Malaya Lolas’ Long Road to Justice

Malaya Lolas event in Geneva by Right Livelihood Award Foundation, ECCHR and CenterLaw

Malaya Lolas event in Geneva by Right Livelihood Award Foundation, ECCHR and CenterLaw

In November 2016, with support from Bertha’s Impact Opportunity Fund, delegations from two Bertha Justice Initiative Network partners, the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and the Center for International Law, Manila (CenterLaw), travelled to Geneva to seek UN support on behalf of Filipina survivors of rape and sexual slavery committed during the Second World War.

At a public evening event on the 10th of November, kindly hosted by the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, ECCHR and CenterLaw presented the submission of an individual complaint to the UN Special Rapporteurs on Violence Against Women and on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. The complaint describes the ongoing denial of justice faced by a group of Filipina survivors of Japan’s military sexual slavery system established in the Philippines during the Second World War. The survivors call themselves the Malaya Lolas (“Free Grandmothers”) and have been seeking reparations from the Japanese government since the 1990s for the atrocities they suffered.


Isabelita Vinuya tells the ordeal of the Malaya Lolas (Photo: Esther Dingemans)

Isabelita Vinuya tells the ordeal of the Malaya Lolas (Photo: Esther Dingemans)

Their president, 84-year old Isabelita Vinuya (Lola Isabelita), delivered a powerful and emotional sung testimony describing what happened to her and the other Lolas when Japanese troops invaded the village of Mapanique, Candaba on 23 November 1944. After torturing and killing many inhabitants, the soldiers forced the women and girls of the village, some of whom were only eight or nine years old at the time, to march towards the “Bahay Na Pula” (Red House), the Japanese headquarters. Upon arrival, they were detained and beaten, raped, and abused by Japanese soldiers over a period of weeks. Sexual slavery facilities like the Bahay Na Pula were established all over the Philippines as well as in other countries occupied by Japan during the Second World War, a systematic practice often euphemistically referred to as the “comfort women” system. Thousands of women in Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, China, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, East Timor, and other Japanese-occupied territories were subjected to this brutal ordeal.

Inspired by their Korean fellow survivors who found the courage to speak out about what happened to them, the Malaya Lolas started voicing their demands for justice. They first sought reparations from the Japanese government directly. The Japanese courts, however, ruled that individuals do not have the legal personality to sue under international law, and that any claim for compensation should be espoused by the Philippines. The Malaya Lolas then turned to their own government for support to bring a claim against Japan. In 2004, CenterLaw filed a petition on their behalf to the Philippine Supreme Court. More than five years later, the Court dismissed the petition, arguing that survivors’ individual claims for compensation had been fully waived under the San Francisco Peace Agreement, a peace treaty signed by Japan in 1951 with the Allied powers and states of the Asia Pacific, including the Philippines. The Court further noted that, in any case, the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) – a fund created by the Japanese government consisting of money from Japanese corporations and private individuals – already provided for sufficient compensation. The Supreme Court decision sparked massive controversy after it emerged that the Court’s reasoning was full of plagiarized passages. Subsequent requests for reconsideration filed by CenterLaw and a petitioner-in-intervention by ECCHR, stressing the Malaya Lolas’ right to compensation under international law, were similarly denied by the Supreme Court.


The Bahay Na Pula (Red House) in which the Malaya Lolas were held. Instead of preserving it as a memorial site, it has been put up for sale. (Photo: Ramon F Velasquez

To this date, Philippine officials refuse to file a claim against Japan, in spite of findings from the symbolic Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal and several UN Special Rapporteurs that the agreement reached under the San Francisco Peace Treaty had no power to waive individual claims, and that money from private funds cannot be accepted as an adequate mechanism of compensation for harms inflicted by the state.

The complaint submitted by ECCHR and CenterLaw to the UN Special Rapporteurs describes how the crimes suffered by the Malaya Lolas as well as their ongoing denial of justice have been marked by an underlying gender discrimination. While concerning crimes that happened many decades ago, the struggle of the Malaya Lolas has been emblematic for so many other cases of violence against women in wartime where high levels of impunity continue to persist.

More than 70 years after the atrocities, many of the Malaya Lolas have passed away without having had the opportunity to see justice in their lifetimes. The few who remain, however, continue to fight to have their claims heard. With the support of the Bertha Foundation, their president and lead petitioner before the Supreme Court was able to travel to Geneva and speak on behalf of her fellow survivors. She explained how the compensation sought may arrive too late to improve the living situation of the Malaya Lolas themselves – who are among the poorest in Philippine society, partly resulting from the disruptive impact of the harm they suffered – but could offer their children and other family members a better life. Through the complaint, the Malaya Lolas therefore request the Special Rapporteurs to urge the Philippine government to stand by its citizens and espouse their claims for compensation against Japan.
Alejandra MunozAlejandra Muñoz, Be Just Fellow at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin.

Follow ECCHR on Twitter @ECCHRBerlin

Follow CenterLaw on Twitter @CenterLawManila





In Defense of Tokens

True/False Film Fest patrons pass donation buckets at a True Life Fund Screening. Through several fundraisers, including the True/False screenings, the True Life Fund raised $35,000 for Adi Rukun of The Look of Silence in 2015 and $43,514 for Sonita Alizadeh of Sonita in 2016.

Too often the word “token” gets a bad rap. It can be used to belittle or demean. When made an ism, we rightfully scorn tokenism for its insincere efforts. But a token? It’s small and humble. There’s power in this humility. A token, by definition, is a physical object that stands in for something less tangible, like a quality or a fact.  People don’t expect a token to be a rendering of a whole; it only represents one aspect.  Besides, tokens get you into carnivals rides, advance you to the next level of a game, or guarantee you a free scoop of a True/False favorite: Sparky’s Homemade Ice Cream.

So, too, is the True Life Fund a token gift from the True/False Film Fest and our community of Columbia, Missouri. Each year, the festival selects one film to be the True Life Fund recipient and raises money for that film’s subject.  We work with all four of our local public high schools (including an assembly with the filmmakers), partner with a local church, and raise money at the festival screenings. The grant is our way of thanking the people in front of the camera for sharing their story with us. It’s our way of honoring people on whose stories documentary film relies and who do not always benefit from having their lives on the big screen or broadcasted on major media platforms. At it’s core, the True Life Fund is a token—we can’t stand in for all of documentary film (nor do we want to) and we can’t begin to fully thank the recipient for the gift of their story, but we can give them some cash and let them put it toward their future however they see fit.

True/ False’s True Life Fund filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer leads an assembly at Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri. Students watched clips of The Look of Silence and discussed the film with the director. Oppenheimer attended screenings at all four Columbia Public High Schools.

