Human Rights News You May Have Missed (10 – 16 January)

 Participants march towards Mnazi Mmoja grounds during Tanzania Albino Day celebrations in Dar es Salaam.  Photo Credit: Voice of America
Participants march towards Mnazi Mmoja grounds during Tanzania Albino Day celebrations in Dar es Salaam. Photo Credit: Voice of America

A roundup of some of the human rights news stories (both good and bad) that I am following this week.

TANZANIA declared a ban on witchcraft in an effort to halt deadly attacks on albinos. The move follows mounting pressure on the government to protect albinos, who lack pigment in their skin and hair, and whose body parts are used by witch doctors in so-called magic potions thought to bring power and wealth.  The U.N. human rights agency says more than 70 people with albinism have been killed for body parts in Tanzania since 2000. Minister for Home Affairs Mathias Chikawe said on January 13 that the government has formed a task force that will investigate killings and review court cases for accused attackers, some of whom have gone free. Ernest Kimayo, chairman of the Tanzania Albino Society, welcomed the government’s actions, saying it will improve life for his community.

Also in TANZANIA, some 800 school girls returned home on Monday, January 12 after escaping female genital mutilation (FGM) by spending three months hiding in safe houses.  FGM is traditionally carried out on girls between October and December. Run by charities and church organisations, the shelters offer protection (including police protection at some) to ensure the girls remain safe. FGM was outlawed in Tanzania in 1998 and carries a punishment of up to 15 years in prison, but is still regularly carried out, especially in northern and central regions of Tanzania.http://allafrica.com/stories/201501050530.html

CANADA:  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a report on the disappearances and murders of indigenous women in British Columbia, finding it part of a “broader pattern” of violence and discrimination against aboriginal women   Aboriginal women are significantly over-represented as victims of homicide in Canada; The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has reported that about 1,200 aboriginal women and girls were murdered or went missing in Canada between 1980 and 2012.) The IACHR called on the Canadian government to institute a national inquiry into the issue and to develop a coordinated national response that addresses the root causes of the violence, including Canada’s history of colonization, inequality and economic and social marginalization.)

 fierce winter storm swept through the Middle East this week bringing icy temperatures, high winds and heavy snow. In Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, more than 400,000 refugees have been enduring freezing conditions since snow levels not seen in many years arrived. Photo ©UNHCR/A.McConnell. Retrieved from UNHCR.org.
A fierce winter storm swept through the Middle East this week bringing icy temperatures, high winds and heavy snow. In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, more than 400,000 refugees have been enduring freezing conditions since snow levels not seen in many years arrived. Photo ©UNHCR/A.McConnell. Retrieved from UNHCR.org.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees issued its Mid-Year Trends 2014 report on global formed displacement in first six months of 2014.  Armed conflicts displaced an estimated 5.5 million people, with 1.4 million of those fleeing to other countries, says a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Syrians have become the largest group of displaced people within UNHCR’s mandate, overtaking Afghans who held that position for three decades. 

NIGERIA:  International coverage of the tremendous human rights tragedy in Baga, Nigeria has finally picked up, but there has been less coverage of Boko Haram’s use of children as suicide bombers. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has expressed concern about what it called “escalating violence against children in northern Nigeria.”  The statement came after two explosions ripped through a market in northeastern Nigeria Sunday killing at least five people, including the two bombers. Twenty-one others were wounded.   The attacks were said to be carried out by two young girls. Sunday’s explosions came after a bomb strapped to a girl exploded in Maiduguri killing at least 19 people.  “We are seeing a new trend of using girls and women, and now of children, as suicide bombers. This is something that is new to this conflict. So, this trend is very worrying to us because this is something that is very difficult to find [a] solution to.”

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC:  A spokesman for the Ugandan army announced that on January 14 Lord’s Resistance Army rebel commander Dominic Ongwen was handed over to Ugandan troops that are part of an African Union force in the Central African Republic.  He will be flown to The Hague to stand trial at the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.   He was indicted by the ICC almost a decade ago, but only surrendered  last week and was taken into the custody of US special forces.   One issue that is sure to come up during the ICC trial: Ongwen is the only one among the five LRA indictees who was abducted as a child and forcibly conscripted into the LRA.

TAJIKISTAN:  Prominent human rights lawyer Shukhrat Kudratov was sentenced on January 13, 2015, to nine years in prison following what Human Rights Watch describes as a “politically motivated trial” that struck a blow to freedom of expression and the independence of the legal profession in Tajikistan.  A court in Dushanbe found Kudratov, who is also deputy head of the opposition Social Democratic party, guilty on criminal charges of fraud and bribery. Kudratov is known for taking on politically sensitive cases, including representing victims of police torture and those accused of “religious extremism.”

