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Updates from May 2020

Dear friends and colleagues, 

While our offices have partially opened up again and many human rights institutions are slowly resuming their activities in person, our work continues to be shaped by COVID-19 dynamics. 

On 3 May, we celebrated World Press Freedom Day – an important day every year, but even more so during this pandemic. Freedom of information is key to contain the spread of a virus like COVID-19, yet there has been an alarming rise in media freedom violations. DefendDefenders will continue to call for press freedom, during this pandemic and beyond. 

We have also supported UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s call to release detained human rights defenders (HRDs) to decongest overcrowded prisons in our #FreeHRDsNow campaign. Detained HRDs, like other detainees, risk contracting COVID-19. They should have never been detained in the first place. 

To better understand the impact of COVID-19 on HRDs, we have organised a webinar series. Our first webinar, on the challenges faced by HRDs, was a great success with over 120 participants. I was honoured to moderate our fantastic guest speakers and warmly invite you to join our next webinars, which will take place weekly in JuneWe have declared June 2020 as the month of HRD well-being, so keep an eye out for our daily content on mental well-being. 

Please continue to stay vigilant and safe, especially in those places where lockdowns are slowly eased or lifted. 

Yours sincerely,

Hassan Shire 
Executive Director, DefendDefenders 

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Edmund Yakani

Edmund Yakani is one of South Sudan’s most prominent human rights defenders (HRDs) and Civil Rights Defender of the Year 2017. Edmund has worked on an array of topics – the rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), transitional justice, and the protection of HRDs in cooperation with DefendDefenders – that are all connected by the common thread of human rights promotion and protection.  

So, when South Sudan’s government started planning a COVID-19 response, Edmund made sure that human rights were part of the equation. Edmund’s NGO, Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation (CEPO), released a checklist for human rights considerations in the response to COVID-19. Together with Global Peace Partner, CEPO also developed a national framework for the COVID-19 nexus with human rights.

Did you know?

That we declared June 2020 the Month of HRD mental well-being? We will post daily content centred around HRD well-being, culminating in a webinar on Friday 26 June. We will also continue weekly webinars on the impact of COVID-19 on HRDs. 

Check out:

Civil Rights Defenders call for a consultant.

Recommended readings:

Updates from DefendDefenders:

  • Despite uncertainty as to when UN human rights bodies will be able to resume their work, DefendDefenders continues to engage States, UN officials, human rights experts, and partners. The 43rd session of the Human Rights Council (HRC43) might resume on 15 June to complete its work. We expect resolutions on South Sudan and HRDs to be adopted. The Council’s 44th session (HRC44) might then take place from 22 June-10 July 2020; 
  • In a letter developed by DefendDefenders in collaboration with civil society partners, we called on the Human Rights Council to extend the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea. Daniela Kravetz will present her report to the Council during its 44th session; 
  • Pursuing long-term work on civic space, we published a policy paper in which we and HRCnet partners encourage States to more systematically use civic space indicators as objective criteria for action at the Human Rights Council. A resolution on civil society space is due to be considered at HRC44; 
  • In May, we also published a 6-page paper on the UN Human Rights Council“The UN Human Rights Council: What is it? How can it help human rights defenders? How to engage with it?” serves as an introduction to Council-related advocacy;  
  • On 14-15 May, DefendersTech partnered with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) East Africa Regional office, to conduct an online training for HRDs, non-governmental organizations, and policy makers. We covered topics such as cyberbullying, harassment and stalking, and digital security tactics, all of which are of particular importance in the context of the current crisis, where many aspects of HRDs’ work is moved online; 
  • On 18 May, DefendersTech began an online workshop with fellows from our Safe Sisters programme, focusing on advanced skills and knowledge to conduct digital security assessments using the SAFETAG framework as developed by Internews 
  • On 25-29 May, DefendersTech carried out the first Regional Ttaala workshop. Due to the prevailing circumstances, the workshop was carried out online with about 14 participants taking part from Ethiopia, Tanzania, Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda. Topics covered include data, monitoring, documenting and reporting human rights, and strategic advocacy tools and tactics; and 
  • In May, DefendDefenders received 24 protection requests. Four are under review, three requests were approved (protecting a total of 21 individuals), 14 were denied, and three were referred to like-minded organisations.

