repression

 

  • CUBA: ‘All tactics used by activists have been turned into crimes’

    CIVICUS speaks about changes to the Cuban Penal and Family Codes and the government’s reaction to mass protests in 2021 with Marta María Ramírez, a Cuban journalist and autonomous feminist.

    Marta Maria Ramirez

    Photo by María Lucía Expósito

    How do you assess recent changes to the Cuban Penal Code?

    The reform of the Penal Code cannot be understood without reference to last year’s protests. The argument provided to justify this reform referred to the previous constitutional reform: once the constitution was updated in 2019, a reform of the Penal Code was required. But the constitutional process itself was misleading: one would think that a constitutional update is something positive, but this is not necessarily the case in Cuba. The constitutional reform process was confusing: while the rituals of consultation were carried out, the reform was basically imposed. And in terms of substance, the new constitution contains many questionable elements, which are precisely the ones that should have been changed but were carried over intact from the old constitution.

    For instance, while the new constitution recognises the market, it continues to declare socialism as the economic system in place and highlights the ‘irrevocable’ character of socialism. The one-party system remains intact, with the Cuban Communist Party recognised as ‘the superior leading political force of society and the state’ on the basis of ‘its democratic character and permanent link with the people’.

    As a result, other freedoms that the constitution also recognises are rendered meaningless. For example, the constitution recognises ‘the rights of assembly, demonstration and association, for lawful and peaceful purposes, [...] provided that they are exercised with respect for public order and in compliance with the prescriptions established by law’ – but this is the very same law that establishes that the only legitimate political affiliation is to the Cuban Communist Party.

    The same applies to the freedoms of expression and artistic creation, which are recognised if they are exercised ‘in accordance with the humanist principles on which the cultural policy of the state and the values of socialist society are based’, that is, only if they are used to express acquiescence rather than critical thought.

    In any case, on the basis of this reform it was argued that the rest of the legal framework, including the Penal Code and the Family Code, should be updated. In the case of the Family Code, this was really necessary, because it had not been updated since 1975 and was totally out of step with the reality of today’s society. The reform of the Penal Code was also justified by the need to ‘modernise’ legislation and codify crimes that the previous code, which dated from 1987, did not recognise, such as environmental crimes, cybercrime and gender-based violence. But from my perspective, this reform can only be understood in reference to the July 2021 protests and their predecessors: those of 11 May 2019, 27 November 2020 and 27 January 2021.

    To shield the regime from dissent, all tactics used by activists have been turned into crimes of public disorder and crimes against state security, and foreign funding of civil society organisations and the media is criminalised. The aim is to stifle dissident media, because how is a media not aligned with the state to be financed in Cuba?

    Penalties for various crimes have also increased. Not only has the death penalty been retained, but the range of crimes it can be applied for has increased. The age at which a person is decreed criminally responsible is among the lowest in the world. What kind of modernisation is this? For some reason it was decided not to submit this reform to any kind of consultation.

    If we analyse the production of laws in recent years, it is clear that this has been systematically aimed at shielding the regime, which has gone beyond controlling actions to try to control thought as well. This protective shield is completed with the new Penal Code, which seeks to prevent a repetition of last year’s protests and silence all dissent.

    How can we understand the discrepancy between these highly regressive changes to the Penal Code and the apparently progressive reform of the Family Code currently underway?

    The Family Code is also being updated following the constitutional reform, although it should – and could – have been reformed much earlier. The first time I heard about equal marriage in Cuba was back in 2007. Even then there were calls for reform coming from academia, which is where activism linked to gender issues, women’s rights and sexual minorities was concentrated.

    But there was a lot of resistance and it was argued that recognition of equal marriage required a constitutional reform. This was obviously not true: marriage was regulated by the Family Code and not by the constitution, and when the constitution was reformed, this right was not included, but rather purposefully excluded and left pending for whenever the Family Code was reformed.

    The issue of equal marriage was again at the centre of the debate from the moment that, following the constitutional reform, the Family Code needed to be reformed as well, and pressures mounted for this right, not enshrined in the constitution, to be recognised by the Code – something that could have been done in 2007, 15 years ago. But this is clearly the way Cuba is ruled.

    In the draft Family Code that was submitted to consultation no special protection was included for trans children. Nothing, not a single mention, although it is known that this group experiences high rates of school dropout, expulsion from their homes and school bullying, both by students and teachers, experiencing a total impossibility to live their gender identity with guarantees. When trans people grow up, particularly trans women, they are the favoured victims of punitive provisions relating to ‘pre-delinquent behaviour’. This concept is so fascist that it is no longer called this in the current Penal Code, but it will remain in force through other regulations, in the practices of law enforcement officials and in the biases that will continue to exist.

    Why are we discussing these issues now? I have the impression that this is being used as a smokescreen, a manoeuvre to placate a demand without making profound changes to the political regime. These two seemingly contradictory strategies – a regressive reform of the Penal Code and a seemingly progressive reform of the Family Code – both point in the same direction, that of the stabilisation of the regime.

    I say ‘seemingly progressive’ because after a long process of consultations, parliament must now take the proposals received, reformulate the bill and set a date for a referendum to turn it into law. We still don’t know what will remain in the bill and what will be watered down or modified. Nor do we know how this document will translate into the daily lives of Cuban families.

    What positive elements are expected to be included in the new Family Code?

    One of the issues included in the draft Family Code is same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. Another issue that has been included is that of so-called solidarity gestation, or surrogacy, which until now has been illegal. This of great concern to feminist activists. Let’s remember we are in a context of brutal machismo and feminisation of poverty. How will solidarity gestation be regulated? Even if the law is clear on the prohibition of remuneration, how will it be possible in this context to avoid the development of an informal economy based on the exploitation of pregnant women?

    Another important issue is that of the rights of grandparents to have a relationship with their grandchildren, which has its counterpart in some provisions on parental responsibility, which would include respecting and facilitating the right of children to maintain communication with their grandparents and other close relatives.

    The issue of parental responsibility is key. It replaces the concept of parental authority, bringing a welcome shift from the idea of fathers’ and mothers’ power over children to the idea that parents are responsible for and have a responsibility towards their children. This is very interesting, and yet it has generated uproar, not only from social conservatives but also from political activists.

    This must be understood within Cuba’s political context. Activists – not necessarily conservative ones – feel that the emphasis on responsibility would allow the state to label them as irresponsible so they can take their children away from them, or threaten to do so to force them to desist from their activism. Many activists, and particularly women with maternal responsibilities, have already encountered this kind of threat, with comments such as ‘take care of your children’, ‘we know you have your daughter’ and ‘be careful, do it for your child’.

    But I think this threat is already out there, and under the new Code fathers could also be forced to exercise their responsibilities – something that does not currently happen in Cuba, with the feminisation of poverty being a consequence. As elsewhere in the region, there has been a massive increase in single-parent, female-headed households, something official statistics do not fully recognise.

    Another issue that has been at the centre of discussions is that of the children’s progressive autonomy. We know that punishment – including physical punishment – is normalised in Cuba, and parents make important decisions for their children without consulting them. The idea that parents are able to decide everything for their children until they come of age has changed over time, increasingly replaced by the concept that children progressively acquire the capacity to make their own decisions. I personally believe that as parents we should no longer talk about ‘parenting’ a child, but rather about accompanying them in their learning process.

    An important issue contained in the version of the document that went out to consultation is that of child marriage, added at the last minute as a result of strong pressure from feminist activism and independent media and allies. It is a vital issue, but legislators had not seen it.

    Many of these issues have created controversy, but I don’t think there has been real debate. In a context of high political polarisation, Cuba is not ready for debate. As activists who participated as independent observers have reported, the debates that have taken place in the consultative stages have been misguided and have not been led by people well trained to conduct them. There really is no debate in Cuba; you simply hear monologues for and against.

    What other problems do you see?

    Generally speaking, the problem is not with the contents of the Family Code. Women make up more than half of the population, and if you also count children, adolescents and LGBTQI+ people, the new code would meet the needs of a large majority.

    But we have great doubts about the reasons why it is being pushed through just now, especially because of the way in which some controversies were encouraged that served to obscure the fact that at the same time a terribly regressive reform of the Penal Code was being imposed on us, without any debate.

    In the new Penal Code, everything we do as activists and citizens is criminalised. It is a medieval code. The Family Code, on the other hand, is presented to us as ultra-modern and the result of consensus, which also creates uncertainty about its implementation. But while we have no doubts about the implementation of the Penal Code – we know that it will be implemented to the letter – if the Family Code ends up being as modern and progressive as advertised, I have huge doubts that it will actually be implemented. 

    To a large extent, those who would benefit from the new Family Code are the same people who will be repressed under the new Penal Code. Those who are protesting for the release of activists imprisoned after the 2021 protests are mostly single mothers demanding their children’s freedom. Many of those who took to the streets to protest were poor, Afro-descendants, transgender people and children raised by single mothers. This problem has existed for a long time and there have been no public policies aimed at solving it. There has not been the slightest attempt to make public policies with a gender perspective. In this context, it cannot be expected that the new Family Code will make such a big difference.

    Civic space in Cuba is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow@Martamar77 on Twitter.

     

  • CUBA: ‘Dissidents are in the millions; there aren't enough jail cells for so many people’

    CIVICUS speaks with Juan Antonio Blanco, director of the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts (Observatorio Cubano de Conflictos), an autonomous civil society project supported by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (Fundación para los Derechos Humanos en Cuba). The Observatory is a proactive civil society platform to promote non-violent change, and combines rigorous analysis of conflict with capacity development and empowerment of citizens to claim their rights.

    havana protest

    Successful protest in the El Cerro neighbourhood, Havana, in demand for the restoration of electricity and water services, 13 September 2017.

    The CIVICUS Monitor rates the space for civil society – civic space – in Cuba as ‘closed’, indicating a regime of total control where it is difficult to even imagine the existence of protests. Is this what you see?

    Absolutely. Cuba is a closed society, anchored in Stalinism not only politically but also economically, as the state suffocates or blocks the initiatives and entrepreneurial talent of citizens, a phenomenon known as ‘internal blockade’. The state denies individual autonomy and crushes any independent association to maintain a balkanised society. This is, they believe, how they can ensure state control over citizen behaviour.

    In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was clear that Cuba would have to make a transition to survive. The geopolitical ecosystem that had sustained it with infinite and massive subsidies collapsed alongside Eastern European communism. We all thought – and not because we believed in the so-called ‘end of history’ – that the only possible transition was towards some form of open society, political democracy and market economy. It could be more or less social democrat or liberal, but it should be based on those pillars in any case. Some of us pushed for that transition from reformist positions. We were wrong.

    In the end, the transition that did take place was neither the one advocated by Marxism, towards communism, nor Francis Fukuyama’s, towards a liberal state and a market society. We transitioned towards a transnational mafia state instead. This is not about giving it yet another pejorative label: this is the reality revealed by the analysis of the changes that have taken place in the structuring of power and social classes, the instruments of domination and the mechanisms for the creation and distribution of wealth. There has been a real change in the DNA of the governance regime.

    Real power is now more separate than ever from the Communist Party of Cuba. It is in the hands of a political elite that represents less than 0.5 per cent of the population, in a country that has abandoned even the ideology of the communist social pact that pushed the idea of submission based on a commitment to basic social rights, which were granted at the price of the suppression of all other rights.

    In early 2019 a constitutional reform process took place that did not create any significant change in terms of opening civic space. An image of change was projected externally that contrasted starkly with the internal reality of stagnation. Some phrases placed in a speech or in the new Constitution itself have served to feed eternal hopes that leaders – who are not held accountable by the public – will see the light on their own and create the necessary change. This also distracts the attention of international public opinion from the monstrosity born out of collusion with Venezuela.

    How would you describe the current conditions for the exercise of the right to protest in Cuba? Is there more space for people to make demands that are not regarded as political?

    There is no greater political, legal, or institutional space for the exercise of the right to protest, but citizens are creating it through their own practices. All rights proclaimed in the Constitution are subordinate to the regulations established by supplementary laws and regulations. In the end, the Constitution is not the highest legal text, but one subordinated to the legality created by other laws and regulations. An example of this is the Criminal Code, which includes the fascist concept of ‘pre-criminal danger’, by virtue of which an individual can spend up to four years in jail without having committed a crime. Nonetheless, conflict and protests have increased.

    The government has changed its repressive tactics towards political opponents to project a more benevolent outward image. Instead of long prison sentences it now resorts to thousands of short-term arbitrary detentions. Instead of holding acts of repudiation outside a meeting place, it now suppresses meetings before they happen, arresting activists in their homes. Instead of refusing to issue them passports or throwing activists in jail for attending a meeting abroad, it now prevents activists from boarding their flights. If a member of the opposition is put to trial, this is done not on the basis of accusations of political subversion but for allegedly having committed a common crime or for being ‘socially dangerous’.

    At the same time, Cuban citizens – more than half of whom now live in poverty according to respected economists based in Cuba – have increasingly serious and urgent needs, the fulfilment of which cannot wait for a change of government or regime. In a different context these would be ‘personal problems,’ but in the context of a statist governance regime, which makes all solutions depend on state institutions and blocks all autonomous solutions, whether by citizens or the private sector, these become social and economic conflicts of citizens against the state.

    At this point it is important to establish a difference between opposition and dissent. Opponents are those who openly adopt, either individually or collectively, a contesting political stance towards the government. A dissident, on the other hand, is someone who feels deep discomfort and disagreement with the governance regime because it blocks their basic needs and dreams of prosperity. Social dissidents tend not to express themselves in a public way if they do not believe this will help them achieve concessions on a specific demand. But if their situation becomes distressing, they move – often spontaneously – from complaining and lamenting privately to protesting publicly.

