FoRB on the Frontlines: Ricardo Fernández Izaguirre

Ricardo Fernández Izaguirre is a Cuban religious freedom defender who was arbitrarily detained on Friday 12 July by state security agents after leaving the headquarters of the Ladies in White in Havana where he had been documenting violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). He spent a week in detention, the first four days of which he was completely incommunicado and unable to make or receive contact from family or friends.

On 19 July Ricardo was released. In this interview he details his experience, and explains why he will continue to stand up for FoRB in Cuba despite his recent imprisonment.

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“The work of defenders of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Cuba is a long road which includes disappointments (when victims refuse to report their experiences) and government repression, as political police persecute, attack, harass, and imprison those who try to uphold human rights. But the sincere gratitude of those who see their cases resolved, and the profound conviction that God supports every step we take, bringing hope, like sheep surrounded by wolves (Matthew 10:16) is what can be found at the end of this road.

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Long read: Eritreans wonder why their president is “making peace with everyone but the Eritrean people”

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On the morning of 17 September, Eritrean security operatives arrested former Minister of Finance Berhane Abrehe in Asmara.  According to local reports, 73 year old Mr Abrehe was out having breakfast with his son when he was approached by security agents and instructed to accompany them.

The arrest followed the publication and launch of a two-volume book authored by Mr Abrehe entitled ‘Eritra Hageray’ (Eritrea My Country) in Washington DC. The book is described on the cover as presenting an Eritrean plan on how to end dictatorship and prevent it from happening again. The book received endorsements from several former Eritrean officials in exile, and were accompanied by an audio clip in which Mr Abrehe called, among other things, for the convening of the National Assembly and challenged President Afwerki to a public debate.

Mr Abrehe is currently in an unknown location.  He has been unwell for some time, and there are legitimate concerns for his wellbeing.  Mr Abrehe’s wife, Almaz Habtemariam, has been detained since early 2018, in reprisal for one of their four children fleeing the country.  Both he and his wife are veterans of the liberation struggle.

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Thousands of Eritreans of all faiths and none are detained without charge or trial in Eritrea. Join us as we protest for change.

Tank Cemetry, Outside Asmara
Tank Cemetry, Outside Asmara

Germano Nati Gojo, an Eritrean politician, was arrested at his home by security agents as he listened to the radio on his veranda. One agent stood outside the gate. The other entered and said: “Sir, we need you on a work-related issue”. Saying nothing, Germano Nati Gojo stood up, went to change his clothes and left with them. His two younger children, then aged 16 and 12, witnessed this. The family has not seen or heard from him in 17 years, despite inquiring.

His eldest son, Yona Germano Nati, addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2018.  He spoke of how his father had joined the struggle for independence of Eritrea in 1976, shared the story of his father’s enforced disappearance in September 2001, and described their poignant last meeting prior to the arrest, during which his father expressed his readiness to be jailed alongside his pro-reform colleagues who are now known collectively as the G 15.

Continue reading “Thousands of Eritreans of all faiths and none are detained without charge or trial in Eritrea. Join us as we protest for change.”

No Ifs, No Buts: Torture Should Be Universally Condemned

“He was forced to take medicine. They stuffed the pills into his mouth… After taking the pills he felt pain in his muscles and his vision was blurred… He was beaten. He endured gruelling questioning while being denied sleep for days on end…” 

Wang Qiaoling describing the torture of her husband, lawyer Li Heping

“Even our breaths were suppressed. No voices. No texts. No images. No talking. No walking. Our hands, feet, our posture…every body movement was strictly limited. We needed permission for even the most trivial action”.

 Lawyer Zhao Wei, the youngest legal assistant detained in the 709 Crackdown

“Prisoners were also put in cages submerged mostly in water, and left inside for seven days, the entire body underwater with a space to breath at the top. As they stood in the water and tried to sleep, rats would scurry about outside the cage, biting their nose and ears.” 

Letter to world leaders by ‘709’ Family Members

These are just a few accounts of the torture experienced by human rights lawyers in China. Over 300 lawyers, activists, colleagues and family members were detained, interrogated or disappeared in a sweeping crackdown beginning on 9 July 2015, dubbed the 709 Crackdown. Two years on, most have been released, some on “bail” conditions amounting to house arrest, but with news of their release have come numerous testimonies of physical and psychological torture including frequent beatings, sleep deprivation, forced medication, violent threats, and prolonged isolation.

Use of torture in China

Lawyers and activists are by no means the only victims of torture. Many of the lawyers caught up in the crackdown had defended clients who had been tortured by police or security agents, including those arrested in connection with their religion or belief such as Falun Gong practitioners and Christians associated with unregistered churches, as well as those accused of crimes not related to politics or religion.

Li Heping reunion
Human rights lawyer, Li Heping (right) pictured with his brother Li Chunfu (left) following his release from detention.
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Eritrea Protest Vigil 2017

Heather Fenton protesting.JPG

Three years ago, I found myself at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), playing a game with an eight year old girl – I would say the name of an animal and she would draw it.  She was an Eritrean refugee and had come to the HRC with her parents as part of a delegation who were there to give testimony at a side event. Her entire family had been detained by the government, locked up with others in a shipping container. She shared memories of the entire place smelling awful, of being freezing cold at night and roasting hot during the day and of how she and her other siblings joked about which family member was covered with the most lice. A serious issue was turned into a game as their parents did  their best to shield their children from the full force of the horrors they were experiencing.

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