Victims of Impunity

On this International Woman’s Day, the celebration most urgently needed is one for justice; and solving the cases of the 300 women murdered in Ciudad Juarez. Otherwise, the political speeches, beginning with that of the President of the Republic, will remain just speeches given by politicians. The horrifying crimes that have been, and are being committed on our northern border, will continue to be what they are now: a black hole in the conscience of the nation. Thanks to the complicit silence of the authorities in the face of horrifying murders of women and adolescent girls, (since October of 2002, 12 bodies have been discovered, one of a 5 year old child), Ciudad Juarez has become a landmark on the global map of infamy. It has also become a source of inspiration for our national theater. Six plays open this week under the title Ciudad Juarez….! On scene! Meanwhile non-government organizations, such as, Campana Alto a la Impunidad: Ni una Muerta Mas (Campaign to End Impunity: Not Another Death More), who have pressured government officials in Chihuahua (who seem to be morally deaf) to solve the cases, have suffered harassment. And as for the psychopathic killers, they are doing fine, thank you. We are in the land of laughter and horror.

On this occasion of International Woman’s Day, PEN International (the global organization of poets, novelists, playwrights, critics, historians, translators, editors and journalists in more than 100 countries), is undertaking a campaign on behalf of the female writers and journalists who have died in pursuit of their profession. Among the 400 journalists and writers assassinated over these last ten years, 37 were women. PEN international, whose Defense Committee for Imprisoned Writers has been documenting threats to the freedom of expression for half a century, has verified that these threats are as real now as they were fifty years ago. Harassment, official corruption and lack of political will are thwarting investigation in the majority of cases. This encourages more acts of violence and denies justice and dignity for the victims and their families. Among cases that PEN is pursuing are the following.

Larissa Yudina was a political activist and editor of the daily opposition paper Sovietskaya Kalmykia when, on June 8, 1998, at the age of 53, she was kidnapped and murdered in Elista, in the Russian Republic of Kalmykia. The night before her stabbed body with a fractured skull was discovered in a reservoir, an anonymous person had arranged a meeting with her under the pretext of delivering documents concerning misuse of funds by the President of Kalmykia. Yudina had already been a target of threats, because of revelations published in her paper about the President, and corruption among regional authorities. When, in an interview during the year of her death, she was asked “Aren’t you afraid?”, she answered: “I’m tired of being afraid.” Following her murder some suspects were declared guilty, but a key witness died in suspicious circumstances. Five years later the “intellectual authors” of the crime have neither been identified nor punished. Before she died, the journalist declared: “I live in Russia, but I am not sure that Russian laws protect me”.

In 1998, The Iranian poet Parvaneh Forouhar and her husband Dariush were murdered in their house. She bore 12 stab wounds, he 23. From their university days, the two had devoted themselves to defending human rights and fighting against dictatorship. Parvaneh was a critic of the oppression of women by the clerics, and a defender of freedom of expression. In a poem she says: “Let us put aside our woes/and let us wash the tombs of our companions with our own blood./Let us sing the song of life on the road to freedom in Iran.” The couple suffered constant harassment during the official crackdown that occurred after the election of Mohammed Khatami to the presidency in 1997. They gave radio interviews and published a weekly review that circulated among journalists and human rights organizations throughout the world. Parvaneh once remarked: “at the end of every day we thank God for having allowed us to live one day more.” After the wave of killings of intellectuals and dissidents in Iran in1998, 18 members of the military intelligence service were prosecuted, and 5 were sentenced to life imprisonment. During the trial, no witnesses were allowed to give testimony that might have involved the military intelligence of that time. Those responsible for the double assassination continue to go free.

The murders of nine female journalists in Algeria were brutal and sadistic. One was barely 22 years old. Another was executed in front of her parents. A third was so mutilated that it took a week to identify her body. The violence of the Armed Islamic Group was double-barreled, for being directed against journalists and against women. Aicha Lemsine wrote: “Algerian writers live under the twofold threat, of religious fundamentalism and a military regime that is almost fascist. The only policy is to silence us”. Nevertheless journalists in Algeria have been in the vanguard of civil society; collecting evidence, taking photographs, working to break the silence about the victims in Algeria.

As one can see, women are not only daily victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, but, and this is worse, they are prey to serial killers protected by corrupt authorities, and to political and religious violence. And when they defend human rights they run the same risks as men. In the same way, one can see how a justice denied acts as an incentive for the attacks on female journalists and writers to continue. Where there is no political support, in-depth investigation or assurance that killers will be punished, the crimes will be repeated. The greater impunity enjoyed by criminals, the greater the danger for potential victims, be they women in Ciudad Juarez, or writers and journalists in countries where the truth, along with justice, is hidden.