    Over the past two years there has been a notable increase in protests for social and economic reasons. These protests do not have legal protection, as the right to public demonstration is non-existent. However, the state has often preferred to appease these protests rather than react with force. Given the degree of deterioration of living conditions – and the even more deteriorated legitimacy of the authorities and the official communist ideology – Cuban society resembles a dry meadow that any spark can ignite.

    Domination by the political elite has been based more on control of the social psychology than on the resources of the repressive apparatus. As a result of the Great Terror of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, with firing squads that never stopped and the handing out of 30-year prison sentences for insignificant issues, three generations were formed on the false premise that ‘there is nobody who can knock down or fix this’. This has been the guiding idea of a pedagogy of submission that is now in crisis.

    Why the change?

    The factors that have most influenced the current change in citizens’ perspectives and attitudes have been, on the one hand, the breakdown of the monopoly of information that has resulted from new digital technologies, the leader’s death and the gradual transfer of power to people without historical legitimacy to justify their incompetence. On the other hand, the accelerated deterioration of living conditions and the country’s entire infrastructure turns everyday life into a collection of hardships. Health and education systems, food, medicine, the transportation system and cooking gas and gasoline supply are in a state of collapse. Hundreds of multi-family dwellings are also collapsing and people waste their lives demanding, waiting for years for a new home or for their old home to be repaired. Many also lose their lives among the rubble when buildings collapse.

    In this context the social dissident, who had remained latent and silent, goes public to express their discontent and demand basic social rights. They claim neither more nor less than the right to dignity, to dignified conditions of existence. And unlike political opponents, dissidents are not in the thousands but in the millions. There are not enough jail cells for so many people.

    How did the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts come into existence?

    The Cuban Observatory of Conflicts emerged in Cuba as an idea of a group of women who had previously created the Dignity Movement. In its origins, this movement had the mission of denouncing pre-criminal dangerousness laws (i.e. laws allowing the authorities to charge and detain people deemed likely to commit crimes, and sentence them to up to four years in prison) and abuses in the prison system, against any category of prisoners, whether political or not.

    From the outset this was an innovative project. It was not conceived as a political organisation or party, but as a movement, fluid and without hierarchies, fully decentralised in its actions, without an ideology that would exclude others.

    For two years these women collected information about prisons and the application of pre-criminal dangerousness laws. Their work within Cuba fed into reports to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They placed the letter ‘D’ for dignity, which identifies their movement, in public sites as a reminder to the political police that they had not been able to crush them.

    However, the original mission of the Dignity Movement was too specific for a movement whose name was such a broad concept. Nowadays, Cuban citizens’ struggles are primarily for living conditions, for the full respect of their human dignity. This is thy the Dignity Movement expanded its mission to supporting citizen groups in their social and economic demands, without abandoning its initial objective. To fight back against the psychology of submission and replace it with another one based on the idea that it is possible to fight and win, the Dignity Movement now has a specific tool, the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts.

    Can you tell us more about how the Observatory works?

    The philosophy on which the Observatory is based is that life should not be wasted waiting for a miracle or a gift from the powerful; you have to fight battles against the status quo every single day. In just one year we have successfully accompanied about 30 social conflicts of various kinds that had remained unresolved for decades, but now obtained the concessions demanded from the state.

    What has been most significant is that when the authorities realised that these citizens were mentally ready to go to public protests, they decided to give them what they demanded, in order to prevent an outburst and to take credit for the result, although this would never have been achieved in the absence of citizen pressure. They showed their preference for occasional win-win solutions to avoid the danger of a viral contagion of protests among a population that is fed-up with broken promises. Each popular victory teaches citizens that protesting and demanding – rather than begging and waiting – is the way to go.

    The method is simple: to generate a collective demand that has a critical number of petitioners who identify with it and subscribe to it, and send negotiators to request a solution, clarifying that they will not accept negative, delayed responses or a response that does not identify the person responsible for its implementation. At the same time, information is filtered to social media and digital media covering Cuba. That is the way to go along the established roads in a constructive way. What is new here is that it is made clear that if an agreement is not reached and its implementation verified, people are willing to take nonviolent public actions of various kinds.

    Civic space in Cuba is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Observatorio Cubano de Conflictos through its webpage and Facebook profile, or follow @conflictoscuba on Twitter.

     

  • CUBA: ‘The only options available are prison, exile, or submission’

    Carolina Barrero

    CIVICUS speaks with Cuban activist  Carolina Barrero, who has been in exile in Spain since February 2022, about the circumstances driving increasing numbers of Cubans out of the country.

    Carolina is an art historian and a member of the 27N movement, formed out of the protests held on 27 November 2020 outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana to denounce lack of freedoms, the repression of dissent and harassment against the San Isidro Movement, a protest group started by artists. She was forced to leave Cuba in reprisal for her activism in support of relatives of political prisoners held since the protests of 11 July 2021, known as 11J.

    Why did you leave Cuba?

    My story as an activist forced into exile follows the pattern typically used by the state security apparatus to neutralise dissidents. I was told many times that I had to leave or else I would suffer legal consequences and eventually go to jail. I never gave in. I currently have four open cases, for instigation to commit a crime, conspiracy against state security, contempt and clandestine printing. Every single time I was threatened with prosecution and imprisonment if I did not stop my activism. I was urged to ‘stay quiet’, a classic euphemism for subdued.

    On 31 January 2022, I was arrested at aprotest outside the 10 de Octubre Municipal Court in Havana. It was the first day of thetrial of a group of 11J protesters. I was with other activists including Alexander Hall, Leonardo Romero Negrín, Daniela Rojo and Tata Poet, accompanying political prisoners’ mothers who were waiting to see their children from a distance when they were brought to court. When that happened, we all applauded and shouted ‘freedom’ and ‘they are heroes’. State security offices violently arrested us, beat us and put us in a cage truck to take us to different police stations.

    As happened before, state security told me that I had 48 hours to leave Cuba. But this time I was told that if I didn’t, 12 mothers of political prisoners would be prosecuted for public disorder. At first I thought it was just an empty threat, but they told me, ‘for 20 years we have been doing this to the Ladies in White’, a group who have been mobilising for their detained relatives since 2003. In other words, they were prepared to go all the way.

    The Cuban dictatorship knows very well how to put pressure on us using our families and our private lives, because they have us under surveillance and they know everything about us. For instance, they know if your mother has a heart condition so they pay her a visit to force you to stay quiet and not give her a heart attack. If you have committed an infidelity, they threaten to show photos to your partner. If you are at university, they threaten you with expulsion. If you live in rented housing, they pressure your landlords to throw you out. Their tactic is to detect your weakness and blackmail you into submission. At some point you get tired of this life and choose to self-censor.

    These threats were not working with me, so they threatened me with infringing on the freedom of third parties. They knew of my close ties with the mothers of imprisoned protesters and particularly with Yudinela Castro and Bárbara Farrat. Most of these mothers live in very precarious situations and cannot denounce the arbitrariness they suffer. Many have more than one child in prison, sometimes also their husbands, so they are quite alone. When they threatened me with criminalising and imprisoning them, I decided this time I had to leave.

    How different is the situation of political exiles from that of those emigrating for economic reasons?

    In principle, there would seem to be a big difference between exile resulting from the use of systematic repression to punish or neutralise political dissent and emigration motivated by social and economic asphyxiation. However, this classification obscures the ultimate causes of the factors that lead people to leave Cuba.

    Under a dictatorship such as Cuba’s, the root reasons why people leave the country are always political. All waves of exile from Cuba, from the 1960s to the present day, have had a political background: repression by the ruling regime. Not only are political freedoms missing, but all the freedoms necessary for people to be able to manage their own destiny. In Cuba people have no agency over any aspect of their public or private lives; all aspects of life are controlled by the Cuban state, which is not merely authoritarian, but totalitarian.

    No one flees paradise. No one decides to leave their life, work, career and affections to pursue the ‘American dream’. Although in some cases the forced character of exile seems clearer than in others, at the end of the day every exile from Cuba is a forced exile. We flee to survive and to have the opportunity to just be.

    Many Cubans risk their lives at sea or cross jungles with their babies to get to a place where they don’t know the language or the culture, just to be a little freer. In Cuba, if you don’t fit the mould set by the Communist Party, the only authorised party, in power since 1965, you are treated as a potential criminal. Everything is politically determined, from access to education and healthcare to the possibility of earning a living. Economic suffocation also has political causes. So it is misleading to distinguish sharply between political exile and economic migration.

    Following the protests of 11 July 2021 and their repression, it became clearer than ever that the only three options available to Cubans are prison, exile, or submission.

    Like other Cuban activists in exile, you have conducted international advocacy ever since you left Cuba. Do you think this could prompt the Cuban state to rethink its tactic of offering exit instead of prison?

    At the moment, the Cuban state is more concerned about us being inside, lighting the fire of protest, than outside, denouncing repression in international forums. But I think the regime’s calculations are wrong, because those of us who have gone into exile have not forgotten Cuba and are not going to abandon the cause of democracy. And international advocacy plays an important role in our struggle.

    This, which may seem innocuous to the regime, is a fundamental part of activism to end the dictatorship because it attacks one of the fundamental pillars that have sustained the regime: the effectiveness of international propaganda. The Cuban state has allocated enormous resources to diplomacy so that every embassy is a propaganda centre that promotes the narrative, the epic and the myth of the Cuban Revolution.

    To counter the effect of propaganda on international opinion, now Cuba also has a growing army of ambassadors who have witnessed and been part of the latest cycle of protests and can speak in international forums of what is really happening in Cuba. I firmly believe that, to a large extent, the fall of the dictatorship depends on the fall of the myth. This is an important task for us in exile.

    What are the chances of a political transition in Cuba?

    I do not dare to make predictions on such a delicate issue, and one so longed for by Cubans for decades. But I am able to highlight one fact: the Cuban regime has never been as weak as it is now. After the mass protests, the regime can no longer hide the extent of the discontent, which it has historically blamed on a few opponents who, according to its narrative, are funded by ‘the empire’. Social discontent is now evident and massive, reaching all corners of the island and all social groups. The dictatorship no longer has the support of the poorest or of those it claims to defend, but only of the military and bureaucratic leadership.

    It also has a serious succession problem. Since Miguel Díaz-Canel assumed power after being appointed by Raúl Castro, he has not made a single administrative decision that has earned him praise. Everything has been a disaster and he will be remembered as an incompetent dictator with very little charisma. I think the regime spends 24 hours a day thinking of how to fill this power vacuum, since Díaz-Canel has no credibility whatsoever, even among officials, and even demoralises the repressive apparatus. The problem is that they have no one to replace him with, nor do they know how. They could stage a vote, but the situation is so delicate that they know it could easily get out of hand. They could even stage a self-coup, but this is also a very delicate path that could end up being lethal.

    At the current international juncture, Cuba’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine makes the Cuban dictatorship, the oldest in the western hemisphere, even more difficult to justify in the eyes of international opinion. Justifying Cuba has become a challenge even for those with a marked ideological bias. Added to these factors are the economic, social and humanitarian crises, all of which threaten the regime and its continuity. Faced with the energy crisis and shortages of basic goods, the Cuban foreign minister himself has requested support from the Biden administration, something totally unheard of. The irony is complete: in Cuba there are people in prison accused of ‘mercenaryism’ for having received US support, and now it turns out that the Cuban government itself has become a mercenary by its own definition.

    What will happen or not, I dare not predict. I believe that the protests will not be silenced and our voices will continue to be heard. I only hope that the democratic transition will come about through a peaceful process rather than violence.

    Beyond overthrowing the dictatorship, the goal – and the challenge – is to build a democracy. For this we will need the support of civil society organisations such as CIVICUS. After six decades of civic and political anaesthesia, in recent years Cuban civil society has awoken and showed that it has the capacity, the will and the determination to move towards democracy. We have an open window of opportunity and, as the Cuban writer José Lezama Lima would say, we have the power for change.


    Civic space in Cuba is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Contact Carolina Barrero through herInstagram page and follow@carolinabferrer on Twitter.

    Photo credit: Fernando Fraguela

     

     

  • Decisive leadership needed from SADC to address DRC crisis

    By David Kode

    The announcement of a date for general elections in a country roiled in political conflict and ruled by an unpopular leader should be regarded as a positive move. But not so in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

    Read on: Pambazuka 

     

     

  • Disinformation research reveals how governments hijack & weaponize narratives to serve their political agenda

    HijackingWeaponizingTheNarrative

    Disinformation campaigns are on the rise in East Asia as states use false information to shape self-serving narratives.

    The newly launched DisinformationCounter.com sets out to contribute to public knowledge and understanding of disinformation, especially how governments use it in ways that negatively impact civic space and democracy in East Asia. The platform launches with a research project to map the regional disinformation landscape. Case studies focused on the Philippines, Mindanao, Indonesia, West Papua, Hong Kong, and Cambodia, but are indicative of a larger, systemic issue across the region. This research is, therefore, to be seen as part of the rising call from East Asian civil society for greater transparency and freedom of information.

    Accompanying the research, the ARTSvsDISINFORMATION project brought seven artists together to explore creative, accessible, and public ways of responding to and resisting disinformation. It is also hoped that the research and artistic responses will inspire and empower civic, academic, and creative responses towards disinformation.

    Both projects are hosted on the newly launched DisinformationCounter.com.

    "Disinformation erodes democracy. It undermines fundamental freedoms. It stokes hate and violence while polarizing societies along the lines of race, religion, ideology, class, and gender. It destroys lives. In a crisis that is on a scale we’ve never seen before, disinformation kills. East Asia has been witness to this and more, much like the rest of the world.”

