On the morning of April 9, 2011, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, founder and president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was forcibly arrested by Bahraini authorities.

He was physically assaulted, taken without an arrest warrant, and locked away for weeks until a trial began, during which he was sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to overthrow the government and spying for a foreign country. 

His crimes? Organizing peaceful demonstrations and demanding accountability for the Bahraini government’s role in targeting protestors.

As the global conditions for civic society worsen — with only 3.2% of the world’s population living in countries where civic space is considered open, according to the international global alliance CIVICUS — human rights defenders (HRDs) like al-Khawaja increasingly face the risk of government retaliation. 

Without warning, they can be arrested, tortured, detained, and charged for crimes that have no connection to their human rights work, but for which their governments hold them accountable.

“The detention of HRDs is often arbitrary and a form of reprisal for the work [they] do,” David Kode, advocacy and campaigns lead at CIVICUS, told Global Citizen. “Take al-Khawaja, for example, who has been in prison since 2011 and is serving a life sentence. Despite many advocacy efforts, the Bahraini authorities seem to be bent on ‘punishing’ him and his family for calling for democratic reforms more than a decade ago.”

Made up of civil society organizations and activists across more than 175 countries, CIVICUS has been campaigning on behalf of HRDs since its founding in 1993. As part of their work, the Stand As My Witness campaign — launched over 10 years ago — has sought to encourage investigations into unlawful imprisonments and bring global attention to cases like al-Khawaja’s.

What Is the Stand As My Witness Campaign?

Stand As My Witness was created in response to a growing trend in which civil society actors were arrested for their human rights work. Formerly known as Civil Society Behind Bars, the initiative is one of CIVICUS' most effective strategies when it comes to sounding the alarm about the plights faced by HRDs around the world.

According to the global alliance, hostile government actors and authoritarian regimes often use flawed legal processes with little oversight in order to prosecute activists.

“[There are targeted attacks] against people uncovering high-level corruption, exposing very serious human rights violations, calling for accountability, and seeking to drive change in their societies,” Mandeep Tiwana, chief programs officer at CIVICUS, told Global Citizen.

As part of the campaign’s goal to spread awareness about some of the world’s imprisoned activists, CIVICUS profiles a handful of detained HRDs on their website. In actuality, these names and cases represent just a small percentage of people who are currently in prison because of their activism, and whom CIVICUS is trying to get released.

“[The activists profiled on the website] are illustrative of a larger problem in that region or country,” Tiwana said. “We may have one person from a country profiled, but that country may have unjustly imprisoned hundreds of civil society actors for similar reasons.”

CIVICUS keeps an eye on trends that signal HRDs are in danger, particularly as civic space becomes increasingly closed during periods of conflict. When people are arrested for engaging in civil society, the global alliance engages with world leaders, United Nations agencies, and human rights organizations to bring attention to cases and underscore how individuals are persecuted for their human rights work.

How Are Human Rights Defenders Being Targeted?

CIVICUS has found that the tactics used to target HRDs are eerily similar across national borders and, over the years, the trends have only become more apparent and concerning.

“[The imprisonment of HRDS] is often preceded by stigmatization about their work, which includes branding activists as security risks. We saw this happen a lot after the [Arab Spring] in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011,” Tiwana said. “A lot of authoritarian regimes became fearful of people organizing and coming out into the streets to engage in civil society.”

To limit public support of pro-democracy movements and ostracize activists from society, government officials may twist the narrative surrounding an HRD’s arrest and accuse them of being spies for other nations. They may also invoke counter-terrorism or security legislation to pressure judges and quickly detain organizers or protestors without arrest warrants.

Take Khurram Parvez, an HRD from Northern India who was arrested in 2021 on charges of conspiracy and terrorism, for example. Parvez’s work documenting human rights violations — which include instances of disappearance, torture, and unlawful killing — in the Jammu and Kashmir region of India caught the attention of Indian authorities who wanted to silence his advocacy work.

What began with systematic harassment and intimidation led to Parvez being charged under a strict anti-terrorism law, which has routinely been used by the Indian government to detain individuals for long periods of time before a trial can begin.

CIVICUS currently advocates on behalf of Parvez through various strategies, such as raising concerns about his detention with the UN, holding meetings with diplomats in India, and encouraging the Human Rights Council in Geneva to put pressure on Indian officials to release him.

“We continue to raise concerns about his detention on social media, telling his story as a human rights defender and highlighting the gaps left by his detention in relation to the amazing work he does promoting human rights in Kashmir and supporting those who are forcibly disappeared in Asia,” Kode told Global Citizen. 

The private sector also plays an increasing role in silencing HRDs. Businesses may file strategic lawsuits against public participation (fittingly known as SLAPPs) against activists when their human rights work interferes with corporate profits or interests.

In recent years, environmental activists and Indigenous land defenders have faced the brunt of the attacks as corporations file lawsuit after lawsuit restricting the right to protest, leading many activists to face house arrest, financial ruin, or imprisonment.

How Does Stand As My Witness Help Imprisoned HRDs?

Despite the myriad challenges that HRDs and civil society organizations face in their day-to-day work, CIVICUS’ Stand As My Witness campaign has been able to raise the profile of many activists who have been unjustly imprisoned.

“To amplify the injustices that [HRDs] are facing, we let the world know about who these people are and that they’re paying a hefty price for pushing forward civil society,” Tiwana said.

As an international alliance with ties to many local civil society organizations, CIVICUS leans on their partner organizations to shed light on how an HRD has worked to promote human rights. Sharing details about an activist's life and work can more effectively engage people around the world to care about their unlawful imprisonment. In fact, CIVICUS has found that pressure from all directions can help lead to an HRD’s release.

Loujain al-Hathloul, for instance, is an HRD from Saudi Arabia who is well known for leading the campaign to legalize a woman’s right to drive. While in prison for nearly three years, al-Hathloul was subjected to severe torture from Saudi Arabian authorities, including electric shocks, flogging, and sexual assault, and denied regular access to see her family while in prison.

CIVICUS and other human rights organizations were able to mount an international campaign to bring attention to the years-long persecution faced by al-Hathloul and other women activists. The hashtag #FreeLoujain popped up across social media platforms, with global citizens around the world speaking up to urge Saudi Arabian authorities to release al-Hathloul.

While a national court initially sentenced al-Hathloul to five years and eight months for “conspiring against the kingdom,” she was released after 1,004 days. According to Tiwana, international pressure played a significant role in her release.

How Can Global Citizens Take Action?

The Stand As My Witness campaign relies on advocacy efforts from every part of civil society — when Global Citizens take action, for example, their voices can put an immense amount of pressure on world leaders.

“Hostile governments may have [HRDs] locked up for years, and it takes a concerted effort from relevant agencies, state actors, non-state actors, organizations, civil society, the media, and others to put enough pressure that leads to their release,” Tiwana said. “But justice often moves very slowly.”

One of the biggest challenges CIVICUS experiences with the Stand As My Witness campaign is engaging people during the life cycle of a case, which can often last several years. To fight against indifference, CIVICUS encourages Global Citizens everywhere to pay attention to the humanity of each activist who has dedicated their lives to the realization and protection of human rights.

You can get involved with the Stand As My Witness campaign by engaging with CIVICUS on social media, writing letters to government officials, and sharing information about HRDs who are not currently represented on CIVICUS’ interactive map. 

You can also demand that governments release HRDs from unjust imprisonment by taking action with Global Citizen on civic space issues.

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Demand Equity

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By Jaxx Artz