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A Palestinian woman in the buffer zone at the Gaza-Israel border on May 14, 2018, the day when Israeli soldiers killed 59 Palestinians (photo: Ali Jadallah)

The Best Human Rights Journalism, April to June 2018

31 stories about 29 human rights issues from 12 places around the world

Previous Best Human Rights Journalism lists: January to March 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015

This year for the first time, the Best Human Rights Journalism list is being published quarterly, and this is the second quarterly list. The reason for the change is that the end-of-year list was simply getting too long — so much great journalism out there. There will still be a (much shorter) year’s-best list at the end of 2018.

There are 31 stories from Africa, Brazil, China (10), El Salvador, Guatemala, India, Israel/Palestine (4), Russia (2), South Africa, Turkey (2) and the United States (10).

The stories are about a wide range of rights issues, including academic freedom; accountability and impunity; business, finance and human rights; children’s rights; corruption; crimes against humanity; democracy and dictatorship; discrimination; due process; extrajudicial and arbitrary detention; extrajudicial killings; family rights; freedom of expression; freedom of the press; genocide; human rights defenders; inequality; LGBT rights; political violence; prisoners’ rights; racism; refugees; the right to health; the right to life; the right to participate in government; the right to privacy; the right of self-determination; violence against women; and women’s rights.

As that list indicates, “human rights” is here understood as those rights in the two principle covenants, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as in the international human rights treaties that emanate out from them; issues related to their abuse, protection and defense; and the nonviolent struggle for their fulfillment. Worth noting is that stories related to democracy are included, since it is a right in itself (ICCPR Article 25) as well as the form of government which best embodies the fulfillment of rights and in practice best guarantees their protection.

There are many other rights about which there are no articles this quarter, and many other places with pressing and important human rights issues. They do not appear on the list for no other reason than that I came across no exceptionally good journalism about them. That said, there has been a noticeable drop in coverage of places with some of the most acute human rights abuses in the world, such as Syria and Yemen, and spotty coverage of other important issues, such as the large amount of political violence and targeted killings related to the July 1 Mexican elections.

Before introducing the list itself, here is an overview of some of the good and bad human rights news of the past three months.

It’s not hard to find bad news these days. Whether it’s easier than ever, I’m not sure, but it’s worth remembering there has been quite a lot of good human rights news lately too. Here are nine stories from the past three months. Most of the victories and successes listed here are partial or incomplete, but that’s the nature of the struggle.

A nonviolent people power revolution succeeded in Armenia, with the protest leader becoming prime minister. Shelters for victims of domestic violence are opening in Tunisia after parliament passed a law last year outlawing a broad range of specific violent acts against women, as well as discrimination against them. In democratic elections, Malaysians managed to unseat the ruling party which had been in power for six decades, even if they needed to work together with the former strongman, who’s now prime minister, to do it. The Irish voted by referendum to repeal a constitutional ban on abortion, opening the way for the government to pass laws to legalize reproductive rights. In El Salvador, the El Mozote massacre trial of 18 now elderly men got underway, 37 years after the largest mass killing in recent Latin American history, of nearly 1,000 people. The European Court of Justice ruled that all EU countries must recognize the rights of gay spouses (there are currently six member states that don’t legally recognize same-sex relationships). Saudi women have been allowed to drive for the first time ever, even while driving activists languish in detention and women are still second-class citizens. Trinidad and Tobago’s High Court struck down anti-homosexuality laws, though the Attorney General has appealed in a case that will go all the way to the UK Privy Council; even if the appeal fails, it could take four more years to strike the laws off the books. Spurred by young people, the March for Our Lives gun control movement kicked into high gear in the United States with a “Road to Change” tour through twenty states beginning on 15 June.

