MEETING. In Bangladesh, how “enforced disappearances” are becoming commonplace 

A Bangladeshi lawyer specializing in the rights of minorities and LGBTQI+ people, Shahanur Islam is one of the 2023 winners of the Marianne Initiative. Dedicated for many years to the queer community through his actions and criminal cases, the lawyer has been rewarded by the Initiative for his unwavering commitment. The Eye of the House of journalists had the opportunity to interview him about his commitment and his NGO.

Married with a young son, Shahanur has often feared for his family. His wife has herself specialized in defending the rights of women and children, who are also oppressed in Bangladesh. Yet Shahanur Islam has never given in to the threats, intimidation and aggression he suffers at the hands of his detractors. A lawyer by passion and deeply motivated by respect for human rights, nothing seems able to stop him.

And with good reason: Bangladesh is a South Asian country dominated by the Islamic religion. There, the LGBTQI+ community faces many and varied forms of violence, discrimination and marginalization within its family, society and state due to segregative laws, religious sentiments and social norms. Having had a transgender cousin assaulted, Shahanur knows what he’s talking about. 

Bangladesh has also experienced periods of political instability, with frequent changes of government and cases of political violence. A toxic, even deadly environment for rights defenders, where their work is seen as a challenge to the government or to powerful actors. 

Weak democratic institutions and a lack of respect for the rule of law prevent the implementation and enforcement of human rights protections,” explains the 2023 Marianne Initiative winner. “There is a culture of impunity for human rights violations. This discourages people from seeking and obtaining justice, which makes our struggle difficult,” he laments.

Journalists, activists and human rights defenders are the constant victims of harassment, threats and even violence for denouncing violations or criticizing the government. Extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances are widespread in Bangladesh. This contributes to a climate of fear and mistrust of law enforcement agencies, and hampers efforts to protect human rights.”

But other parameters must also be taken into account: poverty and illiteracy (literacy rate 75%), “which exacerbate human rights problems in Bangladesh, as marginalized people lack access to basic rights and services. In addition, human rights organizations and institutions have limited resources, preventing them from effectively investigating and documenting violations and providing support to victims.”

A lawyer dedicated to the LGBTQI+ community

This situation has deeply shocked and moved me, especially as I have witnessed similar persecution and discrimination in my neighborhood and within my extended family.” Feeling a strong sense of empathy and concern for their well-being, “I knew I had to act to change things.”

A few years ago, he began to learn about LGBTQI+ issues around the world and to make contact with committed activists and institutions. “These experiences have strengthened my determination to defend LGBTQI+ rights in my own country,” in both his personal and professional life.

He firmly believes in the fundamental principles of human rights, equality and dignity for all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation, age, gender identity or expression.

His work aims to empower LGBTQI+ people, helping them to assert their rights and claim their rightful place in society. He knows his role as an advocate is “essential” to “promoting positive change, raising awareness and lobbying for better legal protection for the community. “As a human rights defender, lawyer and citizen journalist in Bangladesh, I have for some years been defending the rights of minorities, as well as victims of torture, extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and organized violence.” An “unwavering commitment” for the queer community, and will never stop contributing to a future “where all individuals can live in dignity and freedom.”

Multiple violent assaults in Bangladesh

A fight that seems never-ending. “Last year, I received threats from Islamic extremists, which also targeted my wife and child. That’s why we have taken various security measures to protect them while they live in Bangladesh.” Threats he still receives today.

On the ground, his family avoids crowded places, only goes out in groups and not after dark; they frequently change their itinerary when traveling, as well as their place of residence. Precautions that have a heavy impact on their daily lives. “The safety of my family is an absolute priority, and I would be grateful for any help we could receive to overcome these difficult circumstances,” says the lawyer.

I have faced terrifying experiences, including repeated threats, death threats, intimidation, physical assaults, and unlawful prosecution,” he confides without lowering his head. Shahanur lodged a complaint with each assault, to no avail.

