Free Human Rights Defenders Now! They should have never been detained.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, human rights bodies and experts across the globe have called for urgent action to prevent the spread of the virus in places of detention. On 25 March Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on governments across the world to safeguard the health and safety of detainees. Many human rights experts followed suit to demand the release of prisoners at risk in specific contexts, such as Israel, Iran, and the United States. On the African continent, in its statement on a human rights-based effective response to the virus, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) also recommended African leaders to decongest prisons. Several African governments from all regions of the continent have responded with early releases, pardons, and temporary discharges.

Bachelet’s statements paid particular attention to those who should have never been detained: “now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views”, she said. Among them are innumerable African human rights defenders (HRDs), whose freedom has been taken away to silence their human rights work. Worryingly, these HRDs seem to rarely figure among the detainees released due to COVID-19 measures implemented by African governments. This may constitute a form of further punishment for their legitimate human rights work, as they now risk contracting the virus in often overcrowded prisons without adequate access to healthcare.  What is more, some countries, such as Egypt, Niger, Ethiopia, and Madagascar have used this ongoing global health emergency to further crackdown on dissenting voices – including through the imprisonment of more HRDs, journalists, and protesters.

In this context, the voices calling for the release of HRDs, prisoners of conscience, and activists have multiplied, from international fora to the grassroots. We recognise these tireless efforts, and join our voice with a call to Free HRDs Now! We also acknowledge the actions taken by several African leaders to curb the spread of the virus in prisons on the continent, and encourage them to include HRDs among those being released – they should have never been detained.

Voices from Africa

Activists, HRDs, civil society organisations, experts and local leaders have spoken up to demand the release of imprisoned HRDs. Check out AfricanDefender‘s interactive map of the initiatives that have been taken across Africa:

Have we missed something? Send us your initiative at [email protected].

Join the call to #FreeHRDsNow

A sample template to write a letter to your head of state demanding for the release of human rights defenders.

A Social Media Kit with ideas on how to spread the message online.

A guide with tips for human rights defenders on how to protect themselves against COVID-19.

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Human Rights Defender of the Month: Malab Alneel

Malab Alneel was only 20 when Sudan’s revolution started in December 2018, but she knew it was the moment to get involved: “I grew up in a house that was very political. All of my sisters are activists, my parents are very involved. Activism has always been there. But for me it started with the revolution. It just felt like a time for change.”

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