Of course, there’s been a fair share of new bad news too (besides the on-going bad news such as the wars in Syria and Yemen and the mass crackdown on Uighurs in China). Israeli soldiers killed at least 110 Palestinians at protests along the Israel-Gaza border. The Trump administration implemented a policy separating parents and children caught crossing the US-Mexico border illegally, and even after it announced a reversal of the policy in the face of public outrage (a tiny bit of good news perhaps), the U.S. immigration detention system is still a nightmare (a problem, it must be said, that preceded Trump). An eight-year-old Muslim girl was raped and murdered in India, and afterwards, a fair number of Hindu nationalists defended the killers. India just came out ranked the most dangerous country in the world for women. Elections in Hungary and Turkey returned to power strongman rulers who have systematically weakened democratic institutions and empowered themselves. In Mexico, 136 politicians were killed ahead of July 1 national elections, about a third of whom were candidates or potential candidates, and over 600 withdrew as candidates. The Mexican homicide rate is the highest ever, with upwards of 30,000 murdered in 2017, and it’s climbing. Sometimes news is not what does happen but what doesn’t: In Brazil, three months after the murder of Marielle Franco, her killers have still not been caught.

Starting with five stand-out articles on the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador 37 years on, the Trump administration’s separation of parent and child immigrants, inequality and the class system in the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union’s new grassroots initiative, and the political movement in Rio favelas emerging in reaction to Marielle Franco’s murder.

Survivors of Massacre Ask: ‘Why did they have to kill those children?’, Elisabeth Malkin, New York Times, May 26

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José de los Angeles Mejía, a survivor of the 1981 El Mozote massacre (photo: Fred Ramos)

About the El Mozote massacre of 1981 in El Salvador and the recent beginning of a trial of 18 elderly retired generals allegedly responsible for committing it, and if you think, oh, I’ve heard about so many massacres by right-wing death squads in Latin America, this is actually the single largest, perpetrated by the El Salvadoran army, with nearly 978 people killed. Almost half the victims were children under the age of 12. At least 143 children (average age, 6) were buried in a mass grave. A 1983 law granted war criminals amnesty was overturned in 2016, paving the way for the current trial. One of the accused is a general who was granted asylum in the United States in 1990 but returned to El Salvador in 2015. The article is accompanied by brilliant photos by Fred Ramos which confer great dignity on the massacre survivors.

‘I Can’t Go Without My Son,” a Mother Pleaded as She Was Deported to Guatemala, Miriam Jordan, New York Times, June 17

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Elsa Ortiz, 25, was deported to Guatemala from the United States on June 5 without her son Anthony, 8. (photo: Marian Carrasquero)

There was much good reporting on the Trump administration’s separation of parents and children after they were apprehended crossing the border from Mexico t the United States, but this is one of the best because of the combination of the personal story it tells about Elsa Johana Ortiz Enriquez and her 8-year-old son and its depiction of the dysfunctional, cruel mess that is the U.S. immigration system. This is clearly one issue where the media had a huge impact on public opinion, which in turn made the government reverse its decision, but the parents and children will still be detained, just together, and there doesn’t appear to be any coherent overall plan to reunite the parents and children already separated. On top of that, the immigration system is still a long way from being fixed.

The 9.9 Percent is the New American Aristocracy, Matthew Stewart, The Atlantic

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On its surface, this may not look like a human rights article, but inequality is arguably overall one of the more pressing human rights issues in the U.S. and the world, and there’s a lot of talk about rights in the article, in particular about how rights have been turned into privileges, which in turn are cornered by a small portion of the population. The main point of the article is that despite the talk of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent, it is really much more accurate to speak of the 9.9 percent versus the 90 percent beneath them. This 9.9 percent is what Stewart calls the meritocratic class which, he says, “has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.” They have gotten the right education and the right jobs to secure a firm footing high up the socioeconomic ladder and they jealously guard their privileges. Meanwhile, for everyone else below them, life in the U.S. has become increasingly precarious. The article helps to reconceptualize class in the U.S. as well as to understand the relationship between the country’s increasingly rigid class structure and a whole host of rights. The 9.9 percent eat better, life in safer neighborhoods, go to better schools, get higher quality health care, and generally have better access to the political process and a range of opportunities. Stewart says, “The rights of human beings never have been and never could be permanently established in a handful of phrases or old declarations. They are always rushing to catch up to the world that we inhabit. In our world, now, we need to understand that access to the means of sustaining good health, the opportunity to learn from the wisdom accumulated in our culture, and the expectation that one may do so in a decent home and neighborhood are not privileges to be reserved for the few who have learned to game the system. They are rights that follow from the same source as those that an earlier generation called life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In his recent book, Not Enough, Samuel Moyn argues that the human rights movement, which rose in the same era as neoliberalism, has paid insufficient attention to social justice in general and social rights in particular, and this article might just be the best evidence to support his point.

