Journalism is not a crime – #FreeShawkan


Mahmoud Abu Zeid (c)

“Taking pictures isn’t a crime”

These of the words of Mahmoud Abu Zeid aka Shawkan – a young Egyptian photojournalist who has been falsely imprisoned in Egypt for the last three years.

Shawkan was covering a sit-in protest in Cairo on 14th August 2013 when police, security forces and tasks swept through and chaos ensued. As a talented photojournalist who would capture both Egypt’s beauty and daily life alongside current events, Shawkan photographed the scene where he stood as bullets and tear gas went flying.

Unfortunately for Shawkan though, once the Egyptian police found out he was a journalist – unlike foreign journalists – he was arrested. Police tied his hands with plastic cables which began to cut into his skin. This was then followed a beating. After being left in a hot vehicle he was later imprisoned where he has remained for the last three years without charge – in contravention of Egyptian law. Shawkan is one of hundreds arrested on that very day across Egypt. Yet even more tragic; over a thousand people across the country lost their lives.

With trumped up charges of “murder” and “joining a criminal gang” Shawkan faces the death penalty if he is convicted. As he lies in prison, both his emotional and physical wellbeing have deteriorated. Despite having Hepatitis C, he has not received adequate medication and his health is suffering.


Photo: Mahmoud Abu Zeid (c)

Capturing the beauty and reality of Egypt

On Monday 28th November I was delighted to attend an Amnesty International exhibition of Shawkan’s work. His stunning photos capture hope, passion and vitality, whilst also engaging with the oppressive regime that rules over Egypt. Freedom of conscience and expression are vital human rights which we must all fight towards, whether via a camera lens, a keyboard, a pen; whatever it may be. In Shawkan’s case, when he was arrested he was simply doing his job.


Photos: Mahmoud Abu Zeid (c)


Photos: Mahmoud Abu Zeid (c)

Write for Rights – fighting for freedom

You can help help Shawkan’s case by getting involved in the #FreeShawkan campaign and putting pressure on the Egyptian authorities via letters, tweets and emails. Amnesty International has continued to lead on the campaign calling for Shawkan’s immediate release.

Most recently, Shawkan’s case has also been included in a group of 13 case studies in Amnesty’s current Write for Rights campaign which addresses a range of priority cases. The campaign calls on citizens worldwide to send cards with messages of solidarity for those who have been falsely and unfairly imprisoned and mistreated and to put pressure on authorities to address these cases fairly in the context of each individual, for example calling on governments to offer medical treatment, visiting rights and/or to release the prisoner.

Please send a solidarity card to Shawkan and an appeal letter or email to the Egyptian authorities – it really does make a difference! Shawkan has expressed how the #FreeShawkan campaign and his supporters have given him crucial hope.

Visit the Amnesty International website to:

  1. Sign up for Write for Rights
  2. Download the case sheet for Shawkan
  3. Download the sample letter for Shawkan
  4. Sign the online petition for Shawkan, in addition to writing
  5. Take action on the other cases
  6. Let Amnesty know if you wrote

You can also download a copy of the Write for Rights campaign booklet for full details of all the cases. This booklet is highly recommended  as it gives a great compact guide to getting involved with full instructions on how to send both messages of solidarity and appeals. Background information, sample messages and  safety guidelines are all provided.

Journalism is not a crime! Write for rights and call on the Egyptian authorities to #FreeShawkan!


Photo: Mahmoud Abu Zeid (c)


Images: Mahmoud Abu Zeid (c) – all images photographed at the Amnesty International Shawkan photo exhibition (London, 28/11/2016)



‘When They Took Me Inside’ Syria’s Saydnaya Prison, ‘I Could Smell the Torture’

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Screenshot from ‘Inside Saydnaya’, Amnesty International’s video report of its findings. Source: Amnesty International (YouTube)

Written by: Joey Ayoub

At least 17,723 Syrians have died in custody since 2011, a new damning report by the international human rights group Amnesty International has revealed. The report, entitled “‘It Breaks The Human’: Torture, Disease and Death in Syria’s Prisons”, started of with what is common knowledge by now, namely that:

Torture and other ill-treatment have been perpetrated by the Syrian intelligence services and other state forces for decades, fostered by a culture of impunity that is reinforced by Syrian legislation. However, since the current crisis in Syria began in 2011, the situation has become catastrophic, with torture committed on a massive scale.

But one particular prison highlighted by Amnesty International’s report may be the most notorious of them all. In a Facebook post, the well-known Syrian intellectual and dissident in exile Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, who has himself spent 16 years in regime prisons for being a member of a communist pro-democracy group, described it as “the most horrible place on earth”. Eyal Weizman, director of theForensic Architecture agency of Goldsmiths, University of London, even told British newspaper the Guardian “that the building is, itself, an architectural instrument of torture.”

Al-Haj Saleh and Weizman are both referring to Saydnaya prison, a military prison facility located 30 kilometers north of Damascus. It was this prison that Amnesty International attempted to expose in collaboration with Forensic Architecture and backed by first-hand testimony of 65 torture survivors.

Their accounts bear witness to some of the horrors endured by dissidents of the regime inside Saydnaya since the start of the revolution in 2011. Tales of the many methods of torture, including rape, were featured in the short documentary ‘Inside Saydnaya’ released by Amnesty International to coincide with the publication of the report.

One man, named ‘Jamal A’ by Amnesty International to protect his identity, was arrested for helping civilians displaced by the fighting and sent to Saydnaya in October 2012, where he stayed until January 2014. He recalls:

When we first arrived, they put us all in the shower [area of the cell], on top of each other. We were naked of course. My penis was touching [a fellow detainee’s] back. I got cramp and had to move my leg, and my friend took the space that I made. Then I accidentally put my foot down on his penis. He screamed. For this, they were beating us with a steel bar on the front of the palms. I had had an operation on my hand earlier, and we told them [but] they just concentrated on that spot, and beat it harder. The surgery meant that I had 10 times the pain.


Salam featured in ‘Inside Saydnaya’, Amnesty International’s video report of its findings. Source: Amnesty International YouTube

‘Salam’, a lawyer from Aleppo, was arrested in September 2011 and sent to Saydnaya from January 2012 to June 2014 for taking part in peaceful demonstrations. He told Amnesty International that he could ‘smell the torture’ as soon as he entered the prison:

When they took me inside the prison, I could smell the torture. It’s a particular smell of humidity, blood and sweat; it’s the torture smell. They took me three floors underground. There were seven of us after the beatings. We were taken into our cell. It was about 2.5 meters by 3 meters. There was a big wall at the end of the room with a hole. There is no shower, just a toilet. It’s dirty and wet; water is leaking from the roof of the cell. It’s totally dark; there is no light; you can’t even see the other people in the same room with you.

Another activist, ‘Shappal’, who advocated for the rights of Kurds in Syria, said he was repeatedly beaten while the guards yelled ‘Bashar is your God’, referring to Syria’s President Bashar al Assad, who has clung to power throughout the last five years of civil war:

They brought the food, but it was very little. They spent two hours beating us and saying ‘Bashar is your God’. They did the same for the detainees in the other solitary cells – we could hear them coming to us, cell by cell, and going down the row after us. Of course the other solitary [underground] cells were next to each other in a row, but the sound of beating was so loud that it could reach the sky.


Screenshot from ‘Inside Saydnaya’, Amnesty International’s video report of its findings. Source: Amnesty International YouTube

‘A testimony to hold the mass-murdering Syrian regime accountable’

These testimonies follow a report released by the UN Commission of Inquiry in February 2016 in which the killings of detainees occurring between 10 March, 2011 and 30 November, 2015 were examined based on 621 interviews. It concluded:

Detainees held by the Government were beaten to death, or died as a result of injuries sustained due to torture. Others perished as a consequence of inhuman living conditions. The Government has committed the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts. Based on the same conduct, war crimes have also been committed.

