Death Toll Rises in Iran

8 more people were killed during Monday’s protests against Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s electoral victory in Tehran. Rallies in support of Musavi nonetheless continued on today, with more people than yesterday, according to witnesses. Numbers cannot be confirmed as all foreign media have been barred from entering the city.

Protesters have persistently been updating the world on Twitter and on YouTube, though. While yesterday’s rallies came to a bloody end, today’s was relatively calm.

Meanwhile, experts around the world are trying to figure out whether the results of Friday’s election were legitimate or not. While no one has been able to deem the results invalid, people are skeptical at best about Ahmedinejad’s margin of victory.

In fact, several news and blog sites have gone green in solidarity with the protesters.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Obama Speaks Up About Iran

Kudos to President Obama for breaking his long silence on the Iranian election violence that has been raging since Saturday. Obama said, “I think that the democratic process, free speech, the ability for folks to peacefully dissent, all those are universal values and need to be respected.”

Yesterday’s protests left seven people dead after hundreds of thousands took to the streets against what they view as the fraudulent re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

While his remarks did not touch on how he viewed the results of the election, Obama did take a strong stance against the security forces’ reaction to the protesters: “When I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and it is of concern to the American people. That is not how governments should interact with their people. And my hope is that the Iranian people will make the right steps in order for them to be able to express their voices, to express their aspirations.” He has also urged that a full-scale investigation be done regarding possible voter fraud.

The questions surrounding Ahmedinejad’s questionable landslide victory leave President Obama in a tight spot—whether to follow up on his big campaign promise to engage with the Iranian government, even one that is now not considered legitimate by many of its own people.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

The June 12 Elections in Iran: A New Future?

© AFP/Getty Images

© AFP/Getty Images

Enormous crowds throng the streets of Tehran and great excitement is in the air.  Commentators note that the June 12 presidential elections in Iran could be the most important election in thirty years.  In the previous presidential election of 2005, only a minority of eligible voters actually went to the polls. No one expects that to be the case this year as the country’s young people—most Iranians were born after the Revolution of 1979—are expected to turn out in large numbers.

As Iranians prepare to go to the polls to elect their president, human rights has surprisingly emerged as a subject of debate among the four candidates.  Human rights activists wonder whether the unexpected airing of this once-taboo subject augurs a positive change.  Is this a step towards a new future of respect for human rights?  At the same time Amnesty International has documented the Iranian authorities’ continued brutal crackdown on wide sectors of Iranian society—women’s rights activists, students, journalists and bloggers, labor rights activists, and religious minorities.

It is clear that the exuberance expressed by the Iranian people in this election is an indication of their desire for a change, and especially for an improvement of Iran’s human rights record. The Iranian authorities should not assume that these yearnings for change will disappear after the election is over. Human rights activists hope that the Iranian authorities will recognize that the population’s demand for an end to human rights violations must be taken seriously, but also that allowing Iran’s vibrant civil society and activists to flourish without repression would create tangible benefits for Iran.

That is why human rights activists look to this historic election and allow ourselves to dream of what a future could be if labor activist Mansour Ossanlu who fought passionately for the rights of transit workers, could be released from prison and could work openly and freely to better the lives of the millions of hard-working Iranian laborers.  Or if Emaddedin Baghi, one of the great public intellectuals of our time, would no longer face constant government harassment in his efforts to advocate for more democracy and an end to executions, especially the horror of juvenile executions.  Or if instead of imprisoning AIDS researchers Kamiar and Arash Alaei on absurd charges of plotting to overthrow the government, these caring physicians would be allowed to carry out their internationally acclaimed work to prevent and treat HIV.  Or if instead of arresting and constantly harassing women rights activists such as Jelva Javaheri, the Iranian authorities could champion these feisty and tireless women in their efforts to improve the lives of Iranian women.

All of these heroes are great and inspiring role models not just for Iranians, but for people everywhere in the world. As the presidential candidates accuse each other of undermining Iran’s standing in the world, we know that allowing Iran’s activists to carry out their work free of harassment would bring favorable international recognition and honor to Iran. Will the discussions about human rights in the presidential debates really result in tangible improvements? This will only happen when the Iranian government really listens to those millions of Iranian voices roaring in the streets around the clock.

