In Guatemala, 12 Q’eqchi’ women say NO to the violence of mining and may change the world

Angelica Choc, at the grave of her husband, Adolfo Ich Chamán

Angelica Choc, Margarita Caal Caal, Rosa Elbira Coc Ich, Olivia Asig Xol, Amalía Cac Tiul, Lucia Caal Chún, Luisa Caal Chún, Carmelina Caal Ical, Irma Yolanda Choc Cac, Elvira Choc Chub, Elena Choc Quib, Irma Yolanda Choc Quib are Q’eqchi’ Mayan women who live in El Estor, located on the northern shores of Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s largest lake. The Q’eqchi’ Mayan populations suffered during the long civil war, and then came “peace”, which meant further marginalization and exclusion, and then came the multinationals. There’s nickel in the ground under El Estor. Despite a ban on open pit mining, the Guatemalan government gave a 40-year lease and a promise of “stability” to a company owned by a Guatemalan company owned by a Canadian company owned by an even larger Canadian company, being Hudbay Minerals. “Stability” meant evicting the Q’eqchi from their ancestral lands. “Eviction” meant mass rape and murder.

On January 17, 2017, eleven Q’eqchi’ women were raped by security forces “removing” them from their homes and lands. In 2009, community leader, teacher and father of five Adolfo Ich Chamán was brutally murdered. His widow, Angelica Choc, sued Hudbay Minerals. In a separate case, Margarita Caal Caal, Rosa Elbira Coc Ich, Olivia Asig Xol, Amalía Cac Tiul, Lucia Caal Chún, Luisa Caal Chún, Carmelina Caal Ical, Irma Yolanda Choc Cac, Elvira Choc Chub, Elena Choc Quib, Irma Yolanda Choc Quib sued Hudbay Minerals for its involvement in their rape. In both cases, Hudbay Minerals was sued in Canadian courts. That makes these landmark, precedent setting cases. The cases are yet another testament to the courage and persistence of women saying NO to the seemingly inevitable devastation of mining corporations.

Canada is home to a majority of the world’s mining companies. In 2014, Canadian exploration and mining companies had overseas mining assets worth $170 billion in 100+ countries. When it comes to mining in Latin America, “Brand Canada” is toxic. According to a recent report, between 2000 and 2015, 28 Canadian mining companies were directly involved in 44 deaths, 30 of which were “targeted”; 403 injuries, 363 of which occurred during protests and “confrontations”; and 709 cases of “criminalization.” The violence was spread across Latin America: deaths happened in 11 countries; injuries in 13, criminalization in 12. Again, these figures are for Canadian mining companies in Latin America, 14 countries all told. Of those, only Argentina, Chile and Guyana had no deaths. Guatemala led the pack with 12 deaths; followed by Mexico with 8 and Colombia with 6.

Twelve Q’eqchi’ Mayan women refused to accept the violence as part of the natural order. They refused to submit to intimidation and worse. In 2010, with Toronto-based attorneys, the women initiated lawsuits in Canadian courts. Hudbay Minerals argued that the women had no standing in Canadian courts, and that the issue should be returned to Guatemala. In July 2013, the courts decided that the cases could go forward. This week, Margarita Caal Caal, Rosa Elbira Coc Ich, Olivia Asig Xol, Amalía Cac Tiul, Lucia Caal Chún, Luisa Caal Chún, Carmelina Caal Ical, Irma Yolanda Choc Cac, Elvira Choc Chub, Elena Choc Quib, Irma Yolanda Choc Quib gave their depositions. In January, Angelica Choc will be in Toronto to give hers.

Hudbay Minerals thought they could sweep the local women away and then bury them. They were wrong, just as mining companies have been wrong in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Peru, and so many other places. As Margarita Caal Caal explains, “In my community we are fighting for our lands and we will protect them until we die. I am here to tell you the truth.”

From left to right: Lucía Caal Ch’n, Luisa Caal Ch’n, Rosa Elbira Coc Ich, and Elena Choc Quib

 

(Photo Credit 1: Adriana Zehbrauskas/The New York Times) (Photo Credit 2: Vice/James Rodriguez/ Mimundo)

Who will remember the girls burned to death in the Hogar Virgen de la Asunción in Guatemala?

