COMMITTEE ON HUMAN RIGHTS
The Committee on Human Rights (CHR), created in 1976, is a standing committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. It uses the influence and prestige of the institutions it represents in behalf of scientists, engineers, and health professionals anywhere in the world who are unjustly detained or imprisoned for exercising their basic human rights as promulgated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). More information about the CHR.
INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS NETWORK
The CHR also serves as the secretariat of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies (H.R. Network). It works to address grave issues of science and human rights, particularly the unjust detention or imprisonment of scientists, scholars, engineers, and health professionals throughout the world. It seeks to promote the free exchange of ideas and opinions among scientists and scholars in all countries, and it stands in solidarity with sister national academies and scholarly societies worldwide to support their independence and autonomy. More information about the H.R. Network.
In the spotlight
Four Ethiopian scientific colleagues acquitted of terrorism charges
Photo courtesy of Zone 9
On October 16, 2015, after 1 ½ years in detention and 39 trial hearings, four scientific colleagues were acquitted of terrorism charges by an Ethiopian court. Natnael Feleke, an economist; Abel Wabella, a mechanical engineer; and two computer scientists, Befeqadu Hailu and Atnaf Berahane, were among a group of nine who were arrested in April 2014 in relation to their writings under the independent blog collective known as Zone 9. Another blogger, Soleyana S. Gebremicheal, who is living in exile, was also acquitted in absentia. The court, however, has not acquitted Befeqadu Hailu of the charge of “inciting violence”, which stems from a confession he asserts was forced under torture. He was released from prison on bail after paying a bond of approximately U.S. $1,000 and is scheduled to appear in court on December 7.
The Zone 9 bloggers are a group of young professionals who came together to write opinion pieces that focus on the importance of rule of law, documentation of human rights violations by state and non-state actors, and raising the profile of Ethiopia’s political prisoners. During the initial weeks of their detention, the group alleged that they were held incommunicado under deplorable conditions of confinement and ill-treatment. Their court proceedings have been characterized by numerous unexplained adjournments, delayed access to legal counsel, and several procedural irregularities.
In July of this year, the court freed the others who were jailed in the same case. The recent acquittal of the remaining Zone 9 bloggers followed intense international pressure – supported by appeals from CHR to Ethiopian officials - for the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression to be upheld in Ethiopia.
Acquittal in Case Involving Mozambican Economist’s Facebook Post
Dr. Castel-Branco, photo courtesy of Voice of America
On September 16, 2015, a Maputo court acquitted Dr. Carlos Nuno Castel-Branco, economist and co-founder of the Social and Economic Studies Institute in Mozambique, of criminal charges related to his peaceful political commentary.
Dr. Castel-Branco was accused of libel and, on June 11, 2015, charged with having committed a state security offense as the result of a November 2013 Facebook post criticizing governmental decisions of then President of Mozambique Armando Guebuza. He faced up to 2 years in prison and a fine.
Newspaper editor Fernando Mbanze, who was charged with abusing press freedom for republishing Dr. Castel-Branco’s Facebook post, was also acquitted.
CHR raised this case with officials in Mozambique and welcomes the recent ruling, which strongly affirms the right to freedom of opinion and expression enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Mozambique is a party.
Iranian Baha’i Psychologist Released from Prison
Kamran Rahimian with
six-year-old son, Artin
On August 17, 2015, Kamran Rahimian, an Iranian Baha’i counseling psychologist, was released from Raja’i Shahr prison shortly before his four-year sentence was to expire. Mr. Rahimian had been held there, under harsh conditions of confinement, since his arrest on September 13, 2011.
Mr. Rahimian and his wife, Faran Hesami, received their undergraduate degrees in psychology from the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) and, in 2003, graduate degrees from the University of Ottawa in counseling psychology. After completing their studies in Canada, the couple returned to Iran and opened a private counseling practice. Additionally, they worked on a voluntary basis as lecturers in psychology at the BIHE. The BIHE was created in 1987 to provide university-level courses to Baha’i youth, who are prohibited from attending universities and government-sponsored institutions of higher learning in Iran because of their religious faith. (Classes are held online and in private homes. Volunteer faculty members help the university maintain high academic standards, and many graduates go on to pursue advanced degrees abroad. The quality of the coursework has been recognized and accepted for credit by more than 50 universities outside of Iran.)