Can the ACLU Remake Itself as a Mass Movement for Progressive Change?, Dale Maharidge, The Nation, April 25

This is a fascinating article about the evolution (or, really, huge fast change) of an organization in response to the election of Trump. The story’s lead is, “Through a new ‘People Power’ initiative, the country’s oldest civil-liberties organization wants to go beyond the courts — and into the streets,” and People Power is actually the name of the American Civil Liberties Union’s initiative. The story details how People Power activists pressed for a sanctuary city law in Pheonix, in the state of Arizona, where anti-immigrant sentiment runs high. While failing at that, they succeeded at getting the police to stop racial profiling. The ACLU’s objective is “to seed a kind of citizen-led civil-rights defense force, and to transform the ACLU into an organization with clout at the ballot box.” This is both exciting and something of a risk, given that one thing that has made the ACLU so effective over the years is its tight remit of using the courts to defend and advance civil rights. But this has been made possible by the outpouring of support after Trump’s election. Nationwide, membership jumped from 450,000 to 1.84 million. “Donations skyrocketed, from less than $5 million annually in online contributions in recent years to $86 million in the year after the 2016 elections. Meanwhile, the ACLU went on a hiring spree — 116 new positions at national offices around the country. Many new staffers are supporting People Power, which now has 250,000 members in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.” People Power launched two campaigns, “Freedom Cities” to “defend immigrants from Trump’s mass deportation agenda” and “Let People Vote” to fight gerrymandering and voter-suppression laws. The changes inevitably lead to tensions in the organization’s core mission: Is the ACLU a vehicle for progressive change, or is it a defender of constitutional principles? And if the answer is “both,” how does it balance these two commitments? It’s an exciting time. There should be more articles like this that get inside a human rights organization and show how it works.

Where Gangs Pick the Politicians, a Murder in Rio Ignites a People’s Revolt, David Biller and R.T. Watson, Bloomberg, June 5

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(Photo: Dado Galdieri)

Marielle Franco was elected to the Rio City Council in 2016, then, earlier this year, she was murdered. Can her followers harness the outrage at the assassination and massive corruption scandals to win this October’s general elections? The establishment certainly isn’t throwing in its cards: Of 55 federal deputies facing accusations as part of the massive Carwash corruption probe, at least 50 will be running. The article explains well the numerous barriers to running for office: In Rio, militias, drug traffickers and evangelical churches compete and also collude with one another for political power in the favelas, squeezing out alternative candidates, often with violence and intimidation. In 2016, more than 20 candidates in Rio were killed. About ten women known as the “seeds” of Marielle Franco are planning to run for state assembly or federal congress.

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As in the first three months of the year, some of the best reporting of the past three months continued to cover the Chinese government’s massive repression in Xinjiang, with hundreds of thousands of Uighurs detained in political re-education camps and pervasive surveillance, supposedly in the name of “counter-terrorism”.

In China’s Far West, Companies Cash in on Surveillance Program that Targets Muslims, Charles Rollet, Foreign Policy, June 13

The technology employed by the Chinese government to monitor and conduct surveillance on the Uighurs of Xinjiang is omnipresent, with spending on “security” more than doubling to $9 billion per year under the region’s current leader, and that means big contracts and profits for leading Chinese tech companies such as Dahua and Hikvision, two of the world’s largest security camera manufacturers, as well as others, often backed by foreign investors. This article is one of the best yet at providing documentation of the nexus of government, private companies and investment firms complicit in massive and systematic human rights abuses. Arguably, under a regime of neoliberal globalization where trade and finance take priority over just about every other area except perhaps “security”, this is the way much of the world works. At any rate, it is increasingly easy for dictatorial regimes with the financial means to manipulate such a system to their own ends, as the case of Xinjiang shows. China is without doubt the best at that, with companies collaborating with the government on a wide range of “security” matters.