Yesterday, March 8, 2017, a fire broke out in the Hogar Virgen de la Asunción, in Guatemala. At last count, 32 girls burned to death yesterday. As with the Topo Chico prison fire, in Mexico last year; the Kentex factory fire in the Philippines, in 2015; the 2013 Rana Plaza Factory fire and the 2012 Tazreen Fashion Factory fire, both in Bangladesh; and the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre fire, in Jamaica in 2009, this was more than an avoidable and predictable tragedy. It was a brutal and planned massacre, and like Kentex, Rana Plaza, Tazreen and Armadale, it was femicide. And like Armadale, the State chose the most vulnerable girls and burned them, alive, at the stake. Once the requisite lamentations and invocations of the tragic are done, who will remember those girls? If history is any guide, their families and communities, a cadre of activists, and no one else.

Seven years ago, almost to the day, we reflected on the aftermath of the Armadale fire, in Jamaica: “Someone was meant to die at Armadale, and that someone was meant to be a young woman, a girl. Which girl, how many girls, remained open. But someone was meant to die there, in a fire. And someone did. And she was a young woman, a girl. And absolutely no one can claim ultimate responsibility for that until they have transformed the everyday world of ordinary women and girls in which women are the fastest growing prison population, and women are the majority of sweatshop workers.” Now, after the fire at the Hogar Virgen de la Asunción, we can add “girls under care” to women and girl prisoners and women and girl sweatshop. Yet again, while many are shocked, no one is surprised. The theater of cruelty is always played out in the open.

The Hogar Virgen de la Asunción, near Guatemala City, is variously described as a government-run “shelter”, a “home for children”, a “safe home”, a “children’s care home”, a “home for abused teens”. The only accurate part of those descriptions is that the Hogar is government-run.

By all accounts, life inside the Hogar Virgen de la Asunción has been a living, and dying, hell of torture; intimidation; sexual violence; toxic overcrowding; inadequate and rotten, infested food. On Tuesday, 40 some girls decided that they had had enough, and staged a mass escape. Riot police stopped the escape and returned the girls to the “home”, where, as punishment, they were locked in their dormitories. Wednesday morning, one of the girls set fire to her mattress. She cried out that she would sacrifice herself “so that everyone would know what they were living inside.” Everything else is silence and smoke.

Marta Lidia García, 39, mother of a 17-year-old daughter, said, “I brought her because she doesn’t follow my orders to do housework and because she was starting to go out on the streets, and I did not want to lose her. She told me that they treated her badly and gave them food with worms and that the cops who take care of them sometimes bother them.”

As of late this afternoon, 12 of the sacrificed girls’ names have been released: Rosa Julia Espino Tobar. Indira Jarisa Pelicó. Daria Dalila López Mérida. Ashely Gabriela Méndez Ramírez. Sonia Hernández García. Mayra Haydé Chután Urías. Skarlet Yajaira Pérez Jiménez. Yohana Desirée Cuy Urizar. Rosalinda Victoria Ramírez Pérez. Madeleine Patricia Hernández Hernández. Savia Isel Barrios Bonilla. Ana Nohemí Morales Galindo. We did not want to lose them. Who will remember them, who will remember their names, once the invocations of tragedy have passed?

(Photo Credit: Prensa Libre /Estuardo Paredes)

The treatment of Sulma Franco is a national disgrace

The signs read, “SULMA IS WELCOME HERE”, but for how long, and what is welcome? Ask Sulma Franco, a 31-year-old LGBT activist from Guatemala who has lived in Texas for six years, part of that in San Antonio, much of it in Austin. In Austin, she owned a thriving food truck business, La Ilusión. No longer.

In 2009, Sulma Franco applied for asylum as an open lesbian who faced violence if she returned home. She passed her initial interview with immigration officers, who determined she had a “credible fear” of returning to Guatemala. Released from detention, she was allowed to work. For years, she reported to immigration officers every three months. In June 2014, she was arrested and faced deportation. She says her former attorney failed to file some papers, and so her asylum case ended, abruptly and without her knowledge: “I didn’t have any problems until then. The immigration official said to me, ‘You know what, I want to tell you your case is closed and you’ll be detained.’ As simple as that. My record is clean. I’m not a criminal … I was paying taxes on my business, and was contributing to society. I had a work permit, driver’s license, business permits that were all in my name.”

