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The Abusers’ Reaction

Intensifying Attacks on Human Rights Defenders, Organizations, and Institutions

The Abusers’ Reaction:

Intensifying Attacks on Human Rights Defenders, Organizations, and Institutions

By Kenneth Roth

Every government is at times tempted to violate human rights. To encourage governments to resist that temptation, the human rights movement seeks to raise the price of abuse—to shift the cost-benefit calculus behind a government’s actions.

The human rights movement’s ability to raise that price has grown substantially in recent years. Today, activists are capable of exposing abuses most anywhere in the world, shining an intense spotlight of shame on those responsible, rallying concerned governments and institutions to use their influence on behalf of victims, and in severe cases, persuading international prosecutors to bring abusers to justice. These are effective tools, and they have retained their power even as certain traditional allies wavered in their support for human rights. That effectiveness has spawned a reaction, and that reaction grew particularly intense in 2009.

Certain abusive governments, sometimes working together, sometimes pursuing parallel tracks, are engaged in an intense round of attacks on human rights defenders, organizations, and institutions. The aim is to silence the messenger, to deflect the pressure, to lessen the cost of committing human rights violations.

These attacks might be seen as an unwitting tribute to the human rights movement. If governments were not feeling the heat, they would not bother trying to smother the source. But the cynicism of their motives does not mitigate the danger. Under various pretexts, these governments are attacking the very foundations of the human rights movement.

The techniques vary from the subtle to the transparent, from the refined to the ruthless. In some cases, human rights activists—be they advocates, journalists, lawyers, petition-gatherers, or others who document and publicize abuses or defend victims—have been harassed, detained, and sometimes killed. Organizations have been shut down or crippled. The tools used range from the classic police raid to the more novel use of regulatory constraints.

International institutions have also been targeted. The emergence of an international system of justice—especially the International Criminal Court—has been the focus of particular venom by government leaders who fear prosecution. The aim is apparently to suppress any institution that is capable of penalizing those who violate human rights. The attacks are built on a series of arguments that have resonance but cannot ultimately be reconciled with the imperative of justice for the worst international crimes. In addition, the Human Rights Council, the United Nations’ foremost intergovernmental human rights body, has become victim of concerted efforts to undermine its potential by restricting voices that are independent of government control.

The emergence of a strong human rights movement has not, of course, meant the end of human rights abuses. Pressure sometimes works to mitigate or curb abuses, but at other times governments see such advantages to violating human rights that they are willing to brave the cost. The trend, however, is that a growing number of governments hope to have their cake and eat it too—to violate human rights without paying a price. They hope to achieve that abuser’s paradise by subverting the individuals and institutions that impose a cost for human rights abuse.

Governments, of course, have long been tempted to attack the bearer of bad news. There is a long, sordid history of human rights defenders being censored, imprisoned, “disappeared,” or killed. But now, as the human rights movement has grown more powerful and effective, the silence-the-messenger efforts of many governments have grown in subtlety and sophistication. Murders are committed deniably. Politically motivated prosecutions are disguised by common criminal charges. Censorship is accomplished through seemingly neutral regulatory regimes. Funding streams are blocked. As the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders noted in August 2009, “the ways and means applied in certain countries in order to restrict the activities of human rights organizations are now even more widely used in all regions of the world.”

The perpetrators of these attacks are not limited to classic authoritarian governments such as Cuba and China. Democracies such as Sri Lanka have increased the pressure on local and international human rights groups that documented violations, as have governments that hold elections but fall short of democratic rule, such as Russia.

These efforts have yet to succeed in diminishing pressure from the human rights movement. Most human rights defenders accept the unintentional compliment behind the attacks and redouble their efforts. But the campaign to undermine human rights activism is nonetheless dangerous. By highlighting it in this year’s World Report, Human Rights Watch seeks to expose and help to reverse the trend. A strong defense of human rights depends on the vitality of the human rights movement that is now under assault. We appeal to governmental supporters of human rights to help defend the defenders by identifying and countering these reactionary efforts.

Attacks on Human Rights Defenders

Murder and Other Violent Attacks

Governments have long used murder to silence human rights criticism. But instead of acting openly, abusers today tend to hide behind the work of “unknown assailants” whose killing is then conveniently ignored by national justice institutions.


In 2009, Russia was at the forefront of murderous retaliation against human rights defenders. Several of the victims had in common their reporting on arbitrary detention, torture, and summary execution committed in the war-torn republic of Chechnya by forces under the de facto control of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. Russian authorities have fostered a culture of impunity for abuse that cannot but have emboldened the authors of these killings. For example:

  • In July, Natalia Estemirova, the leading Chechnya researcher for the Russian human rights group Memorial, was abducted by unidentified men near her home in Grozny, the Chechen capital, and later found murdered.
  • In August, law enforcement personnel abducted Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband, Alik Dzhabrailov, from their Grozny office; they were found shot dead the next day. They worked for Save the Generation, a charity that provides assistance to children affected by the conflict in Chechnya.
  • In January, Umar Israilov, a former security guard for Kadyrov who had filed a complaint for torture against him before the European Court of Human Rights, was murdered by an unknown assailant in Vienna, Austria.

Also in January, human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, along with a journalist who was with him, Anastasia Baburova, were killed in Moscow just after he held a press conference. Two suspects have been arrested, and one reportedly confessed to personal motives behind the shooting, allegedly linked to Markelov’s work against Russian neo-fascists. At this writing it is unclear whether that was indeed the motive for the murder. Markelov was also representing the family of a young Chechen woman who had been killed by a Russian colonel. He had previously represented Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who specialized in reporting on abuses under Kadyrov. She was killed in Moscow in 2006, and her murder has never been solved.

