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How one man’s arrest began a nightmare of 45 days
A remarkable unit at the University of York is working to raise awareness about the fight for human rights around the globe. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
YOU do or say the oddest things when you fear for your life. As a young student 20 years ago, Helmy Khalifa was arrested by the Egyptian security police for taking part in a demonstration against the Mubarak regime.
As he was bundled blindfolded into a car he pleaded with those arresting him, telling them he had a heart problem. It wasn’t true, he admits, but it was the only thing he could think of to say.
He didn’t know where they were taking him and could see nothing. It was only later that he realised he was at the Cairo headquarters of the Egyptian security forces.
There, an officer challenged him about his heart condition. “He said, ‘Are you really having a cardiac?’” Helmy says. “I said ‘yes’. Then he slapped me, once, and told me to respect myself.”
It was 1992 and the beginning of a 45-day nightmare.
The conditions in which Helmy was held were dreadful. The security headquarters were not designed as a jail, he says. He was held in what was formerly an office. “The jail was very small and there were a huge number of people. It was very crowded and very hot, and you couldn’t find a place to sleep at night.”
Worst of all was the constant uncertainty. “It was a very worrying time,” he says over a cup of coffee at the University of York. “I didn’t know what happened in such situations. What if they were going to torture me or beat me or any one of my family?”
After 45 days he was released. You might have thought such an experience would have left him cowed.
But no. Helmy trained as a lawyer, and worked with local organisations fighting for the right to privacy and what he calls ‘bodily safety’. Then, in 2007, following further training in economics and budget setting, he founded a new, campaigning, non-governmental organisation, the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory (BAHRO).
The organisation’s aim was to bring greater transparency to the way Egypt’s national budget was set and spent, so as to reduce corruption and misappropriation of Government funds.
It wasn’t guaranteed to make him the regime’s best friend. He was married by this time, with a young son, Mazen. So wasn’t he worried for his family?
Naturally, he was. “Under Mubarak, it was not safe at all. You expected to be arrested at any time, on any charge. But the only way to face such a situation, to know how to defend your rights, is to try to work to change the situation.
“My family knew the dangers. They accepted the risks. We were not the first family in Egypt that faced such a situation.”
He never was arrested again – and just over a year ago he was in Tahrir Square witnessing the Egyptian revolution that eventually saw the Mubarak regime toppled.
His son, Mazen, now 12, was also there. Helmy’s face lights up. “He’s a young activist.” he says. “He used to go to Tahrir to participate in the demonstrations.”
It was a very special time, he says. “When you see all these citizens around you and they say with one voice ‘the people need to change the regime’… it was a great time, actually.”
It was all the more rewarding, he says, because under the long years of the Mubarak regime, the Egyptian people had become cowed. They didn’t talk about public issues or take part in public discussions.
“They were pessimistic. There wasn’t any hope of change, or of getting a better life. But now all the citizens are helping in the process of transition. Everyone has a role.”
Helmy is in York for a few months as a guest of the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights. Each year, the centre offers five or ten fellowships to people it calls ‘human rights defenders’.
The fellowships, which last up to six months, are designed to give people like Helmy, who risk their lives or freedom to fight injustice and strengthen democracy around the world, the chance to catch their breath – as well as to raise the international profile of their work and make new contacts.
Supporting those who work to promote human rights is a great way of helping to bring about real medium and long-term change in their home countries, says Prof Paul Gready, the centre’s head.
The human rights defenders also work with staff and students at the centre, giving them a real insight into frontline human rights work. “They are treated like stars by the students – very different to their own countries, where they are often vilified,” Prof Gready says.
Helmy will be here until the summer, when he will return to Cairo to continue his work. Despite the revolution, there is still much to be done. Helmy’s organisation, BAHRO, is taking legal action against the Egyptian finance ministry to try to force it to change the way in which the national budget is set, so that there is more openness about Government expenditure.
The legislation is ongoing. It is a process that couldn’t even have been begun under the Mubarak regime, Helmy admits. Yet ironically last December, long after the fall of Mubarak, BAHRO was raided by the Egyptian security forces. They seized documents and computers, and arrested a BAHRO employee, who was held for 24 hours before being released.
