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Human Rights Defender of the month: Pierre Claver Mbonimpa

Arguably no single individual personifies Burundi’s human rights struggle like Pierre Claver Mbonimpa. Born 72 years ago in the small East African country, Claver’s quest for human rights and justice is as old as his country’s modern history.

When his country was plunged into a civil war that killed an estimated 300,000 people following the 1993 assassination of President Cyprien Ntaryamira, Claver was one of its earliest victims. Then a close confidant (he was also a former driver) of the assassinated President, he was framed, and arrested, and would go on to spend the next two years between 1994 and 1996 in jail.

It is in prison that the ulcer of injustice bit him hard. There, he met inmates who had either been wrongfully imprisoned or who had been remanded for long periods without trial, all living in dehumanising conditions. “I was strongly revolted by the injustice. Here were probably innocent people whose years were being wasted away by an unfair judicial system, with no one to stand up for them. I swore that I would try to do something about it once I got out myself,” he says.  

He was freed in 1996, and immediately started the Association for Detained Persons (ABDP), through which he would move around prisons monitoring the welfare and wellbeing of inmates and mobilising legal representation for those without. His intervention was a massive success, and as friends and relatives started receiving their long-detained loved ones thanks to his intervention, he was encouraged to look beyond prisoners and advocate for human rights beyond the prisons.

“People with other issues like land conflicts, and other victims of injustice had started coming to me. But legally, my mandate was limited to advocacy for prisoners’ rights. So, if I was to be of help to other people, I had to expand my mandate,” he says.

 

So, in 2001, he started the Association for Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH). With support from Amnesty International, APRODH opened branch offices in other provinces of Burundi and started sensitising locals about the Burundian Penal Code, criminal procedure, among others, to create a civically conscious citizenry. It also started monitoring, documenting and carrying out countrywide advocacy against human rights violations, thanks to their office presence in a good number of provinces.  

“We also started training policemen and women on the lawful handling of prisoners, and where prisoners couldn’t afford legal representation, we would step in to pay their fees, whenever possible,” he says.

But APRODH and Claver’s cordial ties with the government of then President Pierre Nkurunziza were not to last.  As President Pierre Nkurunziza neared the end of his constitutional two terms in office, he planned to insist on a third term, and he approached Claver to support his quest, which the latter flatly declined. Then, in 2014, Claver, on a radio program, criticised the government’s recruitment and training of a youth para-military outfit – imbonerakure ahead of the country’s elections due the following year.

He was immediately arrested and released three months later due to international pressure on the Burundian government for his release, but his freedom was short-lived. On 3 August 2015, Claver was shot by a gun man in what was widely seen as a political assassination attempt. The bullets shattered his jaw, his voice glands and back vertebra, and Claver had to be airlifted to Belgium for specialised treatment, where he spent nearly two years without speaking and eight months without eating.

As if that was not enough, while he was away for treatment, Claver’s son and son-in-law were killed in quick succession by people widely believed to have been state agents, and Claver himself had to be put under 24/7 protection by Belgium security on his hospital bed. APRODH was consequently de-registered in 2016, and Claver had to relocate the remainder of his family to Belgium, where he remains a refugee, to date.

Despite all that life-threatening experience, Claver remains undeterred, and continues to monitor developments in Burundi, and to carry out international advocacy for human rights reform back home. He says he does it for those who cannot speak for themselves.

“At least for me, I was able to recover my voice. There are those who are voiceless. Someone must speak up for them,” he says.

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the month: Pamela Angwench Judith

For most of her life, Pamela Angwech’s existence has always been a defiant and simultaneous act of survival and resistance. In 1976 when she was born, the anti-Amin movement was gathering pace, and her family was one of the earliest victims of the then dictatorship’s reprisals in Northern Uganda. Her father, a passionate educationist in Kitgum district was one of the most vocal critics of the dictatorship’s human rights excesses, which made him an obvious target of the state’s marauding vigilantes.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Joseph Oleshangay

As a human rights lawyer and advocate with the High Court of the United Republic of Tanzania, Joseph Moses Oleshangay spends most of his time crossing from one court to another, litigating human rights cases, some with life-altering implications for ordinary people. It is a monumental responsibility, one he never envisaged growing up.