Some Russian human rights defenders have faced violence because of their work outside the context of Chechnya.

  • Anti-corruption activist Andrei Kulagin, who worked for the group Spravedlivost (Justice) in Petrozavodsk, in northwest Russia, was found dead in July 2009, two months after he went missing. In Khimki, just outside Moscow, Albert Pchelintsev, who works to expose local corruption, was attacked in July by two men who shot him in the mouth “to shut him up,” according to the attackers.
  • In August, the office of Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights, a group of mothers whose sons are believed to have been forcibly disappeared, was the subject of an arson attack, after some of its staff members were among those named in a pamphlet calling for the murder of human rights defenders.
  • In June, Aleksei Sokolov, a human rights defender from Yekaterinburg in the Ural region, was arrested on clearly spurious charges. A member of a public prison monitoring group, he was beaten by the police as they taunted, “You think you have oversight over us?”

Other countries

Russia was not alone in violently attacking human rights defenders. Other countries where rights activists were murdered, “disappeared,” or seriously assaulted in 2009 include:

  • Kenya, where Oscar Kamau Kingara and John Paul Oulu of the Oscar Foundation, a legal aid organization, were murdered by unidentified assailants in Nairobi in March after they had briefed UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston on summary executions by the police.
  • Burundi, where Ernest Manirumva of the anti-corruption organization OLUCOME was murdered in April. The government initially set up a commission that conducted a sham investigation. Under pressure, it appointed a seemingly more genuine investigative commission in October.
  • Sri Lanka, where in May uniformed armed men abducted and “disappeared” Stephen Suntharaj of the Centre for Human Rights and Development. He has not been seen since. He had just been released from two months in police detention upon order of the Supreme Court.
  • Afghanistan, where Sitara Achakzai, a prominent human rights advocate from Kandahar, was gunned down in April. She had complained to government officials for weeks about threats that she had been receiving but they had done nothing to protect her—a common complaint among Afghan women in public life, including politicians, journalists, and human rights activists. The authorities have made little or no effort to find Achakzai’s killers.
  • Malaysia, where Finardo Cabilao, a social welfare attaché at the Philippines embassy, was found bludgeoned to death in August. He appears to have been targeted because of his work combating human trafficking.
  • India, where lawyers who represented terrorism suspects were physically attacked by other lawyers often affiliated with militant Hindu parties and threatened by mobs. The government failed to take action against those responsible for such attacks. For example in March, pro bono lawyer Anjali Waghmare volunteered to represent Ajmal Amir Kasab, the sole surviving gunman of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. A mob of 200 people, led by local leaders of the extremist Shiv Sena party, surrounded her Mumbai home, throwing stones and shouting obscenities. A judge ordered special protection for the lawyer, but none of the attackers has yet been prosecuted.
  • Uzbekistan, where three members of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan—Elena Urlaeva, Salomat Boimatova, and Ilnur Abdulov—were stopped by suspected plainclothes police as they made their way to the UN office in Tashkent in May 2009 to deliver a report on human rights defenders in Uzbekistan. When the alliance members objected to a request to visit the police station, three officers beat Abdulov and forced the three into a waiting police car. At the station, they were questioned about no crime in particular and quickly released. Urlaeva was forced to sign a statement that she would not participate in any human rights activities until June 10, the day of the European Union-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue. Despite that intensifying repression, the EU in October lifted an arms embargo on Uzbekistan, the last remaining sanction imposed after the Andijan massacre of 2005.

Closed Societies and Restricted Conditions for Activism

Some governments are so oppressive that no domestic human rights movement can exist openly. No one dares. These governments typically also preclude visits by international human rights monitors. Noteworthy in this regard are Eritrea, North Korea, and Turkmenistan. Burma and Iran have small, embattled human rights movements but bar international groups from entering. Saudi Arabia does not acknowledge nongovernmental human rights promotion, sometimes ignoring solitary activists, but more often immediately clamping down when those brave individuals find broader resonance, especially in the Western media. Somalia is so dangerous that open human rights monitoring is virtually impossible: the past three years of brutal conflict have seen civil society decimated, with many activists killed or fleeing the country.

Libya has allowed international visits but effectively bars independent domestic monitoring because the concept of an independent civil society contradicts Libyan leader Mu`ammar al-Gaddafi’s theory of government by the masses without intermediary. In Syria, all human rights groups remain unlicensed, as officials consistently deny their requests for registration. The National Organization for Human Rights has challenged before an administrative court the decision of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor to deny its registration request. The ministry responded by calling for the organization’s members to be prosecuted.

Some generally open societies bar international human rights groups from visiting the sites of certain serious abuses. Indonesia has prohibited the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as well as international human rights groups from visiting Papua. Israel prevented Israeli and international human rights defenders as well as journalists from entering Gaza during the December 2008-January 2009 conflict, and has kept human rights activists out ever since (although it has been possible to gain access via Egypt since the conflict, and Gaza-based defenders have been able to work throughout the period). Sri Lanka blocked local and international human rights groups and independent journalists from most of the region in which the armed conflict that climaxed in 2009 was taking place, as well as access to internally displaced persons held in camps.

