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People behind bars have long had special significance for the human rights movement, both as catalysts for action and symbols of injustice. Protecting the rights of detainees under international human rights law revolve principally around three elements:
• liberty and security of the person;
• freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention; and
• humane and dignified treatment by the detaining authorities.



“It is worth asking: what do we as a society get from keeping these people in prison? We have a prison system that is grotesquely overcrowded and prisoners who pose no meaningful threat to public safety, and yet they are being denied release.”

- Jamie Fellner, Senior Advisor, Human Rights Watch



The three case studies in the following pages address these three issues by targeting:

• the appalling prison conditions in Brazil which violate prohibitions on ill treatment;

• laws which threaten the liberty and security of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) people in Russia; and

• excessive counter-terrorism measures which lead to arbitrary detention and torture.


Conectas: Prisons in Brazil

One of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing emerging powers also has one of the largest prison populations. Indeed, the country has the third highest incarceration rate in the world and the fourth largest prison population.


With some 550,000 inmates occupying cell space designed for 355,000 people, overcrowding remains one of the biggest problems. This situation is exacerbated by an overly punitive judicial culture and the excessive use of pre-trial detention. In addition, inmates are subject to an excessive use of force, ill-treatment and beatings and are held in dire conditions in substandard infrastructure with a lack of basic services. Many prisons are controlled by gangs and criminal networks which supply drugs and weapons and offer ‘protection’ in return for pay. The prison system is also overwhelmingly discriminatory: the ill-educated, poor and black are more likely to be locked up and languish for years before seeing a judge. The plight of the detainees is largely met with indifference by the government.


Conectas, a leading human rights group in Brazil, has been working to remedy this appalling situation for over a decade. In 2010 it drew international attention to the shocking prison conditions in the state of Espírito Santo, where more than 500 detainees were being held in metal cargo containers, in which temperatures reached 50 degrees Celsius. With the government slow to act, Conectas and its partners increased the pressure by raising awareness of this situation at the United Nations. Immediately afterwards, the Brazilian Superior Court of Justice issued a decision determining that pre-trial detainees should be removed from the containers in Espírito Santo at once and relocated.


Unsurprisingly under such conditions, violence between inmates is commonplace, with 62 prisoners killed during battles between rival gangs in Pedrinhas Penitentiary Complex in Maranhão State in 2013 alone. In early 2014 a local media outlet posted a video revealing violent scenes, including the beheading of three detainees from inside the Pedrinhas Complex.


Conectas was highly visible in raising national and international awareness. It pushed for accountability around those crimes and sought the intervention of the Federal Government to ensure the impartiality of the investigation. In partnership with the Maranhão State Society for Human Rights, it engaged in advocacy with local authorities, held a public hearing with the local bar association and conducted a visit to the prison. It was also very active in raising awareness through the media to engage the broader public.


Conectas seeks to end impunity for gross violations of human rights, promote access to justice for victims and demand changes in legislation and institutional policies on the criminal justice system. With support from Oak, Conectas engages in strategic litigation, legal advocacy and provision of pro bono legal services and seeks to raise awareness of the extreme violations at national, regional and international levels.


All Out: homophobic laws in Russia

In the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Russian Council passed legislation outlawing ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ among minors. This effectively set limits on the rights of free expression and assembly for citizens publicly advocating for LGBTI rights.


Authorities imposed hefty fines on LGBTI groups accused of acting as ‘foreign agents’ and banned pride parades in St Petersburg and Moscow. Against this backdrop, violent attacks on suspected LGBTI people went largely unpunished by police, who more often than not turned a blind eye or tacitly encouraged homophobic behaviour. All Out saw an opportunity to shine the spotlight on the crackdown on LGBTI rights. It joined forces with grassroots partners in Russia to draw attention to Principle 6 in the Olympic Charter, which states that discrimination is incompatible with the Olympic movement and called for a stronger response from both the International Olympic Committee and the Games’ corporate sponsors. A coalition of 50 Olympic athletes joined the Principle 6 campaign to speak out against anti- LGBTI laws and discrimination in sports, while world leaders, media outlets and public figures from all walks of life spoke up in solidarity.


All Out ran large-scale public demonstrations in some 50 cities around the world and launched an online petition which was signed by more than one million people, including 13,000 Russians. As a result of increased international scrutiny, Russian authorities offered public assurance that the law would not be used to intimidate visitors to the Sochi Olympics. In February 2014 the International Olympic Committee publicly affirmed that discrimination against LGBTI people violates the Olympic Charter and has subsequently introduced a clause of non-discrimination to its Olympic host bid rules.


All Out is a not-for-profit organisation which works to build a global movement to make political, legal and cultural interventions for the equality of LGBTI people. Set up in 2011 with funding from Oak, All Out has grown into an international platform with more than two million supporters worldwide and a promising crowd-funding revenue model. In partnership with local groups, All Out has: mobilised extensive public support for the Civil Unions Bill in Peru and Brazil’s Anti-Discrimination Bill; challenged the United Kingdom’s deportation process for LGBTI asylum seekers; and backed a global solidarity campaign following a Supreme Court recriminalisation decision in India.


War on Terror: moving towards accountability

Thirteen years have passed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. Since the launch of the War on Terror, the US government and its allies have been complicit in a range of human rights abuses, the scope and extent of which have still not fully come to light.


In the earlier years following the attacks, and as part of its counter-terrorism efforts, the CIA carried out a programme of “extraordinary renditions”. This included: abducting and holding suspects without charge or trial; secretly transferring them across a global network of clandestine detention sites; and subjecting them to harsh interrogation techniques such as water-boarding, mock executions and other forms of extreme physical and psychological pressure. The Obama Administration prohibited these “enhanced interrogations”, but, to date, no senior official has been held responsible for the rendition programme.


Oak grantees Reprieve and Interights were involved in securing a recent breakthrough decision of the European Court for Human Rights, which found Poland liable for collaborating with the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme. This case, set to be a precedent, could influence similar cases pending against Romania and Lithuania.


The All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition continues to make progress towards establishing the real scope and scale of UK involvement in renditions. The group has successfully litigated for the right to obtain information from British and American intelligence agencies under freedom of information regulations.


In the US, grantees including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights First and the Center for Constitutional Rights, have advocated for the release of a comprehensive bi-partisan report prepared by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Released in December 2014, the report outlines the nature and scope of the CIA’s detention and interrogation programmes and examines their alleged efficacy. Based on classified intelligence records, it provides an independent assessment of the CIA’s actions, raising critical questions about its legality and legitimacy.


It is hoped that the work of Oak’s partners will shine a light on a dark and largely hidden period of history, allowing public and political opinion to assess the facts and move further towards accountability and justice.




Year of publication: 2014



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Annual Report 2014


Download the Annual Report 2014 here.






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©2018 Oak Foundation.
All rights reserved.