18 Important Human Rights Developments in 2015

human rightsCan you believe 2015 is almost over (and that the last time we blogged was over a year ago)? We accomplished so much in the past year and half, but this post is going to focus on 2015. This year was a big year for human rights, with both major milestones and major setbacks. Here are 18 important human rights developments that have taken place, or will take place, in 2015:

January 9

Raif Badawi, a blogger and prisoner of conscience sentenced by Saudi Arabia to 10 years and 1,000 lashes is publicly flogged for the first time. While the immediate global outcry helps prevent additional floggings, he remains behind bars. Raif’s cruel and unjust sentence is upheld by the Saudi Arabian Supreme Court in June, casting a further stain on that country’s already bleak human rights record.

January 22

A young woman imprisoned after suffering a miscarriage is granted a pardon by El Salvador’s Parliamentary Assembly – giving hope to the other 15 women languishing in jail on similar charges.

Update: One of those 15 other women is Teodora del Carmen Vasquez, who suffered a still-birth in 2007 and was sentenced to 30 years in prison for “aggravated homicide.” She’s one of Amnesty International’s Write for Rights cases this year.

March 10

Amnesty calls on Mexican authorities to investigate and address torture after the United Nations releases a scathing report detailing how this sickening practice is widespread among the country’ police and security forces.

April 28

Amnesty calls on Paraguay to repeal its draconian anti-abortion law after a 10-year-old girl who became pregnant after she was repeatedly raped, allegedly by her stepfather, is denied the option of an abortion.

Update: The girl, now 11, gave birth in August.

May 6

The Chicago City Council passes landmark legislation providing reparations for torture committed by former Chicago Police commander Jon Burge and detectives under his command. The reparations package marks the first time that survivors of ractially motivated police torture in the United States have been given the reparations they are entitled to under international law.

May 21

Legendary folk singer Joan Baez and world -renowned artist Ai WeiWei are awarded the 2015 Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award, which recognizes those who have shown exceptional leadership in the fight for human rights through their life and work.

May 27

Nebraska becomes the 19th U.S. state to abolish the death penalty.

Update: Nebraska’s repeal is still in limbo. A petition drive to overturn the abolition succeeded in getting enough votes, so the state will vote on a statewide referendum in November 2016. It’s important to note that Gov. Pete Ricketts, whose veto of the death penalty was overturned by the unicameral legislature, spent $200,000 of his own money to fund the petition drive.

June 1

Amnesty declares the expiration of the USA Patriot Act a symbolic repudiation of the claim that “national security” justifies giving the government an indefinite license to commit systematic rights violations.

June 8

U.S. District Judge James Brady grants Louisiana prisoner Albert Woodfox unconditional release after he has languished in solitary confinement for more than four decades and had his conviction overturned three times. The State of Louisiana has appealed the ruling and Amnesty continues to advocate for Albert’s freedom.

June 26

The Supreme Court of the United States issues a historic ruling affirming the right of same-sex couples across the country to legally marry.

Amnesty marks International Day in Support of Victims of Torture with a global push for governments to respect the ban on torture and hold torturers accountable.

July 9

Amnesty calls on Chinese authorities to end their assault on human rights lawyers after more than 200 lawyers and activists were targeted by police in a nationwide crackdown.

August 7

Amnesty marks the one-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by shining the spotlight on the use of lethal force and racially discriminatory conduct by law enforcement officers and calling for reforms at the local, state and national levels.

August 11

An Amnesty investigation on sexual abuse by UN peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic sends shock waves globally, leading UN Sec. General Ban Ki-moon to remove the head of the Peacekeeping Operation and triggering a call for reform of accountability measures for UN peacekeeping troops around the world.

September 8

A Union of Protection: Amnesty International’s Agenda for Refugee Protection in Europe is released, setting out the urgently needed changes in Europe’s approach to the escalating refugee crisis.

September 15

Amnesty USA brings Ensaf Haidar, wife of Raif Badawi, to Washington to lobby the U.S. government to do more to convince Saudi Arabia to free Raif and respect the rights of all people.

September 23

Al Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were pardoned by Egyptian leader Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. In August, Amnesty International had said the guilty verdicts handed down against the two journalists Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were an affront to justice that sounded the death knell for freedom of expression in Egypt. Journalist colleague Peter Greste, who had left Egypt, had also been convicted in his absence.