A number of governments block access to independent experts and rapporteurs from the UN human rights machinery. The governments of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam each continue to refuse access to more than a half-dozen UN special procedures, including on torture and human rights defenders, despite longstanding and repeated requests for invitations to visit the countries. Other similarly offending governments include Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. At the end of October 2009, Zimbabwe prevented the special rapporteur on torture from entering the country, despite having invited him and agreed to the dates of the visit, while Russia has steadfastly refused to guarantee the conditions required for him to conduct a mission.

Certain governments seem to have no qualms about simply shutting down human rights organizations:

  • Following the International Criminal Court’s issuance of an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir in March 2009, the Sudanese government closed three local human rights organizations, as well as expelling 13 international humanitarian NGOs working in Darfur.
  • In July, the Chinese government shut down the Open Constitution Initiative, the country’s leading nongovernmental legal aid organization, which has worked on issues such as the background causes of the 2008 Tibet protests and the scandal of melamine-poisoned milk that sickened hundreds of thousands of children.
  • In Azerbaijan, after denying registration six times to the Election Monitoring Center, the government briefly registered it in February 2008, only to shut it down three months later, ostensibly for giving false information about its founder and legal address and for opening regional offices without informing the government. In 2009, the group reformed under a new name—the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center—and applied for registration, but the Ministry of Justice refused in May and August to register it.

Detention, Harassment, Threats, and Other Attacks

Other governments openly harass or detain human rights defenders:

  • The Cuban government refuses to recognize the legitimacy of any independent human rights organization. Local defenders are subjected to regular harassment, threatened with beatings and imprisonment if they do not abandon their work, and sentenced under broad laws that criminalize virtually all forms of dissent. Dozens of human rights defenders are currently imprisoned in Cuba, including several sentenced under an Orwellian “dangerousness” law, which allows individuals to be sentenced not because they have committed a crime but to prevent them from committing one in the future.
  • The Vietnamese government bans independent human rights organizations, which it considers part of subversive plots to undermine the Vietnamese Communist Party through “peaceful evolution.” Human rights defenders are often imprisoned for national security crimes, such as “abusing democratic freedoms” of expression, assembly, and association to “infringe upon the interests of the State.” Lawyers seeking to defend Vietnamese human rights activists also face threats, harassment, disbarment, physical assault, and arrest. In June 2009, for example, police arrested defense lawyer Le Cong Dinh and accused him of using his representation of democracy and religious-freedom activists to “propagandize against the regime and distort Vietnam’s constitution and laws.” Rights lawyer Bui Kim Thanh was involuntarily committed to a mental institution in 2008 because of her defense of farmers seeking redress for confiscation of their land.
  • In Iran, security forces in December 2008 ransacked the offices of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, removed files and computers, and arrested some staff members, in advance of a planned celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In November 2009, the authorities confiscated Ebadi’s Nobel medal and opened legal proceedings for “back taxes” on the financial component on the prize. Prominent human rights lawyers were arrested to prevent them from representing supporters of reform following Iran’s disputed June 2009 presidential elections.
  • In Saudi Arabia, the secret police arrested rights activists Muhammad al-‘Utaibi and Khalid al-‘Umair as they planned to attend a peaceful Gaza solidarity rally. The security forces have kept them in pretrial detention beyond the six-month limit allowed under Saudi law and despite the fact that the prosecutor’s office decided not to press charges. When the authorities in November 2009 suspected al-‘Umair of informing fellow rights activists via an illegally held mobile phone about prison conditions in al-Ha’ir prison, including guards beating prisoners and prisoners dying from lack of healthcare, they transferred him to solitary confinement.
  • In October 2009, Syrian State Security detained Haytham al-Maleh, 78, a prominent human rights lawyer, following his appearance on an opposition television station in which he criticized the ongoing repression of freedom of expression in Syria. In November, a military judge charged him with “spreading false or exaggerated information that can weaken national sentiment.” His trial is ongoing.
  • In Cambodia, more than 60 community activists were imprisoned or awaiting trial during 2009—often on spurious charges—for helping to organize and represent fellow community members facing eviction or illegal confiscation of their land by private companies linked to high-ranking government and military officials.
  • Yemen remained notorious for its forced disappearances, including that of Muhammad al-Maqalih, a journalist for the opposition Yemeni Socialist Party’s online party organ, A group of men grabbed Maqalih in September 2009 in the capital San’a, shortly after he had criticized the government over its bombing campaign against northern rebels. His associates said sources had identified him at the Political Security Organization prison, then at a Ministry of Defense prison, and, in November, in a prison in Aden.

Some governments use threats of violence, whether explicit or coded, to deter or punish human rights defenders. For example:

  • In Colombia, President Álvaro Uribe and senior government officials have made baseless accusations linking human rights defenders as well as journalists and trade union activists to the FARC guerrillas. In the context of a long history of illegal armed groups murdering human rights defenders for their work, such charges can be extraordinarily dangerous. The Colombian intelligence agency, which answers directly to Uribe, has also closely monitored human rights groups through illegal wiretapping, email interception, and surveillance.
  • The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo accused human rights workers of being “humanitarian terrorists”—adding considerably to the danger they already face working in the war zone of eastern Congo.
  • A number of Sri Lankan activists fled the country because of threats and harassment. In August 2009, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Sri Lankan think-tank often critical of the government, received a death threat in an anonymous letter, blaming him for Sri Lanka’s possible loss of EU trade privileges because of its poor human rights record. Two weeks later, police briefly detained and questioned him at the airport upon his return to Sri Lanka from abroad.
  • In Nicaragua, women’s rights advocates campaigning against an absolute ban on abortion enacted in 2006 faced official investigations into their work as well as threatening calls and acts of vandalism from unknown assailants.