The Families Left Behind: RFA’s Uyghur reporters tell the stories of their family members’ detentions, Radio Free Asia

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Eset Sulaiman, Gulchehra Hoja, Jilil Kashgary, Mamatjan Juma, Kurban Niyaz and Shohret Hoshur, six RFA reporters whose family members have been detained by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang in retaliation for their reporting.

A common tactic of the Chinese government is to persecute and detain family members of Chinese, Tibetans and Uighurs abroad who are involved in activities the government regards as hostile to its interests. This is about six RFA reporters who have had dozens of family members detained in political re-education camps in retaliation for their reporting. Each of the six tells her/his story here. The article includes an excellent eight-minute video.

Beijing Squeezes Exiles in U.S. by Detaining Family Back Home”, Josh Chin and Clément Bürge, Wall Street Journal, March 30

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Uighur poet Tahir Hamut who escaped to the U.S. only to have family members back home in Xinjiang detained in retaliation.

This story is actually a follow-up to an excellent report by WSJ in December 2017, Twelve Days in Xinjiang: How China’s Surveillance State Overwhelms Daily Life”. That article profiled Uighur poet Tahir Hamut who fled to the U.S. and whose family members have since been detained. This is actually common practice by the Chinese government: See the RFA story above, as well as these stories about Tibetans and Uighurs abroad being pressured by the Chinese government to spy on their counterparts with the threat of family members back home being detained if they don’t: “Holding the fate of families in its hands, China controls refugees abroad” and “China co-opts a Buddhist sect in global effort to smear Dalai Lama”. It also reminds of the recent case of a Tibetan man convicted by a Swedish court of spying for China on the Tibetan exile community.

Reeducation Returns to China: Will the Repression in Xinjiang Influence Beijing’s Social Credit System, Adrian Zenz, Foreign Affairs, June 20

A piece with strong analytical acumen by an expert on Xinjiang. Zenz notices that the underlying philosophical underpinnings of enforcing Chinese rule in Tibet and Xinjiang appear to be changing. It used to be the Chinese government thought that economic development in those regions would increase loyalty to Communist dictatorship and identification with China, but that has proven not to be the case, and so the regime is shifting from a material to a “spiritual” approach, policing the thought of the people and attempting to “correct” it in ways not dissimilar to ideological campaigns of the Mao era. Zenz also wonders, as the title suggests, whether social control techniques employed in Xinjiang using technology will influence the roll-out of the social credit system the regime plans to implement in the whole country.

Chinese mass-indoctrination camps evoke Cultural Revolution, Gerry Shih, AP, May 17

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Former political re-education camp detainee Omir Bekali holds a phone with a photo of his parents, whom he believes have now also been detained in Xinjiang.

Shih goes to Kazakhstan to interview ethnic Kazakhs, and in some cases Kazakh citizens who either lived in Xinjiang or visited there due to family or business connections, were detained in political re-education camps, and have since been released, often due to the intervention of the Kazakh government on their behalf. They provide some of the most informative testimonies so far of victims of the repression. Amazingly, China has yet to admit that the camps even exist. The focus of the piece is on former detainee Omir Bekali who originally didn’t want AP to publish his story for fear of retaliation against his family, but after first his sister and then his parents were detained, he changed his mind and wanted his story to be known.

“What Really Happens in China’s ‘Re-education’ Camps, Rian Thum, New York Times, May 15

This article by scholar Rian Thum is one of the best at presenting the overall picture of the repression in Xinjiang, drawing from some of the most recent research. It also draws important analogies: Xinjiang today is like Apartheid South Africa in terms of racial discrimination and North Korea in terms of the level of repression. The political re-education camps for Uighurs remind of the Cultural Revolution. The U.S. Congressional Executive Committee on China calls them “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today”.

