by Andy Paul
The room filled quickly with coughs and sneezes as the last members arrived at the Four Points Sheraton, shaking off the rainy fall morning in Los Angeles. Amnesty International, now in its 50th year of human rights advocacy, has been an omnipresent voice for the forgotten people of the world. These are people who have been imprisoned for nebulous crimes or their own vocalization of advocacy. While in custody these prisoners receive unimaginable treatment, hoping to one day be released. These are just a few of their stories from the Amnesty International Western Regional Conference’s concluding plenary on November 6:
Ann Burroughs: The moderator of the plenary, Burroughs was imprisoned during the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. For her actions against institutional racism, the government attempted to accuse her of treason while she did jail time. Through her introduction, Burroughs conveyed how essential organizations such as Amnesty are in freeing people such as herself.
Melissa Roxas: While doing healthcare work in the Philipines, Roxas was abducted by the Philippine army May 19 2009, despite being an American citizen, and tortured for the next few weeks (covered in this Democracy Now! video with Amy Goodman). In her address, she explained that torture has “long been a state policy,” and that her story is just one of many. “The vast majority of people that are being targeted for these disappearings and killings are activists,” Roxas said; people who have been doing developmental work with indigenous groups, healthcare workers, etc.
Roxas is an American citizen and at the time was working for “Happy Heart,” a nonprofit medical caregiver. It was for her desire to help that she was accused of insurrection.
Held in secret detention in solitary confinement for six days, she was handcuffed and blindfolded the whole time. As she broke down in tears she said, “I’ve spoken in front of audiences many times, but it doesn’t make it any easier. But it’s important for you to know because there are many people who cannot talk about it.” It is something that stays with you, Roxas stressed.
For the next 6 days, she was beaten, had a plastic bag placed over her head, and the torture continued despite her demand for a lawyer and her assertion that she was merely an activist, not a part of the Philippine’s anti-government communist rebellion.
The Philippines is the biggest recipient of U.S. aid in Southeast Asia. We continue to provide this aid and training despite such human rights violations. The government is currently engaged in a brutal war with anti-government movements, particularly on the island of Mindanao.
She then read a poem, written from the perspective of a mother of a torture victim.
“The aim of torture is to silence
[and] break the spirit…I refuse to give up hope.”
Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, Sara Shourd:
Captured hiking in Kurdish Iraq along the border with Iran (see below for link to “Free Shane and Josh”) in 2009, these three young activists made headline news around the world for their ordeal. Throughout their addresses, they all reflected that it was “strange to come out of a cell 46 days ago and then be here in front of you. It’s strange to be called a hiker.” Clearly, these three are more than just imprisoned hikers.
“For 26 months, Josh and I lived in total uncertainty of our fate,” said Shane. The three were on a vacation to Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region since 1991. Kurdistan has been known for its popularity as a tourist destination and according to Shane, “No American has ever been captured or killed there.” That is of course until the three of them were.
The three were captured while hiking close to the border and held in the same prison as Naserine Satsumeh, human rights lawyers, bloggers, and essentially any other type of human rights. “None of these people should be in prison and their fates are entirely uncertain,” they said
But they also brought to attention how an aggressive political game conducted by the U.S. has affected not only the continuation of Iran in holding the three of them, but also that our own track record in prisoner detention and treatment is not so great. They noted that Bradley Manning is still in prison for leaking a film about the U.S. to WikiLeaks. The U.S. currently has more than two million people locked up behind bars. There are roughly 30,000 people in solitary confinement in the U.S.,more than any where in the world.
Josh noted how they were quickly “catapulted into civilian life where everyday is blessed with variety and novelty.” Upon his freedom however, he was forced to grapple with bitterness and attempt to live a “life of forgive and forget.” “Bitterness closes your heart and clenches your body. It’s like a fire that burns you while you’re trying to burn your enemy.”
“On September 21, Shane and I were released but Troy Davis was murdered.” Troy Davis, who controversially received the death penalty this year despite widespread public support behind him, served as a catalyst for an ongoing movement against the death penalty.
“My freedom and my life literally depended on what people were doing on the outside.”
But when does imprisonment cross the fine line into torture? Sara explained her 14 months of solitary. The first three and a half months she was kept alone for 24 hours a day except for interrogation. She had no contact with anyone but her captors. The three eventually decided to hunger strike until they were allowed to see each other, which required not eating for five days.
“Prolonged solitary confinement is torture…[but] there is a slippery definition of solitary in international law (See below for her OpEd in NYTimes “Solitary is torture)”
The People of Iran need voices. As a result they made clear that they were lucky to be able to be out not just for their own personal freedom, but to help tell these people’s stories. There is a lot of work yet to be done. Their Iranian lawyer has been detained and questioned, passport stripped although he was merely “working within the structure of the Iranian legal system.”
But a major theme was hope. “Deep hope is contagious…when a street vendor takes his own life, when people occupy a city,” they said. Their struggle wasn’t just for their own survival. It was also for people just like them, enduring the same thing. As Troy Davis put it before his execution:
The struggle for justice doesn’t end with me. This struggle is for all the Troy Davis’ that came before and all that will come after.
Palden Gyatso: President Nelson Mandela, according to Burroughs, venerated Gyatso and his personal struggle for the freedom of the Tibetan people. When the Chinese invaded in 1951 to “liberate” its people, many, particularly in the Tibetan Buddhist community stood up to the ensuing occupation. Palden Gyatso was arrested in 1959 when he refused to give the names of other Tibetans involved in such movements.
He was then held in Drapchi prison for the next 33 years, and endured brutal torture. As images of some of the “tools” used in Drapchi prison were displayed behind Gyatso–knives, pliers, pokers, rasps–the
collected monk calmly closed his eyes. The film Fire Under the Snow explains how he lost his teeth when a cattle prod was inserted into his mouth time and time again.
“Before I was imprisoned all I did was recite my prayers and focus on compassionate thoughts,” he explained.
When asked how he sustained himself in prison, he gave the two following reasons:
- He is an unwavering follower of Buddhist teachings
- The recollection that many others have suffered more than he did
While he complimented Amnesty International for its ability to free people and others, he took care to address the gravity of the situation. “Things have become so desperate in Tibet.” Self-immolations have become more frequent. Movements in Nepal and India have increased in their frequency and the situation has become dire.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I heard this. I couldn’t imagine the sheer desperation that one must feel to have no other choice but to light oneself on fire to send a message. Think about it. You have been stripped of your home, way of life, and forced to live in exile. No one seems to be listening.
When asked, How can we help Tibetans in their fight for freedom and human rights, Gyatso responded:
“Wherever you are born you have the right to self-determination…we as Tibetans are being denied our right to practice our way of life.”
Chinese rule in Tibet is stripping Tibetans of their rights and as a result, the political and cultural fate of the Tibetan people is increasingly uncertain. This is made more grave by the fact that the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking monk in Tibetan Buddhism, is still missing following his capture by the Chinese in 1995.
His final words flowed quickly in Tibetan, and the translator explained in urgency:
“Continue with your work…you are helping people all over the world… who are suffering oppression and suffering…Your help is of tremendous importance.”
The Tibetan people desperately want their country back. Many feel as though the international community has abandoned them, and rightfully so. But there is hope. People are becoming aware every day of the desperation and plight of the Tibetan people. Accordingly, spreading their message and standing with them in solidarity is of the utmost importance.
The Search for the Panchen Lama by Isabel Hilton
Palden Gyatso’s Fire Under the Snow
Amnesty International’s Education Under Fire
Free Shane and Josh (Part 1)
Free Shane and Josh (Part 2)