Despite broad recognition of reproductive rights and sexual rights under international law, these rights remain socially and politically under attack in many parts of the world. Discrimination and extreme violence sometimes rising to the level of murder persist against those asserting claims to these rights. Advocates working to combat HIV/AIDS, those who promote women’s access to safe and legal abortion, or NGOs that promote lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights are frequently attacked because of the social and political controversy surrounding these issues. For example, Uganda’s proposed “Anti-homosexuality Law” would make it a crime to “promote” homosexuality, on pain of criminal prosecution and dissolution of the offending NGO.

Restrictive Regulations

The above methods for trying to silence the human rights movement are hardly subtle. But because of their transparency they also carry a more direct price in terms of damage to the abusive government’s reputation and international relations. As a result, abusive governments often resort to less obvious techniques. One method seemingly in the ascendancy is the adoption of intrusive laws and regulations—designed not to provide a framework to facilitate the creation and operation of NGOs, but to control and muffle them. In 2006, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders noted that “while a few States have adopted national laws reflecting the international obligations contained in the Declaration [on Human Rights Defenders], the overall trend has been for States to adopt new laws restricting the space for human rights activities.” Governments that adopt this approach try to pretend that it is no more than ordinary oversight of an important sector, but the intent and effect are to prevent these groups from holding governments accountable to international human rights standards.

Russia reinvigorated this regulatory approach when it adopted a controversial law governing NGOs in 2006. The authorities also deploy tax, fire-safety, and software-piracy codes to the same effect. NGOs involved in noncontroversial work have felt relatively little impact, but human rights organizations and others seeking to promote government accountability have faced burdensome regulations, close oversight, selectively imposed audits and inspections, and the threat of closure for failing to comply. At best, these organizations must waste their time responding to government overseers rather than carrying out their work; according to one study, registration for NGOs had become 40 percent more expensive than for commercial enterprises. At worst, these organizations are subject to liquidation or suspension for relatively minor, technical violations or otherwise prevented from doing their core work because of the demands of inspections. In 2009, courts cited technical violations to order the liquidation of two regional offices of the For Human Rights Movement. Agora, a regional human rights association, has been prevented from doing its substantive work since July because of a series of harassing inspections.

Ethiopia’s new law on civil society organizations, adopted in January 2009, has had an even more devastating effect. It has essentially shut down most domestic human rights monitoring. The law bars “foreign organizations,” defined as any group that receives more than 10 percent of its funding from abroad, from conducting any activities related to the issues of human rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, or good governance. The lack of domestic donors has meant that NGOs have had to avoid these sensitive areas. The Ethiopian government justifies the law by noting that many governments, such as the United States, prohibit foreign funding of political candidates, but political campaigns are very different from civil society organizations exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. The Ethiopian government also notes that it permits foreign funding of development activities (a major source of revenue to the government), but the best way of ensuring that development efforts address the greatest public needs is to allow the kind of independent monitoring that the civil society law restricts. Its constricting effect is compounded by a new anti-terrorism law, which can be used to criminalize peaceful public protest and expression under an overbroad definition of promoting terrorism.

India’s Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, while initially enacted to prohibit political parties, politicians, and electoral candidates from accepting foreign financial support in order to ensure that Indian elections were not affected by foreign interests, has been used instead to block funding of and harass organizations for criticizing government policies and practices. Proposed amendments to the law will further undermine the right of NGOs to seek and receive financial support for any activity deemed detrimental to the “national interest.”

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the power of his position rather than the law to attack the funding base of a key human rights group. In August, he publicly urged European governments to cut their funding to the Israeli veterans’ group Breaking the Silence, shortly after it had issued a highly critical report on the Israel Defense Forces’ conduct in Gaza. The report included the testimonies of 26 soldiers who had participated in the Gaza military operation. A senior official in Netanyahu’s office stated publicly, “We are going to dedicate time and manpower to combating these groups; we are not going to be sitting ducks in a pond for the human rights groups to shoot at us with impunity.”

Other governments with restrictive laws on NGOs and associations include:

  • Egypt, where the law governing associations provides criminal penalties that stifle legitimate NGO activities, including for “engaging in political or union activities,” and allows NGOs to be dissolved by administrative order. Egypt also continues a host of intrusive administrative practices that restrict the natural development of civil society and provide ample means for political or bureaucratic interference. Security services routinely review and reject NGO registrations and scrutinize their leaders, activities, and funding.
  • Jordan, where a 2009 law allows the government to remove an NGO’s management and replace it with state functionaries. The law now also obliges NGOs to seek official approval for any foreign donation.
  • Uganda, where a 2007 law requires NGOs to give seven days’ notice of any intention to make “direct contact with people in any rural area of Uganda.”
  • Turkmenistan, which makes no pretence of respecting NGOs’ independence. Under its law, NGOs must secure the support of a government agency to be registered. They must also allow government representatives to attend all meetings and register each grant with the Ministry of Justice.
  • Libya, where a law on associations requires a political body to approve all NGOs and allows for continuous governmental interference in running them. Any group deemed to oppose the ideology of the 1969 Libyan revolution is criminalized—potentially a capital offense.

