Prisoners of Conscience:

Feb 032005
Authors: Meg Burd

A crate of half-burned papers have mysteriously turned up recently in Brazil, raising cries for officials there to confront and account for the horrific crimes detailed in the papers. This new crate, along with others that have turned up, are forcing officials in Brazil to, as Larry Rohter of the New York Times says, "confront one of the most distasteful aspects of its past: the death, disappearance or torture of hundreds of political prisoners during 21 years of military dictatorship."

During the chaos of the military coup that seized power in 1964 in Brazil, activists, labor organizers, guerillas and others deemed as "threats" were often kidnapped, imprisoned without charges, tortured and even killed.

With Brazil now having to publicly face up to past abuses of political prisoners (something the government there is, as of now, doing rather poorly,) it is troubling to note that this sort of scenario is by no means isolated to this one nation, nor is the imprisonment, torture and disappearance of political prisoners something relegated to history. A brief look at just a very few situations of people being imprisoned wrongly today shows that such rights violations are still a continuing problem, and one that must be addressed world wide.

In another South American nation, the human rights magazine, "The Wire," reports that "Hundreds of men and women in Peru have languished in prison for the past 20 years, unjustly accused of 'terrorism.'"

Many of these prisoners are well-known figures, journalists, community leaders, union organizers, indigenous workers, students or others who have voiced criticism of the government, says "The Wire," which led to arrests under Peru's 1992 "anti-terrorism" legislation.

Some were students, arrested simply because they were studying at universities considered under control of opposition groups. While such legislation was overturned as unconstitutional in 2003, many are still awaiting freedom. Considered "innocent prisoners" in Peru, there has been no evidence that these prisoners of conscience have used violence or are connected to armed groups, according to Amnesty International.

In Israel, Human Rights Watch recently reported that `Abd al-Latif Gheith, a prominent rights activist has been detained in a military detention camp, with no charges filed against him.

Considered a "Prisoner of Conscience" by the group, Human Rights Watch reports that "On August 4, Israel's deputy military commander issued an order detaining Gheith without charge for six months on unspecified grounds of 'endangering security.'"

"Abd al-Latif Gheith shouldn't be harassed and punished simply for actively promoting people's basic rights," says Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division. "He should be freed immediately unless the government can demonstrate that he has violated some law."

In 2003, the United Nations reported that there were 208 known prisoners of conscience in prisons in Tibet, all "languishing in prison for exercising their fundamental human rights."

The Office of Tibet (the Tibetan government-in-exile headed by the Dalai Lama) reports that "during the 1996 year, 204 cases of arrests of Tibetan exercising their freedom of expression and assembly were reported." Some have serious medical problems that are worsening in prison conditions, and some have even died while imprisoned for voicing their concerns over human rights violations.

This is but a handful of cases from around the globe in which people have been imprisoned wrongly for simply voicing their criticism of governments or because they are somehow in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such imprisonments are violations of basic human rights and should not be allowed to continue.

As we work to become more aware of such situations, we can take a stand by urging governments to release these prisoners of conscience. Similarly, such situations should serve as cautionary tales here in our own home, and we should be equally vigilant and outspoken about prisoners of conscience here in America.

Meg Burd is a graduate student studying anthropology. Her column runs every Friday in the Collegian.

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