No one disputes that Sulma Franco, as an open lesbian and prominent LGBT activist, faces peril if she returns to Guatemala. According to a 2012 study, Guatemala is a world leader in “the frequency and severity of violence against women — including lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender (LBT) women”. Sulma Franco already knows this: “The most difficult situation is that I would end up dead. The discrimination, the hate due to my sexual orientation … In my country, these are things that happen because of sexual orientation. That’s why I fear returning. They can’t tolerate the idea that two women can fall in love, have a child, run a business. If I fled this, why would I want to return? Here, I was able to take my girlfriend to a restaurant and have no problems … I don’t want to go back. I’ve suffered enough there. I’ve been discriminated against, abused and beaten up in every form because of my lifestyle … I can be tortured. I can be sexually abused. I can also be killed.”

On June 11, Sulma Franco was given sanctuary in an Austin church. Faith based groups joined immigrant rights organizers and women’s groups to push for a stay in deportation. On Tuesday, August 18, Sulma Franco was granted an order of supervision, which allows her to stay in the United States “for the time being.” Meanwhile, La Ilusión is no more, thanks to months in detention.

The treatment of Sulma Franco is a national disgrace, and it’s far from over. Yet again, for one woman to arrive at a precarious for-the-time-being, hundreds of people have to invest thousands of hours. In a famous scene in The Elephant Man, John Merrick, the protagonist, asks his mentor, “If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?” His mentor replies, “I am sorry. It is just the way things are.” Sulma Franco knows the way things are: cruel mercy, injustice posing as rule of law, and massive and intensive exploitation of those women who dare to dream. As simple as that.

Sulma Franco

 

 

(Photo Credit 1: Mari Hernandez / The Austin Chronicle) (Photo Credit 2: Alberto Martinez / San Antonio Current)

Women haunt land grabs and mass evictions

Oxfam came out with a major report this week on land grabs in five countries, Uganda, Indonesia, Guatemala, Honduras, and South Sudan. In Uganda, over 20,000 people were evicted from land they had farmed for decades, evicted so that a British corporation, New Forests Company, could come in, create tree plantations, earn carbon credits, sell timber.

The residents were never consulted. Quite to the contrary, tales of violence abound. For example, Olivia Mukamperezida, whose house was burned to the ground. Her eldest son, Friday, was at home because he was sick. He was killed in the fire. She buried Friday, and now is not sure if he’s even in his grave. “They are planting trees,” she says.

Christine was forced off her land as well: “We lost everything we had .… I was threatened – they told me they were going to beat me if we didn’t leave.”

Christine lost more than everything she had. She lost the future. Before she and her family lived in a six-room house, farmed six hectares, sold produce, sent their kids to school. They had been doing so for twenty years. Now, they live in two rooms, eke subsistence living out of a small plot, eat once a day, and the children no longer attend school.

The Oxfam report highlights the particular vulnerabilities of women, and the specific impact of eviction on women around the world. They note that in Africa, the situation is particularly dire: “Women’s land rights are less secure and more easily targeted. They also depend more on secondary uses of land, which tend to be ignored in large-scale acquisitions. Furthermore, although women comprise the majority of farmers, men effectively control the land and the income derived from it, even if it is the fruit of women’s labour. In practice, a new commercial opportunity often means that men assume control of the land at the expense of women’s access. Thus, new sources of income from the land are likely to burden women and benefit men. The new competition for land between biofuels and food crops, leading to less availability of food and higher prices, is also likely to affect women more than men, as women tend to take responsibility for feeding the family.”

From direct physical and verbal assaults to the processes to the consequences, the entire land grabbing machinery is violence against women.

None of this is new. Previous researchers have issued reports on that describe the gendered impacts of commercial pressures on land, that wonder if land grabs aren’t simply, and intentionally, another bigger, badder yoke on women’s land rights. Activists, such as Esther Obaikol, Executive Director of the Uganda Land Alliance, have also been organizing with women farmers … for decades.

When it comes to land grabs in Uganda, as elsewhere, women farmers have been pushed harder, deeper, further. They are the first and final targets of land grabbing. Mass evictions attack women. Women haunt land grabs and mass evictions … everywhere.

 

(Photo Credit: Sven Torfinn for The New York Times)

Marta Orellana must just live with the devil that haunts her

Marta Orellana

In the 1940s, the United States sent doctors to Guatemala to address syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid. Not to stop them but rather to spread them. Specifically, the U.S. Public Health Service wanted to know if penicillin after sex would prevent sexually transmitted diseases. So the doctors went to Guatemala and `recruited’ some 5500 soldiers, mental patients, children, sex workers into the program. They told them nothing, actually less than nothing. They infected the mental patients, all women; the children, all girls in orphanages; and the sex workers, all women, and then sent them to the soldiers. For Guatemalans, this was “the devil’s experiment.”

