The case of Popi Qwabe and Bongeka Phungula, two young women brutally killed in 2017, is one of 10 cases selected for Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign, launching today. Regarded as the world’s biggest human rights campaign, Amnesty International calls on governments to right injustices against individuals who are detained or persecuted in countries across the globe and to lead by example in building a fairer post-COVID-19 world.
Every December, people around the world write millions of letters, emails, tweets, Facebook posts and postcards for those whose human rights are under attack and call on Governments and relevant authorities to take action. The South African case of Popi and Bongeka is no different.
One night in May 2017, Popi and Bongeka were shot dead and their bodies dumped on the side of the road in Johannesburg. Two taxi drivers were arrested on suspicion of murder after they were found in possession of the women’s belongings. A taxi containing the women’s bloodstains and belongings was found. The families claim that while the blood was apparently analysed, the forensic department never released the results, and the police did not check for fingerprints and that the two women’s phones were never traced. Subsequently, the suspects were released on bail after the case was withdrawn, citing a lack of evidence. In the three years since the murders, no thorough investigation has taken place.
The case of Popi and Bongeka is emblematic of the alarming rates of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in South Africa.
“Given that South Africa is facing a crisis of GBV and Femicide, it was important for us to include a case from here in the campaign. The aim is to place a global spotlight on the scourge and for the almost 8 million-strong Amnesty movement to stand in solidarity with all victims of GBV in South Africa. We also want to pressurise the state to ensure that perpetrators are dealt with swiftly and efficiently,” said Shenilla Mohamed, Executive Director of Amnesty International South Africa.
Mohamed is calling on all people in South Africa to participate in the online campaign saying, “In the same way that millions of people from around the world stood in solidarity with South Africans suffering under the brutal yoke of apartheid, we need the same solidarity from South Africans, not only for Popi and Bongeka but for all human rights defenders and victims of violence. We need to stand together globally against all perpetrators.”
Other cases in the campaign include:
- Gustavo Gatica is a psychology student in Santiago, Chile. On 8 November 2019, he attended a protest over rising inequality, part of mass demonstrations that made headlines all over the world for being an inspiring example of people power. Police violently repressed this protest, repeatedly opening fire on demonstrators with shotguns loaded with rubberized buck shots. Gustavo was struck in both eyes and left permanently blinded. Amnesty International is calling for a full investigation into the events that led to Gustavo being injured and for the commanders in charge to be held responsible.
- Nassima al- Sada, a women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia Nassima was arrested for her peaceful human rights work in July 2018. While in jail, she was tortured. She was placed in a cell alone, in complete isolation from other detainees from February 2019 to February 2020. She is allowed one weekly phone call with her family, but no visits, not even from her lawyer. Amnesty is calling for the immediate release of Nassima and all other detained women human rights defenders, immediately and without conditions.
- METU LGBTI solidarity group, whose members face a prison sentence for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Turkey. LGBTI students at the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara have been organizing an annual Pride march on campus for years without restrictions. In 2019, the peaceful event was broken up by police. Students and an academic were detained and beaten, and the case is now in court. Amnesty International is calling for the acquittal of all those who have been charged, an investigation into the excessive use of force by police, and for students to have the freedom to hold peaceful marches on campus.
Visit the Amnesty International South Africa website, to join the Write for Rights campaign and continue the tradition of writing letters to right some of the world’s biggest wrongs. It’s not just letters – it could be petitions, emails, Tweets, Facebook posts, events, photos, and postcards. Sometimes words can change lives.
As seen in previous years, writing letters does bring about change for the individuals whose cases are highlighted in Write for Rights, and also offers enormous emotional support and encouragement to them and their families.
Nigerian teenager Moses Akatugba was arrested and sentenced to death when he was 15 years old, after being accused of stealing three phones. In 2019, he was released, after 800,000 Amnesty International supporters showed their support.
“I was on death row because the police claimed I stole three phones,” says Moses. “But now I’m free because people like you wrote letters to support me. After eight years in jail, and 800,000 letters from Amnesty International supporters all over the world, I was released. Those letters kept my fire burning. I am alive today because of these letters. So your letters can save a life.”
In July 2020, a South Sudanese man had his death sentence quashed, due in part to Write for Rights. According to his testimony in court, Magai Matiop Ngong fired his father’s gun at the ground to warn off his cousin, who was trying to stop him fighting with another boy in his neighbourhood. The bullet ricocheted and hit his cousin, who later died in hospital. Magai, who was just 15 at the time, faced trial for murder without a lawyer. He was convicted and sentenced to death.
Our research shows that the death penalty is disproportionately used against poor and disadvantaged people. According to international law, and South Sudanese law, sentencing a child to death is illegal.
More than 765,000 people took action and wrote to the South Sudanese government expressing solidarity with Magai. The South Sudan Court of Appeal eventually quashed the death sentence imposed on Magai because he was a child at the time of the crime and sent his case back to the High Court to rule on an appropriate sentence.
“The power of individual action to save lives and hold governments to account must never be underestimated. Year on year we see the powerful impact that simply writing a letter or email can deliver,” said Julie Verhaar.
“Write for Rights is all about individuals helping other individuals, and this way of expressing our shared humanity has never been more important and relevant. Governments must respond to this widespread desire for change by delivering justice to those whose human rights are being attacked.”
Write for Rights mobilizes hundreds of thousands of people around the world to change the lives of individuals at risk through taking action. Last year over six and half million actions were taken – an annual increase for the 18th consecutive year. The case of Yasaman Aryani in Iran received over one million actions alone.
The Write for Rights campaign will run from 20 November to 31 December 2020.
For more information see here: https://www.amnesty.org/en/get-involved/write-for-rights/
Photos available here:
For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:
Nabeelah Khan, Media and Communications Officer, Amnesty International South Africa: +27 (0) 64 890 9224; firstname.lastname@example.org