Activists battle attacks on freedom of expression

As Amnesty International launches its annnual report on the state of the world’s human rights, we speak to five key activists joining the global fight for freedom of expression.

Haytham Al Hamwi, Syrian activist currently living in the U.K.

I spent seven months in solitary confinement in a prison in Syria, and was allowed no contact with my family for ten months.

I had been part of an activist network in my home town Daraya, near Damascus. We campaigned against the invasion of Iraq, against corruption and called for a clean-up of our streets.

The government did not like that our work was organised and run by young people.They arrested 11 of us in 2003 and a military court sentenced me to four years in prison.

The cell was tiny and filthy; that first prison winter was bitterly cold.   I’ve now been in the U.K since 2008 with my wife and children, studying for a PhD in occupational health. I want to return to Syria soon and become an academic there.

I think the campaigns my friends and I worked on sowed some seeds among young Syrians. It reminded them that the people’s voice should be listened to. Daraya was one of the first places to see protests in recent months.

Earlier this month, security forces came to my father’s home in Darya at 4 am and arrested him. Maybe because he participated in a protest march, maybe because he had highlighted my case with human rights groups. We have heard nothing from him since. He is 65 and recently suffered a heart attack.

What Syrians are living through now is a bit like labour – a lot of pain, but after that hopefully we will have a new baby, a new country.

Daves Guzha, theatre director, Zimbabwe.

Security forces attend every opening we have at the theatre I run in Harare. They just come to watch, claiming they are there to “gauge the mood of the people”.But the moment we stage our plays outside of the capital, the tables are turned. This is where arrests and intimidations start happening. In January this year, when we staged the play “Rituals”, the actors in my production company were arrested and spent two nights in prison.

Rituals is about a fractured community trying to find healing after the violence of the 2008 elections in Zimbabwe.

We put in scenes that had actually taken place – showing how professionals were forcibly inducted into vigilante groups by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and forced to beat up other people.

The police were not impressed with the play and felt we were putting a lot of blame on Zanu-PF.

In the end, the actors were with charged with causing “criminal nuisance” – they claimed the drums we used in the play were too noisy. Thankfully, there was a landmark ruling in February this year and they were all acquitted.

After the arrests, I decided: Enough of this nonsense. I am going to continue to do groundbreaking theatre that provokes the system.

Right now we are on a cusp. Over the last few years, we have been following in the footsteps of politicians. They have been changing laws arbitrarily, leading the pack.

As theatre activists, we have to lead the pack. We have to give Zimbabweans a sense of purpose and encourage people to move with us. They should dream together with us.

Irina Bogdanova, doctor and activist, Belarus. Living in the U.K since 1994.

I became a human rights activist after my brother and my sister-in-law were arrested last year in Belarus. When a member of your family is wrongly imprisoned, you can’t just sit and do nothing.My brother, Andrei Sannikau, was an opposition candidate in the December 2010 presidential elections in Belarus. He was beaten severely by police following peaceful demonstrations against rigged elections, and has been detained in a KGB prison in Minsk. He is on trial this week – in a courtroom where defendants are kept in a cage, as if they were mass-murderers.

My brother has no-one else to fight for him, as his wife is under house arrest, so I had to do something. The conditions in Minsk’s KGB prison are horrendous. People are tortured; it’s overcrowded and damp, and there is no proper medical care available.

My brother is accused of organising mass riots and faces up to 15 years in prison. (Andrei Sannikov was sentenced to five years in prison on 14 May, 2010). He is not allowed any visitors in prison and I have been advised not to go to Minsk, as I could be arrested. We still don’t know how severe his injuries are. His lawyer has stated that my brother could hardly move without assistance at first, so bad was the beating. That lawyer was subsequently disbarred.

I have started a campaign, Free Belarus Now. We have fantastic support from people in the British theatre world such as Tom Stoppard and Sir Trevor Nunn. We are sending a strong message to Belarusian people, telling them that the world is standing by them.Irina Bogdanova’s campaign, Free Belarus Now

Claudia Samayoa, human rights activist, Guatemala

My organization was created a decade ago to protect those in all sectors of Guatemalan society who work to defend human rights.Although we were supposed to be in the middle of a peace process, we found that problems continued. “Hidden powers” – organized crime and illegal bodies – were carrying out a pattern of threats and attacks against human rights defenders.

We realized that we had to work together to monitor and document these attacks and to respond jointly to a common enemy.

We’ve documented more than 2,200 violations since we began working in 2000. Many of these include attacks on independent journalists and threats related to social conflicts, for example resistance to mining projects, and protests about hunger and insecurity.

While public policy to document such attacks has improved and there is now better coordination between the police and the Public Ministry, the authorities don’t have the teeth to deal with the problem – only two cases of assassinations have been resolved in trials over the last decade.

Our attempts to tackle Guatemala’s culture of impunity have met with a deeper problem. The mainstream media won’t cover our issues and label us “radicals”. They censor our point of view because they hold a monopoly on the large property and business interests we’re up against. Our blogs get hacked and shut down, but there’s no proper legal framework to remedy this.

In the future, we have to continue to hold the human rights bar quite high and provide no opportunity to move backwards. If we can achieve this effectively, we can begin to see the fruits of our labour.

Claudia Samayoa’s NGO, the Unit for Protection of Human Rights Defenders – Guatemala (Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos – Guatemala, UDEFEGUA).

Pablo Pacheco Ávila, 41, independent journalist and blogger, Cuba.

In 2003, I was sentenced to 20 years in prison for my work as an independent journalist in Cuba.

Prison conditions were terrible – solitary cells with no sunlight and a toilet in the same cell. I lost 30 lbs and suffered long-term damage to my knees. My family was only allowed to visit once every three months.

I was transferred to other prisons, including in Canaletas, 8 km from my home. This was the most sensitive period of my imprisonment – I was held in a 6m by 7m cell with some 20 other people, including common criminals. There, I lost hope. Several of the prisoners committed suicide.

In May 2010, the Cuban government announced it was closing the case against me and others imprisoned during the “Black Spring” of 2003. But instead of being freed in Cuba, we were to be deported to Spain.

It’s difficult to explain what I felt when they announced that – it was a mixture of uncertainty and hope. I wasn’t able to visit my family upon my release – we were brought straight to the airport.

Now I’m living in Málaga, and while I’m grateful for the solidarity the Spanish people have shown us, our experience has been full of the difficulties of exile.

My message to journalists and human rights defenders working in Cuba today is one of hope, respect and solidarity. We’re living in a historical moment, one that’s very important for Cuba.

Civil society in Cuba has already lost its fear to speak out, and the world needs to support their efforts. Cubans deserve better.

Pablo Pacheco’s blog, Voces del Destierro (Voices of Exile)