Most recently, True/False’s True Life Fund selections have marked turning points for the Fund, and in the past two years, have been awarded to the subjects of two Bertha-supported films. In 2015 we honored Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, supported by the Bertha BRITDOC Journalism Fund and the Bertha Film Fund, and in 2016, for our tenth year of the Fund, we selected Sonita, a film by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, and supported by the IDFA Bertha Fund and the Bertha Film Fund.  The Bertha Foundation also supports the True Life Fund, and the True/False Film Festival team leverages Bertha’s annual gift by inspiring our community to match their contribution. For the past two years, we’ve significantly surpassed our goal: our community raised a grand total of $35,000 for Adi Rukun of The Look of Silence and $43,514 for Sonita Alizadeh.  It’s money, we say as we stand with the filmmakers and subjects in our post-film Q&As, that is a token of our gratitude.

Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, True/False Co-Conspirator David Wilson, and Adi Rukun (via Skype) host a Q&A after The Look of Silence at True/False Film Fest 2015.

These tokens –as small or big as they might be— matter.  While it can hard to measure the overall impact of a documentary or one story, it’s easy to ask our True Life Fund recipients how they’ve spent their grants.  In the case of Adi Rukun, the True Life Fund meant a newly secured life for his family.  After filming The Look of Silence while a getaway car idled within reach, after having bags packed and a “fixer on standby at the airport,” reports Cara Buckley in The New York Times, Adi and his family had to relocate to a different part of Indonesia to keep safe after the film’s release.  When we screened The Look of Silence at True/False, Adi told us he wanted to use the funds to open a brick-and-mortar optometry shop in his new community. It was a shop that, he said, he hoped to pass along to his children.  We recently heard from Adi and were delighted to learn that he had indeed opened the shop and, to our utter surprise, decided to name it Optik Columbia— as a token of his gratitude for our True/False community.

Sonita Alizadeh shares her Dream Journal from the film Sonita with high school students in Columbia, Missouri.  The event was part of True/False Film Fest’s Bertha-supported DIY Day, an afternoon of artist workshops for local high school students. At this workshop, Sonita lead a group of students in making their own dream journals. Photo Credit: True/False Photography

Sonita Alizadeh shares her Dream Journal from the film Sonita with high school students in Columbia, Missouri. The event was part of True/False Film Fest’s Bertha-supported DIY Day, an afternoon of artist workshops for local high school students. At this workshop, Sonita lead a group of students in making their own dream journals.

Sonita Alizadeh used her True Life Fund toward her campaign against child marriage and to support her family as she saw fit.  “This money,” she wrote to T/F, shortly after our fundraising campaign came to a close, “secures a future education for me and a voice for so many girls who are not heard, as I work toward my goal of ending child marriage.” Since the film premiered this past winter, Sonita performed and spoken at the World Bank, was featured at the opening of the Women in the World New York Summit, spoke at International Women’s Day, was featured at the Clinton Global Initiative, and more–while continuing her studies (long-distance when necessary) and excelling in her classes at school.

Sonita Alizadeh, David Wilson, & Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami on stage for the True Life Fund at True/False 2016 Photo Credit: True/False Photography

Sonita Alizadeh, David Wilson, & Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami on stage for the True Life Fund at True/False 2016

These are remarkable individuals and beautiful, powerful films.  True/False and the True Life Fund, with the support of the Bertha Foundation, draw attention to their work and offer something tangible as an honor and recognition.  The funds do not capture the whole picture; they do not heal a community or stop the practice of selling brides.  They are simply a thank you. They’re a token of gratitude, a gesture made measurable–and that matters.

Photo credits: True/False Photography


Allison headshotAllison Coffelt, Education and Outreach Director, True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri

Follow Allison on Twitter @allisoncoffelt and read more of her writing here

Follow True/False on Twitter @truefalse, Facebook @True/False Film Fest, and learn more at

Corporate accountability of pesticide producers: experiences of a young lawyer

In this blog, legal intern Geeta Koska reflects on her experiences researching the use of pesticides and resulting human rights violations in India. She worked as part of an international team of lawyers and researchers seeking to hold European companies to account for major health problems caused by their products, led by the Bertha Justice Initiative Network partner, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.

A discarded Luphos bottle is used as water carrier - Luphos contains Monocrotophosl and is banned in the EU.

A discarded Luphos bottle is used as water carrier – Luphos contains Monocrotophosl and is banned in the EU.


Pesticide use in Punjab, India

Most pesticides used in India find their way onto the fields of the northern state of Punjab, the country’s bread basket. Their current indiscriminate use has been linked to rising cancer rates, reproductive disorders, as well as huge debts and increased numbers of farmer suicides across the state.

One of the reasons for this adverse impact is that there is no proper training for farmers, pesticides are not properly labelled and their use is not suitably monitored. As highlighted in a report submitted by a coalition of NGOs in 2015, the German and Swiss companies Bayer and Syngenta fail to adhere to international standards on pesticide management. Moreover, double standards in the pesticide industry mean that while Bayer warns European users that the hazardous pesticide Nativo 75 WG is “suspected of damaging the unborn child”, no such warning is given in India.

To hold European pesticide companies to account for their double standards, it’s necessary to understand the impact of their operations abroad and so I spent three months in India researching this issue and exploring potential legal challenges to stop this practice.

Conducting inquiries in Punjab

During my research, I was very aware that international inquiries often happen within a context of global inequality and there is a danger of reinforcing imbalances of power. Focusing almost exclusively on countries in the Global South, Obiora Chinedu Okafor argues that human rights fact-finding by people from the Global North can reproduce the association of North/South as Good/Bad. Others have criticised international fact-finding for being an elite activity, typically carried out by privileged western “experts” who exploit people to promote their own agenda.  Coming from London to India to research how pesticides are used and distributed, I unavoidably carried some of the baggage associated with international inquiries with me.

As a young researcher, I had much to learn – from what to wear to how to communicate via interpreters and overcome this North/South divide. The apparent differences between those I interviewed and myself complicated this; my gender, educational background, and the fact that I grew up in a city were potential barriers to understanding people’s issues and concerns when conducting interviews. Language and literacy further complicated the research, as the instructions on pesticide bottles could not be understood by some of the pesticide users I interviewed. As a result, conducting the inquiry and engaging with interviewees without strengthening a negative narrative was a real challenge.

Related to this was the difficulty in obtaining information that was sufficiently rigorous to be used in legal proceedings without leaving participants feeling exploited. For instance, some pesticide users found it hard to explain exactly when a symptom started or which brand of paraquat they used. This was often because symptoms reoccur and people have learned to deal with the acute side effects of pesticide exposure without access to proper medical help. Others did not necessarily know the name or brand of the pesticide they have been exposed to because they relied on distributors for information on which pesticide to use on crops. In the course of the inquiry, I found that it was important to be aware of the specific context and of the potential risk of disempowering participants in the course of the interviews.

