Criminalized Defenders


States increasingly push back on people defending rights and freedoms by wrongfully labelling and prosecuting them as criminals or terrorists. The risk dimension doubles when such criminalisation makes other potential aggressors sense that the political cost of attacking the so-called criminal is low. Stigmatisation of HRDs (often compared to terrorists or criminals) also aims at reducing the support they enjoy.

Protection International researches the trend of criminalisation of human rights defenders in order to understand underlying patterns. This informs strategies to manage the multiple risks involved.

Despite the adoption in 1998 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, defenders  are too often prevented from carrying out their work by being wrongfully designated as criminals or delinquents. When they focus on the presumed illegality of the activities of those defending human rights and use the judicial system to delegitimize and prevent the action of HRDs, states endanger defenders’ lives and hinder their defence of others’ rights.

A consequence of the criminalisation by the state is that aggressions against defenders increase because potential aggressors feel that the political cost of using violence is low. The application of judicial sanctions to HRDs as a silencing mechanism is very worrisome as false charges are brought against them. Defenders therefore also face the risk of becoming political prisoners. Even if the arrest warrant is not implemented, the fear of an arrest will have negative consequences on the defender’s work. Furthermore, the legal defence of the accused defender has an impact on the resources of her or his organisation.
Stigmatisation of defenders also aims at reducing the support they enjoy. When media portray them as terrorists or criminals, defenders are less likely to benefit from a protective social network and are at risk of being isolated.
Moreover new arbitrary laws are designed and used as a repressive tool to stop defenders continuing their work. These laws identify common activities in the defence of human rights as illegal. Anti-terrorist acts and laws limiting the freedom of expression are particularly used to criminalise the activity of defending human rights.

  • We investigated processes of criminalisation of defenders in Latin America to understand underlying trends and patterns. Once they understand the strategies used for criminalisation, defenders can act to prevent this risk . As a result of this investigation, we published a report.
  • We build the capacities of defenders in security and protection management.
  • In Thailand, we attended and undertook advocacy around the trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, a known advocate for freedoms of expression and the media and Executive Director of the online news website Prachatai, who has been charged with violations of the Computer Crimes Act and the Criminal Code on lèse majesté for allegedly not removing quickly enough anonymous third-party posts deemed offensive to the monarchy on a public forum on the Prachatai website. Chiranuch Premchaiporn faces up to 20 years imprisonment if found guilty.

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