First on January 9, 2011, in the Thakurgaon district in the north of the country. At the time, he was in the presence of two other rights defenders, on a fact-finding mission to investigate a human rights violation. “During our visit, we were attacked by a group of around ten people. One of the assailants introduced himself as a member of the local Parishad Union (editor’s note: rural council), while another claimed to be its president.”

They aggressively questioned us about the purpose of our presence in the area, then one of them physically assaulted me as I tried to call the local police. They then began robbing us at gunpoint, taking video cameras, a laptop, important documents and cash among other things. I sustained further injuries during this assault when I desperately tried to call for help.”

The drama didn’t stop there: the men forced the group “to pose for photos while holding sums of money in US dollars.” Threatened with death and with the compromising photos being published in newspapers, the rights defenders failed to report the assault to the police.

On August 26, 2020, while working at the Naogaon District Court in the north of the country, Shahanur was attacked “by a group of Islamic terrorists. As soon as I left the courtroom and reached the veranda, I was suddenly attacked with the clear intention of abducting and killing me.”

Lawyers and law clerks save him in extremis from the terrorists. He emerged traumatized, with serious wounds under his left eye, on his forehead and the rest of his body, requiring hospitalization. A situation that reinforces Shahanur’s commitment to human rights. “I will continue to defend justice, equality and the protection of human rights for all, regardless of the risks we face“, he says repeatedly.

When he reports incidents to the police, they refuse to act or investigate. “For the assault that occurred in 2020, I was able to file a complaint and two of the assailants were apprehended. They were subsequently released on bail, and the investigation failed to arrest the other criminals involved. The police even submitted an erroneous investigation report against three of the perpetrators, wrongly discharging them.”

In October 2022, my transgender cousin and I were forcibly detained by a group of individuals in Kolabazar, Naogaon district. They threatened me with death if I didn’t withdraw the complaint filed against Jahurul Islam and my attackers in 2020. Despite these challenges and threats, I did not get justice and I continue to fight for accountability and for the protection of myself and others.”

Continued threats and harassment, even though he’s no longer in the country. “On July 11, 2023, a sub-inspector from the Special Branch of Police (SB) in Badalgachhi, Naogaon, visited my home in Bangladesh. He sought detailed information about me and my family, and asked me for personal information.” He also questioned his cousin about his work, “related to the establishment of LGBTQI+ rights and my advocacy for the decriminalization of homosexuality in Bangladesh.”

Furthermore, on June 21, 2023, “a user named ‘Mon Day’ on Facebook launched a vicious campaign against me, on an Islamic extremist Facebook group called ‘Caravan’. This campaign was aimed at deporting me from Bangladesh. They called me an enemy of Islam and falsely accused me of implementing a Western agenda to legitimize homosexuality. They also called for a ban on JusticeMakers Bangladesh, an organization I founded.”

JusticeMakers, the voice of forgotten Bangladeshis

Together with a group of young lawyers and social workers, Shahanur Islam founded JusticeMakers Bangladesh in 2010, after receiving a grant from International Bridges to Justice (IBJ) in Switzerland. Their NGO is dedicated to justice, rehabilitation and community development, with a focus on “the protection and promotion of human rights”, explains the award winner. They go so far as to represent victims in court and accompany them in their complaints.

Shahanur during a conference.

We are committed to respecting the principles set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the fundamental provisions of the Constitution of Bangladesh. We also provide humanitarian assistance to Bangladeshi victims of violations and discrimination.”

JusticeMakers defends “victims of extrajudicial killings, torture, organized violence and disappearances, as well as people facing violence and discrimination, including women and children.”

Despite the challenges and dangers I face, the moments of success and knowing I’m making a difference in someone’s life make it all worthwhile. Seeing the smiles on the faces of those whose rights have been defended, and knowing that they can now live in dignity and freedom, is truly rewarding.”

The organization, now based in France, also aims to “contribute to the defense, promotion, education, protection and realization of human rights, guaranteeing equality for all individuals, regardless of race, gender, sexual or religious orientation, caste or social class. We also provide access to existing support services for asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants of Bangladeshi origin living in France,” explains Shahanur.