    – Tess Bacalla, Editor

    HIJACKING & WEAPONIZING THE NARRATIVE: Disinformation Amid Rising Repression in East Asia examines the specific ways by which states have become a major player in the spread of disinformation and how these narratives influence state policies and the use of state resources. Written and edited by well-known journalists and writers on disinformation in the region, this research project maps the disinformation landscape in the Philippines, Mindanao, Indonesia, West Papua, Hong Kong, and Cambodia.

    Why we should be concerned

    CIVICUS Asia Pacific Researcher Josef Benedict says, “Across the Asian region we are seeing governments deploy disinformation tactics to spread pro-government narratives, mount smear campaigns against their political opposition and civil society, and to divert conversations away from critical issues facing people’s lives. This critical report exposes these manipulation campaigns and empowers civil society to challenge both states and non-state actors to not only refrain from conducting and sponsoring disinformation, but to address it in a manner that respects human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.”

    Narrative is power

    Creating and pushing narratives that distort otherwise meaningful public conversations has become an integral, albeit destructive, component of the strategies that have been used by governments for ages. Today’s technologies have ramped up these efforts, ushering in a new world disorder that has governments hijacking and weaponizing narratives. Talk about the ‘new normal’ in the digital age!

    “Narrative, after all, is power, especially when used – calibrated and weaponized – to manipulate people to advance specific agendas, especially of those in power,” writes Tess Bacalla in her introduction to the research.

    Muting counternarratives

    These reports lift the veil on how repressive governments in the region are increasingly using disinformation to rein in dissent while perpetuating power. These on the whole are reeling under the burden of aggressive campaigns against the dissemination of truthful accounts of public governance issues and events that impact people’s lives while muting counter voices, often with the use of brute force, draconian legislation, and other forms of repression.

    Why this research matters

    When asked why this research project is important to the region, Tess responded with this remark, “To say that there is extreme urgency to train the spotlight on the unrelenting scourge of disinformation – this, as states and other political actors wantonly manipulate information to suit their political agendas while harming the public interest – is to belabor the obvious.

    “This series of reports is a step in that direction – and a plea for action.”

    -End-

    To view the collection of seven artworks, click here.

    To read the series of disinformation reports, click here

    About CIVICUS

    CIVICUS is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world.

    We were established in 1993 and since 2002 have been proudly headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, with additional hubs across the globe. We are a membership alliance with more than 10,000 members in more than 175 countries.

    Our definition of civil society is broad and covers non-governmental organisations, activists, civil society coalitions and networks, protest and social movements, voluntary bodies, campaigning organisations, charities, faith-based groups, trade unions and philanthropic foundations. Our membership is diverse, spanning a wide range of issues, sizes and organisation types.

    For further information or to request interviews with CIVICUS staff and contributors to this project, please contact Josef Benedict: 

     

  • EGYPT: ‘There's been severe deterioration in the rule of law & respect for human rights’

    CIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Egypt and their repression with a woman activist and protester who, for security reasons, asked to remain anonymous. The space for civil society in Egypt is severely restricted: laws limit legitimate civil society activities and detention and intimidation are routinely used to silence human rights defenders and journalists. The protests that took place in September 2019 resulted in mass arrests and the criminalisation of protesters.

    egypt protest 1024x683

    What were the main drivers of the September 2019 protests in Egypt?

    The trigger for the September 2019 protests came in the form of a series of viral videos shared by the Egyptian actor and construction contractor Mohamed Ali, in which he accused the authorities and the armed forces of corruption and the squandering of public funds. While President Abdul Fattah El-Sisi ultimately addressed the videos in some form, more videos by Ali and others  followed; a broader conversation on the role of the military in Egypt’s economy also ensued.

    On 20 September, and partly in response to Ali’s call for demonstrations against Sisi, hundreds took to the streets in the capital, Cairo, and Alexandria, Suez and other cities. As part of this wave of demonstrations, more protests took place on 20, 21 and 27 September. They occurred within a broader context in which many Egyptian citizens were also bearing the brunt of austerity measures and subsidy cuts and were increasingly affected by an escalating crackdown targeting independent, peaceful expression.

    What was the response of the government to the protests?

    Immediately following the protests and for days afterwards, the Egyptian authorities carried out a widespread arrest campaign that not only targeted people who were present at the demonstrations, but also lawyers, political activists and advocates more broadly. Local civil society organisations (CSOs) estimate that at least 3,763 people were arrested. Many of these people were ordered into pretrial detention in cases involving alleged charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation and spreading false news; a number of them remain in detention.

    In the wake of the protests, Netblocks reported restricted use around Facebook Messenger, BBC News and social media CDN (content delivery network) servers. In Cairo, the authorities blocked some roads and temporarily closed some metro stops, particularly those close to Tahrir Square.

    What has been the state of democracy and human rights in Egypt under the current regime?

    Increasingly since 2013, there has been a severe deterioration in the rule of law and respect for human rights in Egypt. Authorities are using the law to consolidate authoritarianism. This is reflected in new legislation that restricts rights and re-writes the relationship between civilians and the state; the prosecution of peaceful advocates using overly broad anti-terrorism legislation; and the introduction of amendments to the constitution allowing executive influence and interference in the functioning of what are meant to be independent state institutions, including the judiciary and the prosecution.

    The use of extended pretrial detention periods as a punitive measure, the sentencing of individuals in mass trials, and a spike in death penalty sentences continue to take place. Detention conditions remain poor; instances of torture and deaths in detention as a result of inadequate access to medical care abound.

    The situation of minorities leaves much to be desired. Though the authorities passed a Church Construction Law in 2016 and built the region’s largest church in the New Administrative Capital, Egypt’s Christian minority population continues to suffer from sectarianism, finds it difficult to access justice amid reconciliation sessions that favour the majority faith, and often faces obstacles in building and licensing churches in the areas in which they actually reside. While the state has made some initial attempt to compensate the ethnic Nubian minority, their constitutionally recognised right to return to their ancestral lands remains unfulfilled.

    Although Egypt is performing better on a number of economic indicators, austerity policies and subsidy cuts have impacted on the economic and social rights of particularly marginalised civilians, affecting key issues such as housing, education, health and work.

    How has the new NGO law impacted on the freedom of association?

    In August 2019, Egypt’s new NGO Law went into effect. However, its implementing regulations have not yet been issued, which is making it difficult to understand the degree to which the law is in force – and if it is not, which law and implementing regulations are – and to assess the implementation of the law and its impact on civil society. According to the law, implementing regulations were required to be issued within six months, but this deadline passed in February 2019. Media reports suggest however that the regulations are now expected to be issued in mid-March 2020.

    Egypt’s 2019 NGO Law does away with penalties involving jail time, as well as the National Agency to Regulate the Work of Foreign NGOs, a security and intelligence-heavy body created by the 2017 NGO Law to approve and monitor foreign funding. However, the law furthers significant restrictions on the activities of CSOs, places bureaucratic constraints on registration and creates expansive oversight and monitoring authority for government actors.

    While it may be early to report on the precise impact of the new law, there is no doubt that its passing has already contributed to some self-censorship, as CSOs have reported being uncertain regarding what legal schemes govern their work and have also raised concern about the law’s broad restrictions. The law was passed in an environment characterised by travel bans, asset freezes and the prosecution and arrest of members of civil society. These trends are only expected to continue. It is important to note that the NGO Law is not the only piece of legislation governing civil society: the media law, the cybercrime law, the counter-terrorism law and the Penal Code are all examples of laws that contain provisions potentially implicating associational activity as well.

    At this point, what can international civil society do to support civil society in Egypt?

    In some cases in the past, the Egyptian authorities have targeted CSOs engaging with international civil society and subjected them to various forms of reprisal. At other times, international connectivity, collaboration and work with networks has been a form of protection for Egyptian civil society. Accordingly, some organisations are able, willing, or well-positioned to engage with international civil society, while others may not be; this often ends up being a very contextualised and determined on a case-by-case basis.

    In cases in which international support can be of benefit to a particular Egyptian CSO, there are a number of clear needs: the creation of long-term and technical training opportunities and resources; systematic network building to expand access to decision-makers; and the provision of in-kind and financial support. Together, this programming has the potential to amplify the voices of, strengthen and provide protection for domestic CSOs that can often be under-resourced, cut off from the international community and subjected to government restriction.

    Civic space in Egypt is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • Global civil society condemns violent repression of anti-government protests in Venezuela

    • 40 people killed and more than 800 detained since public protests began on January 23
    • Journalists covering demonstrations have been attacked
    • The UN has called for an independent investigation into the state’s alleged used of force against protesters
    • The government of President Nicolás Maduro has often used violence against protesters since coming to power in 2013.
    • Global civil society groups have urged authorities to release all detainees and uphold citizens’ rights and the rule of law

       

    • Global Letter in solidarity with Belarusian civil society

      Russian | Belarusian

      ‘You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep the Spring from coming’
      Pablo Neruda

      161 human rights organisations demand an end to the repression against the Human Rights Center Viasna and all other human rights defenders in Belarus. We condemn the systematic arbitrary arrests, beatings and acts of torture they are subjected to. Despite all-out repression by the Belarusian authorities, human rights defenders in Belarus continue to strive to protect human rights. Inspired by their courage, we will not stop fighting until they are all released and able to continue their human rights work freely and unhindered.

      Over the past few days, we have witnessed another wave of raids and detentions against Belarusian human rights defenders and activists. This repression is a blatant retaliation for their work denouncing and documenting human rights violations ongoing since the brutal crackdown against peaceful protesters in the wake of the August 2020 election. Since August 2020, more than 35,000 Belarusians were arrested for participating in peaceful protests, around 3,000 politically motivated criminal cases were initiated, at least 2,500 cases of torture of Belarusian citizens were documented. We believe these systematic and widespread human rights violations may amount to crimes against humanity. As of July 19, 561 persons in Belarus are considered political prisoners.

      Between July 14 and 16, 2021, more than 60 searches were conducted at the homes and offices of Belarusian human rights organisations and their staff, including the Human Rights Centre ‘Viasna’, two member organisations of the International Committee for the Investigation of Torture in Belarus, Human Constanta and Legal Initiative, as well as the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the Legal Transformation Center LawTrend, Ecodom and many others. Documents and IT equipment, including laptops, mobile phones and computers were seized during the searches.

      During these latest raids, more than 30 people were interrogated. 13 of them were detained for a 72-hour period, reportedly in connection to an investigation into public order violations and tax evasion. Most of them were subsequently released, namely, Mikalai Sharakh, Siarhei Matskievich, and Viasna members Andrei Paluda, Alena Laptsionak, Yauheniya Babaeva, Siarhei Sys, Viktar Sazonau, Ales Kaputski and Andrei Medvedev. Several of them, however, remain under travel ban and face criminal charges. Notably, Ales Bialiatsky, Viasna Chairperson Valiantsin Stefanovic, Viasna Deputy Head and Vice-President of the FIDH, and Uladzimir Labkovich, a lawyer and Viasna member, remain detained. On July 17, all four were transferred to a pre-trial detention center “Valadarskaha”. Four other Viasna members Leanid Sudalenka, Tatsiana Lasitsa, Marfa Rabkova and Andrey Chapyuk, as well as Aleh Hrableuski of the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, remain in pre-trial detention since late 2020 or early 2021.

      Viasna, one of the country’s top human rights organisations, and a member of the OMCT and FIDH networks, has been targeted by the Belarusian government for over two decades. In August 2011, its chairperson Ales Bialiatsky was sentenced to four and a half years of imprisonment on trumped-up charges, and released in June 2014 after spending 1,052 days in arbitrary detention in appalling conditions. In retaliation for Viasna’s courageous work and unwavering stance for human rights, the Belarusian authorities are trying to destroy the organisation by putting seven of its members behind bars.

      The raids started only one day after the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning the situation of human rights in Belarus, demanding the release of all persons arbitrarily detained and an investigation into allegations of torture and other human rights violations.

      On July 8-9 and July 16, 2021, the authorities also raided the homes and premises of various independent media outlets and their staff, including ‘Nasha Niva’, one of country’s oldest independent newspaper, and detained three of its journalists. The offices of RFE/Radio Liberty and Belsat, the largest independent TV channel covering Belarus, were also searched, and several of their journalists were detained. As of now, over 30 media workers and dozens of bloggers remain in detention.

      We, the undersigned civil society organisations, condemn the massive human rights violations perpetrated by the Belarusian authorities, which we fear may trigger more violence. This latest wave of repression, together with the brutal crackdown over the last months, demonstrates that the authorities aim at having every human rights defender either detained or exiled.

      We stand in solidarity with our colleagues and friends who are detained, harassed, and persecuted for their brave work. We regard their struggle with great concern and sorrow, and we are inspired by their commitment and resilience.

      We urge the Belarusian authorities to stop the harassment and intimidation of critical voices, and to free all unjustly detained human rights defenders, journalists and activists.

      We call on the international community to take a strong stance in support of the Belarusian human rights community, and to speak out for the release of all those who are still behind bars, and whose only crime is to demand a society based on justice instead of fear.

