Bernardo Caal Xol embracing his family after his release

Write for Rights 2021: Your words are already changing lives

In 2021, the world’s largest human rights event Write for Rights (W4R) turned 20 years old. A total of 275,000 actions were taken by 103,000 people in Australia alone, to defend human rights and challenge the injustice of 10 cases around the world.

Every year, supporters across the globe write letters, send solidarity cards and sign petitions – calling for justice for those whose human rights are being attacked. Real positive change takes place because of those letters and actions: people under attack are protected, people wrongfully imprisoned are released, torturers are brought to justice and people in prison are treated more humanely.

With lockdowns leading to restrictions on events, Amnesty Australia activists came up with exciting and innovative ideas to take action. Over the course of W4R, activists held over 40 events. Highlights included projecting images of Rung, Janna and Zhan in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne on Human Rights Day, an interview by the Women’s Rights Network with Wendy and a webinar run by the LGBTQIA+ Network with Ana and Vira from Sphere.

Thanks to you, Write for Rights 2021 is already making an impact for Bernardo, Ciham, Imolaeyo, Wendy, Zhan, Sphere NGO, Rung, Mohamed, Janna and Mikita.

1. Guatemalan Indigenous rights defender is free

In 2018, Bernardo Caal Xol was thrown in jail without any evidence for protecting rivers sacred to his people, the Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ in north central Guatemala.

Throughout W4R 2021, over 20,000 people took action in Australia in support of Bernardo, including 1,200 people who emailed the Guatemalan embassy demanding his release from prison. On March 24 2022, Bernardo was released and reunited with his family after more than four years of imprisonment.

Amnesty International gave me hope of freedom and now I am free. I am now with my family, I am now with my daughters, I am now with my partner. My mother has already cried with happiness to see me free. Thanks to each one of you, thanks to each one of you for spreading and sharing my letters.”

Bernardo Caal Xol

Bernardo remains convicted of a crime he did not commit, and the Guatemalan authorities continue to criminalise him for his work in defending human rights and the environment. Amnesty will continue to campaign to demand that national authorities stop criminalising Bernardo’s important work in defending human rights and the environment.

2. We stand in solidarity with young Ciham

Ciham Ali has been secretly detained without a trial in Eritrea since 2012. She was only 15. Nine years on and no one, not even her family, knows where Ciham is being held. Her secret detention amounts to an enforced disappearance – a crime under international law. Despite being a US national, the US government has not intervened in her case.

As part of W4R 2021, Amnesty supporters around the world wore Ciham’s favourite colour purple to highlight her case, calling on the USA government to intervene on her behalf.

Students at a school in Togo take action for Ciham for Write for Rights 2021 © Amnesty International Togo

440,000 actions were taken for Ciham during the campaign, demonstrating the power of a collective voice both to raise awareness and apply pressure on authorities, as well as to show solidarity with Ciham’s loved ones. These actions give them strength and hope.

“When I started campaigning for Ciham, her case was basically unknown, and it means so much to now see so many people across the world speak up for her. I know it is going to make a difference, not just in the campaign to free her, but to give strength to all her loved ones who are suffering every day that they are separated from her.”

Vanessa Tsehaye – Horn of Africa Campaigner, Amnesty International

3. Imolaeyo’s case in Nigeria is being reviewed

In October 2020, computer programmer Imoleayo Michael posted on social media in support of protests against police violence in Nigeria. Armed men raided his home and locked him in an underground cell for 41 days. Now, he faces trumped up charges of ‘conspiracy’.

For W4R 2021, Amnesty activists around the world displayed overwhelming solidarity for Imoleayo’s case and the court consequently reassigned the case to a new judge and ordered the trial to start afresh. On 16 February, the day that his trial restarted, Amnesty International Nigeria delivered solidarity letters and signed postcards to Imoleayo.

“I sincerely appreciate all these letters; they mean a lot to me. I say a big thank you to you all. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I received thousands of your letters posted and online. I’m greatly inspired. Your letters really got me emotional as I keep reading and I am more inspired and encouraged to do more for humanity. Once again thank you for joining me in solidarity for freedom.”

Imolaeyo Michael

Amnesty will continue campaigning and advocating for Imoleayo’s freedom. With enough pressure, we can get the charges dropped against him and help make Nigeria a safer place for people who speak out for human rights.

Imoleayo Michael reads letters of support sent in response to Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign, February 2022, Abuja, Nigeria © ESOFT CONTENT

4. Wendy continues to raise her voice in protest for women and justice in Mexico

Childcare worker Wendy Galarza was peacefully protesting a woman’s murder in November 2020, when the police opened fire and she was shot. In Mexico, women are often degraded, attacked and killed for being women.

