Human rights defenders: those who fight through the risks

Fighting against torture and other human rights violations puts defenders at great personal risk; sharing their stories can help

Just over two years ago –  on 6 July 2010 –  Dr Germán Antonio Ramírez Herrera was assassinated outside of his office in Los Ríos province, Ecuador. A forensic doctor and expert, Dr Herrera had been documenting cases of torture with PRIVA, a local IRCT member centre.

According to reports, three individuals in a car and a fourth on a motorcycle were seen by witnesses at the scene. Dr Herrera was shot twice – once in his mouth and once in his stomach. He was leaving his office at around noon on that day, the same day that PRIVA, an IRCT member centre, was presenting the doctor’s findings to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. Dr Herrera had previously received numerous threats as a result of his documentation and reporting of torture and extrajudicial killings in Ecuadorian prisons.

Human rights defenders are a group at near-constant risk: risk of torture, risk of enforced disappearance, harassment (including physical, mental or judicial). They often live at risk because they point to the crimes and human rights violations committed those in power – whether political, economic, or physical.

For those in the fight against torture, this can be particularly dangerous work. Human rights defenders may document, investigate and pursue torture allegations. And who are the torturers? Per definition, they are agents of the state, who likely have little interest in seeing these cases pursued.

Just last week, we highlighted the ongoing harassment of human rights defender Igor Kalyapin, chairman of the IRCT member the Interregional Committee Against Torture.

Kalyapin has been interrogated by the Russian Special Investigation Department and has learned that criminal proceedings are being pursued. This, sadly, is not a firstKalyapin last year was awarded the Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders At-Risk. And the Interregional Committee Against Torture has participated in the last few years in the Joint Mobile Group, a conglomerated group of human rights defenders that investigate violations and crimes. After the murder of Natalya Estemirova, a Chechen human rights activist, the group was established to prevent further crimes against defenders.

With such risks ever-present, what we can all do is to highlight the defenders; we must highlight their work and sometimes their harassment to ensure their safety. The more well-known human rights defenders are, the more their work and threats are known around the world, the less likely it is that they will be attacked.

So for the safety of all human rights defenders, we ask those who read this blog or follow us or other organizations on Twitter or Facebook – spread the messages. Share urgent actions and shed light on the human rights defenders at-risk.

Scott is IRCT’s Head of Communications

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  1. Ten facts to know about torture « World Without Torture

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