Document - The Wire, May 2001. Vol.31, No.3.


May 2001

NWS 21/004/2001

<P><FONT FACE="Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" SIZE="2">AI&#146;s monthly magazine <i>The Wire</i> is now available online. Read about our current concerns around the world:</P>

<p><a href="">Fiji: Elections eclipsed by racism and impunity</a><br>

<a href="">Liberia: Wars have limits - Civilians are tortured and killed as fighting continues in Liberia</a><br>

<a href="">Jamaica: Living with police violence</a><br>

<a href="">Belarus: Defenders at risk. Human rights defenders targeted by the government in Belarus</a><br>

<a href="">Opinion: Child soldiers - criminals or victims?</a><br>

<a href="">Worldwide Appeals and News In Brief</a><br>

<a href="">Amnesty International celebrates 40 years of activism</a><br>

<a href="">Bahrain: Democracy for Bahrain</a><br>

<a href="">A message from the Secretary General of AI</a></p>

</FONT> </P>






Wars have limits.

Civilians are tortured and killed as fighting continues in Liberia.

Unarmed civilians are again the main victims of fighting in Liberia — a country still carrying the scars of its seven-year civil war when massive human rights abuses were committed by all sides.

More than 100 civilians, mostly belonging to the Mandingo ethnic group, accused of backing the July 2000 armed opposition incursion into Lofa County, northern Liberia, have been unlawfully detained and tortured by Liberian security forces since last year. Most of those tortured were held incommunicado at the military base in Gbatala, central Liberia, and at the Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) cells behind the Executive Mansion in the capital Monrovia. Women and young girls have been raped by members of the security forces and dozens have allegedly been summarily executed. Abductions of civilians by rebels have also increased.

Those detained at the military base in Gbatala were held in holes dug in the ground — some of them filled with water — and were regularly tortured. Prisoners were flogged and beaten; some had plastic melted on their bodies or cigarettes put out on their skin; others were forced to roll in the mud or eat hot pepper. Civilians suspected of backing the insurgents were regularly ‘tabied’ — their arms tied with ropes so tightly that their elbows touch — by the ATU and the Special Operation Division.

An old man who had been detained in Gbatala told an AI delegation: “Arriving at Gbatala, the cloths were loosened from our faces and we were made to see many horrible sights. Some prisoners were placed in water that held them up to their throat... people were made to run on broken bottles with their bare feet. We saw several narrow holes dug within which prisoners were placed”. The victims met by AI delegates still bore the scars and marks of torture and were visibly traumatized. A number of prisoners allegedly died as a result of torture.

Civilians detained at the ATU cells in Monrovia were regularly whipped and forced to carry out hard labour, including breaking rocks. Some were humiliated by being smeared with mud and forced to sit in the sun to get dry or by being slapped in their faces after being ordered to inflate their cheeks.

AI urges the Liberian government to take immediate steps to prevent torture, including rape, and extrajudicial executions of suspected dissidents and bring those responsible to justice. AI also calls on armed opposition groups to stop abductions and other human rights abuses against civilians.

Fiji elections eclipsed by racism and impunity

Preparations for fresh elections after last year’s violent coup attempt are being overshadowed by racism and government efforts to pursue racial supremacy for indigenous Fijians.

Concerns for the future of human rights in Fiji are heightened by a flagrant disregard for the rule of law. When Fiji’s highest court in March upheld the Constitution and declared the current government illegal, the authorities defied the ruling but bowed to international pressure by agreeing to hold elections for a democratic government this August.

Registration for Fiji’s racially-segregated electoral rolls and other preparations are being affected by unresolved racist human rights abuses and the government’s efforts to dilute the rights of the large ethnic minority population.

Since the coup last May, thousands of Fijians of ethnic Indian origin, known as Indo-Fijians, have been internally displaced. Indo-Fijians used to make up 44 per cent of the population. Mass emigration is now depleting that figure, after thousands were forced to abandon their homes and farms as a result of racist attacks, evictions and threats of violence.

