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Rights Groups Fear Wikileaks Backlash Against Activists

NEW YORK, Dec 2 2010 (IPS) - Some of the United States’ leading human rights organisations are concerned for the safety of human rights advocates in countries with repressive regimes, where disclosure by Wikileaks could put them in deadly harm.

Groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Human Rights First (HRF) believe it would be a mistake for Wikileaks to publish the names of foreign human rights activists and organisations that receive support from the U.S. government.

For that reason, HRF’s President and CEO Elisa Massimino wrote to Wikileaks head Julian Assange several days before last Sunday’s document release.

She said publishing the names of “individuals or organisations from repressive or authoritarian countries – such as Iran, China, Russia, Cuba etc. – is extremely reckless as it will increase their risk of persecution, imprisonment and violence.”

“Human rights advocates in repressive and authoritarian countries face many dangers, as governments in those countries regularly harass, mistreat and imprison them,” the letter said. “Not least among these dangers is being charged with receiving foreign support or ‘cooperating’ with foreign governments, as that can make them even more vulnerable to attack by governments and their agents.”

She said, “At the same time, many activists in repressive countries have very few options for financial support, as avenues of domestic support are effectively blocked. To protect themselves from the increased risk that comes with foreign support, many activists remain quiet about it.”

Massimino said, “We support freedom of expression and greater transparency in government. Yet, in releasing the information in the circumstances we describe above, the very real dangers to the health and well-being of human rights activists would outweigh the benefits.”

She urged Assange to remove any identifying information of human rights activists from the documents that Wikileaks will be releasing.

Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, confirms that “no names of human rights activists have been disclosed in any of the documents released by Wikileaks, nor have any such activists been put in danger.”

“In the recent disclosure, Wikileaks has only posted cables that were reviewed by the news organisations and in some cases redacted,” Ratner told IPS.

“The news organisations showed them to the Pentagon and agreed to some of the government’s suggested redactions. The U.S. claimed in the past that the release of the documents could endanger people, but now concedes that they have no knowledge that anyone was killed as a result of the prior releases,” he said.

In a related development, CNN is reporting that the U.S. State Department has offered to provide protection to human rights activists who may be in jeopardy after their identities were revealed in the latest publication of diplomatic cables by the website Wikileaks.

That protection may include the temporary relocation of some people, the department said.

Spokesman P.J. Crowley said the State Department has reached out to human rights advocates around the world to warn them of the potential fallout from the publication by Wikileaks of diplomatic cables that may contain their names or information about their organisations that could put them at risk.

“We have great concern,” Crowley said. “There are clearly sources identified in these documents, particularly in authoritarian states, that have talked to us and we believe the release of these cables definitely puts real lives at risk. We have taken steps, in anticipation of this release.”

Crowley said U.S. embassies have been in touch with both civil society and human rights activists.

“We have seen the negative, sometimes deadly ramifications for those Afghans identified as working for or sympathising with international forces,” they wrote to Assange, according to the Wall Street Journal, which cites an anonymous source.

“We strongly urge your volunteers and staff to analyse all documents to ensure that those containing identifying information are taken down or redacted.”

*Replaces the story “Rights Groups Divided over Wikileaks Revelations” moved on Nov 30, 2010.

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