In 2011 Mr. Rahimian and Ms. Hesami were among several dozen Baha’i educators arrested for their involvement with the BIHE. Following an unfair trial before the Revolutionary Court, both were convicted in early 2012 of “assembly and collusion with the intent to disrupt national security” and sentenced to four years in prison. (Ms. Hesami was released on bail soon after her arrest and was not taken into custody until July 2012, so she is still in prison serving the remainder of her sentence.) The CHR regularly raised Mr. Rahimian’s case with high-level Iranian officials and is pleased that he is reunited with his six-year-old son, Artin.
Attacks on Health Workers a Grave, Continuing Concern
Expert on Health and Human Rights Leonard Rubenstein to discuss the global targeting of health care professionals at 2015 Annual NAM Meeting
Leonard Rubenstein, courtesy of Johns
During the 2015 annual meeting of the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), the Committee on Human Rights (CHR) will host a lunch briefing for members of the NAM featuring Leonard Rubenstein of the Center for Public Health and Human Rights and the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University. Mr. Rubenstein will discuss the global targeting of health care professionals which, according to a May 2015 study, occurred in at least 20 countries during the previous year.
The problem of attacks on health workers is increasingly gaining international attention. Within the Academies, CHR advocates on behalf of many individuals worldwide who have been imprisoned, tortured, and subjected to other severe human rights violations for providing medical care to those in need. CHR has repeatedly expressed concern about attacks on medical neutrality in Syria. It has submitted the names of health workers detained and killed in the country to an independent commission of inquiry established by the UN Human Rights Council. Representatives from the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) also provided an overview of the dangers faced by Syria’s health workers at last year’s CHR briefing for NAM members.
A recent report written by Mr. Rubenstein as part of a joint project of the Center for Public Health and Human Rights and SAMS offers an additional ground-level perspective on the experience of Syrian health workers in areas controlled by opposition forces. The report highlights the deliberate and routine targeting of healthcare personnel, medical facilities, and ambulances in the country that has resulted in death, injury, and the destruction of essential medical equipment.
Mr. Rubenstein’s interviews with individuals who have worked in local field hospitals indicate that all field hospitals lack some vital equipment and supplies, such as oxygen and properly tested blood, and hospitals are often forced to close while they wait for the damage inflicted on them to be repaired. Most health workers have now fled Syria, and medical specialists are typically unavailable. This has created a crushing burden for those health workers who remain, with many providing treatment for which they have not been trained. Interviews for the report also point to the trauma experienced by health workers in Syria—as the result of “exposure to constant risk of death, overwork, lack of pay, and the horror of what they witness daily”—for which psychological support is almost non-existent.
Bahraini Ophthalmologist Freed after One Year in Prison for Insulting the King
July 8, 2015
On July 1, 2015, Dr. Sa’eed Mothaher Habib al-Samahiji, a well-respected Bahraini ophthalmologist, was released from prison after completing a one-year sentence for publicly insulting the King of Bahrain. In September 2013, at the funeral of a 22-year-old man who died after being run over by a police car during a protest, Dr. al-Samahiji had given a brief statement that was filmed and appeared on the Internet in which he expressed his anger and frustration about the dozens of deaths of young protestors at the hands of the Bahraini police. He was summoned for interrogation the next day and accused of insulting Bahrain’s leader. In late 2013 he was convicted and his one-year sentence was upheld on appeal. Although laws that prohibit insulting heads of state or other leaders are contrary to international laws and standards on freedom of opinion and expression, the Bahraini government, in late 2013, increased the punishment for “insulting the King” to between one and seven years in prison and a fine of up to U.S. $26,500. Dr. al-Samahiji served his sentence in Jaw Prison (Bahrain’s central prison), which has been criticized by prominent human rights organizations and the United Nations Office of the High Commission of Human Rights for massive overcrowding, lack of adequate medical care, and, in recent months, ill-treatment of some of its inmates.
