On the 8th of November, ProtectDefenders.eu held its second annual meeting, under the motto "Champions of change - Human rights defenders at the forefront of development and democracy". More than 30 human rights defenders at risk from all regions of the world who have benefited from the project gathered in Brussels with representatives of international NGOs and European institutions. This unique meeting has successfully brought together grassroots activists working on the frontlines for change and leading experts on the protection of human rights defenders, universal and regional protection mechanisms, and representatives of various EU institutions implicated in the protection of human rights defenders and current development agenda.
Setting a progressive development and protection agenda
The meeting highlighted the crucial role and impact of human rights defenders around the world as promoters of a sustainable development and engaged development actors in how to integrate the protection of human rights defenders as part of an effective development and protection agenda. The widespread attempts to de-legitimise human rights' discourse and human rights defenders' work worldwide were addressed, by promoting a positive narrative grounded on the universality and indivisibility of human rights and its contribution to more advanced and developed societies. Human rights defenders and high-level speakers shared strategies to enhance the protection of those who strive to defend human rights, and to develop a positive narrative on the human rights' work, legitimising their work at the local level and taking back the human rights discourse to the centre of the international agenda.
To conclude the meeting, the twelve partner organisations of ProtectDefenders.eu have issued a public statement urging all national authorities to "publicly recognise the crucial role played by human rights defenders and protect them in all circumstances from any form of judicial harassment". As stressed by Antoine Madelin, FIDH Director for International Advocacy and Chair of the Board of ProtectDefenders.eu, "Human Rights Defenders are the pillars of democracy and of the rule of law but are too often subjected to unfair criminal prosecution, in an effort to undermine their work in the defence of human rights."
See the gallery of pictures of the 2nd Annual Meeting here.
ProtectDefenders.eu, the EU Human Rights Defenders mechanism implemented by international civil society, has been consolidated as a solid, successful and indispensable tool for at-risk human rights defenders and a referenced instrument within the international human rights defenders community. In its second year of implementation, ProtectDefenders.eu has stepped up the practical support to HRDs at risk and local human rights NGOs, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in a timely and comprehensive manner, in a context marked by the increasing demand for support and an ever-growing visibility of and referrals to ProtectDefenders.eu among human rights defenders, donors, policymakers and other.
Over this period, the complementarity and the comprehensiveness of the mechanism have made a remarkable difference by linking individual support to defenders at risk, to building resilience among local communities, while successfully addressing emergency situations and broadening the space for civil society through intensive advocacy. ProtectDefenders.eu has also successfully reinforced the network of support available for human rights defenders at risk by intensifying the collaboration with multiple stakeholders engaged in the defence of human rights defenders, such as local organisations, international NGOs, members of the EUTRP and European institutions such as the European Parliament, and the European External Action Service.
What has ProtectDefenders.eu done over the past year? Read more to find out.
- has provided 346 emergency grants to Human Rights Defenders facing high risk. The main needs covered were emergency relocation, legal support and individual security. 76% of the grants were allocated in the most difficult countries.
- has successfully managed the Temporary Relocation Grants Programme -with 188 relocation initiatives approved benefiting almost 667 individuals-
- has maintained and broadened the EUTRP (from 50 members to 54 members, with 5 prospective members), supported the creation of new host organisations and been consolidated as an increasingly referenced and essential counterpart for human rights defenders in need for relocation; and for host organisations involved in relocation schemes, by co-funding and supporting relocation programmes worldwide and providing solid and reliable support to key relocation organisations.
- has allocated 55 grants to human rights local NGOs and groups of defenders in the field to support, consolidate and expand their operational capacities, develop sensitive initiatives and to prevent and respond to increasing infringements faced by human rights defenders and their organisations in the most difficult countries
- has delivered 98 training and capacity-building initiatives for around 2,050 defenders aiming at empowering HRDs in better managing their security and training them in advocacy strategies to help them advance the Human Rights agenda. At least 860 HRDs could be provided with information and supported thanks to direct access to the hotline, the ProtectDefenders.eu single entry points and the direct contact with the Secretariat.
- has developed its monitoring and advocacy dimension through 9 trial observations, 13 advocacy and fact-finding missions and 66 field-monitoring initiatives reportedly benefiting at least 930 human rights defenders, and mobilised the public and media attention through at least 1,009 actions, including appeals, letters, and petitions, reportedly benefiting 2,478 defenders.
- has conducted 7 outreach missions to remote areas in the most difficult countries, and published targeted communication material to reach at least the less connected and most at-risk defenders in order to provide them with information and support.
Throughout all its programmes. ProtectDefenders.eu has committed to provide gender-sensitive assistance, and WHRDs represent 40% of the overall number of beneficiaries. The European Union Human Rights Defenders mechanism has also successfully reached out to the less connected and particularly targeted defenders and these categories (WHRDs, LGBTIQ HRDs, environmental and land rights defenders, indigenous rights defenders, defenders from remote areas) represent around 66% of the beneficiaries of the European Union Human Rights Defenders mechanism. Again this year, ProtectDefenders.eu has consistently gathered an extremely positive evaluation by direct beneficiaries and related stakeholders.
In September 2017, OMCT allocated a grant to seven women members of the Khon Rak Ban Kerd Group (KRBKG), a community-based group committed to the defence of the local environment from the negative impacts of an open-pit copper-gold mine, operated by the Tungkum company in Thailand’s Loei Province. This grant is supporting the legal expenses of the seven women human rights defenders - namely Ms. Pornthip Hongchai, Ms. Viron Rujichaiyavat, Ms. Ranong Kongsaen, Ms. Mon Khunna, Ms. Suphat Khunna, Ms. Boonraeng Srithong, and Ms. Lumplearn Ruengrith -, who are currently facing trial under the Public Assembly Act and the Criminal Code in relation to a peaceful demonstration they attended in 2016. The seven WHRDs are each facing up to five years in prison and a 100,000 THB (about 2,586 EUR) fine, or both, and have to report themselves to Loei Provincial Court any time when ordered by the court until the trial is completed.
The grant followed advocacy efforts carried out by OMCT in the framework of the Observatory in order to raise the awareness of and call upon action from relevant stakeholders, including EU and UN institutions, to address the judicial harassment faced by the seven environmental rights defenders as a result of their legitimate human rights activities.
Picture: The seven KRBKG members as they attended the pre-arraignment hearing at Loei Provincial Court, on September 25, 2017.
Olya is an LGBTI and women human rights defender from Russia. In 2015, she reached out for support to ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders mechanism. This is her story:
Human rights defenders know all too well what it means to be targets of hate and state harassment. And sometimes, something as simple as a photograph can kickstart a number of unfortunate events.
This is what happened to Olya P., an LGBTI and women human rights defender from Russia. After staging a street protest, her face and name were suddenly everywhere, after a picture of hers – shoulders wrapped in a rainbow flag – spread from one media outlet to the next. As the picture became a symbol of the protest against the country’s repressive laws against LGBTI communities, this sudden exposure made her a target of online hate.
It was when online abuse added to an already repressive environment that Olya reached out for support. She found it in ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders mechanism: thanks to a grant, she managed to join a self-care training, which also helped her strengthen capacities for her activism.
How did you become involved in the defence of human rights?
I used to live in a small town in the Moscow region, but we didn’t have any activity of this kind there. I was interested in politics, but I didn’t allow myself to read news because… I felt something rising inside of me, but I didn’t know what it was, nor what to do with it.
For almost two years, I stopped reading news. This means that I had not exactly known what had happened to Pussy Riot, or about the 2012 arrests after the Bolotnaya square protests in Moscow, until I moved to Saint Petersburg in 2012 and became an activist.
The first people I met there were LGBT activists: I discovered the city’s organisations quickly, and decided that I wanted to take part in every activity. As quickly as I found them, I also understood that I had no resources to join what they did. I dropped everything I was doing, and started volunteering for Coming Out – I have done so for four years.
In June 2013, I also started joining street actions. At first I didn’t want to, because I was afraid of violence – not against me, but I was afraid that homophobes could beat my friends and I would try and stop them. We had a lot of street actions that summer: the “gay propaganda” law was about to be adopted on a federal level in Russia, and we tried to protest.
