GOVERNMENTS around the world use enforced disappearances to secure power and silence opposition. Journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, politicians, teachers, writers, and ordinary citizens are victims of enforced disappearances in countries including China, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Mexico, Eritrea, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. Amnesty International campaigns on hundreds of cases around the world, and we call on our millions of supporters to help us remember them on The Day of the Disappeared.
The Syrian Government has forcibly disappeared tens of thousands of people since 2011. Human rights lawyer Khalil Ma’touq was arrested by security forces in October 2012 in Damascus and remains missing. The whereabouts of software engineer and free speech activist Bassel Khartabil, first arrested in March 2012 and later moved to prison in Damascus, have been unknown since October last year.
In Egypt, the Interior Ministry is using enforced disappearance to wipe out peaceful dissent. Since early 2015 hundreds of Egyptians, including children, have vanished at the hands of the state. Aser Mohamed, 14, was forcibly disappeared for 34 days and tortured in January 2016. In May 2015, Islam Khalil was abducted from his home, his fate concealed for 122 days. Both face trial based on “confessions” obtained under torture. If convicted, Khalil could face the death penalty; Aser, up to 15 years in prison.
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Through forty three portraits of the disappeared students of Ayotzinapa (Iguala, Mexico) in 2014, fire painter Steven Spazuk keeps all the disappeared people alive...
In Mexico, there are more than 27,000 people whose whereabouts are unknown. Cases include the disappearance of 43 teacher training students in Ayotzinapa in September 2014 and the unprecedented number of disappearances in the state of Chihuahua between 2009 and 2014.
It has been more than a year since Zeenat Shahzadi, 24, became the first female journalist to be “disappeared” in Pakistan. She has not been heard from since August 19 2015. According to her family, she was detained by security officials shortly before she went missing. Her case has been pending without any progress in the government’s Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances.
The enforced disappearance of government critics has become standard practice in Zimbabwe. Itai Dzamara, a journalist and prominent critic of the Mugabe regime, was abducted in March 2015 by five unidentified men while at a barbers’ shop in a suburb of the capital city, Harare. Two days earlier he had addressed a rally, calling for mass action to address the country’s deteriorating economic conditions.
Witnesses say his abductors accused him of stealing cattle before handcuffing him and forcing him into a white truck with concealed number plates and driving off. He has not been seen since.
More than a year after writing to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe about Dzamara, Amnesty International is renewing its call for an inquiry. The government is yet to respond.
Sri Lanka’s civil war might officially be over, but people are still prevented from speaking out and enforced disappearances are very common. Activists and political opposition vanish in what have become known as “white van disappearances”, with suspects taken away in vehicles without number plates never to be seen again.
Prageeth Eknaligoda, a prominent journalist, cartoonist and critic of the Sri Lankan regime, became a victim of the white van disappearances after leaving his workplace in January 2010. His wife Sandya has lobbied the Sri Lankan Government, the UN, and the Human Rights Commission in Geneva ever since in a bid to uncover the truth.
We have long stood with Sandya in her struggle to find out what happened to her husband and to hold those responsible to account. Although we still do not know Prageeth’s fate, we continue to campaign on behalf of the disappeared in the hope that their families and friends will discover what happened to their loved ones.
Describing her life since the disappearance, Sandya said: “I never wanted to be an activist, but that is what I have become. Prageeth’s disappearance changed my life and after that I became a full-time campaigner looking for him. Today I consider myself an activist not just for Prageeth, but for all the disappeared.”
CASE STUDY: Hope remains that detained Eritrean journalist is alive
HOPES have been raised for detained Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak after a senior official said he is still alive almost 15 years on.
Isaak, who was part-owner of the Setit newspaper, was arrested in 2001 as the government moved to silence the country’s independent press.
Setit, the first privately run paper in Eritrea, was targeted for running reports on the G-15 group of politicians and ministers critical of President Isaias Afewerki’s government.
Isaak, who also has Swedish citizenship, was imprisoned without trial along with other writers and members of the G-15 group.
However, he was released in 2005 following pressure from Sweden, only to be arrested two days later while seeking medical care for injuries sustained whilst in custody.
The father, who has received several freedom of speech honours while imprisoned, has not been seen since, leading to fears that he may be dead.
But earlier this summer Eritrean foreign minister Osman Saleh told French journalists that Isaak is still alive, saying he and 14 others would be tried “when the government decides”.
He said: “All of them are alive. The government is looking for their safety. They are in good hands, in prison. They are political prisoners and the government is dealing with them.”
Being held in custody in Eritrea can mean imprisonment in underground cells or desert camps with no protection from heat or cold. Torture is said to be rife and the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea said the regime, which has been in place for 20 years, may be guilty of crimes against humanity.
Citizens in the country, which now has no independent media, are subject to mandatory national service. Those drafted can include children and the elderly and the stints, which are indefinite, can stretch into decades.
Despite a shoot-to-kill policy at the border with Ethiopia, more than 47,000 Eritreans claimed asylum in Europe last year.
Isaak began a hunger strike in 2002 with other detained journalists, demanding a fair trial. The group was then broken up, with members sent to different facilities across the country.
Reports suggest he was transferred to a maximum-security facility in December 2008, then taken to a military hospital in capital city Asmara the following month.
However, the facts of his illness remain unknown and officials have refused to confirm anything about the incident.
The developments came one year after the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights called for Isaak and the other arrested campaigners to be released and compensated for their time in arbitrary detention.
While the campaign for his release is ongoing in Sweden, where he was granted refugee status in 1987, officials in Asmara have rejected his connection to that country, stating that his case is an Eritrean matter.