On 19 May 2000, army rebels led by civilian George Speight stormed the parliament buildings demanding that ethnic Indians be stripped of political power. They detained Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his multi-racial government, holding them hostage for up to 56 days. The prime minister, his son and other Indo-Fijian hostages were beaten up and threatened with execution. In the streets and villages, coup supporters in-cited waves of racist attacks against Indo-Fijians. Indo-Fijian farmers and shop-keepers were robbed, often to feed the hostage-takers. Indigenous mobs terrorized towns and villages, took scores of people hostage, killed an unarmed policeman, shot several army officers and a British cameraman, as well as ransacking a television station. Many civilians, police and army officers were injured. More than 370 Indo-Fijians fled to a refuge set up by the non-governmental Fiji Human Rights Group. Refuge organizers became targets of political intimidation and police criminal investigations on suspicion of violating emergency powers.

The military temporarily took power after the coup and installed a predominantly indigenous government. The military commander published emergency decrees, drafted by the indigenous Chief Justice, to replace the constitution and give police sweeping powers of arrest. Several judges and magistrates resigned in protest.

Following the release of all hostages in July, hundreds of coup supporters were arrested. Many were ill-treated in custody, and some showed visible signs of beatings. By April 2001, only a few coup supporters remained in prison awaiting trial, while charges against others were dismissed when prosecutors failed to appear in court or to produce sufficient evidence. Many of the perpetrators of coup-related crimes, particularly racist human rights abuses, have been allowed to escape justice.

Despite government announcements to hold inquiries, victims of the coup in both major ethnic groups are still waiting for justice. Among 15 people known to have died, as many as six were beaten to death by soldiers suppressing a mutiny in November 2000 involving coup rebels released earlier from prison. The military arbitrarily detained dozens of suspected rebels, many of them in hospitals due to ill-treatment, and prevented visits by family members. By March 2001, no inquiry results or post-mortem findings were made public, and no-one was known to have been brought to justice.

Living with police violence

Jamaica has the highest per capita rate of police killings in the world — yet the system fails to hold officers accountable.

MORE than 1,400 people have been shot dead by police over the past 10 years in Jamaica — the highest rate of police killings per capita in the world. The police account of events – usually that the victims were killed in “shoot-outs” after opening fire – is disputed in many cases by eyewitness testimony and contradicted by forensic evidence. The loss of life at the hands of the Jamaican Constabulary Force (JCF) borders on a human rights emergency.

On 14 March 2001, police surrounded a house in Braeton, Kingston. According to the police version of events, when they asked for access to the house, they were met with a hail of gunfire. The officers returned fire, killing seven young men. Local residents said the police captured five young men, beat them in the front yard of the house, and then executed them one at a time. Neighbours described the heart-rending pleas of the young men as they begged for their lives. One neighbour, responding to the pleas, and a passer-by were shot and killed. A pathologist, observing the autopsies for AI, verified that six men had received multiple gun shot wounds to the head; some at close range. The other was shot at close range in the chest.

This is one of a series of cases investigated by AI where there is compelling evidence of extrajudicial executions by the police.

Sylvester ‘Punk’ Wint was killed by police on 27 April 2000 in Mountain View, Kingston. Police claimed that he was shot after running out of his house holding a baby and firing a gun during a police raid. According to witnesses – and backed by a tape recording – he was shot and killed in his house as he begged for his life. A doctor later stated that the gunshot wounds suggested that he had been killed while lying down.

In many cases accounts are disputed or there are no independent witnesses. Cases often rest on the word of the victim or witnesses against that of the accused officer. Efforts to cover up abuses, and the “code of silence” that prevents officers testifying against each other, are major barriers to overcoming impunity.

There are several other means by which police cover up abuses. These include forcibly preventing individuals from viewing incidents; intimidation and death threats; charging the victim or potential witnesses with offences such as assault or possession of narcotics or firearms; failing to report misconduct and filing false or incomplete reports (commonly by claiming that fatal shootings occurred in the context of shoot-outs); and contaminating forensic evidence. In Jamaica, autopsies frequently fail to conform, even to a minimal degree, to international standards.