Our legal experts will provide them with knowledge of existing legislation, constitutional rights and international human rights instruments.” At the same time, they communicate Bangladeshi criminal cases internationally, in order to “raise public awareness and lobby for the resolution of cases.”

They even mobilize the highest international institutions and jurisdictions, not hesitating to organize meetings, seminars and training courses. Shahanur and JusticeMakers don’t intend to stop there: they plan to “soon publish a monthly newsletter on the state of violations in Bangladesh”, as well as “research papers and books.”

We will maintain close relations and cooperation with other human rights organizations, embassies, local associations of lawyers, doctors, journalists’ associations and other professionals.” Finally, “a hotline” will be set up in Bangladesh for anyone concerned.

Marianne Initiative, an “invaluable opportunity” for JusticeMakers

These milestones would not have been possible without his participation in the Marianne Initiative, a veritable incubator for rights defenders. Shahanur feels “extremely lucky and honored” to be a laureate of the promotion of 2023. “This recognition has had a significant impact on my work as a rights defender,” he proclaims. His NGO has gained greater visibility and reached “a wider audience.” He speaks of an “invaluable opportunity” within the program, which has enabled him to have a “greater positive impact.”

Being recognized as a laureate validates my dedication and impact in promoting human rights,” the lawyer tells us. “It has strengthened my credibility, attracting support, partnership and collaboration from individuals and organizations who share this common commitment.”

At the same time, he was able to develop his advocacy skills and deepen his knowledge of international law. In short, “the international attention and support generated by the Marianne Initiative has contributed to my security and well-being in carrying out my work.”

Courageous, Shahanur is undeterred by the violence or the dizzying mass of work: he knows just how marginalized the LGBTQI+ community is in his country, and that all too often it’s a matter of life and death.

Credits photo : Jon Southcoasting

Maud Baheng Daizey

Bangladesh: Where Freedom of Speech is Gradually Shrinking

Freedom of speech is the principle supported by individuals or communities to freely express their opinions without fear, without surveillance or under the obligation to accept the directives and approval of authorities. At present, various countries of the world are not following this principle. That is, they are not protecting freedom of speech. The South Asian country of Bangladesh is one of the places, environments or countries where freedom of speech is most threatened.

Bangladesh is a promising country in South Asia. Although small in size, this country with a large population is full of natural beauty. The country gained independence from West Pakistan on ’16 December 1971‘ through a bloody war. In a democratic process, the Constitution enshrines the rule that the country’s government is elected by direct popular vote.

Since 2009, the government of Bangladesh has been run by a large political party called Awami League. Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of the country’s architect Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is the party’s president and the country’s prime minister. Sheikh Hasina is facing a lot of criticism due to her strict policy of suppressing the voices of opposition parties, dissenters and the media. Her critics and opponents consider her a ‘Proponent of Dictatorship’. Criticism of the government led by Sheikh Hasina, especially in the cases of suppression of freedom of the press, torture of journalists, disappearances and murders of journalists is everywhere. The United States has already sanctioned several officers of the country’s law enforcement agencies (RAB) for their alleged involvement in human rights violations.

During the ongoing regime of Awami League, many journalists have been killed, many journalists have been attacked and sued, many print, electronic and online media have been shut down.

More than a thousand injured journalists in five years

According to the ‘Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK, Law and Justice Center in english)’, a human rights organization in the country, 35 journalists were killed in Bangladesh between 1992 to 2023. From 2013 to 2018 a total of 1,226 journalists were injured, killed and tortured. Among them, Awami League tortured 383 journalists. Police killed 130 and 240 journalists were tortured by various terrorists. Not a single case was given a fair trial.

Asak also says that in 6 months from January to June this year (2023), about 119 journalists have been tortured and harassed in various ways.

In 2013, Dainik Amar Desh, Diganta TV, Channel One, CSB and 35 online portals together were shut down. As a result, thousands of Bangladeshi journalists have become unemployed.

Fed up with attacks, prosecutions and torture, many prominent and renowned journalists of Bangladesh have chosen a life in exile. Among them are Mahmudur Rahman, editor of ‘Amar Desh’ newspaper, columnist Pinaki Bhattacharya, journalist Kanak Sarwar and Elias Hossain.

Digital Security Act, the new threat of freedom of press

The issue of torture of journalists and suppression of newspapers in Bangladesh is being widely criticized in international circles beyond the boundaries of the country. In particular, the black law against journalists called the ‘Digital Security Act‘ has raised the concern of the international community. The US State Department’s annual report on human rights also brought up the issue of freedom of speech in Bangladesh. The U.S. report said that while freedom of expression is enshrined in Bangladesh’s Constitution. The government has failed to enforce it in many cases and that there are “significant restrictions” on freedom of expression in the country.

This matter has been mentioned in the report published by the US State Department on 30 March 2020 on the human rights situation in Bangladesh.

In the overall situation it can be understood that Bangladesh is very limited. Day by day freedom of speech in the country is shrinking. The country’s media and journalists are going through a dangerous time.

Photo credit : Syed Mahamudur Rahman/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Jamil Ahmed

PORTRAIT. Farhad Shamo Roto, Ézidi “stateless in my own country”

Always accompanied by his trusty smile, Farhad Shamo Roto exudes joy of life. Winner of the 2023 Marianne Initiative and founder of the “Voice of Ézidis” association, Farhad now also helps Ukrainian refugees find a home. From the Sinjar mountains to the Elysée Palace, Farhad has never stopped fighting for his people and human rights. Meet the rights defender for the Eye of the House of Journalists.

Despite hardships and obstacles, the almost-thirty-year-old Ézidi continues to forge his path with insatiable energy. He has made his community his vocation, or rather the freedom of his people. A repressed minority in Iraq, the Ézidis fear that their history and culture will disappear with the genocide.

A thousand-year-old people harassed and massacred

Ézidis and not Yézidi, as the international error would have it. The term “Yézidi” is incorrect for the community concerned: behind this appellation lies political manipulation, in order to categorize the Ézidis as a terrorist group.

The word ‘Ézidi’ is the correct version. It dates back to Sumerian and Babylonian times, and is derived from Khuday Ez Dam, which means ‘I was created by God’,” confides Farhad.

“But in recent decades, scholars and the media have associated the Ézidis with Yazid Bin Mawia, the second caliph of the Umayyad caliphate who opposed the Prophet Mohammed.”

A use that will cost the Ézidi people dearly, as ancient conflicts between Yazid Bin Mawia and Mohammed still divide Iraq.

We shouldn’t let anyone involve us in a conflict that has no end. We come from a community dating back to ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. That’s why I write our name as Ézidi and encourage others to do the same.”

“I was born in 1994, in a village in northern Iraq, in the Sinjar region. We were a family of farmers who grew garlic, and our only source of light was daylight. I was one of the first in my village to gain access to school under Saddam Hussein’s regime, and even graduated with honors.”

Being an Ézidi and considered indigenous, Farhad was for a long time the victim of harassment and bullying by his classmates.

His community experienced, and still experiences, waves of extreme violence from the rest of the population.

The Ézidis practice a non-Muslim religion, have their own language and a specific culture. Under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, the government attempted to assimilate the Ézidis, notably by forcing them to abandon their customs and traditions and forcibly converting them to Islam. Islamic terrorist groups, on the other hand, advocated their total disappearance.

“Mothers’ cries will never leave my mind”

A failure followed by violent repression from 2014 onwards. “The Islamic State harassed us, tortured us, then resorted to massacres and genocide, recognized by the UN as such. As a kid, I lived in isolated mountains, but we heard about the massacres all the time.”

From August 3 to 15, 2014, the Ézidis plunged to the depths of hell. The Islamic State decides to carry out an ethnic purge, costing the lives of at least 5,000 people, and leading to the exile of over 300,000 Ézidis. Over 5,000 women were also kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery. Figures that continue to climb as tongues are loosened and independent research is carried out.

