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US Rally Highlights Worldwide Rights Struggle

  • Alex Villarreal

Some 60 students and activists rallied Friday in Washington, D.C., for human rights around the world. Participants in the annual "Get on the Bus Day" event, organized by Amnesty International USA, marched to five different embassies to urge justice for those whose basic rights have been violated.

They began at the embassy of the Dominican Republic, calling for answers to the 2009 disappearance of rights activist Juan Almonte. Witnesses say police kidnapped him. Authorities call him a fugitive.

Barbara E. Joe, Amnesty USA's volunteer Caribbean coordinator, said that in more than 20 years with Amnesty, this is not the first Dominican disappearance she has seen.

"Where is Juan Almonte? We want to know. His wife wants to know, his children [want to know]. He has six children living in the Dominican Republic. They have a lawyer looking, and it's just a complete blank," said Joe.

Speaking out

Then it was on to the Romanian Embassy. The issue here: housing, specifically, for the ethnic Roma minority, hundreds of whom have faced forced evictions.

Eighteen-year-old Belen Medina said no one should suffer such discrimination.

"Housing is a fundamental right. And I think that we can also see this, this could be anyone else, this could be another group, and that I don't believe it's okay in this day and age to ignore the plights of any people, no matter what their ethnicity or race is," said Medina.

Next up, the embassy of Sudan, whose president, Omar al-Bashir, faces two arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court for genocide and other crimes in the war-torn Darfur region - charges he denies.

Targeted messages

Ned Laskowski, president of the Save Darfur coalition in the western U.S. city of Seattle, said, "What we want to continue to give to the people in Sudan, and Darfur in particular, is a message of hope, that we're here, we haven't given up on them, and they shouldn't give up on themselves."

At the Indonesian Embassy, that message even attracted attention from inside. Here the focus turned to Papuan rights advocate Filep Karma.

"He was at a peaceful rally, speaking for the Papuan people," said Amnesty volunteer Claudia Vandermade. "He [Karma] raised a flag that the Indonesian government has called illegal, and for that, he received a 15-year sentence for peaceful expression. And we consider him to be a prisoner of conscience who needs to be immediately and unconditionally released."

Championing human rights

Finally, after a stop to promote gay rights, most went on to the embassy of Zimbabwe, championing human rights defenders like themselves.

Sarah Hager, Amnesty USA's Zimbabwe specialist, said it is scary to know the risks other activists face.

"To stand here today with police monitoring our activity and have no fear about it... I had no fear coming here today, whereas if you're a member of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, and you go to protest, you know that there's a good chance you're going to be beaten that day," said Hager.

It is for that reason Hager said that she and other activists came to show their solidarity, in the same spirit that inspired the first "Get on the Bus Day" in New York 17 years ago.