Survivor speaks out against impunity in Guatemala civil war trial

Oscar Ramirez wants to open his own business. He wants to learn air conditioning and plumbing. He is dreaming big. “I don’t want to work for someone else all my life,” he told me last week.

His dreams are basic. Just a few weeks ago, Oscar and his wife Nidia were undocumented immigrants living in the shadows in Framingham, Massachusetts, with their four US-born children. It all changed last week, when the United States government granted him political asylum.

Last year, Oscar’s future and his past were colliding. He was afraid of being detained by US immigration authorities, and he could not go back to Guatemala after he learned he was a child survivor of a 1982 military massacre in the Guatemalan village of Dos Erres. Now Oscar has a chance to help end a culture of impunity in Guatemala, where 400,000 people were killed in a civil war, and where freedom of expression continues to be under threat.

In May 2011, Guatemalan prosecutors told Oscar they believed he was not the man he thought he was. He learned his late father was not his real father. He had another biological father. He also learned that the man he thought was his father, Lt. Oscar Ovidio Ramirez, a former Guatemalan military commando officer, had abducted Oscar as a three-year old. He did that after participating in a three-day raid on the village of Dos Erres that left more than 200 men, women and children dead. Oscar’s biological mother, who was pregnant, and his eight brothers and sisters were killed in the raid. He also learned that Guatemalan authorities considered him living evidence that could help advance the investigation against surviving members of the military commando who raided the Dos Erres village and killed innocent people they suspected of being leftist guerrillas.

The case of Dos Erres is one of Guatemala’s first trials against military abuses in the 1980s, where military commandos and top officials have been sentenced to jail terms. Four commandos and one officer who participated in the murder and cover up were convicted to unprecedented long prison terms in the last two years, and charges of genocide are pending against former President Efrain Rios Montt.

The case has also involved US immigration authorities, who have extended a wide net and caught several fugitive former commandos who had moved to the United States. Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, a former Army lieutenant was extradited from Canada a few weeks ago and will stand trial in California for lying on his immigration application. Several members of the former commando unit that killed the villagers of Dos Erres are still at large.

Scott Greathead, Oscar’s lawyer, said Oscar can now focus on raising his children and participate in getting justice for his family. His biological father, Tranquilino Castañeda, who survived the massacre because he was away at the time of the military raid, met Oscar for the first time in May this year, when he traveled to the United States for a family reunion.

Also read Guatemala: What Happened at Dos Erres?

And listen to What Happened  at Dos Erres? on This American Life

Jailed blogger Alaa urges Egyptians to celebrate his birthday in Tahrir

Following the extension of the imprisonment of Alaa Abdel-Fattah for a further fifteen days, the prominent Egyptian blogger has sent a message to his supporters from his prison cell, asking them to celebrate his 30th birthday in Tahrir Square on 18 November.

Alaa was summoned by a military prosecutor last month after an article he wrote exploring the death of activist Meena Daniel in October appeared in an Egyptian newspaper, and was returned to prison.

In this message to his supporters, Alaa stresses his fears for the wellbeing of his mother, who is on hunger strike for his release, his concerns for his wife, Manal, and explains that he will miss his “special” birthday and Eid celebrations. The blogger, who blamed the military for Daniel’s death, fears that whilst imprisoned he will miss the birth of his first son:

“I’ve spent Eid away from my family for the past three years due to living abroad. It used to pass like an ordinary day, we go to work late in the morning and if it wasn’t for that one phone call , we wouldn’t even know its Eid.

I was keen on this Eid, the first Eid to spend with the family after we moved back, but the military decided that it is not our right to be happy. I spent Eid in a cell and my family spent it waiting in a queue that lasted the entire Eid day, only for a sample of visitors to be able to go inside accompanied by security officers who outnumber them.

Between making sure my mother , who began a hunger strike to call for my release is alright and the tension of being denied the exchange of letters with Manal, the minutes of the visit finished fast and the first day of Eid was over.

The employees, the guards and the officers had to leave to celebrate Eid and this means that the prison is operating at half capacity, as in they closed the cells for four days in a row: no time out of the cell, no visits, no newspapers, no food from outside, do you want criminals to celebrate Eid for god’s sake?

If it wasn’t for your tweets that arrived in the form of Eid postcards, I wasn’t going to feel that there was Eid in the outside world , thank you for troubling yourself and thanks to the people behind this idea.

Eid is over, but my birthday is coming up, for the last four years, I have celebrated my birthday away from my family, but this time was supposed to be special. My 30th birthday, the beginning of my realisation that I have entered adulthood with no going back. It is also a few days before Khalid is born.  On the 18th of November, we will return to Tahrir, I wanted to celebrate with my fellow revolutionaries at Tahrir square and then, with my family at night. But of course, Friday is not a visiting day and they wouldn’t open our doors.

I ask you to celebrate on my behalf at the square, when I receive news of your solidarity with me, they are the only moments that make me happy. From the protests in front of the Appeals Prison ( sadly, I have not felt them since I’m locked in the other side, but I’ve heard about them from other prisoners) to the protests against military trials from Luxor to Alexandria and even in Oakland and San Francisco , two cities I have visited for a short while but have entered my heart after attending their meetings and lectures.

The Eid has passed, my birthday will pass and I will be used to spending them away from my family, but the birth of Khalid, my first son, how can I miss it?

How can I tolerate not being next to Manal all this time? How can I wait for the news to find out whether they are alright or not? How can I tolerate not seeing his face?

How can I not see his mother’s face when she sees his face? How can I look at his face after I’m released even though I promised him to be born free?

We called him Khalid because we are endowed to Khalid Said and instead of imprisoning his murderers, we are imprisoned?”

Special thanks to Reem Abbas for the translation. 

Blogger reaches 50th day of hunger strike

Maikel Nabil Sanad is today entering his 50th day of hunger strike. The Egyptian blogger has been abstaining from food since 23 August in protest of a three-year sentence handed to him by a military court on charges of “insulting the armed forces” and “spreading false news” in a blog post published last March.

Sanad had accused the Egyptian military of having conducted virginity tests on female protesters earlier that month — a charge that a senior military general later admitted was true. He had been handed the  sentence after being tried in a martial court where, according to his younger brother Mark, “eyewitnesses were barred from testifying in the case.”

Maikel Nabil Sanad in Tahrir Square, Cairo on 30 January. Photo uploaded by Mena Nader on Yfrog

Journalist Shahira Amin visited him at the start of October, when  he weighed 48 kilograms after having shed 12 kilograms since the start of his strike. “I’d rather die than live as a slave without dignity under an oppressive regime,” he explained to her.

Amin added that Sanad’s family fears he may not survive until his appeal hearing scheduled for today. The hearing had originally been set to take place on 4 October — the 43rd day of his hunger strike — but was adjourned until 11 October after a judge said that documents were “missing from the courtroom.”

Last week, the UK’s Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Alistair Burt, expressed concern about Sanad’s  situation. In a statement Burt said,

We have raised concerns about Maikel Nabil Sanad’s treatment as well as the issue of trials of civilians in military courts and the continued State of Emergency with the Egyptian authorities. We continue to urge the Egyptian authorities to repeal the emergency law.

Freedom of expression, including freedom of the media, is fundamental to building a democratic society and we will continue to follow the human rights situation in Egypt closely.