Wednesday, 15 February 2012
Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade DebatePage of 5
Chairman: We have a number of items on the agenda and will get down to business straight away. I welcome Ms Mary Lawlor and Mr. Andrew Anderson, the director and deputy director of Front Line Defenders, to discuss the organisation and its priorities for 2012. We already met them informally last year. As members are aware, Front Line Defenders is the international foundation for the protection of human rights defenders and was established in Dublin in 2001, with the specific aim of protecting human rights defenders at risk and of people who work non-violently for any or all of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Front Line Defenders seeks to provide rapid and practical support to at-risk human rights defenders. Over the course of 2011, Front Line Defenders issued 256 urgent appeals on 594 human rights defenders at risk in 70 countries. It provided 189 security grants and trained more than 470 human rights defenders. Overall, more than 1,380 human rights defenders benefited from Front Line Defenders’ protection and support in 2011. I will invite Ms Lawlor to update the committee shortly on the organisation’s works and priorities for 2012 and the challenges it faces in providing support for human rights defenders. I understand Mr. Anderson will also address this meeting.
I understand that Ms Lawlor received a copy of the proposal of the Council and of the Commission for Regulation of the European Parliament establishing a financial instrument for the promotion of democracy and human rights worldwide. This proposal replaces an existing instrument which is due to expire in 2013. This joint committee agreed at its meeting last week that given its interest in the area of human rights that it would scrutinise this proposal further. As part of that process, the committee agreed that it would ask Ms Lawlor whether she, on behalf of Front Line Defenders, has any views on this proposal. Perhaps she will give her initial view on the proposal to the committee today and, if necessary, send us a more comprehensive written response at a later date.
Before I invite the witnesses to make their presentation, I advise them that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of utterances at this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease making remarks on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their remarks. They are directed that only comments and evidence on the subject matter of this meeting are to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any Member of either House of the Oireachtas, a person outside of the Houses, nor of an official, by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I will give a quick outline of the organisation and of what we have been doing for the past year and hope to do this year. We have circulated a document I call the “Hello” version of Front Line Defenders, which has a lot of pictures and not much text, but it does give an idea of the kind of work we do. We work for human rights defenders at risk. These are people who are in danger because of their human rights work on behalf of others. They are people who work non-violently for the rights of others and who become “at risk” because of this work. All our activities are focused on these people and we have a 24-hour emergency line in English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Russian to support them.
The organisations work comprises different areas, first of which is research. We research who these front line workers are, where they are and the risks they face. Last year we undertook 27 missions to 22 countries. We continually try to meet human rights defenders on the ground, talk to them, see what they need, assess the risk and decide what we can do for them. Advocacy is also hugely important. We advocate through the UN and have a rolling internship in the office of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and in the office of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in the African Commission. We have an office in Brussels which was set up deliberately. We are proud that in 2004 the Irish Government agreed to make human rights defenders a priority for its Presidency and that it fought like an NGO to achieve this. Ireland’s partners in Europe did not really want it, but Ireland fought for it and EU guidelines on human rights defenders were adopted. That has led to a significant increase in the attention given to human rights defenders around the world. Our office in Brussels follows this agenda day in and out.
We also have bilateral arrangements with people in government, such as the UK Government, the Norwegian Government, the Swiss Government and the Irish Government, which has agreed to take urgent appeals. We provide grants for security and protection, such as walls around offices, CCTV within offices, medical treatment in torture cases, lawyers for trials and any such help that will increase security. Today, we arranged for a steel door and bars to be installed in the office of a women’s organisation. We provided €488,748 through 189 grants last year. Some 97 of these grants were to provide for temporary relocation for human rights defenders and their families who were in extreme danger.
Another big programme area is training. We provide training in personal security and risk assessment so that defenders can increase their capacity and decrease their vulnerability to attack. Last year we conducted 17 training sessions and trained some 242 human rights defenders in personal security and risk assessment. We do the same with regard to digital security, which is a significant issue nowadays. We trained 230 human rights defenders through 22 digital security sessions last year. We also publish personal and digital security handbooks.
