How to Get Justice for the Disappeared
By the AIUSA Cogroup Writers
August 30 is observed globally as the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Enforced disappearances are a horrific crime where a government or its agents detain someone and then deny all knowledge of their whereabouts or fate. They are committed in every region of the world and in a wide variety of contexts. Enforced disappearances are used to spread terror in society, often during periods of armed conflict or repression.
Amnesty International campaigns against enforced disappearances. In this blog post, we describe some examples of enforced disappearances in China, Turkey, Mozambique and Sri Lanka, and provide opportunities for action on some of these cases.
In China, imagine if you were detained in an internment camp or sentenced to prison for years merely because of your ethnicity; traveling or living or studying abroad, the number of children you have, or your religion. That’s the reality for huge numbers of predominantly Muslim people — perhaps 1 million or more — detained in Xinjiang since 2017. Family members are often unable to obtain information about persons who have gone missing in Xinjiang and are presumed to be detained. Amnesty International has gathered evidence of crimes against humanity by Chinese authorities including imprisonment in violation of international law, torture, and persecution.
Yiliyasijiang Reheman, a Uyghur from Xinjiang, China, was a student at Egypt’s Al-Azhar Islamic University. In July 2017, he was taken into custody by Egyptian authorities at the behest of the Chinese government as he was about to fly to Turkey to join his pregnant wife and child. He and 15 other Uyghur students are believed to have been deported to China. He has not been heard from since.
Amnesty International has recently added 48 individuals from predominantly Muslim ethnic groups to the Free Xinjiang Detainees campaign, bringing the total of cases documented by Amnesty to 120. These are representative of the perhaps 1 million or more men and women estimated to have been interned in camps or sentenced without a fair trial and sent to prison in the region since 2017. In most instances, the families of these detainees have no idea where their loved ones are. The Chinese authorities must immediately release Yiliyasijiang Reheman and all people arbitrarily detained in internment camps and in prisons in Xinjiang.
In Turkey, the Saturday Mothers have been protesting every Saturday in Galatasaray Square in Istanbul since 1995, making them the longest sustained protest movement in Turkey. This movement was founded by mothers whose sons were forcibly disappeared during the 1980s. On June 25th, 2022, the occasion of their 900th vigil, riot police violently prevented these peaceful protestors from gathering and arrested multiple prominent human rights defenders who had joined them. Reacting to the arrest, Julia Hall, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe, said: “Time and again, the Saturday Mothers/People have been met with brutal crackdowns and even prosecutions for taking part in peaceful vigils. Turkish authorities have never provided a valid justification for their spiteful, arbitrary and unlawful denial of the right to exercise freedom of expression and assembly.” Turkish human rights and civil society organizations estimate that 1400 forced disappearances have occurred since 1980. Take action to defend the Saturday Mothers.
Now we turn to Mozambique. On April 7, 2020, Ibraimo Mbaruco, a community radio journalist at Palma Community Radio, in Cabo Delgado Province, was abducted by suspected military forces. He was reportedly riding his motorbike from work, when he was approached by military officers. His last communication to a fellow workmate was “I am surrounded by militaries”. The following day his family and colleagues lodged a formal complaint with the district command of the Police of the Republic of Mozambique (PRM). For over two years, no one has heard from him; his whereabouts remain unknown. The authorities have made no progress in investigating his disappearance, and no one has been held accountable.
Cabo Delgado Province in Mozambique has been plagued by violent extremist activity since October 2017. Insurgents have terrorized the communities, burning villages, attacking police stations and businesses, and kidnapping and beheading civilians. The government’s response to the security crisis has been marred by human rights violations. State and private security forces have been implicated in acts of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, prolonged detention, torture and indiscriminate beating of civilians, as well as stifling the flow of information about the ongoing crisis. The case of Ibraimo Mbaruco is considered one of the examples of the security forces targeting journalists working in the region.
Despite the involvement of regional and international forces in support of Mozambique’s military fighting against the insurgents, the conflict has spread to other parts of Cabo Delgado Province. The insurgents have adapted their tactics and continue to terrorize communities, inflicting untold suffering. It is evident that the crisis will not be resolved without the involvement and cooperation of the community. While the causes of the conflict are complex, one of the root causes is the historical marginalization of the Cabo Delgado region despite it being resource rich. Human rights violations by security forces only serve to fuel mistrust. On the International Day of the Disappeared, we are reminded that cases such as that of Ibraimo Mbaruco and the failure of the government to bring the perpetrators to account have a long-standing impact on affected communities. Amnesty International continues to call on the government of Mozambique to account for the whereabouts of Ibraimo Mbaruco, including by allowing an independent investigation. Not only will this help to bring about justice for Ibraimo’s family, but it is also one of the many necessary steps in bridging the gap between the government and the communities.
In Sri Lanka, there are an estimated 100,000 enforced disappearances in connection with internal armed conflicts in recent decades. The disappeared come from all of Sri Lanka’s major communities — Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim. Tamil mothers of the disappeared have been continuously protesting in the north since 2017 for the government to account for their loved ones. One emblematic case is the disappeared journalist/cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda (pictured above). He went missing after leaving work on January 24, 2010. Two days earlier, he had published an article critical of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Despite years of police investigations, the Sri Lankan government has not accounted for his fate. Please call on the government to conduct an effective investigation and bring to justice those responsible for his disappearance.
The above descriptions of countries and cases are just a small sample of all the enforced disappearances around the world. Although it may seem hopeless to expect justice in many of these cases, the families of the disappeared have not given up. Amnesty International stands with the families. Please join our campaign, take the actions provided above and help the families of the disappeared obtain truth and justice.
The AIUSA Cogroup Writers include the following Amnesty International USA country specialists: Jim McDonald, Mooya Nyaundi and Claire Sadar.