After the 2013 Saint Petersburg Pride, all the world learnt about being LGBT in Russia, because there was a lot of violence: homophobes were throwing stones and eggs at us, and police ended up taking us to police stations, while homophobes could walk away free. It was horrible. This was my first time at the police station.
About 70 people were detained, and some activists had to go to the hospital following their release because they had been attacked during the action, and police didn’t want to call an ambulance.
The fact is that I was never scared for myself, but for others taking part in the actions. A person walking by me got attacked in the street right after a street action against the propaganda law, only for wearing a t-shirt with a pink triangle, and when something like this happens I can’t stay silent.
At a certain point, you started receiving hateful messages on social media on the grounds of your activism. How did that start?
It happened in 2015, after I staged a street protest in Saint Petersburg, holding a rainbow flag. After that, some media people found my social media handles and posted my photo with news about the action, using my name and surname. This is why people could find me in social networks, and began sending me messages that were… not very pleasant.
I had been involved in activism for more than three years at that stage, and I was experienced in how to handle these situations: I banned them immediately, but it didn’t work. People managed to find me and write whatever they wanted, especially people I didn’t know.
I have also always felt a threat from the State, too, because we have a law saying that street actions need to be approved in advance by a special committee. Without such an agreement, you can be taken to a police station and receive a fine for joining a street protest. And if you are taken to the police station for more than three times, you can end up in prison.
This is when I really felt threatened, because I constantly take part in these actions – not only advocating rights for rainbow communities, but also for other issues. I was taken to a police station twice in six months, and I was afraid that it could have happened again, even for no reason. I really felt in danger, and I was afraid to take part in other actions.
When I was a teenager, and until I was 25 and moved to Saint Petersburg, I always considered prison as a very distant reality, something that can’t touch me. But now, the reality is that I am interested in what happen in the prison system, and in finding ways to change it.
In Russia, whoever goes to prison receives a punishment, but people running the system can think that prisoners deserve more punishment. This system doesn’t correct behaviours, but just punishes them.
Was there a specific moment in your experience as a human rights defender that prompted you to look for support?
It was in 2015, in autumn, after the street action I was telling you about. The video with me covered in a rainbow flag was everywhere, even on Euronews. People wrote me nasty comments on social networks, and soon after that Ildar Dadin was sentenced to prison – I felt very depressed. It was too hard. I decided to see a psychotherapeutic group.
I had attended similar trainings earlier, and I knew the person who organised them. I asked whether I could join it, but they told me I needed money to apply. Then I began looking for support from an organisation which helps human rights defenders, and I ran into ProtectDefenders.eu. I applied for their support immediately: it was really urgent, because the group would have started its activity in just two weeks.
For me it was like a miracle, because I received a positive answer the next day. Thanks to their support, I could afford paying to attend the activities of a support group in Ukraine. It was very important for me to go there at that time because, among other reasons, I also wanted to let people in Ukraine know that not everyone in Russia supported the war, and approved of what is going on in Crimea.
Did taking part in this session help you?
Yes! I don’t know what happened when I was there, but when I returned to Saint Petersburg the feeling was like I had been depressed for the past ten years, and I had finally woken up. It was amazing.
It was a support group for human rights defenders, and we stayed for ten days around Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It helped me very much to understand what I wanted, and the importance of non-violent activism, and to learn how to communicate with people who are important to me.
I still think it was a miracle that I managed to join this group.
Aren’t you scared that the wave of hate on social media against you may start again?
I am scared, but I know that I will be OK: this is the point. Now I know that I will find ways to support myself and to manage. It’s not pleasant to receive threats on the Internet, even if you are a very spiritually developed person: it is just creepy, and if you are facing a situation of psychological crisis this may be the last drop for you. But now I know that it will not happen to me again: it can’t make me depressed anymore.
I am scared when I think of threats that may come from the State, though. Russia is such a country that gives you less and less space to move and organise activities to defend something you believe in.
Do you see the situation of our communities evolving in your country?
It doesn’t look like that, to be honest. In 2016, we could not organise even a single street action with the permission of authorities. I tried to organise an LGBT feminist bloc on the demonstration on the 1st of May: not only we were not granted permission, but our pages on VKontakte were blocked. And this happened to every LGBT initiative that year.
This is why people joined some ecologist or anarchist organisations to take part in the demonstration. For the second time, we could not organise a rainbow flash mob on the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia and we had to do something without having received a permit first – and the same happened with Saint Petersburg Pride. But if you join unauthorized street actions, there is always the risk to get arrested.
The “promotion” law created a system where people are not allowed to speak about our communities, making it so that, for the public opinion, we simply do not exist. And if we do not exist, we do not have problems and issues that need to be addressed. How to come out of such a situation?
If you join a public protest or a street action, you know that you may be assaulted. But I never hoped that someone holding political power would have seen me, or my photos on the Internet, and decided to change something.
To me, it is about simple people seeing me standing there with my placards: maybe they don’t know what I am talking about, but maybe they will go home, google it and find something about our issues for themselves, create their point of view. This is what has always been important to me.
Do you think that occasions like this ILGA World Conference can be useful for human rights defenders to come together and share their experiences?
This conference is an amazing opportunity. Most of the time, it is always the same circle of people who take part in street actions, and it can get tiring and frustrating from time to time, because the situation around you hardly changes. These events – but also visiting other countries which are more respectful of our rights, or taking part in Pride marches – can be so useful for activists in Russia! It is really inspiring to see that you are not alone, and that in other countries people like yourself are accepted and feel more or less safe.
Human rights defenders (HRDs) working on issues related to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE) have long operated in a threatening environment in Indonesia. Today they are facing more risks than they have in decades, according to 25 HRDs interviewed by Front Line Defenders in July 2017.
The report, “Attacks on LGBT Rights Defenders Escalating in Indonesia”, includes testimonies from dozens of human rights defenders who report that following a crackdown on LGBT rights in 2016 and amidst ongoing violent raids of LGBT gatherings, threats against community leaders are increasingly frequent, personal, and violent.
“Our investigation illustrates that the government’s own crackdown on LGBT rights in 2016 emboldened those who want to terrorize human rights defenders into silence,” said Front Line Defenders Executive Director Andrew Anderson in Dublin. “Ongoing police raids and a failure to respond to attacks against HRDs send the message that violence against peaceful activists is acceptable in Indonesia.”
Front Line Defenders conducted an investigative mission in July 2017 and met at-risk human rights defenders in four provinces: Aceh, Makassar, Yogyakarta and Jakarta.1 Front Line Defenders interviewed more than a dozen LGBT activists in Aceh, the only province in Indonesia governed by Islamic Sharia law; all reported violent raids and weekly sweeps conducted on Fridays by government-sanctioned religious police.
Key Report Findings
On September 20 and 21, PBI Honduras facilitated a security and protection workshop for organizations and human rights defenders in southern Honduras. The workshop focused on the exchange of ideas and good practices for the development of protection strategies against the context of criminalization of defenders of land, territory and the environment. The 25 participants have defended the rights of peasant communities against the lack of prior, free and informed consultation on the implementation of economic projects - such as mining, hydroelectric dams, photovoltaic energy fields or large-scale monocultures - in their territories. During the workshop, a mapping of the criminalization context in the area was made. Participants debated the concept of criminalization, the ways in which it occurs - criminal proceedings, arbitrary detentions, stigmatization, police surveillance - and its effects on the work and security of defenders. Then, they identified protection tools to counteract this reality: documentation, networking, physical and digital security measures, visibility of cases, among others.
The vindication of the right to consultation, guaranteed by Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, has led to organizations and defenders of this region of the country have suffered threats, harassment, attacks, defamation, and prosecution. The workshop was a space to share the challenges faced by the defenders and discuss strategies for their safety and protection.
An important part of the workshop was the debate on how international political advocacy can help improve the protection of criminalized defenders. The importance of preparing reports for thematic hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and of communications for relevant UN rapporteurs, as well as contact with other relevant actors, was addressed.
