Call For Democracy Rises Again 22 Years After Tiananmen

Amnesty activists in Italy hold signs that say "This is my Tiananmen Square." A similar commemoration would be prohibited in China.

When the so-called Arab Spring swept the Middle East and North Africa, the reverberations also shuddered through Chinese civil society – first as a new wave of online activism, and then as crushing oppression from the Chinese state.

When dissidents began calling for China to stage its own “Jasmine Revolution,” the authorities responded with overwhelming force. Since February the Chinese government has targeted more than 100 activists and human rights defenders.

The weight of such overt oppression — the worst since the 2009’s deadly Urumqi riots — is made particularly acute by the 22nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy activists. Although more than two decades have passed since the 1989 protests, the Chinese authorities are quick to extinguish any forms of commemoration, and to silence voices of discontent raised around the politically volatile anniversary.


Critics of Egyptian Democracy: Fear of Muslim Brothers

Warnings that democracy will turn Egypt into a dangerous theocracy has been heard for a long time, but with the Egyptian people strongly intent on winning back their rights, those concerns seem this week to be everywhere.  Nowhere is this fear of Egyptian democracy is being heard loudest than here in the U.S. media.

This concern isn’t limited to the American right: In today’s Washington Post, liberal columnist Richard Cohen expresses his fears that Islamist influence in a democratic Egypt would endanger Israel.

The problem is, to all these critics, the only options facing Egyptians are Mubarak or Islamists. That is simply wrong.  Egyptian aspirations for democracy have simmered for too long for outsiders to block it by playing on the same fears that have helped maintain an autocrat in power for three decades.

Let’s start with the obvious: For Amnesty International, this is not a relevant issue.  As a human rights organization, we focus on preventing and documenting human rights abuses.  That is one reason why we don’t call for Mubarak’s resignation; our interest is stopping the torture, unfair trials, arbitrary and prolonged detentions and abuses of freedom of speech, association and religion that fall under his or any other regime.

Secondly, the fears expressed about the Muslim Brothers overstate the group’s current position.  After decades of attempts to muzzle civil society, the Egyptian government has effectively handcuffed most political parties and secular institutions.  One result was to make room for Islamist opposition.  The Muslim Brothers have publicly renounced violence and pledged to work within the political system.


WikiLeaks Cable: Azerbaijan President Asked to Release Activists… Sort of

Last week’s release of Adnan and Emin – two imprisoned youth activists in Azerbaijan – was discussed (at least once) with the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev earlier this year. In a February 2010 exchange in a confidential cable released by WikiLeaks, Aliyev seems to tentatively agree to releasing the activists:

U/S Burns said that one of the ways Azerbaijan could
show leadership as a tolerant and secular country was in
advancing democracy and human rights. He specifically asked
that, following the appeal process of the two youth
activists, the President find a way on humanitarian grounds
to release the two men. Aliyev made no firm commitment, but
responded, “I think this can be done. I had no intention to
hurt anyone.”
When U/S Burns expressed the hope that the
government could quietly take this step, the President said,

What’s eye-opening about the exchange is President Aliyev’s admission of his personal knowledge – if not responsibility – in the activists’ arrest and subsequent conviction of “hooliganism.”

It’s also interesting – if not unfortunate – how the US asks Azerbaijan to “quietly” release the youth activists on “humanitarian grounds.”

While we are all glad that Adnan and Emin are free, there is more justice to be done: their conviction must be overturned – not quietly or on humanitarian grounds but for human rights and democracy.

Democracy Empowers Brazilians to Choose their Own Future

25 years after the end of its military dictatorship, on Oct 3rd 2010 Brazil carried out peaceful and legitimate democratic elections nationwide. Over 135 million Brazilians voted to elect the country’s president, the governors of Brasilia and 27 states, 54 senators, all 513 members of the House of Representatives and the assembly delegates of all states.

Brazilian Flag

Although elections were carried out without controversy, the final outcome remains unknown.  None of the presidential candidates gathered enough votes (50% plus one vote) to be named president elect; therefore, the two top contenders will face each other again in a run-off election to be held on Oct. 31st. More important than the result per se, the elections will be testament of the nation’s progress towards consolidating its democratic principles and its stance as a leading democracy in Latin America.

It’s important to remember that this was only the 6th major election in Brazil since it overcame its worst period of human rights transgressions in recent history. The Brazilian military regime, which was in power from 1964 to 1985, was responsible for systemic human rights violations, including killings, forced disappearances, torture and the curtailment of freedom of expression.  Approximately 50,000 persons were detained for speaking against the regime and roughly 10,000 went into exile.  It is only after the promulgation of its new Constitution in1988 that Brazilians had their full civil and political rights restored.  For such a young democracy, these elections should be seen as a victory for everyone, regardless of political party or affiliation.  It empowers Brazilians to choose their own leaders and indeed, their own future.

In the weeks and months to come, we will follow the work of those empowered to lead the country into the future. We will monitor them carefully, focusing on the social and economic rights of the most vulnerable sectors in society.  In the meantime, let’s join the nation in celebrating its democracy!

Ominous message from the Iranian Supreme Leader

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran

Today, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, spoke to the crowd at the weekly Friday Prayer and made what many have interpreted as a warning to those opposing the contested election results to cease their public protests or else face possible severe reprisals. The reprisals in question have been viewed as thinly veiled references to violence by government agents and Basij, or paramilitaries. The Supreme Leader said that opposition leaders would be held responsible for any bloodshed that resulted from the banned opposition rallies.

Although the protests in the streets in the first few days after the elections were met with attacks by baton-wielding riot police on motorcycles, and on Monday by deadly indiscriminate shooting into the crowd that left up to seven people fatally wounded and many more injured, the massive street protests since Monday have been largely peaceful, although random violence carried out by vigilantes and Basij have been reported.

Human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani is one of the activists who have been arrested in the aftermath of election protests in Iran.

Human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani is one of the activists who have been arrested in the aftermath of election protests in Iran.

The Iranian authorities have conducted their severest repressive measures in the form of mass detentions of journalists, students, opposition politicians and human rights activists. Among those arrested are human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani, a close associate of Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi and a member of the Center for Human Rights Defenders.

However it has been an open question to what extent the Iranian authorities would be willing to unleash the full force of its military and riot police against the vast numbers of protesters in the streets. The potential for such use of violence to result in large-scale bloodshed is alarming.

Amnesty International has expressed concern that an opposition rally that is said to be planned for tomorrow may be met with the use of excessive violence. We urge the authorities to respect the right of the Iranian people to engage in the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and association.

Written by Elise Auerbach, AIUSA Iranian country specialist

Azerbaijan: “Unlimited Presidency” Approved

If you thought that the democratic situation couldn’t get worse in ex-Soviet Azerbaijan, you have been wrong. The oil-rich country has voted – according to the government – to eliminate presidential term limits.

An expatriate Azerbaijani child in the US protesting unlimited presidency in her homeland

On March 18, 2009, voters approved all the 29 ballot issues, including institutionalizing unlimited presidency, reports the Russian-language

One Azerbaijani told Reuters: “We can write, we can read, we can watch. But we have no voice.”

Or, “We can vote, but we have no voice.”