      Signatories

      1. Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran - Iran
      2. ACAT Belgique - Belgium
      3. ACAT Burundi - Burundi
      4. ACAT España-Catalunya (Acción de los Cristianos para la Abolición de la Tortura) - Spain
      5. ACAT Germany (Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture) - Germany
      6. ACAT Italia - Italy
      7. ACAT République Centrafricaine - Central African Republic
      8. ACAT République Démocratique du Congo - Democratic Republic of Congo
      9. ACAT Suisse - Switzerland
      10. ACAT Tchad - Tchad
      11. ACAT Togo - Togo
      12. Action Against Violence and Exploitation (ACTVE) - Philippines
      13. Action des Chrétiens Activistes des Droits de l’Homme à Shabunda (ACADHOSHA) - Democratic Republic of Congo
      14. Advocacy Forum – Nepal - Nepal
      15. Agir ensemble pour les droits humains - France
      16. Albanian Human Rights Group
      17. ALTSEAN-Burma - Myanmar
      18. Anti Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN) - Malaysia/Asia-Pacific
      19. Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial - Belgium
      20. ARTICLE 19
      21. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights - Indonesia
      22. Asia Pacific Solidarity Coalition (APSOC) - Philippines
      23. Asociación para una Ciudadanía Participativa (ACI PARTICIPA) - Honduras
      24. Asociación pro derechos humanos (Aprodeh) - Peru
      25. Association Mauritanienne des droits de l'homme (AMDH-Mauritanieuri) - Mauritania
      26. Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) - India
      27. Association Tchadienne pour la promotion et la Défense des Droits de l'Homme (ATPDH) - Tchad
      28. Association tunisienne des femmes démocrates - Tunisia
      29. Avocats Sans Frontières France (ASF France) - France
      30. Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM) - India
      31. Belarusian-Swiss Association RAZAM.CH - Switzerland
      32. Bulgarian Helsinki Committee - Bulgaria
      33. Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) - Cambodia
      34. Capital Punishment Justice Project (CPJP) - Australia
      35. Center for Civil Liberties - Ukraine
      36. Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) - United States of America
      37. Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR), University of York - United Kingdom
      38. Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights (CDDHR) - Russia
      39. Centro de Derechos humanos Fray Bartolomé de las Casas A.c. (Frayba) - Mexico
      40. Centro de Derechos Humanos Paso del Norte - Mexico
      41. Centro de Investigación y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos (CIPRODEH) - Honduras
      42. Centro de Prevención, Tratamiento y Rehabilitación de Victimas de la Tortura y sus familiares (CPTRT) - Honduras
      43. Centro de Salud Mental y Derechos Humanos (CINTRAS) - Chile
      44. Changement Social Bénin (CSB) - Benin
      45. CIVICUS
      46. Civil Rights Defenders (CRD) - Sweden
      47. Comision Nacional de los Derechos Humanos (CNDH-RD) - Dominican Republic
      48. Coalition Burkinabé des Défenseurs des Droits Humains (CBDDH) - Burkina Faso
      49. Coalition Marocaine contre la Peine de Mort - Morocco
      50. Coalition Tunisienne Contre la Peine de Mort - Tunisia
      51. Collectif des Associations Contre l'Impunité au Togo (CACIT) - Togo
      52. Comisión de derechos humanos – COMISEDH - Peru
      53. Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras (COFADEH) - Honduras
      54. Comité de solidaridad con los presos políticos (FCSPP) - Colombia
      55. Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) - Northern Ireland (UK)
      56. Crude Accountability - United States of America
      57. Czech League of Human Rights Czech Republic
      58. Death Penalty Focus (DPF) - United States of America
      59. Defenders of human rights centre - Iran
      60. DEMAS - Association for Democracy Assistance and Human Rights - Czech Republic
      61. DITSHWANELO - The Botswana Centre for Human Rights - Botswana
      62. Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (EaP CSF) - Belgium
      63. Eleos Justice, Monash University - Australia
      64. Enfants Solidaires d'Afrique et du Monde (ESAM) - Benin
      65. Federal Association of Vietnam-Refugees in the Federal Republic of Germany - Germany
      66. FIDU - Italian Federation for Human Rights - Italy
      67. Finnish League for Human Rights - Finland
      68. Free Press Unlimited - The Netherlands
      69. Fundación Regional de Asesoría en Derechos Humanos (INREDH) - Ecuador
      70. GABRIELA Alliance of Filipino Women - Philippines
      71. German Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (GCADP) - Germany
      72. Greek Helsinki Monitor Greece
      73. Helsinki Citizens' Assembly – Vanadzor - Armenia
      74. Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights - Poland
      75. Citizens' Watch Russia
      76. Human Rights Alert - India
      77. Human Rights Association (İHD) - Turkey
      78. Human Rights Center (HRC) - Georgia
      79. Human Rights Center (HRC) "Memorial" - Russia
      80. Human Rights House Foundation
      81. Human Rights in China (HRIC) - USA
      82. Human Rights Monitoring Institute (HRMI) - Lithuania
      83. Human Rights Mouvement “Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan” - Kyrgyzstan
      84. Human Rights Organization of Nepal - Nepal
      85. Humanist Union of Greece (HUG) - Greece
      86. Hungarian Helsinki Committee - Hungary
      87. IDP Women Association "Consent" - Georgia
      88. Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU) - Kenya
      89. Instituto de Estudios Legales y Sociales del Uruguay (IELSUR) - Uruguay
      90. International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) - Kenyan Section - Kenya
      91. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) - France
      92. International Legal Initiative - Kazakhstan
      93. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) - Belgium
      94. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) - Switzerland
      95. Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society - India
      96. JANANEETHI - India
      97. Justice for Iran (JFI) - United Kingdom
      98. Justícia i Pau - Spain
      99. Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law - Kazakhstan
      100. Kharkiv Regional Foundation "Public Alternative" - Ukraine
      101. La Strada International - The Netherlands
      102. La Voix des Sans Voix pour les Droits de l'Homme (VSV) - Democratic Republic of Congo
      103. Latvian Human Rights Committee (LHRC) - Latvia
      104. Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights YUCOM - Serbia
      105. League for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran (LDDHI) - Iran
      106. Legal Policy Research Centre (LPRC) - Kazakhstan
      107. Libereco Partnership of Human Rights - Germany/ Switzerland
      108. LICADHO - Cambodia
      109. Lifespark - Switzerland
      110. Liga Portuguesa dos Direitos Humanos - Civitas (LPDHC) - Portugal
      111. Liga voor de Rechten van de Mens (LvRM) (Dutch League for Human Rights) - The Netherlands
      112. Ligue des droits de l'Homme (LDH) - France
      113. Ligue Tchadienne des droits de l'Homme - Tchad
      114. Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) - Maldives
      115. Martin Ennals Foundation - Switzerland
      116. Minority Rights Group - Greece
      117. Mouvance des Abolitionnistes du Congo Brazzaville - Congo Brazzaville
      118. Mouvement Ivoirien des Droits Humains (MIDH) - Côte d'Ivoire
      119. Mouvement Lao pour les Droits de l'Homme - Laos
      120. Movimento Nacional de Direitos Humanos (MNDH) - Brazil
      121. Netherlands Helsinki Committee - The Netherlands
      122. Norwegian Helsinki Committee - Norway
      123. Observatoire du système pénal et des droits humains (OSPDH) - Spain
      124. Observatoire Marocain des prisons - Morocco
      125. Odhikar - Bangladesh
      126. OPEN ASIA|Armanshahr - France
      127. Organisation contre la torture en Tunisie (OCTT) - Tunisie
      128. Organisation Guineenne de Defense des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen (OGDH) - Guinea
      129. Österreichische Liga für Menschenrechte ÖLFMR - Austria
      130. Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) - Palestine
      131. Pax Christi Uvira - Democratic Republic of Congo
      132. People's Watch India
      133. Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos (Provea) - Venezuela
      134. Promo LEX Association - Republic of Moldova
      135. Protection International (PI)
      136. Public Association "Dignity" - Kazakhstan
      137. Public Association Spravedlivost Human Rights Organization - Kyrgyzstan
      138. Public Verdict Foundation - Russia
      139. Rencontre Africaine pour la Défense des Droits de l'Homme RADDHO - Senegal
      140. Repecap Academics - Spain
      141. Réseau des Defenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale (REDHAC) - Cameroon
      142. Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH) - Haïti
      143. Rights Realization Centre - UK
      144. Rural People's Sangam - India
      145. Salam for Democracy and Human Rights - UK, Lebanon, Bahrain
      146. Social-Strategic Researches and Analytical Investigations Public Union (SSRAIPU) - Azerbaijan
      147. SOHRAM-CASRA - Centre Action Sociale Réhabilitation et Réadaptation pour les Victimes de la Torture, de la guerre et de la violence - Turquie
      148. SOS-Torture/Burundi - Burundi
      149. SUARAM - Malaysia
      150. Syndicat national des agents de la formation et de l'education du Niger (SYNAFEN NIGER) - Niger
      151. Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) - Philippines
      152. Thai Action Committee for Democaracy in Burma (TACDB) - Thailand
      153. The Advocates for Human Rights - United States of America
      154. The Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House (BHRH) - Lithuania
      155. The Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS) - Indonesia
      156. The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT)
      157. Urgent Action Fund for Women's Human Rights United States of America
      158. Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) - France
      159. World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP) - France
      160. World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) - Switzerland
      161. Xumek asociación para la promoción y protección de los derechos humanos - Argentina

      Civic space in Belarus is rated as Repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor

       

    • HAÏTI : « La communauté internationale ne s’est jamais attaquée aux causes profondes de la crise »

      NixonBoumbaCIVICUS s’entretient avec Nixon Boumba, militant des droits humains et membre du Kolektif Jistis Min nan Ayiti (Collectif pour la justice minière en Haïti), sur la situation politique en Haïti après l’assassinat du président Jovenel Moïse. Formé en 2012, le Collectif pour la justice minière en Haïti est un mouvement d’organisations, d’individus et de partenaires de la société civile haïtienne qui font pression pour la transparence et la justice sociale et environnementale face à l’intérêt international croissant pour le secteur minier haïtien. Il sensibilise les communautés touchées aux conséquences de l’exploitation minière dans cinq domaines : l’environnement, l’eau, le travail, l’agriculture et la terre.

       

    • HAITI: ‘The international community has never addressed the root causes of the crisis’

      NixonBoumbaCIVICUS speaks with Nixon Boumba, a human rights activist and member of Kolektif Jistis Min nan Ayiti (Haiti Justice in Mining Collective), about the political situation in Haiti following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Formed in 2012, Haiti Justice in Mining Collective is a movement of Haitian civil society organisations, individuals and partners pushing for transparency and social and environmental justice in the face of growing international interest in Haiti’s mining sector. It educates affected communities on the consequences of mining in five areas: the environment, water, work, agriculture and land.

       

    • HONG KONG: ‘This is a leader-full movement, ran by countless small networks of talented people’

      johnson yeungCIVICUS speaks about the protests that have rocked Hong Kong since June 2019 with Johnson Ching-Yin Yeung, democracy movement organiser and chairperson of the Hong Kong Civil Hub. The Hong Kong Civil Hub works to connect Hong Kong civil society with like-minded international stakeholders willing to help promote the rule of law, democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. 

      What triggered the mass protests that have taken place for several months?

      The protests had both short and long-term causes. When Hong Kong was decolonised in 1997, China signed an international treaty promising that people in Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy. In other words, Hong Kong would have its own government, legislation, courts and jurisdiction. But, long story short, China is not fulfilling that promise and Hong Kong is slowly becoming more like China due to Chinese intervention in our government and judiciary. Following the2014 Umbrella Movement, there have been increasing restrictions on the freedom of association, and for the first time in decades the government made use of colonial-era laws and outlawed organisations that advocated for Hong Kong’s independence. We expect restrictions on association, funding and exchanges with international organisations and civil society to increase over the next few years.

      Political participation has also been under attack. In 2017, for the first time since 1997, a few lawmakers were disqualified and expelled from the legislature. In the past three elections there have been disqualifications of candidates. This is becoming a major tactic used by China, based on claims that certain candidates are not respecting the law or they will not be loyal to Beijing. This explains why at some point people decided to take their grievances to the streets, given that most institutional channels for political demands are shut down.

      People took to the streets in 2014, under the Umbrella Movement. But protest is being severely punished. In April 2019, several pro-democracy leaders weresentenced to eight to 16 months in prison. Local leaders who advocate for political independence have also been punished with up to seven years of imprisonment.

      The current protests began in June 2019. On 9 June,more than a million people mobilised against the Extradition Bill, aimed at establishing a mechanism for transfers of fugitives to mainland China,  currently excluded in the existing law. Three days later, the legislature decided to continue the legislation process regardless of the opposition seen on the streets, so people besieged the parliamentary building, to which the Hong Kong police reacted with extreme brutality, firing teargas and rubber bullets, shooting into people’s heads and eyes.

      Amnesty International made a comprehensive report on the incidents of 12 June and concluded that the police had used excessive force, even though the protest had been authorised by the Hong Kong government.

      What changed after the repression of 12 June?

      There was a huge outcry because we had never experienced this kind of repression before, and two million people – almost one quarter of the population of Hong Kong – took part in the protests that took place four days after.

      From then on, protesters had a few additional demands on top of the initial demand that the extradition agreement be withdrawn, something that happened three months after the first protest. Protesters demanded the release of the arrested demonstrators and the withdrawal of the characterisation of the protests as riots, which is cause enough to hold someone and convict them: all it takes is for a defendant to have been present at the protest scene to face up to 10 years in prison for rioting. Protesters also demanded an independent inquiry into police activity. Over the past six months we’ve documented a lot of torture during detentions. Excessive force is used all the time against peaceful protests, so people really want the police to be held accountable. A recent survey showed that 80 per cent of the population support this demand. But the government is relying solely on the police to maintain order, so they cannot risk such investigation. Last but not least, there is the demand of universal suffrage and democratic rights, without which it is difficult to foresee anything else changing for real.

      What did not change was the government reaction and the police repression.Over the next few months, around 7,000 people were arrested – 40 per cent of them students, and 10 per cent minors – and around 120 people were charged. The fact that only 120 out of the 7,000 people arrested were charged shows that there have been lots of arbitrary arrests. The police would arrest people on grounds of illegal assembly. I was arrested in July when I was just standing in front of the corner line. I complied with police instructions, but I still got arrested.

