Why J-Lo Singing in Turkmenistan Matters

berdy j-loIt is no secret that the majority of Americans cannot find Turkmenistan on a map. But after the media blew up the story that Jennifer Lopez put on a birthday concert for Turkmenistan’s president this week, people finally took some notice.

Fortunately, it seems most people talking about the pop star’s show for President Berdimuhamedow are indignant because she was paid to sing for a dictator with an abysmal human rights record, essentially condoning a government with excessive isolationist and repressive policies.

Freedom House ranked Turkmenistan last in its 2013 Global Press Freedom Rankings, sharing the designation with North Korea. Freedom House also included Turkmenistan among the “worst of the worst” with respect to political rights and civil liberties. The International Commission on Religious Freedom named Turkmenistan as a “country of particular concern” for its “egregious religious freedom violations.” Turkmenistan used to have an exit visa regime, violating the right to emigrate. Although exit visas were officially abolished in 2002, there remains in practice an extensive black list that effectively operates to bar certain individuals from leaving Turkmenistan.

I am working with an organization that supports the educational aspirations of Turkmen students. Last year, students and their parents were harassed for trying to take free English classes we offered. Our teachers and staff were threatened. Four years ago, students trying to leave Turkmenistan to attend college on scholarships we provided were forcibly removed from their flights and prevented from leaving the country for nearly a year. One student was “escorted” off six different flights as she desperately tried to get back to school.

Needless to say, J-Lo’s birthday show was a slap in the face for those of us who have been struggling to support Turkmen students and their dreams for a better life. We know that education is the answer to making change in Turkmenistan. When we see U.S. celebrities taking money from governments who rule by repression and fear, it’s like the American dream has died a little.

There is a way forward here. Jennifer Lopez could make the right decision and donate her alleged $1.5 million performance fee back to organizations working for positive change in Turkmenistan. True, she has apologized, and the publicity relating to this concert has raised good awareness about the problems in Turkmenistan. But for J-Lo to really make amends for supporting a government that would never have given “Jenny from the Block” a chance, she needs to put actions behind her words.

(credit for photo of J-Lo)

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Torture in Kenya: Ending Impunity by Speaking the Victims’ Truth

kenya flagMy heartfelt thanks to IntLawGrrls for the opportunity to contribute this introductory post.

This month, the Committee against Torture will meet in Geneva to conduct a review of Kenya’s progress in meeting its obligations under the Convention against Torture (UNCAT). I worked with Physicians for Human Rights to submit an alternative report in April on Kenya’s efforts to comply with UNCAT. The report highlights Kenya’s inability to address torture stemming from unchecked gang activity, its failure to stop the torture of domestic violence, and its de facto acquiescence to torture in the form of female genital mutilation.

Kenya submitted a report describing its own progress and challenges faced in ending torture. Other nongovernmental organizations submitted reports about Kenya’s efforts to address the insidious, destructive problem of torture within its borders. The independent observations of NGOs are central to the UNCAT reporting process, offering alternative perspectives to the self-serving reports submitted by the states.

PHR, while largely known for its cutting-edge forensic work exposing human rights abuses, is also home to the Asylum Program. The Asylum Program is a unique model that provides direct services to asylum seekers while advocating for improved conditions in immigration detention centers and documenting human rights abuses suffered by immigrants. To document torture suffered by asylum seekers in their home countries, the Asylum Program pairs volunteer physicians and mental health experts with asylum seekers in the U.S. The medical professionals perform evaluations, prepare affidavits based on those evaluations, and submit the affidavits along with the asylum seekers’ applications, providing medical documentation to support claims of torture and abuse.

In writing the report to the Committee on behalf of PHR, I read all the medical affidavits for asylum seekers from Kenya since 2008, written by professionals affiliated with the Asylum Program. (2008 was the last time Kenya participated in the reporting process to the Committee; the Committee had been requesting a report from Kenya for each of the preceding nine years, and the country finally complied for the first time in 2008).

The affidavits make up a stark narrative of torture and ill-treatment suffered by Kenyans at the hands of the mungiki, a criminal gang that has terrorized the country with impunity for decades. Rape, genital mutilation, and beheadings characterize its violence. Despite its status as an illegal organization, Kenya has been powerless to put a stop to the mungiki’s torture and has even harmed innocent civilians in its efforts to address mungiki violence. The government allegedly formed a secret police force to kill members of the mungiki on sight. When Kenyan activists began to investigate these extrajudicial killings, the police then began targeting the activists to silence their investigations. Staff of human rights organizations faced threats and beatings from police for their work in exposing the execution-style murders of suspected mungiki members.

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