Archive for category Human Rights Activists and Journalists

Update: Petition against Israeli attack on aid ships

From SuhaibWebb.com:

While Israel maintains that it has disengaged from the Gaza Strip in 2005, its attack on defenseless civilians in international water attests to Israel’s continued occupation of Gaza.

Further, Israel has exposed its commitment, or lack thereof, of peace and a viable solution for the Palestinian people. Too long have we placed faith in this elusive peace process which promises justice for the Palestinians.

It is time that our elected officials condemn this Gaza flotilla massacre, but withhold all military financing of Israel until Israel actually shows a commitment to non-violence and peace.

Take action and make your voices heard:

1. Sign the Petition: http://www.PetitionOnline.com/Gaza2010/petition.html

2. Tell your family and friends to Sign the Petition

3. Contact President Barack Obama directly
Call: 202-456-1111
Email: www.whitehouse.gov/contact

4. Your local elected representatives
House: https://writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml

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MuslimMatters.com has published a piece dispelling the disinformation that the Israeli PR machine is busy pumping out. See it here:

Gaza Freedom Flotilla Killings: FACT CHECK (Dispelling Myths as Israeli PR Moves into Full Swing)

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Criminal attack on Gaza aid fleet; and a bit of good news from China

Freedom Flotilla aid ship

Freedom Flotilla aid ship before Israeli attack

The attack by the Israelis on a flotilla of ships bringing humanitarian aid to Gaza is outrageous. The six Freedom Flotilla ships were in international waters, had cleared customs in four different nations, and were on a peaceful mission to bring desperately needed food and medical aid to the Gaza Palestinians, who have suffered under an Israeli blockade for three years now.

The casualty count is at least 20 civilian deaths and 50 injuries. Furthermore, the Israelis have arrested and incarcerated an unknown number of aid activists, taking them to a jail in the southern Israeli desert.

Reports indicate that the Israeli commandos came on board and opened fire. The aid activists attempted to defend themselves with wooden sticks. Reports by the Israelis that some of the aid activists had knives or rods, or even guns, have been flatly contradicted by observers on board the ships, and by the Israeli commando videos themselves.

International Responses:

Various international leaders have condemned the violence.

The Turkish Prime Minister described it as an act of state terror.

U.N. General Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says he was “shocked” and demanded a full investigation.

German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said, “The German government is shocked by events in the international waters by Gaza…”.

Greek deputy foreign minister Dimitris Droutsas said, “There is no excuse. The level of violence cannot be excused … we condemn it and this is exactly the message I conveyed this morning to the Israeli ambassador.

Uri Avnery, an Israeli journalist, wrote: “This night a crime was perpetrated in the middle of the sea, by order of the government of Israel and the IDF Command A warlike attack against aid ships and deadly shooting at peace and humanitarian aid activists It is a crazy thing that only a government that crossed all red lines can do.” (Gush Shalom)

And Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg made the most important point of all: “This underlines that the blockade of Gaza should be ended as soon as possible,” Stoltenberg told reporters. “This type of military action is unacceptable. The shootings must be investigated and documented. It is clear that this is a use of force against civilians.”

Even if the Israelis had not intended to allow the Freedom Flotilla to dock, they could have found other ways of stopping it. They could have entangled the propellers (as has been previously done in similar operations), or surrounded and blockaded the fleet. These would still have been criminal actions, but that has never stopped Israel in the past, and at least there would have been no loss of life.

This action by Israel is a crime, plain and simple. Those who sanctioned it and those who perpetrated it have committed murder on the high seas.

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Inmates in a Chinese jail

Inmates in a Chinese jail

China Declares that Evidence Obtained by Torture is Inadmissible

Now, for a bit of good news. The Chinese government has declared that confessions obtained by means of torture can no longer be used in Chinese courts to prove guilt. This came about as a result of the case of Zhao Zuohai, who spent 11 years in jail for a murder that never happened. He says he was beaten by police until he confessed. Eleven years later, his “victim” was found to be still living. The Chinese government freed Zhao and paid him $96,000 in compensation. Two of the policemen who beat him have been arrested.