 Two farmers interviewed had improvised “protective” clothing due to the absence of suitable equipment in local shops - Faridkot, Punjab, India.

Two farmers interviewed had improvised “protective” clothing due to the absence of suitable equipment in local shops – Faridkot, Punjab, India.

Lessons learned

Although I do not have all of the answers to the complex issues that surround the conduct of international inquiries, my experience provided insight into ways of overcoming some of the issues raised.

First, to overcome the potential of reinforcing hierarchies between those interviewed and myself, it was important to look at the broader social and economic context. For example, though obstacles to access to education in rural parts of Punjab exist, illiteracy was not always the reason why users could not understand instructions. In fact, closer scrutiny revealed that in some cases instructions were printed too small for users to read, and lack of training meant that users were unaware of the meaning of the hazard symbols on bottles.

Second, I had to look back to the North to understand human rights violations that occur in the South. This is particularly relevant when investigating corporate-related human rights violations, as it is necessary to follow the supply chain back. Therefore, during the interviews, it was important to shift the focus from local conditions to the responsibilities of the companies that produce the pesticides that are sold in India.

Because of the international element of the issue – the companies that produce the pesticides are mainly based in Western Europe – international researchers have to work in partnership with national lawyers, researchers and NGOs to gather evidence. As a legal intern on the team I encountered some of these risks and learned to remain vigilant to the challenges that can arise during international inquiries. My time in India introduced me to new ways of understanding global issues as well as different methods of working, which I will be able to put into practice through the rest of my career.


geetaGeeta Koska worked on Business and Human Rights at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) in Berlin via their Education Program.

Follow Geeta on Twitter: @koskageeta

Follow-up Appeal for CCAJAR Protection

Out of its ongoing concern for the security of Be Just Fellow alumna Yessika Hoyos and the other lawyers of the Colectivo de Abogados Jose Alvear Restrepo (CCAJAR), Bertha Foundation supported an attorney, through the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP), to be in Colombia from 14-19 November 2016. In addition to meeting Colombian authorities about the intensifying threats and security risks faced by lawyers at CCAJAR, the ISLP representative also acted as an independent trial observer for the 18 November hearing for the murder of trade unionist Jorge Dario Hoyos Morales.
Ahead of these recent activities, and as follow-up to the appeal for protection that the Bertha Justice Network issued in July 2016, the Bertha Justice Initiative sent this letter to President Santos:

London, November 15th, 2016


Juan Manuel Santos

President of the Republic of Colombia.

Bogotá D.C.


Mr. President

Cordial greetings from the Bertha Foundation.

In July, member organizations of the Bertha Justice Initiative network communicated with your Office in relation to the protection of the lawyers from the José Alvear Resterpo Lawyer’s Collective – CCAJAR, especially in relation to the risk faced by Bertha Justice Fellow alumni Yessika Hoyos. We appreciate the response from the National Protection Unit of Colombia, dated 20 September. CCAJAR is in the process of collecting the documents requested to ensure Yessika’s security within the framework of the collective protection route, and within the framework of the Program of Protection and Prevention.

As you know, the trial is currently underway against one of the parties responsible for the murder of Yessika’s father and trade union leader, Jorge Dario Hoyos.  The trial will continue this 18 of November when the human rights defender will appear as witness.

Given this context, we want to inform you that a partner of the Bertha Justice Initiative – the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP) of London – will carry out an Observation Mission between the 16 and 19 of November, in Bogotá, to observe the trial and meet with state authorities such as the National Protection Unit, Ministry of Defense, Presidential Advisor for Human Rights, Prosecutor General of the Nation and the Human Right’s Ombudseman’s Office, in relation to intimidating actions that have taken place against several of CCAJAR’s lawyers.

Therefore, and taking into account the background, we ask that you intervene, within the framework of your mandate, to provide all necessary guarantees for this mission.




Peter Noorlander

Director, Bertha Justice Initiative

Bertha Foundation


Peter NoorlanderPeter Noorlander

Director, Bertha Justice Initiative

Follow Bertha Justice Initiative at @Be_Just_

Follow Peter Noorlander at @PeterNoorlander

Defining the Role of the Social Justice Lawyer in 2016 – South Africa Bertha Convening 2016

Mbekezeli Benjamin is currently a Legal Advisor at Be Just partner organization Equal Education Law Centre. He completed a Be Just Fellowship at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) from 2014 to 2016.

Bertha South African Be Just Fellows and alumni gather at the South Africa Bertha Convening

“How do we as public interest lawyers use the law to break down structures of power, and how do we use the same law to reinforce these structures of power?” was the question asked by Equal Education Law Centre‘s Nurina Ally to open the second annual South Africa Bertha Convening. Held August 24-26 in Muldersdrift, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, this year’s convening had the theme of defining the role and function of a social justice lawyer in 2016.

Supported by a Bertha Justice Initiative Educational Exchange grant, the event hosted 25 emerging lawyers from across South Africa, including both current Bertha Justice (“Be Just”) Fellows and alumni representing the four South Africa-based Be Just partner organisations: the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), Equal Education Law Centre (EELC), Legal Resources Centre (LRC) and the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI).

The theme of the Convening was to interrogate what it means to be a young lawyer working for the cause of social justice in South Africa in 2016, and how that role and function is played out in a loud and robust democracy – particularly in the present political moment. Young people in South Africa are beginning to question some of the key agreements struck in the negotiated settlement that facilitated the country’s transition to democracy: questions about land ownership and economic participation that still excludes the majority of the population; questions about the meaning of human rights in the face of grinding poverty and the highest level of inequality in the world; and questions about professional identity in a legal culture that is elitist and exclusionary. Young people are hard at work seeking the answers to these questions, and the new generation of social justice lawyers that form the network of Be Just Fellows in South Africa are no exception. It is in this context that the Convening brought together an eclectic mix of lawyers, young and old, all engaged in their own way in a new culture of activism that further blurs the distinction between the legal and the political.

Lessons from then and now: lawyers in conversation

Justice Zak Yacoob addresses Fellows and alumni

The Convening welcomed two retired Constitutional Court justices, Justice Zak Yacoob and Justice Yohann Kriegler, who each spoke about their own experiences of social justice lawyering under apartheid, and what it meant to be a lawyer then and now. Speaking on the same panel, LRC National Director, Janet Love, drew comparisons between trade unions versus capital and trade unions versus the unemployed to illustrate the difficulties in drawing inflexible battle lines. SERI’s Director of Litigation, Nomzamo Zondo, added that we should always work hard to create spaces where ordinary people can articulate their issues in the face of powerful forces such as the state or business.

Building activist lawyers

A recurrent theme throughout the discussions at the Convening was an acknowledgment of the limitations of the law, and that modern social justice lawyers have to rely on multiple skills and approaches in the struggle for social change. Today’s challenges demand political savvy drawn from political activism, as well as creative storytelling skills drawn from media activism.

