About Laura Spann

Laura Spann is the former Media Relations Associate for Amnesty International USA. She worked to place human rights prominently in the media, especially in news stories about Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Laura follows closely reports of human rights abuses in the U.S.-led war on terror, including torture, indefinite detention at places like Guantanamo, denial of habeas corpus, the military commissions, and extraordinary rendition. She has traveled to Chile, Honduras, Greece, Spain, France and Germany. Laura speaks Spanish, and received her B.A. in Government and International Relations with a focus in social justice from Claremont McKenna College in the Los Angeles area. She grew up in southwest Colorado.
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The Worst Crisis You Won't Read About in the News

The DRC, Zimbabwe, Cambodia, Sudan and Nicaragua–all these countries are in crisis right now. How do I know (beyond working at Amnesty International)? I can read about it in the news.

But there is at least one developing humanitarian crisis you won’t find in the New York Times:

More than 300,000 people have been displaced in Sri Lanka by fighting between the Tamil Tigers and government forces. And not only do they lack access to basic food and shelter, but the government is not allowing U.N. aid convoys to bring in desperately needed supplies.

The entire population of Birkenhead has basically been relocated  to the Wanni region of Sri Lanka, and now serve as a buffer–a human shield–between themselves and the government. The displaced don’t have shelters, and it’s monsoon season. They aren’t allowed to leave.

And why aren’t you hearing about it? Aid workers and journalists have been denied entry to the region. This video includes rare photos from the region just before access was cut off.

Amnesty International’s U.K. press office posted more yesterday on their blog.

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.

Esha and the Anatomy of a Human Rights Movement

Isn’t it a little unrealistic to think writing a letter asking a world leader to free one prisoner will really make a difference?

Maybe. But it’s not just one letter–it’s thousands that arrive on an official’s desk. It’s experts speaking out to the press. It’s individuals supporting the family of those wrongly imprisoned.  It’s researchers knowing the facts that can lead to accountability. It’s lobbyists urging officials to use their influence with other leaders to promote justice. That’s Amnesty International. That’s the human rights movement.

Case in point: Amnesty International USA’s Iran Country Specialist Elise Auerbach filled in CNN today  about Iran’s recent release of American-born graduate student Esha Momeni, who found herself behind bars for conducting her Master’s thesis on women’s rights.  Of course, one human rights organization did not solely cause Esha’s release, but we sure did a lot to help.

After her initial detention, Amnesty officials like Elise supported Esha’s family. They updated journalists about Esha’s situation, including those at The Los Angeles Daily News, The New York Times, and The Washington Post . Her story was heard on every major TV network: Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC. Surely Iran heard too.

But it didn’t stop there. The memo (a.k.a. “Urgent Action”) also went out to human rights supporters worldwide, mobilizing them to write letters urging Iranian officials to release Esha.

Unfortunately, cases like Esha’s are the rule, not the exception in Iran. Dozens of activists involved, like Esha, with the women’s rights initiative Campaign for Equality have been detained. That’s why Amnesty international keep tabs on Iran’s treatment of activists, track down the facts, documents abuse and then brings the truth to power. The organization released this report on women’s rights defenders in Iran last February.

The work in Iran extends beyond just this one NGO. Last November, Amnesty International teamed up with six other human rights organizations  to publicly call on the highest levels of the Iranian government to end repression of women’s right defenders.

You see, it’s not just one measly letter; human rights is a movement. And yeah, it makes a real difference.

You want to be a part of it? Zeynab Bayzeydi, one of Amnesty International’s prisoner of conscience, was also detained in July and charged in August to four years in prison for her participation in the initiative. Click here to write your own letter for Zeynab.

And keep your eyes peeled for more info on Esha Momeni. She isn’t completely in the clear–the Iranian government could reportedly charge her with propaganda and throw her back behind bars. She might need your help.

If I can blog, why can't he?

I can sit in my ergonomic chair as I type, comforted not only by the lower back support, but by the knowledge that whatever I type here will not get me thrown into the local jail. But others are not so lucky…..

…they don’t have an ergonomic chair. 

Yeah, maybe Raja Petra, Malaysian political commentator for the blog Malaysia Today, doesn’t have an ergonomic chair by his computer. But that’s not biggest denial of human rights he has suffered as a journalist.

Raja was detained in September, his second time in prison for blogging. His “devious” crime? He wrote of wrongdoing by Malaysian goverment officials. But they arrested him under the “Internal Security Act,” saying he threatened public security and caused racial tension by posting blog entries that ridiculed Islam.

The courts, recognizing his detention was unjust, ruled to release him today. But the law does not say he cannot be rearrested. And the government can appeal the ruling, landing him back in a prison where–I am sure–the chairs are not ergonomic.

Raja should have the same rights I do, under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to freedom of opinion and information.  But he doesn’t, and instead waits in prison while they decide his fate.

There might not even be *a* chair in there

There might not even be *a* chair in there

He’s what I’m thinking about this morning.