EGYPT:  The acquittal in Egypt on January 12, 2015, of 26 men accused of “practicing debauchery” is a rare success in protecting the rights to privacy and nondiscrimination against LGBTI persons. The men were arrested at a hammam or bathhouse in Cairo on December 7, 2014.  Government prosecutors have appealed the decision, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a nongovernmental group, reported, but authorities released all 26 men. It is the first time since 2011 that a trial court is known to have handed down a total acquittal in a “debauchery” case. Rights activists say 2014 was the worst year in a decade for Egypt’s gay community, with at least 150 men arrested or put on trial.    Because there are no laws criminalizing homosexuality in Egypt, a decades’ old law criminalizing prostitution is often used in penalizing the gay community. The trial opened unusually quickly – only two weeks after the raid on the bathhouse — amidst biased media coverage that “convicted the defendants before they even set foot in court”.

Jorge Sánchez, son of the missing journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo demands his father’s release outside the municipal building of Medellín de Bravo, Veracruz, Mexico. Photograph: IMG Veracruz/Demotix/Corbis.  Retrieved from TheGuardian.com
Jorge Sánchez, son of the missing journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo demands his father’s release outside the municipal building of Medellín de Bravo, Veracruz, Mexico. Photograph: IMG Veracruz/Demotix/Corbis. Retrieved from TheGuardian.com

MEXICO: State prosecutors have detained the town of Medellín de Bravo’s entire police force following the disappearance of journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo in Mexico’s southern state of Veracruz.    A group of nine armed men took Sánchez from his home earlier this month along with his computer, camera and telephones.  Sánchez publishes a local weekly La Union where he wrote about local government corruption and violent deaths, as well as publishing citizen complaints. Some of his journalism was aimed at Medellín de Bravo’s mayor, Omar Cruz.   Thirty-six members of the  police department were brought in to give statements in the investigation. 

In other news related to Mexico‘s serious problem with local corruption and disappearances and extrajudicial killing, the Mexican attorney general’s office this week obtained arrest warrants for kidnapping against the former mayor José Luis Abarca and 44 others implicated in the case of 43 students who went missing in September 2014 after being attacked by municipal police allegedly working with a local drug cartel.

GERMANY:  Dresden police have launched a murder investigation into the death of Eritrean refugee Khaled Idris Bahray.  On Tuesday morning, Bahray was found stabbed to death in an inner courtyard at the housing complex where he lived.  According to his flatmates, he had left the flat late the night before to go out to a shop but never returned.  Dresden has been making headlines recently for its anti-immigrant rallies, which, on the night of Bahray’s death, attracted a record number of 25,000 supporters. Tensions in the city have been high in the 12 weeks since the rallies began, with a reported increase in racist attacks. While the motive for Bahray’s killing and the identity of his killer remain unknown, a Swastiska was found daubed on the 2nd floor flat where Bahray lived with 7 other Eritrean refugees just three days before he was killed. It was accompanied by the threat, “We’ll get you all”.

CAMBODIA: Self-exiled Cambodian-American dissident Serey Ratha was sentenced in absentia yesterday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to seven years’ imprisonment and fined 25 million riel ($6,250) under the charges of treason, obstructing electoral procedures in 2013 and inciting to overthrow Cambodia’s government related to a Facebook post prior to the 2013 election. Three other men (Serey Bunlong, Sen Someng and Oum Phirum) were each sentenced to six years in prison and fined 5 million riel ($1,230) for treason and obstructing electoral procedures after they reportedly distributed T-shirts with slogans admonishing citizens to abstain from voting in the last national election.

Finally, some brilliant teenagers in the UNITED STATES inspired me this week with their spoken word poem Somewhere In America. 

That’s it for this week.  Please feel free to add other human rights news in the comments.

As always, feedback on this new weekly feature is appreciated!

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The Regular

Beauty's Special
Order up! Beauty’s Specials at Beauty’s Luncheonette in Montreal

“I’ve been coming here since the beginning,” he said conspiratorially, leaning towards me from the stool next to mine.

I had noticed the white haired gentleman earlier, as he was shouldering his way through the Sunday brunch crowd at Beauty’s Luncheonette.  He took a seat on the chrome-and-blue pleather stool next to me. As he carefully placed his folded Montreal Gazette on the formica countertop, he caught the server’s eye.  “Hi hon!” she sang out as she filled his coffee cup.

He didn’t even have to place his order.  In a matter of minutes, “the usual” was set in front of him.  Side of home fries, black coffee, and a Beauty’s Russian Black Special.  Most people who come to Beauty’s get the Beauty’s Special – smoked salmon, cream cheese, tomato, and onion on the infamous Montreal sesame bagel.  But The Regular clearly prefers the Special on on a Russian rye bread so black that  it looks like it is made of dark chocolate.