We have an annual award programme and every year we make an award to a human rights defender at risk or an organisation at risk. We find this a very good way of helping to protect defenders and it also ensures media coverage. The awards have been presented by people like Mary Robinson - last year - Peter Sutherland, Bono and Martin Sheen. Every two years, we have a platform for human rights defenders. In November 2011, we brought 132 human rights defenders at risk from 85 countries around the world to Dublin to share their experiences, to learn from each other, to form strategy and to meet international actors, because we always have people in attendance from the UN, the EU, the Council of Europe and other international organisations. These platforms provide defenders with a rest from the relentless pressure they face.
The main focus for us this year is Ireland’s Presidency of the OSCE. We have submitted a paper to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which I would be happy to forward to anybody interested in it, to urge it to progress the agenda on human rights defenders in the OSCE in the same way as done with the European Union. We have two specific requests. First, we seek the appointment of an OSCE special representative for human rights defenders. This would be a separate institution and would operate pretty much like the UN and African Commission special representatives and monitor the situation of human rights defenders on the ground and regularly report to the parliamentary committee and support particular cases.
Last week I was in Kyrgyzstan. This is one of the cases I am hoping the committee might take up. I ask it to encourage the Minister to make it one of his goals. Azimjan Askarov is a long-time human rights defender in Kyrgyzstan who has been working on human rights issues for 25 years. Last year he documented ethnic violence and, as a result, was arrested for the killing of a policeman - an absolutely fake charge - and given a life sentence which was confirmed on appeal in December. The only evidence against him is what the police has said. He gave evidence under torture. In the prison hospital I visited last week he is being held in an underground cell with no natural light. He is 61 years old and has asthma. All the prison officers are really good to him; they know he is innocent. I spoke to the Deputy Foreign Minister who said we had to wait for reform of the judiciary and the judges in the Supreme Court to be changed. Mr. Askarov is innocent, but it could take many years for his case to be dealt with. The Kyrgyzstan Government is instituting a reform programme, but it will take time to bring in the rule of law and reform of the police and the judiciary. We need action now. I would be grateful, therefore, if the committee would do whatever it could on the case. I hope that, with the chairmanship of the OSCE, we can have a little more leverage this year.
Another case is that of a man in Uzbekistan, Dilmurod Saidov, who is a member of a human rights society and an independent journalist at Voice of Freedom, working to defend the rights of farmers. Media freedom is one of the issues being highlighted by Ireland in its chairmanship of the OSCE. He was given a sentence of 12 years and six months and now has tuberculosis. While he was being detained as a human rights defender - a perfectly innocent man who was working for the rights of others - he was tortured and his wife and five year old child were killed in a car accident, another tragic story. If it were possible for the committee to make that the second case to be dealt with during the OSCE chairmanship, that would be terrific.
During the OSCE chairmanship, we would like to see our guidelines on human rights defenders which are similar to the EU guidelines drafted by Ireland during the Presidency in conjunction with its partners and also passed during the Irish Presidency dealt with by the OSCE. We ask the committee to take up this matter with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.
I will mention one other case in connection with the upcoming visit of the Chinese Vice President who will replace President Hu Jintao as General Secretary of the Communist Party later this year. I do not know if any of the members will have the opportunity to see or meet him in any capacity, but we would be grateful if it were possible to raise in a polite way the case of a blind lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, who was given a sentence for advocating for free public transport for disabled people which has resonance here and for the rights of farmers and against forced abortions and sterilisations. He served his sentence in full, but on his release he was put under house arrest. We know that he and his wife have been beaten and that their little girl of about seven years was not allowed to go to school until recently. The people who bring her to school are the same people who have beaten up her parents in front of her. Mr. Chen’s cane was taken away, as were the little girl’s drawings and toys. Again, this is terrible. However, there is a little hope, which is why I am anxious that the committee find a way to raise this case. For the first time in China, it has obtained domestic traction. There has been a lot of information on Mr. Chen on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, and other social media, and academics, lawyers and bloggers, as well as human rights defenders and ordinary people, have come out in favour of him. The committee might put it in the context of the support already evident in China for his release from house arrest. I would be very grateful for its support.
Chairman: I thank Ms Lawlor. I attended the Front Line Defenders awards ceremony last year, at which there was a full house, with many diplomats attending. The one thing I brought from the meeting was the joyous expressions on the faces of the human rights defenders who had received awards and how grateful they were to Front Line Defenders for them. I encourage the organisation to keep up the good work. If the delegates talk to the clerk to the committee after the meeting, we will get the details of the people about whom they are concerned and will raise the issues with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in the context of our chairmanship of the OSCE.
