Mandela Day: Nearly 200 rights organisations call for release of activists as part of #StandAsMyWitness campaign

  • 197 human rights organisations sign letter calling on states to end the imprisonment and harassment of human rights defenders
  • States urged to stop new arrests and detentions of defenders, noting heightened risk during COVID-19
  • #StandAsMyWitness campaign launches on Nelson Mandela Day 18 July, featuring human rights defenders from around the world

Nearly 200 human rights organisations including CIVICUS have signed a letter to world leaders urging them to release human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience in honour of Nelson Mandela Day 18 July. 

The letter calls on states to prioritise the release of rights activists who are held in pretrial detention or have not been charged, and to stop carrying out new arrests and detentions of journalists and defenders. The letter also notes the heightened risk to unfairly detained rights defenders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The letter is part of a major global campaign by CIVICUS kicking-off on Mandela Day called #StandAsMyWitness. It calls on governments to end the imprisonment and harassment of human rights defenders. 

It has been 30 years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison but still human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience are locked up, persecuted or killed for defending the rights of excluded people, promoting democratic values, engaging in peaceful protest and calling out corrupt governments and multinational companies. 

They have risked their lives and liberty by seeking social, political, economic, gender and environmental justice:

“On Nelson Mandela Day we celebrate the legacy of Mr Mandela, South Africa’s first democratic president, a resilient spirit and a passionate advocate for human rights. Yet today, all around the world human rights defenders are still imprisoned, persecuted, and harassed for promoting freedom and democracy,” said David Kode, CIVICUS Advocacy and Campaigns Lead.

Like Mr Mandela, who spent 27 years in jail, thousands of these human rights defenders are in prison after being convicted in unfair trials, on trumped-up charges. Many are currently in pre-trial detention, facing long prison sentences for their human rights activities.

Resilient human rights defenders from across the globe feature in the #StandAsMyWitness campaign. The ‘faces’ of the campaign are these defenders currently behind bars: 

  • India: Sudha Bharadwaj - a human rights lawyer who defends Indigenous people’s rights
  • Philippines: Teresita Naul - an advocate for the rights of poor and marginalised people
  • Kazakhstan: Asya Tulesova - a human rights defender and climate activist
  • Niger: Moudi Moussa, Halidou Mounkaila & Maikoul Zodi - activists who highlighted corruption within government
  • Nicaragua: María Esperanza Sánchez García - targeted for her civic activism
  • Saudi Arabia: Loujain al-Hathloul - fought for women’s right to drive
  • The Guapinol Water Defenders- activists targeted for resisting an illegal, poisonous mining project

Many of these imprisoned human rights defenders have been denied access to their family and lawyers. Some are frail with underlying medical conditions and there are concerns their health will deteriorate in cramped and unsanitary prison conditions. Calls for their release grow more urgent as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the world. Prisoners are particularly vulnerable to the virus as infection rates are higher in overcrowded institutions where social distancing is difficult.

The #StandAsMyWitness campaign urges people to write letters on behalf of the defenders, sign a petition rallying for their freedom, and share the defenders’ individual stories on social media using the hashtag #StandAsMyWitness:

“The #StandAsMyWitness campaign calls on people to share the stories of rights defenders in jail or facing persecution, to make sure they are not forgotten, and to stand beside them so they do not stand alone,” said David Kode.


For interviews with CIVICUS, families of the human rights defenders, and activists, please contact:

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