I was homeless and stateless in my own country,” says Farhad, an emotional first-year university biology student.

Even today, he is unable to return to his native village. “My family and I only survived by a miracle. We were trapped, the only way out was in the mountains, in a corridor crossing Syria before going up towards Iraq. We ended up in camps for internally displaced persons.”

These camps, set up by the UN at the start of the genocide, remain a living hell for the refugees. “I lived there for three and a half years with my family. Many refugees were committing suicide, and we were terrorized and lost. The experience felt like years in prison. The screams and cries of the mothers will never leave my mind.”

However, Farhad was unable to remain cloistered in his prison: the young man was active, setting up a network to help new arrivals settle in over the years, and setting up a thousand tents with friends.

I went into biology because my village needed people with medical skills. With no outside help, the displaced have to fend for themselves with food and other supplies. I had no choice but to cross the border regularly to bring back food for my family. And for a plethora of volunteers, it was a one-way trip.”

The Islamic State bombed us and shot at us when its members spotted us. All these experiences only made me want to dedicate my life to others.”

The Drôme, a surprising haven of peace for the Ezidis

After three long years, a ray of hope appeared at the end of the tunnel. One of Farhad’s uncles was now the bodyguard of a diplomat stationed in France, and had been negotiating his nephew’s arrival since August 2014.

His uncle had a narrow escape himself, and managed to get Farhad and his parents out of the country. “Volunteer groups in the Drôme agreed to host us in their homes, but getting our visas took us a year. In 2017, we then flew to France.”

He lands with his family in Grane, not far from Valence. Thanks to organizations such as Val de Drôme Accueil Réfugiés, entire families can flee genocide and enjoy peace.

More than 80 families have been accommodated in the department since 2015. Today, France is home to more than 10,000 Ezidis.

After a few months in the Drôme, Farhad settled in Lyon for four weeks. He seized the opportunity to move to Paris in 2018, thanks to a civic service until 2019.

There he met Mario Mažić, co-founder of the NGO “Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Croatia”, and in 2019 registered his association “Voice of Ézidis” (VOE) in the French capital.

Paris also enabled him to grow VOE, something he couldn’t do in the Drôme. Although he had been active for several years, he had previously tried to register VOE in Iraq, but to no avail: he had to change the organization’s name, which meant losing its very essence.

But under the radar, in Iraq as in France, Farhad Shamo Roto raises mountains to help his compatriots. “I’ve worked on a wide variety of cases” he explains, gazing into the distance, recalling the past.

I’ve provided legal advice, helping survivors settled in France with their paperwork and integration, I’ve organized many events to link the French and Ézidi communities in France. We mobilized to help the community during the pandemic, I was sometimes a financial support…” he sums up. In all, more than 500 families benefited from his help, even during the pandemic.

Mario Mažić, with whom he maintains a strong bond, calls him on a beautiful afternoon in June 2020 to tell him about the program initiated by the Obama Foundation, called “European Leaders.”

According to Farhad, “Mario was convinced that I could be part of the program. I did an interview and I was selected.”

European Leaders and Initiative Marianne, the international turning point

With a wealth of experience, a master’s degree in International Relations from HEIP and an unstoppable will, Farhad was selected to take part in the Leaders Programs in 2020, for a six-month period.

Its aim is to “inspire, empower and connect” activists and rights defenders from all corners of the globe, following the example of the Marianne Initiative. The first internship was “great training in advocacy” for Farhad, who wants to develop his VOE organization internationally, and helped him solidify his address book.

This program was a real turning point for me. The other participants are part of my family now, we really stick together!”

There he met Belarusian LGBTQ+ rights activist Nick Antipov. The two men hit it off and keep in touch, driven by the same vocation. Delighted by his experience, Farhad set about finding a similar internship: he was eventually selected for the Marianne Initiative class of 2023, to which he applied in December 2022.

