Happy Chinese New Year!

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As we enter into the Year of the Ox, I did some research about the characteristics of this sign of the Chinese zodiac. Let me tell you, if the descriptions of the Ox are right, 2009 is shaping up to be the Year of the Human Rights Activist. According to Wikipedia, Ox people are “unswervingly patient, tireless in their work…they are articulate and eloquent…kind, caring souls…these people enjoy helping others…they engage all the trials of the whole world and seek solutions for them.” I’d say that pretty much describes every Amnesty member I’ve had the privilege to meet.

So with that in mind, as you watch the news today and see all the images of the extravagant New Year celebrations in China, don’t forget about the many Chinese people who cannot share in the celebrations. People like Shi Tao, who has been in prison since 2004 simply for sending and email. Take a moment to send a couple of Chinese New Year cards. Let Shi Tao know that he’s not alone, and to ask the Chinese authorities to release him. Together, we can make sure the Year of the Ox is also the Year of Freedom!

What to Do with Your Leftover Holiday Cards

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I just got off the phone with a colleague in Mexico who has been working with the women of Atenco, and she told me she had come into her office after vacation to see that it was nearly filled with huge bags of mail. The bags were all stuffed with holiday cards bearing messages of solidarity and support for the women, sent by participants in AIUSA’s 2008 Holiday Card Action. “There must be over 10,000 of them,” she said, “the women will be so happy.”

Although New Year’s and the other holidays have passed, it’s not too late to take part in this solidarity action for the women of Atenco and 11 other individuals at risk. The action continues though the end of the month, so if you have any leftover holiday cards, this would be a perfect way to use them up. Or, if you’re like me and are only just now starting to write your holiday cards, why not send a few more? Most of us greet the new year with feelings of hope, determination, and optimism–sharing that spirit with others is a perfect way to start 2009.

You're Free to Go Now…Just Kidding!

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Can someone please explain this to me? How is it OK to arrest someone, send them to Guantánamo, keep them there a couple years, clear them for release, and then not let them leave? Among all the things that confuse and upset me about the way the US government has dealt with the detainees at Guantánamo, the situation of Mohammed Mohammed Hassan Odaini is one of the most baffling.

Mohammed Mohammed Hassan Odaini  © Private

Mohammed Mohammed Hassan Odaini © Private

A Yemeni national, he was arrested in 2002 in Pakistan, where he had gone to study Islamic law. In 2005, US authorities declared him suitable for release, and Yemeni authorities indicated that they were willing to take him back. But now it’s almost 2009, and Odaini is still stuck in Guantánamo. This situation does not appear to be complicated. Unlike some other Guantánamo detainees, it’s not as if Odaini would be at risk of torture if he returned to Yemen, and it’s clear that he’d be welcomed there. What’s the holdup??

Odaini’s lawyer says “For all he knows, he could be there for the rest of his life.” I really hope this isn’t true, and that Odaini is not feeling totally hopeless.

Battling Impunity in Guatemala

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Member of staff at the FAFG studying human remains in order to identify them, 12 June 2008. © Private

Member of staff at the FAFG studying human remains in order to identify them, 12 June 2008. © Private

Excavating human remains, using forensic techniques to identify them, hoping the evidence will help bring the killers to justice–it may sound fascinating and even glamorous to some, but this is no “CSI Miami”. These investigators have been threatened, followed, watched, and shot at on many occasions because of their work to combat impunity. The Guatemalan Foundation of Forensic Anthropology (Fundación Guatemalteca de Antropología Forense – FAFG) carries out forensic investigations and exhumations of mass graves dating from the time of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict (1960-1996). The uncovering of mass graves and the identification of human remains is a key contribution to the pursuit of truth, justice and reparation for the relatives of the dead and disappeared and the survivors of the armed conflict, most of whom are indigenous people.

Despite hard work by organizations like the FAFG, and high-profile individuals like Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú, violations against human rights defenders in Guatemala are widespread and show no signs of improvement. Many defenders have received so many threats and acts of intimidation that they have stopped or radically curtailed their important work. You can lend your support and encouragement to the FAFG by taking part in this year’s Holiday Card Action, in which people send cards with messages of solidarity and hope to human rights defenders, prisoners of conscience and others who may fear they’ve been forgotten by the world.