The chairman of the Police Complaints Authority told AI that he did not consider it appropriate or possible to hold the Jamaican police accountable to the same standards as other countries, because of the country’s high level of gun-related crime.

Urgent action is needed to ensure that law enforcement officials do not use lethal force except when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life. They should be made fully aware of their right and duty to disobey orders which might result in serious human rights violations.

For further information see Jamaica: “Right now we are afraid of police”

(AI Index: AMR 38/007/2001) and Jamaica: Killings and violence by police

(AI Index: AMR 38/001/2001).

Defenders at risk

Human rights defenders targeted by the government in Belarus.

In 1999 Vera Stremkovskaya, director the Human Rights Centre in Minsk, Belarus, was received in the White House by Hillary Clinton. In the same year she was awarded prestigious international human rights awards in the USA and Germany for her work as a human rights defender (HRD).

Yet in Belarus she was facing the possibility of up to five years’ imprisonment, allegedly for defaming a public official in the course of a trial. AI considered her a possible prisoner of conscience. Since 1998 three different such criminal cases have been brought against Vera Stremkovskaya, all of which were eventually dropped. She currently faces a $20,000 private defamation lawsuit, relating to the last of the three criminal charges, which could financially cripple her and seriously affect her work as an HRD.

In July 1999 Oleg Volchek, chairman of the human rights organization Legal Aid to the Population, was arrested and beaten unconscious by police officers in Minsk after taking part in an anti-presidential demonstration. Volchek, who also heads a civil initiative investigating the spate of possible ‘disappearances’ of leading members of Belarus’ opposition, faced several years’ imprisonment after criminal proceedings were brought against him. Like Vera Stremkovskaya, he was considered by AI to be a possible prisoner of conscience.

The experiences of Vera Stremkovskaya and Oleg Volchek are typical of the official obstruction encountered by HRDs in Belarus. Human rights organizations have suffered arbitrary police raids and the subsequent confiscation of valuable equipment and materials. Official warnings have been given threatening the seizure of assets and ultimate closure. Many have been subjected to suspicious office break-ins and the crippling loss of costly computers and documents, faced eviction from their offices and come under the unusually close scrutiny of the tax police. HRDs have complained about having their correspondence tampered with and being threatened with expulsion from professional associations or, on occasion, the loss of their jobs.

Galina Drebezova, a human rights lawyer and president of the Belarusian Association of Women Lawyers, encountered numerous bureaucratic obstacles to a series of human rights seminars she organized in the regions around Brest, on the Belarusian-Polish border. She told AI that the venues of the seminars, such as schools and factories, were deliberately closed by the authorities, or permission to use them was withdrawn at the last moment. In February this year the director of a municipally-owned events hall in Brest was forced to resign after she had allowed its premises to be used for a human rights event.

Another Brest-based organization, Vezha, which acts as an important resource centre for other civic organizations working for the promotion of human rights and democracy, was burgled in January 2001. The organization lost virtually all of its technical equipment. The police investigation into the burglary was reportedly half-hearted. Vezha is only one of a whole series of human rights organizations which have been burgled in recent times, losing valuable equipment. In Minsk, Vera Stremkovskaya’s Centre for Human Rights, Spring-96, Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Legal Aid to the Population were other human rights organizations which suffered similar treatment in the course of 1999–2000.

These are only a small number of the experiences described by Belarusian HRDs to an AI delegation which visited Belarus in February–March 2001. A report will soon be published (AI Index: EUR 49/003/2001).

Opinion piece

Child soldiers – criminals or victims?

Images of children taking part in armed conflicts, and stories of horrific atrocities committed by such child soldiers, shock the world. Yet the practice of recruiting child soldiers continues in many countries. Recent AI papers, particularly those on Uganda and Sierra Leone, have reported how children were drugged, brutalized or threatened with physical abuse or death to force them to fight.

