Is the human rights organization’s fundraising placing lives in danger? An article by Mark Aldrich and Raymond Johansen
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“They aren’t your money train. They are human beings.” Raymond Johansen, an activist and Anon who has been fighting for freedom for human rights prisoners around the world for years, has spent the last two weeks trying to protect three young prisoners in Saudi Arabia from Amnesty International’s clumsy embrace.
Two weeks ago, this headline appeared on Amnesty International’s website and its many Facebook and Twitter accounts: “Families Fear Their Sons Will Be Executed Within 24 Hours.” The three sons in question—Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher—are also featured on Reprieve’s “Urgent” death penalty cases page. Interviews with Ali al-Nimr’s family will be featured in a PBS Frontline documentary, “Saudi Arabia Uncovered,” that will be broadcast on March 29.
Indeed, the three officially remain on death row in Saudi Arabia, so their lives are in the hands of that nation’s judiciary. The world is watching. However, in October 2015, that nation assured Phillip Hammond, the British Foreign Minister, that Ali will not be executed, and Mr. Hammond did the unprecedented and announced this in bold and clear language: “I do not expect Mr al-Nimr to be executed.”
Might Saudi Arabia renege on this promise? It might. Had Amnesty International, Reprieve, or the families of the three youths learned something new two weeks ago? They had not. And yet that phrase, “Families fear their sons will be executed within 24 hours,” has propagated on Twitter and Facebook, usually with a link to an Amnesty action page (signature and donations welcome).
One activist who has been fighting for their freedom since before Amnesty or Reprieve were involved, Raymond Johansen (full disclosure: Raymond Johansen is now an official part of The Gad About Town website, an administrator and co-author on select pieces) has his own connections in the region, and he protects his sources, as speaking to the media could be dangerous. He does not frustrate easily, but Amnesty’s seeming desire to stoke fears about the youths has him speaking out.
It was striking that Amnesty International and Reprieve, two organizations that are tenacious human rights defenders but also usually cautious as organizations, started—and continued—to publicize fears that the three executions were hours away from taking place, given that the fears came from a single source: an article in a Saudi newspaper, Okaz, which did not mention the three youths.
Two weeks ago, Okaz reported that the executions of four “terrorists” would take place soon, and, indeed, four executions have subsequently been announced in Saudi media. One was announced yesterday, the 76th execution in Saudi Arabia this year. That is one execution per day so far in 2016 in the Kingdom. All four have been individuals who were convicted of murder. Okaz further reported that the implementation of the executions had been pending the authorities completing their investigations into the prisoners’ involvement with Daesh—the three juveniles now in prison and the four Shi’a who were executed on January 2 (including Sheikh Baqir al-Nimr, Ali’s uncle) were convicted of many crimes, usually “inciting violence” and “shooting policemen,” but activities on behalf of Daesh or the Islamic State or even al-Qaeda were not among them. Neither was murder.
One can hazard a guess as to the effect this publicity had on the families and loved ones of the three: on one hand, it may have been heartening to witness the world bearing witness with speed and ferocity, as the #SaveThe3 hashtag started trending on Twitter, but it also may have given needless vitality to the fears for the worst outcomes that the families already live with every day. The three were sentenced to death last year, and, for the families each day opens and closes with the simple knowledge of this in their hearts.
Johansen contacted Amnesty International and Reprieve two weeks ago to inquire whether the two organizations’ contacts in the region had learned of new dangers for Ali, Dawood, and Abdullah. He was rebuffed. “For the last six months, they have occasionally been publishing rumors, crying wolf, about the three youths, and every time, I have contacted them and informed them that if the rumors do not have substance behind them, they are only stoking fears and they are also potentially putting the lives of these three in danger.” The three prisoners could be relocated without warning in the prison system or they could be tortured to betray the names of those on the outside they might be talking to. Loved ones could be made to vanish or even join them in prison.
With the publication of each rumor, Johansen’s vast network of activists and contacts in the region starts to reach out to him to learn what he may know or be willing to publish. (I contacted him yesterday to confirm a story that Ali’s family had not spoken with him yesterday, which is his usual day to contact them.) Any contacts in the region who might be betrayed as being contacts see their lives put in danger each time a news story about the prisoners is published. Their lives are also placed in danger each time a rumor is published.
Amnesty International is a business, a non-profit non-governmental organization that will celebrate its 55th anniversary this summer. According to Amnesty International USA’s most recent financial publication (2014; link is a PDF), it raised $32,619,612 ($25,936,997 from individual donors) and its expenses totaled $32,113,895. It depends on individual donations, and it needs attention through marketing (read: advertising) to attract those donations for its work.
Its marketing machine is efficient in creating that attention. Every time those three young men’s faces appear on Twitter and Facebook, a new grassroots activist might make a donation to Amnesty or to Reprieve. Each time Raif Badawi’s face is featured, a new donation appears.
Johansen threw down a gauntlet while speaking with me: “I want to write a letter to them. Dear Amnesty: We know you are a business, but do not pretend you know all about human rights. You were not fully invested in the story of Raif Badawi (arrested in 2012, not featured in Amnesty’s work until 2014) case until 200,000 supporters made you come on board. I know it, PEN International knows it, and you know it. Shame on Amnesty. These three lives might be in danger today.”
Amnesty International’s marketing machine may be too efficient for its human rights work to be effective.
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Raymond Johansen, Global Pirate Party Activist and Anon who is taking part in the Raif Badawi and Nimr family causes, granted an exclusive interview and provided editorial support.
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