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(London) - Two courageous Human Rights Lawyers, from Zimbabwe and Nepal, have been chosen to receive the prestigious Human Rights Defender Awards, Human Rights Watch said today. Both honorees, who have faced down death threats, use the law to expose abuses and seek redress for victims of gross human rights violations in their countries. Human Rights Watch’s global rights defender awardees for 2007 are:

“We are honoring Mandira and Arnold because of their fight to build and preserve civil society in Nepal and Zimbabwe,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “We salute their courage in risking their lives to seek justice and basic rights for all.”

Sharma, the first woman in her village to become a lawyer, founded Advocacy Forum to champion the rights of ordinary Nepalis caught in the brutal civil war between Maoist insurgents and the Nepali government. Since a peace agreement was signed in 2006, Sharma has concentrated on bringing to justice those who committed abuses on both sides, because she believes that peace depends in part on justice. “There is a culture of impunity,” she said. “Without addressing this, we cannot move forward.”

Tsunga, executive director of Zimbabwean Lawyers for Human Rights, returned home to Harare this year despite being constantly harassed and threatened by government forces. He uses the courts to take on Robert Mugabe’s regime, giving a voice to Zimbabweans silenced by repression. “Some people ask me why I bother using the legal system when the deck is so stacked against us,” he said. “I answer that there is still a semblance of a court system and some brave judges who will uphold the law. But they are operating in straitjackets and desperately need support to continue doing the right thing.”

Human Rights Watch staff work closely with the human rights defenders as part of our human rights investigations in more than 70 countries around the world. The 2007 Human Rights Watch annual dinners, where the defenders will be honored, will take place in London, Munich, Hamburg, and Geneva. “We are all inspired by the work of Mandira Sharma and Arnold Tsunga,” said Roth. “They fight every day to uphold the rule of law because they know it’s the strongest weapon against abusive forces in government or out.”

Background on the 2007 Human Rights Watch Honorees:

Mandira Sharma, Nepal
Mandira Sharma is a Nepali lawyer and human rights activist who cofounded Advocacy Forum, one of Asia’s most respected and effective human rights organizations. Sharma works to publicize human rights abuses and provide legal support to Nepali activists, many of whom have been targeted by the government.

Sharma’s efforts have been critical to the pursuit of justice for abuses committed by both the Royal Nepali Army and Maoist rebels during a civil war that plagued Nepal for nearly a decade between 1995 and 2005. In the face of entrenched ineptitude and corruption in the Nepali court system, Sharma continues to file and win cases on behalf of human rights activists who have been arbitrarily detained, tortured, and “disappeared.” She also conducts advocacy to raise awareness about these widespread human rights violations and engages in grassroots outreach to educate the public about their legal rights. Human Rights Watch honors Sharma for her work defending the Nepali people in the midst of the bloody civil war, and for seeking to ensure the country achieves a just and stable peace.

Arnold Tsunga, Zimbabwe
Arnold Tsunga stands on the frontlines of the struggle for human rights in Zimbabwe, where the government has intimidated, arrested and beaten political opponents, and in 2005 pursued a massive campaign of forced evictions and demolitions.

As the executive director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, Tsunga heads a small and extremely effective staff of lawyers, as well as a network of around 200 members of the legal community who offer their services on a part-time, pro bono basis. Though he has been beaten, arrested and threatened at gunpoint, Tsunga is tireless in his support of those who risk their own lives to denounce the deteriorating state of human rights in Zimbabwe. He visits police stations to secure the release of activists, stands in court with outspoken opponents of the government, and speaks out against the abduction, harassment and arbitrary detention of countless others. Human Rights Watch honors Tsunga for his steadfast commitment to those who fight for human rights in Zimbabwe.

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