Human Rights Watch continued to work closely with three groups of members of the United States Congress that regularly take up cases of victims of human rights abuse and related issues. These are the Congressional Friends of Human Rights monitors, the Congressional Committee to Support Writers and Journalists, and the Congressional Working Group on International Women's Human Rights. The three casework groups are made up of members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, from both major political parties, who are interested in protecting threatened individuals and promoting respect for human rights throughout the world. Human Rights Watch assisted in the formation of these groups to enable concerned members to respond rapidly to human rights emergencies. The congressional casework groups send letters of concern to governments which abuse, or fail to protect from abuse, human rights monitors, writers, journalists or women who suffer gender specific violations of their human rights. In addition, the groups address legislation which contributes to human rights violations, such as laws that grant impunity for human rights abusers or suppress free speech. Human Rights Watch identifies and investigates appropriate cases, and works with each group's steering committee which determines which cases they will pursue. Once approved, letters are signed by the steering committee (4-5 members) and released on letterhead containing the names of all committee members.
The committees serve four important functions. First, and most importantly, the groups' letters pressure governments to stop the persecution of specific human rights monitors, writers, journalists, and women who are victims of gender specific abuses or take action to stop others who are doing so. By raising concerns about the safety of threatened individuals with heads of state and other high ranking officials, the committees provide protection by making it known that the case is being followed by members of the U.S. Congress. Second, by drawing the connection between legislation passed or pending in a given country and human rights violations there, the groups send a clear message that members of Congress are aware of these measures and strongly disapprove. Third, the letters keep members of Congress informed about the nature of human rights violations occurring in countries around the world, information which may later affect United States legislative decisions. Finally, the letters are an important advocacy tool in the countries where abuses occur. Human Rights Watch, and our local partners, seek to publicize congressional letters in the country where the abuses occur. Press accounts of U.S. congressional interest in human rights violations can bolster local efforts to promote rights and protect persecuted individuals. Also, by providing copies to the U.S. ambassador in each country, the groups' letters are often followed up by personal diplomatic inquiries.
The Congressional Friends of Human Rights Monitors
In three letters sent between December 1994 and November 1995, the Congressional Friends continued to express their concern over forced disappearances, murders, and death threats against human rights monitors in Guatemala. In August, the Congressional Friends wrote to President de León Carpio providing detailed information regarding a series of murders, death threats, and kidnappings directed against human rights monitors associated with the Presbyterian church in the Department of Chimaltenango. The group reported that the June 23 killing of Manuel Saquíc Vásquez, a Presbyterian minister, and the August 1 killing of Pascual Serech, a member of the Human Rights and Verification Committee of Comalapa, Chimaltenango, were believed to be part of a year-long campaign of intimidation and murder carried out by Victor Román Cutzal, the military commissioner of Panabajal, Chimaltenango, and his associates in the civil self-defense patrols. The Congressional Friends urged the Government of Guatemala to investigate the killing of Manuel Vásquez, and to prosecute those found responsible. In addition, the group urged the government to rearrest and prosecute Victor Román Cutzal, who had previously been charged with the killing of Serech, as a suspect in both that murder and the killing of Vásquez. The Congressional Friends requested appropriate measures to protect members of the Panabajal Human Rights Committee, the Defensoría Maya of the Kakchiquel Presbytery, and CIEDEG, who had been threatened with death by military commissioners, including Victor Román, civil patrollers, and a death squad called Jaguar Justiciero. The group concluded "that only concrete steps to end the impunity enjoyed by human rights violators will enable Guatemala to guarantee the safety and physical integrity of human rights monitors and all Guatemalan citizens."
On August 10, the Congressional Friends wrote to President Alberto Fujirmori of Peru to express their concern over the passage of the Amnesty Law (Law 26479, 1995), and over death threats received by Tito Guido Gallegos Gallegos, a human rights lawyer. Gallegos Gallegos, who works with a church-based human rights organization in the town of Juli in the Department of Puno, received a death threat which read in part, "we have never bothered you but we have learned that you are promoting the non-application of the Amnesty Law." Focusing on the connection between the Amnesty Law, which exempts from criminal liability military and police forces that committed human rights violations over a fifteen year period, expunging their convictions and sentences or preventing their prosecution, the Congressional Friends wrote, "in our judgment, the threat against Mr. Gallegos Gallegos is a result of the climate of impunity created by passage of the Amnesty Law." The group went on to urge President Fujimori to investigate the threats against him, and to prosecute those found responsible. In addition, the Congressional Friends urged President Fujimori to pledge his government's commitment to prosecuting those found responsible for human rights violations, and to work toward the repeal of the Amnesty Law.
