Terrorist or dissident?

Human rights in China, Chechnya and elsewhere could be a casualty of the global war on terrorism.

Published October 3, 2001 8:56AM (EDT)

As international attention and newsprint focus on President Bush's "Operation Enduring Freedom," human rights organizations fear that many world governments are literally getting away with murder.

"Governments committing human rights abuses are taking heart," says Carroll Bogert, communications director of Human Rights Watch. "If and when they join this U.S.-led coalition against terror, they could -- at the minimum -- find less attention being given to their own human rights abuses."

U.S. media focus on the attacks and impending "war on terrorism" has caused other stories to slip off their radar screens. Even the case of missing Washington intern Chandra Levy, which dominated front pages for months, has disappeared. Human rights struggles that rely on media attention and public opinion are becoming invisible victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Take the case of "The Cairo 52." Last May, the Egyptian government detained 52 gay men in a discotheque in Cairo and charged them with "obscene behavior" and "contempt of religion." On Sept. 18, one of them -- a teenager -- was sentenced to three years in prison, the maximum sentence allowed.

"Many news agencies are focusing most of their attention on the dreadful Sept. 11 attack and its aftereffects, leaving little room for anything else," says Sydney Levy, communications director for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. "The Egyptian government is using this moment to seal the fate of 'the Cairo 52,' knowing that its actions will go unchallenged by the world's public opinion."

The United States is anxious to forge a global alliance against terrorism, but human rights organizations worry about the bargains countries are trying to strike in return for their cooperation. Russia's aims were clear when, after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder suggested that the West tone down its criticism of Russia's military campaign in Chechnya. Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski said on Sept. 18 that he hoped the attacks on the United States would prod NATO into changing its attitude toward Macedonia's treatment of Albanian and Muslim "terrorists."

China had already been involved in a nationwide campaign, called "Strike Hard," against anyone suspected of supporting independence in the ethnic minority regions of Tibet and the Muslim province of Xinjiang. On Sept. 18, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzhao announced, "The United States has asked China to provide assistance against terrorism. China, by the same token, has reasons to ask the United States to give its support and understanding in the fight against terrorism and separatists." Human rights watchers say that many other governments are trying to expand the definition of "terrorist" in order to come down as hard as possible, and as quickly as possible, on their own dissidents. For example:

  • Uzbekistan has already locked up more than 7,000 Muslims in the name of combating terrorism, secure in the knowledge that pressure from Washington to stop the detentions, never very strong, will now cease.

  • Kyrgyzstan has intensified its harassment of political opponents, independent media and Muslim activists.

  • On Sept. 26, after closed one-day trials, Vietnam imposed harsh prison terms on 14 ethnic minority Montagnards for their role in protest marches calling for religious freedom and autonomy.

  • The Turkish government is pushing through constitutional changes that would limit the rights of detainees with regards to torture.

  • Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Elizier claimed on Sept. 14, "It is a fact that we have killed 14 Palestinians in Jenin, Kabatyeh and Tammum, with the world remaining absolutely silent."

    Public opinion is the main tool human rights organizations use to prod governments into action. Amnesty International has noted that over the last few years, U.S. public opinion has slowly turned toward a moratorium on capital punishment. Now, as President Bush says he wants Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," the group fears that momentum will be lost. While New Mexico gears up to execute its first inmate in four decades, "the developing political climate will make it much more difficult for politicians to be courageous and support moving away from capital punishments," says Dennis Palmieri of Amnesty International Western U.S.

    Human rights organizations are quick to point out that the heinous attacks of Sept. 11 are themselves human rights violations. Now, gay men in Egypt, pro-democracy activists in Malaysia and dissidents in China are afraid that their struggles for freedom will be overshadowed -- or, at worst, crushed -- as an international anti-terrorism alliance sweeps the globe.

  • By Sandip Roy

    Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media and host of its radio show "UpFront" on KALW (91.7 FM) in San Francisco.

    MORE FROM Sandip Roy

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------