In a statement released with the report, Philip Luther, the director at Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program, stressed that the international community, specifically the governments of Russia and the US, must commit to ending these practices

The international community, in particular Russia and the USA, which are co-chairing peace talks on Syria, must bring these abuses to the top of the agenda in their discussions with both the authorities and armed groups and press them to end the use of torture and other ill-treatment.

Speaking to Global Voices, Yassin Swehat, a Spanish-Syrian blogger, journalist and co-founder of the commentary site Al Jumhuriya, reflected:

Although Amnesty’s report does not contain new information for Syrians who have lived and are living under the threat of arrest every day, subjected to the mechanism of authoritarianism surrounding the issue of detentions, worsened by rampant corruption (to know the prisoner’s conditions, to locate him, to deliver clothes or medicine, or to know if he’s even alive), it is a very important report that documents how the second Assad era, the era of Bashar, created its private iconic prison that followed the iconic Tadmur prison of the first Assad era, the era of [Bashar’s father] Hafez al Assad.

Unfortunately, I worry that the fate of this report will be similar to the [2014] Caesar leaks [detailing the torture and execution of prisoners by Syrian authorities], as the world proved its indifference towards human rights violations practiced by the regime and its allies.

But this report is a very important document, and will have importance in the Syrian historical memory without a doubt, and I hope that it carries legal importance one day, like a testimony to hold the mass-murdering Syrian regime accountable.

Luna Watfa, the co-founder of Woman Organization for Syrian Prisoners and a former detainee herself, who spent 13 months in Syrian government prisons, asked her Twitter followers to read Amnesty’s report:

luna watfa.png

The Committee to Protect Journalists took this opportunity to remind us of a journalist for Palestine Today, Bilal Ahmed Bilal, who died in December 2013, nearly two years after being sent to Saydnaya:



Article written by: Joey Ayoub, first published via Global Voices (19/08/2016)

Feature image: Surian Soosay



Pain, patience, persistence – poems from Guantánamo

There are currently around 80 detainees currently being held at Guantánamo Bay detention base in Cuba under US jurisdiction – a place of torture, isolation and humiliation for those held within its walls. Whilst, without a doubt, criminals should pay the price for their crimes, many detainees at Guantánamo protest their innocence and whether guilty or not; many are never tried and never charged. They are simply left to rot. Since 9/11, 779 people have been detained at this base, yet 674 of those were later released without charge (Human Rights Watch, 2016 – see chart below). “Innocent until proven guilty” we say. All the more in this case – present your charges, your evidence and take them to trial – do not let them just sit and wait. Men, separated from their families, protest their innocence and are simply left to wither away; tortured, starved, humiliated and denied their rights…

Those of you following the news may have heard about Shakeer Aamed, a Saudi national and British resident, who after 13 years of detention at Guantánamo (without charge) was finally released in 2015 – at which point he could finally meet his teenage son for the first time! Well there are others like him. Check out the small snapshot of figures below:


Produced using data from: Human Rights Watch (2016)

It’s in this light, that detainees sought means to express their anguish by any means possible. Cut off from the public, from their families and loved ones, they wrote on cups, using toothpaste – in any way possible and in secret. A remarkable collection of poems of the detainees was published in 2007. Here is a small sample of their words and their voices…

Death Poem (Jumah Al Dosari)

Jumah Al Dosari is of Bahraini nationality and was released in 2007 without charge after more than five years of detention. He was held without trial and was subjected to physical and psychological abuse. He was held in solitary confinement from 2013 onwards until his release (see here for more information).

Death Poem

Take my blood.
Take my death shroud and
The remnants of my body.
Take photographs of my corpse at the grave, lonely.

Send them to the world,
To the judges and
To the people of conscience,
Send them to the principled men and the fair-minded.

And let them bear the guilty burden, before the world,
Of this innocent soul.
Let them bear the burden, before their children and before history,
Of this wasted, sinless soul,
Of this soul which has suffered at the hands of the ‘protectors of peace’.

Jumah al Dossari

Hunger Strike Poem (Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif)

Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif is of Yemeni origin and was held from 2002 until his death in custody in 2012. The cause of death was declared as suicide.

Latif was involved in an accident in 1994 from which he received serious head injuries and required medical treatment, which he sought after in Jordan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Post 9/11, he was held by Pakistani forces and handed over to the US for $5,000. When he was later taken to Guantánamo he was kept in an open-air kennel for some time, leading him to being exposed to the elements which had a detrimental affect on his health. Latif went on hunger strike like many other detainees.


Even If the Pain (Saddiq Turkestani)

Saddiq Turkestani is an Uyghur Muslim raised in Saudi Arabia. He was imprisoned by the Taliban in Afghanistan and later sent to Guantánamo in 2002 where he stayed for four years. He was later released in 2006 after US authorities declared that he was not a military combatant.


Taking action

Inside JTF Guantanamo Camps 5 & 6

Image Credit: Dvidshub

Whilst President Obama declared he would close down Guantánamo, this is still yet to happen.

To get involved and call for its closure, here are some petitions to get you going:

– Avaaz

National Religious Campaign Against Torture (print out for collecting signatures in the US)

So there you have it! Salam!

Credits and further information:

Feature image: Open Democracy

Poems and background information taken from: Falkoff, M., Miller, F. and Dorfman, A. (2007) Poems from Guantánamo, University of Iowa Press

Amnesty International USA (2007) ‘Poems from Guantanamo‘, Amnesty International Magazine

Human Rights First (07/2016) GTMO By the Numbers

Human Rights Watch (18/04/2016) Guantanamo: Facts and Figures

Ramadan Mubarak – how to support six humanitarian causes this month

Ramadan – the holy month of fasting for Muslims worldwide – is approaching. This is a month of religious devotion, charity and remembrance of those less fortunate than ourselves. Muslims abstain from eating and drinking (amongst other activities) during daylight hours in remembrance of the poor. For many of us, no matter hungry you feel, you know you will eat at sunset. Yet imagine not having anything to break your fast with. Imagine every day being a constant struggle. Many people – Muslim and non-Muslim – around the world are suffering due to poverty, natural disaster, war, persecution and much more. In your very home town, there may be those who go to work hungry, having fed their children but gone hungry themselves as there’s not enough food to go around. You may switch on the TV and thousands of miles away you may see starving refugees fleeing war. People carry on suffering and aid donations are all the more essential, both locally and internationally. Additionally, there are various Muslim (and non-Muslim) groups who continue to be persecuted, discriminated against and even killed. Whether victims of war, immense poverty or persecuted as religious, cultural and/or ethnic minorities, many face difficulty in finding safe shelter, practising their religion or simply surviving one day to the next.

So whilst Ramadan starts and we wish fellow Muslims “Ramadan Mubarak” (Happy Ramadan), let’s remember the following people and causes (in no particular order) and call one another to action.

1. The Syrian crisis

Muslims, Christians, Yazidis… millions of Syrians have and continue to suffer due to the Syrian crisis of civil war and religious extremism. Rape, torture, starvation, bombing…the suffering is ongoing. For the displaced Syrians still inside Syria, those living in controlled areas and the millions of Syrian refugees who have fled Syria, the situation in Syria is sad, complex and shows no signs of being resolved any time soon.


Syrian refugee – Image credit: Bengin Ahmad (Flickr)

You can help by donating money and resources to provide aid both in Syrian and in refugee camps. You can also read more about Syria through my interview with Syrian-Palestinian asylum seeker Khaled – click here.

