Report from our October meeting

19 Oct
Rob Wenham of Taunton Town Football Club joining forces with members of Amnesty Taunton to raise awareness about refugees.

AIUK is extremely concerned about the assault on human rights – in our own country. A week of action for Human Rights in the UK is planned. The very restrictive Policing Bill is being drafted; the Human Rights Act is under review,  and the Nationality and Borders Bill is now back in the House of Commons – ‘a cruel piece of legislation which, if enforced, would largely shut down the UK asylum system…’.

But here in Taunton we do have some reasons to be glad, as Amnesty’s Welcome Refugees has been actively endorsed.  Taunton Town Football Club’s Community Engagement Project kicked off in September.  “It has a variety of aims which include promoting and encouraging health, fitness, and well-being, and forming community links with individuals and groups within the immediate local community and across the wider Taunton area.” One of those groups is Amnesty; two of our members were invited to last weekend’s game and we’ve been greatly encouraged by the positive and welcoming atmosphere of the project.

Demand justice for the El Hiblu 3! We signed a petition to the Maltese Government asking for the release of three African teenagers from Libya, falsely accused of hijacking a rescue ship, the El Hiblu.

We heard reports from those responsible for our Campaigns: the usual tide of wretched treatment for political prisoners in Morocco and Egypt; two men executed in the US, one having been in a Texas gaol for 28 years; 246 executions in Iran last year; a student anti-monarchy protester, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul jailed and on hunger strike in Thailand.

Our Media of the Month is ‘Ridley Road’, a BBC drama about the fight of the Jewish community against the resurgence of English fascism in 1960’s London. 

Our next meeting will be on 9 November at the Quaker Meeting House in Bath Place.  Follow us too on Facebook and amnestytaunton.com.  Visitors are always welcome.

Report from our September meeting

28 Sep

A landmark meeting – after 18 months we dared to meet in person, and it did give a much better feeling than Zoom or Teams!

Aser Mohamed, then a child of 14, was first arrested, tortured and imprisoned in 2016 in Egypt.  He has since been sentenced to 10 years for membership of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. We asked for his immediate release and an investigation into his treatment.  We signed letters and created doves of peace to send on his behalf to the Egyptian Ambassador to London, and to President Al Sisi of Egypt.

The general situation in Egypt remains threatening.  12 men are facing the death penalty for actions in 2013; women influencers are being convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.  However a major piece of good news is that all charges against Human Rights lawyer Azza Soliman have been dropped, and her travel ban lifted.

We discussed the dangerous situation in Afghanistan, and how to mobilise opinion and effective action from the UK Government in rescuing and giving sanctuary to Afghans in danger.

In India there have been no developments in the BK16 human rights defenders, but a heartening message has come to the mid-Devon group from one of them, Vernon Gonsalves, a 61 year old writer, professor and trade union activist:

“Heartfelt thanks for the cards and letters of solidarity you have been sending. Words are indeed powerful means of support – and don’t we all need support always – though I must say we have never, through these 3 years, been allowed to feel alone. It’s persons like you who keep reminding us that the path towards justice may be long, but won’t be lonely.”

The 3 part ITV series on the Stephen Lawrence case was recommended  – ‘Stephen’, a drama about Doreen and Neville Lawrence’s crusade to achieve justice for their son. 

We meet on the second Tuesday of the month at 7.30pm in the Friends Meeting House in Bath Place – visitors always welcome. Email: amnestytaunton@gmail.com for further details. Follow us too on Facebook  and at amnestytaunton.com

Report from our July meeting

28 Jul

Human Rights are at the very core of Amnesty’s existence. Anne Walker of AIUK spoke to our online meeting this month about the Human Rights Act. 

She gave a cogent account of its development from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, a direct reaction to the horrors of WW2. In 1953 came the European Convention on Human Rights, one of the chief drafters being Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, a Nuremburg prosecutor. Stemming from this the European Court of Human Rights was set up by the ten founding members (now 47) of the Council of Europe. The UK was at the heart of its foundation.

In 1998 this was given additional force in the UK by the Human Rights Act, which places obligations on the state to respect the rights of individuals.  This has had an unjustifiably bad press in the UK which has attempted to trivialise it, despite its many instances of helping the individual – for example re-enforcing the rights of elderly couples to stay together in care homes. Amnesty believes the British public needs better information on human rights and the Act.