The participants valued the workshop in a very positive way to generate a regional space where experiences of criminalization and protection tools were shared, as well as the realization of a practical case documentation exercise. The discussion on experiences was very positive because it allowed identifying successful actions and the importance of working in a network. In addition, the workshop allowed the participants to talk about their fears and frustrations, something important for their mental health and the creation of spaces of solidarity.
PBI Honduras will continue working with defenders of the land, territory, and environment in the development of protection strategies to reduce their risk and face the criminalization they suffer.
In response to an increase in armed attacks by the Taliban and Islamic State and a decline in the security situation, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) made a training and advocacy visit to Afghanistan from 11 to 22 November that was aimed at improving the safety of Afghan journalists, with a special emphasis on women journalists. For the first time, RSF held seminars in Mazar-i-Sharif (in the northern province of Balkh), Herat (in the western province of Herat) and Charikar (in the central province of Parwan). RSF conducted a seminar in Kabul specifically for women reporters in conflict zones at the request of the Centre for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists (CPAWJ).
In all, 65 journalists (including 26 women) from 60 independent Afghan media outlets attended the seminars, which were based on the new Pashto and Persian-language versions of the Safety Guide for Journalists, published by RSF. At these seminars, RSF met journalists who are not only threatened by armed non-state groups but are also harassed by local politicians including provincial governors. "Self-censorship is the rule in order to survive," said a journalist from Balkh province who asked not to be identified. "You can talk about a lot of things but not corruption. For example, it's forbidden to talk about the seizure of state land or property by governors or their associates or allies. And 'forbidden' means there's a danger of being killed!" The governors of Balkh and Herat provinces did not respond to requests from the RSF delegation for meetings to discuss journalists' safety.
Fewer and fewer women journalists
RSF and its local partner, the Centre for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists, held a press conference in Kabul on 20 November on the situation of women journalists. The CPAWJ presented the findings of a survey of women journalists at 74 leading national and local media outlets (29 TV channels, 35 radio stations, four news agencies and six newspapers) in 22 provinces, and at four NGOs that defend media freedom and journalists. The survey found that altogether these media outlets employ a total of 1,037 women, including 474 women professional journalists, and it confirmed that the security situation in Afghanistan is having a direct impact on the presence of women in the media.
The security challenge and the importance of women in the media were central themes of the opening addresses that Sima Samar, the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and Mohammad Rasool Bawari, the acting information and culture minister, delivered at the press conference. CPWAJ director Farida Nekzad and Reza Moini, the head of RSF's Iran/Afghanistan desk, emphasized the danger that women could disappear altogether from the media sector. To prevent this, they urged the government and parliament to provide women journalists with more protection, especially in the remoter provinces.
The CPWAJ and RSF also called for amendments to the law banning violence against women, so that it gives them better protection against psychological and sexual harassment in the workplace, and for a newsroom code that protects women journalists.
Violence, chief foe of women journalists
Many women journalists have abandoned their jobs because of growing threats and the climate of violence against women. Six women media workers have been killed since the start of 2016. The situation of women journalists in the provinces of Kunduz and Nangarhar – which have seen violent clashes between the Taliban, Islamic State and the Afghan armed forces for the past two years – is indicative. Kunduz had at least 100 women journalists and media workers in 2016 but, after the Taliban attacks there, the number has plummeted. The situation is similar in Nangarhar. "Forty women journalists used to work in the Nangarhar region but now there are just a handful and they only work in the newsrooms," local journalist Rahmatullah Ziarmal said. "As well as the war, the violence, the Taliban and Islamic State, local politicians and organized crime are to blame for this." The CPAWJ survey also establishes a link between the number woman journalists and coverage of women: the fewer the women working for newspapers, the fewer the articles about women.
Afghanistan is ranked 120th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
"For me, as an Iranian artist and human rights activist, the experience of relocation is somehow a kind of escape, rather than trying to have better situation and facilities. Escape from prison, torture and daily threats. Although relocation has many difficulties and bitterness that are irrefutable, I can be free, continue writing and try for freedom and peace, at least. The very freedom I have, certainly, is a great blessing which has been achieved through relocation."
"ProtectDefenders.eu has allowed me to get acquainted with the persons who are active in the field of human rights and the at-risk artists, and make them aware of the problems of people like myself. Surely, recounting these issues can provide a basis for more accurate planning for the future. Besides, some other activists who, like me, had relocated, participated in the event. Although listening to their memories was sometimes bitter, it was a reminder of the pain that made us closer together.
If relocation is accompanied by the support and guidance of specialist persons, it can be an opportunity, instead of only escape from prison and torture; an opportunity that is not limited to being free for writing, but an experience of new cultures and humans which can be a beginning of new ideas and a more complete understanding of the world around you."
With the support of ICORN and the municipality of Lillehammer, ProtectDefenders.eu supported the relocation of Fatemeh Ekhtesari and her husband from Iran to Norway. Both defenders had to leave Iran illegally, as their passports had been confiscated, and were facing long-term imprisonment, lashing and execution sentences. ICORN was able to provide legal travel for the couple (without their passports) and ProtectDefenders.eu provided financial support for the first 3 months. In Norway, they are taking part in a national two-year introduction scheme for refugees, which includes intensive lessons in the Norwegian language, and other training to prepare and include them in the local labour market. Funding support was also dedicated to money for literary and cultural activities, including translations, participation in festivals and other relevant events, focusing on both literature and human rights. According to the testimony of Fatemeh, “the most important point of being in Norway is the feeling of freedom and safety. Here I can write without thinking about censorship. I can publish my works without stress and out of the consequences.”
As 2017 got ready to wave goodbye, The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) introduced ProtectDefenders.eu to almost a thousand LGBTI human rights defenders and allies, as they gathered together in Poland and Cambodia for the conferences of our European and Asian regions. Defenders from all over Europe met in Warsaw for four days in November around the theme ‘CHANGE! Communities Mobilising, Movements Rising’: it was an occasion to reflect on the challenges we all face in advancing human rights in a world that is growing more and more complex, and on how to do that while leaving no one behind in our ever-diverse community.
In the early days of December, then, more than 300 LGBTI human rights defenders from more than 30 countries – from Lebanon to Japan, from Pakistan to Singapore – came together in Phnom Penh under the banner “United for love”, looking back at the struggles faced by our communities in Asia in the past years and strategizing on ways forward.
Such gatherings offered us a perfect occasion to explain how ProtectDefenders.eu can provide the means to break the isolation of people working to defend the rights of LGBTI communities – exposed as they are to even higher level of stigmatization and human rights violations.
Hundreds of leaflets in English, Chinese and Russian were made available to conference participants, detailing how ProtectDefenders.eu can provide specific support to LGBTI human rights defenders at risk – including a 24/7 emergency helpline. Our staff was also available to answer every question about the mechanism, pointing out that help really is at hand.
Meanwhile, ILGA is also working to document the stories of LGBTI human rights defenders supported by the mechanism: we recently reached one of the activists who took part in the training on digital security that we organised in Bangkok, Thailand in July 2017, and a video interview will be out soon. Watch this space!
A ProtectDefenders.eu emergency grant was provided by Urgent Action Fund to TajRupt, a human rights group in Tajikistan led by women human rights defenders. TajRupt’s cornerstone program works with young women and men on a curriculum based on the UN’s Voices Against Violence program. Tajrupt also runs HerStory, a program that introduces participants to concepts such as feminism, reproductive health, and rights, female entrepreneurship and employment, the impact of early and forced marriages, preventing violence and harassment against women, and engaging communities in discussions about gender roles and gender equality.
Tajrupt began to receive threats in January 2017 from the associates of the father of one of the young women who had participated in the program. The father was radicalized and estranged from the daughter, but heard about her participation in the program and threatened retaliation. The father and his associates began to show up outside the organization’s office and shout threats at the young people participating in the programs. The group reported the threats to police and asked for assistance, but received no protection from the police. In July, the office was broken into, vandalized, and more serious threats were received. A C1 grant from Urgent Action Fund was requested and immediately enabled the group to add an alarm system and security cameras to its classrooms and offices and to hire a guard. The group also developed a security plan and provided security training to 18 staff and 102 students in its programs.