2. The conflict in Yemen

The Saudi bombings and the Sunni-Shia conflict in Yemen – already the poorest country in the Middle East – have led to more instability for this nation in which men, women and children are continuing to suffer. The war has been going on for over a year and so far more than 3000 civilians have been killed:

[…] the conflict in Yemen […] continues to take a terrible toll, with more than 3000 civilians killed, and 5700 wounded, since it began a year ago. If the violence and fragmentation continue, the people of Yemen face a very bleak future. The war has devastated an already weak infrastructure, with multiple attacks on hospitals and schools. It has opened vast opportunities for groups such as Al Qaeda and so-called ISIL to expand their grasp. Most tragically, the ongoing political unrest, violence and air strikes have created a massive humanitarian crisis. This could trigger refugee flows, further destabilising the region.

Statement by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (10/03/2016)

The lack of public uproar against the Saudi led bombings is deafening and shocking. Innocent children are starving and the world remains shockingly quiet.


Air strike in Sana’a (11/05/2015) – Image credit: Ibrahem Qasim (Flickr)

To get involved and help innocent Yemenis:

  • Sign the following petitions calling to end the violence: Oxfam, MoveOn
  • Donate: your help can provide essential aid for the Yemeni people

For more information on the war in Yemen, see:

3. The Palestinian crisis

Palestinians face immense economic and social discrimination, manifesting itself in great difficulties in attending school, frequent water and electricity shortages and high rates of unemployment.

You can support the Palestinians in many ways:

  • Donate: you can donate to provide essentials such as food and school supplies
  • Campaign: raise awareness of the issues
  • Petition: sign the following petition via Avaaz

4. The persecution of Rohingya Muslims

Whilst the media has gone rather quiet, the persecution of the Rohingya people – “the most persecuted refugees in the world” – is ongoing. A report by The Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic (Yale Law School, October 2015) concluded that the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar constitutes genocide:

The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State have suffered serious and persistent human rights abuses. Myanmar authorities, security forces, police, and local Rakhine actors have engaged in widespread violence, acts of torture, arbitrary detention, rape, and other crimes causing serious physical and mental harm. The scale of these atrocities has increased precipitously since 2012. […] the majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya have been confined to villages in northern Rakhine State or internally displaced persons camps. […]conditions in both northern Rakhine State and the IDP camps are dire: Rohingya lack freedom of movement, access to food, clean drinking water, sanitation, medical care, work opportunities, and education. They live in conditions that appear to have been calculated to bring about their destruction. The acts committed against the Rohingya, individually and collectively, meet the criteria for finding acts enumerated in the Genocide Convention […]

Persecution of Rohinyga Muslims: Is Genocide Occuring in Myanmar’s Rakhine State? A Legal Analysis, p64

To help this persecuted minority, you can:

For more information, check out:


Around 90,000 Rohingya’s live in cramped shelters in camps near Sittwe – the capital of Rakhine State – Image credit: European Commission DG ECHO (Flickr)

5. The oppression of Uyghur Muslims in China

China’s Muslim minority, the Uyghur community who live in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, have been facing increasing discrimination over the years. The Chinese State has banned face veils, forced certain shopkeepers to sell alcohol, introduced restrictions on beards and in the past banned fasting during the period of Ramadan. This year, the State has declared that there will be no restrictions regarding Ramadan – yet one can never tell given the secrecy and human rights abuses that go on in China.

How you can help:


Men praying at Id Kah Mosque on Eid al Fitr – Image credit: Preston Rhea (Flickr)

6. The war in Ukraine

If you’d like to help towards the crisis in Ukraine you can:


Image credit: Guido van Nispen (Flickr)

So there’s six causes that we are all aware of and of course there are many other worthy causes, many groups facing persecution and many more campaigns and petitions. This is simply a brief guide to current urgent and perhaps not so well publicised causes which we can all help towards.

So – brothers and sisters in Islam: Ramadan Mubarak!

And to all readers: check out the tips and get going!


Image credit:

Feature image: Amila Tennakoon (Flickr)

“I just want to be seen as a normal human being and respected” – an interview with Palestinian-Syrian asylum seeker Khaled

IMG_1321.JPGI recently had the honour of meeting Khaled – a Palestinian-Syrian asylum seeker living here in Málaga.

Khaled – 44 years old – is a sculptor, previous owner of his own factory, trained psychologist and human rights activist active in Syria. Khaled used to live in Yarmouk (in the south of Damascus) in Yarmouk Camp – a refugee camp for Palestinians in Syria. Khaled is now living as an asylum seeker here in Málaga (southern Spain) after leaving Syria in November 2015.

As a Palestinian refugee in Syria and human rights activist, Khaled had a lot to say on the war, sectarianism, life as a refugee and life in Syria.

Human rights in Syria

Khaled is originally Palestinian and comes from a large family. His parents fled Palestine to Syria – where Khaled was born – when the state of Israel was created. For the last three years his nephew has been imprisoned in Syria for helping protesters in demonstrations which started in his city Daraa. They visited him after two years and he is now condemned to stay in prison forever. His brother with his wife, their little baby and mother-in-law are under embargo by the Syrian regime.

When I ask Khaled about campaigning with NGOs around human rights issues, he makes it perfectly clear of the oppression in Syria:

In Syria, there isn’t such humanitarian activism because it’s oppressed by the regime but there are lawyers who are active, such as Michael Shamas – he is a very very good man. […] There is also a famous humanitarian activist his name is Khalil Maatouk – he contributed a lot towards humanitarian issues in Syria but unfortunately right now he’s been imprisoned by the Syrian regime for more than two years. There are a lot of lawyers, a lot of activists but there activism is very limited because of the amount of repression.

Even being a family member of somebody who’s in prison or being associated with somebody who’s in prison makes you subject to harassment. In Khaled’s own words: “Society was highly manipulated with sophisticated political and social tools, for example there are 12 universities and there are 16 security departments around the universities.” However, people were “conscious”. The massacre in the city of Hamah in 1982 resulted in the death of 50,000 people. A lack of social media at the time has meant that this went largely unpublicised:

The people of Hamah so far are still scared, traumatised due to the experience they had. At that time it was Margaret Thatcher in government and […] the international community didn’t react at all.  [… ] All they had were economic sanctions – an economic embargo for a certain time.

Thanks to social media people have been able to raise awareness of human rights abuses – something Khaled did himself. However, people remain oppressed, threatened and scared.


A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad among the rubbish in al-Qsair (10/02/2012) (Credit: Freedom House – Flickr – CC)

Syria and the Palestinian issue

What is particularly shocking regarding human rights in Syria is the way that Palestinian refugees are treated in Syria. When I asked Khaled about the approach of the government and if they had been welcomed it became clear that the government had an agenda. Whilst he found that Syrian people were originally welcoming on a social level, the government exploited the Palestinian issue:

[…]  Whenever they had economic problems, they would use the Palestinian issue as a justification to silence people. They would tell them […]: “We’re not providing you with enough jobs or with enough socio-economic solutions because we are contributing a lot to free Palestine” which is a total lie. They are not doing anything for the Palestinian issue. They convince ordinary people. They blame all their problems on Palestinians. […] The numbers of Palestinians in Syria are manipulated by the government […]. They claim that they have two million Palestinian refugees

According to The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, there are 526, 744 registered Palestinian refugees in Syria (and Palestinian refugees within other Arab states – see here for more information). Not only are Palestinian refugees limited in terms of future job potential but also in socio-cultural terms. This is an issue across the Middle East, when sadly one would expect brotherhood:

[…] Palestinians in Egypt […] don’t have the right to say “We are Palestinians”. They have been told, “As long as you’re here to have to say ‘I’m Egyptian'”. You don’t have the right to be Palestinian. And in Lebanon […] they are not entitled to do certain jobs. For example, you cannot be a doctor. They are limited; they have a quota. They can do only 70 specific jobs/professions.

