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A life dedicated to human rights

Esther Felden / mg
November 28, 2014

The Sri Lankan activist has been fighting for decades on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves. His efforts have been recognized with this year's "alternative Nobel prize."

Basil Fernando Preisträger Alternativer Nobelpreis 2014
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Ho

Nanda Prasad Adhikari had been on hunger strike for 340 days when he died in September this year. His wife and he had been protesting in this manner for nearly a year. It was their last-ditch effort to force the government of Nepal to investigate the death of their son, who was allegedly killed by Maoists, but all their efforts were in vain.

Basil Fernando, who headed the Asian human rights commission for many years, says: "Only when the father died, did the government relent and promise to pursue the matter." Although it is a tragic case, it proves that people are demanding justice, Fernando told DW. "We come across this kind of determination among the common people all over in Asia. People, who are not satisfied with a 'no.' This is inspiring," he said.

In most Asian countries, the justice system is faulty. It allows officials, for example to arbitrarily ignore laws and suppress the rights of their citizens. The people are, however, now protesting. One can see these kinds of developments in many countries in the region, and the calls for changing the system are very louder."

Journalisten aus Birma fordern Pressefreiheit
The AHRC is active in 12 countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, China, South Korea and IndonesiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

One commission for 12 countries

One needs to thank the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) that has made this possible. The commission, which was founded in 1993, was headed by Fernando for many years until he resigned in 2010. Fernando, however, still continues to work with the same organization.

For his long-standing commitment towards the unprivileged, he is now being awarded the alternative Nobel Prize, formally known as the "Right Livelihood Award," on December 1.

The AHRC is active in 12 countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, China, South Korea and Indonesia. The organization has trained many journalists and lawyers on human rights issues. The biggest successes of the AHRC include establishing a new perspective on dealing with human rights abuses and making the subject a central theme in public consciousness, Fernando stressed.

A victim of political persecution

The activist has himself experienced what it means to be exposed to the despotism of a system when he worked as an English teacher in Sri Lanka for a short while after the completion of his law studies. In 1978, the government there passed the new constitution according to which the country's president would hold absolute power.

Fernando says: "In the following years, the government pursued a strategy which was aimed at suppressing opposing members brutally and killing them. Many innocent people were killed."

The situation in Sri Lanka was very tense and unstable, he explained, and there were also so-called death lists. In 1989, Fernando's name appeared on such a list. "The lists would be given to the secret services, which made sure that the people whose names appeared on the lists disappeared. It was well-organized," he said.

Sri Lanka Bürgerkrieg Flüchtlinge
'The biggest successes of the AHRC include establishing a new perspective on dealing with human rights abuses,' says FernandoImage: AP

But fortunately Fernando came to know about the fact that the secret services were looking for hi. "So I fled. If I had stayed for a couple of days more, it would have meant death for me," the activist told DW.

Fernando then began a new life. To protect himself, he first went to Hong Kong, where he worked for the United Nations (UN) a legal adviser to Vietnamese refugees. He later left for Cambodia, also on a UN assignment. In 1984, he took over the leadership of the newly-founded AHRC with its headquarters in Hong Kong.

A case worth remembering

The AHRC has so far handled several thousand cases in its 20-year-old history. Fernando remembers, especially, the case of Rizana Nafeek, a woman from his home country Sri Lanka, who was sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia. Nafeek went to the gulf nation in 2005 to work as a domestic help.

At the time, she was just 17 years old. Other than doing the housework, Nafeek also had to look after a baby. One day, when she was feeding the baby, the baby began vomiting and died shortly after. "Investigations by international agencies showed that there was no use of force and that the death probably was due to internal reasons." The child's family, however, accused the housemaid of killing the baby and also got her sentenced for the alleged crime.

Fernando and his colleagues used all possible means to stop the execution of the woman. They appealed to the government of Sri Lanka to plead the case for Nafeek; they contacted the victim's family to drop the punishment in exchange for money. In a few weeks, they managed to collect 40,000 USD in contributions so that the woman could get a lawyer.

Saudi-Arabien Sri Lanka Menschenrechte Dienstmädchen geköpft Zeitung
Fernando and his colleagues used all possible means to stop the execution of Nafeek, but were unsuccessful in the endImage: Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

Even the Queen of England wrote a letter to the Saudi government asking for mercy. However, all attempts were in vain as Nafeek's supporters were informed that she had been executed.

Fernando says that even today, "we feel sad about the fact that we could not save her life." However, this case has shown not only how much potential human rights organizations have to motivate others, but also how much support they can garner." Support from the whole world was overwhelming, Fernando reminisces. And this, he says, gives him courage.

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