People who speak out against leaders face increasing risk of punishment or prosecution, Amnesty International said today as it launched the world’s biggest human rights campaign.
During the annual Write for Rights campaign, from December 4-17, hundreds of thousands of Amnesty International supporters and activists around the world will send letters, emails, SMS messages, faxes and tweets calling for the release of activists jailed for peaceful dissent, supporting victims of torture and pointing a spotlight on other human rights abuses.
“Amnesty International was founded on the belief that the power of seemingly simple acts, like writing letters on behalf of people unjustly imprisoned or tortured by their government for who they are or what they believe, can truly make a difference,” said Steven W. Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
“By sending a message in support of a prisoner of conscience. a human rights defender, or a community at risk, you’re not just sending a letter to the authorities asking for a change. You’re giving that person a message that the world has not forgotten them, and that human rights abuses cannot be committed in secret.”
2014 was a record-breaking year for the campaign, with hundreds of thousands of people in more than 200 countries and territories sending 3,245,565 messages offering support or calling for action on the cases of 12 individuals and communities experiencing human rights abuses. More than a million messages have been sent in support of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi since the campaign raised his case.
Solidarity campaign has seen prisoners released, pardoned
The annual campaign has achieved major victories. On May 28, 2015, Nigerian torture survivor Moses Akatugba was pardoned and released after receiving calls for clemency from 800,000 Amnesty International supporters. Moses was sentenced to death for armed robbery after stealing three mobile phones – a crime he says he did not commit – based on a “confession” obtained under torture.
“I was arrested, tortured and imprisoned when I was just 16 years old. I was sentenced to death,” Moses said in a letter to Amnesty International supporters. “Without the thousands of letters sent in support of my case, I might never have been granted my freedom.”
The 2013 campaign led to the release of three prisoners of conscience: Cambodian housing rights activist Yorm Bopha, community leader from Myanmar Dr Tun Aung and Russian protester Vladimir Akimenkov. Authorities received hundreds of thousands of letters and petitions from Amnesty International supporters.
Freedom of expression under threat
The 2015 Write for Rights campaign illustrates the growing pressure on freedom of expression, calling for the release of several people jailed or facing trial as a price for peaceful dissent:
- Uzbekistan: Muhammad Bekzhanov, the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist (together with Yusuf Ruzimuradov from the same paper, jailed at the same time in 1999).
- Malaysia: Political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque or “Zunar”, who faces a long prison sentence under the Sedition Act for tweets criticizing the country’s judiciary.
- Myanmar: Phyoe Phyoe Aung, leader of one of Myanmar’s largest students unions, one of 54 students and protesters jailed after protests on March 10, 2015.
- Democratic Republic of Congo: Peaceful youth activists Yves Makwambala and Fred Bauma, arrested at a press conference and awaiting trial accused of forming a criminal gang and attempting to overthrow the government.
- Saudi Arabia: Lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, currently serving a 15-year prison sentence followed by a 15-year travel ban and a fine for his peaceful activism. Before his imprisonment, he defended many victims of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, including Raif Badawi, who was supported by last year’s campaign.
“The power of the written word cannot be underestimated. It may seem like one person cannot make a difference from thousands of miles away, but the reality is that many voices together can accomplish amazing things,” said Zeke Johnson, director of the Individuals at Risk Program at Amnesty International USA. “This campaign is about putting governments on notice that we are paying attention, and we will not let abuses happen on our watch.”
Last year, almost three-quarters of states arbitrarily restricted freedom of expression, according to Amnesty International’s 2014 Annual Report (119 countries out of 160 covered in the report), including crackdowns on press freedom such as newspapers being forcibly closed and journalists threatened and attacked.
Art for Amnesty USA is hosting a free event in New Orleans on December 12 called “Art fro Rights,” in which 12 artists will highlight the stories of 12 different human rights cases around the world through art and creative installations. The event is being held in New Orleans because that is where Albert Woodfox, the USA case in this year’s campaign, has been held in solitary for over 40 years. More information can be found at: http://write.amnestyusa.org/artforrights