Guinea-Bissau: How to Further Destabilize a Country in Two Days

Guinea-Bissau (GB) is a tiny little country on the western coast of Africa. It is a nation ravaged by grave health concernsdrug trafficking and an abundant access to weapons. It is racked by political instability. Elections originally scheduled for March 2008 were postponed. In August 2008, then-President Vieira dissolved Parliament and a new Prime Minister was appointed. Relatively peaceful elections occurred in mid-November, however, mutinous soldiers, apparently not happy with these governmental maneuvers, attempted to assassinate the former President in what is considered to be a coup attempt. This year started with a bang, literally, when General Tagme Ma Wai, army Chief of Staff, accused the President of attempting to assassinate him in January when his car was shot up. Making sure it was done right the next time, General Wai was killed when army headquarters were bombed on March 1st. And then because no deed of any kind goes unpunished in GB, President Vieira was promptly killed on March 2nd when his house was again attacked.

In case you think these were isolated incidents, or even new circumstances, let me hasten to disabuse you. GB is a highly volatile country, with a long history of coups and military rebellions. Since 2000, soldiers have killed three Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces, as well as other high ranking military officers. Those responsible for the killings were not brought to justice. Not surprising then, that human rights are less than prioritized in GB. On April 1st, making for a highly unfunny April Fool’s Day, Francisco José Fadul, a Court President and former Prime Minister of GB, ended up in intensive care after he was beaten by military personnel at his home in the early hours of the morning. This followed an assault by the military of well-known lawyer Pedro Infanda, who was arrested, severely beaten and tortured for four days by military officials before being transferred to police custody. He also spent time in intensive care. Coincidently, both men held press conferences during which the military was criticized shortly before they were attacked by military officials. Subsequently, members of the Human Rights League received threats after condemning the violent attacks.

President of the National Assembly, Raimundo Pereira, sworn in as interim President on March 2nd, is currently running the show in GB and new Presidential elections are scheduled for June 28th. Here’s hoping GB has free and fair elections with no more 48 hour tit-for-tat assassinations.

Tip on Avoiding Being the Party Pooper in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe political party Movement for Democratic Change headed by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai (MDC-T) held an annual conference this past weekend. The party, which turns 10 this year, split in late 2005 over divisions with Arthur Mutambara over the direction of the party. The newer splinter group, MDC-M, together with the MDC-T, holds a majority of seats in Parliament but the Presidency remains with ZANU-PF, the ruling party in Zimbabwe since liberation.

At the MDC-T conference, Tsvangirai wasn’t exactly uplifting regarding life in Zimbabwe since a unity government was sworn in this February following severe violence and discord after disputed elections in March 2008.

“We have not yet succeeded in restoring the rule of law … our people do not live free from fear, hunger and poverty,” he said.

Wow, way to kill a party, Debbie Downer. Oh, wait. It’s true. Lawyers, journalists, political activists and civil society are all routinely oppressed and harassed in Zimbabwe for speaking out against the government or defending those who do. Unemployment is approximately 94% and Zimbabwe is now per capita the most food aid dependent country in the world. But maybe if Tsvangirai had served at the convention some of the delicacies offered at President Mugabe’s 85th birthday party this year, this bitter pill might have been a little easier to swallow.

Crackdown After Disputed Elections?

Following disputed elections in Moldova, human rights defenders find themselves increasingly under threat. In addition to organizers of peaceful protests, several civil society organizations, including Amnesty International, are now being targeted in an intimidation campaign from the government.