In Syria, even after 50 years they cannot vote or run as candidates in elections. Palestinian refugees are not even given citizenship. Khaled shows me his Syrian Palestinian refugee travel document. He’s legal but he’s not Syrian – and that’s the way the Syrian government wants it: “People are not aware of the issue of Palestinian refugees at all. It’s a structured aimed ignorance that the government wants everybody to forget about them. Moist of the people wonder that a Palestinian is doing here […]”. Any hope of a brotherhood of Arab states is a fail – which Khaled refers to as not fully fledged states but simply “gangs of mafia” who came to power with force after the former colonial powers of Britain and France quickly left. Yet despite all of this, Khaled sees himself as Palestinian-Syrian and Syria is his home.


Yarmouk (Damascus) – (c) 2013 EC/ECHO/Dina Baslan (Flickr) (CC)

Sectarianism and conflict

Despite the obstacles facing Palestinian refugees in Syria, Khaled says he had a good life in Syria before the war. Khaled left Syria due to war. He – like the others feeling conflict and oppression by both ISIS and/or the Assad regime – is not seeking money, but simply peace, security and a better life. Khaled had been offered a way out of Syria when he participated in a language exchange with other Europeans but rejected this. Back in Syria he had a stable life, friends and family and in fact; he didn’t want to go. Post 9/11 he felt how anyone from “The East” was given the tag of “terrorist” – for every Arab, even those who are “tolerant or the most peaceful of people”. He enjoyed his life in Syria and was fully integrated into a society which boasted around 72 minorities – including the Alawi, Druze, Shia and Kurdish populations – in which everyone lived peacefully and cohesively. Yet such a  diverse rich nation became married by sectarianism – the most horrible of which Khaled confirms was of the Alawis who controlled the system. The “Godfather” was Hafed Al Assad:

Before he came to the regime, the level of or the ratio of corruption was a certain percent and when he came to power it became 98%. He got rid of anything to do with transparency or with fairness or justice and the government is literally just full of Alawis – people from his sect. […] There is corruption […] in different European countries, but the level of corruption in Syria and the Alawi system was so high.

Notwithstanding the vast religious diversity in Syria, this was not a religiously motivated conflict. Before the onset of war, around 10 families (not the Alawi population as a whole) were “taking advantage of this situation and taking advantage of their family member being in the regime” – including the al-Bayt family (equivalent to The Rothschilds). As a Palestinian refugee, Khaled did not witness sectarianism in mainstream schools as Palestinians were segregated from primary school until university. At university they were finally merged together. Khaled admits there was segregation but “it was hidden. People didn’t know. It was not expressed.”

Educated people outside of the elite introduced activities to try and combat such sectarianism and division. Khaled belonged to “Towasil” (‘Continue‘) – a group which would organise team building activities for people from different religious backgrounds, including walks in the mountains. This was a great “bonding” initiative to break down barriers between people. Even within the working class there were many initiatives but such sectarianism came to light with the outbreak of war which became further manipulated by the political system: “Bashar Assad is very intelligent in his game and he knew how to manipulate”. Going back to the sources of different sects, religious preachers did not preach unity. We all know in history how easy it is for differences – no matter how small or large – to be exploited for power and towards the oppression of others.


Mazzeh 86 neighbourhood (23/11/2012) – a bomb went off in a mostly Alawite area according to the regime (Credit: Freedom House – Flickr – CC)

From protests to war

A politically corrupt system engulfed by a religious sect, economic and social inequality and a dictator able to manipulate sects and citizens against one another, stirred conflict within Syria, which was later marred by Islamic extremists. As socio-economic political demonstrations started, the government’s response encouraged protests to become a full scale revolution and war. Khaled was more than clear in his desire as a human rights activist to express the fact that the initial protests were not an attempt to overthrow the regime:

It started totally as a civil revolution, social, economic […] innocent, peaceful […]. Then the regime started oppressing […] shooting down the protesters. I was one of the participants in the revolution. I was arrested and held for four months. I was hit [Khaled shows where his missing teeth have been replaced with small dentures]. I was beaten and tortured. […] The intention of the revolution was not to overthrow the system but just to make major economic political reforms and it started first in Daraa […] What happened is because of the level of control of the system and using the security system to control every small detail in people’s lives. It got to the level that [nobody] would trust the other. They would always feel suspicious that probably one of them is a spy or works as a security agent. [..] Kids were kidnapped […] and their nails were cut off. They were tortured. When the parents went to […] bring them back, the security officials said “we are not going to give you your kids back, bring us your wives […] then we will give you your kids again.”. So people felt so humiliated, so oppressed, they revolted – they had to revolt.

As Syrians witnessed but the Tunisian Revolution, within the context of the Arab Spring, Syrians fought back against their own injustices. Khaled recalls how they symapathised with the people and supported the revolutions and toppling of the regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Yet what people may not be aware of is that before the Arab Spring and the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, there as the Rabi’a Damasq – the Damascus Spring:

In 1988/89 there was a left wing party started to develop and I was part of it. It was a communist party but it was also oppressed by the regime – a lot of people were killed. There were also individual cases and kidnappings. On an individual level […] it was  not recorded because there were no humanitarian NGOs at that time in Syria. A family member of mine was kidnapped 30 years ago. He disappeared. We know nothing about him up to now. This is in the time of Hafez Al Assad- the father of Bashar. When Bashar came into the system he was so young – he changed the constitution to suit his political ambitions. At that time there was a political uprising – the Rabi’a Damasq […] People protested against Bashar Al Assad because the way he took the regime was illegitimate – it was not constitutional. […].  Bashar […] waited until it calmed down then he kidnapped most of the people – the leaders of that movement against him.

Such family style dictatorships are spread across the MENA region – hotbeds of corruption and nepotism: “Rami Makhlouf [part of Assad’s mafia – his cousin from his mother’s side] makes decisions in every small detail. […] It got to the level that you couldn’t breathe without his consent.” This small family – in effect a “gang” – were “taking control over everything.” We’ve all heard the expression: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”- well all the more here. Khaled informed me about a sculpting competition in Damascus which he participated in. Those who stood a chance of winning were those who had contacts and knew people working within the system.

In other words, the reality was this: deep nepotism vs. frustration and inequality. We all saw how quickly such reforms led in to a full scale war. As the Syrians took the opportunity of the Arab Spring to start their own reforms, I asked Khaled if he believes whether the war would have started had there not have been an Arab Spring elsewhere: “The components and factors of the revolution were already there. Maybe it would have started but it would have taken a long time – longer”. Longer – in light of a deep prolonged conflict – is definitely what describes the sad reality of the crisis in Syria today…


A house destroyed by a Syrian army tank shell in Al Qsair (25/01/2012) (Credit: Freedom House – Flickr – CC)

ISIS and Islamic extremism

One element intertwined with sectarianism and the war in Syria is the emergence of ISIS (a.k.a. Daesh). Khaled assures me that the revolution was purely political, social and economic but later exploited by Islamic extremists. What started as a legitimate movement later became an “extremist movement”. He is particularly keen to explain that ISIS is a result of the war not the other way round: “There is still a legitimate position but nobody cares about it and all that we see in the media are the extremist groups and now anything to do with such positions is labelled as extremism.” In fact, when I asked him if he expected the war to get this far, he explains how he didn’t and that it was with the involvement of extremist groups that the future started to look bleaker:

[…] As soon as Al Nusra and Daesh […] started rising I knew that it would get this way. The reason we had jihadi and extremist groups is because the international community and the West betrayed the Syrian revolution. They saw and they witnessed that the regime was oppressing the revolution in the most horrible ways. I even witnessed some of that. […] One of the parents saw […] their son being killed in front of them and then the body was used as a trap to get people to go there to pick it up. So you’d go and pick up that dead body – […] you’d be shot by a sniper and killed. There were even gang rapes where they [Alawi groups] would bring Sunni girls to a public place and rape them.