With regard to the visit of the Chinese Vice President, Xi Jinping, at the weekend, I am not sure who will have an opportunity to meet him, but if we do not, we will raise the issue with the Chinese ambassador who is a frequent visitor to the committee.
Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl: I commend Ms Lawlor on her presentation and, more importantly, the valuable work Front Line Defenders has been doing. I note with interest the fact that she moved strategically back to 2004 to make use of the Irish Presidency of the European Union to promote the work of human rights defenders. It is fortunate, in the light of this, that she is now here at the start of our chairmanship of the OSCE. The committee will, in a cross-party fashion, be able to strongly advocate that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade consider the issues she mentioned.
With regard to the four individuals whose cases have been highlighted, each of us, through our own political party, can raise the matters directly with the Minister and the appropriate governments through their embassies in Ireland. We must highlight these four serious and worrying cases.
The delegates spoke about their Hello magazine-style presentation which was very well put together. I note with interest the involvement of Front Line Defenders in the Corrib gas monitoring project. What did it discover there? Are there human rights issues of which the committee should be aware? Leading on from this, although not directly - perhaps it is totally unrelated - how does the organisation differentiate between situations in which there are manifest breaches of human rights and people who are clearly advocating for those whose rights have been affected and situations that are politically manipulated or staged which can happen?
I had occasion last year to meet a number of individual volunteers from Front Line Defenders who were travelling to Nepal to do some work there. I was enormously impressed by the calibre of those volunteering and the amount of research they had conducted into the prevailing circumstances not only in the countries to which they were travelling but also in the general regions. The possibility of becoming involved with organisations such as Front Line Defenders is something that people who have time on their hands and who may have particular expertise should explore in order that through their work they can make a major contribution to the development of mankind. I salute the delegates for what they are doing.
Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn: Like the Chairman, I attended Front Line Defenders’ tremendous event in Dublin Castle last year. I found the event deeply moving, especially the presentations about the two human rights defenders who lost their lives during the previous year, the lady from Mexico and the gentleman from Uganda. It struck me that Front Line Defenders involves people transported from throughout the world to be together and to find a sense of solidarity with each other and a common humanity. The idea that some of them could have their lives taken away or be imprisoned is horrific. They are incredibly courageous people. I am a great admirer of the work of Front Line Defenders.
Ireland’s reputation internationally for human rights is strong not least since our former President, Mary Robinson, was the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We will discuss the Bahrain issue later. I note the delegation omitted the issue in their presentation to allow us more time to discuss it later on. Abul Hadi al-Khawaja is a Front Line Defender. Several of the doctors involved in Bahrain were trained in Ireland. I have read some of their testimonies, as has the delegation. They make for difficult reading. I am looking at some of the photographs of what happened to them. What is the Front Line Defenders opinion of the Bahrain situation? We will have more time to discuss it. As we speak people are protesting in the streets. Dr. Ali Al Ekri and Dr. Ghassan Daif, two doctors who trained in Ireland, gave testimony which I have before me. What are the thoughts of the delegation on the situation in Bahrain now? How can Ireland play a constructive role to help to resolve the situation?
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Like other speakers, I wish to compliment Ms Lawlor and Mr. Anderson on being here today and especially on the presentation and the manner in which it was made. Human rights defenders will always be targets no matter where they go. It is important that Front Line Defenders makes the case regularly to the home governments and to the international community. In the normal run of the mill, we are all under pressure on a daily basis. We need to get an occasional reminder from well-founded organisations such as Front Line Defenders. We are focused on so many things as the same time that it is virtually impossible to keep the degree of pressure required to bring about results unless we have ongoing reminders from the likes of Front Line Defenders. I compliment Front Line Defenders on the work it has done and the manner in which it has been co-ordinated. The scale of the work undertaken is formidable. It behoves all of us to support the work Front Line Defenders does and continues to do in every possible way. Perhaps we should arrange meetings on an ongoing basis, every six months or on an annual basis to focus on the issues that have fallen from the radar screen, for want of a better description. This will enable us to concentrate on a more regular basis and review and update the progress.