September 25

The U.K. government announces that Shaker Aamer, held for over a decade without charge at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, will be transferred to the U.K., where his family resides.

December 4 – 18

Amnesty International holds Write for Rights, the world’s largest human rights event, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people to send letters on behalf of 12 cases of individuals at risk, including prisoners of conscience.

Update: Join Amnesty STL for their own Write for Rights event on Dec. 12! We’ll be at Schafly Bottleworks from 4 – 9 p.m. writing letters and having a good time. If you want to take action against human rights abuses and help those in need, then please stop by on Dec. 12 to write some letters! Even just one letter would make a huge difference!

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Russia Needs to Stop Arresting Human Rights Activists

Bolotnaya 3 RussiaThe 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia are just around the corner. Although the country has made headlines for its treatment of the LGBT community, Russia also hasn’t been kind to those who actively oppose the government. Pussy Riot is a prime example, but the Bolotnaya 3 is another example of Russia arresting people solely for peacefully exercising their freedom of expression.

The Bolotnaya 3 – Vladimir Akimenkov, Artiom Saviolov and Mikhail Kosenko – were three men among tens of thousands that protested the reelection of Vladimir Putin in Moscow’ Bolotnaya Square. The protest started peacefully, but then broke out into localized violence. Over 650 people were detained and 47 others were hospitalized. The three men were among those who were detained.

Akimenkov, Saviolov and Kosenko were released, only to be rearrested a month later for “participating in mass riots.” Police allege that Kosenko and Saviolov used force against them, but eyewitness accounts and video footage contradict these allegations. Despite this, all three men are held without bail and were committed to a psychiatric unit in 2013. Amnesty International considers the three men prisoners of conscience, and need to be released immediately and unconditionally.

Sample Letter

Yurii Yakovlevich Chaika
Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation
Prosecutor General’s Office
Ul. B. Dmitrovka, d. 15a
125993 Moscow GSP-3

RUSSIAN FEDERATION

Dear Prosecutor General,

I am writing to call for the release of Vladimir Akimenkov, Artiom Saviolov and Mikhail Kosenko. These three men are prisoners of conscience, unjustly detained for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly while participating in the Bolotnaya Square protest on May 6, 2012. Video evidence >supports their claims of innocence, and police statements against Akimenkov and Saviolov have changed substantially since the protests.

Furthermore, Mikhail Kosenko has been sentenced to forcible psychiatric treatment and may be deprived of his freedom indefinitely. There is no evidence that he poses a risk to himself or society, nor was he given an independent medical exam to assess his mental health.

I am also concerned that the health of Akimenkov and Saviolov is reportedly deteriorating in detention. Akimenkov, Saviolov and Kosenko all should be immediately and unconditionally released, but while they are detained, I respectfully urge you to guarantee that they receive appropriate medical care.

While I recognize that a considerable amount of violence broke out in Moscow on May 6, it is imperative that Russian authorities uphold all Bolotnaya detainees’ right to a prompt and fair trial, as well as their right to freedom of expression and association. Please drop all charges against those who were peacefully protesting at Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, and release all Bolotnaya Square protestors who present no risk of endangering public security for the duration of their trials.

Sincerely,
[Your Name]

4 Days Left in the Write-a-Thon: Write for Albert Woodfox

Albert WoodfoxOnly two cases left in our coverage of this year’s Write for Rights, but there are four days left in the annual letter writing marathon. Even if you haven’t been following along or writing a letter on every single case, there is still time to get in one letter. There is still time to use your voice to help someone this year. A good choice for your efforts is Albert Woodfox.

Woodfox was convicted, with two other men, of murdering a prison guard at Louisiana’s Angola prison. Woodfox and one other man, Herman Wallace, were sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime even though there wasn’t any evidence that linked them to the crime. Potentially exculpatory evidence was “lost” by the state, and the authorities bribed the key eyewitness, leaving questions unanswered regarding police protocols and the guilt of Woodfox and Wallace.