Three months later, Urgent Action Fund checked in with Tajrupt. Tajrupt reported that taking clear steps to ensure the security of its premises put students and staff at ease. Without the ability to take these steps, it is likely that families would have pulled their daughters from the program, and Tajrupt might have had to close its doors. In this case, a small and swift security investment kept a promising organization up and running and enabled continuous access to its services for over 100 young women, their families, and communities, in Tajikistan.
Civil society organizations and international organizations have observed with extreme concern the situation of violence generated in Honduras after the general elections on November 26. At least 14 people have been killed, as well as dozens of people injured and more than 840 detainees. Likewise, human rights defenders have also reported attacks against them in the electoral context.
The delay in the dissemination of definitive results and the apparent lack of transparency on the part of the TSE led to demonstrations in various parts of the country. Subsequently, on December 1st, the Honduran government decreed a curfew and the suspension of certain constitutional guarantees for 10 days. The Organization of American States (OAS) considered such measure disproportionate and requested its immediate lifting.
The population was harshly repressed by the Honduran security forces. Amnesty International denounced that "the security forces have operated with the highest levels of impunity" after the curfew. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras also expressed deep concern about the reported acts of violence and urged the Honduran government to comply with its international obligations to guarantee human rights.
In this context, PBI has observed with concern the governmental measures, the action of the security forces and the post-electoral violence, in particular, with regard to the defense of human rights. Defenders, defenders, and organizations are carrying out tasks such as case documentation, legal representation or observation. The state of exception has restricted their right to seek and disseminate information, closing a fundamental part of their workspace.
PBI urges the international community to urge the State of Honduras to comply with its obligation to guarantee the protection, promotion, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. In particular, on the importance of complying with the provisions of the United Nations Declaration on human rights defenders, in order to explicitly recognize and facilitate the monitoring, systematization, and reporting work of human rights defenders in the current context.
See here the full PBI statement.
PBI is a member of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders mechanism.
The Ambassador of Bahrain to France received on November 24th a delegation of the FIDH International Board, who handed him a letter asking his government to immediately release FIDH Deputy Secretary General, Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. A Bahraini citizen, on 22 November 2017, this iconic human rights defender saw his prison sentence confirmed on appeal. His crime? Stating publicly that journalists and human rights activists were denied entry to the country. As his health rapidly deteriorates, he is facing further judicial proceedings and judicial harassment. Coupled with the degrading treatment he is subjected to in prison, Nabeel Rajab’s life is now at risk.
In a letter given to His Excellency Mr Mohammed Abdulghaffar Abdullah, Ambassador of Bahrain to France, in fear for Nabeel’s life, FIDH calls on the Bahraini government to end all judicial harassment against Nabeel Rajab and to release him immediately.
In tweets, interviews, and op-eds published in Le Monde and The New York Times, Nabeel has denounced the lack of freedom of expression in Bahrain, where human rights activists are regularly persecuted, subjected to travel bans and imprisoned. Having spent 4 of the past 6 years behind bars, Nabeel’s two-year prison sentence was just confirmed on appeal after an unfair trial for having dared... to give media interviews.
For excercising his right to freedom of speech, Nabeel is also being prosecuted on other charges and risks 15 years in jail for tweeting about the cruel treatment inflicted on prisoners in Jaw prison and Saudi coalition bombings in Yemen.
Today Bahrain is under a total black-out, preventing human rights activists from expressing themselves or traveling and forbidding journalists and human rights defenders from investigating. In October, an FIDH delegation mandated to investigate Nabeel’s situation, as well as that of other imprisoned human rights defenders, was denied entry to the country.
Meanwhile, Nabeel’s health has deteriorated significantly. After being hospitalised, his return to prison has been marked by new persecutions and dangerous, humiliating and degrading detention conditions. Beaten on his arrival, and woken up and searched in the middle of the night, his clothes and toiletries were confiscated and his head was shaved. Today Nabeel’s life is in danger.
On Thursday 12th and Friday 13th of October, ProtectDefenders.eu participated at the working meeting of experts organised by Tbilisi Shelter City programme, in Mtshketa, Georgia.
The meeting was attended by organisations providing temporary relocation programmes for HRDs (including Truth Hounds, Front Line Defenders, FIDH, PIN, Freedom House, among others) to share experiences and discuss challenges and opportunities for further cooperation. During the two-days event, several topics were discussed, such as ethic issues, rehabilitation, security issues, communication between the relocation programmes for endangered HRD, monitoring of Human Rights abuses, and fund-raising opportunities.
The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) is calling for international solidarity in the face of recent attacks against its members, as a result of their mobilization to defend the human rights of Ogoni communities in Nigeria.
On 26 October, members of MOSOP carried out a peaceful demonstration against Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) over moves by the company to establish pipelines across Ogoni communities of the Niger Delta. The company, which is the Nigerian subsidiary of the international oil giant, Royal Dutch Shell, suspended the laying of pipelines in August of this year following protests led by MOSOP. The protest was carried out at the Nonwa pipeline site in Ogoni territory, located in Rivers State, Nigeria, after Shell proceeded to install oil pipelines in the area without conducting an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and obtaining the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the Ogoni people.
Reportedly, early in the morning of October 26, as Ogoni people sang and danced to protest the pipelines, heavily armed soldiers and police officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) arrived in many military trucks and proceeded to shoot at, and beat, the demonstrators.
Bari-ara Kpalap, MOSOP spokesperson, reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to non-violent resistance in the face of threats to their human rights and environment. MOSOP claims that the conflict with Shell over oil production in their territory has claimed over 2,000 lives and continues to generate substantial hardship for their communities. According to Ogoni leadership, Shell remains persona non grata in their territory, following the company’s expulsion in 1993. Meanwhile, MOSOP has condemned in strong terms the violence unleashed on the people by the security force, on behalf of Shell’s interests.
Calling for Shell and the Nigerian government to leave the Ogoni territory alone, in their petition, MOSOP demands an immediate and comprehensive investigation into the brutal beating of its members, for Shell and its contractors to suspend all pipeline operations until a proper environmental and social impact assessment (EIA) takes place, for medical attention for those injured during the protests and an immediate cessation of all further attacks, harassment and disruption of meetings of the indigenous organization.
Sign MOSOP’s petition to support their demands, here.
Madam Chairperson, Distinguished Commissioners and State Delegates,
The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH, in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, thank the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) for this opportunity to raise some of the key issues with respect to the situation of human rights defenders in Africa.
While States have the duty to protect human rights defenders and to ensure that they operate in a safe and enabling environment, attacks, threats, judicial harassment, criminalisation, legislative and administrative restrictions, as well as smear campaigns against them continue to perpetuate an environment of hostility towards their activities.
1. Pursuit of criminalisation threats and violence to silence human rights defenders
In several countries, we are concerned that human rights defenders are criminalised in retaliation of their peaceful and legitimate human rights activities recognised and protected under regional and international human rights instruments. Furthermore, their human rights are often violated while they are arbitrarily detained or subjected to arbitrary legal proceedings.
In Cameroon , the endless judicial harassment since 2013 of Mr. Célestin Yandal, President of the Collectif des jeunes de Touboro, a youth human rights organisation in the Adamaoua region of Cameroon, continues as he being prosecuted in two different cases under trumped up charges, for denouncing human rights violations committed by Rey-Bouba’s traditional leader (Lamido) against Touboro’s youths. Hearings in his case are continuously postponed since the opening of the trial. The Observatory denounces a flagrant violation of his right to a fair trial which includes the right to be tried within a reasonable delay.
Recently, Egyptian authorities have targeted human rights organisations and individuals providing legal support to Giulio Regeni’s family members in the investigation of Italian graduate who was abducted and tortured to death in Egypt in 2016. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) is amongst them. Likewise, Mr. Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy, human rights lawyer, Co-founder and Coordinator of the Association of the Families of the Disappeared in Egypt, who has provided legal support to Giulio Regeni’s family, was forcibly disappeared on September 10, 2017, at Cairo International Airport before boarding a flight to Geneva, where he was traveling in response to an invitation by the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances to attend the proceedings of its 113th Session at the UN Human Rights Council. The whereabouts of Mr. Metwally Hegazy remained unknown from that date until September 12, when he was reported to be located in State Security Prosecution custody, in Al-Tagammo’ al-Khamis on the outskirts of Cairo, where he had been interrogated by the State Security Prosecution (SSP). During his interrogation, he reported being tortured and his home was searched by security forces. On September 20, 2017, Egypt’s High State Security Prosecution renewed the preventive detention of Mr. Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy for 15 days pending investigation. Mr. Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy is being suspected of “founding and leading an organisation that was created illegally” (i.e. the Association of Families of the Disappeared), “spreading false news” and “communicating with foreign entities in order to undermine national security”. He is currently detained at the ‘Scorpion’ (Al-Aqrab) high security wing of Tora prison complex, in solitary confinement, in a cell with refuse and no electricity. He is being denied access to his lawyers and family.