It must be terrible for a human rights worker to find himself or herself isolated in his or her country or a neighbouring country, convicted and condemned with no possibility of recourse to any quarter other than permanent incarceration or even death, as has occurred in many cases. We should re-examine how we can link up with the international community to highlight these sensitive cases as they arise because with the passage of time one tends to forget them.
Senator David Norris: I apologise for being late. We had to attend a vote in the Seanad. I join my colleagues in welcoming our two distinguished visitors. I very much value the work they do, the briefings we are sometimes given and the opportunity we get at the annual breakfast when Front Line Defenders honours international recipients.
I was very moved at that event to hear the story of that extraordinary woman from my native land, the Congo. She had been the victim of multiple rapes and her family had been killed. However, she still went back and fought for the rights of women and communities. I hope that what Front Line Defenders does really helps to protect these people. Will the delegation say something about that and about its effectiveness? Will they comment on how we as a foreign affairs committee can support Front Line Defenders in that work? That is very important. We in this country are in a vulnerable financial situation but we do not really appreciate that people’s lives are on the stake or the disastrous situations in which they sometimes find themselves. Will the delegation say more about temporary location which is just an immediate response and not a final solution to the situation?
I was very pleased to hear the delegation remark on a previous Government’s strong support for the inclusion of human rights in the EU’s portfolio because it started out as simply an economic unit. I remember being reprimanded at a Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union, COSAC, meeting in Paris by Mr. Alain Juppé after I protested against the sale of Allouette helicopters because they were being used to bomb East Timor. He told me that the European Union had no human rights aspect. He was right at that stage but, thank God, it does now.
I had the privilege of meeting David Kato, who was a front liner, for a cup of coffee approximately one year ago or perhaps a little longer. David Kato was the man who started an organisation in Uganda for gay people and was headlined in the media with his name, his photograph and his address and he was promptly murdered. It was an appalling situation. He was a front liner and was celebrated 18 months ago. It is almost one year ago to the day since he was murdered. Despite the fact that he was brought to Dublin, the media in his own country managed to have him killed. Will the delegation comment on that? Are there people the delegation would like me to try to contact?
I will be going to Uganda as an Irish representative of the Inter Parliamentary Union, IPU, at the end of next month. I would be prepared to meet these people or offer any support or to try to get support through the IPU. Any briefing the delegation could give on Uganda would be most welcome. I also had a meeting with the Roman Catholic Archbishop John Baptist Odama, who was very interesting. He came to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade. Our Chairman organised the meeting. I also met the Anglican Bishop, Christopher Senyonjo, who has taken a particular interest in these areas of gender and so on and has been punished by his own church by having his pension removed.
Deputy Eric Byrne: At the outset I apologise for being the political virgin at the table because I did not know anything about Front Line Defenders. I read the brief which is phenomenally interesting and fascinating. It raises some questions for me. How did an Irish organisation manage to bring 132 human rights activists from 85 countries to Dublin? Given this work and the other roles and functions the organisation plays throughout the world in obscure or isolated countries, how is Front Line Defenders funded? The brief referred to some of the issues the Tánaiste, Deputy Gilmore, has covered. It has been suggested that he should adopt some of the human rights defenders in his role as chairman of the OSCE. In what way does Front Line Defenders differ from organisations such as Amnesty International? Earlier, the Chairman referred to the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights. We debated this and agreed to support its restructuring and the additional funding likely to go to it. I am a fanatical supporter of NGOs and I have spent a great deal of time monitoring elections on behalf of the OSCE throughout the world, not least in Kyrgyzstan. What is the relationship between the OSCE and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR? I am always a little nervous about taking one organisation’s opinion as to who is guilty. It can be a subjective thing. I do not know what research FLD has conducted or on what legal opinion the declarations of innocence are based. These people might well be innocent but, as a politician, I am nervous about rubber-stamping someone else’s opinion. Is the chap in Kyrgyzstan, which the group has recently visited, connected with rioting in the Osh region involving the Uzbekis?
Deputy Eric Byrne: Did the FLD lobby the Uzbeki chairman about the riots in Osh during which there was a terrible purge of Uzbekis with up to 700 people killed? The only reason I vaguely know that is that I was observing two elections for the OSCE at the time. I am hugely impressed by the NGO movement, which is phenomenal. Where does FLD get its funding? What is the relationship between Amnesty International, EIDHR, OSCE, ODIHR and other human rights organisations?
Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan: I am in awe of the work FLD does. I am struck by the practical nature of the work, such as providing respite for front-line defenders who need space to get away from the intensity of the situation they are in. It was interesting to read about the various breaks the organisation afforded them. We all have different voices as members of the committee and we can all add to what the FLD is trying to do if we are made aware of the issues it would like followed up. I am an Independent member along with Senator Norris. We are not members of a political party but we can follow up on these issues because the more voices, the better.
I will visit Cuba over Easter. The cause I have been supporting relates to the Miami Five. The Independent Members had the opportunity to raise this issue yesterday at lunch with the American ambassador to Ireland. We discussed this and while we did not get very far, at least it was aired.
The final issue I raise concerns the Palestinian baker, Khader Adnan, who is on the 58th day of his hunger strike in protest at the Israeli authorities. This case is particularly horrific and I was wondering whether FLD had any knowledge about this.
Ms Mary Lawlor: I will start with the definition of “human rights defenders” and how we distinguish between who is and who is not a human rights defender. Mr. Anderson can then comment on the Corrib issue. We take the UN declaration on human rights defenders, which was agreed after 13 years of discussion. The first special representative on human rights defenders was a woman called Hina Jilani who basically set out the definition of a human rights defender. It is a broad definition. It is anyone who promotes and protects human rights non-violently. There is a document and we have a fact sheet which we would be happy to give to the committee. We use that
Obviously, sometimes there are difficulties deciding whether somebody meets the criteria. That usually arises, say, when somebody has a dual role. It could be a journalist, student, protestor, politician or lawyer. One has to go into what they are doing. Hina Jilani always said it depends on the act they were engaged in at the time of the persecution. If they are persecuted because of something they were doing in defence of human rights, even if that was not their full-time job, at that point in time they were a human rights defender. That is basically the way we go into the difficult cases before we decide.
Mr. Mark Anderson: I cannot say a great deal on Corrib because one of the things we have done in the past year is have a joint project with Amnesty International’s Irish section monitoring the policing there. We agreed with An Garda Síochána and the representatives of Shell that before we published any report, we would give them an opportunity to respond to the concerns. We, therefore, have not had an opportunity to do that yet so I cannot say what was there.
Mr. Mark Anderson: We hope to have that outcome in the next month or six weeks. It has been somewhat delayed by our colleagues in Amnesty International rather than by the co-operation of the others. Many people asked us to look into the situation in Mayo and when it was first brought to us, the first thing we did was commission a barrister to go there to do some research. We published a report based on his research in 2008 and 2009, which raised a number of questions and concerns about the policing of the dispute there and it also raised issues which justified some of the police response in terms of some of what was alleged to have happened there. It was on the basis of that report entitled, Breakdown in Trust, which was published in 2010, that we agreed the joint monitoring project with Amnesty International over six months in 2011. We had a full-time human rights observer based in Belmullet mainly on site around Rossport for six months as well as a number of trained volunteers who went down and supplemented the full-time person on a temporary basis when there were large number of people involved in incidents.
We have some issues arising out of that. During the six months, we had very good co-operation from An Garda Síochána and some of the issues were resolved over the course of the six months as we raised them but we still have a number of issues that we need to sit down and talk to it about and a couple of issues about which we would like to talk to Shell and its security company.
Ms Mary Lawlor: I will continue with the other questions. We know Mr. David Kato. The Bill is back up in Uganda again. A film has been made about David and it had its first showing in Berlin last Sunday. We hope to bring it to Dublin.
I refer to protection, support and temporary relocation. We are fortunate in that we agreed with a previous Minister for justice in 2005 a temporary humanitarian scheme for human rights defenders here. We are allowed bring human rights defenders at risk to Ireland for three months rest and respite. It is a structure between the Departments of Justice and Equality and Foreign Affairs and Trade. We have availed of that. People come here to have rest or to learn English and so on.
Protection depends on what they say they need at any one time. It is a mixture of all the tools we have in our basket and that is what we use. The best thing that the committee can do is make an individual appeal or an appeal as a committee if we become aware of somebody in danger. Whether one likes it or not, the pressure politicians can bring to bear is the most effective tool.