Both Wallace and Woodfox have spent over 40 years in solitary confinement. The men spent 23 hours a day isolated in a small cell, four steps long and three steps across. Wallace has his conviction overturned in October 2013, when he was subsequently released. A few days after his release, he died from complications from liver cancer. Woodfox’s conviction has been overturned three times, but state authorities have appealed the decision each time with a ruling in their favor. He remains in solitary confinement, and we want the authorities to release Albert Woodfox immediately and unconditionally.

Sample Letter

Office of the Attorney General
P.O Box 94005
Baton Rouge, LA 70804

Dear Attorney General Caldwell,

Today, 42 years after he was first placed in solitary confinement, only one member of the “Angola 3” remains behind bars. His case is one of the most egregious examples of Louisiana’s use of prolonged solitary confinement in correctional facilities. Today, I am calling on you to act in the name of justice. I urge you to withdraw your appeal against the February 2013 ruling that overturned Albert Woodfox’s conviction so that he can be freed.

The litigation surrounding Albert Woodfox’s case has spanned four decades and includes two flawed trials. His conviction has been overturned once by a state court and twice by a federal court, underscoring concerns about the fairness of the legal process. No physical evidence ties Mr. Woodfox to Officer Miller’s >murder.

Despite all of this, Albert Woodfox has been kept in isolation for decades, in conditions that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment condemns as torture. He has been denied meaningful social contact and access to rehabilitation programs. Such conditions violate minimum international standards for humane treatment and have lasting physical and psychological effects on inmates.

After subjecting Albert Woodfox to cruel and inhuman conditions for decades, despite a flawed conviction, there is only one just and humane action the state can take. Remove Albert Woodfox from solitary confinement, and withdraw the appeal against the US District Court’s ruling. Allow him his freedom.

Sincerely,
[Your Name]

Use Your Voice to Help a Village

Nabi Saleh villageThe Write for Rights letter writing marathon continues with three cases left, including today’s case. Today’s case is a little different because it’s on the behalf of a village, not an individual prisoner of conscience.

The Nabi Saleh village in Palestine has faced frequent harassment and repression from the Israeli army. Since 2009, Nabi Saleh’s 550 residents have held weekly protests against the Israeli military occupation and an Israeli settlement’s takeover of the village’s farmland. The army has responded to the protests with excessive force, killing two people and injuring hundreds more, including many women and children. The military also terrorizes the villagers, conducting night raids, arresting children, and firing tear gas into people’s homes. So far, no one in the Israeli army has been held accountable for these actions. We want to change this impunity once and for all.

Sample Letter

The Honorable [Insert Your Representative’s Name]
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Representative,

I am writing you on behalf of the residents of Nabi Saleh, a village in the Palestinian West Bank. As you know, this territory is under Israeli military occupation. As a supporter of Amnesty International and an individual concerned with the defense of human rights, I urge you to call on Israel to stop attacking the Palestinian residents of Nabi Saleh.

Since 2009, the villagers of Nabi Saleh have held weekly peaceful protests against Israel’s military occupation. Villagers also protest the nearby illegal Israeli settlement that has taken over most of their farmland.

The villagers of Nabi Saleh are exercising their human rights to freedom of expression and assembly, yet the Israeli army responds to the peaceful protests with violent attacks and the unnecessary use of force. These attacks have killed two people and injured hundreds, including women and children. Israeli soldiers have carried out night raids, arrested children, and fired tear gas into homes.

Please tell Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop the Israeli security forces’ attacks. Call on him to ensure that the security officers responsible for the killings of Mustafa Tamimi and Rushdi Tamimi and the injury of others in the village are brought to justice.

The U.S. Congress provides billions of dollars a year in military aid to Israel. That’s why I urge you to hold the Israeli military accountable for its attacks on Nabi Saleh villagers. Palestinians have a right to peacefully protest the Israeli occupation and the illegal settlements being built on their land.

Sincerely,
[Your Name]

Thank You!

Thank you so much for taking the time to work on these cases and to write letters. These people need our help, and we are only halfway toward Amnesty International’s goal of 75,000 letters. If you’re written a letter, or are planning to write a few letters before Dec. 17th, then please pledge your efforts with the Write for Rights Campaign.

