March 06, 2020

Menendez Marks International Women’s Day Elevating Plight of 25 Women Political Prisoners

WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued the following statement marking International Women’s Day and calling attention to the many women around the world who have shown courageous leadership and have been detained by their governments as a result. The Senator will submit his full statement into the Senate Record.

“Today, I want to highlight twenty-five women who have risked their lives, withstood torture, and been unjustly detained for fighting for human rights, democracy, a free and fair press, and the rights of vulnerable LGBT populations, as well as safeguarding their culture and the environment. The repressive responses of their respective governments speaks to the power these women command, the implications of their cause, and the movements they inspire,” said Menendez. “The women political prisoners we highlight today serve as role models... Their detention should embolden the rest of us to take up their causes in their absence.”

Below is the Senator’s full statement. 

“On International Women’s Day, we celebrate women and girls around the globe for their tremendous contributions to our communities, our countries, and the world. From Albania to Zimbabwe, women face enormous risks to pursue progress in defiance of attitudes, policies, and actions that treat them as second-class citizens. Too often, these women are punished for their courage. As this year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of the Beijing Declaration on the equal rights of women, we reaffirm our commitment to achieving women’s empowerment and equal status throughout the world. 

Today, I want to highlight twenty-five women who have risked their lives, withstood torture, and been unjustly detained for fighting for human rights, democracy, a free and fair press, and the rights of vulnerable LGBT populations, as well as safeguarding their culture and the environment. The repressive responses of their respective governments speaks to the power these women command, the implications of their cause, and the movements they inspire.  

In Russia, President Putin’s government utilizes politically-motivated imprisonment to bolster its power by cracking down on journalists, human rights advocates, religious minorities, Ukrainian citizens, and civil society advocates. Yulia Tsetkova is the latest target of the authorities’ long-running campaign against LGBT activists. Tsetkova has been placed on house arrest and faces years of imprisonment for her creative work at a youth amateur theater which the state has labeled ‘homosexual propaganda,’ for drawings described as criminal ‘pornography,’ and for administering two LGBT-themed groups on social media deemed ‘gay propaganda.’

The Chinese Communist Party has waged a powerful campaign to suppress vibrant ethnic minority communities and political dissent. The government has brutally cracked down in Xinjiang, where it has extrajudicially interned and subjected more than one million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities to forced labor, torture, and abuse. Rahile Dawut, a Xinjiang University professor who researched and documented traditional Uyghur culture, disappeared in December 2017. Sanubar Tursun, a renowned Uyghur singer, disappeared in November 2018, shortly before she was scheduled to perform in France.  We will not forget their names nor their work. 

The Chinese Communist has also targeted Tibetans for celebrating their heritage. In late 2015, officials detained at least eight Tibetans accused of organizing observances of the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. Those detained included Bonkho Kyi, who had organized a public picnic to celebrate the occasion. Kyi was sentenced to seven years imprisonment, although details of the criminal charges remain unavailable.

In Iran, human rights defenders have been steadfast in their advocacy despite repeated arrest and abuse by authorities. Nasrin Sotoudeh has devoted her life to advocating for human rights in Iran, speaking out against the death penalty and laws forcing women to wear hijabs. Sotoudeh was rearrested in June 2018 for defending women protestors against the forced hijab, and faces 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. Atena Daemi, also a life-long human rights activist, is serving a seven-year prison sentence for handing out anti-death penalty leaflets. She has been on hunger strike twice and is in dire need of medical attention due to dizziness and numbness. Narges Mohammadi, vice president of the Centre for Human Rights Defenders in Iran, has been imprisoned since May 2015 and is serving a sixteen-year sentence. Mohammadi is critically ill with pulmonary embolism and a neurological disorder resulting in seizures and temporary partial paralysis. 

Iranian authorities have also recently arrested and imprisoned environmentalists—Niloufar Bayani, a McGill University-graduate, worked for the United Nations Environment Programme and most recently, the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. She was arrested along with several coworkers, including Sepideh Kashami, on charges of espionage. Multiple government bodies have found no evidence suggesting the environmentalists detained were spies. While detained, Bayani has reportedly suffered from torture and threats of sexual assault.