Wendy takes part in the women’s rights march in Paris 20/11/21 during her Write for Rights European tour © Benjamin Girette

Wendy is grateful for the work by Amnesty supporters, and was in close contact with Amnesty activists for the duration of the campaign.

“Amnesty International Mexico has given us the security to talk about what happened, because we felt the support of the whole movement. The love we received from the organisation is tangible and represents something very important for us.”

“I had the opportunity to be part of one of the most important international campaigns of the movement: “Write for Rights”. There are no words to describe what I feel when I see that it is not only my case that is being made visible around the world, but also the stories of my fellow protesters who, like me, were repressed that night of the 9th November 2020. Thanks to Amnesty International for being present.”

Wendy Galarza

Amnesty continues to work on her case, calling on the Mexican authorities to bring her attackers to justice. Stand with Wendy and help her get the justice she deserves.

5. We will continue to challenge injustice for Chinese citizen journalist Zhan

Zhang is a Chinese citizen journalist who has been sentenced to four years in prison for courageously reporting on COVID-19. The Chinese government is stifling freedom of expression in its attempt to gain economic and political dominance. She has been imprisoned and tortured in Shanghai.

During W4R 2021, Zhang Zhan’s health was in critical condition after being on hunger strike in protest of her unjust incarceration. It is still unclear as to whether Zhang has access to adequate medical care.

Contacts from Zhang Zhan’s Concern Group and her lawyers have shared that they find it very touching that Amnesty supporters are so persistent and have taken huge amounts of actions for her.

“Thank you to all the friends who worked and supported Zhang Zhan’s case. Those who wrote letters and cards to her and spoke out for her, every letter sent to Shanghai Municipal Pudong District Detention Centre and Shanghai Municipal Women’s Prison, every card, every painting, every letter sent to various departments of the Chinese authorities, every protest [action], every tweet and post on social media, every poster, every candle, every greeting, blessing and encouragement – I believe that Zhang Zhan felt it [all].”

Thank you all for helping her through the most life-threatening part of her life. The support and solidarity from all over the world, the belief in justice, the pursuit of truth, [all] make this winter warm. Like Zhang Zhan, we are full of hope.”

Zhang Zhan Concern Group
Activists from Amnesty International Luxembourg protest outside the Chinese Embassy 15/2/22 © Patrizia Ciurlia

Zhan helped others by exposing censored information about Covid-19. Now, we need to help save her life. Call on the Chinese government to free Zhan immediately. Your voice can make all the difference.

6. Sphere NGO is still bravely speaking up for women and LGBTQIA+ rights in Ukraine

Anna and Vira bravely stand up for women and LGBTQIA+ people in the Ukraine. But their organisation, Sphere NGO, has been subject to numerous violent attacks by groups determined to intimidate them into silence. No one should be attacked for speaking up for their rights and the rights of others. As part of W4R 2021, Amnesty supporters called on Ukraine to bring Sphere’s attackers to justice.

“Before Write for Rights we felt quite burned out, not only my colleagues and I, but I would say this was true for the whole community. We were thinking about our goals and the change we were supposed to make,” says Anna.

“…After we travelled to Amnesty International offices in different countries and got all this support, we felt so charged and inspired that we launched an advocacy and a large media campaign. With all the plans and ideas we had, it makes it even more painful to realise that the war has broken out.”

Anna also emotionally shares details of her life in war-torn Kharkiv.

She is staying in the city despite all the risks because she feels it her duty to help people in these difficult times. Their community centre has now been shut down, not only because it is too dangerous to work there, but also because public transport is no longer in operation in Kharkiv, therefore, it is impossible to reach the centre. The organisation, however, keeps working. Anna and her colleagues provide humanitarian aid and financial support to LGBTQIA+ community members that stayed in the city. Help is also being provided to those who have escaped from the city.

Anna says that every word of support and every message that condemns the Russian invasion and violations matter nowadays. It is something that helps her get up in the morning and keep going.

Solidarity action with Anna and Vira from Sphere at Asia Pacific Webinar 10/11/2021 – Amnesty International Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia, Taiwan and Australia © Amnesty International

7. We will continue to stand with student protestor Rung in Thailand

University student Panusaya ‘Rung’ Sithijirawattanakul has become a leading voice in Thailand’s democracy movement. She bravely took part in protests for social and political change throughout 2020. In March 2021, the authorities jailed her for 60 days. She went on hunger strike for 38 days and was eventually released. Today, she faces dozens of charges against her and life imprisonment.

The W4R spotlight on Rung may have contributed to the official decision to grant her release on bail in January 2022, and to increased momentum for calls on authorities to grant other political prisoners their right to release on bail. The campaign has given her hope to continue fighting.