AI has played a prominent role in the campaign to highlight the use of children as soldiers and to make the recruitment of child soldiers a crime worldwide. AI calls for international criminal tribunals (such as the soon to be established Special Court for Sierra Leone and International Criminal Court) and national courts to prosecute those who have recruited and used child soldiers. In accordance with international law, those who recruit and have command or superior responsibility for such children should be held responsible for the crimes they commit.

But should the accountability end there? Child soldiers have perpetrated a great many gross human rights abuses. Many of their victims have also been children. Should these children themselves be prosecuted, and required to provide reparations to their victims?

As a general principle, AI calls for all those who commit serious crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, to be brought to justice. However, in a situation where crimes have been committed by children, particularly when they have been terrorized and brutalized into submission, complex questions about their criminal responsibility are raised. In Sierra Leone, for example, child soldiers were drugged or forced under threat of death to commit atrocities. Some child soldiers fighting in Sierra Leone were as young as five years old – far too young to understand the results of their actions. It is not in the interests of justice to prosecute someone who clearly was not in control of their actions.

There are cases, however, in which the child soldier concerned was in control of his or her actions, and not coerced, drugged, or forced into committing atrocities. In these circumstances, AI believes child soldiers must be held accountable for their actions, but any criminal action against them must respect international fair trial standards specific to children. These standards are set out mainly in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines a child as any person under the age of 18 unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier. They place the best interests of the child as a priority in any legal action, recognize the special needs and vulnerabilities of children, and place an emphasis on rehabilitation and the reintegration of the child into society, rather than punishment. Arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child must be a last resort measure, used for the shortest appropriate period of time.

Clearly, bringing fair prosecutions in those cases where responsibility can be proved, and providing effective rehabilitation for all former child soldiers, is difficult in post-conflict situations, where the national infrastructure has been destroyed and resources are scarce. AI calls on the international community to give all necessary support and encouragement to such states to provide peace, security and justice to their people, young and old.

In 1998, AI and other international NGOs founded the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. For more information see:


Breaking the Lord's commands: the destruction of childhood by the Lord’s Resistance Army

(AI Index: AFR 59/01/97);

Sierra Leone: Childhood, a casualty of conflict (AI Index: AFR 51/69/00);

United Kingdom U-18s: Report on the Recruitment and Deployment of Child Soldiers (AI Index: EUR 45/57/00);


Child Soldiers: Criminals or victims?

(AI Index IOR 50/02/00).

Worldwide appeals


Kurdish mother and son tortured.

FATMA Tokmak (pictured) and her two-year-old son Azat were repeatedly tortured by Istanbul police officers during 11 days of detention in 1996. No one has yet been brought to justice for it.

She alleges that she was violently undressed, forced to lie naked on the floor and threatened with rape. Officers hung her by her arms and sexually abused her.

In an attempt to elicit a “confession” from Fatma, they tortured Azat with electric shocks on his back and by grinding a lighted cigarette on to his hand. They took Azat away, reportedly saying, “you won’t see him again because we are going to kill him now”. He was later found in an orphanage, and returned to her.

Fatma Tokmak, a Kurdish woman, and her son were arrested by Istanbul police on 9 December 1996 on suspicion of belonging to the armed opposition group Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). She is still in Gebze prison, charged with PKK membership and awaiting trial for which the death penalty is sought. She has never received a comprehensive medical or psychiatric examination.

Please write, calling on Turkey to uphold its obligations under domestic and international law to bring an end to torture and ill-treatment in detention; initiate independent and thorough investigations, including appropriate medical and psychiatric examinations, into the alleged torture of Azat and Fatma Tokmak; and bring to justice all those responsible.

Send appeals to: Professor Hikmet Sami Türk, Minister of Justice, Adalet Bakani, Adalet Bakanligi 06659 Ankara, Turkey. Fax: +90 312 418 5667;

Mr Hasan Gemici, State Minister responsible for women and children, Office of the Prime Minister, Basbakanlik, 06573 Ankara, Turkey. Fax: +90 312 417 0476.