Updates from AfricanDefenders:

  • AfricanDefenders initiated a joint letter to H.E Moussa Faki, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, after reports of African nationals facing xenophobic and racist treatment in China. The letter urged for a full investigation into human rights violations against Africans living in China and called for remedial action; 
  • We supported Cameroonian CSOs through an informal network called Cameroon Advocacy Group to organise meetings and address the need for an urgent investigation into gross and grave human rights violations in Cameroon; 
  • To strengthen HRD coalitions across the continent, we are preparing needs assessments for coalitions in Mozambique, Burkina Faso, and Malawi. This will help us to determine how to best support them; 
  • AfricanDefenders participated in a webinar hosted by the African Union Economic, Social and Cultural Council in conjunction with the Africa Development Bank. The webinar focused on gender implications of Africa’s COVID-19 response and highlighted gender-related gaps, risks and threats observed in the ongoing response measures; 
  • We joined a meeting hosted by Open Society Foundations analysing the impact of COVID-19 responses on refugees in East Africa with the aim to coordinate policy and advocacy actions; 
  • AfricanDefenders engaged the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to coordinate on effective working methods that will allow continued engagements between the Commission and HRDs amidst the COVID-19 pandemic; and 
  • We were a part of an online meeting organised by the International Forum for Democratic Studies and National Endowment for Democracy on “Deepening Repression Amidst the COVID-19 Crisis: Implications for Democrats at Risk”.  We provided input on the impact of COVID-19 on HRDs in Africa, as well as how we support them. 

Human rights updates from the East and Horn of Africa sub-region:


  • On 20 May, Burundi held general elections. Campaigning was marred by deadly clashes, violence, and hate speech. On election day, social media platforms were blocked. The president of the Human Rights Council-established Commission of Inquiry on Burundi stated that the conditions to perform credible and free elections were not met. The election board declared that ruling CNDD-FDD party candidate Evariste Ndayishimiye won the presidential election with 67% of votes, which opposition party CNL has contested in court. 
  • Since 20 May, there has been a crackdown on opposition party CNL members. Their spokesperson accuses the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakureas well as police and intelligence officers. The ruling CNDD-FDD party rejects the allegations. 


  • On 3 May, Charmarke Saïd Darar, correspondent of Djibouti’s only independent media, Voice of Djibouti, was arrested. He has been held without access to a lawyer or a doctor since. 
  • Lieutenant Fouad Youssouf Ali, an army pilot who fled to Ethiopia after denouncing injustice in Djibouti’s army, was forcibly returned to Djibouti on 16 May, where he is held in Gabode prison, facing persecution. 
  • As Djibouti’s COVID-19 cases are rising steeply, lockdown measures continue to damage an already heavily restricted civic space. 


  • On 5 May, ahead of the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council, DefendDefenders and partners called on the Council to extend the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea for a further year. Eritrea’s domestic human rights situation remains dire and no concrete evidence of progress can be reported. 
  • On 13 May, Netherlands-based Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans (FHRE) filed a lawsuit with the Amsterdam district court, accusing the European Union of financing a major road renovation project that relies on forced labour and of failing to carry out due diligence. 


  • On 6 May, authorities released Ethiopian lawyer Elizabeth Kebede, after she had been arrested and detained under a new state of emergency law, for questioning the government’s COVID-19 response on social media.  
  • At least 1,305 people were arrested in Ethiopia’s capital for “violating the state of emergency,” as they did not wear mask at public places as stipulated by the country’s state of emergency laws. 
  • Ethiopia’s scheduled elections have been postponed, due to the pandemic. If elections cannot be held before 30 September, this could trigger a constitutional crisis, as the five-year term of the federal and regional legislatures will expire on that day. 


  • On 8 May, hundreds of people protested against government demolitions of the homes of more than 7,000 people in Kariobangi, a poor informal settlement in Nairobi. The evictions and demolitions took place despite an ongoing court case on the residents right to live on the land and at a time, when the Kenyan government was urging people to stay at home to curb the spread of COVID-19. 