This regulatory approach to restricting human rights monitoring has proved so handy that a number of governments—not limited to traditionally repressive ones—have proposed similar laws. Among the countries where bills are pending are:

  • Venezuela, where a bill before the National Assembly since 2006 would subject NGOs that receive foreign assistance to vague registration requirements and the duty to answer intrusive government questions about their activities, funding, and expenses.
  • Peru, where a congressional committee has taken steps to reinstate a law allowing a governmental agency to supervise NGOs despite the Constitutional Tribunal of Peru having struck the law down.
  • Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen declared in November 2009 that an NGO law would soon be passed to weed out “bad NGOs” who “speak too loud,” are used as fronts for political or terrorist activities, or receive funding from foreign countries to oppose the Cambodian government. A draft law is expected to be taken up by the National Assembly soon, even though civil society groups have not been provided the bill for review and comment.
  • Rwanda, where the government is proposing to tighten already intrusive requirements that NGOs provide the government detailed financial information, lists of staff and assets, and yearly activity reports.
  • Kyrgyzstan, where a draft law would impose onerous reporting requirements for NGOs, forbid them from engaging in “political” activities, and set out a new regime of government inspections and warnings. Parliamentary hearings on the bill were postponed after local and international outcry.

Disbarring Lawyers

Because lawyers often play a prominent role in defending rights, they frequently face special attack. Both China and Iran have disbarred lawyers on political grounds to prevent them from representing victims of human rights abuses.

  • In China, the government silenced activist lawyers by refusing to renew their professional licenses, pressuring the law firms that employ them, and restricting the type of cases that they are permitted to take on. In the largest retaliatory move to date, up to 30 lawyers in Beijing have been deregistered. The disbarred lawyers were all involved in high-profile cases challenging local or central authorities: the Sanlu contaminated milk scandal, allegations of corruption in the construction of schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a challenge over government control of the official Beijing Bar Association, and an alphabet soup of human rights cases ranging from forced evictions of tenants and farmers to politically motivated prosecutions of dissidents and religious dissenters.
  • In June 2009, following the disputed presidential elections, the Iranian government adopted new regulations that severely limit the independence of the Iranian Bar Association, giving the government control over a lawyer’s right to practice. Until then, the Bar Association, which has the exclusive power to grant or deny licenses to practice, had resisted government efforts to rein in lawyers who defend human rights.
  • In July, Syrian State Security detained Muhannad al-Hasani, president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization (Swasiah). An investigating judge charged him with “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false or exaggerated information” in connection with his monitoring of trials before the Supreme State Security Court. His trial is ongoing. In November, the Syrian Bar Association issued a decision to permanently disbar him.

Criminal Charges

Many governments have used trumped-up criminal charges to silence human rights defenders. For example:

  • In their effort to crush China’s foremost independent legal aid organization, the Open Constitution Initiative, Beijing authorities detained its founder, Xu Zhiyong, and another staff member for three weeks in August 2009 on suspicion of “tax evasion.” The stated grounds: not having paid taxes on a charitable grant received from Yale University. The group was also deregistered. A domestic and international outcry helped to secure Xu’s release, but China’s leading public interest law NGO remains shuttered. 
  • In November, China convicted veteran human rights activist Huang Qi of “possession of state secrets” and sentenced him to three years in prison after a closed trial and without ever publicly disclosing what secrets he allegedly possessed. Huang’s prosecution followed his investigation into allegations that shoddy construction contributed to the collapse of schools in the Sichuan earthquake zone in May 2008. The government also prosecuted Tan Zuoren, a literary editor and environmental activist, who was tried in Chengdu in August 2009 on charges of “subversion” related to his compilation of a list of children killed in the Sichuan earthquake.
  • Uzbekistan has repeatedly used trumped-up criminal charges against human rights activists, especially those working on the rights of farmers. For example, Ganikhon Mamatkhanov, a human rights defender and farmers’ rights activist who regularly provided commentary on the human rights situation in the country to Radio Ozodlik, the Uzbek branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was sentenced in November 2009 to five years’ imprisonment on charges of fraud and bribery after he was detained the previous month following an apparent attempt to frame him. Mamatkhanov received a call from an unidentified man asking to meet him at a market. When he showed up, the man reportedly started to hit him and shoved something into his bag. Mamatkhanov tried to stop him and, realizing that it was a set-up, tried to throw the item away. However, he was immediately detained by the police who confiscated the item, subsequently found to be 500,000 Uzbek som (about US$330) in banknotes. Mamatkhanov reported that he had never seen his assailant before.
  • Rwanda has used its criminal law against “genocide ideology” to silence individuals critical of current government policies or those who challenge past abuses committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front. It has also employed its informal gacaca courts—a form of popular justice devoid of many fair trial guarantees—to falsely accuse government critics of complicity in the 1994 genocide. Ironically, these steps, taken in the name of national reconciliation, have undermined the formation of independent civil society groups that could bridge ethnic divides and ease ethnic tensions.
  • The Iranian government has arrested scores of NGO activists and sentenced them to prison on the grounds that their work or speech allegedly “harms national security” or that they are “foreign agents.” Members of Kurdish rights organizations have faced even worse, with lengthy prison sentences, including the death penalty, for their work reporting on rights violations affecting the Kurdish community. In 2008, the government sentenced to death Farzad Kamangar, a member of the Organization for the Defense of Human Rights in Kurdistan, claiming without proof that he was a member of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). It also sentenced Sadigh Kaboudvand, who headed the group, to 11 years in prison for his NGO activities, along with prison terms for 12 of his colleagues.

