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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The Impact of Sudan’s Identity War on Freedom of Religion or Belief

In June 2016, CSW joined a number of African and international civil society organisations in signing and delivering a letter marking the fifth anniversary of the conflicts in South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions, to 10 Downing Street. The letter urged the Prime Minister to use the UK’s considerable influence to ensure that international human rights and humanitarian law are respected.
Sudan protest
Protesters walked from the Sudanese Embassy in London to Downing Street to deliver the letter. Among those taking part, it was striking to see veiled and unveiled Sudanese women from the Nuba Mountains, people from other parts of South Kordofan and Darfur, young children, and men in traditional Nuba dress united in calling for an end to all conflicts in Sudan.

This demonstration of unity in diversity was compelling, as was the cry for peace and freedom for all Sudanese citizens. The repression of religious and ethnic diversity in Sudan has been used repeatedly by President al Bashir’s government to sustain his 27-year rule, and what was clearly expressed on that overcast Saturday afternoon in London was the longing for an end to conflicts that serve to perpetuate a divisive government and for a lasting peace in which people can live side by side without fear, regardless of their cultural, linguistic, ethnic or religious differences.

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The Courage of Cuba’s Ladies in White

Ladies in White

Ladies in White

Every Sunday Cuba’s Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco, in Spanish) have been forcibly and often violently prevented from attending Sunday morning services. Every Sunday since the group was formed in 2003, the women attend (or at least attempt to attend) Sunday Mass dressed in white to symbolise peace and walk through the streets in silent protest afterwards.

The Ladies in White movement was formed in response to the Black Spring in 2003 – a mass crackdown by the Cuban government on dissidents and journalists. Since 2010, all of the Black Spring prisoners have now been released. However, political prisoners remain in Cuba and the Ladies in White, a movement largely comprised of wives and other female relatives of former and current political prisoners remain active.

As the world marks International Women’s Day on 8 March, CSW commends their courage and peaceful protest, which saw them awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2005.

Weekly crackdown on the right to worship

On Sunday 1 February 2015, a member of the group, Mayelin Pena Bullain, was detained, beaten, kicked in the chest by a security agent in Mayabeque province and then imprisoned for the duration of Mass.

Individual cases of this kind number in the thousands. Arbitrary detentions like this are a weekly occurrence and similar incidences of harassment, threat and violence against the women have also been documented. While many women are detained in prison cells or at police stations during Mass, others have been handcuffed and kept in hot cars in the sun for up to six hours. In many cases, following detention, women are dropped off in remote locations forcing them to find their way home.

From 19 to 22 September 2015, 116 members of the Ladies in White were arrested and detained across the country, presumably to stop them from travelling to attend the activities around Pope Francis’s visit to the country. His visit to Cuba and the associated religious activities were not exempt from the government’s attempts to separate members of independent civil society from bodies of faith.

These incidences are indicative of how the government has extensively sought to prevent Cubans from exercising their right to worship. The government is particularly concerned with separating those it views as political dissidents from communities of faith as part of a more general policy of social isolation.  In 2015, the scope of those who have been targeted in Saturday night and Sunday morning police sweeps expanded to include other individuals associated with independent civil society, including human rights and democracy activists. Each weekend the authorities either block targeted individuals in their homes or detain them without charges – sometimes violently.

An unprecedented spike in FoRB violations

The backdrop to the arrests and detentions of the Ladies in White is an unprecedented crackdown on the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Cuba in 2015. During 2015, CSW recorded over 2,300 separate violations, some involving entire churches and others, in the case of arrests, dozens of victims. For the first time in four years, a church leader was sentenced to and served six months in prison for holding unauthorised religious services. It is a crackdown that continued through 2016 and into 2017.

In the weekly Sunday arrests, the majority of those targeted are Roman Catholic and members of the Ladies in White. Yet every week the Ladies in White peacefully defy the state by attending Mass knowing they may be harassed, beaten and arbitrarily detained.

Today we commend the Ladies in White’s persistent protest in the face of adversity and stand in solidarity with them in calling for the freedom of political prisoners in Cuba and for the freedom of all Cubans to assemble and worship without harassment or arrest.

By Claire Denman, CSW’s Public Affairs Officer