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There are not many occasions in life when you feel honoured to be in the same room as someone. However, it happened to me several times during the three days of the Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF). The first was when Mukhtar Mai arrived. She is the Pakistani woman whose gang rape was ordered by a local council in the Punjab after her brother allegedly dishonoured a neighbouring tribe. Rather than committing suicide afterwards as is customary, she defied threats and won in court. With her compensation she launched a women's welfare organisation. 

Women of valour: Mukhtar Mai and Kasha Jacqueline 

Then there was Lubna al-Hussein. She is the Sudanese woman who was arrested and sentenced to 40 lashes for wearing trousers. As she told the forum, about 43,000 women were arrested in 2008 in Khartoum alone for such crimes. Unlike most of them, she had the money and influence to free herself. She chose instead to remain in prison and demand a full trial, knowing that because she was a UN employee, the case would get international attention. She said that what prompted her to choose that path — which has forced her into exile — was the sight of two teenage girls arrested with her. Both were Christians from the south with no family to call for help. "One of them was so frightened when they said she would get lashes that she wet herself." The case was hugely embarrassing to Sudan's Islamist government, which eventually freed her. 

Less well-known but just as inspiring were two other speakers. A Ugandan activist, Kasha Jacqueline, has been threatened with murder because she is battling a proposed law that would inflict the death penalty on homosexuals and imprisonment on those who fail to report homosexuals to the authorities. "I'm so glad I'm here," she told me with a smile as we looked around the opening reception in Oslo's town hall. "I just hope they don't kill me when I go home."

That sentiment was echoed by a short but redoubtable woman called Guadalupe Llori. She feared returning to Ecuador even though she is the elected governor of a large province and was a member of the same left-wing alliance as the country's President, Rafael Correa, a staunch ally of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. Llori had made the mistake of supporting striking oil workers in her province who were protesting against the government's failure to build promised roads. Correa responded by accusing her of terrorism, sabotage and corruption and sent commandos backed by tanks and helicopters to arrest her. Llori then spent nine months in prison where she was subjected to forced labour and beatings. The country's human rights sector, much of which has long links to Correa and his party, did nothing to help her. Because Correa is seen as a progressive hero by the Western Left, international organisations largely ignored her. 

It is that kind of failure by the older, larger human rights establishment that led to the founding of the OFF two years ago. Essentially, it is an alternative human rights conference, in that it genuinely embodies what such organisations used to be about: it celebrates the fight for freedom of speech, belief and association and unlike some of the more politicised human rights groups, it highlights persecution regardless of the identity or ideology of the perpetrator. 

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Bo Stenberg
August 24th, 2014
9:08 AM
I'd thought Norge was a total write-off--back to an all-new and improved Quisling as it were. When I lived there, Pakistanis were the butt of every humorless joke. That was a while ago. As anyone could see over the years, as in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the name of The Enemy can change effectively overnight. Norge is truly strange. I wish OFF the best of luck in such environment.

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