Their stories untold: Widows voices yet to be heard

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It was an afternoon in July 2013 in a rural community in Kumasi, Ghana, when 87 widows shared the ordeals they suffered at the hands of so-called “customs” after their husbands passed away. During an annual human rights survey by Commission of Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), I discovered a cultural practice which very much still stood strong in our society yet was a total infringement of the human rights of widows.

Although their stories differed slightly, all of the women agreed that widowhood rituals served no benefit, but rather brought more hardships to widows. I recall the tears in their eyes as this meeting brought back dreadful memories. A 34-year old widow burst into uncontrollable tears as she recalled how her husband’s relatives took all of the farm lands (the family’s main source of income) because, according to custom, the husband’s nephew was the rightful heir. She was forced to consume nothing except a soft drink once a day continuously for 40 days as part of the cleansing ritual. She recounted that the resulting stomach problem she developed was considered punishment for her alleged crime of killing her husband with witchcraft. Eventually, she and her seven children who were between the ages of two to 14 years were pushed out of the small house they lived in. With no one to turn to, she resorted to begging on the street and hard labor where she faced continued sexual and labor exploitation.

Widowhood within  some cultures in Africa and other countries is characterized by degrading and inhumane rituals that can amount to torture. These rituals inflict grave abuse of widows. The encyclopedia of Death and Dying in its report, “Widows in Third World Nations” reported that

“…in Nigeria … a widow may be forced to have sex with her husband’s brothers, “the first stranger she meets on the road,” or some other designated male. This “ritual cleansing by sex” is thought to exorcise the evil spirits associated with death, and if the widow resists this ordeal, it is believed that her children will suffer harm. In the context of AIDS and polygamy, this “ritual cleansing” is not merely repugnant but also dangerous. The widow may be forced to drink the water that the corpse has been washed in; be confined indoors for up to a year; be prohibited from washing, even if she is menstruating, for several months; be forced to sit naked on a mat and to ritually cry and scream at specific times of the day and night…”

Widows suffer other types of violations, as well. Widows may be deprived of their home, agricultural land, business assets, and sometimes their children.  Notwithstanding the promulgation of major Treaties like Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that guard against these violations, these practices still persist. These harmful practices inflict both physical and psychological violence on women and create an opportunity for abuse and infringement of their rights. It supports unequal power relations between men and women. Through these disproportionate cultural practices, many widows are exploited by male relatives of their deceased husbands. Instead of protecting and supporting these widows, they deny them any access to their husband’s land or property.

Among some tribes in the northern part of Ghana, widows are subjected to a customary practice called “Widow Inheritance” which is a form of Levirate marriage (a system in which the brother of a deceased man is made to marry the widow of his brother). In this case, the widow is forced into a marriage regardless of her consent. This permits the deceased man’s family to choose a male relative to marry the widow, preventing the widow from making her own decision to remain unmarried or married. It essentially promotes forced marriage. If a widow insists and succeeds in remaining unmarried after the death of her husband, she is bound to face maltreatment and rejection by her husband’s family and community. She is usually accused of witchcraft, having bad luck, or having a hand in her husband’s death. On the other hand, when they accept to enter into a marriage, they are faced with a lot of hostility by the wives and children of the men they marry. Also they stand the risk of being infected with a sexually-transmitted disease.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person and to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Also the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) guarantees the right to equal protection under the law and the right to the highest standard of physical and mental health and requires the “free consent” of both parties to enter into marriage. The Protocol to The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa specifically addresses the issue of widows, spells out that state’s parties shall take the necessary legal measures to ensure that widows enjoy all human rights through the implementation of the following provisions:

“…widows are not subjected to inhuman, humiliating or degrading
treatment…a widow shall automatically become the guardian and
custodian of her children….”

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) protects a number of human rights, including that men and women shall have the same right to enter into marriage and the same right to freely choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with free and full consent. CEDAW also mandates state’s parties to recognize women’s equality with men before the law with the same legal capacity as in civil matters. Importantly, CEDAW requires state’s parties to:

“[M]odify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and
women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and
customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the
inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped
roles for men and women.”

Widows are supposed to be protected from degrading, inhumane treatment, and unwarranted disinheritance under these laws. Despite most African states being parties to these international and regional treaties, the plight of widows remains unaddressed in most countries and the pains they suffer seem to be viewed as normal and inevitable by the societies in which they live. In every community there are widows neglected to the harshness of hunger and poverty. Harmful practices such as the widowhood rituals are challenging to modify, and attempts to change or eliminate them demand the collaboration and cooperation of traditional authorities, community leaders, government, and the society at large.

By Abigail Ofori-Amanfo, a 2016-17 Humphrey Fellow at University of Minnesota who is completing her professional affiliation with The Advocates for Human Rights. A women’s right activist, she works to educate rural women and girls in Ghana on their rights and what steps they can take to prevent them from being violated.

Learn more about the best practices in drafting legislation on maltreatment of widows.

“I can march.”