In fact laws banning torture are already in place in China, but are widely disregarded by the authorities. Convictions in Chinese courts depend heavily on confessions rather than the investigation and evidence-based systems found in the West, so Chinese police feel pressure to beat suspects into confessing.

I’m not naive enough to think that this will end torture in China, or will instantly end the routine beating of suspects. Nor does it ameliorate China’s abominable human rights record, with its oppression of human rights activists, use of secret prisons, and suppression of ethnic minorities.

But simply acknowledging the existence of one serious problem and declaring it to be unacceptable is a significant step in the right direction.

“Big Progress”

The Chinese government issued two new sets of procedures in the use of evidence – the first covers cases subject to the death penalty, and the second rules on evidence obtained under duress in all criminal cases.

For people appealing against the death penalty, testimony given under duress and evidence from unnamed sources is now to be excluded.

Death-penalty defendants have also been given the right to ask for an investigation into whether their testimony was obtained illegally.

Legal expert Zhao Bingzhi told the state-run China Daily that it was the first time a “systematic and clear regulation” had been given on the issue.

“Previously we could only infer from abstract laws that illegal evidence is not allowed. But in reality, in many cases, such evidence was considered valid,” he said. “This is big progress, both for the legal system and for better protection of human rights. It will help reduce the number of executions.”

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Should Vladimir Putin be Respected as a Judo Practitioner?

Vladimir Putin doing JudoMany people don’t know that Russia’s President Putin has been a long time practitioner of the sport of Judo. In sixth grade he took up the Russian grappling sport of Sambo, and then Judo. He eventually graduated to the high rank of 5th Dan in Judo, authored a Judo book, and a few years ago put out a DVD titled, “Let’s Learn Judo With Vladimir Putin.”

I also practice and teach martial arts, and I subscribe to the blogs of some well known martial artists. One extremely skilled martial artist, and someone who I have the greatest respect for, recently wrote a post expressing pleasure that Putin’s practice of Judo has helped to popularize martial arts.

Certainly it’s good to see a well-known figure publicizing martial arts. However, I’d be happier if it weren’t someone who is essentially a war criminal. Under Putin’s watch, hundreds to thousands of civilians have been kidnapped, tortured or “disappeared” in Chechnya.

Russian police in Russia itself are notorious for torture. And within the military, humiliation and torture of recruits is common. Journalists and human rights activists who try to speak out about these matters take their lives into their hands.

Consider the murders of opposition figures and journalists such as Anna Politkskaya, Yuri Schekochikhin, Galina Starovoitova, Sergei Yushenkov, as well as imprisonments of human rights defenders, scientists, and journalists like Trepashkin, Igor Sutyagin, and Valentin Danilov.

Some might say, “Well, we are speaking of him as a sportsman, not a politician.” I know that’s the argument of those who are against politicizing the Olympics, for example.

But why should we legitimize him in that way? If an ordinary citizen committed such crimes he would be a terrorist. Why should someone be allowed to hide behind the veil of presidential authority and therefore excused from responsibility from terrible crimes?

As a human rights blogger, I condemn Putin’s human rights record. As a martial artist, I still condemn him. Being able to throw someone to the mat does not excuse murder.

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Support Umida Akhmedova

Umida Akhmedova

Umida Akhmedova

Please support Uzbek photographer Umida Akhmedova, who has been charged with defamation for publishing photos of the everyday lives of the Uzbek people.

Sign this Online petition – Stop the criminal suit against prominent photographer Umida Akhmedova.

Also please call or email the Uzbekistan embassy in your country and ask them to stop the persecution of Umida Akhmedova.

See the bottom of this post for contact information for the Uzbekistan embassy and President, and for a sample letter you can send.