      Thousands of people were injured during the protests. The official number is around 2,600 but this is a very conservative estimate because more than half of the injured people were not brought to public hospitals and did not seek medical assistance because they were afraid they would be arrested. Some doctors and nurses organised underground settlements to treat serious injuries like infections or rubber bullet injuries. But they had to remain anonymous and there simply were not enough of them and they didn’t have enough medical supply. There have been at least 12 suicides related to the protest movement. Lots of people have gone missing. Students and activists who are arrested are often deprived of their right to a lawyer and a phone call, and no one knows where they are detained. In many cases, it’s hard to verify whether people are in fact missing or have fled the country.

      Analysts have claimed that the strength of the current protests lies in their ‘leaderless’ character, something that prevents the government stopping the movement by jailing leaders. Do you agree with this characterisation?

      Many observers have seen the way we have used technology to coordinate the protests and they have concluded that our movement has no leaders. It is true that our movement is characterised by the decentralisation of communications and mobilisation. But this does not mean it is aleaderless movement. On the contrary, the Hong Kong protest movement is a leader-full movement: it is full of leaders and is run by countless small networks of talented people capable of organising and coordinating action on their own.

      While the demography of the protests is quite diverse in terms of age, background and social class, more than the 50 per cent of protesters are female, and the major force of the protests are people aged 20 to 49. There is also a strong presence of highly educated people: more than 85 per cent of protesters have tertiary education or above.

      But a notable characteristic of this disparate protest movement has been its unity, which may have resulted from the longstanding repression of civil society. When the leaders of the 2014 protests – most of them young students – were sentenced to prison, older people showed up at the protests because they felt that they had not been doing enough. People also united against police brutality, because there was no previous history of such a serious crackdown on protesters and people felt morally responsible to show up in support.

      Can you tell us more about how the protest movement has used technology for organising and coordinating action?

      During the first few months at least, people would rely on their cellphones and the Telegram app. People would have strategic discussions and channel these discussions into a Telegram channel. These are not the safest communication tools but they can hold more than 3,000 subscribers, which means that you can speak to 3,000 people at the same time, you can share action timetables, the site of protests or the location of the police with a huge number of people. We use a live map to inform protesters where the police are and where the protests are taking place, so they can avoid being arrested. Another app shows which businesses and stores are supportive of the movement. Pro-democracy businesses appear in yellow, while pro-government ones appear in blue.

      We also use Telegram bots for international advocacy. A group of people is dedicated to disseminating information on Twitter and Interact.

      We also use social media as a recruitment tool because after an action is held, people use social media to reflect about the strategies used and assess the outcomes. But after a few months, people started using online apps less and less. They would instead form their own groups and organise their own actions. There are frontier leaders, first leaders, people working on documentation, people who organise street protests – each is doing their own thing while at the same time warning others about clashes and organising timetables. This is how we use civic tech.

      How has the movement managed to grow and thrive in adverse conditions?

      Several elements explain why people keep showing up and why the movement is so resilient against government repression. First, people deploy their actions in their own neighbourhoods. We disperse action rather than concentrate it, because when we use concentration tactics, such as holding a protest in front of a government building, we become an easy target for the police. In the face of dispersed actions, the police would try to disperse protesters but would often end up attacking passers-by or people going about their business in their own neighbourhoods. For many people not involved directly in the protests, this was also a wake-up call and functioned as a recruitment mechanism: police brutality ceased to be a far-away problem; instead, it hit home and became personal, triggering a protective reaction.

      A tactic commonly used by protesters is the Lennon Wall, in which people post messages in public spaces, which creates a sense of community and helps organise public support. Lennon Walls appear in various places and people use them to send and receive information about the protests. People also put posters in bus stops so when people are waiting for the bus they can get information about the protests. People sing in protest in shopping malls. This way, people use their lunchtime to sing a song and protest while going about their business, and they reach people who don’t read the news and don’t pay much attention to politics. That is one of the key lessons here.

      Another key lesson concerns the importance of the unity between the moderate side and the radical front of the protests. Given that even authorised protests would be dispersed with teargas for no reason, some people began resorting to more militant actions to combat the police and protect their space. Some social movement analysts claim that radical incidents diminish popular support for the movement, but this does not seem to be happening in Hong Kong. In a recent survey, more than 60 per cent of respondents said they understood the use of violence by the people. I suppose that one reason why people do not reject militant actions is that they view the government and the police as responsible for most of the violence, and view violence by protesters as a fairly understandable response. Another reason is that radical protesters have been careful not to target ordinary people but only the police and pro-government businesses.

      What else have you learned in the process?

      A big lesson that we’ve learned concerns the effectiveness of creativity and humour to offset government repression. Protesters used laser tags to disable cameras used for the surveillance of protesters, so people started to get arrested for buying laser tags. After a student was arrested for possessing a laser tag, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in a public space and used laser tags to point at a public building. Another example of an effective response took place in early October 2019. There is a law that states that people can be jailed for a year if they wear a mask or anything covering their faces, so people responded in defiance, forming a human chain in which everyone was wearing some kind of mask.

      We’ve also come to understand the importance of global solidarity and leveraging geopolitics. The Hong Kong diaspora has organised a lot of lobbying and advocacy in various cities around the world. We have also lobbied foreign governments and supported the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bill that was introduced in the US Congress following the Umbrella Movement in 2014, but that was only passed in November 2019. This law requires the US government to impose sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, and requires the US Department of State and other agencies to conduct an annual review to determine whether changes in Hong Kong's political status – namely its relationship with mainland China – justify changing the unique and favourable trade relations between the USA and Hong Kong. This is huge, and we are trying to replicate this in other countries, including Australia, Canada, Italy and New Zealand.

      We have also done advocacy at the United Nations (UN), where some resolutions about police brutality have been passed. But the UN is quite weak at the moment, and aside from the documentation of human rights violations there is not much they can do. Any resolution regarding the protests will be blocked by China at the UN Security Council. That said, a thorough UN investigation on police brutality would send a strong message anyway. We have been communicating with human rights civil society organisations to do more advocacy at the UN.

      We are also looking for alternative tactics such as working with unions in France, because water cannons are manufactured in France and we hope something can be done about it.

      What have the protests achieved so far?

      The democratic camp has made a lot of progress. In November 2019 we had elections for the District Council. True, the District Council doesn’t have any real political power because it carries out neighbourhood duties, like garbage collection and traffic management. Still, in the latest election 388 out of 452 seats went to the pro-democracy camps, whereas back in 2015 they were only 125 pro-democracy representatives, compared with 299 who were pro-Beijing.

      That said, I don’t think the pro-democracy movement should put too much of its energy into institutional politics because the District Council is not a place where the political crisis can be solved. However, the elections served as a solid foundation for organisers to organise people at the local level.

      According to the polls, almost 90 per cent of the people supported independent investigation of human rights violations, more than 70 per cent demanded the resignation of the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, and 75 per cent supported universal suffrage. That kind of popular support has remained stable for several months, which is pretty amazing.

      What are the challenges ahead?

      While there is no sign of protests calming down, there is also no sign of the government making concessions anytime soon. Violence is escalating on both sides, and the protest movement might lose public support if some demonstrators decide to go underground. The Chinese government will not let itself be challenged by protesters, so it is infiltrating organisations and tightening the grip on civil society. Organised civil society is relatively weak, and Beijing can easily interfere with academic institutions, schools and the media by appointing more allies and dismissing those who are critical of the government. The next five years will likely be tough ones for civil society and democracy in Hong Kong, and we will have to work to strengthen civil society’s resilience.

      Another important issue is that a lot of young protesters are traumatised by the violence they have witnessed and experienced. We have support groups with social workers and psychologists, but they cannot provide support in their official capacity or they would find themselves under pressure by their employers who take money from the government. Social workers are also at risk and the police constantly harass them. To strengthen self-care and gain resilience for the battle ahead, we need to train more people and create support groups to help people cope, control their stress and share their stories.

      Another potential challenge is the limited sustainability of global solidarity. Right now Hong Kong is in the spotlight, but this will not last long. Our struggle is for the long haul, but the world will not be paying attention for much longer. So we will need to build more substantial and permanent alliances and partnerships with civil society groups around the world. We need to empower local groups and give people new skills regarding international law, advocacy and campaigning. The protest movement is not going anywhere. It’s going to be a long struggle so we will have to train more organisers. We will disseminate the knowledge gained by the protesters, so when they are sent to jail others will take over.

      Civic space in China is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

      Get in touch with the Hong Kong Civil Hub through itswebsite and follow@hkjohnsonyeung on Twitter.

       

    • INDIA: ‘An effective civil society is essential for advancing human rights’

      Quill FoundationCIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Aiman Khan and Agni Das of the Quill Foundation. 

      Founded in 2015, the Quill Foundation is an Indian civil society organisation (CSO) engaged in research and advocacy. Its work focuses on the human rights issues faced by underprivileged people, especially Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims, women, sexual minorities and differently abled persons.

      Why was the use of the hijab banned in Karnataka schools? 

      The hijab ban should be seen in the wider socio-political context of India. Since the beginning of 2022, Indian Muslim women have been subjected to violence and discrimination carried out by multiple offenders. It started with an app called ‘Bulli Bai’ that placed vocal Muslim women in an online auction. This violated their privacy, as it used their photos and information without their consent.

      Shortly after that, girls wearing the hijab were not allowed to enter a couple of colleges in Karnataka state in southwest India because the administration deemed the hijab a violation of the dress code for schoolgirls. This was followed by a Karnataka government order on 5 February. While this government order did not specifically ban the hijab, it did say that such ban would not violate Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees all citizens the right to freedom of conscience as well as freedoms to profess, practise and propagate religion. As the girls who were restricted from wearing the hijab filed petitions in the high court, the verdict decided against them and chose to impose what they should wear. Both the state government and the high court used the excuse of maintaining ‘uniformity’ in educational institutions to impose restrictions on Muslim women wearing the hijab.

      Following that order, several incidents of discrimination and violence against Muslim women were reported. They could not enter their educational institutions if they did not remove their hijab. Although the order did not include teachers, Muslim teachers were also asked to remove their hijab or burqa, a full body covering, at the gate of the campus. 

      How does the hijab ban relate to the overall status of minorities in India? 

      The hijab ban is arbitrary. it goes against India’s constitutional promise of secularism and fits into the trend of authorities using the law to criminalise minority communities. For instance, Karnataka’s anti-conversion law set barriers on converting to Islam or Christianity and made it more difficult for interfaith couples to marry. Following this law, the Christian community faced rising threats and violence as well as increased attacks on their places of worship.

      Generally speaking, minority communities are subjected to vilification because they are framed as ‘the other’. The Muslim minority is a specific target of persecution. At mass assemblies of the Hindu community, calls are often made for the genocide of the Muslim community and the mass rape of Muslim women. Calls for social and economic boycott of Muslims have been repeated frequently over the past few years. This has included taking mass oaths to boycott Muslims.

      Muslim business owners have suffered the full brunt of this incitement. In the states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, some Muslim-owned shops have been set on fire by rioters or demolished by the very same authorities that should protect them. The perpetrators of such communal violence enjoy impunity and face no consequences. 

      The restriction on the use of the hijab was introduced in the context of this rising culture of intolerance. Even though the court limited the restriction to within the classroom, it has been implemented far and wide, including to suspend Muslim women teachers and other working Muslim women. 

      What are the implications of the hijab ban for women’s rights?

      The high court’s verdict, which kept the ban on the basis that the hijab is not an essential part of Islam, erased Muslim women’s free will to choose for themselves and violated not only their right to education but also their freedom of practise their religion. 

      Several studies suggest that due to systematic discrimination against the Muslim community, Muslim women in India encounter extreme hurdles in accessing education, especially higher education. In this context, the hijab ban is patriarchal and regressive in nature, because it makes decisions on behalf of Muslim women regarding what to wear and how to practise their faith.

      The decision further pushes Muslim women out of educational spaces and places them under threat in any public space. More than 400 Muslim girls have already been not allowed to appear for their exams and are facing distress, and attacks on Muslim women wearing hijabs and burqas have also increased across India. But the authorities have still not acknowledged the violence that Muslim women are going through.

      How has civil society responded to the ban?

      There have been protests on two fronts. The girls who have been directly affected by this restriction are protesting outside their college gates and holding demonstrations in other public spaces. But they are facing intimidation and threats by Hindutva vigilante groups while also being warned that they will be criminally charged for protesting. 

      In bigger cities, protests are also being organised by human rights CSOs and Muslim groups, and particularly by Muslim women. 

      Following the Karnataka high court ruling, CSOs have played an important role in raising awareness about the implications of the verdict. Several CSOs rejected the court order while also producing analysis to help the public understand its intricate legal language.

      Civil society has been able to respond in a tangible and timely manner, offering unconditional solidarity and support to the schoolgirls affected by the order and experiencing trauma resulting from violence, discrimination and harassment in the aftermath of the high court order. Some CSOs have offered mental health counselling and other services.

      Other CSOs have offered litigation support, in two forms: first, by representing individual cases of religious discrimination and providing legal support to those who missed out on exams due to the ban; and second, by petitioning on larger issues before courts of law. There have been several petitions before the Supreme Court of India to challenge the Karnataka high court order.

      In short, the civil society response has been key because of its capacity to play a full range of roles to drive change, from the micro to the macro level. An effective civil society is essential for advancing human rights in India, and the international community can play a vital role in reinforcing the work of local CSOs to amplify marginalised voices.

      Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
      Follow@aimanjkhan and@AgniDas26 on Twitter.

       

    • INDIA: ‘Muslim girls are being forced to choose between education and the hijab’

      ZakiaSomanCIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Zakia Soman, a women’s rights activist and co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women's Movement, BMMA).

      Founded in 2007, BMMA is an independent, secular, rights-based civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for the rights of women and the Muslim minority in India.