Relying on the experiences of three esteemed activists who have successfully employed an interdisciplinary approach to their legal work, the next discussion panel challenged fellows to think of themselves as more than lawyers. S’bu Zikode, a renowned activist and the president of shackdwellers movement Abahlali Basemjondolo, spoke about the power of organizing. Lwazi Mtshiyo, a current Be Just Fellow at SERI, spoke of how he has brought the skills acquired from working in community activism and research to his legal practice. Mandisa Shandu, the Director of Ndifuna Ukwazi’s Law Centre, spoke about the function of a lawyer, the law and cases in a broader political struggle led by ordinary people.

Transformation and building an identity

Be Just Fellows are emerging lawyers starting their careers in public interest law, working in communities and in support of social movements. At this early stage most Fellows (in South Africa, at least) are still grappling with a professional identity that strives to live the values Justice Yacoob highlighted but in a dominant legal culture that is elitist, exclusionary and that often reinforces oppressive power structures of racism, sexism and other bigotry. There is therefore a movement afoot to transform the legal profession inherited from apartheid – that is mainly comprised of white men – to a profession of the future that is reflective of the demographics of the rainbow nation and represents its founding values. It is in this context that a panel discussion on transformation of the legal profession took place.

The Convening welcomed three distinguished speakers who each started off their careers engaged in commercial practice, later moving on to a public interest practice, but who now stand at different points within the broader definition of a ‘lawyer’. The first, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, an advocate practising at the Johannesburg Bar, spoke about how the current environment is exciting for public interest lawyering as the state is grappling with having to convert the constitutional promises of the fulfillment of socio-economic rights into reality.  Charmika Samaradiwakera-Wijesundara, a young legal academic from Wits University, was next to speak and questioned the very idea of transformation and our understanding of it. Last to speak was CALS Deputy Director Lisa Chamberlain, who explained that for CALS, transformation means taking positive steps to redress the past and build a diverse future.

Be Just Fellow alumni share their experiences

A frank and open discussion about transformation within the public interest legal sector in South Africa ensued among the Fellows. The conversation touched on a number of issues such as organizational culture, the paucity of black and women leadership in the sector and how these impact on Fellows’ confidence to lead these organisations in the future.

These discussions reverberated across the sector and provided inspiration for positive action for social change. In the following week, at the sixth annual Public Interest Law Gathering (PILG) a memorandum of demands from young black lawyers – including many Be Just Fellows and alumni – was presented to all directors of social justice organisations present, together with a call for a consultative meeting to discuss these and other lingering issues of transformation within the public interest legal sector in South Africa.

mbekezeli-benjamin-picMbekezeli Benjamin, Legal Advisor at Equal Education Law Centre and fellow alumni at Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa.

Follow Mbekezeli at @MbekezeliMB


Follow Be Just Partner Organisations in South Africa:






Shadow World in South Africa

In 2011, Andrew Feinstein wrote Shadow World, a book about the global arms trade. His book inspired a documentary of the same title, which was supported by the Bertha Film Fund and the Bertha BRITDOC Connect Fund.  Featuring arms dealers, ex-military leaders, whistle-blowers, political leaders, investigators … and poets, the film delves into the shadowy recesses of the global trade in weapons, a business that counts its profits in billions and its costs in human lives.  Shadow World premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2016 before winning Best Feature Documentary at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. 


The arms trade is a unique confluence of government, intelligence agencies, the military, large weapons-making corporations, arms dealers and myriad intermediaries including major banks and lawyers. Deals, often worth tens of billions of dollars, are concluded behind a national-security-imposed veil of secrecy. These are some of the reasons why the trade accounts for around forty percent of all corruption in all world trade.

After showing the film on the east and west coasts of America, we took it to South Africa where my explorations of the arms trade had begun over 15 years before. As an African National Congress (ANC) Member of Parliament, and the ruling party’s ranking member on the main financial oversight committee, I had tried to investigate a ten billion dollar arms deal that South Africa had entered into with five European countries and their weapons companies.

Our investigations revealed that most of the equipment bought was not needed. A significant amount of it has gone unused until today. And we concluded that around three hundred million dollars of bribes had been paid on the deals to senior politicians involved in the decision-making, high-ranking military and state officials and numerous intermediaries.

The investigation was stymied by the most senior leadership of the ANC, and I was forced off the committee and then out of Parliament. In order to stop details of the corruption emerging, ANC leaders were prepared to undermine the very institutions of the country’s democracy that they had fought so hard to bring about. The country’s current President faced 783 counts of fraud, corruption and racketeering in relation to the deal. The charges were controversially dropped just before he was elected President, in a decision recently described by the South African High Court as ‘irrational’.

Crucially, the weapons were purchased at a time when the ANC government claimed that the state could not afford to provide anti-retroviral medication to the almost 6 million South Africans living with HIV or AIDS. This decision, according to a Harvard University study, resulted in the avoidable deaths of over 365,000 people.

So the arms deal remains a live, if somewhat dated, political issue in the country. As we prepared to take the film to South Africa, we were unsure how it would be received. The first screening, to a packed audience at the Encounters Film Festival in Cape Town, allayed our fears. The audience seemed stunned. During the Q&A people were visibly moved, often angry, about the way in which the arms trade not only intensifies and perpetuates conflict but also undermines democracy and the rule of law.



In order to ensure that people who cannot afford to frequent mainstream cinemas had access to the film, we screened it in a number of township venues. The first of these community screenings took place in Langa, Cape Town. This is where I had first encountered township life during the apartheid years, as a student teaching at an Adult Education Centre and playing cricket against the local club. We were anxious about whether the film, an unconventional documentary with, for instance, the poetry of Eduardo Galeano threaded through it, would be accessible to an audience whose first language is not English.

The Langa screening was organized by Bertha grantee, Encounters Festival, and Sunshine Cinema, which utilises solar powered mobile equipment to take films to communities that have little access. An important South African campaigning organisation and another Bertha grantee, Right to Know, and the University of Cape Town, partnered the event.  The Alexandra screening in Johannesburg was again supported by the Right to Know Campaign and fellow Bertha grantee, Equal Education joined us as partners to support the Khayelitsha screening further outside Cape Town as well.


These organisations outdid themselves, ensuring that the venue was jam-packed with kids from as young as three all the way up to grandmothers who had come early to guarantee a good seat. While we were waiting to start, the audience, led by these women, sang what I recognized as songs from the liberation struggle, but altered to attack the former heroes who were now sitting in Parliament.

The reaction to the film was profound: Rapt attention despite some people having literally to sit on top of each other, punctuated by shrieks of laughter, shouting at various ‘villains’ from the eponymous arms dealer to the country’s President. The Q&A was a reflection of the politicized nature of the community: dozens of questions, comments about the current state of the nation and demands that the film be taken to every township in the country.