So you think that you were betrayed because the international community did nothing? How did they betray you?

Yes, it’s because of the negative and passive way in which the international community reacted. They didn’t even respond – they didn’t care about what was going on. They saw the videos, they saw the pictures but nobody wanted to support them so that’s how it got to the extreme level. The revolution was manipulated and they stared using Allah and the word of jihad – giving people hope.

Khaled is pessimistic about the war and whether it will even come to an end at all. He doesn’t believe that anyone intends to “come to a peaceful resolution” and is particularly conscious of the lack of action or “good intention” on behalf of the US and Saudi Arabia. In fact, Saudi Arabia is one of the countries supplying arms to ISIS.

The backing of ISIS by foreign nations is not the only shocking disappointment. What is particularly disturbing is the number young Europeans and non-Europeans travelling to Syria to join ISIS. Young, naive, bitter or misguidedly enthusiastic, these jihadists – young and old, male and female – believe they are entering an Islamic utopia or the land where they can fulfil their religious duties and make a difference for the Islamic ummah (community). The reality is that they fuel, support and even engage in rape, torture, slavery, murder and barbarity. Once you are these it’s very hard to escape. Even if you do, you’ve pretty much ruined your life and hopes of a future back home. I asked Khaled what would he say to young jihadists – young Europeans wanting to go to Syria. This was his reply:

Integrate into society – going there is not a solution. You’ll be treated like animals. You’ll be brainwashed. You’ll be dumped.

Indeed, your life is over. Behind the eyes of these lost souls or barbaric animals, they are dead inside. Being in tune with humanity, with Allah, with good; one cannot live such life. Muslim and non-Muslim communities need to engage and work back home and not keeping fuelling the fire back in Syria. Jihadists go, whilst refugees come for a better life. There could not be a simply clearer message. Khaled, like myself, believes that to defeat ISIS, you have to go back to the roots and know the causes: “It’s not an action – it’s a reaction” as Khaled so rightly sums up. Indeed, I agree with him that there are multiple factors – as is visible from the variety and diversity of its members. Where social economic hardship lies, lie the seeds to brainwash and manipulate young naive Muslims. One thing for sure, is that bombing Syria will not achieve anything – which Khaled affirms himself: “If the “solution” for extremism and terrorism is going to be just with bombing and such military interventions; well I don’t believe that this is a solution. It will never end”.

Whilst many Europeans are concerned about the threat of ISIS on European shores, as a refugee, Khaled is clear to reiterate that integrating and understanding individuals are key. He sees refugees frustrated and depressed with the six months waiting time for papers. Amongst cultural differences, new freedoms and social norms, he believes refugees’ talents should be “cherished” and assistance should be given to help refugees contribute towards the overall progression of society:

ISIS is an idea. It manipulates people through their fears – the fear of death. I didn’t come here to get cars, to get girls.

So for lack of a better word, you feel a bit dumped and isolated?

It’s a ghetto. In the Arab world, people are sociable. You’ve got your neighbours, you’ve got your family […]. So far I didn’t see any, but there is racism. In my case, because I’m conscious and aware of things; I could never be radicalised. In other situations, there are people who could even be a project of a terrorist.

As a refugee, Khaled has been looked at with suspicion but the idea of ISIS members coming over to Europe is simply scaremongering: “ISIS members would never come here. They have a better life than any European”. It has already been proven that videos with so-called refugees chanting “Allahu akbar” and rallies in the streets are lies as they are misrepresentations or the result of edited material. It is indeed jumping on the scaremongering wagon – just like the Cologne story as Khaled points out.


ISIS (Credit: Day Donaldson – Flickr – CC)

From one country to another – Khaled’s refugee journey 

As originally Palestinian, Khaled’s journey is an interesting one. Khaled lived in Syria as a Palestinian refugee and was living in southern Damascus – an area under embargo by both the Syrian government and the Shia militia. There were only two ways to get out: either you go to security officials and gave information about the opposition (revealing names of people they would later shoot) or you bribe your way out. Khaled paid a million Syrian Lira to an army official to let him out. Once you’re out though, you face being killed or arrested by other security personnel. Khaled hid in Damascus for 12 days in the officer’s house before the officer took him to the airport and directly on to a plane heading to Algeria, where his mother had fled to before her son. One of Khaled’s brothers is also now living in Holland and another in Libya is hoping to leave with his son and daughter. Algeria as it stood was the only option open to Khaled offered by the security official. On the other end, other people weren’t as fortunate as Khaled. He told me about one of his friends who went missing:

Nerez Sayed is a Syrian journalist. He’s famous. I know him, he is my friend. I […] used to take photos and videos and upload them onto social media to raise awareness with the international community and to show the real picture […]. My friend tried to do the same thing . He hid for two months in Damascus. He was then kidnapped and arrested. I don’t know where he is now.

Khaled had managed to escape a war zone of oppression and misery. He told me that he felt like it was a “miracle” when he left Syria. Yet, he found the treatment and facilities in Algeria lacking. Just like the disappointment of Arab so-called Arab “brotherhood” regarding Palestinians, he was met with suspicion in Algeria: “I always felt under control in Algeria. My family was always under control. Always under suspicion. But not in your face.” His mother – aged 75 – had already been there for three years and “was not being looked after very well”. As a result they left – in his words – “to go to a better place, where there was a good health system , where we could lead a good life.” Feeling concerned about the Algerian government, he did not apply for asylum:

I didn’t even go to the authorities. I was worried. I didn’t feel alright. I know that the Algerian system is pro the Syrian regime. I knew that there was even cooperation between both armies.

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Khaled’s journey (Original map credit: Namelesss23)

So, a month after he arrived, Khaled and his mother crossed the border into Nador into neighbouring Morocco where they were met with hostility by the Moroccan security forces:

I hated the experience in Morocco because the Moroccan security officer treated us really badly and he was telling us: “What are you doing here? Why don’t you go back?” I even heard him talking about giving orders to one of his soldiers to just go and get rid of us [kill us]. I told myself: why doesn’t the world care about us? Our blood is no longer valued. Nobody cares about us. […] We don’t mean anything to the world…

From the hostility in Morocco, they left Nador and fled to Melilla – where they were then officially on EU soil and that’s where his Spanish journey began. After staying in a refugee centre in Melilla, he was later brought to Málaga –  where he is currently based.

Living as an asylum seeker in Spain and beyond

Khaled’s story is one of suppression and shock, yet survival. From the miracle of leaving Syria, where civilians had to eat cats and leaves to survive and the population faced political persecution, Khaled told me of his disappointment:

I’m totally disappointed with getting to Europe. I feel like I’ve lost 44 years of my life in Syria. I didn’t come here for money. I already had money in my country. I came here to be valued as a human being to feel safe to feel secure but unfortunately I still have to prove that I’m not a terrorist. I still have to always be under check and control. I still have to prove that I’m a human being. I thought that I would come here to contribute towards society, to be part of society – to be an active part of  society – but unfortunately in this so-called “developed European society” that made technology, that had The Renaissance, that had this and that – all that I see is total disappointment. […] I love Spain, I love Britain. I didn’t come here to beg or to ask for money – I just want a better life; a safer life, a peaceful life.

