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Source: Amnesty International NZ

Amnesty International’s annual Write for Rights campaign is here again and this year it has kicked off in true Kiwi style in the sun and surf by Auckland’s Mission Bay beach.  Homeland actress Nazanin Boniadi who is in New Zealand filming the upcoming Lord of the Rings series joined Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand to head the launch. 

It’s the world’s biggest human rights campaign, each year garnering millions of letters calling for justice for human rights defenders across the globe. Last year over six and half million actions were taken – an annual increase for the 18th consecutive year. The case of Yasaman Aryani in Iran received over one million actions alone. 

It’s a chance for any person to pick up a pen and demand action on a human rights case. It’s also a chance for governments to end injustices against people who are detained or persecuted because of their beliefs or who they are. 

 Amnesty International Community Manager Margaret Taylor says it’s easy to get involved in Write for Rights.

“Anyone can do it; you don’t have to be an expert on human rights to see when someone has been wronged. The millions of people who take part in Write for Rights each year stand for the freedom and dignity of all people.” 

Margaret Taylor, Community Manager, Amnesty International

Taylor says COVID-19 has brought out the best in people, but sometimes the worst in governments.  

“If COVID-19 has taught us one thing, it’s that in times of crisis people come together. It’s disappointing that some governments have seen this as an opportunity to suppress people. But we know that when enough of us speak out, governments do listen, and make improvements. Simply writing letters has proven to be a life-saving act for those we stand with. People are regularly freed from death row or prison, have charges against them dropped and are reunited with whānau.” 

She adds the campaign allows for people to write letters and children to draw pictures that show solidarity with those experiencing human rights abuses. It also gives people the resources to directly ask authorities to correct injustices. 

“These messages of support are like a hug, letting human rights defenders know they are not alone, while also letting governments know we are aware of their wrongdoing. It’s why I encourage everyone to get involved, in your lunch break, or at a social gathering; pull people together ahead of Christmas and be a part of this life-saving campaign in the season of giving.” 

Margaret Taylor, Community Manager, Amnesty International

Write for Rights will run from 20 November to 31 December 2020. 

To get involved or find out more click here.

Background: Write for Rights: The world’s biggest human rights campaign 

Every December, people around the world write millions of letters, emails, Tweets, Facebook posts and postcards for those whose human rights are under attack, in what has become the world’s biggest human rights event. The ten cases selected for Write for Rights 2020 include human rights defenders and individuals in Algeria, Burundi, Chile, Colombia, Malta, Myanmar, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Turkey. 

Gustavo Gatica is a psychology student in Santiago, Chile. On 8 November 2019, he attended a protest over rising inequality, part of mass demonstrations that made headlines all over the world for being an inspiring example of people power. Police violently repressed this protest, repeatedly opening fire on demonstrators with shotguns loaded with rubberized buck shots. 

Gustavo was struck in both eyes and left permanently blinded. Amnesty International is calling for a full investigation into the events that led to Gustavo being injured and for the commanders in charge to be held responsible.  

In Malta, three teenage boys from Ivory Coast and Guinea are in prison awaiting trial on baseless terrorism charges after acting as interpreters for the captain and crew of a Maltese tanker which came to rescue them – and more than 100 other migrants – from their sinking rubber boat. 

Initially the captain wanted to take the 114 people, including 20 women and at least 15 children, back to Garabulli in Libya, where they would have been at risk of abuses, including detention in inhumane conditions, extortion and torture. However, after discussions with the migrants, the captain and crew agreed to take them to Malta instead. 

But on arrival in Malta, the three teenagers, who had acted as translators, were arrested for allegedly hijacking the boat and forcing the captain to take them to Malta. They are now accused of very serious offences that could carry life sentences, just for opposing an unlawful return to torture. Amnesty International is demanding justice for the “El Hiblu 3” and calling for the charges against the youths (now aged 21, 18 and 16) to be dropped. 

Among the other cases are: 

  • Germain Rukuki, a Burundian human rights defender and prisoner of conscience serving a 32-year prison sentence. He was convicted on account of his human rights work. Amnesty International is calling for his immediate and unconditional release. 

  • Jani Silva, an environmental defender representing hundreds of peasants (campesinos) in the Putumayo region of Colombia, who are continually threatened by illegal groups, the military, drug traffickers and multinational companies. In Colombia, human rights defenders face a high level of persecution, repression, threats, criminalization, and killings. Amnesty International is calling for protection for Jani Silva and human rights defenders like her. 

  • METU LGBTI solidarity group, whose members face a prison sentence for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Turkey.  LGBTI students at the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara have been organizing an annual Pride march on campus for years without restrictions. In 2019, the peaceful event was broken up by police. Students and an academic were detained and beaten, and the case is now in court. Amnesty International is calling for the acquittal of all those who have been charged, an investigation into the excessive use of force by police, and for students to have the freedom to hold peaceful marches on campus. 

  • Idris Khattak from Pakistan, a researcher on enforced disappearances for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, was – in a cruel twist – forcibly disappeared himself on 13 November 2019, and may now be charged with espionage. Amnesty International is calling for his immediate release. 

  

Campaign successes 

As seen in previous years, writing letters really does bring about change for the individuals whose cases are highlighted in Write for Rights, and also offers enormous emotional support and encouragement to them and their families. 

Nigerian teenager Moses Akatugba was arrested and sentenced to death when he was 15 years old, after being accused of stealing three phones. In 2019, he was released, after 800,000 Amnesty International supporters showed their support. 

“I was on death row because the police claimed I stole three phones,” says Moses. “But now I’m free, because people like you wrote letters to support me. After eight years in jail, and 800,000 letters from Amnesty International supporters all over the world, I was released. Those letters kept my fire burning. I am alive today because of these letters. So your letters can save a life.” 

In July 2020, a South Sudanese man had his death sentence quashed, due in part to Write for Rights. According to his testimony in court, Magai Matiop Ngong fired his father’s gun at the ground to warn off his cousin, who was trying to stop him fighting with another boy in his neighbourhood. The bullet ricocheted and hit his cousin, who later died in hospital. Magai, who was just 15 at the time, faced trial for murder without a lawyer. He was convicted and sentenced to death. 

Our research shows that the death penalty is disproportionately used against poor and disadvantaged people. According to international law, and South Sudanese law, sentencing a child to death is illegal. 

More than 765,000 people took action and wrote to the South Sudanese government expressing solidarity with Magai. The South Sudan Court of Appeal eventually quashed the death sentence imposed on Magai because he was a child at the time of the crime, and sent his case back to the High Court to rule on an appropriate sentence. 

“The power of individual action to save lives and hold governments to account must never be underestimated. Year on year we see the powerful impact that simply writing a letter or email can deliver,” said Julie Verhaar. 

“Write for Rights is all about individuals helping other individuals, and this way of expressing our shared humanity has never been more important and relevant. Governments must respond to this widespread desire for change by delivering justice to those whose human rights are being attacked.” 

MIL OSI