment.

Amnesty International is still seeking clarification from the Libyan authorities as to the circumstances in which el-Jahmi, who was an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, became seriously ill and was transferred to Jordan.

For more information, see Physicians for Human Rights, World Bulletin News, or News24.

Bloggers are Journalists too

Shi Tai

Shi Tao

As some people have alluded to in the comments to this post by the Editors, bloggers are most definitely in need of press freedom just as much as “regular” journalists. Just take a look at Shi Tao, a blogger who’s been in prison in China since 2004 for sending an email.

Every time I read a blog, or post to one, I think about how lucky I am to be able to say what I want in those posts and comments, and how glad I am that those other bloggers whose thought-provoking words I read have not been silenced or jailed by their governments. But there are so many bloggers and other journalists who are not free to share their ideas with us, whose ability to shine the light on human rights abuses has been cut off.

On this day, I not only want to remember Shi Tao and the others and hope they are soon freed–I want to do something to make that happen!

Free Roxana Saberi

In a press statement released today, Amnesty International condemned the eight-year eight-year prison sentence imposed by an Iranian Revolutionary Court on Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi who was convicted of “espionage” following a brief closed door trial in Tehran.

Saberi had been arrested on January 31 and held in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison since then. Legal proceedings in Iran’s Revolutionary Courts are severely flawed and fail to meet international standards for fair trials. The evidence against Saberi has not been made public.

The American born, 31-year-old Saberi is the daughter of an Iranian father and Japanese mother and worked for NPR and other news outlets. An interview on NPR with her father can be found here

Amnesty International issued an urgent action on March 16 when Saberi was first detained, mobilizing activists worldwide to send letters to Iranian officials calling on the authorities to release her unless she is to be charged with a recognizable criminal offense. AIUSA recently issued a second urgent action on Friday, April 17, after news that she had been tried in a closed courtroom.

Several dual-national Iranians have been detained in Iran in recent years since the U.S. Congress announced an extra U.S. $75 million funding for “supporting democracy” in Iran, including Dr Haleh Esfandiari, Kian Tajbakhsh, Parnaz Azima and Ali Shakeri. Most have been accused of acting against national security, particularly with relation to participation in an alleged “soft revolution” in Iran. The United States also holds five Iranian diplomats arrested in Iraq in 2007. In a meeting with the Swiss President on April 19, President Ahmadinejad called for their release. Some commentators have also suggested that Roxana Saberi’s arrest and trial may also be in part due to internal rivalries in the Iranian system in regard to the election of President Obama in the United States and his recent overtures towards Iran.

To Russia, No Love: We Won't Let You Forget Anna

Journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s 2006 murder is an unwavering symbol of Russia’s suppression of press freedom and human rights defenders. Her scathing reports on human rights abuses in Chechnya shamed government officials and others, and she was killed for it.

Today, press and the public were barred from the proceedings in the trial of three men accused in Anna’s murder, which some critics thought would reveal a “deep-seated corruption in the security and law enforcement agencies.” They hoped public access to the proceedings would shed light on continuing intimidation and attacks on Russian journalists.

More than a dozen journalists have been killed since 2000, and many more assaulted or threatened.  Just last week, the AP reports, newspaper editor Mikhail Beketov was beaten into a coma. He had been repeatedly threatened for his reports on illegal timber harvesting in Moscow region forests. No suspects have been detained.

The Russian government wants to forget Anna…and Mikhail…and continue to sweep the facts under the rug. Well, if the Russian court system won’t do Anna’s memory justice, I will do my part. I found this in a New York Times review of her diary, published after her death that seemed worth sharing:

“Politkovskaya’s first job in journalism, envious colleagues snickered, was in the Otdel pisem — the letters department. True or not, she reveled in her reputation. Politkovskaya practiced advocacy journalism. For more than 20 years her beat remained the same. Her subjects were the forsaken — frostbitten Russian conscripts, Chechen refugees, orphans, prisoners, drug addicts, the ill, the infirm. In short, in the age of Putin, the nation at large. Her writing made her more than a reporter; when she died, she was a crisis mediator and Russia’s most prominent human rights advocate. Stacks of letters — pleas for help — came daily. Politkovskaya fought for the victims — of the state, of terror and of that Russian catchall, fate. Then she joined them.”

Thanks, Anna.