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This was my first march. I really did not know what to expect. I spent the evening before the march sitting on the basement floor in our house with my sister and our friends painting posters. When we finally got to the march – which was no easy feat because the DC Metro was so overwhelmed with numbers of people, we had to walk – the sheer number of people prevented us from getting close enough to hear any of the speeches. We could not even see the Jumbotrons. I had to wait until I got home to learn what some of the speakers, including people like Gloria Steinem, had to say.

What I did hear and see, however, were the voices and actions of people engaged in peaceful protest. Even in the midst of the crush, people were friendly and civil. The energy was palpable. From the looks of it, people were at this march, born at the grass roots, for many different reasons. Some were there to protest the new administration. Others were there to ensure that their voices were heard on a variety of themes, including reproductive rights, gender equality, immigration, racial equality, and climate change. Homemade signs were everywhere.  Frequent chants included:  “My body/my choice!”;  “This is what democracy looks like!”; and “Women’s rights are human rights!”

What I saw on the ground was inspiring, and what I saw on my social media feeds inspired me, too. My Facebook and Instagram pages had hundreds of pictures of my “sisters” in different parts of the country marching in their hometowns. Even if we might have been at the marches for different reasons  and in different locations, we were connected and empowered.

I know that the march has been controversial at some levels – even in my high school.  Some question how the march can be successful – as there was not a singular focus. However, I did see a common focus: the need for respect.

Last week in my 10th grade European history course, we focused on the French Revolution.  One of the things I learned about was the “march” of October 1789 when more than 7,000 women marched from Paris to Versailles protesting the scarcity and high prices of bread.  They had a goal of bringing King  Louis XVI back to Paris so that he would be closer and arguably more responsive to the people. They succeeded! The crowd, numbering more than 60,000 people, escorted the royal family back to Paris. Some say that this was a major turning point in the French Revolution.

I don’t know if Saturday was a major turning point. But it was an important reminder of the power people have when they work together. It was also a reminder of the powerful voice women have and the importance of exercising it. When the marchers return to their homes, I hope they remember that the march is not a substitute for long- term action. It’s just the beginning; they need to take action in their local communities. Whether that action is calling their legislators or running for office themselves, it is important.

I am excited to see where this takes us – and I am grateful to the women who organized this march for exposing me to the possibilities of collective action.

By The Advocates for Human Rights’ youth blogger Jenna Schulman (pictured on left in photo above), a 10th grade student in Washington, D.C.

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Modern-day slavery in the Persian Gulf

Trafficking word cloudThe Advocates for Human Rights receives a barrage of emails from across the globe, people who are looking for information and assistance in a wide variety of human rights issues. The requests for assistance are a window into the current human rights problems in the world, which oftentimes are virtually unknown outside of the country or region.

One example that I find especially heartbreaking is the modern day slavery that is happening in the Persian Gulf region. Through the Kafala system, a policy of the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), citizens or companies sponsor “foreign” workers in order for their work visas and residency to be valid. This means that an individual’s right to work and legal presence in a host country is dependent on his or her employer, rendering the person to exploitation. The GCC includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Every year, thousands migrate from Southeast Asia to the Persian Gulf region to seek employment. With some differences, the story of these workers repeats itself; people from the poorest parts of the world are toiling in sweat and blood in the shadow of unimaginable wealth. In such conditions, however, the international community enjoys investment incentives, luxurious shopping centers, and dreams of the World Cup (many of its facilities are built by migrant workers).

They Are Entrapped

The plight of migrant workers begins in their home countries when they are deceived in the recruitment process and promised liveable wages. Migrant workers usually take out large loans to pay the fees of local recruitment agencies that arrange their work contract and travel documents. While migrant workers are heavily dependant on their salaries to survive, they should devote most of their wages to service loans.

As a common practice, sponsors confiscate workers’ passports. Even when workers have their passports, they still must have their sponsor’s permission to leave the country. Migrant workers have limited options; continue in their jobs, or quit the job and work illegally for different employers. They have reported a culture of fear and intimidation in which there is no access to justice, especially for those who work illegally.

They Are Segregated and Exploited Slaves

Most migrant workers live in substandard conditions in remote areas. In Qatar, for instance, the segregation has been built through legislation by the Central Municipal Council (CMC). With the establishment of “family zones,” migrant workers have been banned from living in Doha; and have been prevented from enjoying public areas, such as shopping centers on certain days. Such laws legitimize negative stereotypes about migrant workers and have the effect of further entrenching segregation.

The World Cup Nightmare

In response to reports of worker’s deaths (in the World Cup facilities), the Qatari government commissioned a law firm to investigate. The recommendations of this investigation about legal reforms, however, have never been followed seriously. While the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants called for Qatar to repeal its Kafala system, it seems that the Qatari government intends to rename the system without removing its exploitative provisions. According to the latest report of the International Laborer Organization (“ILO”), Qatar has failed to observe the international standards regarding migrant workers. Two years prior, the ILO asked Qatar to take meaningful actions, otherwise a United Nations inquiry would be launched in 2017 that will make possible imposing international sanctions. As Human Rights Watch reported, Qatar has promised little and has delivered far less. By continuing in this way, the International Trade Union Confederation reports that, about 4,000 workers will die before the World Cup 2022.

