Secretary Clinton: when you go to Guatemala, will you put human rights at the top of your agenda?

Extrajudicial killings in Guatemala

I hope that during US Secretary of State Clinton’s March 4th visit to Guatemala, the grave human rights situation, specifically the extra-judicial killings coupled with the cloud of impunity surrounding those killings, are at the top of the agenda.  Secretary Clinton will be taking a quick trip thorough South and Central America, and her trip will be concluding in Guatemala, where she will be meeting with Guatemalan President Colom and a few other Central American leaders.

Over the past several years, various Guatemalan human rights organizations have received numerous reports of kidnappings and murders where police officers, off duty officers, hired security, or members of the armed forces are the suspected perpetrators. In many instances, officers act under direct order, complicity, or the acquiescence of Guatemalan authorities. Frequently, young men from marginalized sectors of society who have criminal records are the victims, and potential witnesses refuse to testify for fear of retribution.

It is important to note here too, that not just young men are targets; members of indigenous communities, women, and human rights activists are also at risk. Amnesty International has a current urgent action calling for the protection of the activists of civil society group, FRENA, the Resistance Front for the Defense of Natural Resources and People’s Rights (or in Spanish Frente de Resistencia en Defensa de los Recursos Naturales y Derechos de los Pueblos) three members of which have been the victims of extrajudicial killings. Currently there are no suspects.  A recent press release issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urges the necessity for “the Guatemalan State to maximize its efforts to investigate and legally clarify these crimes and to prosecute the perpetrators and masterminds”.

In 2007, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings visited Guatemala and published a report which noted that:

“…There is strong evidence that some acts of social cleansing—executions of gang members, criminal suspects, and other ‘undesirables’ –are committed by police personnel”. 

The report found that of Guatemala’s 5,000 annual homicides, 1.4% of those cases end in a conviction. In the same 2007 report, the Rapporteur called for the “categorical rejection” by the government of the practice of extrajudicial killings and the expansion of the criminal justice system to effectively investigate murders. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Crackdown on Refugees from Burma

The humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is reporting that the Bangladesh government has launched a crackdown against the Rohingya community around the Cox’s Bazar district (see map).  The site of the crackdown is a makeshift camp of refugees in Kutupalong that is not recognized by the Bangladeshi government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has limited access to the area.  From MSF’s press release:

More than 6,000 people have arrived at the makeshift camp since October—2,000 in January alone,” said MSF Head of Mission in Bangladesh Paul Critchley. “People are crowding into a crammed and unsanitary patch of ground with no infrastructure to support them. They are prevented from working to support themselves and are not permitted food aid. As the numbers swell and resources become increasingly scarce, we are extremely concerned about the deepening crisis.”

The Myanmar government (note that Amnesty International requires use of the UN-recognized name of the country widely known as Burma) refuses to acknowledge that the Rohingya are from Myanmar rendering them stateless.

MSF is asking that the UNHCR increase protections to these Rohingya seeking protection in Bangladesh.  At the moment, only 28,000 of the estimated 200,000 of the refugees in Bangladesh are recognized as refugees.  The result, in an already overcrowded and poor country, is that the Rohingya are vulnerable.  Human rights groups have been campaigning on the plight of the Rohingyas for a number of years, but Myanmar’s neighbors have grown impatient with the scale of the humanitarian need.  But, as MSF makes clear, the international community must support the Government of Bangladesh and UNHCR to adopt measures to guarantee the unregistered Rohingya’s lasting dignity and well-being in Bangladesh.


Sri Lanka: end impunity for human rights violations

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa said last Tuesday that no one should be above the law, including members of the police or armed forces.  This follows a widely publicized incident last week in Sri Lanka:  two youths were arrested by the police on August 12 and their bullet-ridden bodies were discovered the next day.  The killings sparked public anger and riots against the police.  Several police officers have since been arrested in connection with the murders.

I dearly hope justice is done in this case and the killers held accountable.  But there remain thousands of cases of human rights violations by the Sri Lankan security forces, including the police, where no one has been prosecuted or convicted.  The recent Amnesty International report on presidential commissions of inquiry in Sri Lanka details the government’s failure to deliver justice for serious human rights violations for decades.  I hope President Rajapaksa’s recent statement will lead to a serious, sustained effort by the Sri Lankan government to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice at last.  The ongoing impunity enjoyed by the security forces for past violations must end.