Marta Orellana was one of those orphans. She was nine years old when she was injected. For years, for decades, she lived with syphilis but was told that she had “bad blood”. She was in pain, and tired, her entire life. As she puts it, a “loving and patient” husband helped her overcome intimacy issues.

More than sixty years later, the United States [a] acknowledged the event, [b] apologized to the government of Guatemala, and [c] appointed a commission. The commission met yesterday and heard `shocking’ testimony. The story that attracted the most attention thus far is this: “a woman who was infected with syphilis was clearly dying from the disease. Instead of treating her, the researchers poured gonorrhea-infected pus into her eyes and other orifices and infected her again with syphilis. She died six months later”.

There are other stories, and others will follow … of injections, of pain and suffering, of abuse; of torture, grand and petty, slow and swift. Of 13,000 infected Guatemalans, around 700 received any treatment. 83 died.

The Commissioners have found the research to have been “grievously wrong”, “chillingly egregious”, “morally culpable”, unjust, tragic, shameful, reprehensible, “cruel and inhuman”, unethical.

The medical researchers did not act in a vacuum nor were they without context or history. The problem isn’t that they were unethical but rather that they were ethical men engaged in `ethical’ violence. In the same way that the experiments in the Nazi death camps, occurring in the same period, didn’t require justification because they were part of a moral crusade, a longstanding war against Jews, people of color, gay and lesbian people, the disabled, the experiments in Guatemala didn’t require justification because they were part of a longstanding war against the indigenous and the rural, against women of color, against the weakest and the most marginal who somehow … somehow … pose the ultimate threat.

The US medical researchers in Guatemala were not rogues, renegades, or outlaws. They were ethical White men who saw as part of their dominion over all living things the obligation to decide the fate, and design the excruciating death, of women, people and nations of color.  The United States of America has apologized to the Republic of Guatemala. Marta Orellana must just live with the devil that haunts her.

(Photo Credit: Rory Carroll / The Guardian)

Domestics: I am myself and my circumstances

I am a member of a women’s group called Woman, Action and Change. We are part of Tenants and Workers United of Northern Virginia. We are predominantly Latina immigrant and migrant women from all parts of Latin America. Our members include Mexicans, Dominicanas, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Chileans, Argentines, many women from many countries. I am from Nicaragua. I have been living continuously in the United States for only 16 months.

When the group selected me to talk about domestic work, I was worried about how to approach a subject of which I am not an expert and then I remembered an expression of José Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher, who said: “I am myself and my circumstances” so I decided to approach it from my own experience.

I’m from Nicaragua. My mother came from a poor farming family. As a single mother she raised 5 children alone. My mother was an entrepreneur. She had a store and all of us had to work ever since we could remember. I grew up with the image of a strong, working woman, and in an environment where domestic work was part of an effort to sustain the family. I grew up working and studying, got married and, as my mother did, I took care of my home and my children as part of my duties to support and protect my family.

Antecedents

As we all know, in developing countries, domestic work has been used as a mechanism to preserve machismo. In most of these countries, girls are educated to manage the home and boys are educated to have jobs and participate in the greater world.

Under these conditions, domestic work is a form of subjugation of women because their principle duty is to look after the home. Often, women are exploited and in the case of working women, they work the equivalent of triple shifts in order to manage a career and take care of the home. This represents an obstacle to professional development because many women drop out of school to find jobs to solve the needs of their family. For Latin American women like me, completing household chores in addition to our career responsibilities is a source of identity and pride.

There are countries that have incorporated legislation for domestic workers and social security. In some cases this is an appeal by the ruling parties to provide a progressive image and appear concerned about this part of the electorate marginalized by all public health policies.

This is a way to hide the inability to create better jobs. However, the inclusion of the domestic worker in the social security system provides them with medical care benefits and pension rights.

Domestic work in the USA

In this country domestic work has become a job for immigrant women to allow them to survive and meet the needs of their family. Except for in the movies, where we see an elegant butler, well trained and educated for these tasks, this “profession” seems to be exclusively for poor immigrant women.

A little while ago, the National Domestic Workers Alliance convened in Washington, D.C. This organization deals with the work of humanizing domestic work. It has brought to the table an interesting proposal to give more substance to this career.