Email the press office of the President of Uzbekistan, Mr. Islam Karimov:

presidents_office@press-service.uz

Why Should We Care?

Although this blog is titled, “Abolish Torture”, I am also concerned about political imprisonment, attacks on journalists and human rights activists, and laws curbing freedom of expression.

Why? Because when freedom of expression is denied, dictatorial governments can inflict any sort of barbarity on their people, and no one can speak out. No voice can be raised.

The Accusation

Uzbek photographer Umida Akhmedova published an album of photos in 2007 called “Women and Men: from Dawn to Dusk”. It contains over 100 photos of Uzbek people – rural people, in particular – often engaging in traditional rites and customs.

The Uzbekistan authorities have accused Ms. Akhmedova of portraying the Uzbek people as backward. She has been charged with defamation and insulting Uzbek traditions. The general prosecutor’s office in the capital, Tashkent, set up a special commission to study the photographs, and the commission subsequently decided that the photographs distort reality, ignoring the modern aspects of life in the Uzbek capital, and focusing on images that portray Uzbekistan’s people as poor, suffering, unattractive or primitive.

Umida Akhmedova is now awaiting trial and has been banned from leaving the country. If convicted she faces up to six months in prison or three years of labor.

Umida Akhmedova

Umida Akhmedova

According to the information received, on December 16, 2009 Ms. Umida Ahmedova was informed by the Mirobod Department of Internal Affairs (RDIA) that she was facing charges of “slander” and “insult” (respectively Articles 139 and 140 of the Uzbek Criminal Code) of the Uzbek people.

Those charges were brought by the Tashkent Prosecutor’s Office, in relation to her book of photographs entitled “Women and Men: From Dawn to Dusk”, which was published in 2007 and contains 110 photographs reflecting the life and traditions of Uzbek people, as well as to her documentary films “Women and Men in Customs” and “Rituals and Virginity Code”. She is facing up to six months’ imprisonment or from two to three years of “correctional work”.

These charges follow an investigation carried out in November 2009 by the Uzbek Agency of Media and Information into several books and films on gender issues that were produced in collaboration with the Gender Programme of the Swiss Embassy in Tashkent.

Umida says that the first time she was called by police was on November 17, 2009. Captain Nodir Akhmadzhanov invited her to Mirabod RDIA to give a statement regarding her “Women and Men: from Dawn to Dusk” album.

According to Umida Akhmedova, captain Nodir Akhmadzhanov, investigator of the Tashkent [EN] city police department, told her that the criminal charges have been filed against all local authors who cooperated with the Gender Program of the Swiss Embassy. There is no information on other authors against whom the charges were filed.

The investigator interviewed Umida for two hours and asked questions related to Akhmedova’s participation in the production of the photo album and such documentary films as “Men and Women: Rites and ritual” and “The Burden of Virginity”.

“He does not even know what the ethnography is,” Umida said. “I said I did ethnography. He asked ‘What is that?’

“I said, ‘In my work I am mainly interested in the ethnographic side of people’s lifestyle. I photograph ethnic rites, traditions and weddings.

“Where is the slander?’ The question remained without answer.”

Photographs Matter

I agree that many of Ms. Akhmedova’s photos portray Uzbek people and customs negatively. But that’s not the point. The freedom to take and publish photographs is important.

A photograph titled, “Migrant Mother”, taken in 1936 in the USA, triggered a public outcry and spurred federal relief to suffering migrants. A photograph titled, “”Murder of a Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief”, taken in Vietnam in 1968 by Eddie Adams, played a part in turning the American public against the Vietnam War. A photograph of starving children in Biafra (Africa) in 1969 shocked the world and prompted an outpouring of aid. The photograph of a Chinese man standing fearlessly before a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 gave hope to Chinese people struggling for freedom. The photographs of American abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib woke up the American public to the dangers of neglecting human rights standards.