“You’ve been coming here since 1942?” I asked.

“Sure, I went to high school just down the street. I used to buy my school supplies here back when it was a stationary shop.   There was always a poker game going on back in the back room.”

He pointed towards an open door behind the kitchen to a small room where they now store the mops and brooms and cleaning supplies.  (You can see it in the background of the photo above.)

“They won’t tell you THAT in the history.”

He gestured vaguely towards the blue and white menu, which contains a detailed history of Beauty’s.  How newlyweds Hymie and Freda Sckolnick bought the shop on the corner of Mont Royal and St. Urbain and started serving lunch to the garment workers from the  factories in the neighborhood.  The name “Beauty” came from Hymie’s bowling nickname.  It grew so popular that the workers started bringing their families on the weekend.  “And the Montreal brunch was born,”  to quote the menu.  Indeed, there was no mention of the poker game in the back room.

“I’m in my 80s,” he confided, “so Hymie must be into his 90s.  You met him when you came in, right?”

I had indeed met Hymie.  He was guarding the door when we arrived – literally standing in the inner doorway and quizzing the groups of Montreal hipsters queued up outside.  Since we only had two in our party, we scored an immediate seating at the lunch counter. “I like American money,”  Hymie told me as he resettled, ever vigilant, on his perch by the door.

“Hymie opened up this morning,” The Regular told me.  “That’s the son, Larry.”  He waved dismissively at a white-haired man with black frame glasses who was dashing about with a pot of coffee. “He just showed up now.”

We talked for a few minutes.  He told me how he grew up to be a lawyer and a politician.  He represented the neighborhood for a number of years before returning to private practice.  He lives downtown now, but he made it very clear that he is not retired.

“What’s your practice area?” I asked.  Corporate, I thought.

“Immigration,” he said.  “There’s always work and it’s interesting.”

“I know,” I said.  “I’m a human rights lawyer at a non-profit, but I started out practicing asylum law.  We always look to Canada as the better asylum system.  Even now in the debate about immigration reform, we are using Canada as the example of why we should provide counsel for indigent asylum seekers.”

“Well,” he replied, “It was a hell of a lot better before the Conservatives took over.  Now I’m not sure we’re a model for anyone anymore.”

As he paid his bill and gathered up his car keys and his black leather gloves, he asked, “What are you going to do today?”

“We’re thinking of going up to the top of Mont-Royal.”

“Mount Royal?  How are you going to get there? Do you have a car?”

“No, we’re planning to bike,” I said.

He looked at me for a few seconds, as if assessing whether I was truly insane.  Then he moved on.

“Well, you’re going to want to go to Schwartz’s Deli, so here’s a tip. Don’t bother with the line.  Go across the street to Main Deli.  It’s just as good, but without the wait.   We call it “smoked meat” here.   There’s no such thing as “pastrami” here in Canada,” he said emphatically.

“Thanks for the tip,” I said.  As a vegetarian, my interest in cured meat – whatever you call it – is minimal.

It struck me later that, based on the facts that he dropped,  I could easily pin a name and full bio on this guy.  It would just take a couple of quick internet searches.  But I have not chosen to do that.

As he said good-bye, I felt I had been privileged with a small glimpse into not just a life, but also into a unique time and place and people in this city’s history.  I saw in a flash the habits of a lifetime, traces of a distinctive community.  The institution of Beauty’s Luncheonette will certainly continue, but someday in the relatively near future it will be without Hymie and the others who were there from the beginning.  On this, my first visit to Montreal, The Regular had given me a rare, small gift.

He put on his long, black wool coat and headed for the door, threading his way through throngs of young people – young people  of all races and backgrounds, chatting energetically and switching effortlessly between French and English.  In the midst of this microcosm of contemporary Montreal, The Regular turned back, eyes twinkling, and winked at me.

“My wife is in Florida.  Don’t tell her I was here.”

Les Fantômes de Montréal (The Ghosts of Montreal)

 Vieux-Montréal
Rue Saint-Paul in Vieux-Montréal

Growing up in south Louisiana, I couldn’t help but develop a healthy respect for the paranormal.  So when I landed in Montréal last week on the Day of The Dead, my thoughts naturally turned to the eerie possibility of fantômes ( French for ghosts).   The early November weather was grey and damp and chilly, making it seem even more plausible that there were haunted souls lurking in this old city.

A little research proved that Montreal is indeed a city with an ample supply of ghost stories.  Tourists can even go on a tour of haunted places in Vieux-Montréal (Old Montreal) with tour guides dressed as famous fantômes.   I didn’t go on the tour, but in my three days of rambling around the city I did pass by several of the places where fantômes are frequently  sighted. 