Morocco/Western Sahara

Air Force captain imprisoned after unfair trial.

Mustapha Adib, a Moroccan Air Force captain, is currently serving a two-and-a-half year prison sentence on charges of “defamation of the army” and “disobeying military orders”. AI considers him to be a prisoner of conscience.

When he tried to report corruption within his unit through the proper internal channels, his superior officers transferred him from his post, instead of investigating and addressing his allegations,. When he found no recourse within the armed forces he made the information public. He was arrested just days before the publication of an article quoting him as denouncing corruption within the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces in the French newspaper Le Monde.

His trial before the Military Tribunal of Rabat in February 2000 violated international standards for fair trial. It was held behind closed doors with witnesses for the defence not permitted to appear. One of the judges was his immediate superior in the army – and one of the people he alleged was involved in the corruption.

In June 2000 the Supreme Court quashed the February sentence, on the grounds of procedural irregularities, but a re-trial in October convicted him again. Concerns were also raised about the fairness of this second trial, including the fact that witnesses for the defence were not allowed to take the stand.

Mustapha Adib has gone on two hunger strikes to protest against the injustice of his situation.

Please write calling for the immediate and unconditional release of prisoner of conscience Mustapha Adib.

Write in the first instance to Sa Majesté le Roi MOHAMMED VI, Bureau de Sa Majesté le Roi, Palais Royal, Rabat, Maroc. Fax: + 212 37 76 01 93.

If you have time, you could also send an appeal to: M Omar AZZIMAN, Ministère de la Justice, Place Mamounia, Rabat, Maroc. Fax: + 212 37 72 37 10; or + 212 37 73 07 72; or + 212 37 73 89 40.


Prisoners of conscience rearrested.

Juma Duni Haji (pictured) and Machano Khamis Ali, two leading members of the Zanzibar-based opposition Civic United Front (CUF), are prisoners of conscience there once again. Just two months after being freed on false charges of treason, they are now falsely charged with murder, a capital offence in Tanzania.

After more than three years in prison on trumped-up treason charges, Juma Duni Haji, deputy secretary general of the CUF, and Machano Khamis Ali, a former member of parliament and member of the CUF’s central committee and another 16 CUF prisoners of conscience were finally released in November 2000 several weeks after the Tanzanian Court of Appeal had ruled the treason charges unlawful.

Their newly-found freedom was not to last. Both men were rearrested in Zanzibar town on 21 February 2001 on charges of participating in an illegal demonstration there. Just days later they were released but immediately rearrested and charged with murdering a police officer during a different demonstration in Wete, Pemba Island, at which they were not present. They are currently held in Zanzibar Central Prison. AI fears they may be transferred to Pemba where they would be at risk of torture or ill-treatment and would not receive a fair trial.

The demonstration which started peacefully was one of several organized by the CUF on 27 January 2001 to demand fresh elections, despite a police ban. Security forces shot and killed scores of civilians and arrested and tortured hundreds of others. One police officer was killed by demonstrators. Most of those arrested were released on bail to await possible trial on charges of illegally demonstrating, but at least 20 remain in detention on the charge of murdering the police officer.

Please write calling for the immediate and unconditional release of prisoners of conscience Juma Duni Haji and Machano Khamis Ali; and for an independent and impartial inquiry into the killings and torture by security forces in the January demonstrations. Send appeals to: His Excellency Amani Abeid Karume, President of Zanzibar, PO Box 2422, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Fax: +255 242 33722 or +255 242 31822. Send appeals for an independent inquiry to the President of the Union Government: His Excellency Benjamin Mkapa, Office of the President, PO Box 9120, Dar es Salaam,Tanzania. Fax: +255 222 113425.

Worldwide appeal update

Turkmenistan (December 2000)

Shagildy Atakov, imprisoned solely for his peaceful religious activities, has been transferred on two occasions. Following pressure from the international community alleging that he was about to die after having been ill-treated and in appropriately administered psychotropic drugs, in mid-February 2001 he was transferred from the Seydi labour camp to a prison hospital in the town of Mary.