Any will for change?

Considering the lack of protective measures for migrant workers, host countries must make fundamental changes in the Kafala system. In addition, they have enough financial means to ensure safe work, standard living conditions, and decent wages for foreign laborers. Simultaneously, migrant workers’ countries of origin have the duty to monitor the conditions of their citizens and provide them with proper consular support. Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that international companies will acknowledge their responsibility for the miserable conditions of their migrant laborers. For this reason, human rights activists across the Persian Gulf region and beyond must shed light on the lives of migrant workers to end modern-day slavery as a common practice among nations in the region.

By Mehrnoosh Karimi Andu, a third-year J.D. student (class of 2017) at the University of Minnesota Law School. She is 2016 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

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Cameroon must act to protect its children from Boko Haram

Boko Haram in Cameroon
In 2015, Boko Haram released images taken at a training camp for child soldiers in Nigeria (Photo: Al-Urwa Al-Wuthqa Media). Image link and article link.

During my time this summer as an intern at The Advocates for Human Rights, I’ve encountered many horror stories of human rights violations around the world. Yet none has shaken me more than the terrorist group Boko Haram’s new war tactic: kidnapping children and deploying them as suicide bombers.

Since its uprising against the Nigerian government in 2009, the militant Islamic group with allegiance to ISIS has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced nearly 2.3 million people. According to the Global Terrorism Index, it is the world’s deadliest terrorist group over ISIS. Much of the world, however, learned of Boko Haram only after its abduction of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls in 2014. Most of the girls remain missing to this day.

The latest development in Boko Haram’s violence that has spread beyond Nigeria’s borders is the harrowing use of children in suicide attacks, and the country with the highest incidence is Cameroon. According to UNICEF, 21 suicide attacks involving children took place in Cameroon between January 2014 and February 2016, while there were 17 in Nigeria and two in Chad.

As with children taken by Boko Haram elsewhere, those captured in Cameroon are forced to serve as not only suicide bombers, but also combatants on the front line, human shields, and guards – collectively known as “child soldiers.”

What have Cameroonian authorities done in response to Boko Haram’s increasing exploitation of their children as tools of war?

Cameroon joined a multinational task force to fight against Boko Haram and continues to conduct offensive military operations, but the protection of child soldiers embroiled in the conflict has not been a priority of the government. In its periodic report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, ― a body of experts monitoring implementation of the human rights treaty specific to children ― Cameroon does not make a single reference to child soldiers nor Boko Haram’s use of children in its aggression.

Furthermore, the government does not offer organized support to former child soldiers. As Cameroonian forces have recaptured territories held by Boko Haram, some abductees have been found and released. According to UNICEF, however, many are not even welcomed home and instead viewed with deep suspicion because of the fear that they were radicalized in captivity. In particular, girls who were forcibly married to their captors and became pregnant as a result of rape face marginalization and discrimination due to social and cultural norms related to sexual violence. Accused of being Boko Haram wives, they are rejected by relatives and community members.

In the face of egregious abuses committed against Cameroonian children by Boko Haram and the mistreatment persisted by society, the government has been silent for far too long and must take action to better protect its youth from the effects of armed conflict. Instead of penalizing children associated with Boko Haram as was the case in the mass arrest and detainment of Quranic school students in 2014, the government ought to treat them as victims in need of protection.

In July, The Advocates and our Cameroonian partner Centre pour la promotion du droit (Center for the Promotion of Law or CEPROD) submitted a joint report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Child, identifying specific measures that the Cameroon government should enact.

First, the government should harmonize its national legislation with international standards that prohibit the recruitment of children by non-state armed groups such as Boko Haram. Cameroon has ratified both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the accompanying Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict. Under these treaties, Cameroon has the duty to enact measures to prevent the recruitment of children by armed groups, including the adoption of necessary legal measures. At present, however, Cameroon does not have any law that addresses the use of children by armed groups. Domestic provisions criminalizing this practice must be in place in order to prosecute perpetrators and stop offenses from occurring in the first place.

Second, the Cameroonian government should develop a comprehensive system of demobilization, recovery, and reintegration for children previously under the influence of armed groups. For the fraction of child soldiers who are rescued or able to escape from Boko Haram, life after captivity is supposed to be better. Yet these children are abandoned by their own families and left wholly vulnerable from their torturous experiences under Boko Haram. It is the State’s responsibility to ensure that they are safely moved to rehabilitative centers and to assist them in their physical and psychological recovery as well as their reintegration into society.

Recruiting children to participate in hostilities is a blatant human rights violation under international law. Yet a State’s failure to protect its children from such recruitment is also a violation of its human rights obligation. The Cameroonian government must act now to safeguard the rights of its children.

By: Nayeon Kim, a rising senior at Yale University studying political science and psychology.  She was a 2016 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program  through the Bulldogs on the Lakes program.  