Navigating Xinjiang’s security checkpoints, Darren Byler, Eurasianet, April 30

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Face scan checkpoint at Turpan rail station: line on the right for Uighurs, line on the left for Hans

This is how it looks down on the ground to Xinjiang scholar, Darren Byler, who corroborates reports of systematic ethnic profiling by going through the omnipresent “security” checkpoints in Urumqi, Kashgar and Turpan, where there are separate lines for Hans and Uighurs. Over the course of a week in Xinjiang, Byler went through dozens of checkpoints, and was brought to a police station on one occasion for being a foreigner. In some places, checkpoints occur every few hundred meters. Not once during his trip did Byler see a Han have to produce an ID.

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Apart from Xinjiang, some of the best China rights coverage focused on the Communist Party’s influence overseas, in particular these two pieces by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.

The Chinese Communist Party Is Setting Up Cells at Universities Across America, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Foreign Policy, April 18

and

How China Managed to Play Censor at a Conference on U.S. Soil, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Foreign Policy, May 9

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Members of a Chinese Communist Party cell at a 2017 meeting at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

These follow on another excellent piece Allen-Ebrahimian wrote in March, “China’s Long Arm Reaches Into American Campuses”, which was on the Best Human Rights Journalism list of the first quarter of this year.

The first article above focuses on a group of Chinese scholars and students asked to set up a party cell at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and to report on anti-regime statements by other Chinese there. Three other U.S. universities and 13 other countries are said to have been targeted for the setting up of CCP cells.

In the second article, Allen-Ebrahimian relates a personal experience of being invited to speak at Savannah State University. The speech was sponsored by the Confucius Institute there, which insisted Taiwan be scrubbed from her biography beforehand. In her speech, she discusses “the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Chinese government repression of Uighurs and Tibetans, and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on news outlets and the internet,” and is criticized afterwards by the director of the CI. The article mentions numerous cases of censorship at other U.S. universities in which CIs played a role.

Allen-Ebrahimian’s series of articles on the influence of the Communist Party on U.S. university campuses reminds of John Garnaut’s “How China Interferes in Australia, And How Democracies Can Fight Back”, featured on last quarter’s list. Together with this report, “Authoritarian advance: Responding to China’s growing political influence in Europe”, they show the growing challenge posed by the dictatorship within democratic countries.

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Some of the better pieces on the Great March of Return protests at the Gaza-Israeli border at which Israeli soldiers killing at least 110 Palestinians. Due to Israeli restrictions, few foreign reporters were actually able to cover first-hand the demonstrations and killings, so there was much reliance on Palestinian reporters and photographers, one of whom, Ali Jadallah, took the photo at the start of this article.

The Gazan at the Fence: ‘Death or Life — It’s the Same Thing, Iyad Abuheweila and David M Halbfinger, New York Times, April 29

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Saber al-Gerim 22, center, in striped shirt, and other Palestinian protesters pulling apart a fence placed by the Israeli Army during a protest in the Gaza Strip (photo: Wissam Nassar)

This was still more than two weeks before the biggest day of carnage, May 14, when Israel killed at least 59 Palestinians — as of April 29, 46 people had been killed in five weeks of protest — , but the article shows why Palestinians would even put themselves in a situation where the risk of lethal attack by Israel was high: despair, the fact that the situation in Gaza is so grim for so many that, as Saber al-Gerim says, “Death or life — it’s the same thing.”

I Helped Start the Gaza Protests. I Don’t Regret It., Ahmed Abu Artema, New York Times, May 14

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Palestinians flee Israeli fire and teargas on May 14, the day on which Israel killed 59 (photo: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

And this is a statement by one of the people who originally had the idea for the Great Return March protests, made just after Israel had killed at least 59 people in a single day. Here, Ahmed Abu Artema explains how he came up with the idea for the protests and how it evolved. He also speaks to the motivation and why he thinks the idea resonated amongst especially young Gazans: “Desperation fuels this new generation. We are not going back to our subhuman existence.” He discusses how they tried to keep the protests nonviolent and the struggle to convince people of the effectiveness of nonviolence. He doesn’t mention Hamas, and it might have been good if he had done so, given that some opponents have said that Hamas is behind it all. My understanding is that first Hamas was stand-offish but then it began to see some good in involving itself. While it came to play a big role, it would be incorrect to see it as a puppet-master. If Gazans emerge from the Great Return March with a more independent civil society and protest movement, that would be a positive outcome, but just how much murder can be endured, how much sacrifice can be justified for what in the short term appears little to no gain?

