UNSOLVED: Five human rights defenders whose killers remain at large

Every other day since 1998 – the year when the UN adopted a declaration pledging to protect human rights defenders – someone has been killed or forcibly disappeared just for standing up for human rights.

Lawyers, journalists, environmentalists, teachers and many other people who speak out about human rights violations are often targeted by those with powerful interests who don’t like them getting in the way.

After these attacks, which have been on the rise globally for many years, it can seem almost impossible for relatives and friends to get justice, and many cases remain unsolved years later.

When this happens, it has a knock-on effect on the whole of society. Imagine being from a marginalized group and finding out that not only had a brave individual who spoke out for your rights just been killed – but their attackers were probably going to get away with it.

That’s why it’s so important that we don’t let states sweep these attacks under the carpet.

To mark Human Rights Day 2017, Amnesty International is standing with human rights defenders and their families and shining a light on five unsolved killings:


© Kontras
© Kontras

What happened? On 7 September 2004, Munir Said Thalib, an Indonesian human rights lawyer, boarded a flight from Jakarta to the Netherlands. He never made it to Amsterdam. During the flight he was slipped a lethal dose of arsenic, which killed him mid-air.

Why? Munir was one of Indonesia’s best known human rights defenders. He had campaigned for individuals who had been subjected to enforced disappearance, and helped to uncover evidence of human rights violations by the Indonesian security forces. Munir’s work put him in constant danger, and he knew his life was at risk. Just over a year before his death, a bomb exploded outside his home.

Justice? NO

Although three people have now been convicted for their involvement in Munir’s death, those responsible for planning it have not been brought to justice. After Munir’s death, his wife Suciwati continued to receive threats, including a package containing a chicken’s head and a note warning her not to involve the military in investigations.


What happened? On the morning of 15 July 2009, human rights defender and journalist Natalia Estemirova left her flat in Grozny, the capital of the southern Russian republic of Chechnya, to go to work. On her way to the bus stop she was dragged into a car by unidentified armed men and driven away. Her body was later found by a roadside, with gunshot wounds to her chest and head.

Why? Natalia was one of Russia’s leading human rights defenders. She documented grave human rights violations committed in the second Chechen conflict, such as torture, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances. To carry out this work she had to brave constant threats and intimidation from the Chechen authorities.

Justice? NO

The federal authorities launched an investigation and there were promises at the highest level – from the then President Dmitry Medvedev – that the murder would be solved. However, more than eight years later, there is no progress in finding out who killed Natalia Estemirova. The investigation has also failed to address the possible involvement of the authorities in Natalia’s killing, and the perpetrators are still at large.


What happened? On 12 August 2016, the body of Hande Kader, a young transgender activist, was found in Istanbul days after she went missing. She had been raped, mutilated and burnt. Hande was a sex worker and was last seen getting into a car, apparently with a client.

Why? In Turkey, as in many countries, discrimination and marginalization associated with sex work make sex worker’s rights activists a target for attacks. This discrimination is multiplied for trans sex workers –

Turkey has one of the highest trans murder rates in Europe. Hande was especially prominent. In 2015 she had been photographed, sobbing but defiant, in front of police who were throwing tear gas and pepper-ball projectiles to disperse Istanbul’s LGBTIQ Pride march.

Justice? NO

More than a year after Hande’s death, no one has been prosecuted. Meanwhile, the situation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people in Turkey continues to deteriorate. In 2017, Istanbul’s Pride march was banned again.


© Amnesty International
© Amnesty International

What happened? In April 2016, men with machetes burst into the Dhaka flat of Xulhaz Mannan, a well-known activist on LGBTIQ issues in Bangladesh, and hacked him and a colleague to death.

Why? Xulhaz was a founder of Bangladesh’s only magazine dedicated to LGBTIQ issues, a daring venture in a country where same-sex relations are illegal. His attackers are believed to belong to Ansar al-Islam, the same extremist group responsible for a spate of similar assaults on bloggers promoting atheism, feminism, science and other secular issues.

Justice? NO

Over a year since the attack, and despite evidence including eyewitness testimony and CCTV footage, no one has been charged for the killings. On top of this slow police response, the government has shifted blame onto the victims. Shortly after Xulhaz’s murder, a government minister stated that movements promoting “unnatural sex” are not allowed in Bangladeshi society.

This reluctance or unwillingness to find and charge Xulhaz’s killers sends a devastating message to LGBTIQ activists and others who challenge social structures, harmful practices and gender stereotypes with their work, and encourages further attacks on them.


What happened? In 2016, Sikhosiphi Rhadebe, a South African environmental rights defender known as “Bazooka”, learned he was at the top of a “hit list”. Hours later, he was shot eight times in the head by two men who arrived at his home claiming to be police officers.

Why? For decades, “Bazooka” had opposed a project by an Australian company to build a titanium mine on communal land. He was chairman of an organization called Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), which argued that the project would destroy the environment, pollute drinking water and evict hundreds of people from their ancestral lands.

Justice? NO

Nobody has been brought to justice so far for Bazooka’s death, increasing the risks for other activists opposing the mine. Nonhle Mbuthuma, one of Bazooka’s colleagues, said that the impunity for Bazooka’s killing had perpetuated a cycle of fear and violence, and that “people who could potentially put the government in a bad light… are attacked and their work is undermined”.

That’s why Amnesty International is campaigning to ensure that justice is served in these and many other cases. We owe it to all these brave people whose fight for human rights cost them their lives to bring those responsible to justice.