Rung reads some of the cards and letters she received as part of the Write for Rights campaign © Amnesty International

“The number of the letters that I have received was beyond any of my expectations. For me, this is a successful campaign, just to see each individual letter sent to me, it makes me so happy that they know what is happening in Thailand, and what I am facing.”

Rung

Amnesty will continue working to release those unfairly detained and charged for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. Stand with Rung and call for all charges against her to be dropped immediately.

8. We will continue to challenge injustice for Egyptian lawyer and defender of other people’s freedom

Mohamed Baker is a lawyer who defends some of Egypt’s most marginalised people. He’s been locked up in a maximum-security prison since 2019 in cruel conditions where he is subjected to discriminatory and punitive treatment by the authorities because the they don’t agree with his work promoting human rights.

Mohamed’s loved ones were happily surprised with the number of emails received. They were particularly touched by the creative work made around cats, which are his favourite animal. During prison visits, Mohamed learned about the amount of support, the photos with cats and illustrations created for him, which made him smile. He was very happy about the global mobilisation.

Activists from Morocco take action for Mohamed Baker © Amnesty International Morocco

Mohamed’s loved ones wanted to share this message:

“We are very happy with the campaign and very thankful to every member who participated in it. And we are very fortunate that the campaign chose Baker. No matter how hard I try, I will not be able to express how we felt after receiving that amount of warmth and psychological support that the campaign provided us with.”

“…So many expressive words in all languages. And the cards and publications on social media and pictures of people with their cats and photos of their cats. People’s sketches and drawings of Baker, activities on the streets, even in small cities. Statements, campaigns, follow-up, news, and support, the video that Ahmed Gamal Ziada helped filming. We cannot thank you enough! There is no improvement, the situation is getting worse, but this is not related to the campaign.”

Amnesty will continue to work on Mohamed’s case until he is released. Our collective voices have helped free people before – and we can do it again.

9. Palestinian teenage journalist Janna is determined to use her voice and words to expose Israeli military abuses

At 15 years old, Janna Jihad is a world recognised journalist. She is from a small Palestinian village called Nabi Saleh, in the occupied West Bank. When she was seven, she started documenting the widespread abuse, racism and discrimination of Palestinians by the Israeli military. Since then, she’s received many death threats and harassment.

Janna’s mother Nawal feels heart-warmed by the supportive messages from children, youth and their parents from all over the world. Children have told Janna that she inspires them.

“It was truly heart-warming, I’ve also been receiving tons of love and support on my Instagram account. Students sending me letters and videos from their classrooms, telling me that they know me, they know my story, they share it and send solidarity which is beyond anything I could describe. I am really happy that our Palestinian story is reaching every corner of the world, especially with the younger generations, and this gives me so much hope for a better future.”

“Having this much attention to our cause and spreading awareness is what I’ve aspired for as a journalist and I’m beyond happy and grateful. I’m thankful to each and every person who took the time to write to me and message me, my heart is full.”

Janna Jihad
Janna takes part in a Webinar with other young activists © Amnesty International Netherlands

Today, she remains under attack for not staying silent. We will continue to join her in her fight by campaigning on Janna’s case, as well as the ongoing campaign to end Israel’s apartheid.

10. We will continue to challenge injustice for Mikita’s case in Belarus

Mikita Zalatarou was just 16 years old when the Belarusian authorities arrested and beat him after being swept up in a crowd of protesters while waiting for his friend. He has been sentenced to five years in a child educational prison colony – despite there being no evidence that he was involved in any violence. Since then, Mikita has been held in solitary confinement and reportedly has been tortured. He is not getting the medical treatment he needs for his epilepsy.

Mikita’s father has been clear that public support for his son is important both to Mikita and his family, and all efforts and support from Amnesty International members are much appreciated.

“I tell him to keep his head down, to learn, to study languages, English [for example]. I could send him books. But this is impossible: they are so busy there that they do not have a free minute,” – Mikhail, Mikita’s father.

Letters and cards collected for Mikita in Portugal © Amnesty International Portugal

“Thank you so much for all your amazing support, your letters, signatures and your solidarity actions. At the moment we have very little access to Mikita and sadly we have been informed that Mikita is not able to receive most, if not all, solidarity messages. However, he is aware that he was featured in the W4R campaign, and we hope that it has had a positive impact on his mental state and his overall situation.”

Knowing that you are not forgotten and that the world is behind you is a powerful thing, especially when you are behind bars. Thank you!

Belarus team, Amnesty International Secretariat

Amnesty will continue campaigning on his case. We must keep up international pressure to ensure safety and justice for Mikita.

We run Write for Rights every year because it works – real change happens because of actions like these. Their words have freed people from human rights abuses and changed lives. Knowing they’re a part of a community this powerful has changed their lives, too.

Learn more about Write for Rights. Write a letter, change a life – including yours.

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