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21 June 2019

Set Them Free

It is a privilege for all of us in Front Line Defenders to work with some of the most courageous people in the world, whose idea of development does not depend on the ruthless exploitation of the natural and human resources of the planet, or the elimination of those who challenge injustice or inequality.

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But now the struggle for human rights for all is entering a critical period, as the gains made over the last 70 years are threatened by the rising tides of populist authoritarianism, corruption and extremism. It seems we have entered a new age of repression.

Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’” Human rights defenders face fear every day and find ways through it. Too many human rights defenders languish in prison because of their selfless and legitimate activities.

The following 11 emblematic cases are illustrative of the way in which repressive governments around the world consistently use the law in an attempt to smear and silence HRDs. Despite this relentless pressure HRDs refuse to be silent and continue to fight for their rights, even from within prison.

Our former colleague, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, played a key role in developing our support for human rights defenders across the Middle East and North Africa, and much of our work to support human rights defenders around the world today is based on his pioneering work. Abdulhadi was arrested and tortured during the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Bahrain in 2011, subjected to a sham trial, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Azimjan Askarov is serving a life sentence in Kyrgyzstan because of his peaceful advocacy for human rights. Ilham Tohti is serving life imprisonment in China because he defended the political and cultural rights of the Uyghur people. Dawit Isaak set up the first independent newspaper in post-independence Eritrea. When he published articles critical of authoritarian rule, he was seized and taken to a secret prison where he has been held ever since, without charge or trial.

Atena Daemi, Nasrin Sotoudeh and Narges Mohammadi are all serving long prison terms in Iran because of their work defending human rights, campaigning against the death penalty and supporting the families of political prisoners. Germain Rukuki worked to end torture and the death penalty in Burundi and in April 2018 he was sentenced to 32 years in prison on charges of “rebellion” and “breach of state security”.

In Mexico, Pablo López Alavéz has been held in preventive detention since 2010 on spurious charges of murder because of his work defending the rights of the indigenous Zapoteco people. Mohamed Al-Roken has been sentenced to 10 years in prison in the United Arab Emirates because of his work as a human rights lawyer defending other activists during a government crackdown. In Vietnam, Tran Thi Nga is serving a nine year prison term, to be followed by five years house arrest because of her work defending land and labour rights.

What all these cases have in common is that the power of the state has been employed to silence courageous human rights defenders who articulate visions of their societies – and the world – in which fundamental freedoms and rights must be enjoyed equally by all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, religious belief, political ideology, wealth or political power.

Front Line Defenders pays tribute to all those who work at the local and national level to make these basic rights a reality for all and calls on governments to free all human rights defenders currently in prison, including those named in this report. Additionally, governments should put an end to the threats, harassment, defamation, criminalisation, torture and killings which human rights defenders face in too many countries.

Just recently a human rights defender in Guatemala whose community has been evicted from their land four times, and who faces constant harassment and threats, said after the most recent eviction, “They have taken everything from us – even our fear”.