Launched in December 2021 by President Emmanuel Macron, the Marianne Initiative for Human Rights Defenders is a three-part program. The first is international, involving support for human rights defenders in their respective countries through the French diplomatic network.

There is also a national component, involving the hosting in France of human rights defenders from all over the world for six months, to enable them to develop their skills and network. Finally, a federative component aims to build an international network of human rights defenders based on French institutions (associative, public, private).

For six months, human rights defenders from all over the world can build and launch their projects in France. This year, thirteen people of various nationalities were honored for their struggles: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, Uganda, Russia, Mali, Bangladesh, Bahrain and Peru.

After welcoming fourteen women last year, it’s now the turn of a mixed class to be welcomed to France as part of the Initiative. Laureates will have access to a training program to strengthen their capacities and commitment in their country of origin or in France, whether in favor of minority rights, freedom of the press and expression, civil and political rights, women’s rights or environmental rights.

Thanks to the program, the winners can develop their association or their work from the French capital, as well as weave a solid network of rights defenders. It’s also a way for France to unite its prizewinners and raise its profile abroad. Since 2022, the Maison des journalistes and the Marianne Initiative have been working together to strengthen exchanges between exiled journalists and human rights defenders around the world.

I was able to take part in the Initiative thanks to the referents who supported my application“, explains the young man. “For six months, I further developed my skills in advocacy and association management, and expanded my network of national and international institutions and NGOs. In the end, the Initiative continues well beyond this time.”

The war in Ukraine, a sad echo of his life

When Russia declared its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Farhad and his friend Nick were devastated. Co-founder of the anti-discrimination project MAKEOUT, Nick Antipov is well versed in the issues of exile and forced migration.

Both are wondering how to help the thousands of Ukrainians who will soon be forced to move away from the conflict. Remembering the reception system in the Drôme region, where French families take in Ézidis, Farhad, with the help of his friend, mobilizes civil society. The aim was to find homes for Ukrainian families and civilians as quickly as possible.

In just a few days, the ICanHelp association was up and running, with the website receiving hundreds of hits a day and just as many requests. The interface allows Ukrainians to register and others to offer their homes as refuge. Nick and Farhad are responsible for putting people in touch with each other.

Very quickly, we became the link between the two parties in France, and received an enormous amount of support. The European Union, Canada, Germany and Turkey joined the program. One Frenchman even hosted 20 families single-handedly!”

Farhad is still very committed to his work for the Ézidi cause, and continues to help refugees from the other minority in France. He is currently working with the UN to protect his people in Iraq, where they still have no status.

The UN allows us to be heard and to have a voice in our lives“, which he hopes will soon be “peaceful.”

Next month marks the nine-year anniversary of the genocide. Farhad is organizing a press conference with some twenty other Ézidi associations. They have also launched an appeal to Iraq to rebuild the Sinjar region, their birthplace.

Maud Baheng Daizey

Crédit photo : Marcus Wiechmann

PORTRAIT. Tamilla Imanova: “It was impossible for the Russian people to remain silent.”

At just 26, Tamilla already has a brilliant humanitarian and professional record. With a degree in law from one of the best universities in Moscow, the young Russian earn her stripes as a lawyer at the Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre in the capital. Winner of the 2023 Marianne Initiative, Tamilla Imanova talks to Eye about the defence of human rights in Russia, and the impact of activism on the war in Ukraine.


A life for human rights and civil liberties

Defending human rights was not, however, her first career choice. At the age of 16, during a school exchange to the United States in Rio Vista, Texas, she discovered a standard of living unknown to her until then, which she would like to bring back to her native city in Russia.

People lived better than we do. Children could drive at 16, they had modern computers at school (we had them too, but old ones), better education and teachers were respectful,” she lists wistfully. “In Russia, teachers very often disrespect you, just as the government won’t respect you as a citizen.” A reflection also nourished by her hobbies such as tennis lessons and the chess club, gradually giving birth to a vocation within her.

