WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued the following statement marking International Women’s Day and recognizing the many women and girls around the world who are being wrongfully imprisoned by their governments.
“On International Women’s Day, we reflect on the enormous contributions women make worldwide to their communities and their countries across every aspect of society including justice, politics, culture, peacebuilding, the economy, and national security. On this day, we also recognize and recommit to fighting on behalf of the many women whose voices governments seek to silence. Around the world, women take enormous risks to advance the rights of their fellow citizens and to promote the principles of freedom of expression, religion, and assembly. They fight for rights to access education and healthcare, and they fight discrimination, corruption, and violence. For their words and for their actions, all too often, governments turn these women into political prisoners.
Today, I want to highlight just a tiny fraction of the countless number of women and girls held behind bars unjustly. Similarly, unfortunately, the repressive governments detaining these women are just a small fraction of the governments around the world that lock up women for exercising their fundamental freedoms.
Just last week, the government of Saudi Arabia announced that it would put on trial its country’s leading women’s rights activists who have been in prison without charges since May 2018. The crackdown on these activists began just weeks ahead of the much-anticipated lifting of the ban on women driving, one of the very causes for which many of the detained activists had campaigned. While some were quickly released, others remain imprisoned. They include Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Saada, Hatoon al-Fassi, Shadan al-Onezi, and Amal al-Harbi. Credible reports indicate that Saudi interrogators tortured at least four of the women, including with electric shocks and whippings, and sexually harassment and assault.
In the Philippines, Senator Leila de Lima, a brave champion of human rights, launched an investigation into extrajudicial executions that began shortly after President Duterte took office in 2016. As one of the only leaders bold enough to oppose President Duterte’s “war on drugs”, she has faced prolonged arbitrary detention, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. President Duterte has sought to silence her courageous voice as she spoke out against widespread human rights violations, including thousands of extrajudicial executions of mostly poor and marginalized people.
In Egypt, Hanan Badr el-Din, a human rights defender and co-founder of the Families of the Forcibly Disappeared Association, was detained on May 6, 2017 at Qanatar prison while visiting an individual who had been forcibly disappeared. She started her activism following the forced disappearance of her husband in 2013. She suffers from a serious genetic disorder and her health is rapidly deteriorating.
China is responsible for some of the most grave human rights abuses, including of women. China has imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Uighur women in detention camps across its Northwest region. These women are forced to renounce their Muslim religion and Uighur language and memorize Chinese propaganda. Forced labor, torture and death are common. Thousands of children have been separated from their mothers and fathers and placed in a separate network of orphanages. One husband of a Uighur women told Human Rights Watch: “My wife was about to go back (to a foreign country) but they took her passport. And when she went to ask to get her passport back, they told her she needs to be subjected to political education for 10 days, and then they would let her go. That was on July 20, 2017. Since then, she’s been in a political education camp.” In addition, the family of Guligeina Tashimaimaiti, a Uighur PhD student who was last seen in December 2017 when she returned from studying in Malaysia, for example fears she is in detention and at risk of torture and other ill treatment.
China has also targeted Tibetan Buddhist nuns. The government expelled thousands of nuns and lay women in 2017 from Larung Gar in Sichuan, the largest center of Buddhist monasticism in Tibet, and perhaps the world. Their homes were demolished; they were barred from entering other monasteries, and faced detention, harassment and abuse. In the ensuing months, Communist Party cadres seized control of Larung Gar, which had been previously run by Tibetan nuns and monks selected by senior members of the monastery.
In Eritrea, Aster Fissehatsion has been held incommunicado without charge or trial since September 2001. Her whereabouts, 17 years later, are still not known. Aster Fissehatsion was arrested together with 10 other members of a group of political dissidents known as the Group of 15 (or G-15), including her former husband, former vice-president and foreign minister of Eritrea, Mahmoud Ahmed Sheriffo.
Perhaps most tragically, this is just a snapshot of some of the brave women who dare to speak up for fundamental rights and values.
So on this International Women’s Day as we reflect on the achievements of women, and reflect on the work that remains to be done, I call on all of us to redouble our efforts to free women political prisoners. Governments have the responsibility to promote the safety, wellbeing and fundamental rights of their citizens. I call on governments who are unjustly detaining, harassing, and torturing women for exercising their fundamental rights to immediately release these politically-motivated detentions. And as they continue to struggle, let us all take up the mantle of their cause.”