(New York) - Four courageous and tireless advocates of human rights - from Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Russia - have been awarded the prestigious Alison Des Forges Defender Award for Extraordinary Activism, Human Rights Watch said today. The four work to uphold freedom of expression, to protect women in conflict, and to ease the plight of political prisoners, despite threats and persecution from the authorities.
The awards are named for Dr. Alison Des Forges, senior adviser to Human Rights Watch's Africa Division for almost two decades, who was tragically killed in a plane crash in New York on February 12, 2009. Des Forges was the world's leading expert on Rwanda, the 1994 genocide and its aftermath, and Human Rights Watch's annual award honors her outstanding commitment to and defense of human rights.
The four winners of Human Rights Watch's 2009 Alison Des Forges Defender Award for Extraordinary Activism are:
Daniel Bekele, lawyer and activist from Ethiopia;
Bo Kyi, co-founder of Burma's Assistance Association of Political Prisoners;
Elena Milashina, reporter for Novaya Gazeta, Russia's leading independent newspaper; and
Mathilde Muhindo, women's rights activist working to stop sexual violence in Democratic Republic of Congo.
"These extraordinary individuals confront tremendous challenges every day, yet they work selflessly to end human rights violations and bring abusers to justice," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "We hope this award, named for Alison Des Forges, will inspire and protect them as they struggle to uphold human rights in their countries."
Human rights defenders are critical partners for Human Rights Watch staff conducting investigations in more than 80 countries around the world. The award winners will be honored at the 2009 Human Rights Watch Annual Dinners in Chicago, Geneva, Hamburg, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Munich, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Toronto, and Zurich.
Daniel Bekele, Ethiopia
In the ever-shrinking space for freedom of expression in Ethiopia, Daniel Bekele, a prominent anti-poverty activist and human rights lawyer, has faced heavy-handed government repression. After leading a grass-roots effort to promote voter education and participation in Ethiopia's controversial 2005 parliamentary elections, as well as election monitoring and reconciliation after the vote, Bekele was arrested and spent two-and-a-half years in prison on charges of inciting violence against the government. Human Rights Watch honors Bekele who, at great personal risk, challenges the Ethiopian government to uphold the civil and political rights that protect all people.
Bo Kyi, Burma
As a former political prisoner and co-founder of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP), Bo Kyi works tirelessly to secure the release of Burmese people who have been jailed for their political independence and activism. 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 junta's numerous 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 junta.
Elena Milashina, Russia
As a leading investigative journalist for Novaya Gazeta, Russia's most prominent independent newspaper, Elena Milashina exposes the truth about human rights abuses and widespread government corruption. Despite Russia's attempts to silence its critics and hide abuses, Milashina remains outspoken, publishing accounts of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and torture. She also continues to investigate the 2006 murder of her newspaper colleague and mentor Anna Politkovskaya, calling for accountability at the highest level. Human Rights Watch honors Milashina for her courage in confronting Russia's deeply problematic human rights record.
Mathilde Muhindo, Democratic Republic of Congo
As director of the Olame Centre, a women's rights organization, Mathilde Muhindo empowers women to fight against the pervasive discrimination and horrific sexual violence that are endemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She led a coalition of local women's organizations to advocate successfully for a comprehensive law on sexual violence. Human Rights Watch honors Mathilde Muhindo for her tireless dedication to the safety, health, and rights of the often-forgotten women in eastern Congo.