From Political Activists to Homosexuals

Interview with Ann Harrison, Amnesty Int’l Middle East Specialist


From Political Activists to Homosexuals
by Soheila Vahdati

A new definition of PRISONERS OF CONSCIENCE* caught my eye in an email exchange with a friend at Amnesty International. While it included political prisoner, the definition was much broader than what Iranians usually have in mind. I asked Ann Harrison to further explain how Amnesty International defines prisoners of conscience.  Ann Harrison, a Middle East specialist, has worked for Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Programme for over 13 years in total since 1989.  She has researched and campaigned on human rights issues in several countries in the region, beginning with Israel and the Occupied Territories and Jordan, later moving on to Lebanon and Syria,  and most recently Iran, on which she has worked for over seven years. 

People often think of political prisoners when they hear the term "prisoners of conscience" but AI includes those imprisoned for their sexual relationships or activities. Can you please elaborate on the cases of prisoners of conscience related to sexual relationships and activities and explain why they are also considered prisoners of conscience.

It's true that Amnesty International's policy on prisoners of conscience - a term invented by the organization after it was founded in 1961 - has developed over the years.  

Our decision to adopt as prisoners of conscience those individuals held solely on account of consensual sexual relations - whether heterosexual or same-sex - stems from Amnesty International's belief   that men and women must be able to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights - which include the right to freely choose one's own partner - in a manner which is free from coercion, discrimination and violence. Amnesty International therefore opposes laws that criminalise adult consensual sexual relations in private.  We oppose laws criminalising consensual sexual behaviour between people of the same sex, such as sodomy laws, that exist in many jurisdictions, for instance in Nigeria, India, Iran and certain US states, which are discriminatory, violate the right to freedom of expression, and often lead to violence against those accused, including in some cases through the imposition of the death penalty.  

We also oppose laws, including zina laws, which criminalise consensual heterosexual behaviour, wherever they are applied. "Adultery" and "fornication" are not recognizably criminal offences under international human rights standards. Punishment for such "offences" violate various rights, including the right to privacy, which is protected by Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  We recognize that many women and men around the world do not approve of adultery, but this is a private matter, between two spouses, and the state has no place in investigating or prosecuting such actions and no one should be imprisoned solely on account of such relations.  Furthermore, criminalizing these "offences" affects women more than men, encourages abuses against women, including punishing women for reporting rape and violating the right to life as a result of so called "honour" killings and helps perpetuate impunity for such abuses.  

Amnesty International believes that all laws, whether secular, religious or customary law, should adhere to international human rights standards.  We oppose the death penalty, as well as judicial punishments amounting to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment such as flogging, regardless of the accused’s crime or the nature of the legal code that sanctions such punishments.  Stoning - the prescribed punishment for "adultery while married" in countries such as Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen , and the United Arab Emirates is a particularly abhorrent form of execution which   is contrary to the international prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and should never be used as a method of execution.   Worryingly,   in Aceh province in Indonesia the possibility of executing by stoning was introduced in 2009 and we have called for this to be overturned.

Is it fair to say then that the definition of “conscience” by AI is not only limited to thoughts and beliefs but also includes feelings and emotions? 

I would rather look at it from the point of view of the exercise of rights.  The traditional definition of prisoner of conscience included those people detained for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression or belief.  Later additions included those people detained simply because of who they are: in other words their right to be free from discrimination has been violated.  In adopting people detained solely for consensual adult sexual relations, we are recognizing that people have sexual and reproductive rights, and that in such a case, these rights have been violated.  

The definition of sexual and reproductive rights - two separate but interlinked areas of rights - have developed over the last 20 years or so. The first international conference which adopted a definition of reproductive health and identified sexual and reproductive health as a topic worth of attention was the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo; in the following year, the UN Fourth World Conference on Women took place in Beijing. Both meetings established that the protection of sexual and reproductive health is an important matter of social justice.    

Could you explain further what you mean by “sexual and reproductive rights”?

Sexual and reproductive rights are grounded in human rights that are recognized in international human rights treaties, regional standards, national constitutions and other relevant human rights standards. The realization of sexual and reproductive rights requires respect for rights relating to physical and mental integrity, such as the right to life, to liberty and security of person, to freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and to privacy and respect for family life, as well as rights related to freedom of conscience and expression and freedom from discrimination. These rights correspond directly to the principles underpinning sexual and reproductive rights – the physical and mental integrity of the individual, his or her autonomy, and the principle of non-discrimination on grounds such as gender, race, national origin, sexual orientation, disability or socio-economic status.  