Photographs matter, and the freedom to take and publish them must not be curtailed.

Exposing Desperate Poverty

Global Voices Online writes,

Many believe that the main reason for prosecution of photographer Umida Akhmedova is her active civil position.Albatrossdoc writes (ru) that Umida Akhmedova and her husband Oleg Karpov (director of Tashkent Film Museum) were way too active for Uzbekistan – making films, photos and showing social topical movies in the Film Museum.

Albatrossdoc guesses that there could be people, who didn’t like it. The Museum has been closed for the last three months and no official explanation was given.

Having a look at Umida’s pictures one can see that she makes photos of the ordinary Uzbek people. Many of them live in poverty – and many are in desperate poverty.

Exposing this poverty is necessary to spur change. It must not be considered a crime.

Here are some of Ms. Ahmedova’s photos:

Some People to Contact:

President Islam Karimov
Office of the President
43 Uzbekistan Avenue
700163 Tashkent
Email: presidents_office@press-service.uz

Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan in the United States:

Phone: (202) 887-5300
Fax: (202) 293-6804
Mailing Address:
Embassy of Uzbekistan
1746 Massachusetts Avenue,
N.W., Washington, D.C.
20036-1903
Email: info@uzbekistan.org

Sample Letter

This is an example of a letter you can send to the embassy or email to the President of Uzbekistan. Feel free to personalize it to reflect your thoughts or concerns:

Dear Sirs,

I am writing concerning the Impending trial of Umida Akhmedova, as reported by many news outlets including the BBC:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8473285.stm

As believer in Human Rights, I feel it would be a serious injustice to prosecute a photographer for such documentary photography. Ms. Akhmedova’s prosecution will be rightly seen as an offense against freedom of expression, free press and free speech. I particularly feel it would be unfortunate considering that “Improvement in human rights now a top government priority” (your website: http://www.uzbekistan.org/social_issues/ ).

I don’t agree that the photos accompanying the BBC story defame and insult Uzbek traditions. I saw a series of beautiful photos illustrating a picturesque country with interesting social customs and sights.

Even if it is true that some photos depict poverty and hardship, the appropriate response to this is to work to alleviate these conditions, not to persecute the photographer.

Please end the unfortunate and unjust prosecution of Umida Akhmedova.

Sincerely

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Sister Ortiz Speaks Out: Fighting to End Torture

Sr. Dianna Ortiz founded the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC), an organization of torture survivors. An Ursuline missionary, Sister Ortiz survived the torture in Guatemala in 1989. She testified June 25, 2009 before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Capitol Hill.

Sr. Dianna Ortiz founded the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC), an organization of torture survivors. An Ursuline missionary, Sister Ortiz survived the torture in Guatemala in 1989. She testified June 25, 2009 before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Capitol Hill.

BY HEATHER K. STRACK
MEREDITH M. WILSON
Published in Issue 6.14 of the Dartmouth Free Press

Sister Dianna Ortiz, an Ursuline nun, is executive director of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International in Washington, D.C. She was tortured in Guatemala in 1989 after spending two years there as a Catholic missionary teaching Mayan children. She is the author of The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth.

Sister Dianna Ortiz came to speak at Dartmouth on Thursday, April 6, about her experiences as a victim of torture in Guatemala in’89. She was there as a missionary with the Ursuline order of nuns, teaching in an indigenous-populated village. After being abducted and interrogated, Sister Ortiz was burned with cigarettes, repeatedly raped, and endured many other horrors, including being forced to aid in the torturing of another prisoner. Although she suffered amnesia and still grapples with the painful memories she has regained, Sister Ortiz has chosen to speak out. The organization she founded, Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International, provides survivors themselves with a voice in the fight to end torture. Just before her speech at Dartmouth, she spoke with the Free Press about her beliefs and work.

DFP: Could you tell us about what was happening in Guatemala—what you were doing there, and what were the political circumstances that led to your torture?