Estimates are that the Baby Boomer generation reached 13 million in 2000 and in 2050 will be 27 million. This will require over 3 million healthcare workers to take care of them as they gradually age, making geriatric care a moral imperative for this country. Thousands of people, who have built the economic success of this country, will enter old age alone and without help as a result of globalization and the global economic crisis.

We have heard a lot about the budget cuts to social services in the media and the only proposals for jobs seem to focus on technology. In my opinion, there is no effort being made to support real people living in this country today. This is very irresponsible. Domestic workers can help resolve major societal issues through the care of the elderly, disabled and young members of our community. In the long run, this is much more important for building our quality of life because each of us will eventually be old and need help, too.

Today anti-immigrants accuse immigrants of taking jobs from Americans. I don’t think anyone is taking anything from anybody. The jobs filled by immigrant women, in particular, are low-wage domestic workers. These women work in horrid conditions for the chance to feed their families.

It is important that we discuss the legislative opportunities available to improve working conditions and educational opportunities for domestic workers. Improvements in those areas are connected to the outcomes and improvements in the care and wellbeing of our health, for the elderly, disabled and children. By supporting the development of women we will make our society stronger.

 

(Photo Credit: D.C. Intersections / Kate Musselwhite)

Deported children haunt the world

Emily Samantha Ruiz

A radio broadcast town meeting was held today in Fairfax, Virginia, a community renowned for its public school system, to discuss discipline in the Fairfax County schools. Near the end of the hour-long discussion, the moderator, Kojo Nnamde, presented a scenario based on a recent event, in which a six year old child was found to have brought cocaine into school and shared it with his friends. What is to be done? Should the child be expelled?

Tina Hone, Fairfax County School Board member, responded, “He’s a six-year-old. And what lesson are we teaching a six- or seven-year-old child by expelling him?… It is a six-year-old child. I am not going to label a six-year-old child for the rest of their lives as a drug dealer. I’m not going to do that… It’s a six-year-old child, for God’s sake. I think we need to think about that.”

We need to think about children, because children are being actively forgotten by the State. Children are addressed instead as surplus populations and disposable objects. Nowhere is this more evident than in the willingness of modern so-called democratic nation-States to ship off children, six years old, seven years old, four years old. The line from primary school expulsion to national deportation of very young children is a straight line, and it is the measure of our current historical moment.

Consider Emily Samantha Ruiz.

Emily Samantha Ruiz is four years old, a Long Island tot, a four-year-old little girl, a very little girl. Emily Samantha Ruiz is caught in an immigration snafu or perhaps quagmire. Emily Samantha Ruiz is currently in Guatemala, to which she was deported. Emily Samantha Ruiz is a United States citizen. Her parents are both undocumented residents.

Emily and her grandfather, who has, or had, a work visa, went to Guatemala, to visit family, to get away from the harsh winter and its impact on her asthma. On their return, as they came through Dulles Airport, in Virginia, the grandfather’s name came up at Customs and Border Protection, CBP, as having perhaps committed some immigration infraction twenty some years ago. CBP won’t reveal the exact details. The grandfather was detained. The parents were calling everywhere to find their daughter. They contacted a CPB agent, who asked if either was in the country legally. Mr. Ruiz responded they were not. The agent replied that the options were Emily could go enter the custody of the State of Virginia or return to Guatemala with her grandfather. The Ruizes were terrified that `custody’ would result in adoption. Likewise, they had reason to fear that if they showed up to pick up their daughter, her `custodians’ would arrest them. They `opted’ to have Emily return to Guatemala with her grandfather. The government says it did nothing wrong, played by the book, followed the rules.

What are the rules?

The public discussion of this event has focused, rightly, on the fact that Emily Samantha Ruiz is a U.S. citizen. Her citizenship is indeed important. So is her racial and ethnic status. So is her language.

But let’s not forget, Emily Samantha Ruiz is a four-year-old child, for God’s sake. “I think we need to think about that.” Emily is part of a global phenomenon in which nation-States – in the name of sovereignty, security, protection, even democracy – actively forget their responsibility to remember that children are children. What lesson are we teaching those children? Deported children haunt the modern world.

 

(Photo Credit: NY Daily News)

Asylum haunts the foreign service

Bita Ghaedi fled to the UK in 2005 to flee a forced marriage. Then her troubles really began.