On 1 March, he was reportedly returned to the labour camp, where he was placed in a punishment cell.

According to unofficial sources, on 23 March he was transferred some 800 kilometres across Turkmenistan from the Seydi labour camp in the east to a maximum security prison in the Caspian city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) in the west. The official reason for his transfer is not known to AI but it appears to be an attempt to prevent the outside world from getting information about his situation.

Please continue to send appeals.

News in brief



Racism in Germany came under the spotlight in March, as the first of the biannual sessions of the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) opened in Geneva. AI briefed CERD with its concerns about continuing allegations of police ill-treatment of foreign nationals in Germany, which featured as one of the countries being reviewed during the sessions. While the Committee welcomed certain developments that have taken place in the field of human rights, such as the foundation of the independent German Institute of Human Rights, it also echoed AI’s concerns about “... repeated reports of racist incidents in police stations as well as ill-treatment inflicted by law enforcement officials on foreigners”.


International action against torture

A week of international action against torture in Peru has succeeded in persuading President Valentin Paniagua to sign a petition committing himself to eradicate torture in the country. In advance of the elections in April, the action of 19-25 March, which included meetings and demonstrations by youth and student groups in New Zealand, Venezuela, Belgium, USA and Peru, called on four of Peru’s presidential candidates to commit to AI’s 12-point plan to prevent torture.


AI letters help torture victim and mother

Sixteen-year-old José (not his real name), who has suffered from psychological problems since being tortured in detention in 1999, is receiving psychiatric treatment and showing considerable signs of improvement. José and his mother, Iraci Oliveira Dos Santos, who underwent a bout of severe depression after fighting to bring the torture of her son to public attention, have been greatly encouraged by more than 1,000 letters of support sent by AI members worldwide.

A message from the Secretary General of AI

Dear Amnesty friends and


This month I pass on the candle that was lit by Peter Benenson 40 years ago to a new Secretary General, Irene Khan.

In the last 40 years, we have seen the death penalty in its final throes; torture being outlawed; heads of state no longer immune from prosecution; and the establishment of an International Criminal Court. The number of prisoners of conscience is dwindling and you are less likely to be arrested for having ideas and expressing them. That is the good news.

Amnesty International was founded at a time when the world was polarized by the ideological and strategic conflict of the Cold War. We now live in a “globalized” world, in which economic, social and cultural rights will play a vital role over the coming years in determining the humanitarian rights of individuals.

Gross violations of women’s rights – such as female genital mutilation, rape, battery and murder – are still too often being ignored. Amnesty International is actively testing ways in which both states and private actors can be influenced to change the traditions that have allowed violations against women to escape scrutiny.

In many countries, armed conflict rages and the brunt of suffering is increasingly borne by civilians. A sense of powerlessness in the face of such recurring calamities has prompted Amnesty International to review its role in armed conflict situations and create strategies to prevent and respond to abuses committed in such conflicts.

We also want to hold businesses accountable, because in a world dominated by economics it is important that those with the power fulfil their responsibility to other human beings. The silence of powerful business interests in the face of injustice is not neutral.

These are the challenges to take Amnesty International into the 21st century – and ensure it remains one of the most relevant organizations of our time.

After eight years in the post, I leave with many memories. Celebrations such as the nomination of the first High Commissioner for Human Rights, and when we secured a decent statute for the International Criminal Court. Celebrations whenever our campaigns have led to success, and when Pinochet was at last arrested and brought in front of a court of law.

I want to thank you all for your friendship and support, and to thank you on behalf of all the victims you have helped. Amnesty International is still an indispensable force in this world.

Pierre Sané

Good News

Happy birthday

Amnesty Interanational celebrates 40 years of activism

AI members around the world are this month gearing themselves up for a series of celebrations to mark the organization’s 40th anniversary.

Concerts, festivals, publicity drives, fundraising events and firework displays are being organized in countries around the world to celebrate AI’s landmark birthday.