Sister Dianna Ortiz: I went to Guatemala in’87. At that time, a civilian president had been elected, so I think there was this belief that the civil war in Guatemala had tapered off, and that the human rights violations were no longer as extensive as they had been in the past. And when I went, I think that I had that image in my mind as well. But when I arrived in Guatemala, it was evident there was a great deal of political violence––and a lot of silence, and I couldn’t understand why people were silent and not out there denouncing the atrocities being committed by their government, but now I understand. I [was in] San Miguel, a small town with an indigenous community, a very poor area [and] a lot of violence had occurred in that section of the country.

DFP: What were they trying to accomplish by torturing you, a nun?

SDO: That has been a question that I have asked for years… The people began to talk about some of the injustices that they were facing, and I remember from time to time the military would come to the village and then just pull young kids, young boys, off the streets, then take them to do forced military service. And the parents, the families would come to us and ask for assistance. We [the nuns] were familiar with some of the constitution of Guatemala, and that was a violation in terms of their rights, and so that could be one of the reasons. I was basically teaching children, and teaching them that they had basic rights, and when the children were adults, to recognize that they had basic rights and have the courage to speak out against the injustices. Maybe that’s one of the reasons, I don’t know.

DFP: Anti-torture activists often make the case that torture does not extract accurate and useful information, because victims will usually say anything to make the torture stop. So instead of getting actionable intelligence, the torturers get false confessions, incriminations of innocent people, and fabricated tactical information. Obviously, as a survivor of torture, you have a uniquely informed perspective on this. Does torture produce useful information, or can governments ever gain anything by using torture?

SDO: I don’t believe so. No. Torture doesn’t work… Under torture, a person will admit to anything, disclose anything, even if it’s false. Any information obtained under torture is not reliable.

DFP: Why do you feel there has been a lack of public knowledge about this practice?

SDO: I would not say it’s a lack of knowledge; I would say it’s denial, indifference, fear. Since 9/11, people around the country want to do whatever is necessary to protect our borders, and I’m not saying that we should not defend ourselves—it’s important to protect ourselves—but violence only begets violence, and torture is not the solution to this so-called War on Terror.

DFP: Do you think that the War on Terror can be successfully accomplished without torture?

SDO: I do. I believe in dialogue.

DFP: What is your response to those who argue that the destruction of one life is worth discovering information that will save thousands from a terrorist attack?

SDO: Torture can never be justified. Who is to say this person has a right to live, and this person doesn’t? It’s zero tolerance for torture, under any circumstance.

DFP: What is your position on the interrogations at Guantánamo Bay? In your view, do any of the questioning tactics used there constitute torture?

SDO: It is torture. Period. People may not often see interrogation as a form of torture, but it is a form of torture. I don’t want to go back to my experience, but I think about when I was detained, and my torture began with the interrogation. And the good cop/bad cop image. The use of instruments in my situation — cigarettes were used as part of the interrogation — so when I hear the word interrogation, I immediately identify it with torture. I would say a majority of survivors also identify interrogation with the beginning of their torture.

DFP: Do you feel that it is just as wrong as torture as it is employed elsewhere? Or is it different, lesser, or somehow justifiable?

SDO: It’s similar. For instance, this concept of refining torture—saying that torture really isn’t torture. For instance, right now they talk about waterboarding, shackling, [IRFing], and they say it’s not torture.

DFP: Do you think the U.S. needs to reassess its definition of torture?

SDO: I don’t believe so. There already is a definition. It’s almost like opening a Pandora’s Box—we could say we’d need to redefine every law that exists.

DFP: You’re the director of Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC), an anti-torture group “founded by and for torture survivors.” Could you tell us about your organization, its mission, and successes?