      Why have girls wearing the hijab been banned from school in Karnataka state?

      Girls in hijab were denied entry into classrooms in the name of the school uniform rules, with the authorities citing a circular that states that each student must comply with the uniform requirement in school. Both the Karnataka government and the high court played the uniform card to justify preventing Muslim women wearing the hijab from entering the college campus.

      While educational institutions undeniably have the right to set their own rules, these cannot infringe the fundamental rights granted by the Indian Constitution. According to Article 25 of our constitution, all citizens are guaranteed the right to freedom of conscience as well as freedoms to profess, practise and propagate religion.

      And under no circumstance can a dress code for schoolgirls be more important than education itself. Muslim girls have the right to be in school with or without the hijab, which is why I oppose those who promote the court’s verdict as a decision that empowers women. Although I don’t believe in the hijab, I think it is wrong to discriminate against girls wearing it. Our nation will only progress when girls have access to education regardless of their religious affiliation.

      Does the hijab row indicate the rise of anti-minorities voices in India?

      Although it may sound like an internal disciplinary matter over girls wearing the hijab, the wider context of the hijab row is one of religious polarisation and politics of hate towards Muslims. The hijab row is an integral part of the politics of religious hate in India’s polarised milieu, where Muslims are the target of the growing anti-Islam propaganda aired on TV as well as on social media platforms.

      There is a spiralling nationwide campaign against the Muslim community under the garb of religious festivities. Journalists and other monitors have found deliberate, concerted violence against life, property and businesses of India’s Muslim community carried out by hooligans claiming to celebrate religious festivals in the states of Delhi, Gujrat, Karnataka and many others. But ultimately, the Indian state must be held responsible for the terrible living conditions experienced by millions of Muslims.

      How has civil society responded to the ban?

      Civil society has extended solidarity to the affected girls and has supported them. However, civil society’s response has so far failed to impress the government and the high court, which sadly ruled to uphold the hijab ban inside classrooms in Karnataka state.

      As for opposition parties, they have been unable to run a sustained campaign to challenge the climate created by hate speech and open calls for the genocide of Muslims. This is why it’s so important for the international community to stand up and support the voices of sanity in India.

      What have pro-hijab protests achieved so far?

      Peaceful protests have been held in support of Muslim women’s right to wear the hijab in educational institutions. However, I am afraid that conservative elements of the Muslim community got involved in the protests in a way that aggravated matters, making Muslim girls and their families even more vulnerable to political onslaught.

      In my understanding, neither the hijab nor the burqa, a full body covering, is mandatory in Islam; however, patriarchal elements would like to put every Muslim girl and woman behind a burqa or hijab. The matter could have been easily resolved through dialogue between college authorities and parents. Instead, it got politicised, with different religious and political outfits jumping in the fray with their radical and antagonistic positions.

      As a result, Muslim girls found themselves in a tough position, being forced to choose between education and the hijab, which is outright unfair to them. Since many Muslim parents will not allow girls to go to school without the hijab and schools will not give them entry into class with the hijab, many girls have dropped out of their studies and have not sat their exams.

      Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
      Get in touch with BMMA through itswebsite and follow@BMMA_India on Twitter.

       

    • INDIA: ‘The hijab ban is just another tool used by right-wing politicians to remain in power’

      CIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Syeda Hameed, co-founder and board member of the Muslim Women’s Forum (MWF).

      Founded in 2000, MWF is a civil society organisation (CSO) working for the empowerment, inclusion and education of Muslim women in India. Its primary goal is to provide Muslim women with a platform for expressing their aspirations and opinions on matters directly affecting their lives.

      Syeda Hameed

      How did the hijab row start?

      The controversy started in the town of Udupi, a small secular district of Karnataka state in southwest India, where girls wearing the hijab were not allowed to enter a college campus because the administration deemed it a violation of uniform rules. Some students protested against the ban, and protests escalated into violence.

      From this tiny part of Karnataka, the hijab row spread to other parts of the country. In response to Muslim women wearing the hijab on campuses, many Hindu students took to wearing saffron shawls, a colour seen as a Hindu symbol.

      The matter reached a Karnataka high court as some Muslim students filed petitions claiming that they have the right to wear the hijab under the guarantees provided by the Indian Constitution. But the high court’s verdict kept the ban, arguing that the hijab is not an essential part of Islam. Surprisingly, the bench in Karnataka includes one Muslim woman judge.

      What triggered the decision by Karnataka’s educational institutions?

      The decision to ban Muslim students from wearing the hijab in colleges’ premises came as a surprise. Such a ban is strange to our society. Unlike in France, where it has long been under the spotlight, the hijab had until very recently never been prohibited in India.

      Karnataka state is known for its diverse society and pluralistic culture, with the two major religious groups, Hindus and Muslims, historically coexisting, along with a wide spectrum of other religious groups.

      However, the roots of the Karnataka hijab controversy are quite deep, and are linked to growing Islamophobia. Those in power have ignited a sectarian fuse all over India in every possible way. Right now, Karnataka state also has a right-wing government, which has created fertile ground for strain in Hindu-Muslim relationships.

      To them, the hijab ban is just another tool to remain in power. It is tied to current political events, notably the upcoming December election. Right-wing politicians fabricate issues that target Muslims, who are depicted as the ‘disruptive other’, to divert people’s attention from dire economic conditions. The hijab ban did the job well, as it captured media attention. Sensational media coverage only added fuel to the fire.

      How do you view the hijab ban from a gendered perspective?

      The hijab ban is a complete violation of women’s rights to express their own identities. It should be my choice alone whether to wear the hijab or not. I am a believing and practising Muslim and I don’t wear the hijab. Muslim women of my generation usually did not wear the hijab, but younger generations of Muslim women across the globe do. I see it as a search for an identity in the face of the charged atmosphere created by Islamophobia. Indian Muslim women have worn the hijab for about a quarter of a century.

      We don’t oppose school uniforms because there is good reason for them, especially in a country such as India and all other South Asian countries, where both religious diversity and social inequality lead to differences in dress. But the use of the hijab in educational institutions had never been put to debate before the current Karnataka right-wing government suddenly considered it a violation of the school uniform rules.

      As I said, in my generation very few girls wore the hijab, and therefore my uniform was skirt and blouse, which was acceptable at the time. Later, when girls started wearing the hijab, the situation escalated from establishing that their hijab should match the school uniform colours to starting to throw them out of schools.

      What is the overall status of Indian Muslims as a minority?

      As a former member of government, I observed the status of minorities change over time. From 2004 to 2014 I was a member of a now-extinct Planning Commission that was entrusted, among other responsibilities, with bringing minorities up to mark with society in every way possible. For ten years, we devised all kinds of schemes in the areas of education, employment and health, and tried to ensure minorities made the most of them. Our main tasks were to make these plans and ensure their implementation across the country by persuading the governments of India’s states to embrace them.

      Change was slow because we did not have the power to force implementation. A key moment was when the government commissioned a report on the status of Muslims that provided a very candid conclusion by a retired Supreme Court judge. It stated that India’s 200 million Muslims, the second largest Muslim population in the world, had the lowest status on all social and economic parameters when compared to other religious groups. It should have been a wake-up call for the Indian government.

      But since then, it has only got worse. Recent so-called ‘Hindu religious gatherings’ include a call for the genocide of Muslims. Some have suggested that the saffron flag should replace India’s national flag. Many decisions have been made in violation of the constitution. This is an extremely difficult moment for Muslims in India. 

      And the hijab ban is very much part of Muslim marginalisation. Muslims are being driven to a corner and targeted by a right-wing government that demonises them to boost their support and remain in power.

      How has civil society responded to the ban controversy?

      Many CSOs have raised the issue and protested against the ban. Voices have also raised internationally, both from civil society and from influential individuals, as was the case of US congressional representative Ilhan Omar. Maybe if they became louder, these voices could drive positive change in the lives of India’s Muslims, which are becoming exceedingly difficult.

      Frankly, at times I feel it is a losing game. 

      All international attention that was paid to the ban has damaged the image of India without really making a dent on those in power, who only care about the upcoming general elections.

      Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
      Get in touch with the Muslim Women’s Forum through itswebsite and follow@syedaIndia on Twitter.

       

    • India: Civil society orgs call for the Council's attention on the deteriorating human rights situation

      Statement at the 51st Session of the UN Human Rights Council

      Delivered by Ahmed Adam

      On behalf of Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), World Organisation against Torture (OMCT), CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation

      Mr. President,

      We call for the attention of the Council on the deteriorating human rights situation in India.

      Since 2014, India has witnessed a sharp rise of authoritarianism accompanied by systematic erosion of the rule of law and independent institutions such as the National Human Rights Commission, Elections Commission and the judiciary, that are mandated to safeguard human rights and fundamental freedoms.

      Indian authorities have escalated crackdowns on and persecution of human rights defenders, journalists, and critics through restrictive laws and counter-terrorism legislation that do not comply with India’s international obligations. The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) continues to be applied as part of a broader systematic repression of civil society and opposition voices. It fails to comply with international standards and must be repealed or reviewed.

      The government continues its assault on fundamental freedoms, in particular the rights to freedom of expression, media, peaceful assembly, association and movement, in Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir. Kashmiri human rights defender Khurram Parvez, and journalists Fahad Shah remain in detention under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in a deliberate attempt to obfuscate and stifle independent reporting on the extent and gravity of human rights implications of its policies in Kashmir.

      At the same time, majoritarian and ultranationalist narratives actively promoted or endorsed by public and religious officials as well as discriminatory legislation such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and policies, and police inaction, continue to fuel hatred, discrimination, and violence against minorities, especially Muslims.

      We call on Indian authorities to end repression of civil society and media, end harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders, journalists and critics, and release all those who are arbitrarily detained for their legitimate work including human rights defender Khurram Parvez and journalist Fahad Shah.

      The Council must act urgently and appropriately to prevent further escalation of violence, discrimination, and hatred against minorities which, if left unchecked, could lead to gross and systematic violations.

      Thank you


       Civic space in India is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor 

       

    • INDONESIA: “Peaceful pro-independence activists may be labeled as terrorists”

      CIVICUS speaks to Samuel Awom, Coordinator of the human rights group KontraS Papua, which monitors human rights violations, advocates for victims and works for peace in Papua. KontraS Papua is based in Jayapura, Papua’s capital, and monitors human rights issues throughout the Papuan region.

      In Papua, located at the east end of the Indonesian archipelago, there have been gross human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary arrest of activists by the Indonesian security forces under the pretext of suppressing separatism. Although Indonesia President Joko Widodo continues to promise to address the grievances of the Papuan people, they face ongoing discrimination, exploitation, and repression.

      Sam Awome

      What is the human rights situation in Papua?

      As shown by the monitoring undertaken by KontraS Papua and other civil society groups, the military and police perpetrate serious human rights violations in the Papuan region. Abductions, killings and other violations of the rights of activists and other civilians by the security forces have taken place since 1963, when Indonesia took over Papua from the Netherlands. This situation has persisted until today. No legal processes have been undertaken to investigate and resolve these incidents. This is a very serious problem in Papua.

      Recent events include the displacement of thousands of people from the Intan Jaya, Nduga, and Puncak areas, where there has been continued conflict between the military and pro-independence armed groups since December 2018.

      In 2019, the situation became extremely tense following incidents of racist speech against Papuan students by the authorities in Java island, which were challenged by mass protests and mobilisation across Papua. In response, there were mass arrests of protesters and activists, which in turn led to violent incidents, including riots and arson. Until today, the instigators and perpetrators of the violence remain unknown and there has been a failure to investigate this. No one has been brought to justice for the killing of students and young people at that time. Many Papuans are still traumatised by this.

      Following this, in December 2019 the armed conflict expanded in the Intan Jaya district, causing thousands of civilians to flee, and some were killed. 

      Most recently, on 25 April 2021, President Joko Widodo ordered the military commander and the chief of police to arrest all members of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN/OPM), an armed pro-independence group, after the head of the Regional State Intelligence Agency was shot dead. On 29 April, the Indonesian government officially categorised the TPN/OPM as a ‘terrorist' organisation. This was followed by the entry of large numbers of security forces into the Puncak district.

      What do you think will be the impact of the government labeling the TPN/OPM as a terrorist group? 

      This comes at a time when all the civil society organisations (CSOs) and peace networks are talking about reconciliation and peace. The end of conflict requires dialogue and negotiation between the central government and Papua. The labelling of the TPN/OPM armed group as terrorists is a regressive move by the Jokowi administration that will close the space for democracy and the protection of human rights.

      This has made the situation in Papua worse. We now see the deployment of thousands of troops to the region and public access to the internet being blocked. This will create a situation for increased human rights violations in Papua, as the anti-terrorism law will allow for arbitrary arrests and undermine the rule of law. The Anti-Terrorism Law grants police powers to hold suspects for up to 221 days without being brought to court – a blatant violation of the right of anyone arrested on a criminal charge to be brought promptly before a judge and be tried within a reasonable time or be released. The law also expands the use of military personnel in counterterrorism operations, which further increases the likelihood of the excessive use of force and other human rights violations.

      In my opinion, this decision was made because the Jokowi administration has been only listening to the view of top military officials and has failed to find a concrete solution to the Papua problem. Meanwhile, all the civil society groups and movements in Papua, as well as the regional parliaments in the provinces and the governor, are calling for dialogue.

      This decision now prevents CSOs from investigating when civilians are attacked in conflict areas because the military operations have brought along restrictions of movement.

      Why is the government carrying out this military operation, and what is its impact on civil society?

