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'They put a knife to my throat and told me I shouldn't be speaking on TV about gay men'

Mary Lawlor recounts the experiences of three frontline defenders and the most common dangers they face defending human rights.

Image: Shutterstock/Worraket

ON 2 MAY THIS year, Emad Al Sharaa met a friend and colleague, Ammar for coffee in the Karrada district of Baghdad.

As they were leaving, a car bomb exploded.

A piece of shrapnel killed Ammar outright while 75 others were killed or injured. Emad was lucky to survive but was seriously injured. When Emad was in Germany for medical treatment he was asked why he wanted to go back to Iraq.

He answered:

“I believe in the future of Iraq. I believe in the people in Iraq who have the courage to speak out and who need support.”

Emad works with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in Baghdad. The IWPR has worked since the fall of Saddam Hussein to train a new generation of journalists to take a critical approach to reporting the successes and failures of successive governments.

They write about what is really happening in the country and are helping to connect the people of Iraq to what is going on in the world around them.

Helping a new generation in Iraq

Emad, Ammar and their colleagues are part of a new generation of Iraqis who continue to be optimistic about the future of their country.

They believe in a secular, democratic Iraq, and want them to move away from the religious and ethnic sectarianism of the past.

For some, however, that idea is a threat to everything they hold dear and the bomb, in an area of cafés and restaurants, was a direct challenge to the very notion of an open and tolerant Iraq.

Emad Al Sharaa is just one of the 120 human rights defenders from 100 countries who are attending the Front Line Defenders Dublin Platform from 4 – 6 November. Like Emad, they have been invited because in their own country they are in danger of attack or suffer ongoing intimidation and official smear campaigns because of their human rights work.

These are the people for whom Front Line Defenders works and for whom the Dublin Platform exists.

A dangerous place for gay people

People like Kenita Placide. Kenita is the Co-Executive Director of United and Strong Inc. (U&S), Saint Lucia’s first and only LGBTI organisation. Saint Lucia is a dangerous place to be gay.

In 2005, 2006 and 2007 respectively, three of Placide’s LGBTI friends were brutally murdered.

She said, “we never felt justice was served because of how those investigations went”. She herself was held up at knife-point, just before she was due to leave for a meeting with the Ministry of Health.

“I was on my way to the meeting when a black car pulled up. Two men jumped out, put a knife to my throat and told me I should not be speaking on public television about batiman [gay men]. They would accept lesbians but not batimen [gay men]. And the next time I would appear on TV I would be a dead woman.”

Or Nighat Dad, who in 2012 set up the Digital Rights Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation focusing on the empowerment of women in Pakistan, through the creation of digital spaces and training women in digital security and privacy issues.

As the problem of online harassment becomes a global issue, young women are particularly vulnerable. In Pakistan. where a woman is raped every two hours, and where more than 1,000 women are killed annually in so called “honour killings”, online security isn’t just an optional extra, it is a matter of survival – especially for human rights defenders.

Nighat Dad has been listed as one of the six leaders of the next generation by Time Magazine, but that doesn’t guarantee her safety in Pakistan. Increasingly the government is trying to control the free space of the internet.

YouTube has been banned indefinitely while 2014 was the most dangerous year ever for media workers, 14 of whom were killed. In April 2015, Nighat’s friend and fellow human rights defender Sabeen Mahmud was killed.

Sabeen was a prominent Pakistani social and human rights activist who was shot dead, shortly after hosting an event on Balochistan’s “disappeared people”.

All three will be able to share their experiences with the other participants at the Dublin Platform. The purpose of the exercise is to examine the most common dangers faced by human rights defenders and to come up with innovative and effective strategies to combat the risk.

One option open to human rights defenders over the three days of the Dublin Platform is to take part in digital security clinics with experts from around the world, who will advise them on how to stay safe online.

The Dublin Platform is one of the biggest gatherings of human rights defenders in the world. It is a safe space where human rights defenders can speak freely, often for the first time.

The fact that the Dublin Platform is held in Dublin Castle and is officially opened by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, which sends out a clear signal about the legitimacy and importance of their work.

For Front Line Defenders, the goal is that for three days they feel valued and supported and get the opportunity to extend their network of contacts with international organisations and the human rights community.

Every one of them has a compelling story to tell of courage in the face of relentless oppression and it is a privilege for us to host them in Dublin.

Mary Lawlor is founder and Executive Director of Front Line Defenders.

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