What the Gaza Protests Portend, Tareq Baconi, New York Review of Books, May 15

One of the better overviews and analyses of the Great March of Return, including, in reference to what I said above, Hamas’ role: “Facing its own challenges in Gaza, primarily in the form of economic stagnation and humanitarian suffering, Hamas hopes to reap the rewards of this nonviolent protest — though its efforts to do so threaten to hijack the protests and derail what has hitherto been a genuine grassroots mobilization.”… “The images coming out of Gaza are an indication of Palestinian disenchantment with the political process and with their leaders. In a deeper and more significant way, we are also witnessing a revival of the core principles that always animated the Palestinian cause but that were displaced in the tangled maze of political negotiations. Israel rightly fears the power of such popular mobilization. Movements like the Great March of Return have the potential to transcend the fracturing of Palestinian political aspirations so deftly imposed by the state, by uniting the Palestinian people around a single message of rights.” But beyond that, Baconi doesn’t really say what the protests portend. That, indeed, is very hard to know.

A Woman Dedicated to Saving Lives Loses Hers in Gaza Violence, Iyad Abuheweila and Isabel Kershner, New York Times, June 2

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Palestinian medic Razan al-Najjar, 20, was trying to help an injured protester near the border fence when she was fatally shot by Israeli soldiers.

Media coverage of mass protests tends to zoom in on a few figures who become the protest symbols. Razan al-Najjar has emerged as one such figure, largely because of her killing by Israeli soldiers. The murder represents just how senseless, disproportionate and excessive the violence perpetrated by the IDF against Palestinian protesters was. As in almost all cases where security forces commit killings, especially on this scale, the blanket justification was security and counter-terrorism, but this level of killing of largely nonviolent protesters would normally only be committed by the most repressive of governments, not a democratic state like Israel, which is why Israel is always so concerned with legalistic justifications of its killings, and with blaming Hamas. Al-Najjar’s murder reminds of the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan in the 2009 Green Movement in Iran. It probably got the most attention of any IDF killing on the Gaza border, with the possible exception of the death of eight-month-old Layla Ghandour, apparently from teargas.

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Just as there needs to be more human rights attention on social justice issues such as inequality, there also needs to be more on the relationship between corruption and human rights, as these two articles show. It is at least indirectly a human right to have a corruption-free society and government, as corruption negatively affects the rights to health, education and participation in government, among other rights. Conversely, whistle-blowers and journalists who combat corruption often face danger and need protection.

“‘They Eat Money’: How Mandela’s Political Heirs Got Rich Off Corruption, Norimitsu Onishi, Selam Gebrekidan, New York Times, April 16

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Andisiwe Mlaba outside her home. Her father, Vusi Mlaba spoke out against corruption and was gunned down nearby. (photo: Joao Silva)

One of the better pieces on the all-too-familiar vicious cycle: Imperfect democracy leads to corruption which undermines democracy and tends to entrench in power those who benefit most from corruption, which in turn entrenches old racial inequalities and increases income inequality. That’s South Africa today. It’s also part of the legacy of revolution at the ballot box without corresponding change in the economic arrangements of the country, which left most of the wealth in the hands of a tiny few. The great thing about this article is that it connects many of the dots in that big and complicated story, starting off with a corrupt dairy project in an out-of-the-way rural area: “Millions of dollars from state coffers, meant to uplift the poor, vanished in a web of bank accounts controlled by politically connected companies and individuals.” Since the end of apartheid in 1994, tens of billions of dollars have been siphoned off by ANC leaders. While there has been some decrease in poverty, inequality has increased in a society that was already amongst the most unequal. Follows on another excellent NYT piece from last year’s best-of list, “End of Apartheid in South Africa? Not in Economic Terms” by Peter S. Goodman.