Human Rights Day: Write a Letter on Behalf of Prisoners of Conscience

Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman

Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman

Today is Human Rights Day! This year’s theme is “20 Years Working for Your Rights”, and the Arab Spring is a perfect example of this. Even though the tipping point for the uprising was just a few years ago, the human rights issues that the protestors are addressing were 20 years in the making. Many people were working behind the scenes prior to the international headlines. There are also many people who haven’t made the headlines but should have. Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman is one of those people.

In December 2011, Suleiman was protesting with a friend in Tahrir Square when they saw a group of soldiers beating a young woman. Suleiman and her friend tried to carry the young woman to safety when the soldiers decided to turn on them instead, beating Suleiman until they knocked her unconscious. When she woke up in the hospital, her skull was fractured and her bed sheets were soaked with blood. Suleiman’s brother lodged a complain with the armed forces about the attack, but as of today, no one has been held accountable for the beating and Suleiman has not been compensated. Authorities say the investigation is still ongoing.

Sample Letter

His Excellency Adly Mahmoud Mansour
Office of the President
Al Ittihadia Palace
Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt

Dear President,

Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman was attacked by Egyptian soldiers during a protest near Tahrir Square on Dec. 17, 2011. The soldiers brutally beat Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman, leaving her with a fractured skull and lasting memory problems. Nearly two years later she is still waiting for the culprits to be held accountable.

Please act now to bring Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman’s attackers to justice.

Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman’s case is emblematic of the abuses and injuries that protestors – particularly women – have suffered at the hands of Egyptian security forces. I call on you to open an independent, impartial and public investigation into the attack on Azza Suleiman and into all other cases where the security forces are reported to have used excessive force. All who have suffered deserve justice, including compensation, restitution, rehabilitation and public apologies.

It is critical that women and girls are able to express their views on the future of Egypt and to protest without being detained, harassed, assaulted, tortured, or subjected to degrading and discriminatory treatment. Please ensure that security forces do not target women peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly.

Sincerely,
[Your Name]

Holiday Card Meeting Tonight!

It’s the last time we’re meeting for the entire year! If you miss this meeting, then you won’t see any of the wonderful people of our chapter until January. It’s also Human Rights Day, so what better way to spend the evening then with human rights activists helping those who need our help? Below are the details.

Who: Our Amnesty International chapter and those interested in human rights

What: To send holiday cards to prisoners of conscience and their families. Also to spend some time with each other before the holidays and the end of the year.

When: 7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

Where: Hartford Coffee Company on the corner of Roger and Hartford, one block off of Arsenal

Why: Because people need our help and we can make a difference.

How: We’ll provide the paper, pens, and pertinent information on each of the cases. For this meeting, if you can bring holiday cards (cards that don’t have written references to a specific holiday or religion), then that would be great.

Political Prisoners are Still Waiting for Release

Eskinger Nega

Eskinger Nega

Last Friday, the Huffington Post wrote an article about 10 political prisoners who are still waiting for their release date. Nelson Mandela waited 27 years to be released from prison, and we don’t want these 10 people to wait in vain. Especially when one of those 10 political prisoners is Eskinder Nega of Ethiopia.

Nega is currently serving an 18-year prison sentence for his work as a journalist. He was charged with terrorism offenses after writing articles and giving speeches critical of the government. Ethiopian authorities routinely use terrorism charges to silence dissenting voices, and we are calling for Nega’s unconditional release as someone who was arrested for peacefully exercising his freedom of expression.

Sample Letter

Hailemariam Desalgn
Prime Minister
P.O. Box 1031
Addis Ababa
ETHIOPIA

Dear Prime Minister,

I am writing to ask you to immediately and unconditionally release Eskinder Nega. Eskinder was detained in 2011 and sentenced to 18 years in prison after publicly calling for government reform and promoting freedom of speech. He was detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.

I am deeply concerned that your government has consistently used criminal proceedings and the threat of criminal charges to silence critics. Eskinder Nega himself has been arrested several times in the past for legitimately criticizing the Ethiopian government. Tolerance of criticism and opposing viewpoints is an essential part of any free and open society. I urge you to stop the harassment of journalists and other human rights activists, and to ensure the government allows voices of dissent and calls for reform.