Asylum haunts the foreign service. People face violence, persecution, torture, from the State, from partners, from various sectors. Finally, they flee. They escape. They go to the United Kingdom, say, or the United States. Where they apply for asylum. And are treated like criminals. Often they are placed in immigrant detention centers, where they are treated as immigrant detainees, which is to say where they are treated as common criminals … or worse. Then they are returned to the torture zones and the killing fields. They tell their stories, others tell their stories. Their stories circulate, in the languages of those who suffered throughout their communities. Their stories, their bodies, their scars and their memories, precede the ambassadors and the envoys.

This week Bita Ghaedi was informed that she would not be deported immediately to Iran. Further, she was informed that she could finally leave Yarl’s Wood. In 2005, Bita Ghaedi fled a violently abusive family and an imminent forced marriage. In the UK, she has been a civil rights, women’s rights and human rights activist who has publically supported the opposition to the Iranian government. She has reason to believe she would be killed if she is returned to Iran. The question is whether it would be the State or her family who would commit the deed.

In 2007, Bita Ghaedi’s application was turned down. She attempted suicide. She appealed the decision. In January of this year, she was on weeks long hunger strike. She was supposed to be deported April 20, but Icelandic volcanic ash postponed that. She was supposed to be deported this past Wednesday, May 5. That’s when the high court decided, again, to delay the deportation and hold another hearing. That is meant to happen July 21.

Bita Ghaedi’s story parallels that of Rodi Alvarado. Rodi Alvarado was born and raised in Guatemala.  In 1984, at the age of 16, she married a man, a former soldier, who immediately began beating, torturing, raping her. She went to authorities who did nothing. She ran away, was caught by her husband, and beaten unconscious. Finally, in 1995, she fled to the United States, leaving her two young children with relatives. She applied for asylum. In September 1996, an immigration judge granted her asylum.

That’s where the story turns: “The Immigration and Naturalization Service appealed the grant to a higher court, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). And in June 1999, the BIA reversed the decision of the immigration judge, by a divided 10-5 vote, and ordered that Ms. Alvarado be deported to Guatemala”

The case then lingered on until December 2009, when Rodi Alvarado was finally, and without explanation, granted asylum. For fourteen years, Rodi Alvarado waited in terror.

In March 2009, Amnesty USA released Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA. Without naming Rodi Alvarado, the report suggests that, in the context of US treatment of asylum seeking women, Rodi Alvarado’s case is not unusual. In fact, it’s almost benign.

In the United States, women asylum seekers are routinely abused. Some, like Saluja Thangaraja, can share their names: “Saluja Thangaraja fled the brutal beatings and torture that she suffered during the Sri Lankan civil war only to endure more than four and a half half years of immigration detention upon arrival in the United States in October 2001. She was granted asylum in 2004. However, immigration authorities appealed the decision, and Ms. Thangaraja remained in detention. She was finally released in March 2006 after filing a habeas petition. Despite posing no danger to the community and demonstrating a commitment to pursuing her asylum claim, Ms. Thangaraja was never given a custody hearing during the four and a half years she was detained.”

Others must continue to insist on anonymity: “A 26-year-old Chinese woman cried as she told AI [Amnesty International] researchers that she fled persecution after she and her mother were beaten in their home for handing out religious fliers. She arrived in the United States in January 2008 seeking asylum and was detained at the airport before being moved to a county jail. No one explained to her why she was being detained. An ICE Field Office Director decided that she should remain in detention unless a bond of $50,000 was paid. Neither her uncle in the United States nor her family in China had sufficient funds to meet the required amount. Her attorney told Amnesty International that the immigration judge indicated that he did not have the authority to release her from detention or change the amount of the bond set. Family members in the United States were finally able to raise the money needed to secure her release in December 2008, after she had spent nearly an entire year in detention.”

Women asylum seekers in detention centers are shackled in childbirth, placed in isolation for the crime of not speaking English, sexually harassed, abused, exploited. In other words, women asylum seekers are treated exactly the same as women immigrant detainees.

Bita Ghaedi, Rodi Alvarado, Saluja Thangaraja, the “Chinese woman”, and the thousands of other asylum seekers who are and have been abused, these are the ambassadors of the United States and the United Kingdom. Not the Secretary of State nor the Foreign Secretary. Not Hillary Clinton nor David Miliband, or whomever it will be next week. The lives and bodies of these women testify to the story of women who have sought refuge and the manner in which they have been treated in the great democracies of the early twenty first century. These women and the asylum they have sought haunt the foreign service and will continue to do so for a long time to come.