These organizations have received letters from the Ministry of Justice, dated April 16, asking each to explain its position on the riots and any measures taken by them to prevent and stop the violence. Some of the organizations are claiming that this is a “call to statements of loyalty”. The majority of these organizations have also received subpoenas from their local tax inspectorates asking them to submit financial reports for 2008 and 2009, and identify their sources of income and expenditure.  Furthermore, on April 28, representatives from the local tax inspectorate visited the Amnesty International office in Moldova, requesting that the organization provide all consultants’ contracts for 2008 and 2009 as well as a copy of the list of paid members and all their passport details. This creates a grave concern for the protection of human rights and human rights defenders in Moldova, which should be guaranteed under the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

Nicola Duckworth, AI’s Europe and Central Asia program director, made the following statement:

The Moldovan authorities are failing in their duty to ensure that human rights activists are able to carry out their work unhindered and to protect them against any violations of their rights, as stated in the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

As Zimbabwe turns 29, statements are not enough

As originally posted on the Daily Kos

In advance of talks with Zimbabwe’s finance minister Tendai Biti next weekend in Washington DC, the World Banks Robert Zoellick shared his assessment of the situation:

Zimbabwe is at a very sensitive point and we want it succeed. But that is going to require steps by all of the members of the Zimbabwe’s institutions to restore democracy, restore human rights.

Reading these statements I remembered a recent chat with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) Executive Director Frank Donaghue who was in Zimbabwe a few months ago. His explanations and PHR’s report leave no doubt over the gravity of the situation and who is responsible for ruining the country’s economy – and with it its health system:

The health and healthcare crisis in Zimbabwe is a direct outcome of the malfeasance of the Mugabe regime and the systematic violation of a wide range of human rights, including the right to participate in government and free elections and egregious failure to respect, protect and fulfill the right to health. The findings contained in this report show, at a minimum, violations of the rights to life, health, food, water, and work. When examined in the context of 28 years of massive and egregious human rights violations against the people of Zimbabwe under the rule of Robert Mugabe, they constitute added proof of the commission by the Mugabe regime of crimes against humanity.

At the same conference where I met with PHR, the leaders of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) spoke about their human rights activism. WOZA represents some of the country’s most courageous human rights defenders. Compared to them, I feel like a wannabe activist. Harassed several times for their activism, they remain at risk of arbitrary arrest and intimidation. Their commitment and leadership is probably the biggest sign of hope for Zimbabwe, and the least we can do is to show them our support and sympathy, and share their story.

The country’s destroyed health system and the ongoing persecution of human rights defenders are painful reminders how far the country still has to go. The International Crisis Group (ICG) released a new report just moments ago, stating that:

If the international community stands back with a wait-and-see attitude, the unity government is likely to fail, and Mugabe and the military establishment will entrench themselves again. There should be no alternative to engagement to address pressing socio-economic needs, reinforce new hope and prevent a return to violence and repression.

Obviously, the ICG focuses on the major players in international politics and ignores that the international community includes all of us. So if you don’t want to wait for national governments or international institutions to make a move, here’s your opportunity.

By Christoph Koettl, Crisis Prevention and Response Campaigner at Amnesty International USA

DISCLAIMER: the opinions written above are the author’s alone and should not be considered official Amnesty International policy.

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.”

Egypt: Ayman Nour — released!

Unexpectedly, good news from Egypt.  The government has released Ayman Nour, one of the country’s most prominent dissidents who came in second to President Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections.

The BBC report can be found here; The Associated Press story here. The stated reason for his release was his poor health, although some speculate it is a gesture toward the new Obama administration.

Nour’s conviction and detention despite his poor health has been taken both as an example of the Egyptian government’s determination to muzzle all of civic society and the West’s inability to move the government on human rights.

Egyptian human rights activists, while supportive of Nour, wondered why the West, and the United States government in particular, seemed to focus so much attention on him while being less vocal or silent on other political dissidents.  Indeed the greater the US seemed to focus attention on Nour, the more the Egyptians seemed to dig in their heels.

Upon release, Nour said he was ready to pick up his work from three years ago.  It’s exciting to see such determination in face of so much abuse.

So today is a day of celebration, but a lesson as well. We can’t let action on a single high-profile case turn the human rights community or the American government away from pursuing a broader, more effective human rights policy in Egypt.