AIUK are very concerned about proposed weakening of the Act and are committed to us remaining a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights.

We discussed other issues: excessive confinement to the cells in UK prisons during the pandemic; continuing repression of the Uyghurs in China; and a pressure for a quicker provision of covid vaccinations for the Nepalese population.

Our Middle East co-ordinator has written to President al-Sisi of Egypt about the plight of 12 men at risk of execution because of their involvement in protests in 2013 about then President Morsi; we discussed other cases in Egypt.

Our co-ordinator on India continues to monitor the case of the BK16, a group of jailed academics and activists; a twitter storm was organised last month to rouse the Indian authorities. One of the group, Father Swamy, aged 84, has died in prison of Parkinson’s disease and covid, a direct result of the inhumane way in which the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act is being implemented to lock up activists without trial.

The month’s chosen media is a TV documentary, The Violence Paradox, its contention that we are – ironically – living through one of the most peaceful eras of human existence.

Report from our June meeting

19 Jun

14 to 20 June is Refugee Week, looking at the plight of refugees world wide. Its theme is ‘You cannot walk alone’, remembering Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech of 1963.

Amnesty are highlighting a few of its many aspects, continuing ‘Football Welcomes’, something we have been discussing here in Taunton.  On World Refugee Day, 20 June, there will be a vigil outside the Danish Embassy in London protesting against Denmark’s plan to deport refugees from Syria back to Damascus,  where they will be at high risk of arrest and torture. We were asked to write messages in support.

An ever-present stain on the world’s conscience is what has happened to Rohingya refugees who have fled from Myanmar (Burma) to Bangladesh.  We were asked to sign a petition urging the Bangladesh Government to ‘protect, respect and fulfill their rights’ and ensure their participation in the decisions that affect them.

Our North Africa co-ordinator has been writing letters on behalf of journalists, lawyers and other human right supporters in Egypt and Morocco, countries which stand out for their disregard of human rights.  Our India co-ordinator reported on online actions taking place via Twitter last weekend for the BK16 prisoners of conscience.

We were asked to put pressure on the US after the ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. ‘As Israel’s closest ally, the US has a responsibility to pressure Israel to end and redress its systematic violations against Palestinians’.

Five of our members took part in the ‘Kill the Bill’ vigil on 5 June, to protest about the proposed powers to be given to the police under the planned Police Crime Courts and Sentencing bill, which it is feared will aim to silence protest.

Our Books of the Month are by human rights lawyer Philippe Sands – East West Street and The Ratline.

Our next online meeting is at 7.30pm on Tuesday 13 July – all are welcome.  Email amnestytaunton@gmail.com for details.

Report from our May meeting

28 May

April was Amnesty UK’s ‘Football Welcomes’ month: ‘Our Football Welcomes programme celebrates the contribution players with a refugee background make to the beautiful game, and the positive role football can play in bringing people together and creating more welcoming communities.’ One of our members approached Taunton Town on the subject and got a wonderfully positive result from the club’s Rob Wenham. He’s anxious for more community involvement and plans to work on this with Taunton Welcomes Refugees.

We were reminded too that June 14-22 is Refugee Week, something to remember at a time when the Government is proposing a fatal dismembering of the UK’s asylum system.

This month’s speaker was Owen Collins of the Cardiff Group who is standing as a candidate for AIUK board; it was useful to put to him our thoughts about how local groups could be better supported by the Board.

We were asked to put our names to a number of petitions and letters – on UK nationals held in Iran, on the persecuted Uyghur peoples in China and on a Russian journalist, Elena Milashina, a reporter for the investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who is now facing death threats for her articles.

We received reports on the Death Penalty (the situation is improving in the US) and the situation in Morocco. Amnesty Feminists reported the freeing of Saudi Women’s Rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, but under harsh parole conditions.  In India, under the rule of Nahendra Modi, little has changed for the BK16 group.  An article by writer Arundhati Roy in the Guardian, ‘We are witnessing a crime against humanity’, was recommended.

Our next meeting, still online, will be at 7.30pm on Tuesday 8 June – all are welcome. Email amnestytaunton@gmail.com for further details.