The raid was not linked to the ongoing litigation, however, Helmy believes, but more to the fact that BAHRO is perceived as having links to the US, the UN and other international organisations.
“Maybe they were thinking that we are a foreign organisation, not an Egyptian one.”
There is still a good deal of unrest and uncertainty in Egypt. Mubarak and his interior minister were recently given life sentences for complicity to murder – but there was widespread anger that six police commanders held responsible for the deaths of protesters in last year’s revolution were cleared.
The future government of the country is also uncertain, with a presidential run-off to be held on June 16 between Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s former Prime Minister, and the Moslem Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi.
Nevertheless, Helmy feels optimistic. “Transparency is improving, and I’m looking forward to the future,” he says.
Juan-Carlos Gutierrez Contreras knows just how dangerous it can be to work as a human rights lawyer.
A former public prosecutor investigating human rights violations in his native Colombia, he left the country 15 years ago after receiving death threats. “I had two attacks against me,” he says, speaking in slightly halting English. “Two people tried to shoot me.”
He went to Spain, where he studied for a PhD in human rights and criminal law. Then he returned to Latin America, first to Costa Rica and, more recently, Mexico.
There, he worked for the office of the UN High Commissioner as a liaison with the Mexican Congress, working to promote reform of the constitution in relation to human rights. He is now general director of the Mexican Commission for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights.
It is a new life, in a new country. But the risks remain.
“None of my colleagues have been killed,” he says. “But many other lawyers and human rights activists, they are in a very difficult situation now.”
The reason, he says, is President Felipe Calderon’s ‘war on organised crime’.
Nothing wrong with that, you might think: except that, in pursuit of this war, launched in 2006, the streets of Mexico have been flooded with 50,000 soldiers, as well as federal, state and local police. And the military is almost a law unto itself, Juan-Carlos says. Any incident involving a member of the military is referred to a military rather than civil court: so it can be very difficult for ordinary citizens to get justice.
The result? Widespread human rights abuses.
“The military torture people, and detain people,” Juan-Carlos says. “In the past five years, 60,000 deaths have been registered. During 2011, 11 deaths of human rights defenders were recorded, as well as threats, harassments and attacks directed against them.”
He’s not the only one saying that.
“Instead of reducing violence, Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has resulted in a dramatic increase in killings, torture, and other appalling abuses by security forces, which only make the climate of lawlessness and fear worse in many parts of the country,” said José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch recently.
The civil government is powerless to do much about this, says Juan-Carlos. “Calderon needs the support of the military.”
The Mexican government likes to emphasise that the country is a democracy. And it claims that the deaths are due to the drugs cartels, Juan-Carlos says. “But this is a lie. The Government never takes action to protect human rights defenders.”
His organisation’s goal, he says, is to bring about a change in the Mexican legal system so that soldiers who abuse the human rights of others are investigated in civil, not military courts. That is an aim backed by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The work continues. Juan-Carlos has spent several months at the Centre for Applied Human Rights in York, building international contacts and putting together a bid to the European Commission for 850,000 Euros to provide support and protection for human rights workers in Mexico, and to raise awareness about their work. That bid, he says, has now received a ‘positive response’.
He will soon be returning to Mexico to continue his work.
But the time he has spent in York has been a privilege, he says. “This [has] allowed me to share human rights-related experiences and challenges as well as best practices and ways forward, for which I am most grateful.”
Defending rights and the world
The Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York was founded in 2007 as a research and teaching centre.
It runs two masters degree programmes, and also hosts between five and ten ‘human rights defenders’ each year – people such as Helmy and Juan Carlos who come to York for a few months to teach students and forge international contacts that will help them in their work when they return home.
By supporting those working in the front line around the world to promote human rights, the centre is building on a proud York tradition of supporting the fight for democracy and social justice, says Prof Paul Gready, the centre’s director. “We see our fellowship scheme for human rights defenders in this light, as extending our support to those who have to risk their lives to defend such admirable goals,” he says.
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