3 people we won’t forget in 2015

Anna Neistat, Senior Director for Research at Amnesty International, on why we need to remember the people behind the headlines in the year ahead.

Injustice, abuse and freedom are not abstract concepts. There are lives behind them, lost and saved, lived in dignity or in despair; there are tears and smiles.

There are names.

Some of these names make headlines around the world. Others you may have never heard of, but allow me to make the introduction. If we want to change lives, let’s get to know the people.

“The fire of war, the fire of exile”

Akçakale refugee camp, Turkey. Credit: Amnesty International
Akçakale refugee camp, Turkey. Credit: Amnesty International

Maha is an eight-year-old girl from Syria. After a missile strike destroyed her home in Aleppo city and killed both of her parents, she fled to Turkey with her uncle.

Their new “home” in the Turkish town of Akçakale is a concrete shell – there are three walls, but no door, no toilet, no beds, and no washing or cooking facilities. She drinks water from a hose, survives on food collected by refugees in a nearby camp, and suffers skin rashes, diarrhoea and colds. As a result of the trauma she suffered, Maha no longer speaks, and there is no support available to her and her uncle.

Maha is one of around 3.8 million refugees who have fled Syria in the last three years. With no end in sight to the conflict, this number continues to grow.

The response of the international community has been an abject failure. Funding and resettlement commitments remain entirely inadequate, and Syria’s neighbours have disproportionately shouldered the responsibility to receive the refugees. In just three days in September, Turkey received some 130,000 refugees – more than the entire European Union had in the past three years.

In the year ahead, we’ll actively campaign for countries to resettle more Syrian refugees. And we’ll urge states to fulfil their commitments to fund an adequate humanitarian response. If we are successful, Maha will find a new home and one day may smile again.

45 years awaiting death

Iwao Hakamada and Hideko Hakamada, his sister. Credit: Nobuhiro Terazawa
Iwao Hakamada and Hideko Hakamada, his sister. Credit: Nobuhiro Terazawa

Iwao Hakamada is 78 years old. He spent most of his life – 45 years – waiting to be executed after a Japanese court convicted him of murder in 1968. He was held mostly in solitary confinement, and was banned from watching television and talking to other prisoners. Aside from toilet visits and short, infrequent walks, he had to stay seated in his cell.

With executions in Japan shrouded in secrecy, and prisoners not warned in advance of their execution date, Iwao could expect the guards to come for him every hour, every day – for 45 years. Soon after his imprisonment he began to show signs of mental illness.

This year, largely due to intense campaigning by Amnesty International and other organizations, Iwao was released. The court revoked his death sentence and ordered a retrial, suggesting that evidence against Iwao had been falsified.

Nothing will give Iwao back the years and health taken from him by the Japanese prison system. As we look ahead, his case is a vivid reminder of the urgent need for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide.

Jailed for miscarriage

A still from an Amnesty animation to raise awareness of the impact of El Salvador’s anti-abortion law. © Amnesty International
A still from an Amnesty animation to raise awareness of the impact of El Salvador’s anti-abortion law. © Amnesty International

Maria Teresa Rivera is a young single mother who worked in a garment factory in El Salvador. One day, she felt severe pain and went to the bathroom. He mother-in-law found her bleeding on the floor and rushed her to a hospital.

The hospital reported her to the police and eventually the court sentenced Maria Teresa, who did not even know she had been pregnant, to 40 years’ imprisonment for aggravated homicide. They alleged, with no evidence, that she deliberately terminated her pregnancy.

El Salvador has one of the toughest anti-abortion laws in the world. Women and girls are denied abortions even when their health and lives are at risk, and even if they have been raped, regardless of age. In despair, some seek unsafe, clandestine abortions; others take their own lives. The ban has created a paranoia so pervasive that women suffering miscarriages and stillbirths are charged and jailed for murder, particularly those who live in poverty

Amnesty supporters from more than 30 countries have joined our campaign to end the ban on abortion in El Salvador. We are also campaigning for the release of Maria Teresa and 16 other women currently being considered for an official pardon. Maria Teresa’s eight-year-old son needs his mother back.

Remember these names – Maha, Iwao, Maria Teresa.

Telling their stories makes me incredibly angry because there is no excuse for the injustice that they, and thousands of others who share their fate, continue to suffer. But it also makes me feel proud and hopeful– because together, we will not give up until this injustice is rectified. And, as 2015 begins, we will not let the world forget them.