      The government's rationale for the operations is that it has accused the TPN/OPM of attacking civilians, including teachers, and burning schools and a plane. Further, the shooting of the head of the Papua Regional State Intelligence Agency in the Puncak district has worsened the situation. However, the shooting has yet to be fully investigated to determine what was behind the shooting, and the investigation needs to be undertaken by an independent team. There has been no further explanation about this so far.

      As a result of this shooting, the head of the Police Security Intelligence Agency, Commissioner General Paulus Waterpauw, stated that human rights activists and CSOs are undermining political stability and damaging democracy in Papua. This creates a risk for human rights defenders, and particularly for Papuan activists working on ending the conflict and who are involved in political discussions around independence, who will be categorised as allied with terrorists, stigmatised, and arbitrarily arrested.

      Why was Viktor Yeimo arrested and what are the charges against him?

      Viktor Yeimo, the international spokesperson for the West Papua National Committee and the Papuan People's Petition Against Special Autonomy, was detained by the authorities on 11 May on the grounds that he was behind the 2019 anti-racism protests. However, his interrogation by the police seems to be leaning towards linking him with the TPN/OPM armed group.

      He was arrested in Jayapura, taken to the Papua Police station, and then transferred to the Police Mobile Brigade headquarters in Abepura. He is being investigated for treason, incitement, and broadcasting false information as well as other charges. A coalition of lawyers is supporting him. Communication with his family has been denied and has been made difficult by the authorities.

      Several more activists of the Papuan student alliance movement were also detained in cities inside and outside Papua and have been questioned. The democratic space in Papua is being squeezed.

      This has been reinforced by an internet disruption that began about one month ago after the Papuan head of intelligence was shot. It has made it very difficult for us to communicate with contacts and activists throughout Papua. It has made it challenging to get updates on the situation in the field and to send material to places in Intan Jaya, Nduga, and Puncak Jaya.

      What do Papuan activists need from the international community and civil society?

      We need support from international CSOs working with local civil society to promote and develop the concept of peace and reconciliation. We also need support on how to open negotiations between the central government in Jakarta and Papua. Further, we need to open up the space for access to international CSOs, journalists, and humanitarian monitors in Papua, which is currently closed.

      International actors and governments must also monitor and speak up against the anti-terrorism policies of the Indonesian government that have the potential to increase human rights violations. Civilians in Papua are often viewed as supporting armed groups and this makes them vulnerable. Those who have been displaced because of the conflict must also be assisted by the international community.

      Our hope is that CSOs in Papua, Indonesia, and internationally can work together to protect human rights and seek solutions to severe violations in Papua. There is also a need for international solidarity to seek lasting peace to the conflict in Papua.

      Civic space inIndonesiais rated as ‘obstructedby theCIVICUS Monitor.
      Get in touch with KontraS through itswebsite and follow@KontraS on Twitter. 

       

    • INDONÉSIE : « Les militants pro-indépendance pacifiques risquent d'être qualifiés de terroristes »

      CIVICUS s’entretient avec Samuel Awom, coordinateur du groupe de défense des droits humains KontraS Papua, qui surveille les violations des droits humains, défend les victimes et œuvre pour la paix en Papouasie. KontraS Papua est basé à Jayapura, la capitale de la Papouasie, et surveille la situation des droits humains dans toute la région de Papouasie.

       

    • IRAN: ‘Mahsa Amini’s case was a spark in a flammable situation’

      sohbraCIVICUS speaks with Sohrab Razaghi, executive director of Volunteer Activists (VA), about the currentwomen-led protests, the state of civil society and the prospects for change in Iran.

      VA is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) based in the Netherlands, whose primary aims are building capacity among activists and CSOs, facilitating information exchange among civil society activists, community peacebuilding and advocating for the expansion of democracy and human rights in Iran and more generally in the Middle East. VA is the successor of a pioneer Iranian CSO, the Iranian Civil Society, Training and Research Centre, founded in 2001 and based in Tehran until 2007.

      What is the situation of Iranian civil society today?

      Civil society in Iran has become weaker over the past few years. Civic activism has grown but organised civil society has become weaker and has been marginalised. Following President Ebrahim Raisi’s ascent to power in 2021, civic space has shrunk dramatically. The establishment and operation of CSOs has been legally obstructed and any CSO not following the policies of Iranian authorities has been eliminated.

      Following significantteachers’ protests in May 2022 there was a major crackdown against the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association and many of its leaders and activists were arrested. This was just one example of many.

      The ongoing crackdown follows a predictable sequence: first, the authorities exploit toxic narratives and disseminate false accusations to malign civil society and create internal conflict within civic movements. Then they repress the smaller remaining groups, arresting and detaining their leaders and activists.

      The authorities have attacked all institutions and organisations that are the expression of social power, eliminating the possibility of further organising. To fill up the space, they set up fake CSOs organised and led by government officials, often affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. These are often local, community-oriented organisations that involve local communities by approaching the mosques and charities that support them.

      What made the death of Mahsa Amini a turning point?

      Mahsa Amini’s case was a spark in a flammable situation. She was a young member of an ethnic minority who was visiting Tehran, was violently arrested by the morality police and died under custody. All these elements together made her case relatable for many Iranians. She was only 22 years old, a woman, a member of an ethnic minority and a Sunni Muslim, which is a religious minority in Iran. Many Iranians identify with at least one and possibly many of these elements of Mahsa’s identity and resent the policies aimed at suppressing them. As a result, large groups that feel discriminated against and suppressed mobilised.

      This happened in a context of high poverty and repression, with a government that acts with impunity because it knows it won’t be held accountable. For years, instead of trying to meet the needs of their citizens, the authorities have cracked down on all sorts of protests. With Raisi coming to power, any hope for change was gone.

      In what ways have these protests been different from previous ones?

      The current protests are very different from previous ones, including recent protests that took place in2017 and2019. First, protesters are mostly between 15 and 25 years old. This is possibly their first engagement in a civic movement. They have grown up in the digital world and are using in the real world what they learned playing video games – only that in the real world, there is no respawning! So many are getting killed.

      Second, protesters are primarily women and students. And some of their acts of protest, such as female protesters burning headscarves and cutting their hair, are unprecedented. Their demands are also different from those of previous civic movements. Whereas in 2017 and 2019 demands were mostly economic, now they are cultural: their main demand is for freedom to lead a different lifestyle than the authorities allow them to have. The shout ‘Women, Life, Liberty’ has become a protest cry and a slogan of solidarity both inside Iran and internationally.

      Third, support from Iranians in the diaspora and media coverage have both drastically increased. This time the events have received major media coverage since the outset, with the protests on front pages all over the world. For the first time, on 23 October, 80,000 Iranians from the diaspora gathered in Berlin to support protesters and demonstrate against the Iranian regime. This support is unprecedented. 

      Finally, public discourse about the protests has shifted. In the past, dominant discourse highlighted the non-violent character of the protests, but this time there have been calls for retaliation and to use violence to defend the protests. Violence is no longer taboo: some elites and influencers inside and outside Iran are advocating for it. This is extremely concerning, considering that it may legitimise violence by the Iranian authorities, which could resort to even more violence in response.

      How has the government cracked down on the protests, and why have protests continued regardless?

      The government has used multiple tactics. First, it deploys riot police and security forces that use violence to physically prevent and dissolve protests. As a result, over 7,000 protesters have been arrested, many have been beaten and over 200 have been killed. Second, it has restricted internet access for over four weeks now, limiting the free exchange of information while increasing the circulation of disinformation and official propaganda. Third, it has used the same narrative tactics it normally uses against civil society, linking the protests to foreign intelligence forces.

      The government’s reaction has been as repressive as towards previous movements. However, these protesters are more resilient, so the crackdown has not been as effective as previous ones. Two sources of this resilience are decentralisation and spontaneity: protests are held locally rather than in a central place, and they are not centrally organised – they are organised by small groups and happen rather spontaneously during the day or night at random hours, with protesters quickly dispersing afterwards.

      Additionally, the fact that there are so many children and young students among protesters has somewhat limited the violence. Many children and adolescents have been killed, but the death toll would likely have been much higher had they not been among protesters. And many of these young people are students, therefore part of the middle class – which means there is a cultural middle class that continues to support the protests.

      What is the likelihood of these protests leading to change?

      We can identify five possible scenarios – and only one of them leads to regime change.

      In the first scenario, the crackdown succeeds and protests end. This would result in widespread hopelessness and disappointment.

      In the second, the authorities make concessions and the mandatory hijab rules are repealed. This would lead to the recognition of some limited freedoms, but not to regime change.

      In the third, neither the authorities nor the protesters prevail, leading to continuing violence and bloody conflict. Protesters go into an armed offensive and the situation escalates into a civil war-like situation.

      In the fourth, military groups seize power and suppress both protesters and established authorities to pursue their own goals.

      In the fifth scenario, mass mobilisation leads to regime change.

      What happens will depend on the capacity of protesters – the resources they can gather, the groups they can bring together, the leadership they build and the collective narrative they produce out of compelling personal stories – and international influences and pressures.

      In the current situation, scenarios one to three are the most likely. The movement has not entered a revolutionary stage. There are not massive gaps in the regime – neither in its repressive machinery nor in its will to crack down on protests. And the protests have not been massive nor widely representative of the make-up of society. We have not seen hundreds of thousands or even tens of thousands on the streets, and we have not seen protests by various ethnic or religious minorities, and by different social classes. Strikes are typically the heart of social movement action in Iran, and we have not yet seen strikes by major branches and sectors of the economy.

      What can women’s rights supporters and democracy activists from around the world do to support civil society in Iran?

      International civil society as a collective should be more vocal. We need a unified collective of civil society echoing the voices of Iranian activists and advocates for democracy and human rights in Iran. In addition, actions of solidarity are needed as well as networks to exchange knowledge, experience and skills so Iranian activists can learn from civic movements internationally and be more effective.

      Regarding the immediate response, there are various needs, such as juvenile justice support, including legal support, wellbeing and mental health support, as well as training and awareness raising on civic activism in Iran.

      The main goal should be to support Iranian protesters and activists so their voice is heard and the crackdown does not succeed, while supporting the victims of the crackdown. International pressure is instrumental, not only from governments but also from civil society as a change leader. A close connection between international civil society, Iranian activists in diaspora, Iranian civil society and the media is also essential.


      Civic space in Iran is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

      Get in touch with Volunteer Activists through itswebsite.

       

    • KAZAKHSTAN : « La quarantaine est devenue une sorte de prétexte du gouvernement pour persécuter la société civile »

      CIVICUS s’entretient avec Asya Tulesova, une défenseuse des droits civiques et environnementaux du Kazakhstan. Le 8 juin 2020, Asya a été arrêtée et détenue après avoir participé à une manifestation pacifique dans la ville d’Almaty. Elle a été libérée le 12 août 2020, mais en liberté conditionnelle. Le cas d’Asya faisait partie de la campagne de CIVICUS #StandAsMyWitness, lancée le 18 juillet, à l’occasion de la journée de Nelson Mandela, pour demander la libération des défenseurs des droits humains qui sont emprisonnés, persécutés ou harcelés pour avoir défendu la liberté, les droits et la démocratie et exposé la corruption des gouvernements et des sociétés multinationales.

      Asya Tulesova

      Pourriez-vous nous parler un peu de votre histoire et de votre militantisme en faveur de l’environnement ?

      Ces dernières années, j’ai travaillé pour une organisation de la société civile, la Common Sense Civic Foundation, axée sur le développement communautaire. Nous travaillons sur des projets environnementaux et éducatifs visant à améliorer la qualité de vie des communautés locales. En 2015, nous avons lancé notre projet de surveillance de la qualité de l’air à Almaty dans le but de donner à la population l’accès à des informations gratuites et actualisées sur la qualité de l’air dans la ville. Le projet a considérablement amélioré la compréhension des gens sur l’importance de la question.

      Quand je me suis rendu compte que la qualité de l’air était une question politique, j’ai essayé de me présenter au conseil municipal. Toutefois, ma candidature a été rejetée en raison de légères divergences dans mes déclarations d’impôts. Ce même raisonnement a été utilisé pour exclure des centaines de candidats se présentant comme indépendants dans tout le Kazakhstan. Nous avons intenté un procès contre la commission électorale centrale, mais nous n’avons pas réussi à convaincre le tribunal de rétablir ma candidature, même si nous avions toutes les preuves à l’appui de ma demande. Mon cas est actuellement examiné par le Comité des droits de l’homme des Nations unies.

      Nous poursuivons notre activisme environnemental en publiant des articles, en effectuant des recherches sur la pollution de l’air, en participant à des événements publics et en organisant des débats publics sur la question. En avril 2019, mon collègue militant Beibarys Tolymbekov et moi-même avons été arrêtés pour avoir tenu une banderole lors du marathon annuel d’Almaty ; nos amis Aidos Nurbolatov, Aigul Nurbolatova et Suinbike Suleimenova ont été condamnés à une amende pour nous avoir filmés en train de tenir la banderole. En tant que membres d’un mouvement de jeunes militants, nous voulions attirer l’attention des gens sur l’injustice des prochaines élections présidentielles et le manque de candidats indépendants. Beibarys et moi avons été placés en détention administrative pendant 15 jours. Pendant ma détention, j’ai entamé une grève de la faim pour protester contre la décision du tribunal, et à un moment donné, ma codétenue m’a donné un coup de poing dans le ventre car je refusais de me conformer à sa demande de mettre fin à ma grève de la faim. Notre arrestation a donné lieu à une série de manifestations dans tout le pays et à une augmentation de la participation politique des jeunes. Nous avons poursuivi nos efforts avec l’objectif d’attirer davantage de candidatures indépendantes à la compétition électorale.

      Le statut d’activiste au Kazakhstan est associé à un certain degré de pression constante de la part du gouvernement et des autorités chargées de l’application de la loi. De nombreux militants et défenseurs des droits humains, ainsi que des journalistes, vivent sous une surveillance intense et font l’objet d’une surveillance et d’une intimidation constantes de la part des forces de l’ordre ou d’autres personnes agissant en leur nom.

