Browsing articles in "Human Rights"
Sep 18, 2013

The Island


Yesterday, Cuban dissident Jorge Luis García Pérez, also known as Antúnez, participated in a dialogue with Georgetown University students as part of his visit to the United States in his first tour abroad. His objective was to share with the scholar community his vision on how to improve the lives of Cubans.

Beginning at age 25, Antúnez spent 17 years in prison for saying that Cuba was not a utopia, but a dystopia. During that time he suffered physical and psychological abuses, which were exacerbated when he went into hunger strikes to protest against the way he was being treated, the reason of his confinement, or as a token of solidarity with other political prisoners. His greatest worry there was not to lose the necessary strength to keep resisting the life in jail and the lack of freedom in Cuba.

Upon leaving jail, Antúnez wanted to share his story (not so different from that of other prisoners) with other Cubans so they could know what the reality of the country was. With severe restrictions to the press, internet accessibility, or the right to association, it is not easy to get a grasp of what the past or current reality looks like in the island. The experience of reality is quite subjective, but the Cuban government has distorted this truth by imposing its own views to the inhabitants of the country. For Antúnez, there lays the central pillar of the Communist government in Cuba and an opportunity to bring it down. Without sufficient or correct information, he argues, people inside and outside of the island are not aware of the everyday problems and inequalities in the country, hindering the organization of an opposition to the regime. The only way to get proper education, medical attention, or a job is my manifesting adherence to the party. If not, mediocre services, if any, will be received. As well, controls over the media and communications prevent stories or arbitrary detentions and police abuses to be known to Cubans and to the rest of the world. If information is spread, Antúnez concludes, then people would be aware of the critical situation in Cuba and they could prompt for a change.

Antúnez acknowledges that the essence of the problem in Cuba is political, for which any eventual solution must also be political (as opposed to an economic embargo). Spreading information and going out to the streets to contest the abuses of the regime aims at the political nature of the problem. He also notices that the regime is not ready to peacefully defend itself, but is ready to violently react to any opposition it receives. Hence, attacking it in one of its vulnerable points by organizing civil resistance actions can substantially contribute to its demise.

In the end, Atnúnez’s invitation to his audience at Georgetown was straightforward: spread information about Cuba and the abuses suffered by its citizens at the hands of the government. So simple a task it might seem, it indeed can make a huge difference in a country in which the flow of information is controlled by the state. Antúnez will continue striving for this objective by meeting with other government officials and NGOs in the United States.

Sep 15, 2013

Justice for the Commons

Alberto Patishtán, Mexican indigenous teacher who is accused of a crime no one believes he committed (from La Jornada).

Alberto Patishtán, Mexican indigenous teacher who is accused of a crime no one believes he committed (from La Jornada).

On September 12, a federal court based on the Mexican southern state of Chiapas rejected the “innocence acknowledgement” petition for Alberto Patishtán, a Tzotzil rural teacher incarcerated since 2000 accused of murder, injuries, damage in third party’s property, and bearing prohibited fire weapons for allegedly attacking a police detachment in which six policemen were killed. With the court’s decision, Patishtán will continue serving his 60-year sentence. If he wants to recover his liberty, his only options left are to request a presidential pardon and to defend his case at Inter American Court for Human Rights.

Chiapas is one of the poorest states in Mexico. One of the most evident manifestations of this is the situation of almost all the indigenous groups that live in the state; the fact that many of their communities are in remote locations in the sierra complicates the continuous access to water, electricity, health services, and education. Plus, the fact that many of them speak their indigenous languages keeps them marginalized from the developments and opportunities that urban areas of the state could offer them.

It is against this background of deprivation that Patishtán’s case must be discussed. Human rights activists who support his cause have stated over and over again that the form in which the investigations of the ambush against the police detachment were carried out make Patishtán a political prisoner. These individuals and organizations (among which are members of his own community, Amnesty International, relevant figures of the Mexican left, the state governor and the former First Lady Margarita Zavala –for sure, they offer different degrees of support to the prisoner) argue that Patishtán was far away from the place of the attack at the time when it occurred, that no concrete evidence was presented by those who accused him, and that he remained ignorant of the development of the trial as he had no translator (he is not fluent in Spanish). Hence, the conception of Patishtán as a political prisoner comes about from the idea that his judicial situation is a typical example of the worst behavior authorities can have with someone who, because of his poverty, cannot properly defend himself in a trial. This situation has been contrasted with the liberation of other high-profile criminals who, in spite of severe doubts about their lack of culpability, were released because of administrative errors in their own processes. In spite of this situation appearing again in the case of Patishtán, he remains in jail.