In a twist on the use of questionable charges, Evgeniy Zhovtis, founding director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law and the country’s most prominent human rights defender, was found guilty in September 2009 of manslaughter following a motor vehicle accident in which a young man was killed. The investigation and trial leading to his conviction were marred by serious procedural flaws that denied him the right to present a defense, and gave rise to concern that this human tragedy was being politically exploited.

Criminal libel laws have also become a favorite tool to silence human rights criticisms.

  • In Morocco, a court in June imposed a three-year sentence on Chekib el-Khayari, president of the Human Rights Association in the Rif, on the grounds that his criticism of officials allegedly complicit in drug-trafficking had “gravely offended” state institutions; the court also convicted him of minor currency violations.
  • Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov filed a civil libel suit and a criminal libel complaint against Oleg Orlov, the head of the human rights group Memorial, for accusing Kadyrov of responsibility in human rights activist Natalia Estemirova’s murder. A court ruled in Kadyrov’s favor on the civil suit in October, before the investigation of Estemirova’s murder was completed. Police are investigating Orlov for criminal libel.
  • Natasa Kandic, the director of the Humanitarian Law Center and a prominent critic of Serbia’s failure to fully confront its role in wartime abuses in the Balkans during the 1990s, is currently the subject of a dozen civil and criminal lawsuits initiated in 2009 by Serbian public officials. The plaintiffs include officials of the Ministry of Interior and high-ranking members of the police, all of whom Kandic has accused of having participated directly or indirectly in war crimes. The Serbian government has not officially reacted to these cases.
  • In Indonesia, Usman Hamid, director of Kontras, one of the country’s leading human rights organizations, faces criminal defamation charges pressed by Muchdi Purwopranjono, former Special Forces commander and deputy director of National Intelligence. Hamid had criticized the not-guilty verdict in the deeply flawed trial of Muchdi for the arsenic-poisoning murder of Munir Said Thalib, the founder of Kontras.

In a slight variation on the same theme, Sri Lanka detained four government doctors for several months for allegedly “disseminating false information,” based on their reports about indiscriminate government shelling of hospitals in areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers during the final weeks of the armed conflict with the Tigers.

* * *

Despite the variation and inventiveness of government efforts to restrict or punish human rights defenders, the motives are largely the same. In today’s world, human rights abuse does carry a price. One would hope that for most governments, that price would provide yet another reason to respect their legal obligations and uphold human rights. But some governments, as described, cannot resist trying to minimize the price by attacking or restricting the messengers. Whether that cynical approach succeeds will depend on the vigor of the response from those governments that are committed to protecting human rights. Human Rights Watch hopes that by highlighting this disturbing trend, we will mobilize a strong response.

Attacks on Human Rights Institutions

International Criminal Court

The reaction to a strong defense of human rights has not been limited to human rights defenders. Perhaps the greatest recent victory of the human rights movement has been its contribution to erecting a new international system of justice for the worst human rights offenders, most notably with the launching in 2002 of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Before the emergence of an international system of justice, highly abusive governments could reasonably calculate that they could get away with mass murder by using violence or threats to cripple their national justice system. The ICC and its brethren institutions, such as the tribunals for Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and the former Yugoslavia, represent the possibility of justice, beyond the reach of tyrants and dictators to compromise it.

Those institutions are still at a rudimentary stage and they will never have the capacity to prosecute all alleged perpetrators. Moreover, with deeply rooted disparities of power often determining which abusers come under scrutiny, officials from or supported by certain states are less vulnerable to international prosecution. These shortcomings mean that many atrocities remain unaddressed. But the fact that sometimes international justice is available when national justice efforts fail is a development of major significance. Bringing perpetrators to justice pays respect to their victims. And threatening would-be perpetrators with justice offers the prospect of deterring atrocities and saving lives.

But just as those developments are welcome from the perspective of the victims and survivors of atrocities, so they are a threat from the perspective of the perpetrators. And just as abusive governments have attacked human rights defenders for exposing abuses and generating pressure for change, so they have begun to attack the international system of justice for threatening the impunity that they still enjoy.

The trigger for this new assault on international justice was the ICC prosecutor’s July 2008 request for an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for crimes committed by Sudanese forces and allied militia against the civilian population of Darfur. In March 2009, al-Bashir became the first sitting head of state to be sought by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

One would have wanted African leaders to applaud the move. After all, the world had dithered for more than five years as the people of Darfur faced mass murder and forced displacement. Finally, someone was taking decisive action. Unfortunately, some African leaders seemed less troubled by the slaughter of ordinary African people than by the audacious prospect that a sitting African leader might actually be brought to justice for these horrendous crimes.

The nadir came during the African Union summit held in July 2009 in Sirte, Libya. Under pressure from Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi and the governments of several other North African states, the AU adopted a resolution urging African states not to cooperate with the ICC in its efforts to execute the arrest warrant for al-Bashir. Some governments, notably Botswana and South Africa, later rejected that position, but the sad spectacle remains that the AU, an institution built around principles of human rights and the rule of law, had sided with an alleged mass murderer over his victims.

The AU offered various reasons for its position, none of which bore scrutiny. One was that the UN Security Council had not formally responded to the AU’s request that the case against al-Bashir be deferred. But that request was controversial to say the least, premised as it was on the dubious proposition that a leader who had sponsored large-scale slaughter in Darfur would suddenly become a man of peace if only given a second chance. The Security Council was split on how to respond, and without the consent of the five permanent members, was incapable of responding.

