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East: Human Rights Lawyers Win International Award

  • Beatrice Hogan

Though often overshadowed by their famous clients, human rights lawyers can face harassment and persecution for their role in defending others. The International League of Human Rights recently honored seven human rights defenders -- including recipients from Kazakhstan, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Russia -- for their activism and courage. RFE/RL correspondent Beatrice Hogan attended the awards ceremony in New York.

New York, 13 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Defenders' Day is a new holiday on the international human rights calendar. It marks the anniversary of the "Defenders' Declaration," a statement passed unanimously one year ago by the United Nations General Assembly reinforcing the right to promote the rights of others.

The International League of Human Rights (ILHR), a non-governmental organization devoted to strengthening international human rights institutions, honored seven such defenders last Thursday in New York. Each activist received a plaque and a $500 cash prize.

Cathy Fitzpatrick, the league's executive director, presented the awards. She said human rights organizations address big issues: the trafficking of women, land mines, child soldiers, and globalization's impact on society. Yet to promote these abstract themes, human rights work requires the dedication of individuals. Fitzpatrick explains why this year's recipients were chosen:

"Often, even when there's a global issue, there's only one person to do it in a given setting. So that's why today we really want to honor the people who, one person at a time, have stepped forward and come under pressure or taken the heat for their work."

Fitzpatrick said the Defenders' Declaration adds another layer of protection for activists. It provides that the Geneva-based UN Commission on Human Rights will hear cases involving human rights lawyers and activists who have been attacked by repressive governments or by violent groups.

Recognition by international agencies bolsters support for human rights defenders in isolated parts of the world. And the publicity can often pressure a country to ease its repressive practices.

Felix Kulov, accepting the prize for Kazakh winner Yevgeny Zhovtis, said the award would help advance the cause of human rights in Central Asia. Zhovtis, who was unable to attend the event, is the director of the Human Rights and Legality Bureau in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Last November, his office, containing six years' worth of records, was set on fire by arsonists. Kulov described the significance of the prize for Kazakhstan and the region.

"When a prize is given to human rights activists from any country, it is not only a recognition of the person's achievements. That is an important fact by itself. But it also means that international organizations are paying attention to the problems in post-Soviet countries."

Oleg Volchek, the recipient from Belarus, heads the Public Legal Assistance Association, an agency that helps human rights victims and defends anti-government demonstrators. The Belarusian government recently suspended his organization. And Volchek himself was beaten in July. Yet, despite the harassment, he continues his work.

Volchek said the publicity about the Defenders' Day award in his country helped ease his own legal troubles. He said if not for the award, he would still be facing a charge in Belarus.

"I was lucky enough to have had this case dropped two days before I came here [to the U. S.], otherwise it would not have happened."

In Azerbaijan, government authorities have refused to register the Association of Lawyers of Azerbaijan, which defends refugees, civil rights attorneys, and the poor. Annagi Gadzhiev, the president of the organization, was honored for his activism in the face of government harassment. Gadzhiev said the international recognition provides needed encouragement to Azerbaijani human rights workers.

"I would like to thank you for inviting us here. All of your support inspires us to achieve even more. It obliges us to continue, to go on."

Yuri Schmidt is the lawyer for the Russian environmental activist Aleksandr Nikitin, a Russian navy captain who exposed the problem of radioactive pollution from Russian nuclear submarines. Schmidt, who could not attend the ceremony because of court proceedings this week, has faced reprisals for his defense of Nikitin, and is under constant surveillance and harassment by Russia's secret police.

Accepting the award for Schmidt, Glenn Kolleeny read a statement on his behalf, saying the recognition of the difficult position of human rights lawyers is important.

"I am convinced that the 'defend the defenders program' will be necessary and useful for a long time in Russia. This program gives renewed strength to those who subject themselves to risk by defending the rights of others by demonstrating that they are not powerless and alone. From my personal experience, I know that this is so."

Honors last night were also bestowed on:

-- Abiola Akiyode, an attorney from Nigeria who worked to defend pro-democracy activists during the regime of the late dictator General Sani Abacha.

-- Human Rights in China, an international NGO founded by Chinese scientists and scholars in 1989.

-- And Rosemary Nelson, a lawyer in Northern Ireland who died last March in a car-bomb blast after receiving death threats for defending her clients.