 

(Photo Credit: indymedia.org.uk)

How do you like your torture, fast or slow?

Saleyha Ahsan has been visiting Y, an Algerian who fled Algeria for the United Kingdom, seeking asylum. His story is being enacted in a video on the Guardian website. He can’t see it, because he’s “a threat to national security”, and so he can’t access a computer, much less the internet or a mobile phone. His crime? “Y was tortured in Algeria – the evidence is clear from the scars on the front and back of his head. His crime was to speak out against human rights abuses in the early 1990s. When it was clear that he had to leave he came to the UK, and with his powerful testimony he was given full rights to remain. Not a false passport or fake name in sight. Leaving saved his life. Not long after, he was issued with a death sentence in absentia in Algeria.” Wait. That can’t be right. His crime is that he `agreed’ to be tortured? Yes, that made him a threat. However one parses the niceties, Ahsan has watched “an isolated edgy young man turned old through the “slow torture” of these last eight years in the UK. Detained for a total of 57 months in prison – first for the ricin case, for which he was fully acquitted, then detained again based on…? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s called secret evidence and neither Y or his lawyers have any idea what it is.”

This practice of slow torture is particular to women and takes many forms.

In the UK, according to the most recent Prison Reform Trust Fact Files, “The number of women in prison has increased by 60% over the past decade, compared to 28% for men. On 12 June 2009 the women’s prison population stood at 4,269. In 1997 the mid-year female prison population was 2,672. In 2007, 11,847 women were received into prison.” Twelve years of step-by-step, rung-by-rung escalating incarceration of women. Twelve years of silence. Slow torture.

Nadera Shalhoub Kevorkian has been thinking and writing about the slow torture of Palestinian women. Palestinian women have been placed in a condition of betweeness: “we as women are in a state of betweeness, we are kind of border patrolling everything, we are border patrolling the border between the outside and the inside, the private and the public – our bodies, our lives, our future are all in the state of betweeness….Look at the example of the checkpoints …; I was dropping my partner off at his clinic… they stopped us and they put the men on the right side and the women on the left side, and they told the men to raise their hands and body searched them, and we were on the other side, and this kind of not knowing, this uncertainty that we were all living at that moment, this geography of fear that they created in a very small space, our space as women, all of a sudden it became militarized and they kind of stole our space from us. We became exilic in our own space and the men became dehumanized and demonized in front of our very eyes….This militarization … ends up putting us, as women, as boundary markers, so we are the punching bag for the men outside and the punching bag for the men inside, and we want to move and change the situation, but we are in a state of ‘betweeness’.” The checkpoints are the fast and the quick of torture. The slow torture is the state of exile in one’s own home. How many decades of silence before a new language and a new home are fully established?

Slow torture is a product of a particular application of the rule of law to women and men deemed to be foreigners, and so [a] menace to society and [b] meant to be grateful for whatever juridical crumbs they can get.

In California, for example, activists have targeted undocumented residents and their U.S.-born children. They want to cut off public services to undocumented residents, to challenge the citizenship of any U.S. born citizens of undocumented residents, and set harsh new standards for birth certificates. Who’s targeted here? Women. Making pregnant women worry about what will happen, to them and their children, if they go to hospital in labor is that same as shackling women prisoners while in labor and childbirth. It’s criminal, and it happens all the time. It’s slow torture.

Veronica Lopez  is from Guatemala. She lives in California. She lived with a violent and abusive partner. She reported him. He was tried and deported to Guatemala. Lopez then spent nine months in immigration detention, terrified that she would be deported back to the reach of her abusive husband. Only at the eleventh hour, and then some, did the State come through and grant her a U-Visa, which is designed precisely for women in Lopez’s situation. Others have not been so lucky, and have been deported. The state of betweeness for women stretches across the world. The practice of slow torture haunts us.

(Photo Credit: Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice)

Bordering on: citizens, prisoners, exceptions, women

I used to think that all prisoners are political prisoners because they’re `guests of the State’, housed and held in total institutions in which the very least the State was obliged to do was acknowledge the prisoners’ existence and maybe keep them alive. Given the convergent news of this past week, I have had to rethink that a bit.