When we eventually started packing up, well over four hours after we had started, I found myself chatting to two young men who clean Langa residents’ refuse bins in order to accumulate money to be able to show documentaries in townships around the country.


For me, as an activist, investigative writer and anti-corruption campaigner, the primary purpose in making this film was to engage with marginalised communities most affected by the arms trade and the political-economy that underpins it, and to ignite a conversation that could lead to political action against the tawdry governance they endure.

That night in Langa, where I had cut my political teeth under apartheid, I saw this become reality, at the first attempt of what I hope will be a long and intense journey of screenings in places that don’t usually have access to cinema but that are deeply affected by the trade in weapons.

So inspiring were the community screenings that we are now in the process of planning a massive roll-out of the film to townships around South Africa, which we will use to try and build a community-based coalition to oppose a trillion rand nuclear power deal that South Africa is signing with Russia, a deal that will make the arms deal look like chicken feed.



Andrew Feinstein, Executive Director, Corruption Watch UK & author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade and After the Party: Corruption, the ANC and South Africa’s Uncertain Future

Follow Corruption Watch on Twitter @corruptnwatchuk

Follow Shadow World film on Twitter @shadowworldfilm

Follow Andrew Feinstein on Twitter @andrewfeinstein


Guardian Bertha Documentary Partnership

We are proud to announce the launch of a partnership between Bertha Foundation and the Guardian Media Group.  Demonstrating Bertha and the Guardian’s continuing commitment to producing quality documentary content, the series will consist of 12 specially commissioned short-form films, with a new documentary released each month on Covering global stories, the series will focus on films that address contemporary issues and raise awareness of both people and movements making a difference in the world.

Led by Rebecca Lichtenfeld, Director of Social Impact Media at Bertha Foundation, and Charlie Phillips, Guardian’s head of documentaries, the standalone section will feature a high quality video player which spans the full width of the screen on mobile, tablet and desktop. The films are an eclectic mix, covering a diverse range of themes such as nationalism, migration and protest.

Director Zed Nelson revisits gun owners he photographed 18 years ago

Director Zed Nelson revisits the gun owners he photographed for his book 18 years ago

The first film launched, Gun Nation, follows photojournalist Zed Nelson as he as he revisits the gun owners and people affected by guns he photographed for his book of the same name 18 years ago. Since then, over 500,000 people have been killed by firearms in the USA, and many more injured.  Nelson returns to the people he met, photographs them again, and asks why America is still a nation with an insatiable appetite for firearms.

Avoiding stereotypical images of gang members or extremists, Nelson focuses instead on another side of America’s gun culture: the mainly white middle class who sell and purchase guns in vast numbers.

Sarah 18 years ago and Sarah today

Sarah 18 years ago and Sarah today

Nelson’s two-decade-long rapport with his photographic subjects gives unique and intimate access to the minds of gun owners. As they cling to the notion of a centuries-old ‘right to bear arms’, Nelson seeks to understand why – despite the enormous death toll – there is such fierce resistance to gun control laws, particularly the debate about ownership of assault weapons.

The release of this documentary comes at a particularly critical moment for the United States.  Focusing on the increasingly heated debate around gun violence and gun control in the country, the film explores why America’s most potent symbol of freedom is also one of its greatest killers.

Award-winning photographer and filmmaker, Zed Nelson

Award-winning photographer and filmmaker, Zed Nelson

Zed Nelson is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker. Gun Nation was awarded first prize in the World Press Photo Contest, the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award and the Visa d’or.

– Director: Zed Nelson
– Producer: Zed Nelson
– Editor: Noah Payne Frank
– Commissioned by the Guardian and Bertha Foundation

Gun Nation is available to view on now.


Allie headshotAlexandra Baer Chan, Program Assistant, Bertha Foundation

Follow Bertha on Twitter @BerthaFN


The Struggle of the Residents of Islamabad’s Katchi Abadis

A view of Islamabad (Photo: Hasan Basri)

A view of Islamabad (Photo: Hasan Basri)

Umer Gilani was a Bertha Justice “Be Just” Fellow at the Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR), in Pakistan. Among the cases he led during his fellowship at FFR, and with the support of his colleague Shahzad Akbar, was the defense of the residents of an informal settlement, Afghan Basti. This is his personal account of the case and the residents’ struggle.

Perched at the foot of the majestic Margalla Hills, built on a grid pattern, leafy and impeccably clean, Islamabad is indisputably South Asia’s prettiest city. Pakistanis with money love the city and desperately want to own a parcel of it, thus the astronomic real estate prices. But Islamabad the Beautiful has a completely different relationship with a fairly sizeable segment of its populace – the street cleaners, domestic servants, fruit-sellers, gardeners, construction workers, tailors and taxi drivers who cannot afford the city’s spacious villas. The city is planned in a way that these people are condemned to living in katchi abadis. To them, Islamabad can be quite cruel, like in July 2015, when the bulldozers came for the people of the katchi abadi known as Afghan Basti, I-11.

Katchi abadis are urban slums built on state land where the residents have no title to the terrain beneath their dwellings. Afghan Basti, located in the city’s south-eastern corner, was one of them – a cluster of mud huts that was home to around 10,000 people. Afghan Basti was far from unique; roughly a third of Pakistan’s urban citizens live in such places.

In the run up to the demolition, the residents of Afghan Basti staged numerous street protests with the support of the Awami Workers Party. They also pleaded their case before the High Court, contending that the planned demolition would violate various policies and laws which protect the right to shelter. The National Housing Policy 2001, in particular, places a moratorium on katchi abadi demolitions without prior resettlement. But neither the High Court nor the Capital Development Authority (CDA) would listen. At the last hearing, when the katchi abadi residents showed up at the Court in good numbers, they were thrown out of the courtroom without a stated reason.

On July 30, 2015, the CDA and Islamabad Capital Territory Administration razed the entire Afghan Basti settlement. The whole community became homeless in a single day. Although some residents, especially women, symbolically resisted the evictions by climbing to the roofs of their mud huts in front of the heavily armed state forces, the bulldozers ultimately prevailed.

The bulldozers arrived to demolish the area. Photo by Hassan Turi.

The bulldozers arrived to demolish the area. Photo by Hassan Turi.

Police arrived at the site. Some residents climb to roof tops. Photo by Hassan Turi.

Police arrived at the site. Some residents climb to roof tops. Photo by Hassan Turi.

The travails of the katchi abadi’s residents did not end with the demolition. The police alleged that the residents had pelted stones at the evictors, had held police officers hostage and had beaten them. In connection with these charges, sixty-six of the residents were arrested the day of the demolition and charged with terrorism, attempted murder and numerous other serious charges.