The reason given by the court to reject the innocence acknowledgement petition was that the request was elaborated citing as antecedent cases which bear no relation to Patishtán’s situation. Patishtán has made clear that his only real option now is to go to the Inter American Court for Human Rights (his file has been presented, but a response on whether it is accepted is still pending), as he, being certain of his innocence, will not ask for a presidential pardon. On the other hand, although suggesting they support Patishtán and have doubts on the certainty of the process, no government officer has dared to challenge the decision of the court, backing themselves on the strict separation of powers. As Mexico celebrates its 203th independence anniversary, still there is people who cannot take for granted that they will have a fair trial.

Sep 12, 2013

Leaving San José

On September 10, the Venezuelan government left the Inter American Court of Human Rights Court (IACHR), with headquarters in San José, Costa Rica. Such an intention had been announced on several occasions at least since 2010 by then President Hugo Chávez. On September 11, 2012 he formally filed a denunciation against the Court, which would come into effect one year after it was made public. That day came, and now the IACHR has stopped having any kind of jurisdiction over the country, leaving the compliance of several sentences pending.

The reasons yielded by Chávez, later retrieved by his successor Nicolás Maduro, against the Court were that it violated Venezuela’s sovereignty, it was politicized and utilized by the United States as an instrument of intervention in the region, and that its resolutions related to Venezuela were biased. Those arguments are a consequence of the Court’s work on the country, which in many occasions had a high potential of damaging the country’s image. For instance, in two reports, one in 2010 and another in 2013, the Court provided a grim assessment on the situation and prospects of democracy in Venezuela. As well, in the summer of 2012, Hugo Chávez’s government received very negatively the Court’s observations that Raúl Díaz Peña, accused of attacking the Colombian Consulate and the Spanish Trade Office in Caracas, had suffered many abuses against his human rights during his detention in Caracas. The dissatisfaction with the Court was so great that Chávez accused it of “defending terrorism”. This Tuesday, after leaving the Court, several top government officials, including the Foreign Minister and the Attorney General, reiterated that Venezuela had received attacks over the course of the recent years through the Court and that, instead of defending human rights it sought to protect the interests of the region’s powerful.

Venezuela’s constant denunciations of the Court’s activity in general, and of its work related to that country in particular, can be seen as part of Chávez and Maduro’s strategy to create the image of a nation (and, ultimately, also of its leader, the President) that is a major member of the international community by not letting third parties to interfere in its domestic life, underlining that the people (and, again, its leader) is sufficiently strong as to meet by itself whatever emerging challenge. This idea has also been put forward in other arenas, such as the economy or the energy sector. However, the combination of a model whose theoretical grounds are questionable (in which the state is in charge of allocating inputs for industry and has the monopoly over the sell and buy of foreign currency and of the energy production) with bad management have rendered those ideas impracticable in reality. Venezuela is seriously struggling with a shortage problem in many of the basic consumption products, producers do not have sufficient dollars to pay to their foreign suppliers, and the country imports oil from the United States. Now that it has left the IACHR, it is as if the government had said that it needs the help or authority of no one to impart justice in relation to human rights. At least in the surface, this goal seems easier to achieve than to claim full self-sufficiency in terms of the economy and energy production.

The fact that Venezuela has left the Court is a major blow for human rights defenders in the country. The organism represented a last window of opportunity to defend against government abuses once all national alternatives had been exhausted. Now, if the Venezuelan Supreme Court dictates a sentence that is contrary to the protection of human rights, there are no spaces for an appeal. Noticeably, this makes Venezuela is a little more similar to the United States, as the country does not fall either under the jurisdiction of the IACHR. However, in the U.S. there are other instances to demand a fair treatment from the government towards its citizens, such as free press, free elections, and accountable public officers. In Venezuela more often than not that is not the case. Although leaving the IACHR does not increase the authoritarian features of Venezuela, it clearly diminishes the possibilities for the advancement of democracy.

Sep 6, 2013

Terrorism in Egypt?

Damage left by a bomb attack against Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim's car (from The New York Times).

Damage left by a bomb attack against Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim’s car (from The New York Times).

Yesterday, Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim was the target of a bomb attack while he was riding his car in Cairo. He survived, but the explosion caused major damage in a building, caused one death, and left at least seven injured, including a child. As of Friday morning, no group had officially claimed responsibility for the strike, which the government has not doubted in labeling as an act of terrorism.