Additional reading:

Joint submission from The Advocates and CEPROD to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on Issues Relating to Children in Conflict with the Law and Protection & Care of Children Affected by Armed Conflict (July 2016)

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On India’s Independence Day: A promise unfulfilled for religious minorities

PM Modi in Washington
Washington: Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures while addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 8. PTI Photo (PTI6_8_2016_000187A)

“India lives as one; India grows as one; India celebrates as one,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered these lofty words to a joint session of U.S. Congress on June 8 of this year. The rosy picture he painted of India, however, is betrayed by the reality of communal strife and intolerance on the ground. India, the world’s largest democracy, was founded as a secular liberal democracy:  in essence a promise to all Indians of their fair share of prosperity and the pursuit of the good life regardless of religion, background, or creed.

Regretfully, as India celebrates its 70th Independence Day on August 15, that promise remains unfulfilled for the many Indians who are deprived of their equal rights through both government action and inaction.

There are two broad areas of concern. The first is the rising religious tensions linked to alleged government-backed Hindu nationalism and the corresponding rise of communal violence and religious intolerance. The second is the lack of redress through courts, shown acutely by extrajudicial violence, custodial killings by the police, and unbearably long court waiting times. Both of these areas of concern have lack of accountability at their core, with perpetrators of both religious- and non-religious-based violence going unpunished.

India has always been a melting pot of traditions, religions, and languages and is constitutionally a secular country to account for such diversity. The increasing atmosphere of Hindu nationalism has perverted those principles with disastrous results: there have been more incidents of communal violence and a stronger culture of impunity for officials who commit religion-based crimes.

Since Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, the government has permitted the virulent ideology of right-wing Hindu groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to become commonplace within government and society. Testifying before the U.S. Congress Tom Lantos Commission for Human Rights hearing on religious minorities in India in June, Indian journalist Ajit Saha described the impact of the RSS as the “sine qua non about human rights in India.” This ideology has been linked with increased rates of vigilantism against religious minorities. Such acts include killing a Muslim man for allegedly eating a cow, disrupting marriages between Muslims and Hindus, and forcibly converting Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. All this has happened with official complacency. “The prime minister [has] not weighed in to admonish the culprits,” noted Saha.

Communal Violence
India has a long and tragic history of communal violence which in the Indian context can be defined as violence directed against religious or linguistic minorities. The most significant occurrences in the recent past were located in Uttar Pradesh( 2013), Odisha ( 2007-2008), Gujarat ( 2002), and Delhi in (1984). The scale of violence can be immense. The Gujarati violence was particularly noteworthy leaving “between 1,200-2,500 Muslims dead, destroyed homes, and forced 100,000 people to flee.”  Similarly the Delhi riots in 1984 “resulted in deaths of more than 3,000 Sikhs.” The rates of communal violence have increased substantially under Modi, “India experienced a 17% increase in communal violence, when compared to the previous year. In 2015, there were 751 reported incidents of communal violence, up from 644 in 2014.” Included in this violence in 2015 were attacks on Christian churches.

There are numerous problems for Indians seeking redress for communal violence. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that,
“NGOs, religious leaders, and human rights activists allege religious bias and corruption in these investigations and adjudications. Additionally, religious minority communities claim that eye-witnesses often are intimidated not to testify, especially when local political, religious, or societal leaders have been implicated in cases.”

Lack of Accountability: Gujarat
The involvement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP officials in the violent riots in Gujarat in 2002 and the lack of accountability are of particular concern. While Modi, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, was responsible for coordinating the government’s response to the violent mobs, there is strong evidence to suggest that top officials actively refused to intervene in the violent riots. The tragic case of Ehsan Jafri, the Congress MP who gave terrified Muslims safe haven in his home during the Gulberg Society riots, is telling. According to eyewitnesses, Jafri made frantic calls to top Gujarati officials, including Modi himself, to no avail. Eventually Jafri offered himself to the gathering mob outside his house in an effort to save those inside his home. He was butchered by the mob while they set his home alight, killing most inside. Many BJP officials were acquitted from charges relating to the riots. Civil society activists like Teesta Setalvad have protested the judicial proceedings, citing the hostility of investigators towards witnesses and the restricted purview of the investigation.

Retaliation Against Civil Society
The draconian Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) is being used to restrict funding and revoke licenses of NGOs that criticize the government. Activist Setalvad has been a prime target of government retaliation for her work seeking justice for the Gujarat victims and a new trial for Modi and other Gujarat officials implicated in the 2002 violence. As Ajit Saha testified, “The Supreme Court had to stay attempts to arrest her on charges of financial embezzlement through the Citizens for Justice & Peace, her NGO. Her offices and homes have been raided several times, failing each time to recover incriminating evidence.” It is alleged that the registration of Lawyers Collective, an Indian NGO dedicated to human rights issues, was suspended because of its legal assistance to Setalvad.  Similarly, Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai was refused admission to a flight to London to testify to Parliament about human rights abuses in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Custodial Killings
There is a terrifyingly high number of people in India killed in police custody. More than 14,000 Indians died in the custody of police or in prisons during 2001-10 at a rate of four a day for ten years. The vast majority of deaths, 99.9 percent according to The Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), is the result of torture. “Torture remains endemic, institutionalised and central to the administration of justice,” reports the ACHR.