Africa’s Whistle-blowers: ‘All I did was tell the truth’, Olivier Piot, The Nation / Le monde diplomatique, June 1

As the above article shows, African corruption whistle-blowers are often at risk. This article profiles whistle-blowers in South Africa, Niger, Algeria and DR Congo, as well as an organization that seeks to support and protect them, the Platform for the Protection of Whistleblowers in Africa, founded in 2017 in Senegal by a group of lawyers, activists, journalists, and judges. It starts off with two businesswomen, Bianca Goodson and Mosilo Mothepu, central to breaking the “state capture” corruption story, at the center of which were the Guptas. The two are the sorts who never would have imagined they might some day end up in the position they found themselves in: “As they labored to collect evidence, hire lawyers, and pay legal bills, they faced accusations of libel, threats, pressure from their superiors in the group, and criticism from friends and family. They also had to manage relations with the media and deal with unwelcome publicity, with no guarantee that the courts would ever validate their allegations.” Eventually, a court did, and the women were hailed for their courage and public spirit, but they paid a heavy price: “My whole professional and personal life was destroyed… I have to go on, and it’s not easy. All I did was tell the truth, but now I can’t hope for a job with any real responsibility in a big company.”

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The day before the opening of the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, The New York Times published this excellent package. It includes an article about the memorial itself, a long feature about the descendants of a lynching victim learning more about his story, and two opinion pieces about the significance of the memorial’s opening.

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Descendants of Elwood Higginbotham — E.W. Higginbottom, Delois Wright, Rico Washington, Crystin Scruggs and Tina Washington — at the possible site of Higginbotham’s death. (photo: Joshua Rashaad McFadden)

The memorial is dedicated to victims of lynching. Between 1877 and 1950, at least 4,100 African-Americans were lynched in 12 states clustered along the curve from Virginia to Texas.

Bryan Stephenson, the head of Equal Justice Initiative, the driving force behind the museum, said, “In Berlin, you can’t go anywhere without seeing stones and markers dedicated to the Jewish and Roma residents who were forced from their homes and taken to the concentration camps…. And that iconography creates a consciousness of what happened that I think is necessary for that society to recover. In the American South, we’ve done the opposite. We’ve actually created symbols designed to make us feel great about our history, about the 19th century, about the good old days of the early 20th century…. I’m not interested in talking about America’s history because I want to punish America…. “I want to liberate America.”

A Lynching Memorial Is Opening. The Country Has Never Seen Anything Like It. Campbell Robertson, New York Times, April 25

A Lynching’s Long Shadow, Vanessa Gregory, New York Times, April 25

So the South’s White Terror Will Never Be Forgotten, Brent Staples, New York Times, April 25

At This Memorial, the Monuments Bleed, Jesse Wegman, New York Times, April 25

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Masha Gessen continues to do terrific reporting in The New Yorker on a variety of rights issues, mostly having to do with Russia, refugees and immigration. The short pieces are very effective because they focus on the personal stories of those affected by abuses. These three below focus on the hunger strike of Ukrainian political prisoner Oleg Sentsov in Russian prison, the limbo of being an LGBT refugee in Turkey, and the deportation hearing of a disabled addict who’s lived her whole life in the U.S. but now because of her criminal record risks being kicked out of the country.

The Bureaucratic Nightmare of Fighting Deportation, Masha Gessen, New Yorker, April 3

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Anastasia Schimanski (photo: Matt Leifheit)

Anastasia Schimanski has lived in the U.S. since she was 11 and would probably face persecution if forced back to Russia, but that hasn’t stopped the U.S. from trying to deport her. She suffers from a degenerative condition that causes chronic pain and lead to an addiction to painkillers. She is recovering and on methadone. She has been arrested 23 times. She has a girlfriend of seven years. If deported, due to her sexual orientation, she could face persecution and she would not have access to methadone. The heart of the article is Gessen follows Schimanski to her deportation hearing where sheer craziness prevails. Talk about getting caught up in the system. Gessen’s point is that any just system must regard the people whose fate it holds in its hands as human beings first.