The government of Peru responded on August 22, in the form of a letter from Francisco Tudela van-Breugel-Douglas, the minister of foreign affairs, who wrote the Congressional Friends at "the special request of the president." In his letter, Minister van Breugel-Douglas wrote that "the main purpose of the law is to consolidate the peace..., [and] guarantee the necessary climate of political stability, within a process of democratic bolstering," and that the law was "aimed at reaffirming the process of national reconciliation." Moreover, the minister asserted that "the government of Peru is very closely identified with the cause of human rights."
The Embassy of Peru in Washington also requested a meeting with Congressional Friends of Human Rights Monitors staff to discuss the concerns highlighted in the August 10 letter, and the government's response. In the meeting, on August 29, Human Rights Watch and Congressional Friends staff reiterated their concern for the safety of Gallegos Gallegos. In addition, they provided new information regarding the alleged involvement of military personnel in the threats against him.
On November 1, the Congressional Friends sent a follow-up letter to Foreign Minister van-Breugel-Douglas reiterating some of the concerns outlined at the August 29 meeting, and respectfully disagreeing with the minister's assertions, expressing their belief that "the long term interests of democracy and stability are best served by sending a strong message to human rights violators that society will not provide impunity for their crimes under any circumstances."
In December 1994, the Congressional Friends wrote to Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev to express their concern over threats made against Dimitrina Petrova, and other members of The Human Rights project of Bulgaria, an organization which monitors violence against the Roma Gypsy Minority. The threats against Petrova and her colleagues began in April 1994 after a neo-Nazi skinhead interrupted a press conference in which The Human Rights Project released a statement condemning violence against the Roma. In the days and months following the April 15 press conference, a swastika was painted on the mailbox of the organization's office, and threatening phone calls were received. Petrova filed complaints with the police in Sofia, but was told that they would be "unable to protect" members of her organization. In addition, a member of the Council of Ministers, Mr. Matanov, was quoted in the Continent, a daily newspaper, stating, "Bulgaria does not need foreign enemies as long as it has domestic human rights monitors." The Congressional Friends denounced "the atmosphere of impunity" created by such statements from high officials and by police indifference.
Dimitrina Petrova reported a number of changes following the release of the Congressional Friends letter. First, the threats against The Human Rights Project stopped. Second, threats against human rights monitors became an issue in the media (most of the major daily newspapers reported on the letter at the time of its release). Third, Mihail Ivanov, an advisor to the president, called a meeting with Petrova to discuss the situation. Fourth, the U.S. embassy offered to assist Petrova. Fifth, the Ministry of Internal Affairs started a check into the threats.
In addition to the letters on Guatemala, Peru and Bulgaria the Congressional Friends sent letters to Colombia, China, Turkey, Pakistan, Tunisia and Brazil between December 1994 and November 1988.
The Congressional Committee to Support Writers and Journalists
In May, the committee wrote to Indonesian Ambassador Arifin M. Siregar, to express concern over the Indonesian government's crackdown on members of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AIJ). The AIJ was established in August 1994 in response to the 1994 banning of the independent publications Detik, Tempo, and Editor. In 1994, the committee wrote to the Indonesian government to protest the revocation of publishing licenses for the three publications. According to the committee's May letter, on March 16, four members of the AIJ, including the group's Secretary General Ahmad Taufik, were arrested and charged with publishing without a license, forming an unauthorized association, and other "crimes." The committee expressed their belief that the arrests "were a part of a broader crackdown by Indonesian Intelligence officials against critics of top officials of [the] government, particularly Minister of Research and Technology Habbie, Minister of Information Harmoko, and President Soeharto..." The committee went on to call for a cease to the apparent crackdown on publications critical of government policies or officials. The committee also asked the government to "immediately release Ahmad Taufik, and other members of the Alliance of Independent Journalists if they have been detained simply for exercising their internationally recognized right to freedom of expression."
On June 22, Ambassador Siregar responded to the committee's May 15 letter. He wrote, "As we see it, the main issue at hand is not a case of restricting the freedom of the press. Rather, it relates to a violation of Indonesia's law." He went on to confirm that the four members of the AIJ were being prosecuted because they formed an association, and published and distributed their materials without obtaining the required licenses. However, in a revealing aside, the ambassador added that the "charges against members of this group also include allegations that the nature of the publications is such that they could be considered to be misinformative and designed to foment public unrest."
In July, the committee wrote to Egyptian President Husni Mubarak to express concern over a bill, approved by the Egyptian Parliament on May 27, that imposes stiff penalties on any journalist who publishes information that the authorities deem "false" or "aggravating." The committee stated that "such legislation may violate the right to freedom of expression, protected under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a state party." The legislation imposes prison terms of up to five years and a maximum of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (U.S.$2,000) for violating the statute. The committee's letter quoted a statement from the Egyptian Parliament which said, "the punishment is against the publication of rumors, false or opposing information and aggravating publications that effect the status quo, or cause undue panic, or harm any public office, or the country's economy." The committee wrote, "if accurate, such a statement indicates that the Egyptian Parliament intended the bill as a serious restraint to freedom of expression. The ICCPR and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establish a right to 'impart' information. Any undue restriction on that right is a violation of Egypt's commitments under international law." The committee urged President Mubarak not to sign the legislation into law, and to publicly express opposition to any legislation which violates the internationally recognized right to freedom of expression.
