News Releases

“Censorship by detention”: New campaign spotlights the imprisonment of human rights defenders


News release

Geneva, 10 October 2022

Dozens of countries worldwide are increasingly putting human rights defenders behind bars under fabricated charges as part of a broader effort to silence any form of dissent, like in Belarus, where detained activist Ales Bialiatski just won the Nobel Peace Prize. To attract attention to this alarming trend, the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) starts today a campaign profiling five emblematic activists detained in Vietnam, Russia-occupied Crimea, Egypt, Morocco/Western Sahara, and Saudi Arabia.

“These women and men play a critical role in their societies by working for social justice, for inclusion and a healthy environment”, said Delphine Reculeau, Director of the human rights defenders programme at the OMCT. “But because they dare speak truth to power, their governments have been attacking them with increasing intensity and brutality. A weapon of choice is fabricated criminal charges leading to long detention terms in often inhumane conditions”.

To silence activists, States, and sometimes powerful economic interests, resort to a vast array of measures, ranging from administrative and financial hurdles to outright assassinations. Over the past decade, detention has become a favoured tool to censor those who speak out against abuse. From 2020 to 2022, the OMCT documented 802 cases of human rights defenders arbitrarily detained in 67 countries. These numbers are probably only the tip of the iceberg.

Ill-treatment and even torture are frequently used against these activists to force confessions for crimes they didn’t commit and also after they’ve been sentenced. The Covid-19 pandemic further worsened things, with trials held behind closed doors, human rights defenders denied healthcare as a form of punishment and excluded from early release schemes that benefitted other prisoners. There were multiple reports of defenders contracting Covid-19 behind bars, with some dying from it, including prominent figures such as Azimjan Askarov in Kyrgyzstan and Stan Swamy in India.

The OMCT campaign launched today carries the hashtag “FacesOfHope”, symbolising the courageous struggle of these activists for dignity and justice in their communities. The five people profiled are a Vietnamese land defender imprisoned with his mother and brother for defending small-scale farmers against land grabbing; a Crimea Tatar advocating for the rights of his community and whom the Russian occupying authorities just sentenced to 17 years in prison; an Egyptian cat-loving lawyer thrown in jail for defending peaceful activists; a Saudi female activist who was under threat of beheading; and a young Western Saharan journalist whom Morocco has imprisoned for the past 12 years in horrific conditions.

«Imprisoning defenders not only halts their essential work for democracy and sustainable development but sends shockwaves of fear throughout society, paralysing efforts in defence of the weakest”, said Gerald Staberock, OMCT Secretary General. “The international community needs to step up efforts to stop this harmful trend and have all unjustly imprisoned human rights activists freed.”

The profiles will be published daily from 10 to 14 October, starting today with Trinh Ba Phuong in Vietnam.

The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) is the largest global NGO group actively standing up to torture and protecting human rights defenders worldwide. It has more than 200 members in 90 countries. Its international Secretariat is based in Geneva, Switzerland.

For more information, please contact :
Iolanda Jaquemet, Director of Communications

+41 79 539 41 06