I am also concerned that the Ethiopian government has employed the legislative system to restrict freedom of expression. The Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the Charities and Societies Proclamation unduly restrict the right to freedom of expression and assembly by defining peaceful activities and legitimate criticisms as offenses against the state. I respectfully ask that you amend these laws so that all Ethiopians can exercise their human rights without fear of state retribution.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.

Sincerely,
[Your Name]

Write Holiday Cards in Solidarity

Tomorrow is our last meeting of the year! Since December is a busy month, and are usual letter writing date conflicts with the holidays, we spend the second Tuesday of the month sending holiday cards to prisoners of conscience. We take the fourth Tuesday off. The holiday cards are something we do in solidarity with prisoners of conscience and their families, letting them know that we are thinking about them and working on their behalf. Below are the details of tomorrow’s meeting. Please bring holiday cards (cards without messages of a specific holiday or religion).

Who: Our Amnesty International chapter and those interested in human rights

What: To send holiday cards to prisoners of conscience and their families. Also to spend some time with each other before the holidays and the end of the year.

When: 7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

Where: Hartford Coffee Company on the corner of Roger and Hartford, one block off of Arsenal

Why: Because people need our help and we can make a difference.

How: We’ll provide the paper, pens, and pertinent information on each of the cases. For this meeting, if you can bring holiday cards, then that would be great.

Write for Rights and Demand Justice for Miriam Lopez

Miriam Lopez

Miriam Lopez

During our Write for Rights campaign, not every single case is about freeing someone from prison, such as the case of Miriam Lopez. Lopez, a mother of four, was detained in February 2011 for over two months without charge at a military barracks. In that time, soldiers raped and tortured Lopez, wanting her to confess to trafficking drugs through a military checkpoint.

She was charged with a narcotics offense, but released in September 2011 after her case was thrown out for a lack of evidence. Lopez maintains that her travels through the checkpoint were to visit her mother, a trip she made several times a week. She’s filed a complaint of torture to the Federal Attorney’s Office, and has subsequently received death threats for doing so. Those who raped and tortured her have never been held accountable for her actions. It’s time to change that.

Sample Letter

Jesús Murillo Karam
Federal Attorney General
Procuraduría General de la República
Paseo de la Reforma 211-213
Col. Cuauhtémoc, C.P. 06500
Mexico City
Mexico

Dear Attorney General,

I respectfully request that you take action on the case of Miriam Isaura López Vargas. I’m deeply concerned that her story is emblematic of the widespread, systematic use of torture and ill-treatment in Mexico, which has increased in recent years. However, those responsible are virtually never held accountable. It is time to send a clear message that torture and ill-treatment, whether by members of the armed forces or the police, will not be tolerated. I call on you carry out a full, prompt and impartial investigation into the torture of Miriam López.

In February 2011 Miriam López was detained by members of the Mexican army in Ensenada. Officers tortured and sexually assaulted her, pressuring her to sign false statements. She was held in pre-charge detention (arraigo) for seventy-six days, and then charged with narcotics offenses. Miriam López was released in September 2011, when her case was thrown out of court for a lack of evidence. She filed a complaint of torture with the Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDH) and the Federal Attorney’s Office and subsequently received death threats.

In November 2012, the United Nations Committee against Torture issued new recommendations to the government of Mexico to implement concrete steps to combat torture, ensure effective investigation and prosecution of abuses and guarantee victims receive reparations. I look forward to hearing what your government is doing to comply with these recommendations, and about the actions you are taking to end the impunity of those members of the Mexican Army responsible for the detention, torture and sexual assault of Miriam Isaura López Vargas.

Securing truth, justice and reparations for Miriam Lopez would send the message that torture will not be tolerated by your government. Please investigate this crime and bring those responsible to justice.

Yours,
[Your Name]

Write-a-Thon Details

Our St. Louis chapter event is this Saturday! Hope to see you there!

Who: Our Amnesty International chapter and anyone else who wants to do something good for someone else this holiday season.

What: To write letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience worldwide

When: Saturday, Dec. 7 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Where: Schlafly Bottleworks – 7260
Southwest Ave.@ Manchester. Maplewood, MO 63143

Why: Because people need our help and we can make a difference, and because it’s fun

How: Just show up and enjoy great company, food, and beer (food and beer not free). We’ll provide the paper, pens, and pertinent information on each of the cases.