Human rights lawyer at Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), Mr. Tarek Hussein (aka Tito), was arbitrarily arrested on June 17, 2017, under accusations of “joining an illegal organisation” and “calling for a protest”. Mr. Tarek Hussein was held incommunicado until July 27, 2017, preventing his family and lawyers to visit him. Following his enforced disappearance while in detention, Mr. Tarek Hussein’s family and lawyers filed three successive complaints regarding the various violations suffered by Mr. Tarek Hussein. In an attempt to justify his detention, authorities claimed that at least 13 verdicts had been issued all over the country against an individual named "Tarek Hussein", and in one of the cases, police claimed he was sentenced for “stealing electricity in 1993”, his birth year. During the nearly 40 days of his illegal detention, his lawyers submitted documentation and evidence to the authorities to prove that he was not the "Tarek Hussein" in question. One such case is still pending and will be heard on November 9, 2017. In addition, Mr. Tarek Hussein is being investigated under charges of “inciting protest” by the general prosecution. Mr. Tarek Hussein’s arrest and arbitrary detention occurred amidst protest over Tiran and Sanafir islands’ transfer to Saudi Arabia, which he had been vocally opposing.
Furthermore, on June 14, 2017, Ms. Esraa Fehead, Founder and Executive Director of Horeya for Human Rights Organisation in Port Said and member of the Regional Coalition for Women Human Rights Defenders in the Middle East and North Africa, was arrested in front of the Governorate Administration Building in Port Said, at the same time as Mr. Mahmoud Naguib, former member of the April 6 Youth Movement. Their arrests coincide with the June 14, 2017, peaceful protests opposing the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir Islands to Saudi Arabia, that have resulted in the arrest of 60 activists throughout the country. Many of those arrested were forcibly removed from the street or their homes, while security forces used excessive force to disperse demonstrators. Mr. Mahmoud Naguib and Ms. Esraa Fehead were both held in detention and Ms. Fehead was interrogated by the Port Said Prosecution from June 15 to June 18, 2017. She was subsequently charged with numerous offenses including: “inciting demonstrations”, “disrupting public and general security”, “disrupting production and citizens’ welfare”, “affecting public governmental facilities”, “blocking roads and transportation”, “disrupting traffic”, “attacking people and private and public possessions, and subjecting them to danger”. On June 18, 2017, Ms. Fehead and Mr. Naguib were released on a bail of EGP 10000. (approx. 495 EUR).
In Morocco , the Observatory reiterates its concerns about the ongoing judicial harassment under charges of “threat to State security” of Messrs. Maâti Monjib, historian, journalist and President of the association “Freedom Now” for freedom of expression in Morocco, Hisham Almiraat, President of the Association des droits numériques (ADN), Hicham Mansouri, Project Officer at the Association marocaine pour le journalisme d’investigation (AMJI), Mohamed Essabr, President of the Association marocaine d’éducation de la jeunesse (AMEJ), Abdessamad Ait Aicha, former training project Coordinator of the Centre Ibn Rochd, journalist and member of the AMJI. Furthermore, Mr. Rachid Tarik and Ms. Maria Moukrim, respectively President and former President of the AMJI are accused of receiving foreign funding without notifying the authorities. On October 11, 2017, the court decided to postpone their hearing for the eight time, rescheduling it on December 27, 2017.
On May 20, 2017, authorities in Niger arrested Mr. Ali Idrissa from his house outside of Niamey. As the national coordinator of the Réseau des Organisations pour la Transparence et l’Analyse Budgétaire (ROTAB) and of Publiez ce que vous payez-Niger (PCQVP), Mr. Ali Idrissa has been documenting transparency issues within the country’s uranium industry. He was arrested following the ban of a protest planned on May 20, calling for the respect of human rights and individual freedoms in Niger as well as denouncing President Issouou Mahamadou’s poor governance record. Mr. Ali Idrissa was arrested on allegations that he gave interviews to media after the protest ban. He was released later this day and further interrogated on May 22, 2017. On that day, he was notified that an investigation for “inciting rebellion” against him was still pending.
In Uganda , on June 23, 2017, Mr. Erasmus Irumba, Coordinator of the Twerwaneho Listeners Club (TLC), was set to meet with Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) senior officials in the province of Ntoroko, at Butungama trading center. Although Mr. Irumba was summoned to “discuss matters of public importance” he was told not to be suspicious as he had no criminal record and since no criminal charges were pending against him. During the meeting, Mr. Erasmus Irumba and another member of the community, Mr. Siet Kanyoro who was accompanying him, were both shot in the leg. Whilst still alive, they were both put in the boot of a private car, driven to a rural area and shot dead at a close range. Both lifeless bodies were taken to Buhinga Regional Referral Hospital in Fort Portal, on the wee hours of June 24, 2017. The Observatory condemns in the strongest terms the murder of Mr. Irumba and urges authorities in Uganda to adopt effective measures to ensure the protection of human rights defenders in the country.
In addition, since 2016, the Observatory has documented a pattern of harassment against TLC members who have been threatened, assaulted and judicially harassed by Ferdsult Engineering Services Limited, a Uganda-based engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) company accused of land grabbing in the Rwenzori region of Uganda. On September 12, 2017, TLC member, Mr. James Rukanpana was shot in both legs by armed guards hired by Ferdsult Engineering Services Limited in Kasenda, Western Uganda. Mr. James Rukanpana had been advocating for the rights of local communities, and opposing the takeover of over 20 crater lakes by Ferdsult Engineering Services Limited. He has actively participated in radio talk shows and mobilized communities on the issue. TLC and local communities filed a civil court case against the company to secure the rights of local communities to access crater lakes for water and domestic fishing. On June 7, 2017, the court found that the exclusive use of crater lakes by Ferdsult Engineering Services Limited following the lease by Kabarole District was an abuse of the rights of local communities, and ruled in favour of local communities. Mr. James Rukanpana had been intrsumental in the success of the court case.
Parallel to the civil case filed by TLC against Ferdsult Engineering Services Limited and Kabarole District Local Government, a criminal case filed by Ferdsult Engineering Services Limited has been targeting Messrs. Suleiman Trader, Jackson Magezi, Fred Kyaligonza and Prosper Businge, four TLC members who had challenged the legality of Ferdsult Engineering Services Ltd’s acquisition of 20 crater lakes and eviction of communities in Kabarole District. After being briefly detained on April 28, 2017, Messrs. Suleiman Trader and Jackson Magezi were released on April 29, 2017, on court bail pending trial. On May 3, 2017, the four human rights defenders have been charged under criminal offenses related to the use of explosives, electronic gadgets and the poisoning of fish under Chapter 197 of the 1970 Fish Act following allegations by Ferdsult Engineering Services Limited. The case is pending before Fort Portal Magistrates Court and if convicted they would face up to seven years in jail.
In Tanzania , the Observatory is extremely concerned by the wider campaign targeting human rights defenders working on HIV/AIDS on allegations of “promoting homosexuality”. On September 17, 2017, 20 people were arrested in hotel in the Stone Town area of Zanzibar City (Unguja island) as they were attending a training about HIV/AIDS education programmes.