That is the reality of refugees and asylum seekers. Regardless of what the media says about the “boat people” and “(economic) migrants” and the stretching of our resources – these people are human beings who simply want respect, peace, security and stability – a life like many of us have. Khaled after his experiences in Syria and Algeria, came to Spain as the closet European country and a country which he loves, where he doesn’t feel “foreign” or “strange” as he finds Spain similar to his own country within the Mediterranean bracket. People take note of this. Syria is not a million miles away – it’s simply another country like ours. Spain is beyond similar to a variety of North African and Middle Eastern countries – except that in Europe we are offered a greater deal of social, economic, religious, cultural, and political freedom and security. What is sad is that Khaled found the Spanish authorities more welcoming than in other fellow Arab countries. However, despite the warm welcome, they are rather disengaged and apathetic here in Spain. His brother in Holland is very well integrated – but is engaged in doing so. His mother in Germany has not been affected by racism, but a friend in Eastern Germany has.

In terms of entitlements, he is provided with food, drink, a room he shares and €30 per month. When I asked him about the refugee centre where he stays, he confirmed that there is no prayer room but halal food is available for Muslims. So far, he states his experience is positive and he is happy with his treatment there despite the lack of engagement. Those living in the centre get on well and there is a sense of community among refugees and, Spanish people have been kind. The only obstacle is language which is hindering socialising with locals but there are four Spanish classes a week and Khaled also goes to another school. CEAR – the organisation which accommodates refugees here in Spain offers language classes as well as the governmental  Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (EOI) here in Málaga as well. Activities are run with refugees and Spaniards offering excursions around the city, yet when I ask Khaled who he spends most time with his answer is… himself. With his mother and sister in Germany, alongside other family members abroad – the life of a refugee can be lonely.


Life as an asylum seeker without your family can be lonely (Credit: daniMU – Flickr – CC)

With any luck, Khaled will be reunited with his loved ones in the not too distant future. As soon as he gets his papers, his dream is to work for a humanitarian NGO and help refugees perhaps in Germany or in Turkey. He already has several years’ experience in NGOs and I can see his passion for helping others. He needs to stay in Spain as he is hoping to marry his Palestinian girlfriend who is a refugee from Jordan living in Syria. She has no papers – not even a travel document to prove her identity. In the meantime, as he waits for his papers, he describes the experience of being an asylum seeker as boring on a day to day basis. In his spare time Khaled loves reading and downloads books on his phone.

As anyone would hope, his long term hope if for the war to end and to be able to return to Syria. Despite the anti-refugee pleas, he makes it abundantly clear that Syrians are not here not to drain the system: “I’m sure that if the war ends, the international community will be surprised by the Syrians – that they will not have to kick them out, that they will go themselves to their land, to their country to rebuild it and to help its progression for the better. Khaled does not want to be seen as a “victim”. As a Palestinian Syrian he has witnessed things many of us take for granted but all he wants is to be respected, to be seen and treated as a normal human being and to be a able to live a decent life:

I blame all this situation not just on the Syrian war but as a Palestinian; I blame it on Israel because they are the reason behind my family and I going to Syria – living as a refugee in Syria and then coming here, living as a refugee here. I don’t want any material compensation. I want emotional compensation because I felt humiliated [..] for the suffering, the frustration I felt. […] I don’t like playing the victim role. I just want to be a normal human […]. Respected.

So there we have it – so many issues and it’s in our hands to help as much as we can.

Building bridges – how can we help?

Whilst we all hope for peace in Syria and (I would hope) freedom for the Palestinian people, in the meantime – what can we do to help? For those in a similar situation to Khaled and locals, what can be done to create a better environment? For those wanting to help refugees and asylum seekers in their country, Khaled suggests cultural exchanges – exchanging national dishes and languages. I’m a firm advocate of such activities. Even amongst a climate of racism and Islamophobia here in Spain, people love couscous. Look at how the Balti in Birmingham forged a new British culture in which British Asians are just as British as a family with no migrant history. Beyond socio-cultural exchanges, we can do a lot to help the crisis: “Raise more awareness, be more sympathetic, because they ignored it [the war] for a long time – this is how it ended up, people coming here, flooding in”.

If you’d like to help with the Syrian refugee crisis locally or internationally, here are some suggestions:

  • Volunteer with local, national or international refugee and asylum seeker organisations – lend your time and skills. There is a great need for ESOL teachers, translators/interpreters, immigration specialists and medical personnel
  • If you are a linguist: join Translators without Borders
  • If you are a medical professional: get in touch with Doctors without Borders
  • If you are a professional counsellor or medical professional: get in touch with bodies which offer health care for those who’ve suffered trauma. In the UK for example, try Freedom from Torture
  • Get involved with groups going over to and helping in Calais – or further afield. Info can be found via Google or searching via Facebook and Twitter
  • Donate to relevant NGOs working in your country or abroad
  • Take part in or start your own food or donation bank/collection including your family, friends and other members of the community to give to Syrian refugees within your own country or abroad (this could include money, clothes, shoes, toiletries, maternity and baby items, children’s toys etc.)
  • Raise awareness: blog, tweet, post, lobby, petition, join or build workshops, conferences etc. – raise your voice
  • Check out groups and pages such as Free Syria Media Hub (caution is advised due to the photography) sign their petition to stop the bombing
  • Start a language/cultural exchange or buddy scheme in your area to welcome refugees – swap English for Arabic or bring your own national dishes (be careful of halal food requirements etc.- halal meat only, fish or vegetarian dishes otherwise, no alcohol – particular caution should be taken to avoid all forms of gelatine)

To help the Palestinian cause:

  • See the above activities and suggestions – most of these are also worthwhile e.g. donating, volunteering, raising awareness

If you’d like to help Khaled:

  • Khaled is looking for donations of art materials (for sculpting/painting). For more information, including photos of his art work, see here

So, there’s lots we can do in practical terms, but something I’d like to finish with is this: talk, befriend and build bridges, respect differences. See the commonalities and celebrate positive differences! It’s what makes the world interesting! As we finished the interview, I asked Khaled if he had  a message for the Spanish government or European people and he definitely does! His message is one of  peace, community and social cohesion:

Just to understand refugees and to not see that the opposition in Syria is just jihadist  – there is a real neutral opposition. I believe that there should be more dialogue between the two sides- the East and the West. They need to find a common  ground for them both, to understand each other and to get closer.

An important message that I for one definitely agree with. Let us reach out and remember that we are all HUMAN. Khaled could be your brother, your father, your uncle, your cousin… You don’t choose where you are born but you can choose what you do in life -where you go and what you do to help others.



Ahlan wa sahlan! (Welcome!) (Credit: – Flickr – CC)


I’d like to thank Khaled for taking the time to do this interview and I wish him all the very best in the future.

Thanks also go to my interpreter and all those who helped to arrange this interview.

Image credit:

Feature image – Chaoyue 超越 PAN 潘 (Flickr) (CC)

Why do we never hear so much about International Men’s Day…? Here’s why!

woman-704221.jpgIt’s International Women’s Day on March 8th. “Why do we never really hear about International Men’s Day?!” you and many others may ask. “If women and men are equal and human rights are universal then why do we have two separate days?!” others may profess…Well, you see the reality is this: human rights aren’t just a woman’s issue – they aren’t about men vs. women and are instead about universal rights as a global human issue. However, the truth of the matter is that such days raise awareness about different issues affecting the different sexes and as a whole women remain more vulnerable, more abused and at greater risk of exploitation than menInternational Men’s Day focuses on men’s health whilst International Women’s Day focuses on women’s achievements and calls us to keep on fighting the ongoing battle for equality.

