Top Ten Reasons to Write for Rights

Fall is my favorite time of year: the air is cooler, the leaves are pretty, Amnesty International student groups are back together again, and people start signing up for the Write for Rights Global Write-a-thon.

In this—the world’s largest human rights event—we use letters, cards and more to demand the human rights of individuals are respected, protected and fulfilled. We show solidarity with those suffering abuses and work to improve people’s lives.

Those are some pretty amazing reasons to participate, but in case you need more, here are my top ten reasons to Write for Rights: SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Ethiopian Prisoner of Conscience Birtukan Mideksa Released!

Birtukan Mideksa

Birtukan Mideksa ©AI

Amnesty International welcomed Birtukan Mideksa’s release from prison yesterday. The leader of the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) opposition party in Ethiopia, Birtukan Mideksa has a long history of speaking out against the Government of Ethiopia.  In the aftermath of the potentially corrupt 2005 elections, in which the ruling Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) retained control, she was one of many CUD officials who refuse to take office and participated in mass demonstrations.  The protests were violently dispersed by police: 187 people were shot dead and 765 others were wounded.  Birtukan Mideksa was arrested for the first time in November 2005, charged with treason and sentenced to life in prison.  After being held for 18 months, she signed a letter of apology and was released.  The other terms of her pardon remain unclear.

 On 28 December 2008, Birtukan was arrested for a second time, after speaking at a public meeting in Sweden regarding the process and terms of her previous release. The Government gave her three days to retract her statement, and when she refused, arrested her again.  Much of her sentence was spent in solitary confinement, and she was also not allowed to see her 4 year-old daughter until mid-April, 2009.

 Birtukan Mideksa’s case was featured in Amnesty International’s 2009 Global Write-A-Thon, during which thousands of people from around the world petitioned for her release by sending letters to the Government of Ethiopia. The organization Free Birtukan has also been campaigning tirelessly for her release.

 Learn more about other priority cases, and sign up for the Global Write-a-thon!

Elizabeth Stitt, Campaign for Individuals at Risk, contributed to this post.

Yahoo – Poster Boy for Internet Censorship

By Tony Cruz, Business and Human Rights Coordination Group

Shi Tao

Yahoo – the company responsible for the 10 year prison sentence of Chinese journalist, Shi Tao – “should be held up as the poster boy of good behavior.”

And thus was the overall tone of the Yahoo Shareholder Meeting I attended on June 24, 2010.

For four years in a row now, I have attended these Yahoo Shareholder Meetings on behalf of Amnesty International. Accompanied this year by Amnesty International Field Organizer, Will Butkus, we set out with our remaining goal to keep the pressure on Yahoo to push for the release of Shi Tao.

Five years ago, Shi Tao sent an email to a pro-democracy U.S. website about the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre; an email which would put Yahoo on the human rights violations map when it gave Shi Tao’s personal user information to the Chinese government.

During this year’s shareholder meeting, Yahoo CEO, Carol Bartz, remained adamant about Yahoo’s desire to move past this issue. In her mind, so it seems that Yahoo has done enough. Well, it’s not enough. The bottom line is that Yahoo turned over Shi Tao’s information to the Chinese government. They violated international human rights, and as Bartz said last year “they made a mistake”

Amnesty's William Butkis and Tony Cruz at the Yahoo! shareholders meeting

So Yahoo can try to spin this in their favor all they’d like, but the facts remain the same. As long as Shi Tao still sits in prison, then Yahoo hasn’t done enough to get him out.

Yahoo has powerful influence in China that it can leverage to ensure Shi Tao’s release. For starters, Yahoo can pressure Chinese Internet company, Alibaba – which controls Yahoo! China in exchange for Yahoo’s 40% ownership share of Alibaba. As one of the largest and most powerful Internet companies in the world, Yahoo even has influence with the Chinese government. And it is up to Yahoo to use that influence until the day Shi Tao is released.

Below is the conversation between Amnesty International and Yahoo CEO, Carol Bartz, at the meeting (listen to full webcast here):

Cruz: Hi, Ms. Bartz. Tony Cruz here with Amnesty International. I was here last year and brought up the issue of internet censorship and Shi Tao, and when asked a question about this issue, you were quoted saying “That Yahoo is not incorporated to fix China. I’m sorry. It was incorporated to give people a free flow of information and ten years ago the company made a mistake, but you can’t hold us up as the bad boy forever.”

I understand that whenever we come to these meetings it’s an inconvenience. By the time I came up to bat last year, there were two colleagues who spoke on this issue about Shi Tao. It’s an inconvenience and all I can say is you take that feeling of how you felt inconvenienced and that discomfort you felt and you multiply it by a million and it pales in comparison to what this individual must feel like being in prison now for 5 years of10 year sentence.


Indigenous Mother of Six Released from Prison in Mexico

Prisoner of conscience Jacinta Francisco Marcial, a mother of six who was falsely accused in 2006 of kidnapping six federal agents has been released after serving three years in prison in Mexico. Amnesty pressed for her release after concluding no evidence existed against her and she had been arrested, tried and convicted because she was poor and of indigenous heritage.