For today, even as we celebrate the release of a charismatic leader, the government clamps down elsewhere.  Hours ago, Amnesty reported the enforced disappearance and detention of student blogger Dia’ el Din Gad, a vocal critic of the Mubarak regime. No doubt Ayman Nour would be the first to want all of us to come to Dia’el Din Gad’s aid.

The Crisis Continues

As Israeli's vote, Palestinians rebuild; tents serve as a temporary shelter while humanitarian supplies filter into Gaza.

As Israelis vote, Palestinians rebuild; Tents serve as temporary shelter while humanitarian supplies filter into Gaza.

The crisis in Gaza continues as the Israeli elections wrap up.  Of the two front runners, Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, Livni appears to have a small lead as of this evening.  The question remains, who will address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza with the most diligence?  Palestinian Fatah leaders worry about a Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or Bibi, on the Israeli right, who they say would bolster Hamas in response to his appointment.  Then there’s Tzipi Livni, who has campaigned on a platform for peace, although she was an architect of the recent conflict.  She leans towards negotiations for a Palestinian state, where Bibi would not.  But the unknown of the election may be Avigdor Lieberman whose nationalist policies ban Arab journalists from his press conferences.  Lieberman may be the controversial candidate but Livni and Netanyahu are the two to watch in the next few days.  Israel’s elections are parliamentary offering 33 parties and proportional representation.  Voters select their party of choice and cast one vote; however, the Prime Minister is nominated by the President, based on the parties elected.

“Palestinian commentators explained that after being disappointed by governments led by all three major Israeli parties – Labor, Kadima and Likud – the public has stopped hoping. Regardless of who heads it, every government has continued building in the settlements and failed to reach a final-status agreement, the pundits said.” – Haaretz.

While election results filter in today and tonight, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon continues to work with the UN Relief Works Agency in Palestine to investigate possible targeting of UN civilian facilities committed by Israeli forces.  The elections and the UN investigation, however, have missed a vital human rights concern.

In a recent Media Briefing, Amnesty International reported the maiming, killings, abductions and disappearances of Hamas’ political opponents in Gaza.  At least 20 people have been killed since the start of the Israeli offensive in December.  Individuals targeted were former prisoners, Fatah affiliated politicians, and those who “collaborated with Israel.”

The testimonies and medical evidence of these attacks are irrefutable:

“Jamal al-Ghandour, in his mid-50s, was shot dead in his bed in al-Shifa hospital at about 4pm on 28 December by unmasked gunmen wearing plain clothes in front of relatives and other witnesses. Also present were uniformed members of Hamas security forces, who took no action to prevent the killing or to apprehend the perpetrators. Jamal al-Ghandour was receiving treatment for injuries he had sustained that morning in the Israeli bombardment of Gaza’s Central Prison, where he had been detained with his son since January 2008; both were accused of “collaborating” with the Israeli army.” – Amnesty International

Victims are hesitant to come forward under the Hamas de-facto administration.  Amnesty International is gravely concerned that administration in the Gaza Strip – instead of taking steps to stop and prevent deliberate killings and other grave abuses being perpetrated by its forces and militias – is not only disregarding such abuses but is justifying and even facilitating and encouraging them.

On February 2, 2009, Tahar al-Nanu spoke to a press conference:

“The government differentiates between abuses [of the law] and the actions taken by the resistance to protect itself from collaborators in times of war… There will be no mercy for the collaborators who have stabbed our people in the back.”

Unfortunately, al-Nanu provided a green light to target anyone based on any allegations of “collaboration” with the Israeli army, without giving those targeted a possibility to defend themselves against such accusations.

While Israel works out their new administration and the UN investigates attacks on UN facilities, there must be an impartial commission to investigate these human rights abuses and Hamas must be held accountable to fair trial standards and to witnesses and victims.  One step towards an investigation into these abuses would be for the UN to heed Amnesty International’s call for their inquiry into the conflict to include evidence of violations by all sides, not solely against UN facilities.

Written by Ally Krupar.  Edited by Zahir Janmohamed.