Encounter Killings
Another pervasive extrajudicial practice is “encounter killings.” Officially, these are deaths resulting from encounters with suspects. But in reality, these tend to be outright murders by police. As explained by Ajit Sahi, “Nearly all such encounters are suspected of being “fake,” that is, pre-apprehended men and women killed in cold blood.”  The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution’s 2013 report on India noted that, “[A]ccording to the NHRC [National Human Rights Council], 2,560 deaths during encounters with police were reported between 1993 and 2008. Of this number, 1,224 cases were regarded by the NHRC as “fake encounters.”

Prime Minister Modi spoke about the ideal India in his speech to U.S. Congress in June. An India united rather than fragmented.  As it is, India is riven with religious conflict and intolerance. People are killed for their communal identities in mob violence while officials either take no action or, themselves, contribute to the killing.

If India is to ever achieve the greater goal of Indian unity, its leaders must continue to acknowledge and correct shortcomings, including holding all perpetrators of violence accountable.

Additional reading by The Advocates for Human Rights:

India’s Politics Without Principles 

Hold Modi Accountable

The Advocates’ Robin Phillips Testifies Before Congressional Committee

Joint Written Statement on Religious Minorities in India submitted to United Nations Human Rights Council

By Adam Krok, a sophomore at Yale (class of 2019) expecting to major in Ethics, Politics and Economics. From Johannesburg, South Africa, he is 2016 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program through the Bulldogs on the Lakes program.  He enjoys nothing more than a good argument or a compelling case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Human rights defender in Iran starts hunger strike, demanding the right to call her children

Narges Mohammadi and her children, Kiana and Ali.
Narges Mohammadi and her children, Kiana and Ali.

Narges Mohammadi, vice chair of Defenders of Human Rights Centre (DHRC) in Iran and currently imprisoned in Iran’s Evin Prison, started a hunger strike on June 27, 2016. The date coincides with the 21st day of the month of Ramadan.

Ms Mohammadi has written an emotional letter explaining her decision, the DHRC website reported.

In the letter, she says that she has “no demand other than the possibility of calling [her] children” and that, contrary to her desire and physical capability, she has no way other than a hunger strike to remind the world that she is a mother who misses her children.

Ms. Mohammadi was arrested at her home by intelligence ministry officials on May 5, 2015. Shortly after her arrest, while Ms. Mohammadi was in jail, her children joined their father who had been forced, under the pressure of security and judicial officials, to immigrate to France.

On May 18, 2016, the Revolutionary Court of Iran sentenced human rights defender Ms. Mohammadi to 16 years imprisonment on several counts including for “membership in the [now banned] Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty” group, for “taking part in assembly and collusion against national security” and “committing propaganda against the state.”

In the past year, Ms Mohammadi has only once been able to speak to her children on the phone. That was in early April 2016.

Writing open letters to high judicial officials, Ms. Mohammadi has repeatedly protested against the behavior of jail guards and the security officials in prison.

What follows is the full text of the emotional letter of Narges Mohammadi, written on June 27, 2016.

It is now the month of Tir [June-July in Persian Calendar] and it was in the same month, a year ago in a hot summer, that my two little children, aged 8, left Iran for France to live with their father. It had become impossible to live without a mother and a father. I have repeatedly thought about our last meeting. Every time, my family would be left behind the large gates of Evin and only my dearest Kiana and Ali could enter the prison. From the gates to our meeting room in the security office, it was a long walk and the children were accompanied by a guard, holding each other’s hands. On the way, they’d see prisoners, in hand-cuffs and leg cuffs, wearing dark blue, striped prison uniforms and they were scared. When they got to me, while they were still tightly holding on to each other’s hands, they breathed heavily and spoke of what they had see.n Once Ali told Kiana: “Kiana, good that we ran away. The thieves would have gotten us”.