This was Dr. al-Samahiji’s second incarceration. In April 2011, he was among 48 Bahraini health professionals arrested for denouncing the excessive force used by the Bahraini government against pro-democracy protestors. While carrying out surgical procedures on Bahrainis who suffered eye injuries during the protests, he had witnessed the severity of the injuries sustained by the protestors when the government used violence to suppress them, and he spoke out about what he saw. Following an unjust military trial—that included the use of coerced confessions as evidence and inadequate access to legal counsel—he served one year in prison. Dr. al-Samahiji still suffers from ill-health as a result of torture he alleges was inflicted on him in pretrial detention and his harsh conditions of confinement.
The CHR undertook Dr. al-Samahiji’s case in 2011 and in 2014, sending letters of appeal on his behalf to high-level Bahraini officials, as did other members of the NAS, NAE, and NAM and a number of academies in the international H.R. Network.
UN Security Council issues press statement concerning attacks against civilians and medical facilities in Syria
June 11, 2015
The United Nations Security Council has issued a press statement expressing deep concern about the continued high level of violence in Syria and condemning attacks directed against civilians and civilian infrastructure, including medical facilities. This echoes earlier Council resolutions demanding respect for the principle of medical neutrality in the country.
Violations of the principle of medical neutrality worldwide are a matter of grave concern for the Committee on Human Rights of the Academies and the Executive Committee of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies (for example, see the press release issued following the 11th biennial meeting of the H.R. Network). As the Security Council has stressed, “under international humanitarian law, the wounded and sick must receive, to the fullest extent practicable, and with the least possible delay, medical care and attention required by their condition…Medical and humanitarian personnel, facilities and transport must be respected and protected.” (UN Security Council Resolution 2139)
Two Iranian Baha’i Colleagues Released from Prison
May 15, 2015
On April 29, 2015, two Iranian Baha’i colleagues, whose cases were undertaken by the CHR, were released from prison. They are Mahmoud Badavam, an engineer and physics lecturer, and Ramin Zibaie, a psychologist and university dean. Both served their entire four year sentences under harsh conditions of confinement at Raja’i Shahr prison.
At the time of their arrests, Mr. Badavam and Mr. Zibaie were professors and administrators at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), a university that provides education to Baha’i students who are prohibited, because of their religious faith, from attending universities and government-sponsored institutions of higher learning in Iran. (Classes are held online and in private homes. Volunteer faculty members help the university maintain high academic standards, and many graduates go on to pursue advanced degrees abroad. The quality of the coursework has been recognized and accepted for credit by more than 50 universities outside of Iran.)
In May 2011, Iranian Ministry of Intelligence officials conducted coordinated raids in several Iranian cities on the homes of over 30 Baha’is associated with the BIHE, including Mr. Badavam and Mr. Zibaie. They were arrested and charged with “membership in the deviant Bahaist sect, with the goal of taking action against the security of the country, in order to further the aims of the deviant sect and those of organizations outside the country.” Following an unfair trial, Mr. Badavam and Mr. Zibaie were convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. The CHR regularly raised their cases with high-level Iranian officials and is pleased that they are reunited with their families.
Bahraini Health Professional Released after Serving Three-Year Sentence
May 15, 2015
On April 28, 2015, Ebrahim al-Demistani, a Bahraini nurse and first aid provider, was released from Jaw prison after serving his entire three-year sentence. The CHR is heartened to know that he is reunited with his family and will be able to obtain the much-needed medical care that he was denied while in prison.
