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Program Draws Attention to Death Threats, Inhumane Jail Conditions for Scientists
It takes patience to appreciate the impact the AAAS Human Rights Network has on the plight of scientists who are in trouble -- often with the governments of their own countries.
"After our subscribers have sent out letters in support of someone, we might hear that prison conditions have improved, or the United Nations might get involved in the case, but it can take a long time before anything happens," says Victoria Baxter, program associate for the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program, which administers the network. But she notes that to the people the network helps, every action on their behalf is appreciated.
In January, the Network sent out alerts asking its 350 subscribers to respond to threats against the life and liberty of scientists in Honduras and Russia.
In Honduras, the National Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras, Leo Valladares Lanza, and his deputy, Sonia Marlina Dubon, received anonymous death threats over the telephone. Valladares Lanza and Dubon recently issued a report detailing the extent to which journalists are censored in Honduras, and Valladares recently called for an end to alleged corruption in that nation's judicial system.
The network suggested that its subscribers send letters to the president of Honduras and other national officials, asking them to protect Valladares Lanza and Dubon and to investigate the source of the threats against them. A second alert requested help for Igor Sutyagin, a military affairs specialist who has spent over two years in a Russian jail on charges of treason for allegedly spying for the British. The Russian Supreme Court recently agreed to hear Sutyagin's appeal.
The letters can make a difference, says Sutyagin’s friend and colleague, Pavel Podvig, a visiting researcher at Princeton University's Program in Science and Global Security.
"I have not yet lost confidence in the Russian judicial system," Podvig says. "If the Russian Supreme Court hears from academics in the United States and elsewhere that this case is contrary to conduct of law anywhere else, it could make a difference."
The Kaluga Regional Court ruled in December that Sutyagin had not been given the right to defend himself because none of the charges were specific enough. Rather than throwing out the case, however, the court ordered another round of investigations, an action that is being appealed to the Russian Supreme Court. Sutyagin, a civilian researcher, argues that the information he collected on the Russian military was found in unclassified materials, and that he could not have had access to classified documents as he had no security clearance. Sutyagin, who is 37, is being held in an overcrowded jail, Podvig said, so his family’s first priority is that he be set free while his case makes its way through the system.
More information on the efforts of the AAAS Human Rights Network can be found through links in the column to the left.
-- Coimbra Sirica