Pakistan does not have a public defender system, so the residents approached the Foundation for Fundamental Rights for pro bono legal representation.

The first step in our defense strategy was to get the case transferred out of the anti-terrorism courts to the somewhat less draconian ordinary criminal courts. To this end, we relied heavily on a particular strand of jurisprudence, developed by some fair-minded jurists like Justice Asif Khosa, which defines terrorism narrowly. We argued that even if the allegations leveled were deemed correct, a mob of unarmed slum-dwellers allegedly hurling pebbles at heavily armed policemen does not constitute terrorism, whatever else it might be. Only after the prosecution’s repeated absence from eleven consecutive hearings spanning four and a half months between October 2015 and February 2016, were we able to get the application decided. On February 15, 2016, the terrorism charges were removed and the case transferred for trial to the Magistrate’s courts.

"Client Conference" outside the Anti-terrorism Court. Defence counsel Umer Gilani (center) and political activist Ammar Rashid (left) stand with Afghan Basti residents as they protest their innocence before the Anti-Terrorist Court in Islamabad. Photo: Ammar Qalandar Mawaz.

“Client Conference” outside the Anti-terrorism Court. Defence counsel Umer Gilani (center) and political activist Ammar Rashid (left) stand with Afghan Basti residents as they protest their innocence before the Anti-Terrorist Court in Islamabad. Photo: Ammar Qalandar Mawaz.

In the Magistrate’s court, we faced a similar series of adjournments. Just when we were beginning to lose hope, the tide turned. Due to the persistence of the residents who kept showing up to proclaim their innocence, day in and day out, the Magistrate finally granted their application. On May 17, 2016, they were acquitted on the grounds that the evidence against them was not independent and seemed fabricated by the police.

Afghan Basti residents and lawyers celebrating acquittal outside the Court of Magistrate Humayun Dilawar, F-8, Islamabad. Photo: Umer Gilani.

Afghan Basti residents and lawyers celebrating acquittal outside the Court of Magistrate Humayun Dilawar, F-8, Islamabad. Photo: Umer Gilani.

After having reclaimed their innocence in court, the accused can file all sorts of claims to right the wrongs done to them – claims against wrongful eviction, loss of property, false and malicious prosecution, and violation of the fundamental right to liberty. However, the reality is that they do not have time to fight more legal battles. Now, they are busy rebuilding their lives and livelihoods, selling fruit in various parts of the city and seeking rented shelter wherever they can afford it.

The I-11 tragedy was not without its silver lining. After the demolition, the Supreme Court of Pakistan granted a temporary injunction against further katchi abadi demolitions in Islamabad. On numerous hearings, well-attended by katchi abadi residents, the Court has publically recognized the need for an inclusive housing and zoning policy in the country. The Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan is, with the assistance of stakeholders and activists, in the process of developing a legal and policy framework for protecting the constitutional right to shelter. All over the country, there is at least some recognition that the right to equality which Pakistan’s Constitution promises to all citizens has yet to be reflected in the geography of our beautiful cities. And so, the struggle continues…

Umer Gilani

Umer Gilani, former Bertha Justice “Be Just” Fellow at Foundation for Fundamental Rights, Pakistan

Follow Umer at Twitter @umergilani_lums

Follow FFR at Twitter @ffr_pk

An International Collaboration Brings Western Sahara into Focus

WITNESS and FiSahara are working to bring videos taken by some of the world’s most at-risk journalists to the eyes of human rights advocates.

Watching Western Sahara is a collaborative video curation platform that helps human rights defenders and media activists from the little-known territory of Western Sahara to showcase the videos they film documenting human rights abuses committed by Morocco, which has occupied the territory for over 40 years. A partnership between Bertha grantees WITNESS and FiSahara provides training to these activists and an online medium to share their videos with international human rights monitors, the media and the world at large.

For three years, WITNESS has watched online videos from Western Sahara, a territory that lies between Morocco and Mauritania and that has been occupied by Morocco since 1975. On the YouTube channels of groups like Equipe Media and the Saharawi Center for Media and Communication, we would see scenes of police and other Moroccan security forces beating men and women with batons, arresting foreign activists, and blocking journalists and other observers from photographing demonstrations.

For a foreigner watching on YouTube, the clips offer a peek into a society rarely covered by the media, due to the sorts of censorship and repression the videos expose. But curating videos to tell that story is like finding pieces of a puzzle without knowing what the full picture is. What happened before and after the recording started? Is one video related to the other, or were we trying to connecting dots where there were none? And why did the videos have loud soundtracks and big water marks?

The best people to answer those questions are the filmers themselves. But reaching out to them would be logistically and ethically challenging. In fact, the difficulty of communicating with citizen journalists is one of the gnawing challenges for human rights investigators, journalists, and advocates viewing abuse documented in online footage. In some cases, the filmers are the perpetrators themselves. In others, they are whistleblowers, releasing footage anonymously to expose injustice. (We’ve seen this, for example, with prison abuse videos shared among guards in Egypt and Malaysia, or with videos showing labor abuse in Saudi Arabia and Angola.) Many of these filmers are living in conflict zones, and trying to reach them could not only strain their limited resources, but also put them in danger.

This is what makes curating eyewitness videos of human rights particularly challenging. We know that someone is taking the effort and often the great risk to expose abuse, but our ability to use their footage effectively can be terribly strained.

Breaking through an Information Blockade

Such was the case in Western Sahara. Between the risk of endangering activists and the challenge of piecing together a puzzle from incomplete documentation, many international monitors and human rights advocates have hesitated to use online footage from Sahrawi media activists in their reporting.

This is especially grave considering that most international human rights monitors and media have no access to Western Sahara: both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been banned from entering the territory and the UN peacekeeping mission there, recently decimated by Morocco’s decision to expel most of its civilian component, has no human rights mandate. Sahrawi activists report that this media blackout enables Morocco to act with impunity, subjecting the indigenous population to a range of civil, political, cultural, social and economic violations at no political cost. In that context, Sahrawi media activists documenting human rights violations are not just first responders: often they are the only responders. Yet their footage rarely reaches the outside world.

But what if there were another option? What would happen if the viewers monitoring human rights abuse online could collaborate with the filmers on the ground?

Training Sahrawi Media Activists

WITNESS training at FiSahara, photo courtesy of Madeleine Bair

As a human rights film festival taking place in the Sahrawi refugee camps near Tindouf, in southwestern Algeria, this is the question that FiSahara also posed. As we trained young refugees in filmmaking skills in workshops and in the local film school, we began to see an urgent need to also train self-taught Sahrawi human rights activists in the Morocco-occupied Western Sahara who were filming their everyday reality under occupation.