I was always worried about their coming and going until the last meeting came. They said: “Mommy Narges! Don’t you worry. We go to Daddy Taqi and we’ll come back again”. From the door of the security office to the middle of the courtyard, they turned back several times to look at me. They were holding hands. We said goodbye and the door was closed and my dearest Ali and Kiana left. Not only when I was bidding them goodbye with my eyes, but even now, after one year has past, I can’t believe they left. It was 1:30 pm. I don’t know how I gathered myself to go back to my cell. I passed the hallway and got into the courtyard. I stood on the hot asphalts to pray. I wanted to speak to Himself. Only to he, Himself. I don’t know what I said and what I heard and how much I cried. I don’t even know what to call my state: Prayer, Wailing or Losing Life. I don’t know how much I crouched on my painful knees but I stood up straight again. I don’t know how many times my forehead touched the dear soil of the Evin prison and how much of the tears coming from my eyes and the blood being shed from my heart did I gave away. But I stood up. I don’t know how many times did I hold my hands to the sky and asked Him for patience. My feet were burning so bad that I finally had to go back to my cell. I thought that in three months, when schools re-open, my dear ones would come. But September came and my children didn’t. I requested permission to speak on the phone with them; to at least hear their voice. But it wasn’t granted. In the Women’s section in Evin, unlike all the other prisons in the country, there is no phone for families to call. This is forbidden. We have a visitation time once a week and from week to week, we go without news, waiting for the next meeting. Mothers meet with their children once a week and in person. On Wednesdays, Maryam Akbarifard, Sedighe Moradi, Zahra Zahtabchi, Azita Rafiazade and Fateme Mosana are called to meet their children. I sit on the edge of my bed and ask the mothers to kiss the beautiful face of their sons and daughters. Mothers go to the meeting and I meet with my dearest Kiana and Ali in my own daydreams. I smell their small hands and kiss their beautiful faces.

For a year now, my only contact with my two small children has been limited to me asking about them from my sister and brother. I always hear the same sentence back: “Don’t you worry. They are doing fine.” I have forgotten their voices. I don’t keep their photos by my bed anymore. I can’t look at them. My sister said: “Every time I want to come see you, Ali tells me to ask ‘Mommy Narges’ if she dreams of me?” My only way to connect with my children is in our dreams. How strange it is that they also see their mothers in their nightly, childish, sweet dreams and this is how they connect with me.

It is a year since my children are gone and despite all the open and confidential letters that I and my family have written, my request for phone connection with my children has not been granted. Only once, on the occasion of the New Year, on 3 April 2016, on the written order of the Tehran prosecutor I spoke to my dear Kiana and Ali “for ten minutes, under security conditions and only with the children”. The last words of my children was: “Mommy Narges! I hope they let you call us again”.

In 2012, when I was arrested to go through my six years in prison, my interrogator in the cell 209 said: “Oh, remember you boasting about defending human rights? I’ll send you to the general section so you know who humans are.” And now I know because they had repeatedly asked me stop my activities so that they’d let me stay by my children. They thought by imposing separation and cutting all contact, even phone contact, they’d teach me what being a mother is.

In the last year, I’ve had a strange experience in prison. Being in prison and even getting a 16 sentence for my last case has not only not made me regret but has strengthened my will and belief in supporting human rights, more than ever. But nothing has reduced the suffering and pain caused by my dear ones and my beloved children being away. If during all this time, I have had a smile of happiness, being happy with my activities and work, my heart has always been filled with a bitter chaos caused by the desire to see them. Part of my existence is filled with satisfaction, happiness, seriousness and effort; and another part, full of pain, sadness and desire. As if my heart goes on its own way and my brain its own separate way. Once more, I am with Moses’s mother. It was the mother who received the revelation and put his child in a basket, on the Nile — it was the belief and faith of mother that did it. But just the day after, the separation of the child was heavy on the mother’s heart. So much so that she feared she’d speak of secrets of heart that she shouldn’t. She sang her song of wailing and went on her own way and God intervened… In this land, the power of my faith and my belief in the cause is challenged by human desire, love and kindness. My whole existence comes under pressure. And what pain is this. How hard to be in love with the dear ones, going toward your cause and thinking of humanity. I have always said that in a land where it is hard enough to be a woman, a mother or a human rights activist, to be all three is an unforgivable, human-breaking crime. And now, “I” in my land and homeland, am accused of being a human rights activist, feminist and an opponent of capital punishment (as the charges read in the court said). I am condemned and in prison. Oh, the beauty of the fate: I have to also be a woman and a mother.

They regarded my defense of human rights as a crime but, worse, they denied me being a woman and a mother. Until I die, I will protest. I will not forget. My children were three years old when they stormed my house and took my dear Kiana, who had recently gone under surgery, away from my bosom. As she was crying, her feverous body was thrown in jail. They were five years old and their father was away, when they came for me. The kids wouldn’t let me go. They had lied to them, promising that I’d join them that very night. They took me from them and imprisoned me and on 5 May when my children were in school and went home in the afternoon, hoping their mother would open the door, they were met with a closed door. They had to then follow their father and leave this land. I ask these men of religion and government, didn’t they do enough to me and my children? Should they also now harass my small, innocent children like this? I spoke clearly, as clear as the tears on my cheeks. I wrote simply, as simple as the love of a mother. I swore that “my heart is beating for my children”. I said: “The small heart of my children misses me”. Alas! No one heard me and no one responded. I was patient and waited for a year — hoping that a conscience in this Land of the Asleep will feel some pain. It was for nothing. My motherly love was once more denied. Going against my desire and physical capability, I have no way left other than a hunger strike — to cry that I am a mother and that I miss my children. Maybe someone would feel compassion. Maybe someone would feel shame in their conscience. Maybe there is an end to this hostility and tyranny. I have no demand other than being able to call my children. Is this demand too large, unreasonable, immoral, illegal and a threat to security? Tell me and convince me. If a mother that a government has found guilty should be deprived from hearing the sound of her children, say so! If not, let this mother hear the voice of her children. The punishment of us, women and mothers, is imprisonment not not being able to hear the voice of our loved ones. Believe that we are humans.