That claimed procedural sleight aside, some African leaders objected that the ICC was pursuing justice selectively because all of the four situations on which the ICC had then focused were in Africa. (The ICC prosecutor has since sought authorization to open an investigation in a fifth situation, involving Kenya.) In fact, this focus should have been reason for Africans to celebrate: for the first time an international court was addressing serious crimes on the continent. And African leaders had not objected when the court indicted several warlords.

But the tone changed when the ICC issued a warrant for Sudan’s al-Bashir in 2008. The AU, led by some of the continent’s worst autocrats, began accusing the court of unfairly targeting Africans. In reality, these leaders were cynically trying to protect one of their own. They knew full well that, in three of the four situations, African governments themselves had invited the court to open investigations. The fourth—Darfur—was the product of a referral from the Security Council, after a vote supported strongly by Benin and Tanzania, the African members of the Security Council at the time. Even the AU’s own high-level panel on Darfur, established in 2009 and led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, highlighted the need for prosecutions for crimes committed in Darfur. African civil society and progressive African states saw through these blatant attempts to perpetuate impunity on the continent and focused rightfully on the legal obligations of all governments to respect the rule of law and of ICC member states to cooperate with the court. 

That is not to deny that there have been problems with the ICC’s reach. The prosecutor has conducted preliminary inquiries elsewhere—most notably in Colombia, Afghanistan, Georgia, and Gaza—but he has yet to conduct formal investigations outside of Africa. In part that appears to be because of his general reluctance to seek to open investigations on his own initiative (as opposed to on the basis of a referral, although the recent action on Kenya was on his initiative) or to pursue cases that might give rise to complex legal issues. A demonstrated willingness to go after anyone responsible for large-scale atrocities would greatly enhance the ICC’s perceived legitimacy.

Another problem is the lack of comprehensive ICC ratification. Some of the clearest cases for ICC involvement—Sri Lanka, Iraq, Gaza, Chechnya—are made difficult by the responsible government’s failure to have ratified the ICC’s treaty. Rather than attacking the ICC for this deficiency, those interested in a broader reach for the ICC would do better to promote widespread ratification.

There is also a larger problem of double standards and inconsistencies by the major Western powers. The West’s eagerness to see prosecutions for, say, atrocities in Guinea, Kenya, or Darfur contrasts pointedly with its reluctance to press Israel even to bring to justice in its own courts those who may be responsible for war crimes in Gaza. That tendency to protect abusive friends only encourages a closing of the ranks on the part of the AU.

Yet the AU must still bear primary responsibility for its solidarity with al-Bashir. That the pleas of non-African victims of international crimes have gone unanswered is no reason to ignore African victims’ quest for justice. But the West should stop facilitating the AU’s callousness toward its own people. A more principled defense of justice, even when one’s friends are implicated, is the best way to encourage emulation and justice no matter where serious crimes are committed.

UN Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council is a troubled institution. While repeatedly criticizing the Israeli government for human rights violations, it has neglected or downplayed comparable and more serious situations. For example, in May 2009 a small group of traditionally pro-human rights governments succeeded in holding a special session to address the grave situation in Sri Lanka, where the government had just shelled and killed several thousand civilians who had been forcibly held by the Tamil Tigers, and had then interned nearly 300,000 civilians when the fighting ended with a government victory. Rather than press for an independent investigation into war crimes by both the government and the Tamil Tigers, the Council largely commended the government while ignoring its rights violations, and focused on abuses committed only by the Tigers.

As in the Council’s other disappointing actions, this embarrassing resolution was by no means preordained by the Council’s membership. A majority of the Council’s members are democracies that might have been expected to vote in the Council according to the same principles to which they subscribe domestically. Their repeated failure to do so reflects the ability of some of the world’s most repressive governments to convince them to vote according to a perverse sense of regional or Southern solidarity rather than the human rights principles that they endorse at home. That is, as in the case of the ICC and the AU, the repressive leaders at the Council have succeeded in convincing these democracies to value solidarity with abusive Southern leaders rather than their Southern victims.

Again, their position has been facilitated by the West’s own bloc tendencies and misplaced solidarity. When the European Union spends so much time devising a common position that it has little energy to engage with anyone else, or when the United States, reflexively protecting Israel, attacked the September 2009 report of the UN fact-finding mission on Gaza led by former South African Justice Richard Goldstone, they make it easier for repressive leaders to build a common stance behind their own favorite abusers.

But these repressive leaders have not been content to settle for a series of political victories. The Council is a body of governments, but one of its virtues is that its traditions allow many opportunities for independent voices to be heard. Independent experts and rapporteurs routinely report. NGOs add their views. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has a say. All of these are important antidotes to a system that is currently dominated by many of the very abusers who should be the subject of Council action.

The repressive leaders at the Council now seem determined to silence these voices whenever possible. They have offered a series of techniques, from “codes of conduct” to restrictive rules and oversight, to limit the ability of these voices to be heard. That would undermine some of the most important ways in which the Council continues to be useful despite the current dominance of its repressive leadership. As the Council approaches a mandated five-year review in 2011, there is a danger that this scheme will succeed unless traditional defenders of human rights can be mobilized.

Cuba provides a good illustration of the manipulative tools used by abusive governments to block independent voices from being heard. Its target was the procedure known as Universal Periodic Review—an important innovation of the Council by which the human rights record of every government, even the most powerful, is scrutinized every four years. Because those doing the reviewing are largely governments, Cuba went out of its way to ensure that many friendly governments would line up to speak during the review in support of its record, reducing the opportunity during the limited time allocated for critics to take the floor. When the time came for NGOs to speak, the Cuban government sought to dilute that independent voice by encouraging dozens of government-organized associations to make uniformly positive submissions about the Cuban government’s rights record. These efforts to stifle independent commentary facilitated the Cuban government’s ability to deny, implausibly, that it holds any political prisoners or restricts freedom of speech. In addition, there is no evidence that in preparing its submission the government consulted with any independent figures within Cuba, as it is encouraged to do.