On October 17, 2017, Tanzanian police raided a legal consultation convened by Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA) and Community Health Services and Advocacy (CHESA) at Dar es Salaam’s Peacock Hotel. Thirteen people, including ISLA Executive Director Ms. Sibongile Ndashe and CHESA Director Mr. John Kashiha were detained and subsequently granted bail on the same day without being charged. However, on October 20, 2017, the bail was revoked without any reason provided by the authorities. This followed a statement by the Police Regional Commissioner Mr. Lazaro Mambosasa, on October 18, 2017, referring to the “arrests of twelve people who were promoting homosexuality”. All twelve human rights defenders were arrested, taken into custody to Dar es Salaam Central Police Station and released on bail on October 26, 2017. However, their passports were confiscated upon release.
In addition, on June 3, 2017, Tanzania Students Networking Programme (TSNP), known for advocating and supporting the role of human rights defenders in public life and civil society at large, was denied access to the Blue Pearl Hotel, in Dar es Salaam, where they were about to organise the launch of the book Sauti ya Watetezi wa Haki Vyuoni (The Voice of Human Rights Defenders in Universities), which illustrates the harassment tactics used to remove human rights defenders from positions in higher education institutions in Tanzania, authored by Mr. Alphonce Lusako, TSNP Secretary General. The Hotel informed TNSP that they could not enter without a permission letter from the police. Three police vehicles then arrived at the hotel while event organisers were negotiating with hotel management out-front and arrested Mr. John Baraka, TSNP Coordinator. When Mr. Ole Ngurumwa Onesmo, National Coordinator of the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC), objected his arrest, he was then immediately arrested too. Both were transported to Magomeni Police Station without being notified of any charges pending against them. When THRDC lawyer Mr. Jones Sendodo asked the police about the nature of the charges, they were unable to confirm any charges and informed him they were awaiting orders from superior authorities. On the same day, Messrs. Onesmo and Baraka were later charged with criminal trespass, after Blue Pearl Hotel filed a complaint stating the men had forced the hotel to host the launch event for their colleague Mr. Alphonce Lusako. Messrs. Onesmo and Baraka were released on bail that same day, with instructions to report to the police on June 5, 2017. Reporting to the station on June 5, the men were informed that the Blue Pearl Hotel had not yet filed the documentation required to formalize its complaint. They were ordered to return on June 7, 2017. Besides, when contacted by Mr. Onesmo on June 6, the Blue Pearl Hotel had claimed to be unaware of any criminal complaint against Messrs. Baraka, and Onesmo, on June 7, Blue Pearl representatives confirmed that they had filed a complaint at the direction of an “unknown authority”. The incident described above is not the first attempt to hinder the book launch event, that was initially planned to be held at the Commission of Science Technology (COSTECH), an institution affiliated with the government of Tanzania, which, in violation of a contractual agreement, cancelled, forcing the organisers to move the event to Blue Pearl Hotel, where THRDC had already organised several events without any issue.
2. Constant reprisals against human rights defenders and civil society organisations promoting democracy and electoral rights, particularly within electoral contexts
The Observatory has documented a concerning number of cases of harassment and criminalisation targeting human rights defenders and civil society organisations promoting democracy or electoral rights, including within electoral contexts.
In Burundi , since April 2015, following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third term bid, human rights defenders continue to face increased intimidation, harassment, physical attacks and in the most worrying cases, enforced disappearance. Many have had to flee the country and continue to face intimidation in their country of relocation.
Mr. Germain Rukiki, Association des juristes catholiques du Burundi (AJCB) staff member, President of « Njabutsa Tujane », a community-based organisation fighting against poverty and hunger, and former Action des chrétiens pour l’abolition de la torture (ACAT-Burundi) staff member, has been arbitrarily detained since July 13, 2017. The Observatory has documented several infringements to his right to a fair trial since his arrest. Initially detained within the National intelligence services (SNR) premises, where he did not have access to his lawyers and family members, Mr. Rukiki was transferred after 14 days of detention to Ngozi prison where he remains detained to date. His detention was confirmed by the Tribunal de Grande Instance of Ntahangwa on August 14, 2017. Mr. Rukiki appealed the decision and on October 27, 2017. On October 31, 2017, Bujumbura’s Court of appeal upheld the decision and ordered Mr. Rukiki’s remand in custody. Mr. Rukiki is accused of “undermining State security” and “rebellion” for his cooperation with ACAT-Burundi in organising protests against President Nkurunziza’s third term bid and publishing reports on the human rights situation in Burundi.
In addition, the Observatory remains particularly concerned by the fate of Ms. Marie-Claudette Kwizera, Treasurer of the Ligue Burundaise des Droits de l’Homme « ITEKA », who was forcibly disappeared on December 10, 2015. To date, Burundian authorities have refused to provide any information about her fate or whereabouts.
In Cameroon, Ms. Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, Réseau des défenseurs des droits humains en Afrique centrale (REDHAC)’s Executive Director, has received on several occasions, including on May 30, and June 10, 2017, death threats via text messages. These threats occur in a context where REDHAC, through Ms. Ngo Mbe, has publicly spoken about the repression of the independence movement in Anglophone Cameroon since November 2016.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Congolese government’s widespread crackdown on human rights and pro-democracy activists opposing President Joseph Kabila’s effort to remain in power beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, continues as polices forces regularly arrest members of pro-democracy and youth movements ahead of or during protests and sit-ins.
On July 14 and 15, 2017, ahead of a country-wide peaceful protest denouncing the national electoral commission’s failure to publish an electoral calendar, what many considered to be a critical step to ensuring that elections will be held by the end of 2017 scheduled on July 31, 2017, the National Intelligence Agency (ANR) arrested LUCHA members Messrs. Nicolas Mbiya Kabeya, Josué Cibuabua Kalonda, Kabongo Kadima, and Ms. Mamie Ndaya in Mbuji-Mayi. The four LUCHA members were freed on September 29, 2017, after two and a half months in arbitrary detention.
On July 31, 2017, authorities arrested at least 128 people in nine cities during protests across the country, including 11 journalists and several human rights defenders. Amongst them Mr. Timothée Mbuya, lawyer, Justicia Asbl President and member of the NGO Coalition for the respect of the Constitution, Jean-Pierre Tshibitshabu, Congolese Civil Society (SOCICO) member and journalist on Kasumbalesa radio-television, Jean Mulenda, LUCHA member, Eric Omari Omba and Patrick Mbuya Kwecha, members of the Bomoko Foundation were arrested in Lubumbashi and to date remain in arbitrary detention at Kasapa Lubumbashi’ central prison. The five human rights defenders are being accused of “inciting civil disobedience”. On August 29, 2017, Jean-Pierre Tshibitshabu, Jean Mulenda, Eric Omba Omari and Patrick Mbuya Kwecha were sentenced to eight months in prison. The first appeal hearing in their case took place on October 27, 2017 and was postponed to November 3, 2017. Mr. Timothée Mbuya will appear before court on November 10, 2017.
As pressure was mounting ahead of the August 8, 2017 Presidential elections in Kenya , human rights defenders involved in monitoring, documenting and observing the electoral campaign and primaries were attacked, harassed, threatened and even arbitrarily arrested. Journalists and human rights defenders were also barred from documenting, entering or forced to leave campaign meetings. Furthermore, during these political rallies, intimidating statements and negative rhetoric against human rights defenders have been used by politicians, government, and party officials, accusing them of influencing the outcome of the elections.
In the elections’ aftermath, Kenya’s Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Coordination Board de-registered the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) and the Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG) and instructed authorities to restrain their work, on grounds of tax evasion, illegal bank accounts and illegal hiring of expatriates. The NGO Coordination Board also requested the Central Bank of Kenya to freeze KHRC’s assets and the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) to recover accrued taxes. Both organisations were at the frontline of elections monitoring and had been vocal in highlighting several concerns about the electoral process and the violence in the aftermath of the electoral results. KHRC is regularly harassed by the NGO Coordination Board which has been leading a smear campaign against the organisation on similar baseless grounds since 2015. These same allegations were successfully challenged by KHRC before the High Court in 2015. Yet, the NGO Coordination Board revived these matters in late 2016 and now against the backdrop of the disputed elections.
Furthermore, after the official announcements of the disputed results and the Kenyan Supreme Court ruling to cancel the elections results and order new elections, human rights defenders who have witnessed or attempted to document the excessive and disproportionate use of force by Kenyan security forces - including the indiscriminate use of teargas and live bullets, and extra-judicial killings - have subsequently been targeted by police, harassed and received threats.