In March 2011, when Bahraini security forces violently cracked down on protesters who had taken to the streets to call for political reforms, Mr. al-Demistani was one of dozens of health professionals who went to Manama’s main public hospital to treat the wounded protesters. He spent much of the following weeks providing medical treatment to hundreds of civilians severely injured by tear gas canisters and bird-shot pellets. During this time, he saw security forces prevent ambulances from bringing injured protesters to the hospital and patients who were taken from their hospital beds to jail. When foreign journalists at the hospital questioned him, Mr. al-Demistani told them what he had witnessed and criticized the government’s violent actions and failure to help the injured to obtain medical care. He was among a group of 20 health professionals who were arrested in late March and April 2011, allegedly tortured, and convicted following an unjust trial before a military court. Originally sentenced to 15 years in prison, Mr. al-Demistani’s sentence was eventually reduced to three years on appeal following widespread international criticism of the Bahraini government’s handling of the protests.
Chinese-Born U.S. Geologist Xue Feng Released 10 Months Early
May 15, 2015
On April 3, 2015, Xue Feng was released from Beijing’s No. 2 prison and deported to the United States, where he has been reunited with his wife and children in Houston. He spent more than seven years in jail for allegedly “gathering information” and “illegally sending state secrets abroad.” Originally sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment and a fine, to be followed by immediate exile from China, Dr. Xue was released 10 months early, reportedly for good behavior.
Dr. Xue is a 50-year-old geologist, who pursued his graduate studies at the University of Chicago and subsequently became a naturalized U.S. citizen. In 2005, while working for IHS Energy, a U.S. energy consulting company, Dr. Xue arranged for the company’s purchase of a database concerning the location of and other geological information about 32,000 Chinese oil wells. In November 2007, while on a business trip to China, he was detained. More than 1-1/2 years later, in proceedings that failed to meet international fair trial standards, he was convicted of passing on state secrets for arranging the acquisition of the database. According to Dr. Xue’s lawyers, the information in the database was in the public domain at the time IHS purchased it and was retroactively classified as a state secret by the Chinese government many months after his detention. Following Dr. Xue’s conviction, IHS Energy confirmed that it had never been informed of any wrongdoing by the Chinese government and had never been asked by Chinese authorities to remove any of the information obtained from Dr. Xue from its public materials concerning China. The CHR wrote several letters to the Chinese government appealing for Dr. Xue’s release from prison and is delighted at the recent news.
Myanmarese Medical Doctor Tun Aung Conditionally Released
January 23, 2015
Tun Aung, a 65-year-old Myanmarese medical doctor and chair of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council in Maungdaw, was released on January 19, 2015, after more than two and half years in prison. The week before his release, he was interviewed in prison by U.N. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Yanghee Lee during her second official trip to Myanmar. According to Amnesty International, Dr. Tun Aung's release was conditional. Although it is not clear what the conditions are, he is at risk of rearrest and imprisonment. Sentenced to 17 years for allegedly inciting violence following an unfair trial, Dr. Tun Aung was subsequently granted a nine-year reduction in his sentence through a presidential pardon and several additional reductions in the form of amnesties. He was due to be released in late 2015.
Rebecca Everly Joins the CHR as Director
January 26, 2015
The CHR is delighted to welcome Rebecca Everly as its new Director. Dr. Everly received her PhD from the Cambridge University Centre of International Studies, and also holds a JD and LLM from Duke University. She comes to us most recently from International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific, where she coordinated a five-country study on the strategic use of human rights institutions to promote the rights of women and girls. Her prior experience includes positions in the International Development Law Organization, the Centre for Promotion of Human Rights Teaching and Research at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the State Department.
International Human Rights Day
December 10, 2014
Today, on the occasion of the 67th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Professor Sidney Verba, Chairman of the Committee on Human Rights of the Academies, reminds scientists throughout the world of the unjust imprisonment of their scientific colleague, and urges them to reaffirm today their commitment to actively support those colleagues “whose rights are ignored and abused.” He reminds them of the importance of the UDHR to their work as scientists and to the advancement of science itself. He goes on to call on the United Nations Security Council to “urgently ensure implementation of Resolution 2139” in relation to the continuing crisis in Syria and reminds the member countries of the council’s 2014 call for respect of “the principle of medical neutrality and free passage for medical personnel, equipment, and transport” in Syria. Statement by Dr. Verba.
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