As a young boy born into a Maasai household in northern Tanzania, his entire childhood revolved around cattle: “Our entire livelihood revolved around cattle. As a child, the main preoccupation was to tend to cows, and my formative years were spent grazing cattle around Endulen. It a simple lifestyle,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Julia Onyoti

The situation of South Sudan’s women and girls remains one of those enduring blights on the country’s conscience. The country retains the unenviable reputation of having the world’s highest maternal mortality rate, and at 51.5%, one of the highest cases of child marriages. It is even worse with gender-based violence(GBV): A 2019 study by UNICEF found that one in every two South Sudan women have experienced intimate partner violence, while a recent UN study, alarmed at the widespread nature of conflict-related sexual violence in the country, in which women are tread as “spoils of war” described it as “a hellish existence for women and girls.

Human Rights Defender of the month:SHIMA BHARE

Shima Bhare Abdalla has never known the luxury and comfort of a stable and safe existence inside her country’s borders. When she was 11, her village was attacked and razed to the ground, sending her family and entire neighborhood scattering into an internally displaced People’s Camp, at the start of the Darfur civil war.

That was in 2002. Shima and her family relocated into Kalma refugee camp in Southern Darfur, where, alongside over 100,000 other displaced persons, they had to forge out a living, under the watch and benevolence of the United Nations – African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur, known as UNAMID. It is here that Shima’s human rights consciousness came to life. She enthusiastically embraced whatever little education she could access under the auspices of the humanitarian agencies operating in the camp, to be able to tell the story of her people’s plight.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Martial Pa’nucci

Martial Pa’nucci is a child of what is fondly known as Africa’s second liberation. In 1990 when he was born, the Republic of Congo, like many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, was undergoing a transition from one-party rule to multi-party democracy, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet developments in ordinary people’s lives were not as optimistic. Pa’nucci was born in one of Brazzaville’s ghettos to a polygamous family of two mothers and 19 siblings, where survival was a daily exercise in courage. When he was two, his father died, followed in quick succession by many of his siblings. Pa’nucci did not start school until he was nine, and he had to do odd jobs – from barbering to plumbing to earn his stay there, lest he dropped out like many of his peers.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Veronica Almedom

Veronica Almedom is a poster child of successful immigration. A duo Eritrean and Swiss citizen, she was born in Italy, and grew up in Switzerland where she permanently resides. Her parents are some of the earliest victims of Eritrea’s cycles of violence. When Eritrea’s war of independence peaked in the early 1980s, they escaped the country as unaccompanied minors, wandering through Sudan, Saudi Arabia, before making the hazard journey across the Mediterranean into Europe. There, they crossed first to Italy, and finally, to Switzerland, where they settled first as refugees, and later, as permanent residents.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Omar Faruk Osman

Omar Faruk’s career, and the passion that drove it, were the product of his circumstances. He was born in 1976, in the first of strong man Mohamed Siad Barre’s two-decade rule over Somalia, which was characterized by gross rights abuses and barely existent civic space. He came of age in the 90s when those abuses and rights violations were peaking, as his country was engulfed by a ruinous civil war following the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Rita Kahsay

When the Ethiopian Federal Government representatives and those of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a peace agreement in Pretoria, in November last year, the two parties were hailed for ending arguably the deadliest conflict of the 21st century, in which over 600,000 people had died.
But long before the negotiators for peace got around to an agreement, there were many other unsung heroes, who, through individual and collective efforts helped sustain the world’s gaze on the dire situation in Tigray, despite the Ethiopian Government’s determined efforts to hush it up.

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