Human Rights

Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience dies

According to The Guardian:

Orlando Zapata Tamayo, 42, one of Amnesty International’s “prisoners of conscience”, was so emaciated he was almost unrecognisable when he died at a prison hospital in Havana.

Jailed in 2003 during a political crackdown, he is the first dissident to starve himself to death in almost four decades.

Zapata, a former plumber and member of the Alternative Republican Movement National Civic Resistance Committee, was one of 75 activists arrested during the “black spring” of 2003. He was sentenced to three years for contempt, public disorder and “disobedience” but that was increased to 36 years after he was convicted of acts of defiance in prison.

He stopped eating solid foods on December 3 to protest against what he said were repeated beatings by guards and other abuses at Kilo 7 prison in the eastern province of Camagüey. His back was “tattooed with blows” from beatings, according to his mother.

Since he was an Amnesty “prisoner of conscience”, I expected there would be a great deal of detail on the AIUK’s website where we might learn more of this obviously courageous human rights advocate. Alas there is nothing, apart from a mention in passing in a press release from more than two years ago, and the introduction to a 2004 human rights report on Cuba which has been removed from the site.

Over at Amnesty International’s website, there is, frankly, sod-all either. A search of the site finds some broken links to long-removed press releases and a few cursory mentions in long generic global round-up reports… but nothing resembling a profile or briefing on this adopted prisoner of conscience who has now died at the end of a three-month hunger strike. Did anyone even notice he’d started his protest?

Well yes, apparently someone did because news of the unfortunate Mr Tamayo’s health was included in a footnote (!!!) to an Amnesty International press release from last week noting that six Cuban activists had been arrested while picketing in support of Tamayo.

Indeed, search AI’s website for “Orlando Zapata Tamayo” and you’ll get not even a page of results. Not to put too finer point on it, search for “Moazzam Begg” and you can scroll through six pages of results. AIUK give us just two results for Tamayo, and five whole pages of Google results for Begg.

This is rather disappointing.

Now of course it is the case that the United States and the United Kingdom are open societies and thus the flow of information is far greater than in dictatorships like Cuba. It is also fairly obvious that in democracies, the ability of activists and campaigners to put this information to use is greater. We are also more self-critical and are able to hold our own governments  to a higher standard of behaviour. All this explains why the Beggs of the world get a disproportionate amount of attention. Amnesty cannot even operate in Cuba.

What this leads to is a skewed – even if unintentional – moral equivalence. Take for example this comment on the so-called ‘progressive’ left/anarchist newswire, Indymedia, in response to the news of Tamayo’s death:

Tragedy is an African child dying from an easily curable disease. Tragedy is Afghan men women and children dying as a consequence of a brutal occupation which serves only to profit from the resources and general de-stabilisation of the region. Tragedy is that Cuba has been for decades blockaded by the ‘civilised’ West who have declared war on a tiny island for the soul reason that it no longer serves U.S interests (as did the previous Tragic regime of Batista) and is a ray of hope for millions of impoverished Latin Americans.

The commenter then, ironically, goes on to lambaste Amnesty for being “fucking two faced provocateurs” for adopting Tamayo as a prisoner of conscience in the first place!

This irony is that our open access to information and means of protest amplify the wrongdoings of democracies through Amnesty International (which is itself an institution of western democracy and openness).  This generates the bizarre moral equivalences evidenced by the loons who now hang out at Indymedia. Perhaps “moral equivalence” is the wrong term, because in the eyes of much of this far-left, we are worse than the dictatorships of Cuba, of China, of North Korea, or Saudi Arabia, or Iran.

It is to its credit, that Amnesty gives attention to the abuses in these dictatorships. But this leads to accusations of collusion with Western governments by (ho-ho-ho… western) far-left ‘progressives’, who claim it is one of the drum-beaters for Imperialism. This is grossly distorted and unfair, but in a sense, Amnesty has been hoist with its own petard: it was Amnesty who started down this moral equivalence path itself when it compared the execution of first-degree murderers in some American states after years of review and appeal with the summary execution of political dissidents and women and gays for ‘moral’ crimes in fascist countries.

Perhaps what is needed is a sort of ‘affirmative action’ approach to human rights advocacy. In the UK, we have campaigning groups for just about anything. We have campaigners raging on about everything: wheelie bins, street names, squatters’ rights, prisoners’ rights, chicken factory farming, child custody, lesbian church weddings, euthanasia, living wage… you name it, frivolous or life-saving, loopy or indispensable, we have some activist or campaign group working on it, usually in complete safety and with access to media and the protection of the law.

If the moral equivalences which are the death-knell of human rights are to be avoided, then some compensatory mechanism must be put in place to reflect the differences between open and closed societies.

Frankly, Amnesty generally isn’t needed much here. It is surplus to requirements. It’s slogan “it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” isn’t really appropriate in political systems where people work with halogen-powered searchlights.

Amnesty does, however, have to speak for people like Tomayo. And we desperately need it to do so.

Amnesty needs to refocus to give a voice to the voiceless, not a stage to those with megaphones.

Gene adds:: CNN reports:

According to an unprecedented government statement, [President Raul] Castro “lamented the death of Cuban prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died after leading a hunger strike.” He blamed the United States for the death, but did not explain why.

“Tortured people do not exist,” Castro added. “There were no tortured people. There was no execution.”

Well, that settles that.

Separately, about 30 Cuban dissidents were detained Wednesday and dozens of others were blocked from leaving their homes, human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez said.

“All of this to prevent them from attending the funeral of Orlando Zapata Tamayo,” he said. “It’s not what we wanted, but the government has turned him into a martyr.”

Yoani Sanchez of Generation Y managed to record a brief interview with Zapata Tamayo’s mother, who said:

I want to tell the world about my pain. I think my son’s death was a premeditated murder. My son was tortured throughout his incarceration. His plight has brought me great pain and has been excruciating for the entire family. Even, as he was transferred to this prison, he was first held in Camaguey without drinking water for 18 days. My son dies after an 86-day hunger strike. He is another Pedro Boitel for Cuba. [Pedro Luis Boitel died in 1972 during a hunger strike while serving a 10-year prison sentence in Cuba]

In the midst of deep pain, I call on the world to demand the freedom of the other prisoners and brothers unfairly sentenced so that what happened to my boy, my second child, who leaves behind no physical legacy, no child or wife, does not happen again. Thank you!