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States can no longer turn a blind eye to jailed human rights defenders

Urgent issue concerns every United Nations-member state

| Thailand
The ambassador of the permanent representative mission of Afghanistan to Geneva listens to a statement during the Human Rights Council special session at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva on Aug. 24.   © Keystone/AP

Mary Lawlor is the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. She is adjunct professor of business and human rights in the Centre for Social Innovation at Trinity College Dublin.

When Lodkham Thammavong attended a peaceful demonstration in Thailand about human rights abuses in her native Laos, she had no idea it would land her in prison. But soon after her return home to Laos, she was arrested and sentenced to 12 years in jail after an unfair trial.

She and her colleagues were forced to make false confessions, paraded on national television to apologize for being traitors, and denied their rights to legal representation. She was found guilty of various vague charges, including "treason to the nation, propaganda against the state and gatherings tied at causing social disorder."

Lodkham's story is disturbing, but it is by no means unique.

She is just one of an unknown number of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) kept in detention for long periods around the world for their peaceful advocacy for the rights of others. This week I present my latest report "States in Denial: The Long Term Detention of Human Rights Defenders" to the United Nations General Assembly on the widespread and long-term use of this tactic to silence HRDs, and I will publicly ask member states why they are denying that they do this.

I will ask them about Dawit Isaak.

Dawit is Eritrean and Swedish. He was jailed in Eritrea -- a one-party state -- 20 years ago reportedly because the newspaper where he worked featured calls for peaceful democratic dialogue and elections in that country.

We still do not know what crimes he is supposed to have committed, and he has never been given a trial. We hear too that he has been tortured, is held at a remote prison notorious for terrible conditions, that he has been held incommunicado.

Dawit Isaak's wife Sofia Beharane, right, pose with her three children in her home in Goteborg, Sweden, in November 2005: we still do not know what crimes Isaak is supposed to have committed.   © AP

There are many more condemned to long terms in jail, and while the full extent of this problem is unknown, there are HRDs on every continent serving at least 10 years in detention. Some are famous, some relatively unknown, but they are likely to be sentenced on fabricated charges of "terrorism" or "treason" after unfair trials.

Many defenders are held in harsh conditions, have been forced to confess to crimes they did not commit, and are denied regular access to their families. Some are ill and deprived of adequate medical care. Others are at risk of being sentenced to death, and some have died in jail while serving long sentences.

The effect of long term detention on defenders can be devastating -- to themselves, to their families, to their communities and to the civil societies to which they belong. Many defenders serving long sentences feel forgotten or abandoned.

Every U.N. member state -- including some who are on the Human Rights Council -- denies jailing HRDs. When I raise these cases with officials, they often say the person I am talking about is not an HRD but is a terrorist. But I know the difference. In fact, it is because of my decades of experience in this area that the U.N. appointed me as special rapporteur to advise them on who is, and who is not, a defender. Yet when I raise cases of defenders jailed in their own country, officials typically slip into denial.

At times there is a flurry of advocacy and attention around a case when a defender is arrested or convicted, sometimes with intense international media coverage and advocacy. Amnesty International and other NGOs produce detailed, irrefutable evidence on defenders, and devote huge resources to advocating for their release. But even with the most prominent defenders, focus eventually fades over the years as fresh cases demand attention.

Corrupt judiciaries, torture, vague legislation and unfair trials enable these sentences, but the fundamental reason that defenders are held in long term detention is because states want to jail them, and they can.

But jailing HRDs is a red line no state should cross. When I address U.N. member states this week I will remind them it is immoral, illegal, inexcusable and dishonorable, that it exposes their lack of resolution to fulfill the international standards they have committed to uphold, and raises serious questions about their intentions to abide by international agreements they have signed.

Meanwhile, hundreds of defenders remain in jail, serving -- or at risk of serving -- long terms in prison. Unfortunately, the Swedish government's efforts have not been vigorous enough in trying to have their citizen Dawit Isaak released. Nor have the Laos or Thai governments helped in the fight for Lodkham Thammavong's freedom.

That is why I will continue to raise these and many other cases, in Iran and China, in Vietnam and Egypt, in Saudi Arabia and in the United Arab Emirates, in Turkey and Belarus and Honduras and in every country where HRDs are wrongly imprisoned. States might prefer to stay in denial about what they are doing, but I will remind them this week they should release every HRD they have in jail, immediately and unconditionally.

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