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Write for Rights: A chance for governments to stand up for humanity

    Photo: Melike Balkan and Özgür Gür, members of the METU LGBTI solidarity group. Credit: AKIN CELIKTAS
    November 19, 2020

    Amnesty International today launches the world’s biggest human rights campaign, Write for Rights, calling on governments to put right injustices against individuals who are detained or persecuted in countries across the globe, and to lead by example in building a fairer post-COVID-19 world. 

    “Devastating though it has been, the COVID-19 pandemic has also brought out the best in people. We have witnessed countless acts of compassion and solidarity as people come together in their communities to help those most in need. Sadly, many governments have pursued the opposite course, detaining and persecuting people who stand up for human rights,” said Julie Verhaar, Acting Secretary General of Amnesty International. 

    “We are at a crossroads – we can all choose to build a future which puts kindness, solidarity, tolerance and human rights at its core. Governments must use this moment to show that they can put right injustices by releasing prisoners of conscience, ending the persecution of human rights defenders, and upholding every person’s right to freedom of expression.”  

    Write for Rights: The world’s biggest human rights campaign 

    Every December, people around the world write millions of letters, emails, tweets, Facebook posts and postcards for those whose human rights are under attack, in what has become the world’s biggest human rights event. The ten cases selected for Write for Rights 2020 include human rights defenders and individuals in Algeria, Burundi, Chile, Colombia, Malta, Myanmar, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Turkey.  

    Jani Silva has been threatened with death for speaking up to protect land, water and human rights in Colombia’s Amazonian Pearl reserve. The South American country has witnessed an alarming increase in assassinations of defenders, many of them women, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amnesty International is calling for protection for Jani Silva and her organization so they can continue their vital work.  

    “When we are protecting our ecosystem, we are not just doing it for ourselves,” says Jani. “Because I defend my territory, people have put a gun to my head to kill me. But we cannot run away.” 

    In Saudi Arabia, Nassima al-Sada has been in prison for more than two years for her peaceful women’s rights advocacy. She was one of several prominent activists campaigning for women to have the right to drive and to carry out their daily lives without the permission of a male “guardian.” While Saudi Arabia has recently relaxed these guardianship laws, Nassima and other activists who campaigned to end the guardianship system remain behind bars. 

    “Why should an under-age boy be the guardian of a woman who is an adult?” Nassima wrote in 2016. “Why isn’t there an age at which a woman becomes an adult, responsible for her decisions and her life? Why should there be a man responsible for her life?” 

    Nassima was arrested for her peaceful human rights work in July 2018. While in jail, she was ill-treated. She was placed in solitary confinement for a year and denied access to visitors, including her children. She is now allowed one weekly phone call with her family, but no visits, not even from her lawyer. Amnesty International is urging Saudi Arabia to free Nassima and other women’s rights activists. 

    Among the other cases are: 

    • Gustavo Gatica, a psychology student in Santiago, Chile who was struck in both eyes and left permanently blinded after attending a protest over rising inequality on 8 November 2019. Police violently repressed this protest, repeatedly opening fire on demonstrators with shotguns loaded with rubberized buck shots. Amnesty International is calling for a full investigation into the events that led to Gustavo being injured and for the commanders in charge to be held responsible.   

    • In Malta, three teenage boys from Ivory Coast and Guinea are in prison awaiting trial on baseless terrorism charges after acting as interpreters for the captain and crew of a Maltese tanker which came to rescue them – and more than 100 other migrants - from their sinking rubber boat. Amnesty International is demanding justice for the “El Hiblu 3” and calling for the charges against the youths (now aged 21, 18 and 16) to be dropped. 

    • Germain Rukuki, a Burundian human rights defender and prisoner of conscience serving a 32-year prison sentence. He was convicted on account of his human rights work. Amnesty International is calling for his immediate and unconditional release.  

    • METU LGBTI solidarity group, whose members face a prison sentence for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Turkey.  LGBTI students at the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara have been organizing an annual Pride march on campus for years without restrictions. In 2019, the peaceful event was broken up by police. Students and an academic were detained and beaten, and the case is now in court. Amnesty International is calling for the acquittal of all those who have been charged, an investigation into the excessive use of force by police, and for students to have the freedom to hold peaceful marches on campus. 

    • Idris Khattak from Pakistan, a researcher on enforced disappearances for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, was – in a cruel twist – forcibly disappeared himself on 13 November 2019, and may now be charged with espionage. Amnesty International is calling for his immediate release.  

    Campaign successes 

    As seen in previous years, writing letters really does bring about change for the individuals whose cases are highlighted in Write for Rights, and also offers enormous emotional support and encouragement to them and their families.  

    Nigerian teenager Moses Akatugba was arrested and sentenced to death when he was 15 years old, after being accused of stealing three phones. In 2019, he was released, after 800,000 Amnesty International supporters showed their support.  

    “I was on death row because the police claimed I stole three phones,” says Moses. “But now I’m free, because people like you wrote letters to support me. After eight years in jail, and 800,000 letters from Amnesty International supporters all over the world, I was released. Those letters kept my fire burning. I am alive today because of these letters. So your letters can save a life.” 

    In July 2020, a South Sudanese man had his death sentence quashed, due in part to Write for Rights. According to his testimony in court, Magai Matiop Ngong fired his father’s gun at the ground to warn off his cousin, who was trying to stop him fighting with another boy in his neighbourhood. The bullet ricocheted and hit his cousin, who later died in hospital. Magai, who was just 15 at the time, faced trial for murder without a lawyer. He was convicted and sentenced to death. 

    Our research shows that the death penalty is disproportionately used against poor and disadvantaged people. According to international law, and South Sudanese law, sentencing a child to death is illegal. 

    More than 765,000 people took action and wrote to the South Sudanese government expressing solidarity with Magai. The South Sudan Court of Appeal eventually quashed the death sentence imposed on Magai because he was a child at the time of the crime, and sent his case back to the High Court to rule on an appropriate sentence. 

    “The power of individual action to save lives and hold governments to account must never be underestimated. Year on year we see the powerful impact that simply writing a letter or email can deliver,” said Julie Verhaar. 

    “Write for Rights is all about individuals helping other individuals, and this way of expressing our shared humanity has never been more important and relevant. Governments must respond to this widespread desire for change by delivering justice to those whose human rights are being attacked.” 

    Background 

    Write for Rights mobilizes hundreds of thousands of people around the world to change the lives of individuals at risk through taking action. Last year over six and half million actions were taken - an annual increase for the 18th consecutive year. The case of Yasaman Aryani in Iran received over one million actions alone.  

    The Write for Rights campaign will run from 20 November to 31 December 2020. For more information see here.

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    For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact: 

    Lucy Scholey, Media Relations Officer, Amnesty International Canada (English branch), 613-853-2142, lscholey@amnesty.ca  

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