Browsing articles in "Human Rights"
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.

Jul 19, 2013

Old and New Drug Wars

Miguel Ángel Treviño when presented to the media (from El Universal).

Miguel Ángel Treviño when presented to the media after his detention (from El Universal).

With a lot of pump, on Monday the Mexican government announced the capture of Miguel Ángel Treviño, a.k.a. “Z-40”, head of the ruthless Zetas criminal organization, which was formed in 1999 when some members of the Army’s elite corps defected to the Gulf Cartel, constituting its armed wing. In time, these former soldiers acquired so much power that they became a criminal organization on their own. Throughout the “drug wars” they have been constantly acknowledged as possibly being the group with the strongest firepower, the most advanced technology, the most efficient strategies, and the most sanguinary actions of all the drug trafficking organizations in Mexico.

In addition to announcing the capture of Treviño, the Mexican government also gave wide publicity to the fact that the detention took place without making one single shot, contrasting with many other anti-drug lords operations, in which the objectives were killed. A tacit but strong critique of the apparent prevalence of the use of force during Felipe Calderón’s administration (2006-2012), the government has insisted on the relevance of a thorough intelligence work, even in close collaboration with international partners as the U.S., to conduct such a non-violent and successful detention.

Intentionally or not, the publicity made to the detention of Treviño brings a relief to the image of the Mexican government. This detention and the way it has been treated, the first one of a major drug leader in the Peña Nieto administration (started last December), suggest that desperate street shootings between soldiers and narcos leaving a high death toll are a thing of the past. The state would no longer have to fight with bullets to preserve its authority by killing its enemies, as happened during the previous administration, but now, in the form of intelligence and bureaucratic work, has used it to track and detain criminals to dully process them. Although it could not be ascertained that the challenges to the Mexican state from organized crime are over, indeed this shows that the state is much stronger than before and meets its security responsibilities in a less desperate position.

More in the deep, the consequences of Treviño’s detention are widely obscure. For sure, the futures of the Zetas organization or of the “drug war” are uncertain. In previous occasions, the arrest of major cartel leaders led to both more and less violence, depending on how the structure of the organization coped with the sudden absence of its leader; sometimes it split and its parts became very powerful enemies, while other times (the fewer) the corporation simply collapsed. The arrest of Treviño, as opposed to killing him, also brings about the benefit that he can be interrogated by authorities and can provide useful information in the combat to organized crime. But, again, there are many shameful examples in which law enforcement agencies have followed clues given by detained drug traffickers only to find out later that they were lying. Hence, in strategic and policy terms there are no clear benefits for Mexico related to the arrest of Treviño.

Damaged by the confrontation with drug cartels, the Mexican state needed to provide a strong image to its citizens, investors, and international partners, so they could wipe out any doubts on the prospects of the country. The arrest of a major drug lord after careful intelligence work shows that the state is able to use its law enforcement capacities. This is, so to speak, a coup d’image, which is somewhat necessary as Mexico is effectively not falling into the power of narcos and many of its policies are proving to be successful. This is a tendency already visible during the previous administration. Any change in the conduction of security policies and in the strength of the State in relation to comating organized crime will be seen in the capitalization of Treviño’s detention: preventing from being fooled by eventual lies of the criminal, using the information he provides to conduct more clean operations, and stopping the violence generated by drug cartels (an aspect of the security policy which has failed notwithstanding this peaceful detention). The following months will cast some light on this.

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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