Happy 60th !

Not me – I can beat that by a few (!) – nor anyone I know personally …

However,  these would certainly know: Dr Agnès Callamard, Ahmet Altan, Paing Phyo Minh, Soon Tabuni, Anwar al-Bunni, Sabir Zazai, Moses Akatugba, Jani Silva, Loujain al-Hathloul, Nassima al-Sadda, Vitalina Koval, Idris Khattak, Eren Keskin, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Peter Baruch.

Other names might come more readily to mind: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Roman Protasevich. Whilst they are much in our minds now, I wonder whether or not we will remember them, their names, or even their situations in 3 or 6 months’ time when they have disappeared from the daily news view and conscience?

For each one of them, for one reason or another has been incarcerated at some time or another because something they have said or done, or been accused of saying or doing has brought them into conflict with the authorities in the country in which they have been working, living or to which they have been travelling.

Ahmet Altan – one of scores of Turkish journalists imprisoned after the failed coup in Turkey in 2016, released in April , the day after a European Court of Human Rights ruling, demanding his release.

Paing Phyo Minh – detained by the authorities in Myanmar for activities as part of the Peacock Generation theatre troupe, criticising the military.

Soon Tabuni – a Papuan farmer detained in Indonesia for peaceful expression of an opinion on two shooting incidents in a facebook post.

Anwar al-Bunni – a human rights lawyer, arrested, imprisoned and tortured, before escaping to Germany.

Sabir Zazai – a refugee from the terror in Afghanistan and now Head of the Scottish Refugee Council

Moses Akatugba – wrongly imprisoned in Nigeria in 2005 for theft, forced to sign an admission of guilt in 2013, tried and sentenced to death, he was pardoned and released in 2015.

Jani Silva – under a death threat in Putamayo, Colombia for her membership of an environmental group

Loujain al-Hathloul – a women’s rights defender, released from prison in Saudi Arabia, but under a 5-year travel ban for alleged spying and conspiracy.

Nassima al-Sadda – another women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia, still in prison and under a similar travel ban when released

Vitalina Koval – LGBTI activist in Ukraine, whose attackers have now been released.

Idris Khattak – defender of human rights facing trial In a military court in Pakistan on espionage charges.

Eren Keskin – a leading human rights lawyer, sentenced to 6 years in prison on the absurd charge of “membership of a terrorist organisation” in Turkey.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi – held in Guantánamo Bay between 2002 and 2016 without charge or trial and tortured. His prison diary has been made into an award-winning film, The Mauritanian.

Peter Baruch – the son of a friend of mine who was imprisoned in Kazakhstan for writing a critical report of high-level corruption in the country’s oil industry. He received an 8-year sentence but was released early, in 2018. Eager to help in any way I could, his father John asked me to write, which I did, prior to  and of course not knowing when he might be released.

Ahmet Altan said: “each eye that reads what I have written, each voice that repeats my name, holds my hand like a little cloud and flies me over the lowlands, the springs, the forests, the seas, the towns and their streets… I travel the whole world in a prison cell.”

It seems that far from eradicating this problem, the unjustified and unjustifiable incarceration of unfortunates seems to continue unabated. The fact that Amnesty can cite many success stories, would seem to suggest that the issue is becoming more serious than ever.

It is 60 years ago that Amnesty International was founded. Dr Agnès Callamard is its new Director General. Her biography is fascinating and full of fortunate turns. In this she differs from all the other names we have mentioned. Dr Agnès was born in 1965 and raised in a small village in the South of France, imbued with social justice by her father, a factory worker and her mother, a teacher. Her interest in these issues went far beyond the limits of her pastoral, rural childhood. On 15th August every year, the family and indeed the whole village made the pilgrimage to the place where in 1944, on the last day of the war, her grandfather and other maquisards were executed by the Nazis. She tells of the supreme importance of this event in her own personal journey: an example of people giving everything to a cause and with incredible courage. Having completed her first degree in France, she continued her studies at Howard University, the largest and oldest African-American University in the United States. She was one of only a handful of white students on a campus of 16000. Even in this culture very different from the dominant one in the country, she was aware of the privilege due to a history of discrimination. From there she moved to the New School, created by people who fled the Holocaust, which was formative for different reasons. Her choices, she says, made her. They led her to become a human rights activist and expert in the field too. “Brace yourself for the next decade!”, it says in the Summer edition of Amnesty News, as the organisation focuses on its long term goals of defending the individual and ending the death penalty.

The struggle goes on, without abatement it seems. Soon we will gather on the 13th tee at Rawdon Golf Club, beneath the Buckstone Rock and remember our non-conformist forbears who fought for their own religious, nay, Christian freedom of expression against the oppression of the authorities. Their example is what has made us too. Perhaps we will bring to mind the names of some of those mentioned above, those who risk incarceration, torture, death for their conscience, religious or otherwise.

The case of Roman Protasevich is particularly distressing. The flight from Athens to Vilnius on which he and his girlfriend were passengers was diverted to Minsk in Belarus on the orders of President Lukaschenko, and on the pretext of a bomb scare allegedly communicated by Switzerland. This has been vehemently denied by the latter country’s authorities. These two hapless individuals were removed from the plane whilst a “search” was conducted. Nothing untoward was found and the plane continued its journey, two passengers short. Later we saw and heard a recorded interview in which he had accepted that he had been briefing against the Government. What is likely is that he made this statement under duress and that he had been “knocked about” prior to it. There is no word on the whereabouts of his girlfriend, no doubt being used by their captors, the Belalrussian authorities, as a bargaining chip.

Already only a few days since the scandal erupted, things seem to have gone, perhaps ominously, quiet. How quickly we are able to forget!

Mentioned before, but bearing repetition, the Christian Aid charity a few years ago used the slogan: ”We believe in life before death!”

If you need a stark reminder that we in the UK are not immune from violations of human dignity, mental torture, unjustified incarceration, destruction of livelihoods, families and the cause of premature death, then look no further than the Post Office! The Horizon Scandal, probably the most serious of afflictions in British judicial history has some distance to run. Although all those affected have had their names cleared and have been exonerated of any crime, the scars remain and for some the judgement came too late – at least three of the accused died before they learned that they had been relieved of all blame. Heads should roll, yet most importantly, this travesty of justice should not be allowed to be erased from our memory, so that its like never occurs again.

If you read only one of the Articles of the 30 in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then read Article 3 below (Articles 1 to 8 are quoted here):

Article I All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2 Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3 Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.

Article 4 No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5 No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6 Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7 All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8 Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law. Article 9 No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

What better way to sum up than this as the example for our love, care and concern for out neighbour, whatever their status, origin, situation, gender, orientation …

The Good Shepherd and His Sheep

10 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.

7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a] They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy;

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

John 10:1-18

Peter Lambert

June 2021