Ms Mary Lawlor: Exactly. It is all about being fast and flexible. The committee does not need to say whether it thinks a person is innocent or not. It can ask a searching question, say it is concerned about reports that the person has been arrested and seek assurances that he or she will not be tortured. It can be done in a way that the Senator knows better than I do. That deals with the question on temporary location.
How are we funded and what is our relationship with Amnesty, and all of that? I was director of Amnesty International in Ireland for 12 years before I left to set up Front Line Defenders. I wanted to do that because the people who have always inspired me are people who are willing to put their own lives in danger for the sake of others. I could never get away from that. I had not met very many during my years with Amnesty, because when one is director one does other things. Amnesty is a wonderful organisation. It is huge and it has a huge agenda. It has a way of working that suits its mandate. However, if you are dealing with human rights defenders - people who are in danger, who get up in the morning and do not know if they will be alive that night - you need to have a flexible and fast response and a way of working that is not institutionalised. That is why I felt it needed to be a separate organisation. That is when I went to get the money to set up Front Line Defenders.
Currently, we have generous funding from Irish Aid, which told us yesterday we will be given €500,000 this year. We are very grateful for that. We also get money from the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, EIDHR, which has been mentioned. When Ireland managed to get the guidelines adopted it put in place a budget line for human rights defenders and consulted us about what was needed. We also get money from the Norwegian Government and a little from the Swiss Government. The Embattled NGO Assistance Fund is the brainchild of Hillary Clinton although 13 governments are involved in it. We get money from it. Our budget is about €3 million a year. We get about £400,000 per year from the Sigrid Rausing Trust, which is a human rights foundation in London funded by the granddaughter of the founders of the Tetrapak company. We get money from the Oak Foundation, which was founded by the Atlantic Philanthropies guy, from OSI, which is George Soros’s foundation and from the Ford Foundation. We are constantly fundraising.
When I wanted to set up an organisation I went to Denis O’Brien, because he was the only one I knew who had money. He had been supportive of Amnesty. I was lucky because his first baby had been born the night before and I think the first person who went in that day would have got money, so he gave me €3 million.
How are we different from Amesty? We concentrate all our activity on people who are in danger. Amnesty deals with all human rights violations all over the world, including women, children, refugees, unfair trials and all that sort of thing. We want to keep the person who is fighting for the rights of other people non-violently alive and able to do that work.
Mr. Andrew Anderson: I will say a couple of words about Bahrain. I want to focus on the case of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, our former protection co-ordinator covering the Middle East and north Africa. He worked with Front Line Defenders for three years, based in Bahrain but covering all the other countries in the region. When he worked for us he did not work in his own country, partly to maintain an element of independence from the human rights situation in his own country.
Just over a year ago, he was in Ireland for our planning meeting but when he went back to Bahrain he said he needed to resign from Front Line because things were happening in his country, he needed to engage with that and could not continue to play a role with Front Line across the broader region for the foreseeable future. On 8 April, he was arrested, beaten, tortured and, as a result of the torture he underwent, had to have a major operation on his jaw and the side of his head. Members might have seen his name on the big wrap on St. Stephen’s Green in the last couple of months.
Mr. Andrew Anderson: Abdulhadi was part of a group of 23 political, religious and human rights defenders who were convicted of a range of charges and given life sentences after an unfair trial. He is currently on hunger strike.
With regard to the Palestinian case that was mentioned, I have only seen news reports of that case, but my understanding is that the individual concerned is not a human rights activist. He is more of a political activist. It is a very difficult situation.
Abdulhadi, with a group of other detainees, was on hunger strike from 29 January to 6 February. He was persuaded to end the hunger strike, took food for a day or so and went back on hunger strike on 8 February. We are concerned about his health. He is a thin guy at the best of times. One of my colleagues saw him in January and said he was not looking healthy. This is the fourth hunger strike he has undertaken in the last eight months, and the torture has done considerable damage to his body. He is currently being moved from Jaw Prison to, we believe, a prison hospital, although his family have not had confirmation of which medical facility he is in. We are gravely concerned for his health and wellbeing. We urge anyone who can to join in calls for his release.
