(New York) - Five brave and selfless advocates of human rights from Burma, Congo, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan have been awarded the prestigious 2008 Human Rights Defender Awards, Human Rights Watch said today. All five have been persecuted and threatened for their work. One winner, Saudi lawyer Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim, is, which Human Rights Watch urges the Saudi government lift so that he may receive his award in person in London.
The five winners of Human Rights Watch’s 2008 Human Rights Defender Awards are:
- Bo Kyi, a co-founder of Burma’s Assistance Association of Political Prisoners;
- Mathilde Muhindo, who works to stop the use of rape as a weapon of war in Democratic Republic of Congo;
- Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim, a human rights lawyer in Saudi Arabia;
- Sunila Abeysekera, founder of the Sri Lankan human rights group INFORM; and,
- Umida Niazova, an Uzbek journalist who covered the turmoil in Andijan.
“Despite the dangers and difficulties they face every day, these five activists continue to expose abuses and seek justice for victims of human rights violations in their own countries,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “It’s an honor to stand with such brave and determined people, and we hope that this award will help them to keep working as effectively and safely as possible.”
Human Rights Watch staff work closely with the human rights defenders as part of our human rights investigations in more than 80 countries around the world. These defenders will be honored at the 2008 Human Rights Watch Annual Dinners in Chicago, Geneva, Hamburg, London, Los Angeles, Munich, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Toronto, and Zurich.
As a college student, Bo Kyi participated in Burma’s “8.8.88 Uprising,” a popular revolt against military rule that reached a turning point on August 8, 1988. On that day, after months of unrest, millions of people took to the streets calling for an end to military rule. The military government’s violent response to the uprising resulted in the deaths of an estimated 3,000 people during the seven months of protests.
“The outside world largely ignored events inside Burma, but for me there was no escape,” said Bo Kyi. “As a student in Rangoon, I participated in many demonstrations and witnessed the brutal suppression by the riot police that killed and wounded so many.”
Bo Kyi ultimately spent seven years and three months in prison for his political activism. He suffered repeated interrogations, beatings, shackling, and torture in prison, amid squalid living conditions. In prison, Bo Kyi learned to speak and write in English, hiding his educational materials each time a warden passed his cell.
Upon his release from prison, Bo Kyi fled to the Burma-Thailand border, where he helped to found the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners in Mae Sot, Thailand. Some 1,920 political activists remain imprisoned in Burma, where they endure abysmal treatment. The number detained increased dramatically after the August and September 2007 crackdown when security forces brutally suppressed peaceful demonstrations of activists, monks and ordinary people.
Assistance Association of Political Prisoners works on behalf of current and former political prisoners and their families. It provides them with financial support and medical care, monitors prison conditions, and advocates internationally for the prisoners’ release.
Over the last 20 years, Bo Kyi has demonstrated unfaltering courage, sharing his story and those of other political prisoners and exposing the Burmese military government’s abuses. Human Rights Watch honors Bo Kyi for his heroic efforts to speak out against Burmese repression and to advocate on behalf of those who have dared to criticize the military government.
“Women and children are paying dearly for the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said Mathilde Muhindo. “Sexual violence in eastern provinces should be seen in its proper contexts – a war within a war. A war against women.”
Muhindo, once a member of Congo’s parliament, works to support rape victims in South Kivu, in eastern Congo, which has been ravaged by armed conflict for over 10 years, up to today. She draws attention to the widespread and systematic use of sexual violence by government troops and armed groups – including sexual slavery, gang rape and mutilation – and to the disastrous consequences for the victims.
As director of the Olame Centre, a nongovernmental women’s rights organization, Muhindo provides urgently needed psychological and practical assistance to victims of abuse and empowers women to fight against pervasive discrimination and sexual violence. To address the crisis – tens of thousands of women and girls have been raped – she also founded a parliamentary committee to investigate rape as a weapon of war.
In partnership with Human Rights Watch and other groups, Muhindo has pressed the European Union, the United States, and others to address ongoing atrocities in eastern Congo. She led a coalition of local women’s organizations that advocated successfully for a comprehensive law on sexual violence. Muhindo has faced death threats for her work, but refuses to be silenced. Human Rights Watch honors Muhindo for her unfaltering dedication to the safety, health, and rights of eastern Congo’s most vulnerable, and often forgotten, women.
Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim’s commitment to justice is manifest as he fights on behalf of those in Saudi Arabia who have been persecuted arbitrarily under dubious interpretations of Sharia (Islamic law). His constant quest for justice and thorough knowledge of Islamic teachings are valuable catalysts for change within oppressive Saudi Arabian laws.
As the leading human rights lawyer in Saudi Arabia, al-Lahim defends the rights of women, educators, and human rights activists who have been unjustly convicted under the Saudi religious establishment’s narrow interpretations of Islamic law. He has been arrested several times, imprisoned and banned from traveling outside the kingdom for his unfaltering defense of the rights of Saudi activists, but he continues to engage fearlessly in the fight for justice.
Al-Lahim is a classically trained Sharia scholar. It is his understanding of Islamic religious teachings that makes him such a formidable force for human rights reform. Al-Lahim provides free legal services to those in desperate need and is writing a comprehensive guide to human rights in Saudi Arabia. Where the Saudi justice system failed him and his clients, Human Rights Watch has helped raise al-Lahim’s cases with Saudi decision-makers, and with success: King Abdullah has pardoned six human rights victims defended by al-Lahim. Human Rights Watch honors al-Lahim for protecting the human rights of people in Saudi Arabia and for his dedication to progressive judicial reform.
Sunila Abeysekera, one of the best-known activists in Sri Lanka, has advised Human Rights Watch on human rights work in the country for more than a decade and a half. She has tirelessly fought against abuses by both sides in Sri Lanka’s long civil war.
“When I started working on human rights two decades ago, it was not easy,” Abeysekera said. “One is regarded as a troublemaker, sometimes as a traitor. Questioning the role of the government and of the different political actors in destroying democratic structures and creating a militaristic environment led to attacks from all sides.”
As executive director of INFORM, a nongovernmental human rights monitoring organization, Abeysekera fights to expose serious abuses and bring institutional change. For over two decades, Abeysekera has struggled against the entrenched culture of impunity to hold perpetrators accountable for enforced disappearances, killings of civilians of all ethnicities, violence against women, and the protection of those displaced by the armed conflict.
With a rare ability to act as researcher, advocate, and spokesperson both within Sri Lanka and abroad, Abeysekera is internationally recognized as one of Sri Lanka’s preeminent human rights activists. In a war driven by ethnic tensions, she refuses to take sides, denouncing abuses by both the government and armed separatist Tamil Tigers. Her neutrality and fierce commitment have won Abeysekera the respect of Sinhalese and Tamils alike. She has faced death threats for her work in an environment that has become increasingly difficult for human rights defenders, but remains steadfast in her work. Human Rights Watch honors Abeysekera for bridging the gaps between ethnic groups and upholding the human rights of all Sri Lankan citizens.
A long-time activist and contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other news agencies, Umida Niazova stood trial before a court in Uzbekistan in April 2007 for “distributing material causing public disorder,” among other criminal charges. Despite the threat of a lengthy prison term, Niazova continued her criticism of the government and its repressive laws. “This is the idea of a democracy,” Niazova told the court. “If we want to build civil society, criticism of the authorities must be allowed.”
Niazova embodies the struggle of Uzbek human rights defenders who, in spite of government repression, continue to speak out against the government’s abuses. In the three years since government forces killed hundreds of unarmed protesters in the eastern city of Andijan, Uzbekistan’s rulers have continued to engage in widespread harassment, interrogations, house arrests, and arbitrary detention of civil society actors. Niazova, an independent journalist from Tashkent and a former translator for Human Rights Watch, was arrested in January 2007 and convicted in May 2007 on politically motivated charges. At her appeal, she was forced to denounce the work of Human Rights Watch and publicly admit guilt. She was eventually granted amnesty, but it was understood that she would not take up her human rights or journalistic activities within Uzbekistan again.
As a token gesture, in response to criticism from the European Union and the United States, the Uzbek government has recently released a few human rights defenders from prison. These releases are welcome. But, as Niazova’s experiences demonstrate, Uzbek society is far from free. The government continues to deny accountability for its role in the May 2005 Andijan killings, and it silences those who question the official version of the massacre. Human Rights Watch honors Niazova, who, at great personal sacrifice and risk, has advocated on behalf of her fellow citizens and compelled the international community to scrutinize the Uzbek government’s deplorable human rights record.