The sunny young woman remembers that she didn’t want to become a lawyer in her first year of law school, but that she had always wanted to help others. While looking for a work placement, she discovered Memorial, which quickly became the inspiration for her future career.

Memorial-International is a historic NGO created at the dissolution of the Soviet bloc in 1989, to document Soviet oppression, particularly during the Stalinist period. In 1993, another NGO was created: the Human Rights Center “Memorial”, to protect Russian citizens from the current repression.  “The two organizations are friends and exchange information regularly. The Nobel Prize has also been awarded to both branches, in recognition of their past and present work.” 

Tamilla joins Memorial as a trainee lawyer in 2019, on the recommendation of her teachers. She greatly appreciates the work done, far from the strict codes of the university. “I wanted to come back as soon as possible, as soon as I graduated,” she explains playfully into the microphone.

I often say it’s a love affair between me and Memorial,” she jokes. “A love affair that’s been going on for four years!“In her third year, Tamilla joined Memorial as a trainee lawyer, on the recommendation of her teachers. She really enjoyed the work, which was far removed from the strict codes of university life.

Before the invasion of Ukraine, her work consisted of representing citizens in remote regions of the country, for example in cases of domestic violence with her team. Human rights and the defence of civil liberties are the cornerstones of the organization.

In regions like Dagestan, tradition prevails over the law, and she was trying to change that. A genius in her field, she won her first case before the European Court of Human Rights in 2022 concerning domestic violence, a great source of pride for her. 

Most of the time, Russia paid the fines imposed by the ECHR. But sometimes, the Court’s rulings led to new Russian human rights legislation.” Memorial’s cases are often sent to the European Court of Human Rights when Russia denies them justice, which draws the ire of the Kremlin.

Memorial, 2022 Nobel Peace Prize and thorn in the Kremlin’s side

In 2021, the Russian government set its sights on Memorial, which it intended to dissolve thanks to the law on Western influence and foreign agents. Working with a number of European actors, Memorial had been labelled a foreign agent since 2014, when it denounced the conflict in Crimea, and its members, who are still free, still risk imprisonment.

 “In Russia, everything happens legally because the law can quickly be hijacked” by the government. Since this year, you can be labelled as a foreign agent without receiving subsidies from outside. “Anyone could be labelled a foreign agent, whether they worked for an association or not. The simple fact of using Facebook could incriminate you, the law remains very vague”, Tamilla explains.

On 28 and 29 December 2021, the Russian Supreme Court and the Moscow City Court ordered the dissolution of the two Memorial NGOs, the Memorial International and the Memorial Human Rights Centre,  a decision unanimously condemned by the Council of Europe and internationally.

Today, both NGOs had to leave Russian territory, despite the ECHR’s request for the dissolution to be suspended. “We made our fight public on Telegram, Instagram, Twitter and Russian VKontakte, informing the public of our dissolution, but that didn’t stop the government.”

A shocking decision for the Memorial teams, who are nevertheless trying to envisage the future: should the NGO be relocated, or should a new one be set up? Should they defy the ban and continue to work in secret in Russia? Before they could even make a decision, the teams watched in horror as Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

Very quickly, they started to arrest anyone who criticized the war. It was impossible for human rights NGOs like ours to remain silent“, says Tamilla forcefully. “It was impossible for the Russian people to remain silent. In February and March 2022, not a day went by without citizens demonstrating.”

And even if this protest is less publicized today, demonstrations against the war are still planned in Russia. “So we haven’t changed our stance, and have founded a new one: the Memorial HRDC, Human Rights Defence Center.” For now.

Some of her colleagues decided to leave Russia and operate from abroad, still facing possible legal proceedings. Like Bakhrom Khamroyev, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in May 2023 for “terrorism and treachery“. His offence? Providing legal advice to an Islamic group,  which the government has classified as terrorist, even though its members have never committed a single act of violence. 