That is the reality – women are not treated equally. The introduction of the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) wasn’t to “prioritise women” – it wasn’t against the universal nature of human rights – it was to address needs specific to women and to fight against further abuses directly affecting women and girls. No one would deny that men are at risk (and in some cases at an increasing risk) of forced labour, sexual exploitation, poverty, abuse etc. but as it stands – women’s rights are a big issue that we still need to keep high on the agenda – and here’s a few reasons why…

Gender based human rights abuses

  • Reproductive rights/maternal healthcare – women need adequate access to contraception, pre- and post-natal care and facilities. According to the UN Population Fund: “[…] 830 women still die every day from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth. This is about one woman every two minutes”. Along with the right to life and health, States have to additionally ensure women’s/girl’s access to education and privacy (see here for more information).
  • Literacy rates – a lack of education and poverty go hand in hand and women remain severely disadvantaged due to economic, social and cultural barriers:

774 million adults (15 years and older) still cannot read or write – two-thirds of them (493 million) are women. Among youth, 123 million are illiterate of which 76 million are female. Even though the size of the global illiterate population is shrinking, the female proportion has remained virtually steady at 63% to 64%. (UNESCO)

  • Worker rights – women worldwide face battles with maternity pay, lower wages and access to employment (beyond simply being underrepresented in politics and business) due to discrimination and in some cases may face sexual harassment. The reality is this: “women make up 40% of the global workforce, yet make less than their male counterparts in every country on Earth” (ILRF).


  • Poverty – many of the inequalities and lack of care women face regarding reproductive health, education and work rights perpetuate further injustice. This isn’t simply having inadequate access to  bras and sanitary protection:

While both men and women suffer in poverty, gender discrimination means that women have far fewer resources to cope. They are likely to be the last to eat, the ones least likely to access healthcare, and routinely trapped in time-consuming, unpaid domestic tasks. They have more limited options to work or build businesses. Adequate education may lie out of reach. Some end up forced into sexual exploitation as part of a basic struggle to survive. (UN Women)

  • Sex trafficking – women are most affected by human slavery. This may involve forced labour but is most often forced prostitution. This is increasingly affecting men but women are still the main victims of sex trafficking (see here for more information). Women trapped in poverty may be offered “a way out” through the promise of a job in another country and find themselves trapped and “in debt” –  abroad, raped, beaten,  alone and scared.
  • Forced marriage – women and young girls  (children!)  are forced/sold into marriage.  1 out of every 9 girls under the age of 15 in the developing world is married.
  • Domestic violence – whilst men are also victims of domestic violence and other forms of domestic abuse (emotional, spiritual and financial abuse for example), it’s important to educate others about this. Women are still more likely to be victims of domestic violence.


  • Rape – rape occurs within marriage (forced or non forced marriage), it can also be date-rape, forced prostitution or violent crime by strangers but it is also a weapon of war used to humiliate, control and physically, psychologically and emotionally abuse women and girls:

In Liberia, which is slowly recovering after a 13-year civil war, a government survey in 10 counties in 2005-2006 showed that 92% of the 1,600 women interviewed had experienced sexual violence, including rape. (UN Office of The High Commissioner (OHCHR))

  • Acid attacks – Acid attacks are a means to control and humiliate women. Perhaps she rejected your proposal, perhaps you don’t think she’s modest enough, perhaps you were jealous… Whatever the reason, wherever the place – they constitute a severe physical and physiological trauma and the worst part is that they aren’t rare . In the UK the number of hospital admissions for cases of acid attacks has almost doubled in the last 10 years.
  • Honour killings – Women aren’t only being abused by their partners sexually, physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially but are also being killed by their own families. Every year, 5,000 honour killings are reported worldwide (UN). Brothers, fathers, uncles, even mothers commit murder to maintain the “honour” of the family and thus the female relative’s blood is on their hands and her life is lost (see here for more information).
  • Female genital mutilation – across the women and young girls are having parts of their genitals cut and removed in order to control their sexuality, preserve their honour and thus increase their eligibility for marriage. This practice causes immense psychological and physical trauma and can even result in death. See my article on female genital mutilation for more information.

So, there it is – a brief summary of some of the discrimination and abuse that women face worldwide. In reality, whilst every human is endowed with civil, political, cultural, economic and social rights; women face a greater variety of barriers due to discrimination and differing needs – for example regarding reproductive rights and health care. Many factors go hand in hand. If a girl is married too young due to cultural customs and does not receive adequate health care, if a family is poor and struggling, she will no longer go to school and will stay at home caring for the family. As such she may not only be limited regarding work opportunities but in fact living in a cycle of poverty where she remains vulnerable to sexual exploitation and further physical and psychological harm.

While human rights are universal, putting this into practice in relation to women’s needs and the discrimination they face, requires fighting for women’s equality as a specific issue. Feminism and women’s rights movements are not about advancing women to a status above men but simply to the same position as men – which in itself is a still a position in a world of injustice. International Women’s Day is a day for the world to recognise women’s achievements and to remind us to fight for women’s equality against injustice.  We’re not one single sex but we are one humanity. It’s fundamental that men become more involved in the fight for women’s rights. Men, women, girls and boys must fight against injustice for each and every one of them. Equality is the end goal. Men and women are different. Reproductive rights is just one evidence of this but we are equal; equal in dignity and equal in humanity.


Image credits:

Megara Tegal (Flickr) (CC) (feature image), Alexandra Loves (Pixabay) (CC), Carlos Lorenzo (Flickr) (CC), Gregory Kowalski (Flickr) (CC)


Torture and Transplants – China’s Bloody Secret

china-flag-1418969 (3).jpgWhen we hear about human rights, we often hear about China due to its poor human rights record. Whilst China is well known for a range of human rights abuses, its economy continues to grow and the State has been working on its international relations. President Xi Jinping visited the USA last September, followed by the UK in October and protesters drew attention to China’s human rights abuses. Indeed – it’s essential more than ever to bring China’s often bloody secrets (further) out of the closet.

One such ongoing issue that has been publicised but is not frequently in the media is that of China’s illegal organ harvesting. This tragic issue has many shocking elements: illegal imprisonment, torture, death, blood money, religious and ethnic oppression  in short… mass murder.

Organ transplants in China

China is the world’s second biggest organ transplant provider – with the USA at the top. However there are a variety of worrying factors regarding China’s:

  • High number of organ transplants: 10,000 per year
  • Incredibly low rate of voluntary organ donors due to cultural beliefs
  • Lack of a national organ donation or distribution system (supposedly until 2014)
  • Incredibly short waiting times: two to four weeks (according to 165 organ transplant centres)
  • Lack of laws allowing the use of organs from people who are brain dead or have undergone cardiac arrest
  • Lack of accountabilitytransparency and traceability according to the World Health Organisation‘s guidelines
  • Resistance to investigation
  • Duty to ethical organ donation which requires “voluntary and informed consent”

Sources: European Parliament (2013), Matas (2008)

In 1984, China introduced a law to allow transplants from executed prisoners. In 2005, Deputy Health Minister Huang Jiefu declared that 95% of organs used for transplants were sourced from executed prisoners (Sherif et al., 2014). However, following allegations of forced organ harvesting using imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners, Canadian human rights lawyer David Matas and former Canadian Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific David Kilgour were asked to investigate the issue by The Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of the Falun Gong in China (CIPFG) in 2006. Their report Bloody Harvest (2007) declared the allegations to be true: China is harvesting organs through the imprisonment of persecuted Falun Gong practitioners.