Narges Mohammadi

Evin Prison

Narges Mohammadi is Deputy Director of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre (DHRC) in Iran. She was elected as President of the Executive Committee of the National Council of Peace in Iran, a broad coalition against war and for the promotion of human rights. She has campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty in Iran, and was awarded the Per Anger Prize by the Swedish government for her human rights work in 2011.

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A small group of people is changing the world for good

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“The world, if left to its own devices, is balanced evenly between good and bad. Each of us has the ability to tip it.” Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

Especially today, with the horrific news of the Orlando mass shooting capturing people’s attention, a ray of optimism is needed. That beam of light was mighty and bright at our Human Rights Awards Dinner this month when we celebrated and honored people who are tipping the world in the right direction.

Don & Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award

Christof Heyns, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, addressing the Human Rights Awards Dinner audience.
Christof Heyns, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, addressing the Human Rights Awards Dinner audience.

Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, received the esteemed Don & Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award for his work investigating and exposing some of the world’s most egregious human rights violations. The Advocates’ connection to Mr. Heyns’ work as a special rapporteur began in the 1980s when The Advocates developed the groundbreaking Minnesota Protocol, the first set of international guidelines for investigating suspicious unlawful deaths. Effective investigation is key to establishing responsibility and holding perpetrators accountable, but no international standards existed at the time that required governments to initiate or carry out investigations of suspected unlawful deaths. Read some of Mr. Heyns’ remarks and about the Human Rights Awards Dinner.

The UN adopted the Minnesota Protocol in 1991 with the official title, UN Manual on the Effective Prevention of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions. The manual, widely known as the Minnesota Protocol, has been used in myriad investigative contexts in almost every region of the world. Last year, Mr. Heyns asked The Advocates to help update the Minnesota Protocol with forensic, medical, and other advancements since the original publication. “The need for clear international standards that encompass the realities of human rights abuses in the twenty-first century has resulted in the current revision,” said Mr. Heyns.

In addition to his UN role, Heyns is professor of human rights law and director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Special Recognition Award

David Wippman, Dean, University of Minnesota Law School
David Wippman, Dean, University of Minnesota Law School

David Wippman, Dean of University of Minnesota Law School, was honored with The Advocates’ 2016 Special Recognition Award in recognition of his career-long human rights work and his stewardship in the creation of the University of Minnesota Law School’s pioneering Center for New Americans.

The only program of its kind in the United States, the Center was designed to expand urgently needed legal services for non-citizens, pursue litigation to improve our nation’s immigration laws, and educate non-citizens about their rights. The Center has already seen notable successes, including a victory at the U.S. Supreme Court. The Center is made possible through a partnership between The Law School, The Advocates, Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, and the law firms of Faegre Baker Daniels, Robins Kaplan, and Dorsey & Whitney.

“We honor Dean Wippman for changing the world and Minnesota for good and leaving our community a better place,” said Robin Phillips, The Advocates’ executive director.

Volunteer Recognition Awards

Mary Ellen Alden
Mary Ellen Alden

Mary Ellen Alden
Since Mary Ellen Alden began volunteering with The Advocates in 2012, she has represented 15 asylum seekers, including women fleeing domestic violence in Honduras and Ethiopia; political activists from Togo, Syria, and Ethiopia; and Oromo activists from Ethiopia. Her passion for justice for her clients is unparalleled.

“We are proud to count Mary Ellen among our award recipients this year,” said Sarah Brenes, director of The Advocates’ Refugee & Immigrant Program. “She is priceless.”

 

Thomas Dickstein
Thomas Dickstein

Thomas Dickstein
For his bar mitzvah, Thomas Dickstein asked for donations to support The Advocates’ Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal. When he traveled to Nepal and connected with the school’s students, he returned home fired up. Over time, Thomas led a book and backpack drive for the school, developed a PowerPoint presentation and a video to convince others about the school’s need and success. “Thomas sets a great example for all of us,” said Robin Phillips, The Advocates’ executive director. “Imagine what a world we would have if everyone followed his lead.”

 

Front row, left to right: Max Schott, Gayle Shaub, Dean Eyler, Nancy Quattlebaum Burke Back row, left to right: Craig Miller, Meg Martin, Ashley Bailey, Brian Dillon, Monica Kelley, Joy Anderson, Nicole Strydom, Leah Leyendecker, Tammy Mayer, Sandy Bodeau, Karlie Hussey, Brianna Mooty, Matthew Webster, Elizabeth Dillon. Not pictured: Hallie Goodman, Amanda Sicoli, Scott Wick, Jodee Marble.
Front row, left to right: Max Schott, Gayle Shaub, Dean Eyler, Nancy Quattlebaum Burke Back row, left to right: Craig Miller, Meg Martin, Ashley Bailey, Brian Dillon, Monica Kelley, Joy Anderson, Nicole Strydom, Leah Leyendecker, Tammy Mayer, Sandy Bodeau, Karlie Hussey, Brianna Mooty, Matthew Webster, Elizabeth Dillon. Not pictured: Hallie Goodman, Amanda Sicoli, Scott Wick, Jodee Marble.