The Media Hype May Be Over, But There Is Still A Crisis In Honduras

Amnesty International issued a report today about the ongoing crisis in Honduras following the coup d’etat which took place June 28. Many press outlets have covered the report and accompanying press release which comes at a crucial time as the crisis in Honduras must be kept in the attention of the mainstream media and general public.

AI’s main concerns with the crisis as cited in the report are:

Two of the ten students who took part in the peaceful march on 30 July 2009. The imprint of the police batons is clearly visible on both students. Amnesty International

Two of the ten students who took part in the peaceful march on 30 July 2009. The imprint of the police batons is clearly visible on both students. Amnesty International

  • Excessive use of force
  • Gender-based violence
  • Use of military in civilian law enforcement
  • Freedom of expression
  • Curfew measures
  • Safety of human rights defenders

I’ll let the words of Hondurans speak for themselves to end this post, as their words are much more powerful than mine:

“We were demonstrating peacefully. Suddenly, the
police came towards us, and I started running. They
grabbed me and shouted “why do you (all) support
Zelaya’s government? Whether it’s by choice or by
force, you have to be with this government”. They
beat me. I have not yet been informed as to why I
am here detained.”

[“Fernando”, 52 year-old teacher, at a police station in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 30 July 2009]

Mexico: Merida Funds Must be Withheld Until Human Rights Conditions Are Met

Amnesty International today urged the US Congress to honor its commitment to withhold 15% of funding of the Merida Initiative until the Mexican government fulfils its human rights obligations. The Mexican government has failed to make sufficient progress in the investigation and prosecution of human rights abuses by security forces. According to the Washington Post, Senator Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, is well aware of the grave human rights situation in Mexico, and does not intend to allow the transfer to go forward if things do not improve.

The Merida Initiative is security co-operation and assistance program through which the USA provides Mexico and Central America with equipment, training and technical assistance to support law enforcement operations. In June 2008, the US Congress stipulated that 15% of the funds to be provided by the US to Mexico in the context of the Merida Initiative must be subject to key human rights conditions, including:

  • Human rights violations perpetrated by military and police personnel to be investigated, prosecuted and tried by civilian prosecutors and judges;
  • Confessions obtained under torture or ill treatment not to be used in the justice system;
  • Civil society to be regularly consulted to make recommendations regarding the fulfilment of the Merida Initiative;
  • Improvement of transparency and accountability of the police force, and establishment of an independent mechanism to denounce abuses.

In addition to a State Department report on the broader human rights situation in Mexico, the US Congress also requested information on the investigation of the killing of US videojournalist Brad Will, whose case Amnesty has worked on for some time. The investigation of Mexico’s Federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR) led to the arrest of man in October 2008. However, the evidence on which the prosecution is based has been disproved by extensive forensic studies carried out by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) and Physicians for Human Rights. As the time for the approval of Merida Initiative funding approached, the PGR commissioned a team of Canadian experts to carry out a new forensic report. The report, which has no legal standing in the criminal case, was leaked in July 2009 to the press and confirmed, in an almost word-by-word fashion the conclusions of the PGR. Both the CNDH and Physicians for Human Rights have stated that the report has no scientific validity, and Brad Will’s family has issued a statement denouncing the biased PGR investigation.

Given the situation of Brad Will’s case, the continued impunity of those responsible for other serious human rights violations, and the alarming escalation of reports of new abuses, additional US aid would only make things worse. Let’s hope Mexico takes notice and makes some big changes.

Uighur Blogger Still Held

Since July 8, Ilham Tohti, editor of the Web site Uighur Online and a professor at Central Nationalities University in Beijing, has been held incommunicado by Chinese authorities. He was interrogated after posting articles on the site and his personal blog about a clash between members of China’s majority ethnic Han group and Uighurs in Guangdong Province on June 26.

The Uighurs are a Muslim minority group in China most of whom live in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwestern China. For two decades now Chinese authoirities have been pursuing a campaign in the area against “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism,” in the process have diluting the Uighur population and severely restricting the civil and cultural rights of Uighurs. Ilham Tohti’s case is in no way isolated. Although authorities in XUAR set up a media center for foreign journalists in Urumqi during the recent violence, reporters have been prevented – by police, other security forces or even just people on the street – from reporting freely in the XUAR. One New York Times reporter described tour guides in Kashgar who refused to lead him around the city and translators who feared repercussions if they were to translate certain conversations. Clearly Chinese authorities fear what the people of Kashgar might say to journalists, but what’s even worse is that they’re causing residents in the XUAR to fear expressing their opinions.