In Morocco , amidst a growing social unrest in the Rif region, which rapidly spread to other regions of the country, several human rights defenders have been targeted by the authorities. Mr. Hamid El Mahdaoui, director of news website Baldil.info, and Mr. Rabie Al-Albak, journalist with Baldil.info in Al Hoceima, have respectively been arbitrarily detained since May 28 and July 20, 2017, for covering the protests. On September 20, 2017, Mr. Hamid El Mahdaoui was sentenced by Al Hoceima Court of Appeal to one year in prison and a 20,000 Dirhams fine (approx. 1 798 Euros) under charges of “incitement to commit a serious offence through public speech”. Mr. Hamid El Mahdaoui is also being prosecuted under charges of “failure to report attempts to undermine State security”. The trial is ongoing. Mr. Rabie Al-Albak, is being accused of receiving foreign funding to carry out propaganda activities and undermining State security. The Observatory is particularly concerned by the psychological and physical integrity of the two human rights defenders who have reportedly started long-lasting hunger strikes to protest their detention and judicial harassment.
As the Parliament of Uganda discusses the constitutional amendment to lift presidential age limit to allow President Yoweri Museveni, 73, to run for another term in 2021, authorities have attempted to silence several human rights organisations. On September 20, 2017, police raided the premises of ActionAid Uganda (AAU) and Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS) in Kampala, as well as the house of GLISS Executive Director, Mr. Godbar Tumushabe. Search warrants included allegations of “illicit transfer of funds for funding unlawful activities”. Following the search, on October 4, 2017, Mr. Arthur Larok, Country Director, and Mr. Bruno Ssemaganda, Head of Finance of AAU, were summoned to appear before the Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) on October 6, 2017. They were both further interrogated by the CID on October 10, 2017, although no charges have been levelled against them yet. On October 13, 2017, the Deputy Governor of the Bank of Uganda ordered the freezing of the five accounts held by AAU, because of the investigation the CID is conducting against the organisation under allegations of “conspiracy to commit a felony” and “money laundering”. In addition, on October 11, 2017, the Ministry of Internal Affairs requested 27 NGOs to submit specific ‘financial information’ to the NGO Bureau within a week. The information requested include bank statements of the organisations over the past three years, annual reports clearly stating activities and sources of funds from 2014 to 2016, all bank account numbers and lists of directors and executive directors’ names. The list of organisations includes AAU, GLISS and several organisations working on human rights, development, humanitarian aid and democracy. Following the publication of the list, on October 14, 2017, State Minister for Internal Affairs, Mr. Obiga Kania, told the press that “in fact they (the NGOs listed) should be closed until they submit their financial information”.
In Zimbabwe , on September 24, 2017, Pastor Evan Mawarire, prominent anti-corruption activist who led last year’s #ThisFlag protests which encouraged Zimbabweans to hold protests against President Robert Mugabe accusing him of corruption, was arbitrarily arrested and subsequently detained at Harare central police station. Pastor Mawarire had initially been charged with “subverting a constitutional government” under Section 22 (2) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, Chapter 9:23. Pastor Mawarire was taken to the Prosecutor General’s office on September 26, 2017. On the same day Harare Magistrates Court, ordered his release on the ground that under the Constitution of Zimbabwe, no one can be detained more than 48 hours without appearing before a court of law. Charges related to his arrest were consequently dropped. Similar charges levelled against him in February 2017 were dropped on September 29, 2017.
3. Legislative and administrative restrictions to freedom of association and assembly, and access to funding for NGOs
The worldwide trend undertaken by some States to restrict freedom of association and hinder the work of human rights defenders by enacting an arsenal of restrictive laws has been particularly spreading across Africa, where authorities increasingly aim to control, paralyse or even eradicate independent civil society, in blatant breach of basic human rights standards.
Civil society in Egypt is on the brink of collapse as authorities continue to intensify their wave of attacks against human rights organisations. On May 30, 2017, Egypt’s draconian NGO law was published in the Official Gazette after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi officially ratified the repressive NGO law that Egyptian Parliament approved in November 2016. The law handcuffs NGOs with regulations and strangles their funding mechanisms, essentially eliminating civil society in Egypt under the guise of national security.
NGOs will now have one year to register with the, yet to be formed, National Authority for the Regulation of Non-Governmental Foreign Organisations, created by Law 70 of 2017 for Regulating the Work of Associations and Other Institutions Working in the Field of Civil Work. This authority includes representatives of Egypt’s top national security bodies. No representatives from civil society will serve on it, instead it will be composed of representatives from the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the General Intelligence Directorate, the Administrative Control Authority, the International Cooperation Ministry, and the Money Laundering Unit. Under Law 70 of 2017 for Regulating the Work of Associations and Other Institutions Working in the Field of Civil Work, all NGOs are prohibited from conducting activities that “harm national security, public order, public morality, or public health,” vague terms that can be abused to constrain any legitimate activity. The National Authority will oversee the work of NGOs, including any funding or cooperation between Egyptian associations and any foreign entity. The law prohibits any Egyptian government body from making agreements with NGOs without the authority’s approval.
The law also strictly controls the funding of NGOs. It states that associations must obtain permission from the authority 30 days in advance to receive donations from Egyptian entities or individuals inside Egypt and must inform the Social Solidarity Ministry upon the receipt of such funds. The law further states that associations may receive funding or grants from foreign entities inside Egypt or Egyptian or foreign entities outside Egypt as long as the Authority is notified within 30 days of receipt. The Authority then has the right to reject the funding within a 60-day period following its notification. Associations may not use these funds within the 60-day review period.
Additionally, the law gives the government the authority to monitor and challenge NGOs’ day-to-day activities, from choices in leadership to the schedule of internal meetings, creating a blanket and ambiguous provision authorizing the Egyptian government to cancel a foreign NGO’s license at any time if its work is deemed to be harming national security, public safety or disturbing public order, or per the principle of reciprocity. The Observatory denounces a legislation contravening Egypt’s commitment to international and regional human rights law and undermining the essence of the right to freedom of association itself.
Egyptian authorities also continue their relentless judicial harassment of civil society organisations and human rights defenders as part of the case known as the “foreign funding case No. 173”, a five-year-old investigation into the funding and registration of independent human rights groups.
Mr. Mohamed Zaree, Egypt Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), and winner of 2017 Martin Ennals Award, was summoned to appear on May 15, and 24, 2017, before the investigative judge within the framework of the “foreign funding case No. 173”. During the interrogation session, Mr. Zaree was accused of harming Egypt’s reputation by contributing to the country’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report, undermining the country’s reputation including before the European Parliament and drafting false reports about the human rights situation in Egypt through his work at CIHRS. Mr. Zaree is charged — jointly with others human rights defenders — with receiving foreign funds for an unregistered entity (CIHRS) and using them for unlawful activities, with the intent of harming national security and interests. The Observatory recalls that CIHRS was amongst the 37 NGOs listed in the 2011 Government Fact-Finding Committee report that could be targeted under the “foreign funding case No. 173”. On September 17, 2016, the Cairo Criminal Court in Zeinhom ordered the freezing of CIHRS’ assets and those of its Director, Mr. Bahey el din Hassan, as well as those of several other defenders and NGOs. Several CIHRS members have also experienced various acts of harassment and threats.
Further infringements to the right to freedom of association were reported as on September 20, 2017, a committee from the Investment Authority, accompanied by National Security officers and a police van, entered ECRF’s headquarters office in Cairo, claiming to hold a warrant to close down the organisation and attempted to put a wax seal on the office’s door on grounds that remain unknown. No warrant was effectively presented. Lawyers present at the office rejected these claims and prevented the closure arguing that it would be illegal since ECRF is a law firm operating in accordance with national legislation. Nonetheless, the committee threatened to come again. This unannounced raid and closing attempt occurs several days after the Egyptian government blocked ECRF’s website on September 5, 2017, and one month after the publication of ECRF’s report on enforced disappearances in Egypt. The report documented 378 cases of enforced disappearances between August 2016 and August 2017, and labelled the Egyptian security apparatuses as the main actor to be held accountable for these grave human rights violations.