Howlett Brown report on racism at Amnesty

23 Apr

As long-standing members of the Taunton Amnesty group, we would like to express our deep disappointment with the contents of the Howlett Brown report into allegations of racism and bullying at the International Secretariat of Amnesty and within Amnesty UK. We note that measures have been and continue to be put in place to root out this behaviour. We are angry that an organisation which works precisely to ensure justice for all has itself been found culpable in its own working practices.
Here in Taunton we  continue to believe in the work we do and have never encountered bullying or racism at local level. We warmly welcome people of all ethnicities to our meetings.

Report from our April meeting

21 Apr

Dana Kamour of Women Living Under Muslim Law gave a cogent and informative talk to our virtual meeting this month. Her particular focus was Afghanistan, but she emphasised that WLUML is a trans-national women’s organisation; it started in 1984.  There are complex political and cultural laws shaping women’s lives in Afghanistan, and policies are justified by invoking Muslim law.

The Taliban are opposed to women’s education, their rights tightly controlled. 28% of the Legislature are now women, but many women in public life have been assassinated. In ongoing negotiations women’s rights are at the mercy of agreement between the Taliban and other parties –  there are just four women among the 51 peace negotiators.

WLUML uses social media, webinars, lobbying and petitions which aim to educate public opinion –  but ultimately change has to come from within Afghanistan itself.  For more information check their website, www.wluml.org.

We heard reports on Amnesty campaigns – there is much concern about the proposed Immigration Bill, currently under consultation. There’s a wide-reaching Festival of Social Justice in the Midlands, promoted by Amnesty, and a Football Welcomes [Refugees] Campaign underway.

Reports too from our own members:  letters have been written on behalf of Prisoners of Conscience in Morocco, and we are combining with the Tiverton Group to write postcards of support each month to jailed human rights lawyer Azza SolimanAmnesty Feminists are encouraging us to sign petitions on behalf of Iranian lawyer Nazreem Sotoudeh and women in Belarus who are suffering abuse and reprisals for legal anti-Government protests.

Our Book of the Month has turned into two films and a book:

The Assault on Truth by journalist Peter Oborne, featuring Johnson and Trump

The Mauritanian, about Guantanamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi

and Clemency, about US Death Row warder Bernadine Williams

Our next online meeting will be at 7.30pm on Tuesday 11 May. Newcomers are most welcome.  Email amnestytaunton@gmail.com for details.

Update from Amnesty Feminist Network

25 Mar

It’s nearly a year since the Amnesty Feminist Network has been in touch with Amnesty groups across the country as activities had to be paused due to the pandemic. It is now up and running again and planning for the year ahead. It will soon be relaunching the WearWhatYouWant campaign and more information about this will follow in due course.

International Women’s Day Event

To mark International Women’s Day on Monday 8 March, an on-line Zoom event was held. Introduced by Lo from the Amnesty Feminist Network, with a Keynote speech from Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, a panel of four Polish human rights activists described their experiences of arrest and court appearances. These very courageous and inspiring young women were recently acquitted of charges of “offending religious beliefs” after they put up posters which showed the Virgin Mary with a halo in the rainbow colours of the LGTBTI Pride flag. They described the rise of far-right groups and organisations in Poland which are dehumanising LGTBTI people along with how they had personally suffered violence and racist abuse at the hands of the police during demonstrations. They said how important it was to them to know that they had had international support.

Marta Lempart

As leader of the Polish Women’s Strike, Marta Lempart has been involved in many nationwide protests against a near total abortion ban in Poland and was charged with criminal felonies earlier this month.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Nazanin’s prison sentence officially ended on Sunday, 7th March and she had her ankle tag removed but was also told that she would have to face further charges in court on Sunday 14th March. It seems that further charges are being brought against her because of her role in a demonstration outside the Iranian embassy a few years ago. Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has demanded her immediate release and there has been a higher media profile about her recently including an interview with her sister-in-law, who is a GP in Wales, on Radio Wales’ s current affairs programme, ‘Sunday Supplement’ and again on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’. Her husband, Richard, has also been interviewed again recently on television and was filmed handing in another petition to Downing Street; he was accompanied with people holding supportive Amnesty placards.

Nassima al-Sada sentenced

Women’s Rights Defender, Nassima al-Sada, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia because she campaigned for an end to the male guardianship system and the driving ban on women. She has been sentenced to five years in prison. This has been backdated to when she was first arrested in 2018, so, with two years’ suspension, it is expected that she will be released in June this year.

