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21 Juin 2019

Set Them Free

As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, we pay tribute to all those who work at the local and national level to make these basic rights a reality for all.

Front Line Defenders calls on governments to mark these anniversaries by freeing all human rights defenders currently in prison, including those named in this report, and to put an end to the threats, harassment, defamation, criminalisation, torture and killings which human rights defenders face in too many countries.

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In 2018, Front Line Defenders was named as a winner of the 2018 UN Prize in the Field of Human Rights.

In accepting the UN Prize for Human Rights Front Line Defenders remembers the important role that our former colleague Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja played in developing our support for human rights defenders across the Middle East and North Africa. 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.

Too many other human rights defenders also languish in prison because of their selfless and legitimate activities. 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 since, for 17 years, without charge or trial. Atena Daemi and Narges Mohammadi are both serving long prison terms in Iran because of their work against the death penalty and their support for 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 2017 indigenous defender Dominga González Martínez was sentenced to 50 years in prison in Mexico because she defended the water rights of her community. She had already spent 10 years in pre-trial detention. 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.

As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, we pay tribute to all those who work at the local and national level to make these basic rights a reality for all.