      Que s’est-il passé lors de la manifestation de juin 2020 où vous avez été arrêtée ?

      Lors de la manifestation du 6 juin 2020, j’ai été témoin d’actes de brutalité policière à l’encontre de manifestants pacifiques. Ce n’était pas la première fois ; chaque manifestation pacifique « non autorisée » que nous avons menée jusqu’à présent s’est accompagnée d’un usage excessif de la force par la police. Mais cette fois-ci, j’ai décidé de me tenir devant l’un des fourgons de police remplis de personnes détenues illégalement pour empêcher qu’on ne les emmène. Plusieurs policiers m’ont attaquée, m’ont entraînée loin du fourgon, et quand j’ai essayé de revenir, ils m’ont jetée à terre. Dans cet état d’esprit, j’ai enlevé sa casquette à un policier pour protester contre les actions illégales de la police et la détention de manifestants pacifiques. Il est difficile d’exprimer ce qui me passait par la tête à ce moment-là. J’étais vraiment en état de choc.

      Cela a été enregistré sur vidéo et j’ai été accusée d’« insulte publique à un représentant des autorités » en vertu de l’article 378, partie 2 du code pénal et d’« atteinte non grave à un représentant des autorités » en vertu de l’article 380, partie 1.

      Comment avez-vous ressenti le fait d’être en prison ? Aviez-vous peur d’attraper la COVID-19 ?

      J’ai été retenue en prison pendant plus de deux mois. Le centre de détention où j’ai été emmenée est situé à l’extrême nord d’Almaty. On m’y a emmené la nuit et on m’a d’abord mis dans une cellule de quarantaine pour les détenus nouvellement arrivés, où j’ai passé plus de dix jours à me familiariser avec le règlement intérieur de l’institution. Après cela, j’ai été transférée dans une autre cellule.

      En raison de la pandémie de la COVID-19, les visites de famille et d’amis ont été interdites. Je ne pouvais parler à ma mère que deux fois par semaine pendant dix minutes par appel vidéo, et je recevais mes avocats toutes les deux semaines. Les conditions dans cet établissement étaient bien meilleures que dans le centre de détention temporaire situé au poste de police où j’avais passé deux jours auparavant La cellule était relativement propre et disposait de deux lits superposés pour quatre personnes, d’un évier et de toilettes. Nous nettoyions la cellule à tour de rôle. Deux de mes compagnons de cellule fumaient dans la salle de bain. Nous étions nourris trois fois par jour, principalement de ragoûts et de soupes. On nous emmenait faire des « promenades » cinq fois par semaine, dans une installation spécialement conçue, qui était en fait une cellule sans fenêtre ni toit. Nos promenades duraient généralement 15 à 20 minutes. J’ai donc dû écrire une plainte aux autorités de l’institution pour me conformer à leur propre règlement intérieur et nous donner une heure complète de marche. Nous prenions une douche une fois par semaine, à raison de 15 minutes par personne.

      Plusieurs fois par semaine, je recevais des colis de ma famille et de mes amis. Leur soutien m’a beaucoup aidé à garder le moral. J’ai reçu une radio envoyée par un autre militant, Marat Turymbetov, dont l’ami Alnur Ilyashev avait été détenu dans le même centre pour avoir critiqué le parti Nur Otan au pouvoir. Nous avons passé beaucoup de temps à écouter la radio en attendant des nouvelles, mais la plupart des nouvelles concernaient la pandémie de la COVID-19. De temps en temps, nous entendions des rumeurs sur des cas de COVID-19 dans l’institution, mais rien n’était certain, donc je n’avais pas trop peur d´attraper le virus. Ma mère, cependant, était très inquiète à ce sujet et m’envoyait des médicaments de temps en temps. La pandémie a été très dure pour notre pays et a fait de nombreuses victimes.

      Cette fois-ci, je n’ai pas personnellement connu de violations majeures pendant ma détention, si ce n’est que le personnel a enfreint certaines règles internes. Je sais que d’autres détenus ont passé des mois dans l’institution sans recevoir des visites de la personne qui enquête sur leur cas, de leur avocat ou des membres de leur famille. J’ai d’abord eu des soupçons lorsque, au centre de détention temporaire, j’ai été placée dans une cellule avec la même femme qu’au centre de détention spécial pour infractions administratives un an plus tôt.

      Je ne peux pas dire que j’ai l’impression d’avoir été détenue pendant longtemps, mais cela a suffi à accroître mon estime et ma compassion pour les militants et autres personnes qui ont passé des mois et des années en prison. Par exemple, le défenseur des droits humains Max Bokayev est en prison depuis plus de quatre ans pour avoir soutenu une manifestation pacifique contre la vente illégale de terrains à des entreprises chinoises. Pendant la quarantaine, de nombreux militants et dirigeants politiques ont été soumis à des fouilles et des arrestations, faisant de la quarantaine une sorte d’excuse du gouvernement pour persécuter la société civile. Parmi les militants détenus figuraient Sanavar Zakirova, qui a été persécutée pour ses tentatives d’enregistrement d’un parti politique, les militants Abay Begimbetov, Askar Ibraev, Serik Idyryshev, Askhat Jeksebaev, Kairat Klyshev et bien d’autres.

      Que pensez-vous de la peine que vous avez reçue ?

      Je ne suis pas d’accord avec ma sentence, c’est pour cette raison que nous allons faire appel. Le tribunal doit tenir compte du degré de danger que représentent pour la société les infractions que j’ai commises, qui ne constituent guère un crime. Cependant, je regrette mon manque de maîtrise de moi-même et l’impolitesse dont j’ai fait preuve. Je crois fermement en la protestation non violente et mon cas est une grande opportunité pour nous et pour le gouvernement de condamner la violence venant des deux côtés.

      De quel soutien les activistes comme vous ont-ils besoin de la part de la communauté internationale ?

      Je suis très reconnaissante que mon cas ait reçu l’attention et le soutien de la communauté internationale. C’était un honneur d’être représentée dans la campagne CIVICUS, #StandAsMyWitness. Je suis également très reconnaissante à ma mère, à mes avocats, à ma famille, à mes amis et à mes supporters au Kazakhstan et dans le monde entier, qui ont trouvé de nombreuses idées créatives pour sensibiliser le public et attirer l’attention nécessaire sur mon cas et sur le problème des brutalités policières au Kazakhstan. Personnellement, j’ai été très inspirée par l’une des initiatives lancées par mes bons amis Kuat Abeshev, Aisha Jandosova, Irina Mednikova et Jeffrey Warren, Protest Körpe, une façon simple et visuellement belle de présenter les demandes de justice et de droits humains de façon agréable et affectueuse. Il est facile de participer. La plupart des messages de Protest Körpe sont universels et concernent de nombreux pays - faisons entendre nos messages ! Je pense que nous pouvons apprendre de Protest Körpe et d’autres initiatives de nouvelles tactiques créatives et les adapter à notre contexte local. Ne serait-ce pas formidable si ces campagnes et ces mouvements pouvaient former un réseau afin que nous puissions tous partager et tirer parti des expériences des autres ?

      L’espace civique au Kazakhstan est considéré comme « obstrué » par leCIVICUS Monitor.

      Contactez Asya surFacebook.

       

    • KAZAKHSTAN: ‘No economic or social reform will bring real change unless there is also serious political reform’

      CIVICUS speaks about the recent protests in Kazakhstan and the state’s repressive response with Yevgeniy Zhovtis, a prominent human rights lawyer and director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR).

      Founded in 1993, KIBHR is a human rights civil society organisation aimed at promoting civil and political rights, democratic freedoms, the rule of law and the development of civil society through education, data collection, analysis and dissemination of information, and advocacy to harmonise domestic legislation with international standards. Yevgeniy is also a member of Panel of Experts on Freedom of Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute Council.

      Yevgeniy Zhovtis

      What caused the recent protests in Kazakhstan?

      The demands expressed in the recent protests have deep roots in processes that go back to the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when former Soviet republics started to transition towards a capitalist system based on private property. The problem in Kazakhstan was that members of the nomenklatura, the ruling class in Soviet times, and especially those in positions of authority in state-owned companies, became the owners of a big portion of the economy. These elites then started to incorporate elements of authoritarian political control to match their economic power, and gained control of the political space, independent media and public life in general.

      As a result, Kazakhstan turned into an authoritarian and oligarchic state, with much of the economy concentrated in the hands of a small group of people close to First President Nursultan Nazarbayev, his clan and his family, and ridden with social inequality.

      Unsurprisingly, over the years dissatisfaction grew. People were unhappy about illegal practices that bypassed institutions, corruption, social injustice and inequality, among other things. A protest movement grew in 2011 but ended in massacre. Residents of Zhanaozen, a city in southwest Kazakhstan, went on a hunger strike and set up a protest camp in the city’s main square for months, demanding higher salaries and better working conditions. In December 2011, the police opened fire on them and, according to official data, killed 17 and injured more than a hundred people.

      This became to some extent a moment of great symbolic power.

      As protests erupted in 2022, what were their demands?

      Ten years later, at the very start of 2022, the Ministry of the Economy freed the market for liquefied gas, which is the most important fuel for local cars. Prices went up by 100 per cent. 

      But the trigger for the 2022 protests was strikingly similar to that of the 2011 protest. People were angry not only because of rising gas and oil prices, but also because of economic mismanagement and corruption. It started with several thousand protesters in Zhanaozen on 2 January and within two or three days it spread to more than 60 cities all around the country. When anger reached a tipping point, many thousands took to the streets.

      Initially, protests in many places were driven by groups of political opposition, civic activists who were joined by workers and marginalised groups. It was not a situation in which the mass of the people mobilised against the government. Generally speaking, having lived under an authoritarian state for the past 17 years, people in Kazakhstan have no real political culture or a political voice. Public protests are illegal: people are not allowed to gather in central squares or in any place near a government building, so anyone who protests in the streets is committing an administrative offence.

      But people don’t seem to be so afraid anymore. By mid-January 2022, the protests that started in the west had spread out to other regions, and masses of diverse people joined, including not only big crowds of young people but also criminals, militants close to local elites and even some Islamic radicals.

      President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev tried to control the situation, replaced some security authorities and put himself at the head of the security council, replacing the First President, who was supposed to occupy this position for life. The government also shut down internet access for several days.

      Most protests were spontaneous, and Kazakhstan is a very diverse country, so there was no consolidated leadership. People kept protesting and adding more social and economic demands, which in turn ended up giving way to political demands, including the resignation of the government and removal of the First President and his clan from all positions in politics and the economy. There are no real opposition political parties but those that are close to having that role called out their supporters to protest.

      Protests were also mostly peaceful, but some aggressive young people, militant groups close to local elites and Islamic groups clashed with the police. They tried to seize government buildings and, in some cities, they ran out of control.

      How did the government respond?

      The government reacted with deadly violence, to the point that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had to urge it to end the violence towards protesters.

      As well as having control of the national security forces, President Tokayev resorted to Russian Security Forces as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization forces. He brought in more than 2,000 Russian troops, joined by Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan units. These also had a political purpose: to show that Russian president Vladimir Putin had his back.

      More than 220 people were killed and more than 10,000 were arrested during the protests. Between 8,000 and 9,000 of them were later released, but some continue in detention. Among them are some people who were violent and committed looting but many others who did not. For almost a week they didn’t have access to basic rights such as communicating with their families or a lawyer, and there have been many cases of torture and cruel treatment in detention. Only by 14 or 15 January, when they regained control, did the authorities start to provide information regarding places of detention and people detained. But judicial procedures continue and the outcome of the trials is uncertain.

      Once President Tokayev regained control, Russian security forces left Kazakhstan. The president then moved to consolidate his power. On 11 January he addressed a statement to parliament in which he promised to introduce economic and social reforms aimed at bringing a measure of social justice, reducing inequalities, combatting corruption and improving the economy. He also promised that in September he will announce a set of political reforms. 

      Did anything change as a result of the protests?

      The number of people who took the streets was incredibly high, and that in and by itself was an important positive change. In the medium term we might see an impact in terms of economic and social changes. But we need institutional changes regarding the prison system and the security forces, the police and prosecutor’s office and judiciary. All these institutions must be radically reformed.

      And Kazakhstan also needs political reform. I do not expect the government to hold democratic elections anytime soon, but I am concerned about the space for independent media and journalists, for the growth of a democratic opposition and for the development of civil society. At some point there will be a need for political pluralism, party competition and citizen participation.

      I think these protests gave the government some food for thought. No economic or social reform will bring real change unless it there is also serious political reform. Otherwise, the story will repeat itself following the same pattern.

      What can the international community do to improve civic space in Kazakhstan?

      I participated in a meeting with the European Union External Action Service people and have close communications with western embassies regarding civic space and human rights issues. But unfortunately, Kazakhstan is not relevant in the international agenda, and the international community is currently absorbed with the pandemic. Additionally, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is also keeping the world busy. There are some foreign journalists who are being allowed to work in Kazakhstan who will hopefully publish their coverage in popular newspapers, but that’s about it.

      At this point, the only way to help is to look at the situation as a systemic problem that has existed for many years, concerning the nature of the political regimes that have been established in the region, lacking in democratic freedoms. High-level advocacy is needed to slowly move the government towards an understanding of the need to open up the space for civic freedoms. Another, more immediate way to help is to work on a case-by-case basis on the situation of human rights activists, journalists and civil society staff who are being prosecuted. International assistance in investigations on human rights violations would also be very valuable.

      Civic space in Kazakhstan is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
      Get in touch with KIBHR through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@bureau_kz on Twitter.