Do You Want to Know the Secret Behind Enforced Disappearances?

Amina Masood at AI demonstration outside Pakistan High Commission

Every year, thousands of men, women and children go missing in dozens of countries around the world. In 2012, Amnesty International documented such cases in 31 countries. It’s a crime, all right, but these are not kidnappings for ransom or other criminal motives. These people were taken away by their own governments or agents acting for the government. The government then denies any knowledge of their whereabouts. Their relatives live in a torment of uncertainty – not knowing whether their loved ones are alive, being tortured or even dead. The missing have joined the ranks of the “disappeared.” SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Who “Disappears”?

Artwork for disappeared uncle 'Lost Loved Ones'

Artwork by Shirmeen, aged 16, niece of disappeared Faisal Faraz, who was apprehended during a bus journey to Peshawar in Pakistan in July 2005. Several other persons who had been subjected to enforced disappearances testified to seeing them in detention but state officials denied their detention and any knowledge about their whereabouts.

A mother’s broken heart keeps waiting to know something about her only son, whom she has not seen for 670 days. A new hope is born on every sunrise to see Dr Mohamed Arab once again with us.”


Is Haiti’s Justice System Up to the Test?

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier (Photo Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier (Photo Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

By Javier Zúñiga, special advisor at Amnesty International. 

Bringing to justice current or former heads of state is always complicated – in both legal and political terms. But it is possible. Time and again, former dictators and human rights abusers have been tried and convicted in countries across the world.

But in Haiti, where the judiciary still suffers from structural deficiencies inherited from the dictatorship years, bringing former President Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier to justice over his alleged responsibility for crimes such as torture, killings and disappearances during his time in office is proving particularly challenging.

The former leader showed contempt for the justice system and victims by failing to appear at two previous hearings for his alleged involvement in those crimes. On February 21, he is due to appear in court again. Yet the backdrop to the case sees Haitian authorities showing little real interest in pressing for Duvalier to be held accountable for his actions. Indeed, in several public statements, President Michel Martelly has hinted at pardoning Duvalier. Meanwhile, the former Haitian leader has continued to take part in public events, despite having being placed under house arrest while charges against him are investigated.


Locked Away: Sri Lanka's "Security" Detainees

Sri Lanka

Prisoners have been held for extended periods without charge at Welikada Prison © Private

I want to tell you a story about a man arrested in Sri Lanka.  It’s shocking.

In June 2008, “Roshan” (not his real name) was arrested in Colombo by unknown assailants who he later learned were plainclothes police.  The police suspected him of links to the opposition Tamil Tigers.  He was held for two years without ever being charged or tried and was repeatedly tortured, before eventually being released.  No one has been held accountable for his treatment.


Remembering The Disappeared

Amnesty International condemns all enforced disappearances as crimes under international law.  And on August 30, we’ll be doing something about them.

Sandya Eknaligoda

Sandya Eknaligoda wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, Sri Lanka, 10 January 2011

An enforced disappearance occurs when a person is arrested or abducted by the state or agents of the state, who then deny that the person is being held or conceal their whereabouts, placing them outside the protection of the law.

Enforced disappearances take place around in the world, including in countries such as China, Nepal, Chad, Sri Lanka and North Korea.  In Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of enforced disappearances occurred during decades of civil conflict on the island.  One recent example is the journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who went missing after work on Jan. 24, 2010.


Promises Of Freedom Ring Hollow As Syrian Crackdown Continues

By Mahsa Maleki, Syria Country Specialist for Amnesty USA

Tires burn during anti-government protests on the streets of Daraa. © Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

The Syrian government has once again responded to peaceful protests with bullets and armor.  Amnesty International insists that the government halt its attacks and allow its citizens to fulfill their rights under international law to peaceful demonstrations.

The protests in Syria to demand political reform started on March 15, 2011, and scores of people have since been injured or killed.  President Bashar Assad promised that he would reform the political system, but these promises remain hollow as the brutal crackdown on protesters and political critics continues.

The Syrian government has long imposed severe penalties on those demanding for political reform.  Government critics are often detained for prolonged periods, or sentenced to prison terms after unfair trials.  Torture and other ill-treatment is common, often committed with impunity.

The protests in Syria began in the town of Dera’a, where residents had asked, among other political demands, for the release of more than 30 children, many only 10 years old, detained for several weeks after being accused of writing “the people want the fall of the regime” on a wall.


Egypt Must Investigate Security Forces Crimes

Rights defender Musaad Abu Fagr was held in SSI detention for years © Amnesty International

One of the first acts taken by Hosni Mubarak when he became Egyptian president in 1981 was to release numerous political prisoners.  Amnesty International applauded him but called on the new president to rein in Egyptian security forces and to dismantle the system of administrative detention.

Thirty years later, as Mubarak himself faces criminal charges in Egypt, Amnesty International renews its old call to rein in the security forces and to end the crippling extrajudicial legal system that facilitates torture, punishes political activists and ordinary Egyptians alike and has muzzled a once-vibrant civil society for decades.