Four names: Edwina Nowlin, Alberto Fujimori, Jacob Zuma, Gladys Monterroso. Four countries: the United States, Peru, South Africa, Guatemala. If your country isn’t on this list, that’s accidental good fortune. Trust me, it should be. In fact, it is.

A girl is flogged in Pakistan, a video captures the moment and circulates and suddenly everyone is concerned about gender and punishment in Pakistan. Even the Pakistani courts perform concern: “Pakistan’s newly reinstated chief justice has ordered a police committee to investigate the controversial flogging of a teenage girl. Ayesha Siddiqa wonders about the innocence of the sudden gaze, “As the entire Pakistani nation watches video footage of a 17-years-old girl screaming on their television screens during the process of her torture at the hands of the brutal Taliban in Swat, one wonders if the mothers, sisters, daughters and the male members of this nation will ever take time out to think about this system of justice advocated by these men who are not even qualified to interpret the Quran and Sunnah.” She lays the system of Hudood laws squarely on the shoulders of the Zia regime: “In Pakistan in particular where the Hudood laws were formulated under the Zia regime, the objective was not to bring justice in the society but to throttle all forms of justice. In this respect, the Taliban in Swat and those who ruled Afghanistan for some time are Zia’children. They use force arbitrarily and apply laws without the real context to enhance their own power.” Flogging is never `spontaneous’ , never `organic’, and never `gender neutral.’

In the United States, there’s the tale of Edwina Nowlin: “Edwina Nowlin, a poor Michigan resident, was ordered to reimburse a juvenile detention center $104 a month for holding her 16-year-old son. When she explained to the court that she could not afford to pay, Ms. Nowlin was sent to prison. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which helped get her out last week after she spent 28 days behind bars, says it is seeing more people being sent to jail because they cannot make various court-ordered payments. That is both barbaric and unconstitutional.”

This practice is going on all over the country: poor women, and men, who cannot pay the fines, and cannot be the additional fees to the companies that collect the fines, are thrown into jail: mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, strangers. Debt, the not so secret origin of primitive accumulation, built on the backs of the poors, largely people of color, largely women, haunts our world, from Pakistan to the United States and beyond.

Meanwhile, death stalks and storms the corridors and cells of Zimbabwe’s prisons, as demonstrated in a documentary shown this past week. Emaciated prisoners can’t bring the morsel of food to their lips, can’t stand and can’t fall. Hell hole. Death camp. These phrases are too elegant by far for what’s going on. George Nyathi, recently released from the torture of Hami maximum security prison outside of Bulawayo, looks into the mirror now, now that he is `free’, and sees Edwina Nowlin. The young woman in Pakistan looks into the mirror and sees …

I’ll tell you what they don’t see. They don’t see Jacob Zuma, who was exonerated of all corruption charges on Tuesday. They might see Alberto Fujimori, already in jail and sentenced, at almost the same instant that Zuma was released, to twenty-five years for having ordered kidnappings and killings when he was president. Fujimori may be in prison, but he’s powerful. His daughter says she may run for president of Peru, and would pardon her father. There’s no such daughter for that girl in Pakistan, for the prisoners in Zimbabwe, for Edwina Nowlin. There’s no powerful daughter coming to rescue those `suspected of terrorist activities’ being tortured in the prisons of Uganda, of the United States, of everywhere. No powerful kin or kith comes to the rescue of those mysteriously jumping from police vans or prison windows, such as Sidwel Mkwambi, beaten to death by police.

And when Gladys Monterroso, a prominent Guatemalan attorney and activist, was abducted last month, held for thirteen hours, burned, beaten, sexually and psychologically abused, there was no Great Man nor any of his family or cronies, to swoop down and save her. When Fujimori and Zuma and their gang look in the mirror, they see the State, they see State Power. When the rest look in, we see ourselves and those like us, call us citizens, of a nation, of the world, of whatever.

I used to think that prisons demonstrated the limit case of citizenship, that we had to ask why some people were in prison and why others were not. This week has me wondering. Perhaps it’s the other way around. Perhaps we have to wonder how it is that any of us, that anyone you or I meet on the street, is not in prison. Perhaps prison is the crucible of normative citizenship in the world we inhabit, and being-outside, what’s that called again, oh yeah, freedom, that’s the exceptional state. And that would go some distance in explaining why women are the fastest growing prison population and still don’t get counted, still are not recognized. Citizenship. Gladys Monteroso, Edwina Nowlin. Citizens, not exceptions.