Notre Dame Basilica, Vieux-Montréal
Notre Dame Basilica, Vieux-Montréal

From what I read on Haunted North America, les fantômes de Montréal represent just about every era in the city’s rich history.  The area in the St. Lawrence valley known today as Montreal was  inhabited by the Algoquinto, Huron, and Iroquois peoples at least 2,000 years ago.  Since at least the 14th century, humans have lived in a population center near the modest (only 780 feet tall)  mountain with the grand name Mont-Royal.   Previously, it was called Hochelega by the Saint Lawrence Iroquoians who had established a good-sized village here at least two centuries before the French  explorer Jacques Cartier first visited  the area in 1535.  The city allegedly gained the name “Montreal”  in 1556, when geographer Giovanni Battista Ramusio wrote the Italian “Monte Real” instead of the French “Mont-Royal” on his map of Hochelaga.

In 1611, Samuel de Champlain established a fur trading post here and Montreal soon became a center for the fur trade and base for French exploration in North America .   Quebec was officially established as a French colony on May 17, 1642, with  Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve as governor.

Place d'Armes
Statues of French colonial leaders, Place d’Armes, Vieux-Montréal

Things were pretty rough in Nouvelle-France (New France) in those days.   Vieux-Montréal,  the oldest part of the city near the port,  was the scene of numerous human rights abuses, including public hangings and torture.  People have reported seeing numerous apparitions covered with burn and whip marks in this part of the city.   Along the cobblestoned Rue Saint-Paul, figures have been seen disappearing in upstairs windows.  There is another story of a blonde woman who was murdered and now wanders the streets. Sometimes people in the area report a general feeling of unease, a feeling of being watched – even in broad daylight.

20131107-113226.jpg
Place Vacquelin and Place Jacques-Cartier

On Saturday morning, we walked up Avenue du Parc from downtown on our way to the Plateau neighborhood in search of the infamous Montreal bagels.  We walked past Parc Jeanne-Mance, which is bordered on the east side by Avenue deL’Espanade.  I read later that the apparition of a  French soldier wearing a cape is often seen walking here.   Montreal saw a lot of military action in the 1750s and 60s during La guerre de la Conquête (“The War of Conquest”).  At least that is what most French Canadians call it; officially in Canada, it is the “Seven Years War” or the “Anglo-French rivalry” .  In United States history, however, the conflict is referred to as the “French and Indian War”.   Whatever you call it, this particular French soldier was likely a victim.  He reportedly has a limp (and some say they have seen him with a cane) as he walks down Ave de L’Esplanade from Rue Rachel towards Avenue Duluth.  Sometimes, he is seen entering a building across the street from the park.  On this particular drizzly Saturday morning, however, I saw nothing in the park more creepy than some kids playing football (American football, that is, not soccer.)

Twice we walked past the severe, grey stone Hôpital Royal Victoria.   France lost the war with England, of course, ceding control over all its territory east of the Mississippi River in the1763  Treaty of Paris.  Quebec was under British control until 1867, when all of Canada became a self-governing British colony.   “The Dominion of Canada” created a unified federation of the former British and French colonies.   Canada and England maintained close ties (Canada did not become an independent country until 1982!), so it is no surprise that the hospital built in 1893 was named after the British queen Victoria.  The “Royal Vic” definitely looks like the kind of place that would have its own fair share of ghosts.  Indeed, hospital patients, visitors and staff have reported seeing ghosts of former patients and hearing disembodied footsteps and voices.   Odd occurrences have also been reported, things  like buzzers and lights going on and off in empty rooms.

Mont-Royal Cemetery is one of the largest cemeteries in North America.   Divided into three sections (Mont-Royal, Cote-Des-Neiges and Notre Dame), several hundred thousand graves are in a beautiful, serene park.  The Mont-Royal section is said to be the most active, with ghosts (including a famous Algonquin warrior) reportedly wandering about in the cemetery.  There is a popular scenic overlook on the serpentine road near the top of Mont-Royal.   Many people have reported seeing ghostly apparitions  standing at the edge of the cemetery grounds on the high rock cliffs above the overlook.   Perhaps, like me and the other tourists,  they are just enjoying the view of  the city below.  No ghosts were in evidence, however, on the sunny Sunday morning that  I rode my bike past the cemetery on my way to the top of Mont-Royal.

Later that day, we passed McGill University on our way to Montreal’s Musee des Beaux-Artes.   McGill reportedly has more than one ghost, including a young boy who has been known to interact with students.  Apparently, there is a bulletin board on campus where people can share information about where they have spotted the McGill University Ghost(s).

Although I did not experience any eerie paranormal activity during my recent visit, it was still fun to read about les fantômes de Montréal and to take a few creepy photos.   (This post is also a response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Eerie.)