Many are using it as a basis for mobilizing new members. On the theme of ‘40’, AI Palestine is planning to recruit 40 new members and host a major event with local personalities. AI Germany hopes to attract 40,000 new members and establish a foundation for big gifts.

AIUK is holding a major comedy fundraising event at Wembley Arena in London hosted by famous comedian Eddie Izzard. AI Canada (French-speaking) is planning to stage a sponsored jazz festival and AI South Africa is planning a concert around the time of the UN World Conference against Racism in September. AI Luxembourg, AI Tunisia, AI Slovenia and AI Peru are also planning celebration concerts.

AI New Zealand is collecting illustrations of its activities and successes to create a visual history exhibition and AI Spain is producing a 2001 calendar and books on AI’s history. AI Sweden will run a series of advertisements in the “family section” of newspapers announcing AI’s anniversary and asking for donations as a gift to celebrate the event, while AI Mongolia will place adverts on public transport throughout May. AI Denmark hopes to have a commemorative stamp issued in AI’s honour.

Some sections will have something extra to celebrate, as they mark their own anniversary. To celebrate its 20th birthday, AI Portugal is holding a major televised concert in two cities featuring 20 bands and musicians. AI Paraguay is celebrating its 10 years with a massive recruitment campaign.

It was on 28 May 1961 that British lawyer Peter Benenson launched an Appeal for Amnesty ‘61 with an article in the Observer newspaper. He had been moved to take action after reading of the imprisonment of two Portuguese students whose ‘crime’ had been to raise their glasses in a toast to freedom. The appeal was reprinted in papers across the world and within six months, what had started as a brief publicity effort was developing into a permanent, international movement. In April 2001, Peter Benenson was presented with a lifetime achievement award from Cherie Blair, lawyer and wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair, at the prestigious Pride of Britain awards.

Today AI has more than one million members and subscribers in over 140 countries and territories. There are more than 7,500 local groups, youth and student groups and other specialist groups, as well as individual members and coordinators in 100 countries and territories.

Democracy for Bahrain

IN an historic national referendum on 14-15 February, the people of Bahrain voted overwhelming in favour of a National Charter which will bring democracy to the country for the first time since 1975, when an elected parliament was dissolved after just two years.

The referendum was put to the people by Amir Shaikh Hamad bin ‘Issa Al Khalifa, who currently governs Bahrain through his cabinet and Majlis al-Shura (consultative council). The National Charter will establish a constitutional monarchy with a legislative system consisting of two chambers – an elected parliament with full legislative powers, to be elected by 2003, and a Majlis al-Shura appointed by the Amir. Male and female citizens will have the right to participate in public life and to vote. An independent judiciary and a constitutional court will also be established. The Charter also lays down guidelines on important human rights issues, including the role of women, guarantees of freedom of expression and individual rights, and the development of non-governmental organizations.

The referendum was part of the extraordinary developments in the field of human rights that have taken place this year in Bahrain. Less than a week earlier, the Amir ordered the release of all political prisoners and detainees held in connection with the civil unrest of the 1990s. In addition, 108 Bahraini nationals living in forced exile have been told they can return to Bahrain. Other Bahrainis living in forced exile who were not named in the amnesty were also invited back to Bahrain. Scores of Bahrainis have now returned to the country. The government has also promised to grant nationality to around 10,000 Bidoun or stateless inhabitants, mostly Shi’a Muslims, by the end of this year.

The positive developments continued when on 18 February the Amir abolished the 1974 “Decree Law on State Security Measures”, which empowered the Minister of the Interior to detain individuals without charge or trial for up to three years. On the same day, the Amir abolished the State Security Court whose procedures over the years fell far short of international standards for fair trials.

The challenge now facing the government and the people of Bahrain is how to translate the human rights principles contained in the National Charter into everyday practice. An AI delegation visited Bahrain in March 2001 and held talks with senior government officials, including the Amir and the Crown Prince. The delegation met former prisoners of conscience, Bahrainis who had returned from forced exile, and representatives of non-governmental associations, including members of the newly-formed human rights association.

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