The realization of sexual and reproductive rights requires respect for the right of the individual to decide freely on matters related to his or her sexuality and reproductive life. They encompass, but are not limited to, the rights to:

Freely decide to be sexually active or not

Freely engage in consensual heterosexual or same-sex sexual relations

Pursue a satisfying, safe and pleasurable sexual life

Choice of partner

Consensual marriage

Decide freely the number, spacing and timing of any children

Freedom from forced impregnation, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization or use of contraceptives and forced abortion

Be free from any form of gender-based violence or harmful or other practices  

Just as Amnesty International has campaigned on other aspects of sexual and reproductive rights, such as the right  to life and bodily integrity of women  which may be violated by very early marriage or by forced marriage, so the organization campaigns for those whose rights are violated when the state intervenes in their private consensual sexual relations.  

Thank you very much for your time.

* Prisoner of conscience * 

A person imprisoned or otherwise physically restricted because of their political, religious or other conscientiously held beliefs, ethnic origin, sex, colour, language, national or social origin, economic status, birth, sexual orientation or other status – who has not used violence or advocated violence or hatred.  

No one knows for certain how many prisoners of conscience are locked up in the prison cells of the world. They are held by governments of countries with diverse political and social systems, and in some cases by armed political groups. What is certain is this: for each name that becomes news, there are many more that are unknown.  

Some prisoners of conscience are prominent individuals, active and well known in public life. Many are artists, lawyers, politicians or trade unionists – people who challenge the official view. However, most prisoners of conscience are ordinary women, men and even children, from all walks of life, imprisoned because of who they are rather than for their political activism.  

Some prisoners of conscience have acted in direct opposition to the entire system of government, while others have worked within the legal framework of a country’s political system but have been imprisoned nonetheless. People can become prisoners of conscience for all sorts of reasons, for example:

•        involvement in non-violent political activities, such as taking part in community development work;

•        belonging to a minority group that is struggling for autonomy;

•        insisting on observing religious practices of which the state does not approve;

•        taking part in trade union activities such as strikes or demonstrations;

•        on the pretext that they have committed a crime while in fact they have only criticized the authorities;

•        writing newspaper articles that raise the alarm about human rights violations taking place within their own countries;

•        refusing to perform military service on grounds of conscience (Conscientious objection);

•        resisting using a country’s official language;

•        because they happen to live in a certain village;

•        because a family member is an outspoken opponent of the government;

•        women physically restricted solely on grounds of their sex (as in Afghanistan under the Taleban);

•        because of their real or perceived sexual identity or their involvement in consensual sex relationships or activities between adults, including         same sex relationships or activities.  

AI insists that all prisoners of conscience be set free at once and without conditions. Under international law, governments have no right to hold these people. These detainees are held because of their beliefs or because of their identity, not for any crime they may have committed.  

AI’s definition of “prisoner of conscience” is detailed and specific. The decision as to whether a particular prisoner falls into this category often demands careful analysis of the facts, based on information gathered from many sources. In difficult cases, an international group of volunteer AI members known as the Standing Committee on the Mandate may be asked to provide an opinion.


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by Dirty Angel on

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by Soheila Vahdati on

Thank you. I have shared your quetion with Ann Harrison. Here is her answer to your question, quoted below.

"Persons with all sorts of disabilities, including mental disabilities, have the same human rights, including sexual and reproductive rights, as all people. In some circumstances, people with diminished intellectual capacity or other type of disability may be vulnerable to exploitation. States have an obligation to take necessary, appropriate measures to protect persons with disabilities from exploitation. But there must never be a presumption that adults with disabilities are not capable of consenting to sexual relations. And individuals who are victims of sexual exploitation or abuse must never be subject to criminal sanction."

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by Dirty Angel on

 "The realization of sexual and reproductive rights requires respect for
the right of the individual to decide freely on matters related to his
or her sexuality and reproductive life."

What is Amnesty's  position on the mentally disabled and  handicapped? 


Thank you for one of the very few interviews worth reading on this website.

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