The first question is: who and why would like to see Ibrahim dead, who reported having received some recent death threats? The answer, although not in a definitive way, points to the Muslim Brotherhood. Since President Mohammed Morsi, member of the Brotherhood, was ousted in early July, the group has been continuously attacked by the government, especially by the police, under the command of Ibrahim. Many arguments have been put forward against the Brotherhood and Morsi: they wanted to impose a backward Islamic state, with religion dictating the social norms and with limits on the freedom of speech and religion, a prospect rejected by most Egyptians; they were more occupied in designing the religious structure of the new state as opposed to attending economic, political, or social problems; Morsi worked against any steps taking towards democracy by trying to assume powers above the courts or the legislature; or the administration was committing very similar human rights abuses in fighting the remnants and former supporters of Mubarak than those the ancient dictator committed against the opposition. For all these reasons, the Muslim Brotherhood was perceived to be an enemy of democracy. Hence, the new administration, controlled by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and, to a lesser extent, by Acting President Adly Mansour, have fought the Brotherhood, who now would be striking back by bombing Ibrahim’s car.

Notwithstanding who actually orchestrated the attack (in the lawless Sinai Peninsula there are many rebel groups rejecting any kind of central authority in order to exert their own power there who could have also carried out the attack), it seems to be the case that it will be more relevant who the government or the public opinion think was behind the attack, and the interpretation that is made of it. Although everything seems to suggest that the target was the Interior Minister (hence, it was a political assassination attempt), the government was quick in calling it a terrorist attack, advancing the idea that every Egyptian citizen could be the next victim. Hence, the second question that emerges after the bombing of Ibrahim is, what comes now?

In other words, how will the government react to the perceived growing presence of terrorism? Under such a threat, even more with the military having the upper hand in decision-making processes, it would be easy for controls on the press, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and other civil liberties to increase, thus potentially augmenting the number of human rights violations and other kind of abuses. Clearly, this scenario is no good prospect for the advancement of democracy or the reconstruction of the state in Egypt. However, today some peaceful demonstrations took place asking to end with the military rule in the country. At first glance, these rallies do not seem to have the same large numbers than those against Mubarak in 2011 or against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in this year’s summer. At the same time, they serve as a reminder that, notwithstanding the popularity of the military for having ended with the despised Muslim Brotherhood rule, it is not a military administration what people want, but a secular, weighed, and open democracy. It is the presence and activism of that kind of citizens that now will be the strongest force pushing towards democracy in Egypt.

Sep 1, 2013

Internet Freedom in Vietnam

The new Decree 72, which entered into force yesterday, limits internet freedom in Vietnam (from BBC).

The new Decree 72, which entered into force yesterday, limits internet freedom in Vietnam (from BBC).

In mid-July Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung signed the so-called Decree 72. Its existence became public by early August, and finally entered into force yesterday. Since it became known, and in spite of the efforts (not so enthusiastic) of the government to contain damage, the decree has been severely criticized as it is interpreted as effectively limiting freedom of expression in the internet.

When released, the international community understood it as restricting interactions among internet users to sharing personal information, forbidding them to comment on public current affairs, government activities, and news in general. Nguyen Thanh Huyen, head of the Ministry of Information and Communication’s Online Information Section, assured that the decree’s purpose was misunderstood, adding that the objective of one of the articles (which forbade the use of “aggregated information”, term which was never defined) seemingly limiting sharing news was in fact to protect intellectual property and copyright. The government further assured that it was never its intention to go against human rights.

However, Reporters Without Borders and others noticed that in spite of the official explanation, the decree still limits posting on the internet information that could harm national security and oppose the state. The decree also requires foreign internet companies, such as Facebook, Google, eBay, and others, to have domestic offices in order to continue offering their services. Most of those entities have formed the Asian Internet Coalition, noticing the regulation will negatively affect Vietnam’s internet ecosystem and foreign investment. Notwithstanding these declarations, which took place mostly throughout August, the Vietnamese government made no change in the contents of the decree, coming into effect as it originally intended to.

The main problem with the decree seems to be its (intentional or not) bad wording and vagueness. If a supposedly well-written law always leaves a lot of space for interpretation and debate, a regulation using an unclear language and undefined terms provides a very wide margin of action for its enforcement. Furthermore, the official assurances that the decree’s intent is not to limit freedom of expression on the internet are contested by, at least, Vietnam’s recent record of arresting bloggers critical of the government (one publicized case happened in Fall last year, when two bloggers were detained for “anti-state propaganda”, while another one in June 2013 was arrested because he “abused democratic freedoms” in his online publications). With these antecedents, not only the vague wording of the law could be a source of concern, but under allegations of protecting intellectual property and copyright more detentions could take place. If freedom of expression on the internet was already restricted in Vietnam, the decree contributes to formalize and deepen this situation.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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