  • On 16 May 2020, Félicien Kabuga, one of the masterminds behind the Rwandan genocide, was arrested in France. According to Human Rights Watch, this brings victims and survivors one step closer to justice. 
  • Rwanda’s High Court sentenced a former mayor, Ladislas Ntaganzwa, to life in prison for leading a series of massacres of Tutsi civilians, including an attack on a church where thousands had taken shelter, during the 1994 genocide. 
  • 50 women, jailed for having abortions, were pardoned by Rwandan President, Paul Kagame. The country’s punitive anti-abortion law remain intact, however. 
  • On 20 May, 3,596 prisoners were released conditionally, to decongest prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Somalia / Somaliland

  • On 3 May 2020, president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmaajo announced reform of Somalia’s outdated and draconian Penal Code of 1964 to protect journalists and freedom of expression. Currently, the Penal Code is routinely used to arrest and detain journalists, leading to self-censorship and a stifling of public debate on critical issues. 
  • On 4 May, two Shabelle journalists, Safia Osman Abdulle and Abdulkadir Ga’al were attacked by officials, resulting in serious injuries and confiscated equipment. The two journalists were covering a women’s protest against the Waberi District Commissioner for lack of payment. 
  • On 5 May 2020, Said Yusuf Ali, a reporter for Kalsan TV, was stabbed to death when he stepped in between a man and a woman who appeared to be fighting. Reporters Without Borders suspects premeditated murder, as Ali had covered the terrorist group Al-Shabaab. 


  • Sudan made female genital mutilation illegal in late April, drawing praise from the international community. But some female activists in the African country say this will not lead to the end of the harmful practice. Read more here. 
  • A report by the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) indicates that members of the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces militia continue to violate human rights in the country. 
  • The UN Security Council voted unanimously to end the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Sudan’s vast western Darfur region (UNAMID) and replace it with a civilian mission focusing on the country’s democratic transition, diplomats said on 4 June. 
  • An activist was allegedly severely beaten while documenting a peaceful protest in front of El Gedaref state government offices on 5 May, when the demonstration was violently dispersed by Sudanese regular forces using teargas. 

South Sudan

  • Inter-communal clashes erupted in South Sudan’s north-eastern Jonglei State on 20 MayAt least 280 civilians were killed and more than 50 people were woundedDozens of homes were destroyed, warehouses belonging to aid groups were raided, and women and cattle were abducted during the attacks. UN’s special representative for South Sudan, David Shearer, attributes the violence to a power vacuum, as the new coalition government has failed to appoint governors to the country’s 10 states, including Jonglei. 
  • On 29 May, the UN Security Council extended South Sudan’s arms embargo, which otherwise would have expired at the end of May, by one yearInvestigations show, however, that it has been violated since being imposed in July 2018. 
  • Edward Terso, a South Sudanese journalist and well-known freedom of speech advocate, passed away on 29 MayTerso was one of the Union of Journalists of South Sudan (UJOSS) founders, as well as its general secretary until his death. He helped to draft South Sudan media laws, and often faced risks due to his efforts to defend the rights of journalists. 


  • On 3 May, Tanzania’s president John Magufuli suspended the head of the national medical laboratory, Nyambura Moremi, claiming the COVID-19 outbreak is not as bad as reported by Moremi. Criticism of Magufuli’s pandemic response is mounting. On 5 May, a group of human rights experts urgently appealed to Tanzania’s government, regarding the right to protection of health and life and to public health information in the context of COVID19. 
  • A Tanzanian journalist with the weekly investigative newspaper Jamhuri was charged with four counts of economic crimes, including money laundering and kidnapping. These charges are not bailable under Tanzanian law. 
  • On 18 May, Tanzania’s High Court ruled an entire section of the country’s Penal Code denying bail for offences such as murder, treason, terrorism, money laundering and illicit drugs trafficking as unconstitutional. The state attorney has appealed. 
  • On 28 May, police released Tanzanian comedian Idris Sultan, after he being detained for 9 days for allegedly bullying president MagufuliA video clip of Sultan laughing at an old photograph of Magufuli went viral on social media, which allegedly violated the country’s controversial Cybercrimes Act. 


  • On 5 May, Kyadondo East Member of Parliament Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu (known as Bobi Wine) has led the opposition to petition the United Nations over the alleged worsening human rights situation in Uganda during this COVID-19 crisis. 
  • A Ugandan court ordered the release of 19 LGBT+ people, jailed for almost 50 days for risking spreading the new coronavirus, on 18 May after public prosecutors withdrew the charges. 
  • On 18 May, locals in Namungoona blocked roads and burned wood to protest the delayed government food relief. On the same day, Dr Stella Nyanzi, events promoter Andrew Mukasa alias Bajjo and several others were arrested in Kampala for demonstrating over “slow distribution” of government relief food to vulnerable people, mostly affected by the Covid-19 induced lockdown.