Activism works: on Mandela Day, let's boost efforts to free human rights defenders around the world

  • #StandAsMyWitness campaign launched two years ago on Nelson Mandela Day
  • Campaign has been part of successful global calls to release incarcerated human rights defenders 
  • 21 human rights defenders currently featured in the campaign have spent 50 years collectively in prison

In honour of Nelson Mandela Day 18 July, global civil society alliance CIVICUS calls for renewed efforts to help free 21 human rights defenders featured in its #StandAsMyWitness global campaign. Altogether, they have been imprisoned for half a century - and some face many more years behind bars. Activism makes a difference - #StandAsMyWitness has already been part of successful global calls leading to the release of 20 activists across the world.

Launched two years ago on Mandela Day,  #StandAsMyWitness urges governments to free activists in prison or facing pre-trial detention after protecting and promoting human rights. 

“Over 30 years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison and still human rights defenders are wrongfully incarcerated in both authoritarian regimes and democratic states. Their crime? Standing up for the rights of women, children and Indigenous people; fighting for climate justice; advocating for free and fair elections; and promoting democratic freedoms,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.

Human rights defenders in the #StandAsMyWitness campaign include Iranian lawyer Nasrin al-Sotoudeh, sentenced to 38 years on charges that include insulting Iran’s supreme leader; Mexican Kenia Hernandez, facing a decade in prison in retaliation for her work defending Indigenous communities; and Buzurgmehr Yorov, a 50-year old lawyer from Tajikistan, sentenced to 22 years behind bars after defending government opponents.

Mr Mandela, perhaps the most iconic and respected human rights defender, was released after 27 years following global opposition to his incarceration. Similar efforts by civil society and sustained public pressure are needed to secure the freedom of rights defenders currently facing long sentences.

“We urge people across the world to demand the release of brave activists in the #StandAsMyWitness campaign: sign a petition, use our hashtag on social media, or lobby your government. It is scandalous that those fighting for justice and equality have spent even one day in prison, never mind many years,” said Kode. 

Sustained action from different sources can make a difference; since its launch two years ago, #StandAsMyWitness has worked with human rights organisations and civil society to guarantee the release of 20 human rights defenders. 

They include activist Teresita Naul from the Philippines, released in October after many awareness-raising efforts by civil society; Bahraini human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, freed in June last year after nearly five years of civil society campaigning and diplomatic pressure from democratic governments; and women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul from Saudi Arabia, released after 1000 days in 2021 following a prominent global campaign demanding her release.  

South Africa’s iconic former president spent 27 years behind bars before his release. Let’s work together to make sure human rights defenders currently languishing in prison are not forgotten - let’s fight for their freedom together. They are urging you to: Stand As My Witness.

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Below is a list of the human rights defenders featured in the #StandAsMyWitness campaign. To find out how to get involved, check out CIVICUS’s campaign webpage: Stand As My Witness.


  • Eswatini: Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube - MPs who campaigned for democratic reform


  • Hong Kong: Chow Hang-Tung - pro-democracy activist, sentenced for organising unauthorised Tiananmen Square Massacre commemoration vigil
  • India: Khurram Parvez - Kashmiri rights activist; listed in Time magazine’s 100 ‘Most Influential People 2022’ 


  • Belarus: Viasna Human Rights Defenders - members of Viasna human rights centre; jailed for exercising their right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression
  • Tajikistan: Buzurgmehr Yorov - human rights lawyer representing members of the opposition; recipient of Homo Homini human rights prize


  • Mexico: Kenia Hernandez - Indigenous and women’s rights activist; arrested after protest
  • Nicaragua: Maria Esperanza Sanchez Garcia - targeted for her civic activism
  • Nicaragua: Medardo Mairena and Pedro Mena - opposition activists initially sentenced to more than 200 years in prison after taking part in anti-government protests


  • Algeria: Kamira Nait Sid - Indigenous and women’s rights activist campaigning for the rights of the Amazigh people in Algeria
  • Bahrain: Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja - detained after democracy protests in 2011; recipient of the prestigious Martin Ennals Award 2022 for human rights defenders
  • Egypt: Hoda Abdel Moneim - human rights lawyer and former member of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights
  • Iran: Nasrin Sotoudeh - human rights lawyer specialising in the rights of women, children and human rights defenders
  • United Arab Emirates: Ahmed Mansoor - on the advisory boards for Human Rights Watch and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights; imprisoned for publishing information on social media


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