Iranian jailings

Three woman, Monireh, Yasaman and Mojgan, have been jailed in Iran for over thirty years between them for ‘inciting prostitution’ by not wearing the veil. There is a link to an email petition to the Head of Judiciary in Iran on the main Amnesty website here to protest against this court ruling.

Nahid Taghavi

Sixty-six year old German-Iranian national, Nahid Taghavi, has been arbitrarily detained in Tehran’s Evin prison since October 2020. With a serious medical condition, she is at high risk of severe illness or death, if she contracts Covid. There is an action on the main Amnesty website here calling on her release.

Loujain al-Hathlow

We finish this month with some very good news – Human Rights defender, Loujain al-Hathlow who campaigned for Saudi women to be able to drive was released earlier this month after nearly three years in jail. During her detention, Loujain was tortured and sexually harassed, held in solitary confinement and denied access to her family for months at a time.

Report from our March meeting

24 Mar

The Calais Jungle – the place where refugees and migrants trying to cross the Channel to the UK end up.  We’ve all heard of it, and conditions there for the inhabitants are every bit as bad as you had supposed.

Two young charity workers came to speak to our meeting about their work there. They charted the camp’s fluctuating fortunes, from an official area in an ex-landfill site  which had expanded to 7,000 people by 2016 – when it was bulldozed, the inhabitants taken elsewhere and their belongings thrown out.

Since then, many smaller camps have grown up in the area, but constantly harried by the police: people are moved on, their belongings confiscated, charity workers and NGOs discouraged. There is no security.  Periodically there are larger evictions, with people bussed away to other parts of France.  The aim is to create a hostile environment, where any sense of security is undermined.

The living conditions are horrendous; people die; covid is a big problem. Yet people stick it out, and more come.  Why? Look at Syria, look at conflict in Afghanistan and elsewhere – people are displaced and flee to what they hope will be a better life.

In other business we heard about Nazanin in Iran – still waiting for a decision from yet another court appearance after her original sentence had been served.  International Women’s Day was marked by an online panel discussion by three female Polish human rights defenders; there has been a worrying rise of the far right in Poland. The discussion was introduced by Kate Allen, AIUK’s Director.

There are signs that Amnesty’s de facto suspension in India may be unblocked; moves are being made to unfreeze AI’s bank accounts there, and there is possibly some movement in the cases of the imprisoned BK 16 men, victims it seems of India’s growing ‘electoral autocracy’.

Combining with another Group to work for prisoners in the Middle East and North Africa were discussed. Discussion of Amnesty’s position on Russian Alexei Navalny had to be deferred to another day.

Our next online meeting is at 7.30pm on Tuesday 13 April, and will include a talk on Women’s Rights in Afghanistan.  All welcome – email amnestytaunton@gmail.com for details.

Report from our February meeting

14 Feb

Amnesty International is 60 this year!  Founded in London in 1961 by lawyer Peter Benenson it has grown to an international, and internationally respected, organisation. He wrote then: ‘Only when the last prisoner of conscience has been freed, when the last torture chamber has been closed, when the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reality for the world’s people, will our work be done.’ 

Members have been asked for early memories of Amnesty.  Do you have any? Do let us know.

We held our AGM this month, conducted remotely. New appointments of officers were made, and the pros and cons of working remotely discussed. It was suggested it would be good to link up with another Amnesty group to work on people in the Individuals at Risk category. We plan future speakers on such topics as modern slavery and South East Asia.

We heard reports from members.  Amnesty’s work in India is still suspended, its Bank account frozen by the Indian Government. Nonetheless there are still contacts over human rights issues, for example the protests over recently introduced farm laws and the BK 16 group. AIUK has received a letter of thanks from recently-freed Ali Aarrass of Morocco.

We had an update on the inoffensively named Overseas Operations Bill  – the government is attempting to pass a Bill that would decriminalise torture and war crimes by the military.

 In a grotesque end to his Presidency, Donald Trump presided over ten Federal executions in 2020, going completely against the tide of public opinion and State law.  We hope for changes under President Biden.

Book of the month: The Places in Between by Rory Stewart, a classic account of his 2002 solo walk from Herat to Kabul.

We meet (online) at 7.30 on the second Tuesday of the month – visitors are always welcome. Email amnestytaunton@gmail.com for details.

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