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A journalist who has been forced to flee Colombia for exposing crimes by guerrilla, government, and paramilitary forces; a human rights defender who has spent 20 years documenting abuses by both sides of Sri Lanka's civil war; and two activists who use the law to expose abuses and seek redress for victims of gross human rights violations in Nepal and Zimbabwe - these are this year's winners of Human Rights Watch's global defender awards.

In North America, Human Rights Watch pays tribute to Colombian journalist Hollman Morris and Sri Lankan rights defender Sunila Abeysekera.

Morris, a television journalist, documentary filmmaker and writer who champions victims of political violence, runs a television show, "Contravia," that investigates human rights abuses and addresses some of the most difficult and controversial issues in Colombian society. He practices journalism that is, says Morris, "motivated by hope, struggling for life and fighting for memory." Because of recent death threats, Morris fled the country last week and is now in the U.S., reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Abeysekera has for two decades worked as an activist amid Sri Lanka's civil war, exposing serious abuses by government security forces and the armed opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. She has been a leading activist on behalf of the human rights of women in the country and around the world. "Women and children are the first victims of any kind of conflict," Abeysekera said.

"We are honouring Hollman and Sunila for their tireless efforts to shed light into the shadowy corners of conflict," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Their work exemplifies the ideals of the human rights movement: courage, an unswerving commitment to justice and genuine concern for the rights of all victims."

Lawyers Mandira Sharma and Arnold Tsunga are being honoured in Europe.

Sharma, the first woman in her village in Nepal to become a lawyer, founded Advocacy Forum to champion the rights of Nepali citizens caught in the decade-long civil war between Maoist rebels and the Nepali government. Since a peace agreement was signed in 2006, Sharma has concentrated on bringing to justice those who committed abuses on both sides. "There is a culture of impunity," she said. "Without addressing this, we cannot move forward."

Tsunga, executive director of Zimbabwean Lawyers for Human Rights, returned home to Harare this year despite being constantly harassed and threatened by government forces. He uses the courts to take on President Robert Mugabe's regime, giving a voice to Zimbabweans silenced by repression and the hundreds of thousands of people who were forcibly displaced. "Some people ask me why I bother using the legal system when the deck is so stacked against us," he said. "I answer that there is still a semblance of a court system and some brave judges who will uphold the law. But they are operating in straitjackets and desperately need support to continue doing the right thing."

"We are all inspired by the work of Mandira Sharma and Arnold Tsunga," said Roth. "They fight every day to uphold the rule of law because they know it's the strongest weapon against abusive forces in government or out."
Morris is one of several Colombian journalists who fled the country last week following death threats linked to his reporting. He has received other awards for his courageous reporting. In the same week in Colombia, CPJ and the Foundation for Press Freedom (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, FLIP) report that hired killers shot to death photographer Carlos Alberto Jaramillo and his assistant, Julio César García in Los Alcázares, Cali, although the motives of the murders are not yet known.
The awards will be presented at a series of dinners across North America and Europe in November.

For more information on the 2007 Human Rights Watch honourees, see:
(Photo: Hollman Morris)

(30 October 2007)

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