The Observatory expresses its concerns over the on-going attempt by the Nigerian National Assembly to pass a NGO regulatory bill to control the operations of NGOs in violation of Nigeria’s constitutional guarantees of freedom of association and assembly. The bill seeks to establish an NGO Regulatory Commission competent to register civil society organisations. According to the bill, the Commission may refuse the registration of an organisation, which would be mandatory every two years, if it deems its activities to not be in the national interests. As drafted, the NGO Bill would enlarge governmental powers to regulate, monitor the funding and operation of civil society organisations. Accordingly, civil society organisations are under the obligation to disclose sources of funding ahead of any project implementation. Furthermore, the use of funds without the commission’s permission would amount to a crime punishable by a prison term of up to 18 months.
In Tanzania , the implementation of repressive laws has allowed the ban of eight media houses and the arrest of more than twenty-seven journalists and human rights defenders. Since 2010, the government of Tanzania has enacted several laws putting additional barriers to online freedom of expression and to the work of human rights defenders. Among these new laws, the Cybercrimes Act, which came into force in September 2015, has been used as a tool to censor dissent voices and journalists and to further restrict the right to freedom of expression. The judicial harassment of JamiiMedia Managing Director Mr. Maxence Melo and shareholder Mr. Mike William illustrates this worrying pattern. On December 15, 2016, the police searched both JamiiMedia premises and Mr. Maxence Melo’s home without any warrant. Furthermore, the police interrogated some Jamii Media staff members at their office premises in Mikocheni, Dar es Salaam, and later at the Central Police Station. The police kept Mr. Melo in custody for more than 48 hours without interrogation and in absence of charges against him, in violation of Tanzanian legislation which sets a four-hour limit for police interrogation without charges. However, on December 16, 2016, that the Resident Magistrate Court of Dar-es-Salaam at Kisutu indicted Mr. Maxence Melo under three sets of charges: “obstruction of a police investigation” under the 2015 Cyber Crimes Act; “not complying with an order of disclosure of data”; as well as “managing a domain not registered in Tanzania” in contravention of the requirements of the Electronics and Postal Communications (2010) Act, Mr. Maxence Melo was eventually granted bail on December 19, 2016 pending trial. The three cases are currently being heard before Kisutu Resident Magistrate Court.
1) In view of the above-mentioned elements, the Observatory reminds States Parties of their obligation to comply with all the provisions of the African Charter, in particular those relating to the protection of human rights defenders. In that regard, States should immediately and unconditionally:
- Implement all the provisions of the 1998 United Nations (UN) Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, especially by guaranteeing in all circumstances their physical and psychological integrity and their capacity to operate in a safe and enabling environment;
- Release all defenders who are arbitrarily detained for their activities of promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association;
- Develop differentiated measures for the protection of the most vulnerable groups of human rights defenders such as land and environmental rights defenders, defenders working in rural areas, woman human rights defenders or defenders working on LGBTI issues;
- Put an end to all acts of harassment - including at the judicial level - against human rights defenders;
- Order immediate, thorough, transparent investigations into allegations of violations of the rights of human rights defenders, in order to identify all those responsible, bring them before an independent tribunal, and apply them the sanctions provided by the law;
- Refrain from adopting any provisions that do not comply with international and African standards with respect to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and abrogate or revise any such provisions that may be in force;
- Send a standing invitation to the UN and ACHPR’s Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights Defenders and facilitate their country visits.
2) More generally, the Observatory also calls upon the ACHPR to:
- Highlight the importance of the legitimate work carried out by human rights defenders, and the need for their protection from harassment and attacks, including through public speech by States Presidents and high government officials;
- Systematically raise the question of the situation of human rights defenders as well as denounce and condemn all human rights violations they face during the examination of the periodic reports of States parties to the ACHPR, and on the occasion of all visits conducted in a State party;
- Denounce the impunity that prevails with regard to these violations, and urge States to hold all those responsible to account;
- Increase its capacities to respond to urgent situations faced by human rights defenders;
- Ensure the effective implementation of ACHPR’s resolutions, concluding observations and decisions on communications in order that everyone, including human rights defenders, be able to effectively enjoy all the rights and freedoms recognised by the ACHPR, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders;
- Continue to strengthen the collaboration with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, as well as with the other regional mechanisms dedicated to the protection of human rights defenders.
Thank you for your attention.
Read here the joint statement issued on the occasion of the ProtectDefenders.eu Annual Meetings 2017 - Champions of Change.
Brussels, November 9th, 2017 - In the past year, the situation of democracy and human rights around the world continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate. Political and civil space is increasingly shrinking in numerous countries, and economic, social and cultural development often is uneven and does not include vulnerable groups. In a growing number of countries, the pressure on human rights defenders has continuously increased, and the international community has failed to bring stability and peace to regions of conflict, in sharp contrast with the efforts undertaken in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
Human rights defenders, including women and LGBTI defenders, are grassroots champions of change, and crucial pivotal actors in the drive to tackle the crises faced by the international community. In order to address the root causes of crises such as the spread of conflict - which result in forced displacement and refugee movements - radicalisation and environmental breakdown, we must provide support to those who are active on the ground fighting for positive change and inclusive development.
Human rights defenders across the world often put their lives and well-being on the line to push for democratic governance, sustainable development, gender equality and poverty reduction. According to alerts issued by four international human rights organizations,1 in 2017, more than 650 defenders have faced severe attacks and threats, and at least 400 have been subject to judicial harassment. Democracy and human rights are only possible when courageous individuals and communities are willing to stand up for them. This is what makes defenders a central keystone to development, peace-building, democratisation, and resilience.
Authoritarian and repressive regimes around the world, have become better organised, more sophisticated, and more effective at impeding the work of human rights defenders through surveillance, defamation, restrictive legislation including on access to funding, intimidation, and harassment, as well as arrests, disappearances, torture, and murder. Multinational corporations and private interests are also often implicated in repression and violation of human rights for economic gain.
As defenders face ever-increasing threats, they require protection in order to continue to do their work: Since its launch in October 2015, ProtectDefenders.eu, the EU Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society, has worked to provide support for human rights defenders under increasing threat, while recognising and legitimising their role as central promoters of development. In the past two years, ProtectDefenders.eu has provided emergency support to nearly 600 human rights defenders at risk, and granted financial assistance to more than 65 human rights organisations working in the most difficult environments. More than 250 human rights defenders facing severe threats, and their family members, have been temporarily relocated. Moreover, ProtectDefenders.eu has provided training and capacity-building to more than 3,500 human rights defenders around the world and conducted fact-finding, advocacy and outreach missions to difficult countries. Its members have developed ongoing work of monitoring and accompaniment in the field and regularly monitored attacks and threats against defenders worldwide.
Working together with defenders and international human rights organisations, the European Union and its Member States must pursue even more vigorously a progressive agenda for protection of human rights defense in the context of development and make support for independent civil society and human rights defenders a key strategic priority.
A fundamental change is needed from states, companies and all actors involved to recognize human rights defenders not as threats, but as vital assets and key partners in development. The international community, the European Union, and its Member States must meet this challenge as a matter of priority, and step up their efforts to provide protection to human rights defenders at risk.
ProtectDefenders.eu calls upon the EU and its Member States to:
1) Increase investment in support of the work of human rights defenders, ensuring the existence of long-term protection mechanisms available to support them, as well as guaranteeing that they meet existing funding commitments to human rights defenders at risk.
2) Develop specific actions to ensure the effective implementation of SDG 16 on promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies, in particular, by ensuring a safe and conducive environment for human rights defenders, ensuring that the practice of killing human rights defenders is stopped, and that the perpetrators are prosecuted and held accountable.
3) Guarantee that all development cooperation grants and loans implement a mandatory human rights impact assessment and ensure policies for the protections of HRDs working in the context of development projects.
4) Engage constructively in the development of binding legal instruments on business and human rights
ProtectDefenders.eu is the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism, established to protect defenders at high risk and facing the most difficult situations worldwide.
ProtectDefenders.eu is implemented by a Consortium of twelve international organisations with a proven track record in the field of protection, campaigning and advocacy in favor of Human Rights Defenders.