We have been working on the situation in Bahrain throughout the last 12 months. Either Mary Lawlor or I have observed trials on six occasions on behalf of Front Line, and on a couple of occasions we sent lawyers. We have also closely followed the situation of doctors and medics who were arrested, tortured and prosecuted in the aftermath of the uprising in Bahrain, particularly of the three Irish-trained medics, who were mentioned earlier. I was part of the Irish delegation that went to Bahrain in July together with Dr. Damian McCormack, Professor Eoin O’Brien, the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. David Andrews, Senator Averil Power and Marian Harkin, MEP. We met the doctors and their families in Bahrain and expressed our support and solidarity for their situation. We heard horrific accounts of torture and ill-treatment from them and we are continuing to follow their cases. Charges still hang over 20 of them. They have been released on bail but their prosecutions continue, largely as a result of their peaceful activities and their efforts to support to victims of the violence in Bahrain.
Senator David Norris: I note that the Palestinian baker was ruled out because he was a political rather than a human rights activist. Sometimes that can be a fine distinction. If one is placed in an impossible situation, in Palestine for example, political action can be, essentially, the promotion of human rights.
Mr. Andrew Anderson: Of course that is true. It is always a difficult thing, but as some of the Senator’s colleagues said, we must research carefully the cases we take up because when we do so we must be 100% convinced of all the facts around them, which is why I am a little hesitant to speak on this matter because we have not researched the case.
Mr. Andrew Anderson: My understanding from media coverage is that he has more of a political background and that he does not himself claim to be a human rights defender or activist. It is certainly not a case that has been referred to us by human rights defenders in Palestine as one relating to a human rights defender. It has been taken up as a legitimate human rights issue in terms of his situation but he has not been presented to us as a human rights defender and therefore we have not done the level of investigation into his background and exactly why he was in prison.
Deputy Eric Byrne: It has just occurred to me that there was a man for whom I used to feel terribly sorry who was incarcerated in an Israeli prison for divulging the atomic research programme of the Israelis.
Mr. Andrew Anderson: The short answer is “Yes”. We met with him in Jerusalem when Ms Lawlor and I were there a couple of years ago. We tried to find a way to provide practical support to him, but it is a very difficult case. He has had huge international solidarity and pressure over the years even before he was released but he is still under restrictions. There was not very much that we could do on a practical level. His main objective was to get out of Israel permanently and, unfortunately, we were not in a position to organise that.
Ms Mary Lawlor: I know, but one must ask questions. That is fair, in the same way we have to question. For example, everyone has raised the case of Azimjan Askarov in Kyrgyzstan. The OSCE has raised his case and the director of ODIHR, Janez Lenarcic, has also raised his case. The OSCE sent a mission just before the appeal to try to put pressure on the government to let him go. The EU and Catherine Ashton have intervened.
Ms Mary Lawlor: The human rights ombudsman said it was a political case. When I spoke to the deputy foreign Minister he pretty much accepted that but there is a hugely difficult national situation, as Deputy Eric Byrne pointed out.
Chairman: That is fine. The committee will have an opportunity to raise certain issues on Tuesday, 28 February when we have a meeting with the Israeli Minister for public affairs and diaspora who is coming to this country on an official visit. His name is Yuli Edelstein. We will have an opportunity to raise the issues of the Palestinian and Israeli individuals to whom Deputy Byrne referred.
I thank the witnesses, in particular Ms Lawlor and Mr. Andrew Anderson. We are very proud of Front Line Defenders. It is an Irish organisation working in many countries. This country has been to the forefront of many human rights issues and we are proud of those involved and the work done by the organisation. We will raise the issue of Mr. Abdulhadi Al-Khawajawith the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore. We will also raise it with our ambassador, Mr. Niall Holohan,in Saudi Arabia. We will write to him on the matter and keep the witnesses informed of the situation. They are the voice of human rights defenders. As Senator Norris said, we recognise that some people put their lives at risk for others. That is important given the times in which we live. They are to be commended on that. We look forward to working closely with them in the future. We hope the organisation will keep in touch with us on any issues that arise. The clerk, Ms Brigid Doody, will speak to the witnesses about the other cases they raised. We hope they will return to us to speak on the draft regulation of the European Parliament on the council for establishing a financial instrument for the promotion of democracy and human rights. They might send us a comprehensive reply on that. I thank them for attending the committee. We look forward to seeing them again in the near future.
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