Friday, May 31, 2013

Criticism of Burmese government's persecution of Aung Ko Latt and other victims

The claims of Burma's transition to democracy are meaningless when Aung Ko Latt and others like him continue to be wrongfully imprisoned. The Burmese government's promotion of trade with its country is nothing but a masquerade to keep people around the world from knowing the truth about Burma's ongoing human rights abuses. Until there is genuine respect for human rights in Burma, there can be no democracy. The international community needs to continue to pressure the Burmese government into halting persecution of its innocent citizens.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Criticism of Iran's crackdown on Ashkan Zahabian, student activist

A May 29, 2013 article from the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) states that on May 27, 2013, Iranian security officials broke into the home of Ashkan Zahabian and arrested him. He was a former student at Ferdowsi University and a former member of the Daftar Tahkim Vahdat Student Organization General Council. Zahabian was then transferred to Mati Kola Prison, located in the Iranian city of Babol, on the same day. This information has been provided to the ICHRI from an anonymous source. The ICHRI has also been informed that the security officials who broke into Zahabian's home first claimed that they were electricians, and asked to enter his house. When they were inside Zahabian's home, they threatened him with physical abuse and guns. They took him away, dragging him out of his bed, without even allowing him a chance to get dressed.

The source also noted that after Zahabian's family appeared in court, the Sentence Enforcement Unit officials claimed that they had sent three court orders to the family. However, the family stated that they had never received any court orders and challenged the validity of the claim. They also questioned why Zahabian was arrested without court orders and without any legal process. Babol Court authorities claim that the purpose of Zahabian's arrest was to enforce his eight-month jail term from his 2011 case. Zahabian was charged with spreading propaganda against the regime and threatening national security, according to a July 2011 ruling from Judge Bagherian. The source also commented that Zahabian was charged with associating with Grand Ayatollahs in the Iranian city of Qom. However, according to the attorney, this charge has not been proven with any evidence.

Zahabian studied chemistry while he was in university and was a former member of the university's Islamic Association. He was suspended for one academic term in 2008 due to his student activism. Four days after the 2009 elections, the Intelligence Ministry arrested him. A militant group identified as Ansar-e-Hezbollah, who were dressed in plainclothes at the time, beat him severely while he was arrested. He was arrested again on November 4, 2009 during Student Day protests. A Babol Revolutionary Court sentenced him to six months in jail without his presence in the courtroom. In February 2009, he was banned from continuing his education based on an Intelligence Ministry decision, while still suspended from university. He was then expelled, just one term away from graduation. He was arrested again on May 2, 2011. After spending 43 days in solitary cells and being interrogated in Shahid Kachooei Prison, located in the Iranian city of Sari, he was taken to Mati Kola Prison.

The source also noted that Zahabian started a hunger strike after serving more than half of his six month jail term at Mati Kola Prison, to protest his unjust imprisonment, where he was being kept in a ward with dangerous criminals. His health worsened, yet he was forced into solitary confinement. He was ignored by security guards and doctors working in the jail, which led to him losing consciousness. Zahabian developed liver, stomach, and speech problems as a result of being interrogated in jail and because of his hunger strike. After his release, he remained under medical care.

The fact that Zahabian has been arrested without any evidence shows once again that the Iranian legal system is not based on justice; it is based on persecuting innocent victims. It is also completely cowardly of the security officials who broke into Zahabian's home to misrepresent themselves as electricians, threaten him, and arrest him without any court orders. To make matters worse, Zahabian's health has been neglected with full knowledge from Iranian doctors and security officials, causing his condition to deteriorate even more. Zahabian is an innocent citizen who was working hard by going to university and getting educated, but now his future has been ruined. Zahabian's wrongful arrests have caused him to suffer needlessly, and illustrate the rampant corruption in the Iranian legal system and government.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Changing the way business gets done: An interview with Arif Ullah, petition organizer and advocate for Bangladeshi workers' rights

Picture of Arif Ullah. (Reused
with permission from Arif Ullah).
After witnessing endless media coverage of worker abuse in Bangladesh and the failure of major U.S. and European retailers to stop it, Arif Ullah decided that something had to be done to protect Bangladeshi workers' rights. He has launched a petition on, calling for major U.S. and European retailers to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. Here, Arif Ullah elaborates on the situation of worker abuse in Bangladesh, and the changes he wants to see in the garment industry.

1. How does it feel to read about these human rights abuses happening in your home country?

Arif: I'm both heartbroken and infuriated. Since 2005, at least 1,800 workers have been killed in Bangladesh garment factories. All of these deaths, including Rana Plaza, could have been prevented.

If international companies that source from Bangladeshi garment factories enforced basic safety standards, garment factory owners would have no choice but to acquiesce, however morally bankrupt and inhumane they may be. They're entirely dependent on their contracts with these companies, and would not risk those relationships. 

Foreign companies are entirely aware of this, but they've done next to nothing to pressure the factories because of fears that safety standards would cut into their already massive profit margins--it would cost companies ten cents more per garment to make improvements. Instead, they hand-pick auditors to inspect factories, which is similar to hiring a fox to guard the hen house. The message that they're sending is clear: Bangladeshi lives are expendable. 

Last week, mounting pressure from human rights organizations and the public, as well as negative media coverage, led 18 major companies to sign the Accord on Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety, including H&M. American companies are conspicuously missing from the list of signatories. Walmart and Gap have instead expressed concern about the safety plan. They don't like that it's enforceable and legally-binding. And they want to continue to self-monitor with impunity. Other North American companies that have refused to sign on are: Target, Sears, JC Penney, Kohl's, North Face, Children's Place, Macy's, American Eagle, Nordstrom, and Foot Locker. 

2. In addition to signing the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, what other measures do you want major U.S. and European retailers to take to protect Bangladeshi workers?

Arif: Unfortunately, safety is not the only problem in Bangladeshi factories. Workers are often made to work 12 to 16 hours a day, if not longer, or risk losing their jobs. Wages have not kept up with inflation, and the minimum wage is barely enough to make ends meet (which, to be fair, is not dissimilar from the United States). And, there is no such thing as health care for the 3.6 million workers--mostly young women--employed in the industry. Sexual coercion is also not uncommon. 

As well, the Bangladeshi government has made it nearly impossible for workers to unionize, requiring union organizers to present the names of those interested in joining unions to factory owners for their approval. This week, the government announced changes to this and other policies that would increase workers' rights. I'll believe it when I see it. All the major Bangladeshi political parties--the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Awami League, Jamaat-e-Islami, and the Bangladesh Jatiya Party (BJP)--are in bed with the garment industry. 

International companies that source from Bangladesh can pressure both factory owners and the Bangladeshi government to make improvements in all of these areas, and of course, they should help to fund them. The $20 billion garment industry accounts for approximately 80 per cent of the country's exports--factory owners and the government would not jeopardize this cash cow.

3. What is your message to the major U.S. and European retailers who are guilty of abusing Bangladeshi workers, and for people who continue to defend worker abuse in Bangladesh?

Arif: International companies are in Bangladesh because it is lucrative for them. Cheap labor affords them wide profit margins. However, cheap labor must not come at the expense of people's lives. Companies have a responsibility to ensure safe work places, livable wages, and healthy working conditions.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Americans last year devoted just 3% of their annual spending to clothing and footwear, compared with around 7% in 1970 and about 13% in 1945, according to Commerce Department data.” But there is a high cost for cheap labor, and we are reminded of this all too frequently. 

I would like to thank Arif Ullah for taking the time to share his insight about workers' rights in Bangladesh, and for advocating for Bangladeshi workers' rights. 

To sign Arif's petition, please visit: