Rights defenders

‘My son was murdered and the police did nothing’

September 8, 2009, Guardian Weekly, UK
Reprinted in Ethics in Action, Hong Kong, The Alaiwah archive on Human Rights, Pakistan, and by the Aboriginal News Service

Journalist and activist Baseer Naweed encountered the opaque operations of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies when his son Faraz Ahmed was kidnapped, tortured and killed outside his office during a major campaign against corruption. Five years and various threats later, he works for the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, but is no closer to the truth.

Faraz Naweed. Photograph: supplied by Baseer Naweed

My whole life I have been an activist. I was a student leader, then joined trade unions, then became an investigative journalist. I wouldn’t say that my son was following me; in fact he would tell me I was making compromises. He’d probably have called himself an anarchist back then.

When he was 14 he started writing on his own, though at that time I didn’t know it. In fact he was like an ordinary Muslim, going…

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A Thankless Task

August 22, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong
August 27, Sri Lanka Guardian, Sri Lanka, and and as ‘Thankless tasks: Rights defenders in Sri Lanka & Pakistan’ in Selected Articles on politics, human rights & the rule of law in South Asia, Article 2, Vol. 08 – No. 03, September 2009 (PDF)

As a truth commission secretary MCM Iqbal helped gathered evidence on thousands of forced disappearances in Sri Lanka, only to see it disappear itself

As President Mahinda Rajapaksa speaks of ushering Sri Lankans into a new era of peace, a slight, bespectacled man in his sixties watches him from across an ocean with the weariness of a man who has tried and failed to call his bluff.

MCM Iqbal was secretary to two of Sri Lanka’s ‘truth commissions’, presidential commissions of inquiry into the 30,000 or more forced disappearances that took place in the late eighties and early nineties in the south, during a dirty war that many believe has yet to run its…

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Civil Action

July 5, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong
Reprinted in human rights periodical Article 2, Hong Kong

In Sri Lanka, victims of police torture are harassed, intimidated and even killed for speaking out against their tormentors. But a new witness protection bill may make walking the legal path a little safer.

Caught on a rare tea break, Father Nandana Manatunga bats at the ‘tsunami’ flies that whirl around his head and ponders a Sri Lankan newpaper headline: “Witness protection bill boost to human rights”. You get the feeling he’d like to be batting at something – or someone – else.

Manatunga and his small team at the  Kandy Human Rights Office are preparing for a  biannual “victims’ get-together”, a mix of Buddhists and Christians, ethnic Sinhalese and Tamil, refugees from sexual abuse and police brutality – far from the conflict-ridden north of the country. Because many of the party-goers are youngsters, presents are being wrapped in brown envelopes: Mickey Mouse mugs,…

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Inside Burma

June 26, 2009, Guardian Weekly, UK
Reprinted in the Burma Digest, and Euro-Burma

Fred Taino is a Burmese-speaking human rights defender who regularly visits Burma. Following a recent trip to Burma’s biggest city, Yangon, he describes the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, how locals are fighting repression, human rights abuses and how tourists have deserted the country.

Yangon looks different after Nargis. About 70% of the big trees collapsed so the view of the city has changed; much more is revealed. The tragedy is remarkable for the fact that many either lost their entire families in the cyclone, or they lost no one. I haven’t come across anyone who just lost an uncle or grandfather because in the places that were hit nearly everyone was swept out to sea and drowned. I asked about one monastery I have stayed in and was told that two of the monks had lost relatives, and for both it was their entire extended families. One man’s entire village was wiped off the map.

The psychological…

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‘It was a whole traumatised society’

May 21, 2009, Guardian Weekly, UK
May 29, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

International criminal lawyer Carla Ferstman works for human rights organisation Redress. She talks about her experience of seeking justice for victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the rights of torture victims, and why she prefers not to talk about work at weddings.

I was a criminal defense lawyer in Vancouver for two and a half years after graduation and I was looking for a little bit of a diversion, and a friend of mine told me they were looking for prosecutors to go work in Rwanda. I went out in ‘95 with the UN High Commission for Human Rights without any international experience. I’m from Montreal and they were looking for criminal lawyers that spoke English and French, but had no associations with France, which was a Rwandan preference then for political reasons. I expected to go for three months and ended up being there for two years.

When I was there the genocide had ended…

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Raising the Bar

May 18, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

Jo Baker meets a lawyer who backed Pakistan’s rebel judiciary, and lost more than his freedom

People have given up all kinds of things for their country, but Pakistani lawyer Muneer Malik’s forfeit was both brutal and peculiar. The more predictable sacrifices had already been made – his family were harassed, his colleagues beaten and his freedom temporarily taken away – but in solitary confinement in Pakistan’s notorious Attock Fort last November, Malik’s jailers chose to deprive him of one more thing: working kidneys. Who exactly was behind his poisoning, whether it was deliberate and whether, as some people believe, it was a murder attempt, has yet to come to light.

Earlier that year the Pakistan courts had been in disarray. Cases for ‘disappeared’ persons were piling up, corruption scandals were rife and Supreme Court judges were growing uncomfortably close to the cabinet of General Pervez Musharraf. It was unhappiness…

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Hope for Sri Lanka’s child victims

January 1, 2009, Guardian Weekly, UK

Torture has become a familiar feature of criminal investigations in Sri Lanka, where children as young as seven have experienced abuse under interrogation. At a small human rights unit in Kandy city, a Catholic priest has created a vital support system for the victims of police brutality. Father Nandana Manatunga relates the – often tragic – cases he has tried to help with.

Our torture act passed 1994, but until about 2000 there was not a single case filed against anybody for torture in Sri Lanka. I opened my human rights office five years ago and since then we have cared for about 22 victims – most of them children, ranging from seven years to 20. Many of them were quite young when they came to us, and now some are young adults. Cases here take years.

The torture is mostly done by the police or the armed forces. Victims are often too scared to fight back, but now a lot of them are trying to – they want to do something…

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Courage under Fire

July 7, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

A Catholic priest is helping to give hope to young human rights victims

With a rakish side parting and a smile behind his eyes, it’s hard to imagine Father Nandana Manatunga at work, not because his job involves kids – for that he seems well suited – but because of the situations his wards come to him in. Dancing eyes seem at odds with the grim task of torture rehabilitation.

The small island nation off the coast of India often hits the news for the long-waged and bloody war between its government and the Tamil Tiger separatists, but there are domestic issues that affect the populace even more deeply. Father Nandana runs the Kandy Human Rights Office, a young, independent organisation in Kandy, Sri Lanka that takes care of child victims of police brutality and sexual abuse, and helps them and their families take their cases through the courts. His story brings to light a collapsing legal system and a police…

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