SDO: Our organization is comprised of torture survivors from around the world. Our main objective is to work towards the abolition of torture. We believe the voices of survivors are [some of the most] important voices in the campaign to end torture. I’m not sure I would call this a success, [but] when TASSC first started, we were a pocket of six people, and [soon] were over 200, and that doesn’t include family members. I say that I question that that really is a success, because I think it really reveals the severity of the problem of torture in today’s world.

DFP: What obstacles does TASSC encounter when working to achieve its goals?

SDO: Well, first of all, I think that sometimes people look at torture survivors as fragile, unstable; and I would not say that we’re not fragile. We are, but there’s also resilience. We are committed to working towards the abolition of torture, not for any political reason. We believe that no one should be subjected to torture. In my dealings with our numbers, I have never heard survivors wish torture on their torturers.

Another obstacle is people often say to us that we’re not being realistic, that it’s impossible to abolish torture. We are of the belief that it is possible. We may not see the abolition of torture in our lifetime, but maybe the next generation. I often think of a friend of mine who was involved in the Civil Rights movement, and he often says to me: when he was a child, and he saw his parents working to bring about change during the Civil Rights movement, that he always questioned if it was going to make a difference. And today, when he looks back, he sees the accomplishments. It’s not perfect, but the idea is to plant a seed. The seed begins to germinate, and hopefully produces good fruit, in this case, the abolition of torture. Maybe it will be just one government to say they will not use torture, but this is a success.

DFP: Obviously your experience drove you to become an energetic anti-torture advocate. How else did it affect your life?

SDO: Torture has tainted every part of my life. Just earlier, the tape recorder [used by the DFP interviewers to record interviews] took me back to Guatemala. Even asking questions, that takes me back. I identify questions with interrogations, so I have to say to myself, Dianna, you’re not there, you’re here.

I’m not the same person I was. I was a teacher. I hope that someday…well, I feel that I am probably more aware of the injustices, the oppression that exists in the world, and I am sad to say that such an experience as torture opened my eyes to the reality. I have more compassion for people who suffer various types of trouble, never comparing pain, accepting people [as] they are.

DFP: How do most survivors of torture cope?

SDO: I don’t think there is a definite one answer for that. Each person deals with his or her torture the best way that he or she can. I think that we share a common language… we sometimes refer to our survival skills as “transitional survival skills,” for instance, to leave the light on at night, drinking coffee, staying away from people and sites where perhaps cigarettes are being used. Some people get involved in human rights. I think that has been the case with a number of our members. Some go out and speak. It takes an emotional toll for folks. There are some survivors who don’t even want to deal with it, and try to live as normal a life as possible. Then there are those who do take their lives.

DFP: How can we better empower other torture survivors to speak out?

SDO: Providing forums, I think, is one way. We do believe that the voices of survivors are vital in this campaign to abolish torture. Empowering survivors means also treating them like they’re human, and not feeling sorry for them. Sometimes there’s a tendency for that. We always say we don’t want sympathy—we want people to wake up. See the world through our eyes, even though I don’t believe that is possible. To see that torture is the plague of the 21st century.

DFP: Why do you speak out?

SDO: I believe that it is my moral obligation to speak about the issue of torture, about what I witnessed and experienced, but I also made a promise to those who were with me in the torture chamber that if I survived I would speak, and tell the world exactly what I had witnessed in the clandestine prison. So I am committed to that promise, every day I renew that commitment. Sometimes I feel like I’m not sure I can do it today.

DFP: Thank you very much, Sister.

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Why Have Muslims Been Silent on Human Rights and Torture?

A Muslim calling the adhan. Muslims have consistently spoken out on human rights issues.

A Muslim calling the adhan. Muslims have consistently spoken out on human rights issues.

Answer: Muslims have not been silent on human rights. My founding of this website, and my statement that I want to bring Muslims into the arena of anti-torture work, is not meant to imply that other Muslims have been silent in this area.

Actually, many Muslim organizations have issued repeated condemnations of torture in general, and of specific incidents of human rights abuses as they have occurred, both in the West and in the Muslim world.