Her release raises serious questions about the reliability of the entire prosecution case and highlights clear failings in the investigation. Amnesty International is calling for a full review into her unfounded prosecution and for her to receive full compensation for unfair and wrongful imprisonment.

You can read the full press release here. Learn about Jacinta’s ordeal in her own words, in this interview conducted this past June 29th:

Welcome Back Laura Ling and Euna Lee!

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two US journalists who had been held by North Korean officials since March on charges that they had entered the country illegally to document human rights conditions, were released by the North Korean government subsequent to a visit by former President Bill Clinton and released. The world witnessed an emotional and long-awaited reunion early this morning on the runway of Burbank airport in Los Angeles as the two journalists returned home to their families. After being in prison for 140 days, Laura Ling embraced her husband Iain Clayton tightly as Euna Lee reunited in tears with her husband Michael Saldage and her 4-year-old daughter, Hanna. For a video of the reunion, click here.

As our several previous posts have explained, Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested while filming footage on North Korean refugees for California-based TV media venture Current TV. They were later found guilty of illegally entering the country and sentenced to a 12-year sentence of hard labor, consisting of 10 years for “hostile acts” as well as an additional 2 years for illegal entry.

It is clear that the North Korean government requested the visit from former President Clinton, though the details of their agreements have yet to be revealed. According to BBC news, former President Clinton plans to brief President Obama’s National Security team on the visit. President Obama allegedly praised Clinton for his “extraordinary humanitarian effort” in the case of these journalists. After the reunion with their families on the runway, the two journalists spoke briefly to the press about their experience. Laura Ling tenderly shared, “The past 140 days have been the most difficult and heart-wrenching times of our lives.” They also expressed ‘surprise’ at the release. For a video of this, click here. Thanks to everyone who took action on their behalf!

Iranian Lawyer Shadi Sadr Released!

We’re happy to bring you some good news in the case of lawyer and human rights activist Shadi Sadr.

We’ve all watched with dismay during that last 2 months as Iran has cracked down on hundreds of thousands of people who have poured into the streets to protest the contested results of June’s presidential election. Behind the scenes, Iranian authorities have conducted a campaign to silence dissident voices — like human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani — through arbitrary arrests and detention.

It was as part of this campaign that Shadi Sadr was detained last month. On July 17, Sadr was walking on a road in Tehran when men in civilian clothes grabbed her and attempted to push her into a car. Sadr lost her headscarf and coat in the ensuing struggle but managed briefly to escape. She was quickly recaptured and beaten with batons, and then taken away in the car.

We are relieved to report that after more than a week in custody, Sadr was released on bail, thanks in part to appeals from Amnesty activists worldwide. Amnesty International is monitoring her situation and will issue further updates as they become available.

U.S. Obligation to Freed Gitmo Detainees

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

Four Uighur former Guantanamo inmates are now in Bermuda, other detainees have been released to France, Chad, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Hungary, Italy and Palau appear to have joined the ranks of countries prepared to accept detainees cleared for release. The pace of releases finally seems to be picking up and that is a cause for optimism.

But, while groups like Amnesty are pleased to see these individuals finally released from wrongful detention, we are disturbed that there has been no public announcement that any of these individuals will receive compensation for their ill-treatment or any assistance from the United States in rebuilding their lives or coming to terms with their experiences.

Many of you reading this blog may feel that this is a side issue but it is not. International law requires the U.S. to provide remedy to those who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

Consider for a moment what the men recently released have lost. They have lost seven years of their lives. Quite apart from the personal deprivation of liberty that is also seven years of lost earning potential – one fifth of a working life. Their families too have been without their primary breadwinner all this time.

Furthermore, what kind of future do they have to look forward to? They certainly haven’t had the opportunity to learn or develop a trade while in detention, nor are many of them returning to a society they know well. Some may not even speak the local language. However idyllic Bermuda may appear in press photographs, it is a world away from the Central Asian steppe the Uighurs are used to.

Some released inmates may be grappling with medical or mental health problems. Defense attorney, Jeffrey Colman, a thirty-five year veteran of the criminal justice system who has represented four GITMO inmates this week described the facility as:

“Unlike any other institution… there is a level of hopelessness unlike anything I have ever seen.”

We know 5 inmates have committed suicide since the camp opened and in March this year the Department of Defense reported that 34 inmates were on hunger strike. Such figures give some insight into the harrowing nature of the detainees’ experiences – yet no provision has been made to support their rehabilitation.

Closing Guantanamo is not in and of itself enough. We have a moral and legal obligation to aid the reintegration of former inmates back into society. These men have been convicted of no crime. In our system that means they are innocent. No ifs or buts.

Innocent men wrongly held for seven years have a right to compensation. The Obama administration can’t simply shove them out the gates of Camp Delta and forget about them. The United States must take responsibility for rebuilding lives it has ruined.