These activists needed to improve their skills so that the videos they filmed at great risk reached the standards needed by their key audiences: international human rights monitors, the media and the activist community. We partnered with WITNESS to offer four video advocacy trainings for Sahrawi filmers under occupation and in exile. They learned to identify key audiences and their needs, and to craft messages for them. They learned how to film, edit and share human rights footage safely, ethically and effectively. They also learned how video can be used as legal evidence in courtrooms or international legal cases.

While Sahrawis increasingly became more proficient at filming and sharing eyewitness videos, they were still having trouble reaching their international audiences. The quality of their videos had improved, but the context that would help outsiders understand and verify them was often still lacking. Recognizing the need to go beyond training to bridge the gap between creators and audiences, the WITNESS Media Lab joined with FiSahara and the California-based Meedan to create Watching Western Sahara, an online collaborative platform for video curation.

A Collaboration to Bring Videos to Key Audiences

Watching Western Sahara Silk platform, photo courtesy of Madeleine Bair

Watching Western Sahara digitally brings together key human rights actors in Western Sahara and helps connect them to changemakers in order to improve the effectiveness of their work. The platform helps Sahrawi media activists and other content generators, Sahrawi human rights defenders, and the international Sahrawi solidarity community deliver human rights videos to international human rights monitors, media organizations and game-changers such as UN bodies and member States.

Using a simple platform, Checkdesk, developed by Meedan, an international network of volunteer curators shares footage and adds context such as translation, description, related videos, photos or reports, geolocation, and other information that gives videos the veracity and context sought by key audiences. Users of the platform can conduct comprehensive searches for footage using thematic tags. Several human rights organizations are already using our video database to prepare their human rights reports on Western Sahara, and we are collaborating with them to facilitate their work.

For the WITNESS Media Lab, the chance to work with the people behind the footage we had viewed online is helping us understand that footage and add the context needed to use it as a tool for human rights documentation and advocacy. For Sahrawi media activists, hearing feedback from people viewing their footage on YouTube halfway around the world helps them capture, contextualize and upload the footage in a way that better suits the needs of their target audiences. They have understood, for instance, that music as a soundtrack for their videos, or large watermarks, can get in the way of reaching audiences that need videos in their raw format, with minimal if any edits. They now appreciate the value of preserving metadata and original footage. They also learned what basic information they must provide to contextualize their footage and help viewers understand what they are watching, a key first step to breaking the media blockade.

Together, we are developing a way for Sahrawi filmers to more effectively record and share their videos so that advocates, journalists and investigators watching it around the world are able to use it to better monitor human rights in Western Sahara.

For this project we have combined our collective experiences – WITNESS’ long trajectory in using video as an effective human rights tool, local Sahrawi activists’ work in documenting human rights abuses in the field, Meedan’s skills in building digital tools to facilitate collaborative journalism and FiSahara’s role as a catalyst between Western Sahara activists and international changemakers.

As Bertha grantees, our collaboration is very much in line with Bertha Foundation’s mission of using film and media activism to effect social change in communities facing injustice and underrepresentation. In Western Sahara, where a forgotten conflict is hidden from the view of international media and human rights monitors, media activism has the potential to be a game-changer in achieving this social change. These converging visions help both to strengthen WITNESS’ and FiSahara’s activities and to fulfill Bertha’s main objectives as a partner and funder.

Six months of eyewitness videos can now be seen on Watching Western Sahara Silk, an interactive platform showcasing dozens of curated and contextualized videos. Each one is presented as a datacard containing a description as well as metadata such as the date and location of the recording, and tags related to what it documents, such as “protest,” “injury,” “hunger strike,” or “self-determination.”

WITNESS trains and supports activists and citizens around the world to use video safely, ethically, and effectively to expose human rights abuse and fight for human rights change. The Western Sahara International Film Festival (FiSahara) brings screenings, roundtables, film workshops and many other cultural events to the refugee camps of Sahwari exiles in Southwestern Algeria. The organization uses film and media training to address critical issues, engage the international community, and empower the Sahrawi people in the refugee camps and in the occupied Western Sahara.

16633312304_8b28902bf1_bMaria Carrion, Executive Director, FiSahara

Follow FiSahara on Twitter @FiSahara



Mad_StaffPic_sml2Madeleine Bair, Journalist, Documentarian and Civic Media Innovator. Former program manager of the WITNESS Media Lab

Follow Madeleine on Twitter @madbair

Be Just Fellow Alumna Profile: Yessika Hoyos – Security Concerns for Women Human Rights Defenders in Colombia

Yessika Hoyos, Be Just Fellow Alumna and lawyer at CCAJAR

Yessika Hoyos, Be Just Fellow Alumna and lawyer at CCAJAR

Be Just Fellow alumna (2013-15), Yessika Hoyos, works with Bertha Justice Initiative partner, the Jose Restrepo Alvear Lawyers Collective (CCAJAR) – Colombia’s pre-eminent human rights organization. In July, the Bertha Justice Initiative wrote to Colombian President Santos to raise concerns about the threats and intimidation Yessika has faced for her work seeking accountability for state crimes. We also made a joint nomination for Yessika for the 2016 International Bar Association Award for outstanding contribution by a legal practitioner to human rights, which will be decided in September.

This is the first of what we hope will be a series of Bertha fellow alumni profiles showing the remarkable, diverse and important human rights work Bertha fellows go on to do around the world after their fellowship experience.

Yessika Hoyos

Yessika Hoyos

“The message I want to send is that the defence of human rights does not make us guerillas or terrorists. All we are trying to do is construct a better country so that other people and other children don’t have to live through what we have had to live through.”
- Yessika Hoyos, Bertha fellow alumna and lawyer at CCAJAR

Yessika Hoyos was just 17 when it happened.

Her father, a well-known trade unionist, was murdered.

She had just commenced law school in Bogota. Having grown up with parents who were both leaders in the union movement in Colombia, Yessika had spent her childhood attending Labour Day marches and learning about human rights and social justice issues. Her father, Jorge Darío Hoyos Franco, was a key union figure and educator in Latin America. Her mother, an academic, led the local teachers’ union chapter in Fusagasuga. “In our house, we were always trained about the need to defend human rights,” she explains. It was her desire to help to defend people’s rights that led to her to a career in law.

But her father would never see her graduate. On 3 March 2001, her fourteen year-old sister would find him dead on a pavement – shot seven times in the head. A characteristically stoic and strong lawyer now fighting some of the toughest cases in Colombia, Yessika apologises as she breaks into tears telling me about the moment she learned of his death, “all these years later, it is still very hard for me to talk about it and re-live it.”

Over the years, Yessika’s father had suffered numerous threats directed at him because of his work. Funeral flower arrangements had been left outside their front door, bullets were left in his car and a note was left inside their house with black crosses – all clear death threats. But in the lead up to his murder, the threats had become more specific: local security forces had prepared a list of people to be killed, which had been broadcast on local radio, and her father’s name was on it.