In addition, there are Islamic organizations devoted solely to human rights issues, again both in the West and in the Muslim world.

Human rights workers in the Muslim world have showed amazing bravery, speaking up on these issues even as their members have frequently been arrested, imprisoned, and tortured.

Even in the West, Muslims who write too frequently about human rights abuses by countries like the USA, Israel and Russia have been subjected to governmental scrutiny and questioning, on the theory that, for example, any Muslim who is overly concerned by Russia’s human rights abuses in Chechnya may have ties to the Chechen resistance fighters, who are considered to be terrorists.

The one area that is lacking (and I could be wrong even about this) is that I do not see any Muslim organizations in the West devoted specifically to the issues of torture and political imprisonment, perhaps because of the fear of intimidation that I mentioned.

Therefore I have started this website to fill that gap. It is a vitally important issue, one that has been weighing on my mind for years, and I am glad to finally be addressing it directly.

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Justice for the Killing of Natalia Estemirova

Natalia Estemirova, human rights activist murdered in Chechnya

Natalia Estemirova, human rights activist murdered in Chechnya

Historical Background

Russia first began extending its rule over the Caucasus region in the late 1700’s. Ever since then the Chechens, a fierce Muslim people of the mountains, have been fighting for their freedom. The most famous Chechen opposition leader was Avar Imam Shamil, who led the fight against the Russians from 1834 to 1859.

The history of Russian control of Chechnya has been filled with abuses on a large and small scale, with the most outrageous being Stalin’s deportation of the entire Chechen and Ingush populations to Kazakhstan in 1944.

More recently, the First Chechen War of 1994 to 1996, and the Second Chechen War (which began in 199 and continues on a low-level basis) have been characterized by massive civilian deaths, war crimes on both sides, the creation of large refugee populations, widespread torture by the Russians and their local clients, and the murder by the Russians of reporters and human rights activists.

Anna Politkovskaya

Investigating abuses by the Russians (including death squad executions, disappearances and torture) has become one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. One of the best known cases was the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. Politkovskaya was a Russian journalist who was well known for her opposition to the Russian occupation of Chechnya, and her criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Politkovskaya had given an interview to Radio Free Europe the week before her death in which she said she was a witness in a criminal case against Ramzan Kadyrov (Moscow’s puppet ruler in Chechnya) in connection with abductions in Chechnya—a case based on her reporting. In that same interview, she called Kadyrov the “Stalin of our days”.

The European Union and many governments condemned the murder of Politkovskaya, calling for a thorough investigation into the crime by Russian authorities. Though suspects were later arrested and taken to trial, they were ultimately acquitted, and the true actors behind this contemptible crime remain unknown and unpunished.

Natalia Estemirova

Now the world witnesses the murder of yet another brave soul working in Chechnya, Natalia Estemirova.

Natalia Estemirova, a leading human rights activist in the troubled Russian republic of Chechnya and a close colleague of Human Rights Watch, was abducted near her home in Grozny on the morning of July 15, 2009, and carried off in a car as people on a nearby balcony heard her call out that she was being kidnapped. She was found shot dead later that day in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.

As a researcher with the leading Russian human rights group Memorial, Estemirova had been at the forefront of efforts to investigate human rights abuses and seek justice for their victims for close to a decade. She worked closely with Human Rights Watch, including on its recent investigations into the punitive killings and house burnings against people suspected by Chechen authorities of having links to rebels. She was honored by Human Rights Watch as a recipient of their Human Rights Defender Award in 2007, and received many other international prizes in recognition of her important human rights work, including the European Parliament’s Robert Schuman medal in 2005, and the “Right to Life” award from the Swedish Parliament in 2004. She was the first recipient of the Anna Politkovskaya prize, in honor of the slain Russian journalist.

Please call on President Medvedev to ensure a comprehensive, independent, and transparent investigation into the murder of Natalia Estemirova.