Initiative Marianne, an incubator for all kinds of projects

The co-chairman of Memorial’s, Oleg Orlov, a leading campaigner for rights and freedoms in Russia, had decided to stay put. On 8 June, he was tried for “discrediting the army” in an interview with Mediapart, where he claimed that Russia was now “fascist“.

 After several fines, he now faces imprisonment. “We have covered the first two hearings of the trial, and we are eagerly awaiting the hearing on 21 July“, explains Tamilla, with a determined expression. “We don’t really have any hope, but he’s still very brave and is keeping us on the right track.”

I myself left Russia in April 2022 for Poland, which provided me with a humanitarian visa. This year they have granted me a temporary residence permit, they have been very welcoming.” Other countries such as Brazil and France have granted permanent residence to Tamilla’s colleagues,  allowing her to take some time off work and to participate in the Marianne Initiative

A photo from Marina Merkulova.
Launched in December 2021 by President Emmanuel Macron, the Marianne Initiative for Human Rights Defenders is a three-part program. The first is international, involving support for human rights defenders in their respective countries through the French diplomatic network.

There is also a national component, involving the hosting in France of human rights defenders from all over the world for six months, to enable them to develop their skills and network. Finally, a federative component aims to build an international network of human rights defenders based on French institutions (associative, public, private).

For six months, human rights defenders from all over the world can build and launch their projects in France. This year, thirteen people of various nationalities were honored for their struggles: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, Uganda, Russia, Mali, Bangladesh, Bahrain and Peru.

After welcoming fourteen women last year, it’s now the turn of a mixed class to be welcomed to France as part of the Initiative. Laureates will have access to a training program to strengthen their capacities and commitment in their country of origin or in France, whether in favor of minority rights, freedom of the press and expression, civil and political rights, women’s rights or environmental rights.

Thanks to the program, the winners can develop their association or their work from the French capital, as well as weave a solid network of rights defenders. It’s also a way for France to unite its prizewinners and raise its profile abroad. Since 2022, the Maison des journalistes and the Marianne Initiative have been working together to strengthen exchanges between exiled journalists and human rights defenders around the world.

Come back to Russia to end up in jail

I’m not going back to Russia for the time being, it’s far too dangerous for me. You only have to Google my name to see my actions against the invasion of Ukraine and my positions on human rights.” Positions that could land her in prison, such as her work with Muslim ethnic minorities, which she continues to defend, and her research and legal support for Ukrainians detained on Russian soil.

What I appreciated most about the Marianne Initiative was being able to work not only with 14 people from various nationalities, but also from different fields. It was the first time I had met rights defenders from divergent sectors.” These encounters led to a change in her personal and professional development.

I discovered the work of activists, journalists and politicians who are different from me, but who serve the same cause. We share our work and want to keep in touch with everyone.”

Today, Tamilla would like to extend the Alumni network and meet the class of 2022.I’ve also encouraged two friends to apply for 2024,” she confides with a discreet laugh. “I hope to be able to start mentoring as soon as the program starts in 2024, rather than a few weeks later.”

Thanks to her Polish temporary residence permit, Tamilla is free to move within the Schengen area, which will enable her to continue her work for Memorial and with the UN with greater peace of mind.

A Memorial team is also entirely dedicated to supporting Russians who refuse to be mobilized in Ukraine. Many have been kidnapped and imprisoned, “or brainwashed and promised prison so that they will go to the front“, Tamilla explains.

“We have a Telegram bot where civilians can write to us, and we select our cases. It’s not a very secure system, but many Russians are on Telegram. We also have a hotline that is used a lot.”

We are working with a UN special rapporteur on the situation in Russia, Mariana Katzarova from Bulgaria, to whom we are providing our evidence of abuses of power by the Kremlin. We’re also planning to expand our legal teams,” says Tamilla proudly, undaunted by the sheer volume of work.

Through our work on the invasion, we have even developed solid expertise in Russian military jurisdiction and legislation“, she adds, still smiling. All of which adds up to an extraordinary experience at such a young age, which the Marianne Initiative has honored this year.

Photos credits : © Marina Merkulova

Maud Baheng Daizey