For decades, social movements have been stigmatized in Colombia – wrongfully accused of being affiliated with the left-wing guerillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), and excluded from the democratic system. More than three thousand trade unionists have been killed, the highest murder rate in the world, and in ninety-eight percent of those cases there is no truth or justice: the perpetrators enjoy impunity. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Yessika’s father spoke out publicly about this problem in Colombia and around the world. He spoke forcefully about how the paramilitary structure was a part of – and a creation of – the state, being used to attack social movements, which has since been confirmed by the Inter-American Court. He also spoke of the need to dismantle the paramilitary structure if there was to be a solution to the conflict in Colombia. For his work, Yessika’s father was targeted.

His death only further motivated Yessika into this work. The day he was buried she gave a radio interview, “I was only 17, but I said I would carry my father’s flag to protect human rights. I said I would fight to seek justice for his death and I will not allow my father’s assassination to be yet another case of impunity in Colombia. I meant it then – and I will not stop now.”

Yessika continues in her father’s footsteps, protecting human rights

Yessika continues in her father’s footsteps, protecting human rights

After this, the threats began against Yessika and her family. Her mother received threatening phone calls telling her to “say goodbye” to Yessika because she was going to be put in a coffin. Her mother and sister had to relocate to Bogota – and have since had to move homes several times for security reasons.

Yessika went on to help build the movement of children seeking accountability for crimes committed against their parents during the conflict. For this work, in 2014 she was selected by the Universidad Nacional and the United Nations to be part of a delegation to give testimony in Havana before representatives of the Colombian Government – FARC-EP peace process.

As a law student, she took her father’s case to the Jose Restrepo Alvear Lawyers Collective (CCAJAR). Once she was admitted as a lawyer, Yessika joined CCAJAR to represent the trade unions and pursue her father’s case. She now leads CCAJAR’s trade union work seeking accountability and reparations for crimes committed against the trade union movement. She also represents victims of other grave human rights violations, including massacres (such as the massacre of La Sarna) and the so-called “false positives.”

Yessika Hoyos and fellow lawyers

Yessika Hoyos and fellow lawyers

Through her work at CCAJAR, she has been able to learn the truth about her father’s murder. She interviewed one of the men convicted of murdering him. She explains, “It was very hard for me to talk to him. But I needed the truth.” He told her that she was very courageous, so he would help her, but her life would be at risk. “It was then that he told me that my father’s assassination had been ordered by the police and the army,” she says.

Two police officers have since been convicted. Her case against Colombian intelligence official Freddy Francisco Espitia Espinosa was heard last week. In earlier proceedings in this case, a witness threatened her co-counsel, Mrs. Soraya Gutierez, a senior lawyer with CCAJAR. Yessika and Mrs. Gutierez were also subject to harassment inside the court after the hearing.

Yessika has suffered a pattern of harassment, but the threats have intensified in the past year as her case against Espinosa has progressed, prompting the Bertha Justice Initiative to write to President Santos to take action to ensure her protection. Despite the recent peace deal ending Colombia’s conflict, Yessika now faces the same risk as her father for her own work as a human rights defender.

Yessika is not alone in the security risks that she faces. CCAJAR lawyers have been threatened and persecuted for their work seeking accountability for crimes of state officials during the conflict, including being subjected to illegal surveillance. Former Colombian President Uribe branded CCAJAR as “a FARC collective.” Being stigmatized and branded part of FARC-EP is dangerous in a country where right-wing paramilitaries remain active and assassinations are common. For example, in September 2015 a pamphlet appeared in Colombia, written by a paramilitary group calling themselves ”The Black Eagles” (Las Aguilas Negras), threatening CCAJAR and other human rights groups.

In June 2015, Yessika personally became the target of this form of stigmatization. During the Europe-Latin American (EUROLAT) Parliamentary Assembly, two Members of European Parliament accused Yessika of being associated with FARC-EP during a EUROLAT Committee on Political Affairs, Security and Human Rights hearing. Despite being formally invited to represent Colombian civil society, she was censored from speaking and was refused the opportunity to defend herself and correct the record. Despite Yessika’s request, the Colombian ambassador refused to take up her complaint. “I told them if I was later killed that they would be responsible,” she says. This widely publicised vilification placed her personal safety and professional standing at risk.

Following these events in Brussels, the threats against Yessika at home intensified – and this time targeting her young family. In September 2015, strange men approached her nanny, asking questions about Yessika and her 20-month old daughter. The nanny had been working with Yessika for just over a week, revealing the level of surveillance her family is now under. A week later, Yessika’s new legal assistant, Sebastían Bojacá, was approached outside his home by strange men and warned to “look after himself.” Yessika says these events send a clear message: “they are letting me know that it is about me.”

In February 2016, CCAJAR wrote to President Santos about Yessika’s security situation, calling for urgent protection measures after they had “received highly credible information that sectors within military intelligence are plotting an attack against our colleague Yessika Hoyos Morales…a message was sent stating she should ‘stop bothering the generals.’”

Women lawyers and human rights defenders like Yessika face particular risks in Colombia. There is a clearly identifiable pattern of gendered attacks, including rape and threats of sexual violence, as well as threats directed at their children. As with attacks on trade unionists, there is impunity for sexual crimes against women. It is a tool that Yessika says is used to silence women in public life and to prevent them from seeking justice for state crimes.

This is not the first time women lawyers at CCAJAR and their children have been intimidated:  in 2005, the life of the young daughter of Soraya Gutierrez was threatened when Soraya received a box in the post with a bloody, decapitated doll and a note saying “You have a pretty daughter. Don’t sacrifice her.” Evidence found during a 2010 investigation into Colombia’s notorious intelligence agency, DAS, suggests this action was carried out by the intelligence agency.

Yessika told me that for many years she didn’t want to have children because she knew, from watching what happened to other women, that it would be used against her. She became emotional acknowledging this is now her reality while contemplating what could happen to her or to her daughter: “I don’t want my daughter to have to go through what I have been through.”

When I asked Yessika if I could write about her story to raise awareness about the threats she and her colleagues face, she readily agreed. “We must show the world that despite the peace process, human rights defenders are still being persecuted and killed. Human rights defenders are being denounced and stigmatized – and assassinations follow.”

For Yessika and many other victims, telling her father’s story and her own story is important. Merely citing statistics on the numbers of people killed in Colombia during the conflict can never adequately describe the problem. “It dehumanizes and trivializes those who were killed and our loss. It does not describe my father, his story, his hopes and dreams for his life and for us, and the pain our family has suffered being left behind remembering him,” she says. It is obvious she is concerned that she might become another statistic.


Jen-photo1Jennifer Robinson, Director of Legal Advocacy for the Bertha Foundation

Follow Bertha Justice Initiative on Twitter @Be_Just_

Follow Jen Robinson on Twitter @suigenerisjen


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