President Mubarak responded to the committee's letter on August 21. In a short letter, he reaffirmed Egypt's commitment to human rights and stated that Egypt "strictly observe[s] and protect[s] the rights of journalists because we believe they are serving a very good cause and performing a crucial role in society." His letter did not address the draft legislation newly passed by Parliament, nor did it reveal his intentions with respect to signing the bill into law.
In addition to the letters to Indonesian Ambassador Siregar and Egyptian President Mubarak the Congressional Committee to Support Writers and Journalists wrote letters concerning violations of the right to freedom of expression in Colombia, Guatemala, Venezuela, Tunisia and Burma.
The Congressional Working Group on International Women's Human Rights
In the past year, the working group denounced violations of women's human rights in four countries: Botswana, Mexico, Uzbekistan and Bahrain.
The Working Group expressed its concern over discrimination against women in Botswana's Citizenship Act, which until recently allowed Botswana men married to foreign women, but not Botswana women married to foreign men, to pass Botswana citizenship to their children. The working group wrote a letter to the president of Botswana calling for attention in particular to the case of Unity Dow, a citizen of Botswana whose husband is a U.S. national. On this basis, her children were denied Botswana passports by the attorney general. The Botswana Court of Appeal ruled that the discriminatory provision in the Citizenship Act was both unconstitutional and violative of international human rights norms. The working group's letter urged the government of Botswana to implement the Court of Appeal's decision by amending the discriminatory section of the Citizenship Act. In addition, they urged the government to issue Botswana passports to the children of Unity Dow and of other Botswana women who are married to foreign men. Encouraged by pressure from local and international groups, in August 1995 the National Assembly of Botswana amended the Citizenship Act to eliminate such discriminatory provisions.
The working group wrote to the president of Mexico to press for a prompt and impartial investigation and prosecution in a case involving the alleged rape of three Tzeltal women by members of the Mexican National Army. A mother and her three daughters were detained at a military checkpoint in Chiapas. The four women, who were returning to their home from selling fruits and vegetables near the town, were detained and interrogated by soldiers from the Mexican National Army as suspected sympathizers of the Zapatista National Liberation Army. According to adffidavit testimony given by the three sisters, they were locked in a room and beaten and raped by several dozen soldiers who accused them of being Zapatistas. The case was being investigated in a military court. The letter urged the president of Mexico to turn the investigation and prosecution of the case over to civilian authorities, in accordance with the Mexican Constitution and international law. Article 13 of the Mexican Constitution states, "When a crime of lack of military discipline involves a civilian, the corresponding civilian authority shall hear the case." The working group also called for the protection of the well-being and safety of the four women who were told by the soldiers not to report the attack.
In September 1995, the working group conveyed its deep concern over the condition and treatment of two women held in custody by the Uzbekistan government. While in detention, the women, who were pregnant at the time of their arrest, were threatened with forced abortions in order to coerce them into changing their plea from innocent to guilty. It was reported that both women were forced by prison officials to undergo abortions. Individuals familiar with the case believe that this was ordered because Uzbekistan law requires that pregnant women be released pending trial. The working group called on the government of Uzbekistan to condemn this cruel and inhuman treatment of the female prisoners. The letter also urged the government to release the two women into the custody of their relatives or other individuals acceptable to the defendant and the court; to initiate an investigation into their treatment by law enforcement agents; and to punish their abuse to the fullest extent of the law. As a result of the international outcry over the gross mistreatment of the female prisoners, authorities at the National Security Service (former KGB) prison in the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan released the two women.
In October, the working group wrote to the government of Bahrain to raise concern regarding the suspension of Dr. Munira Ahmed Fakhro from her teaching position at the University of Bahrain. Dr. Munira Fakhro is a well-regarded academic and author of numerous works on issues related to the cause of women and democratic change in Bahrain. Her suspension from her university position resulted from her refusal to withdraw support for a petition calling for a greater degree of democracy and women's participation in the political process in Bahrain. The petition was signed by over 300 Bahraini women. Approximately ninety women were instructed by the Bahraini government to sign statements apologizing for signing the petition and to refrain from further political activity. The working group appealed to the president of Bahrain to order the immediate restoration of Dr. Munia Fahkro to her teaching position. The letter urged the government to restore the jobs of two other women who were dismissed as a result of refusing to withdraw their support for the petition and to permit them to exercise their internationally recognized right to express their views freely. To date the government has taken no measures to restore the women to their positions.