All this repression suggests the unliklihood of an independent inquiry into the events last month in Xinjiang as well as open, fair trials for those who have been detained. Take action now for Ilham Tohti!

Global Day of Action for Iran this Saturday

On July 25, people in more than 60 cities across the world will be standing in solidarity with the Iranian people in their struggle for human rights. Protesters in Iran continue to experience brutality on the city streets while the number of arrests steadily rises– the latest being the detainment of opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi’s brother-in-law, Shapour Kazemi.

The global day of action, organized by United4Iran, is organized around the following four core demands:

  1. That member states and civil society organizations of the international community give sustained attention to the Iranian people’s human rights as a matter of international concern, and that the UN should immediately initiate an investigation into grave and systematic human rights violations in Iran, including the fate of prisoners and disappeared persons, unlawful killings, and torture and other ill-treatment;
  2. An end to state-sponsored violence, accountability for crimes committed and no recourse to the death penalty.
  3. The immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience, including politicians, journalists, students, and civil society activists; and
  4. Freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of expression (including freedom of the press) as guaranteed by the Iranian constitution and Iran’s obligations under international covenants that it has signed.

Supporters include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Shirin Ebadi, Sean Penn, Dariush, Jody Williams, Betty Williams, Mairead Maguire, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Simin Behbahani, Reza Aslan and Ismael Khoi. Dariush will actually be performing at the rally in DC!

Attend an event near you! Visit united4iran.org for a complete listing.

San Diego, California

Rally time: July 24, 6-8pm
Rally location: Balboa Park, (1900 Park Blvd., San Diego, CA, 92101) at the corner of President’s way, on the lawn
More information: www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=101590536518
Contact: Stephanie Hanson at 760-230-2936, 5womenwhocare@gmail.com

San Francisco, California

Rally time: July 25, 12pm-4pm
Rally location: City Hall
More information: www.norcal4iran.com
Contact: norcalunited4iran@gmail.com

Chicago, Illinois

Speaker: Roxana Saberi

Time: July 25, 12 noon
Place: Federal Plaza, Dearborn and Adams
Rally time: Noon
Rally location: Federal Plaza at Dearborn and Adams Street in downtown Chicago
More information: Facebook or contact aiis@chicago.edu

New York, New York

Rally time: July 25, 12:30pm
Rally location: Starts at Times Square, 41st and 7th Avenue. There will then be a march to the United Nations.

Washington DC

DC event on July 25 will be in 3 parts:

Part one: Demonstration @ UN Office
Start at 4:00pm, corner of 18th+K. We have requested road closure from DCDOT. Signs, slogans, use of bullhorns.

Part two: March to Rally
March starts at 5:15pm, East on K st one block, South on 17th st (march past WH w/o stopping), Enter Constitutional Gardens at 17th + Constitution St.

Part three: Rally at National Mall Constitution Gardens (on 19th + Constitution)
Speakers:
Jody Williams, Nobel Laureate
Mehrangiz Kar, Human Rights Lawyer
Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch, Deputy Director of Middle East and North Africa Division
Parisa Saeb, Human Rights Activist
Dariush, Prominent Iranian Singer and Social Activist

For more information, contact info@united4iran.org.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Hope and Human Rights Abuses in Honduras

Mediation efforts in Costa Rica concerning the ongoing crisis in Honduras reached a turning point today as diplomats and the interim (and openly racist) Honduran government agreed that ousted President Zelaya could return to Honduras within the next 24 hours. This comes as a relief to many human rights activists and President Arias of Costa Rica who feared that the crisis could lead to civil war.

Supporters of ousted Honduras President Manuel Zelaya sit in front of Honduran army soldiers, 3 July 2009

Supporters of ousted Honduras President Manuel Zelaya sit in front of Honduran army soldiers, 3 July 2009 © AP/PA Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills

But as mediation in Costa Rica appears to be helping the crisis, a new report by COFADEH (Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras) details 1161 seperate human rights violations since the morning of the coup. Amnesty International has also issued several statements urging the interim Honduran government to respect the rule of law and human rights during this tumultuous time.

