In launching an initiative to help overseas political prisoners, former justice minister Irwin Cotler said he wants to “shatter the silence” regarding ongoing arrests of human rights defenders under authoritarian regimes.
Now the chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights (RWCHR) based in Montreal, Cotler said it’s important that cases of political prisoners are constantly in the headlines.
“The media becomes crucial because if the media doesn’t report on these cases, it is as if it is not there then, it is as if it never happened,” he said at an Aug. 30 press conference on Parliament Hill.
“So we are here today to effectively sound the alarm with regard to the pain and plight of these political prisoners, to shatter the silence that has been surrounding their imprisonment.”
Cotler said the lack of outrage on the part of the international community regarding “these waves of imprisonment of iconic human rights heroes” is also regrettable.
“What we have been witnessing is, on the one hand, enormous courage by the political prisoners, but regrettably the absence of outrage by the international community with respect to their ongoing arrest and imprisonment,” he said.
Cotler explained that the international advocacy project launched by RWCHR focuses on pleading cases and causes on behalf of political prisoners whose cases the centre has adopted, and who have a Canadian connection either because they have family in Canada, because their cases have been taken up by the Canadian Parliament, or because they have been represented by Cotler as their legal counsel.
He referred to the case of Biram Dah Abeid, a leader in the anti-slavery movement in Mauritania. Abeid was re-arrested this summer because he was a prospective candidate in the upcoming elections.
“He has been arrested again and again,” said Cotler, “and he has gone unacknowledged.”
He also noted the case of Nasrin Sotoudeh, one of Iran’s most prominent human rights lawyers, who is being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison on several charges, including espionage. She, too, was re-arrested this summer.
These summer arrests don’t surprise Cotler. He said that in the 45 years he has been acting as counsel for political prisoners, he has noticed a pattern: that political prisoners tend to be arrested in the summer.
“They are arrested in the summer because that is when governments are on vacation, parliaments are not sitting, so it is the hope of the imprisoning countries that it will go unnoticed or unaddressed,” he said.
“Vacation time in the West is prison time etc. for elsewhere.”
In addition to the cases of Abeid and Sotoudeh, RWCHR is engaged in advocacy on behalf of imprisoned human rights blogger Raif Badawi, whose wife and three children live in Sherbrooke, Que.; democratic opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, imprisoned in Venezuela; pro-democracy activist Dr. Wang Bingzhing, detained in China; Canadian citizen and Falun Gong practitioner Sun Qian, imprisoned in China; Alexei Pichugin, the longest-serving political prisoner in Russia; and Ahmed Mahloof, a champion of democracy and human rights in the Maldives.
Cotler said he met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier that day to discuss a number of issues as well as inform him of the new political prisoner advocacy project and the formation of an international consultative group that is composed of former political prisoners, their families, and lawyers who have been acting on behalf of political prisoners.