This contribution by Maydan’s co-president Lisa Ariemma reminds us that there are continuing struggles for rights and equality across the Mediterranean and beyond, and people who are courageously in the forefront for those values. Maydan dedicates it to human rights defenders who continue struggling, or who have unfortunately paid a price for it.
One of the many challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic is keeping abreast of all the other events taking place in the world, staying on top of issues dear to us and remembering the people who are in the midst of important struggles. In Italy and elsewhere, we are all being forced to give up temporarily many of our democratic rights: our freedom of movement – at the moment, in my Region of Piedmont we cannot move outside of our municipality without justification; the right to education – too many young people have inadequate technology for distance learning, cannot focus in the face of six hours of screen time and sometimes lack psychological support; and access to health care – people are dying because they are afraid to go to the hospital or unable to get treatment or do important tests. The pandemic has shown us how interconnected we are: like climate change, viruses don’t stop at the border; but also how disparate our ability is to meet health care needs, continue educating our youth, protect our most fragile citizens and economically assist those who are suffering the most as a result of the various policies in place to stop the virus’ spread.
Another repercussion of this situation is that we are so focused on not getting sick, on paying our bills, on staying sane, on waiting for that vaccine to be accessible, that we have little energy for anything else. Three people who are connected to me have been on my mind lately and I fear their struggles and sacrifices seem to have been moved to the back burner; Esraa Abdel Fattah, Egyptian journalist and human rights defender; Abdallah Abu Rahma, co-founder of the Bilin resistance movement and part of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Colonization and Wall Resistance Commission and Dana Lauriola, social worker and a member of Italy’s No TAV (treno di alta velocità or high-speed train) movement[i].
The common thread that binds us is our activism. I met Esraa and Abdallah at the IndignaCtion[ii] conference, organized by the Anna Lindh Foundation, held in Luxembourg in September 2012. I don’t remember how exactly Esraa and I connected at that event, but we became friends and then had the pleasure of deepening our friendship spending time together once more in Sicily at an edition of SabirFest[iii], a cultural celebration of the Mediterranean. I particularly recall a long walk one afternoon along a Messina beach gathering pieces of colourful sea-worn tiles. She is petite, modest and quite shy for someone nominated for the Nobel Peace prize as co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, which became a driving force of the 2011 street protests during Egypt’s Arab Spring.
I do, however, remember how Abdallah and I met that September in Luxembourg very well. I’d just presented the No TAV movement of Susa Valley, where I live, ending with a video[iv] that illustrated the brutality of Italian police and soldiers while evicting activists who’d been occupying land to stop construction of a 57-km tunnel through the Alps as part of a high-speed-freight rail project. After the video, he approached me, held out his hand and said: “We are the same.” I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with Abdallah on two other occasions; once as a No TAV activist in the West Bank and the other with him as my guest in my valley. When I took him to the TAV work site, which has been militarily occupied since June 2011, he felt at home seeing Israeli-type barbed wire lining the tops of the fences and the same empty teargas canisters, used against Palestinians in the West Bank, along the mountain trails.
Whether I have crossed paths with Dana at a demonstration or assembly or not, she is a No TAV activist and so her plight is the plight of all those, like myself, who are fighting against unnecessary and imposed mega projects: undemocratic in their planning and useless in their realization. She is also a victim, like Esraa and Abdallah, of systemic discrimination, of an unjust judiciary.
Why are these activists on my mind?
Esraa Abdel Fattah was kidnapped by plainclothes agents, arbitrarily detained and tortured on 12 October 2019. After her arrest, she was threatened and beaten for refusing to provide the password to unlock her cell phone. Her sweatshirt was then used to strangle her as she was told: “Your life for the phone”. She finally revealed her code and was then forced to remain handcuffed in standing position for eight hours, threatened with further torture if she were to report the incident[v]. Already the victim of a smear campaign accusing her of being a traitor and foreign agent[vi], a sexualised defamation campaign was launched shortly after her arrest when a state-owned newspaper accused her of being in a relationship with a male colleague[vii].
Esraa was placed in preventative detention – which lasts 15 days – and on 13 October 2019 started a hunger strike; something she has done off and on throughout her incarceration. This form of short-term detention may be carried out in Egypt for a maximum of two years. Her confinement was renewed every 15 days month by month. In May of last year, Egypt’s Supreme State Security Prosecution launched case “855/2020”, an investigation into alleged terrorism crimes that has been used to detain and silence human rights defenders. On 31 August, Esraa was accused of “joining a terrorist organization” while inside prison[viii]. She is one of 15 cases considered in the recently released 2020 “Report on Providing Safe Refuge to Journalists at Risk”[ix]. No recent news is available about her wellbeing.
Last November, I received a series of photos[x] and videos from Abdallah Abu Rahma on Messenger. He had been peacefully protesting with local activists at Kufer Malek, which is located between Ramallah and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank, against the eviction of Palestinian residents to build a new Israeli settlement on what is – by international law – Palestinian land. One of the videos he sent me captures a soldier saying: “Tell him if he doesn’t move you will shoot him”, and then “Shoot him! Shoot him!” And so they did, at close range, with a new generation of “non-lethal” bullets called “sponge bullets”.