Counting Down the Days of the Hunger Strike by Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian Political Prisoner Held in Russia, Masha Gessen, New Yorker, June 4

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Oleg Sentsov on trial in 2015 (photo: Sergey Pivovarov)

As of this writing, Oleg Sentsov has been on hunger strike in a Russian prison for over 40 days, while the World Cup is going on. When Gessen wrote this article, he’d been going for 22. It was this article that alerted me to his situation, which I’ve been following carefully since. Sentsov is serving a twenty-year sentence at a remote prison camp, supposedly for organizing “terror” strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea. He began preparing for the hunger strike months in advance. His one demand is the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russian prisons. He seems very serious about following the strike to its end, and Russia so far has shown no sign of budging.

The L.G.B.T. Refugees in Turkey Who Refuse to Be Forgotten, Masha Gessen, New Yorker, June 15

Turkey’s been inundated with refugees, mostly from Syria, in recent years, but there is also a large group of LGBT refugees who arrived in Turkey after fleeing persecution at home. Turkey is safer than where they came from, but they are usually sent to provincial towns where attitudes towards them are not always friendly. Only two countries, the US and Canada, resettle LGBT refugees as a matter of practice, but since Trump’s election, the chances of being given asylum in the US have disappeared, and these refugees are stuck. They were so desperate that on June 4, they staged protests in two cities, though under Turkey’s state of emergency, protest is effectively banned. The protests received no media coverage, until this piece.

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“‘Ruling Through Ritual’: An Interview with Guo Yuhua, Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, June 18

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A villager from Ji, northern Shaanxi, China, speaking with Guo Yuhua, 2005 (photo: Guo Yuhua)

One of those pieces that just gets China right, because the interviewer’s good questions and the interviewee’s insightful answers. Guo Yuhua is a liberal academic who has managed to retain a somewhat large following on social media despite the repressive intellectual environment under the Communist dictatorship. In fact, when you hear what she says, it’s a wonder she’s allowed to speak at all. Her aspiration for China, in contrast to Xi Jinping’s, is for it to become a normal country, by which she means, among other things, that it respects rule of law, freedom of speech, and other liberties and that it doesn’t justify authoritarianism through Chinese exceptionalism. I couldn’t agree more.

The trial continues: Askold Kurov on his visit to Ukrainian political prisoner Oleg Sentsov, Tetiana Kozak, Open Democracy, 12 June

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Askold Kurov

Kozak interviews film director Askold Kurov about his visit to Oleg Sentsov in prison on 4 June. At that point, Sentsov had already been on hunger strike for 20 days. Apart from Sentsov’s lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, Kurov is the only prison outsider known to have been allowed to see Sentsov. Kurov made a film called “The Trial” about the show trial of Sentsov in 2015.

Arundhati Roy: ‘The point of the writer is to be unpopular’, Tim Lewis, The Guardian, 17 June

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Brilliant format: first, the interviewer asks questions; then, well-known writers and others; then, readers. Some great questions, some great answers. Whenever I hear Roy, I’m re-inspired to keep fighting for justice. Some choice quotes:

“The point of the writer is to say: ‘I denounce you even if I’m not in the majority.’’

“…being unreasonable is the only way that we can have hope. I am often among people who battle every day, but when you’re in there with them it’s not all grim. These are people who have their backs to the wall and are fighting for survival, but so much of the time they spend laughing at stupid things.”

“I believe that the only way — if at all — the machine can be pushed back is through these resistances. And I’m on the side of the line with them.”

Her latest novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, was on my 2017 Best Human Rights Books list. A collection of her essays, running to more than 1,000 pages, will be released next year.

In the Kingdom of Men, Dalia Mortada (words), Nicole Tung (photos), New York Times, May 26

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A passport photo of Borcu Capar, who was 21 years old when her husband murdered her in front of their daughter.

A series of portraits of victims and survivors of domestic violence and killings and their family members in Turkey, accompanied by text that tells their stories. According to the group We Will Stop Femicide, the number of women murdered by a partner or relative in Turkey increased from 237 in 2013 to 409 in 2017. The group logged 130 deaths from January through April of this year. Nearly 2,000 women have been killed in Turkey in the last eight years.

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Eda Okutgen was murdered by her ex-husband in 2013. This is her ponytail, which she cut off to give to a charity collecting hair for leukemia patients.

— KTG

Written by

Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’

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