Governments around the world are also attacking the free press and targeting journalists, particularly those who speak truth to power and expose the failures of those very governments.  Many women journalists have been targeted and unjustly detained. In particular, the escalating use of criminal charges of ‘false news’ or ‘fake news’ to imprison journalists and activists is alarming. Certainly, these incitements of ‘fake news’ echo the President Trump and his administration’s regressive rhetoric and attacks on the press and democratic values. 

As of December 2019, Turkey was the world’s second worst jailer of journalists with 47 in prison—coming in close second to China with 48. President Erdogan has cracked down on independent criticism by shuttering more than one hundred news outlets and jailing dozens of journalists. Editor Hatice Dumanwas imprisoned in 2003 and is serving a life sentence based on charges of propaganda and being a member of a banned group. Duman was the owner and news editor of the socialist weakly Atilim, which had opposed President Erdogan’s policies. She was convicted based on authorities’ claim of her attendance at a Marxist-Leninist Communist Party demonstration and the testimony of confidential witnesses. Duman’s husband later said the police threatened sexual violence against his family if he did not testify against his wife. Aysenur Parildak and Hanim Büsra Erdal, two journalists for Zaman, are both serving sentences for terrorism-related offenses based on claims that Zaman had ties to Fethulaah Gülen. And Sadiye Eser, a reporter for the pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya News Agency, has also been detained by police since November 2019 on politically-motivated charges of membership of a terrorist organization.

In Egypt, President Sisi has attempted to quash dissent and consolidate control by wrongfully imprisoning human rights defenders. Mahienour el-Masry, a human rights lawyer, has spent her career organizing peaceful protests, advocating for political prisoners, and denouncing human rights violations. She was arrested in September 2019 following a wave of protests calling for President Sisi’s resignation, and charged with collaborating with a terrorist organization, spreading ‘false news,’ and using social media to publish false rumors. Esraa Abdel Fattah, a human rights activist and reporter for the banned Tahrir News, was arrested on charges of spreading ‘false news,’ membership in a banned group, and abuse of social media networks in October 2019. Abdel Fattah was reportedly beaten, hung from handcuffs for hours, and choked with her clothes while interrogated.

In Burundi, authorities have cracked down on free expression in anticipation of the country’s 2020 elections. Christine Kamikazi and Agnès Ndirubusa, journalists at Burundi’s last remaining independent newspaper Iwacu, were arrested and convicted on charges of attempting threat against state security by collaborating with the rebel group RED-Tabara. Kamikazi and Ndirubusa were traveling with two colleagues to report on in-fighting between Burundian security forces and RED-Tabara when they were arrested. They were convicted despite the fact that Iwacu had informed authorities of their plan to travel to the area for reporting and the fact that the RED-Tabara attack had already occurred before their travels to the region.

Finally, a year ago today, I highlighted fourteen women political prisoners in a statement marking International Women’s Day. Of those fourteen, eight remain in detention today. These include: Saudi women’s rights and human rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Nassima al-Sada, Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdulaziz, and Maya’a al-Zahrani; Senator Leila de Lima, detained for her criticism of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines; Guligeina Tashimaimaiti, a Uyghur PhD student detained in China; and Aster Fissehatsion, a political dissident held incommunicado without charge nor trial since 2001 in Eritrea.

In Egypt, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Burundi, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Eritrea, these women—threatened by a repressive government, abusive authorities, and critical risks to their health—are advocating for the betterment of their entire communities. Sadly, these twenty-five women highlighted today only represent a small fraction of countless women and girls unjustly detained and imprisoned. 

On this International Women’s Day, we reflect on the remarkable achievements of women and the work that remains to be done by all of us to reach gender parity. The women political prisoners we have highlighted today serve as role models championing human rights, democracy, cultural tolerance, and environmental preservation. Their detention should embolden the rest of us to take up their causes in their absence. I call on governments unjustly detaining women for exercising their fundamental rights to immediately release these political prisoners. We will not forget these women, what they have fought for, and what they have sacrificed for all of us as a result.”

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