In a damning report released April 20, Time for Justice: Egypt’s Corrosive System of Detention, Amnesty International calls for an independent inquiry into human rights abuses committed by the much feared State Security Investigations Service (SSI).

This is a moment for fundamental change. It demands immediate concrete steps from the authorities so that those responsible for serious human rights violations are held to account.  Egyptians must see justice done for the human rights abuses of the past.


Remembering Kalpana Chakma

It was about 14 years ago that a 20-year old indigenous rights activist Kalpana Chakma disappeared and is presumably dead.  We know that she was kidnapped along with two of her brothers in the middle of the night, the day before the 1996 general elections.

She was the fiery and young general secretary of the Hill Women’s Federation, a group dedicated to a peaceful Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).  She spoke out against abuses committed by the Bangladeshi Army in the indigenous areas that make up the CHT.  For this, she apparently paid with her life.

In human rights work, there is an immediacy that comes from ensuring that human rights defenders are protected now.  We also lose sight of activists in countries like Bangladesh with the whirlwind of Guantanamo Bay, Gaza and other human rights crisis closer to home.  But, we are sometimes forced to remember those rights activists who paid the ultimate price for defending the rights of their people.  Kalpana Chakma was one of those individuals and we must not rest until we bring the people who kidnapped her to justice.

Iranian Journalists Detained in Unknown Location since June


The Committee to Protest Journalists published a statement today that said 22 of the 25 journalists that worked on the staff of Kalameh Sabz have been released. According to their website, “Alireza Hosseini Beheshti, manager of Kalameh Sabz, told the site that three editorial staffers remain behind bars. Over the weekend, authorities also released photographer Amir Sadeghi, who was arrested about a week earlier.”

Iran’s presidential election saw a government clampdown not only on protestors’ right to express themselves, but the media’s right to, as well. Currently, dozens of journalists – some who also campaigned for either Mir Hossein Mousavi or Mehdi Karroubi, both candidates in the presidential election, have been detained in the past fortnight with their whereabouts mostly unknown.

For example, around 20 of 25 employees of the newspaper Kalameh Sabz arrested at their office in Haft Tir Square on June 22nd are still detained and their whereabouts remain unknown. Kalameh Sabz is a newspaper established by presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009, and which has not been published since June 14th.

Amnesty International calls for the immediate release of journalists arrested since June 12th who are at risk of torture in detention.

Amnesty’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui released the following statement:

“If nothing else, the authorities must immediately disclose the whereabouts of these journalists, ensure that they are not tortured or otherwise ill-treated and allow their families and lawyers access to them. Unless the authorities lift all unlawful restrictions on freedom of expression – which includes the right of journalists to report on events – and release all the journalists arrested, we can only assume they are trying to hide evidence of abuse and further silence any critical voice.”

Take action to help release human rights defenders, journalists and others detained in Iran!

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

A Friendship Forged During the Dirty War

Marshall Meyer

Marshall Meyer

When the world you live is filled with the constant threat of disappearances, torture and murder, how do friendships happen?

On Monday, in a small lecture hall at Duke University, Argentine Ambassador Hector Timerman, son of famed journalist Jacobo Timerman, told about one unexpected friendship that developed during that country’s infamous Dirty War and how it helped to save his father’s life.

The Duke event was a celebration of the life of Rabbi Marshall Meyer, the American who lived in Argentina in the 1970s risked his life to help the Timerman family and many others.  Hector Timerman couldn’t attend the event, but he sent a letter that moved everyone who heard it.

Timerman wrote of how Meyer refused to let both the violent threats and the petty bureaucratic obstacles of the Argentina military junta stop him from action.  But 30 years later, the thing that puzzled Timerman was why?  Why did this man who didn’t know the family, who wasn’t even Argentinean, come to their help?

Even now, I sometimes have difficulty understanding the decision Marshall made to risk his life, as well as that of his wife and children, for a few victims whom he hardly knew, for a country that was not his own and against some murderers who had not included him among their enemies.
Marshall could have been one more of the thousands of liars that are still saying that they did not know what was happening while their neighbors were kidnapped and murdered.

To read the full text of the letter, click here.

Photos courtesy Duke Archive for Human Rights

Photos courtesy Duke Archive for Human Rights

Rabbi Meyer, who died in 1993 (his letters detailing his amazing life promoting human rights both in South America and in the United States are held in the Duke Archives for Human Rights), believed human rights activists had a particular imperative to tell true stories.  Debora Benchoam, the second-youngest person to be arrested by security forces during the Dirty War, was at the Duke event. She said that after Meyer helped gain her freedom and leave the country, he gave her a mission.

“As we waited to board the airplane, he told me to tell my story, as a way of making sure that people knew what had happened in Argentina and who was responsible,” she said.

Now story telling is not sufficient in itself, but Meyer’s belief is a nice reminder of the importance of story telling to human rights work and how essential it is to taking action.