UN NGO Committee

This attack on independent NGO voices at the United Nations extends beyond the Council. To gain the right to speak before UN bodies an NGO must obtain “consultative status” from the UN’s NGO Committee, another collection of governments. As in the case of the Council, governments that tend to have restrictive policies toward NGOs seem to actively seek membership and are overrepresented. The current membership includes Angola, China, Cuba, Egypt, Russia and Sudan. Among the NGOs that the committee has rejected are a Christian group from China (for refusing to provide a list of its members in China—a revelation that would have invited retaliation against them by Beijing), the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (because the group supposedly had not complied with Ethiopia’s new, restrictive civil society law), and the US-based Democracy Coalition Project (because China, Cuba and Russia objected to its supposed discrimination against them, although this rejection was later overturned by a higher UN body). Groups defending the rights of gays and lesbians have had a particularly difficult time obtaining consultative status because committee members substitute their own moral preferences for the right of NGOs to advocate freely on behalf of the human rights of anyone.


European Regional Mechanisms

UN institutions are not alone in facing a backlash from rights abusers. The European Court of Human Rights has been the international institution that most consistently holds the Russian government to account for its highly abusive conduct in Chechnya. The Court has issued more than 100 rulings against Russia for the abduction, torture, and execution of people in Chechnya, and for failing to properly investigate these crimes. Russia complies with orders that it pay compensation, but consistently refuses to implement the structural reforms ordered, such as the mandate to end the impunity that underlies so many of these abuses by conducting effective investigations and prosecutions. That failure is particularly glaring when the identity of the offending commander or security-force unit is known, as it sometimes is. In some 40 of the cases, the Russian government also violated its obligation to share relevant documents with the court. In addition, Russia stands alone among Council of Europe member states in blocking Protocol 14, a revision of the European Convention on Human Rights that would allow an intergovernmental ministerial committee to sue a government before the European Court for refusing to comply with the Court’s judgments.

The Russian government also continues to postpone a long-planned visit by Dick Marty, the rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the human rights situation in the North Caucasus.

ASEAN Commission on Human Rights

The one potentially positive institutional development in 2009 turned out to merit little fanfare. In October 2009, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) launched the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights—an institution that had been years in the making. Judging by its debut, it was not worth the wait. It has vowed to adopt a “constructive,” “non-confrontational,” and “evolutionary” approach to human rights. Although its terms of reference include the promotion and protection of “human rights and fundamental freedoms of the peoples of ASEAN,” its reach is limited by its commitment to “non-interference in the internal affairs of ASEAN member states,” its mandate to reach decisions through “consultation and consensus,” and its admonishment to be aware of “national and regional particularities and mutual respect for different historical, cultural and religious backgrounds and taking into account the balance between rights and responsibilities.” Together, these principles give veto power to any member state, and deny member states the power to receive complaints, to monitor and investigate an alleged abusive state, to impose sanctions, or to expel a recalcitrant member.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, acting as ASEAN chairman, explained that in ASEAN’s view “the issue of human rights is not about condemnation, but about awareness,” adding that improving human rights is an “evolutionary process.” Given that ASEAN members include Burma, led by a ruthless military government that shows no sign of respecting the rights of its people, and entrenched dictatorships in Vietnam and Laos, that no-pressure form of evolution is likely to take a long time.

The new Commission was expected to engage with civil society. But at the first “interface meeting,” the Thai chair rejected five of ten planned participants—from Burma, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Singapore—leading three of the remaining five to walk out. At an earlier meeting of foreign ministers, ASEAN members had decreed that each state would choose the civil society organization it wished to be part of the interface, suggesting that independence was hardly an important criterion.


The human rights movement could do without the back-handed compliment represented by the attacks on its activists and institutions. Nice as it is to know that the targets of pressure are feeling the heat, their backlash can cause great harm to those who face it. The movement as a whole remains impressively resilient, capable of fighting back against this reactionary effort. But individual parts of the movement—particular defenders and organizations—remain vulnerable, in need of support.

It is one thing to note that many repressive governments are intent on lowering the cost of their abuse, on crippling the movement’s capacity to exact a toll for violating human rights and changing the cost-benefit calculus. It is another thing to do something about it. The success of these efforts should not depend solely on the courage of individual human rights activists. The human rights movement should also be able to benefit from the backing of its ostensible governmental supporters. The retaliatory techniques described in this introduction, while often more refined than in years past, are plain for all to see. Will the governmental supporters of human rights parry those techniques, or will they conveniently close their eyes to the thrust? The answer may well determine the success of the abusers’ reaction.

It is time for a more vigorous governmental defense of human rights activists and institutions throughout the world. That requires standing up more firmly for the people and principles under attack, even when the attacker is an ally. It also requires seeing through these acts of retaliation to recognize and condemn them for what they are. It is no ordinary abuse to kill or arbitrarily detain a human rights defender, deregister a human rights organization, or attack an international human rights institution. It is a tacit confession of still greater abuse. Governments try to silence the messenger because they do not want the message heard. The surest way to reverse that censorship is to redouble efforts to redress the very abuses that these governments are seeking to hide from scrutiny.