Officially in use since January 2015, they are capsule-like in shape, have a hard plastic base, a rounded tip covered in hard black foam and are about six centimeters long and three centimeters wide. They have caused serious injuries such as brain damage and eye loss over the last five years[xi]. Luckily, after a visit to the hospital, Abdallah was able to go home. But his battle against the illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories continues as do the physical and judicial risks he takes every time he defends land that is legally entitled to the Palestinian people.
There is no need, however, to travel to the Middle East to come face to face with judicial risks. Early one morning last September, Dana Lauriola was arrested at her home in Bussoleno and taken to Turin in custody. She was charged with assault and the aggravated interruption of a public service. On 3 March 2012, Dana was one of more than 100 activists peacefully protesting against the construction of the TAV high-speed rail project. This was a particularly tense period after activist Luca Abbà was nearly killed from a fall after having been chased by police up an electric pylon[xii]. At the Avigliana toll highway booths, a group of ten activists allowed cars to drive through without paying while others held placards and waved the emblematic No TAV flag. Dana explained the reasons for the roadblock to passing cars encouraging them to continue through without paying, using a megaphone. The protest lasted about 20 minutes[xiii].
Under Italian law, the more serious charge of assault has a minimum sentence of 15 days. It also allows for conditional sentences if the person charged doesn’t present a risk to the community. As a social worker who assists homeless people to re-integrate into society, she could have been placed on probation and continued working. Instead, despite the fact that the estimated €777.00 lost during the protest were reimbursed to the privately-owned company that manages the toll highway, she is serving two years at Turin’s “Le Vallette” prison for her crime. The Turin-based La Stampa newspaper reported the decision with the words “a violent person” in the headline[xiv]. Among the reasons cited in the court decision were her political ideals – as a fervent No TAV activist – and her place of residence – too close to the construction site of the rail project[xv].
The Italian office of Amnesty International has condemned the decision: “Expressing your dissent peacefully cannot be punished with prison. Dana’s arrest is emblematic of a climate that criminalizes the right to freedom of expression and peaceful demonstration, guaranteed by the [Italian] Constitution and various international mechanisms”[xvi]. On 29 October, a request for the suspension of the court’s decision was denied. Her unwillingness to repent was cited as one of the motives[xvii]. Her status has not changed since then and she remains in an Italian prison cell.
There are important connections between the stories of these three activists and what this pandemic has shown us: how quickly our life can change, how rapidly certain unalienable rights can be suspended, but also, how interconnected we all are. I participated in an online forum recently, “Celebrating Our Diversity”[xviii], with some Anna Lindh Foundation’s Networks among the organizers. We were more than 50 participants – activists, social workers, academics and artists – over two mornings. Naturally, the pandemic and its effects were a key topic along with how we collectively imagined the post-pandemic era. I have to say it was much better than I’d expected. We had plenary sessions and break-out ones in virtual rooms and wrote our thoughts on collective “jamboards”. Time flew and it was certainly a valuable experience. It was a very well executed alternative in challenging times.
It could not, however, compare with my experiences at IndignaCtion, SabirFest or other gatherings I’ve attended over the years. Nor could it match the interactions I shared with Palestinian and Israeli activists in Bilin or at the dozens of demonstrations I’ve participated in as part of the No TAV movement in Susa Valley. Personal contact, eye contact, sharing that coffee or meal, having a tête-à- tête over a particular issue, all those things are impossible at a virtual conference and our essence and passion can never be expressed in the same way as in person. Abdallah would never have been able to shake my hand and it’s unlikely that enduring friendships could have been made.
In Italian there’s an expression: “arrangiarsi”, which broadly means, inventing ways of getting by in challenging circumstances. That is what we are doing right now on so many levels, getting by, doing our best, coming up with new ways to do things that work in this pandemic context. But if we are talking about notions like culture, about building networks and relationships, it’s just not good enough. Culture must be lived and shared. Relationships require tangible experiences together as does understanding one another. We can try putting ourselves into somebody else’s shoes using our compassion or empathy as a guide, but it is not the same as physically living collective moments. The same goes for trust. Trust is built experience by experience. It is nuanced. It is body language and the choice of words. It is a tone of voice that is reflected in facial expressions. There is a limit to how much of this we can read from within a small face framed in a square, hundreds or thousands of kilometers away. The distance we must currently accommodate out of necessity, must only be a temporary one.
Of course, the value of being technologically connected in this historic moment has allowed us to “arrangiarci” as workers and as students, as activists and as decision makers, but it cannot be a long-term solution. This separateness we are living now must not render us incapable of returning to our previous human contact experiences or lead us to deny their value. Nor should it allow us to be distracted from the struggles being fought across the globe for justice, democracy and human rights. This is why Esraa, Abdallah and Dana are so much on my mind. During and after this pandemic, we must not permit ourselves complacency about the plethora of issues we have recently, and so tragically, learned bind us more than we could have ever imagined.
[viii] https://womeninjournalism.org/cfwij-press-statements/egypt-new-charges-pressed-against-solafa-magdy-and-esraa-abdel-fattah-along-with-renewal-of-arbitrary-detention and https://www.amnesty.org/EN/DOCUMENTS/MDE12/3095/2020/EN/