Gray Plant Mooty
Led by attorneys Max Schott and Dean Eyler, the pro bono team at Gray Plant Mooty has taken on complex cases involving female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and levirate marriage (a widow forced to marry her deceased husband’s brother). Many of the cases required additional fact-finding and expert documentation to understand the nuanced nature of the harm their clients suffered and the cultural context of the country in which it occurred.

Their litigation expertise allowed them to draw out critical facts from the clients and piece together the claims in ways the court could understand. “We’re thankful for the team’s commitment, and we’re proud to count them among our volunteer award recipients,” said Sarah Brenes, director of The Advocates’ Refugee & Immigrant Program. The team includes Joy Anderson, Ashley Bailey, Sandra Bodeau, Nancy Quattlebaum Burke, Brian Dillon, Elizabeth Dillon, Dean Eyler, Hallie Goodman, Karli Hussey, Monica Kelley, Leah Leyendecker, Megan Martin, Craig Miller, Brianna Mooty, Max Schott, Amanda Sicoli, Nicole Strydom, Matthew Webster, and Scott Wick; and paralegals Jodee Marble, Tammy Mayer, and Gayle Schaub.


Henok Gabisa & Stinson Leonard Street

When Henok Gabisa asked The Advocates to submit a complaint to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, The Advocates turned for help to  Theresa Hughes, of Stinson Leonard Street, who assembled a fantastic team, including Neal Griffin, Marc Goldstein, Marcia Sanford, and Andrew Scavotto.

Presented The Advocates' Volunteer Service Award at the event was Henok Gabisa, attorney & Oromo Studies Association president, & attorneys from Stinson Leonard Street. The team works with The Advocates to hold Ethiopia accountable for persecuting Oromos.
Presented The Advocates’ Volunteer Service Award at the event was Henok Gabisa, attorney & Oromo Studies Association president, & attorneys from Stinson Leonard Street. The team works with The Advocates to hold Ethiopia accountable for persecuting Oromos.

Mr. Gabisa had approached The Advocates because of Ethiopia’s persecution of Oromos, the largest ethnic group in that country. While for decades the Ethiopian government has persecuted them, the government in 2014 used lethal force to
respond to peaceful Oromo student protests. Protesters, some young teens, were arrested, detained without charge, and labeled terrorists.

Mr. Gabsia and Stinson team members in St. Louis and Washington, D.C. interviewed witnesses in the United States and abroad, prepared affidavits, tracked down first-hand information, prepared briefs, and ensured witnesses do not face retaliation. Their work to hold the Ethopian government accountable is changing the world for good.

Stinson Team
The Stinson Leonard Street team includes (L-R) Neal Griffin, Marc Goldstein, Andrew Scavotto, & Marcia Stanford

Thomson Reuters
A team of Thomson Reuters’ employees is being recognized for its research on Human Rights Council recommendations to assist with Universal Periodic Review lobbying. Members of the Thomson Reuters team include Mark Petty, Matthew Buell, Marianne Krljic, Ethan Wood, Blake Hatling, Bryan Bearss, Chelsea Reynolds, and Benjamin Petersburg.

Thomson Reuters Award Recipients
The Thomson Reuters’ team includes (L-R) Bryan Bearss, Matthew Buell, Ethan Wood, Marianne Krljic, Mark Petty, Chelsea Reynolds, Benjamin Petersburg, & Blake Hatling.

Lobbying the UN Human Rights council is tricky. Human rights defenders need to know which countries will be receptive to certain issues, but countries’ priorities can be opaque, ever-changing. The Advocates needed a special research team, so it turned to Thomson Reuters. With a worldwide reputation for making complex legal information understandable and accessible, it is no surprise that Thomson Reuters created an amazing volunteer team to streamline The Advocates’ UN lobbying. Three times a year, team members pore through thousands of UN statements to identify countries that may be receptive to lobbying on women’s rights, the death penalty, and LGBTI rights.

“With a few clicks of the Thomson Reuters’ spreadsheet, we identify the countries to target for lobbying,” said Jennifer Prestholdt, director of The Advocates’ International Justice Program. “Their lists are spot-on, and they are changing the world for good.”

Suzanne Turner
Turner Suzanne without backgroundAs coordinator of Dechert’s pro bono work, Suzanne Turner is central to finding eager volunteers to help The Advocates. She even recruited her school-aged daughter to blog about women’s human rights. She also traveled with The Advocates twice to the other side of the world to conduct fact-finding and to document how to strengthen Mongolia’s response to domestic violence.

“Suzie lives our mission,” said Rose Park, Director, The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program.