Will the police and interim government ever be held accountable for the violations that happened and are still happening in Honduras? It will certainly take a lot of outside pressure from NGOs and the international community, and let’s hope Honduras stays in the headlines long enough so that the pressure stays strong on human rights violators. But after reading an eyebrow raising story from Democracy Now! alleging that many top officials in the interim government were trained by the U.S. military, I hope General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez’s law avoiding skills aren’t as polished as Cheney’s!

Sentenced to Death Due to Police Torture

On July 7, Ronald Kitchen became a free man.  Convicted of the murder of five people in 1988, he spent over a dozen years on Illinois’ death row facing execution, until former Governor George Ryan commuted his sentence, along with all other Illinois death sentences, to life without parole in 2003.  But his conviction was based on a confession he gave to Chicago police after they tortured him.  According to Kitchen, he was “hit in the head with a telephone, punched in the face, struck in the groin and kicked.”  Tuesday, all charges against him were dropped, and he was released.

“If you’re getting whooped for over 39 hours and you’re constantly saying that you didn’t do it and they’re constantly doing what they’re doing, somewhere along the line you’re going to realize they’re not going to stop unless somebody gives in,” Kitchen said in a Chicago Sun Times article.  

Kitchen’s wrongful conviction was one of many obtained by officers serving under Police Commander Jon Burge.  During the 1970s and 1980s in Chicago, prisoners, mostly African American, were routinely tortured and abused into giving false confessions.  Amnesty International reported on these and other abuses ten years ago.  Because the arc of the universe bends towards justice, Burge now faces his own day in court, though for perjury and obstruction of justice charges, not torture.

Kitchen’s exoneration came in part thanks to the efforts of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University; but, despite the clear evidence of torture, it still took dozens of people years of work to win his freedom.  As the video above makes clear, many others who may be equally innocent aren’t lucky enough to get that kind of support.

Zimbabwe Justice: No Dancing Babies

The legal system in Zimbabwe isn’t comprised of lawyers in skimpy clothing sharing a unisex bathroom while litigating bizarre and yet fascinating cases. Instead, there is a politicized judiciary, draconian laws designed to stifle dissent and a prison system that would give Auschwitz a run for its money. Amnesty International is monitoring the legal cases of human rights defenders and political activists. Below is an update on some of these cases.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA)-
The leaders of WOZA were arrested and jailed in October 2008 for disturbing the peace during a protest over food aid distribution. Their trial has been continually delayed by both the prosecution and due to a petition the women filed before the Supreme Court asking the charges be dismissed as unconstitutional as Zimbabwe’s Constitution guarantees the right of assembly. The leaders, Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu appeared in court yesterday where the magistrate wanted to proceed to trial despite this pending petition. The Supreme Court verbally ruled on June 4th that the arrest was unlawful but a written decision has not yet been produced. The case was finally postponed again until August 17th to wait for the ruling from the Court.

On June 18th, four members of WOZA were viciously beaten by police during a protest to call attention to the plight of informal traders struggling to make a living in Zimbabwe. Yesterday, a court in Harare ruled that the police officers responsible will be charged with assault. The case was postponed to July 13th to allow the officers time to prepare their case. The charges against the four WOZA members of disturbing the peace were dropped the day before.

Jestina Mukoko et al-
Late last year, Jestina Mukoko, head of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, was abducted from her home, illegally detained, tortured and charged with recruiting persons to participate in alleged militia camps in Botswana. She is one of 18 persons abducted and tortured around this same time and charged with variations of the same crime. On June 25th, the Supreme Court heard a petition from Ms. Mukoko and her co-defendants claiming their arrest was unconstitutional because they were illegally abducted and tortured. The Attorney General’s office admitted that Ms. Mukoko was illegally detained by state security agents but asserted that this should have no bearing on the case. A decision by the Court is still pending.

MDC activists and an independent journalist also on trial filed a petition before the Supreme Court asserting the same claim of unconstitutionality. At the hearing before the High Court, however, the State Security Minister took the opportunity to deny that the defendants, including Mukoko, were illegally detained. The petition was referred on to the Supreme Court. It is assumed that the remaining abductees will file similar complaints and their cases will be remanded until such time as the Supreme Court rules on the pending petitions.