The anti-Falun Gong campaign


Falun Gong (aka Falun Dafa) is a peaceful spiritual movement akin to Buddhism, founded in China by Li Hongzhi in 1984. It is now practised worldwide. In 1992, Falun Gong was officially recognised by the State and was given a permit to teach across the country. However, by 1996 problems began to arise with the Falun Gong movement and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political and economic demands. Censoring and harassment later started and by 1999 the CCP started its campaign to wipe out the practice and banned Falun Gong. Practitioners were beaten and taken to detention centres and an anti-Falun Gong media campaign began. The reason? Whilst the CCP has labelled Falun Gong as an “illegal cult” (see this Chinese non-governmental anti-cult website as an example), reasons cited are “fear” and “jealousy”.

As one of China’s persecuted religious minorities, the Falun Gong face discrimination in regards to work, finance and education, destitution and are forced into labour camps and “education centres” – facing imprisonment, various forms of torture and death – including: forced labourbeatings, burning, water torture, rape and sexual assault, brainwashing and worst of all since 2000: the unwilling removal of their organs and death.

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Harvesting high price human organs

The Matas-Kilgour report was first published in 2006 – in which roughly 20,000 organ transplants are reported to have taken place (2007, Sharif et al., 2014). Their research across China included:

  • Evidence from organ transplant/information centre websites (later closed down)
  • Donor recipient interviews
  • Information on corpses of imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners with missing organs
  • Telephone calls to hospitals/transplant centres

The following is taken from a phone call to Director Song at the Oriental Organ Transplant Centre in Tianjin City (2006):

N: Her doctor told her that the kidney is quite good because he [the supplier] practises …Falun Gong.

Song: Of course. We have all those who breathe and with heart beat…Up until now, for this year, we have more than ten kidneys, more than ten such kidneys.

N: More than ten of this kind of kidneys? You mean live bodies?

Song: Yes it is so.

Source: Matas and Kilgour (2007)

After being imprisoned, Falun Gong prisoners undergo specific medical tests (unlike other prisoners). When required they are “taken to surgery” – still conscious and under a low level of anesthetic Falun Gong prisoners’ organs are removed. Medics then place the bodies in a boiler/incinerator to remove all traces – the victim could be alive or dead at this stage. There have also been other cases of corpses being “collected” by so-called ” relatives”.

Confessions from medics and their families confirm claims involving Falun Gong practitioners and other persecuted minorities. Former Uyghur surgeon Enver Tohti declared he removed the organs of an executed Uyghur prisoner in 1995:

A moment later there were gun shots. Not one, but many. […] An armed police officer approached us and […] pointed to a corpse, saying ‘this is the one’.

[…] our chief surgeon [..] told me to remove the liver and two kidneys. […] we took the body into the van and removed his liver and kidneys. An operation to repair an organ is very difficult and takes a very long time to do, but this […] was an operation of extraction, so it was easy and quick.

Falun Gong and other persecuted minorities share the same fate. Not only have Falun Gong practitioners suffered but Uyghur (Muslim) and Tibetan prisoners have also been victims of forced organ transplants as well as House Christians (European Parliament, 2013).

Donor recipients were originally high ranking officials and their family members. Nowadays however, anybody from within and outside China with enough money can buy an organ. In 1996, The China International Transplantation Network Assistance Centre in Shenyang City advertised the following prices on its website (

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Source: Matas and Kilgour (2007) – website archive

National and overseas donor recipients from countries such as Taiwan are paying for nothing more than state murder with huge revenues.

Although Matas and Kilgour (2007) acknowledged the potential difficulty in proving or disproving the allegations due to a lack of corpses, freedom of speech in China and information from the State, their conclusion from their research was that the allegations were true. Author Ethan Gutmann in his 2014 book “The Slaughter” declared that between 2000-2008, organs were harvested from: 65,000 Falun Gong practitioners and 2,000 – 4,000 Uyghurs, Tibetans or House Christians and Kilgour has confirmed that human organ trafficking in China is ongoing today.

In 2014 China claimed to have introduced a new computerized system including organs of both voluntary donations (following a Red Cross scheme introduced in 2010) and those of executed prisoners but this excludes prisoners of conscience and the fact that China had previously declared it would stop using organs belonging to executed prisoners (Sharif et al., 2014).

Human rights abuses

China is abusing a number of universal human rights, including: the right to lifereligious freedom and freedom from torture. Whilst the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – supported by China – is not legally binding, some of the very few international human rights conventions that China has ratified and consequential legal violations are:

These conventions establish a variety of rights including: freedom from torture and “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” (ICESCR, Art.12).

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The ongoing campaign

Despite investigations, reports and the ratification a number of human rights conventions, 15 years later this tragedy is ongoing. So what can we do to stop this brutality? Well for starters, how many of your friends, family members and acquaintances know about this shocking reality? The first time I heard about it myself was in London in China Town just a few years ago. There is a mountain of information online and various NGOs involved in research and campaigning such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and the organisation Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH) who launched a petition to the United Nations in 2013.

To take action, you can:

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  • Raise awareness – blog, Tweet, share, give a talk, street campaign
  • Sign the Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting petition to the UN
  • Sign the Friends of Falun Gong petition to the US Secretary of State (US and non-US residents)
  • Sign the Stop Organ Harvesting in China petition (US residents only)
  • Donate your time/money to relevant NGOs

It’s crucial that Falun Gong practitioners, Muslims, Christians and Tibetans be free from persecution. The Tibetan struggle is ongoing, religious discrimination and persecution is increasing towards Uyghur Muslims and House Christians and the issue of forced organ harvesting has not disappeared even if the media remains rather quiet.

Get signing and get shouting!


Sources and further information:

*Images from shares under a Creative Commons licence

Write For Rights – your words, their hope, our change


Forced marriage, imprisonment, torture… This December there’s a global campaign to show solidarity, lobby governments and fight against human rights abuses worldwide – and the best bit is that anyone can get involved.

It’s international Human Right’s Day on December 10th and whilst many of us take our fundamental universal freedoms for granted – including freedom of expression, association and assembly – many human rights lawyers, writers, advocates and peaceful protesters will be lying in prison, at risk of torture, malnutrition, ill-health and emotional despair and many others will face oppression and abuse.

This December, longstanding international human rights NGO Amnesty International is running its “Write For Rights” campaign. By getting involved you can show solidarity, give hope to prisoners of conscience and put pressure on local authorities. It really does work. Taking action and spreading the word could be something as simple as writing a letter, tweeting a solidarity message, signing an online petition, writing a blog or whatever sparks your imagination.

The Write For Rights campaign has many successes. It has led to the release of prisoners of conscience and people who’ve been falsely accused and imprisoned worldwide. Amnesty has achieved major breakthroughs over the years and some of their recent developments and success stories from 2014 as a result of its wide range of campaigns have been:

– The scrapping of previous legislation in Morocco wherein rapists could avoid prosecution by forcing their victim into marriage.

For example, one young Moroccan lady named Amina Filali committed suicide in March 2012 after being forced to marry her rapist.

– The creation of a global arms trade treaty.

– The release of 84 children detained for six months in Cameroon.


To date there’s a variety of cases, such as the current campaign in Burkina Faso to stop girls as young as 13 years old being forced into marriage.

Get your voice heard! As Frederich Nietzsche once said: “All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and I can turn the world upside down.” Check out the website and case studies and write for rights!

You can view a full list of all Amnesty’s campaigns on their website.

Image credits: Canessa

Article originally published on Cafe Babel, authored by Elizabeth Arif-Fear