To send a message demanding an investigation into Ms. Estimirova’s death, click here.

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I was Burned, Raped and Tortured Under U.S. Direction

Sister Dianna Ortiz, torture survivor and anti-torture activist
Sister Dianna Ortiz, torture survivor and anti-torture activist
By Sister Dianna Ortiz
July 2004

Sister Dianna Ortiz, an Ursuline nun, is executive director of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International in Washington, D.C. She was tortured in Guatemala in 1989 after spending two years there as a Catholic missionary teaching Mayan children. She is the author of The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth.

On November 2, 1989, I was abducted by Guatemalan security forces and taken to a clandestine prison, where I was burned with cigarettes more than 111 times, raped repeatedly, and subjected to other forms of torture. While there, I met the man my torturers referred to as their boss.

He was an American.

Later, when I first spoke of this man publicly, many of my fellow citizens here in the United States had difficulty believing that an American could be involved in torture, much less be boss of a squad of torturers. Even fewer would accept that he was undoubtedly acting on orders from superiors.

I hope this is easier to believe today.

News of U.S. military involvement in cruel prisoner abuse in Iraq and against our captives from Afghanistan should not surprise foreign policy experts or anyone familiar with U.S. involvement in many developing nations. Not only have U.S. presidents supported governments that
systematically engaged in torture, they have presided over administrations that taught torture to foreign military personnel and practiced it as well. The abuses I experienced first-hand also occurred in prisons in El Salvador, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and the Philippines while those countries received U.S. military aid.

Our leaders who violated U.S. law by ordering torture or knowingly permitting it have evaded responsibility for their actions largely by hiding incriminating documents from the rest of us by classifying them, turning into state secrets this information the public had a right to know. The usual justification is the protection of “sources and methods.” As a result, U.S. torturers and torture instructors have long been protected.

Due to government secrecy, we do not know all the details, but anyone who wants to do so can learn enough to be convinced that our government has been involved in torture.

Naturally, most citizens don’t want to know, don’t want to believe. Knowing and believing that our government is guilty of torture makes us uncomfortable. The demands of torture survivors like me and others who have sought to declassify the facts have gone unheeded. The government we are accusing of torture is in charge of deciding whether to release the documents that would prove our accusations.

Today’s situation is different. Those U.S. leaders responsible for torture in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq either did not know about the photographs or did not foresee their impact. Now our top leaders have taken “official notice” of torture. The issue has become so public that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush have apologized.

But their apologies do not go far enough for me or any other torture survivor who has suffered from U.S.-supported abuse. Our leaders have voiced regret that a “few bad apples” tarnished America’s human rights record. In fact, there have been quite a few apologies—but not enough consequences. Rumsfeld, for example, apologized because it happened “on his watch.” But does that mean he was responsible? Apparently not. He seems to have suffered no consequences. For this administration, the buck stops with a few bad apples.

Thanks to leaked memos, we now know that the White House was fully aware of attempts to redefine torture as “not torture,” under the impetus of some Justice Department lawyers and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales.

Even if only the people around him were plotting to make torture acceptable under U.S. law, should Bush be exonerated? If he is so irrelevant or ignorant, should we not demand to know who is truly the chief executive?

I want to say, “Of course. We’ve known all along this was going on,” but until now, few would listen—perhaps because there were no photographs. But my second reaction is pure horror, or rather, a revisiting of horror. There it is again—this time all over the front pages. What was done to these detainees brings me and many others back to our own prison cells, to our own torturers. Again we live under their control. Again we experience indescribable pain and suffering. Doesn’t our government know what it is permitting?

Dark as the deeds of our leaders, there is a ray of hope. The media is tearing down the walls of silence that has surrounded our torture policies. Now it is our responsibility. We all must express outrage at what has been done in our name. That outrage has power—the power to compel our leaders never to permit torture again.

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