WASHINGTON, Oct 17 (OneWorld) - In the midst of applause, tears, and multiple standing ovations, a group of Indian workers trafficked into the United States and a Peruvian human rights organization seeking justice for crimes against humanity were honored here Wednesday evening for their bold actions.
The 32nd annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards saluted the work of the Indian Workers Congress and Peru's Asociacion Pro Derechos Humanos (APRODEH).
The honors are presented each October by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a Washington, DC think tank working for policies that are "progressive, green, fair, and just," according to the group's director John Cavanagh.
The awards recognize leaders in the human rights movement in the United States and elsewhere in the Americas.
Author and IPS Scholar Barbara Ehrenreich presented the Domestic Award to the Indian Workers Congress for their "amazing example of courage and physical endurance" during a journey from New Orleans to Washington, DC by foot. This "journey of justice" was followed by a month-long fast to protest the abuses the members had suffered from a U.S. corporation.
Aby Raju accepted the Domestic Award on behalf of the Indian Workers Congress. His words were translated into English during a heartfelt speech that detailed the ordeal he and his fellow workers endured.
Raju said the members of the Indian Workers Congress were among several hundred Indians recruited in 2006 for post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction work. The recruiters, who were hired by Signal International, promised the men green cards if they each paid $15,000 or more, according to Raju. Instead, Raju said, upon arrival in the United States they were given 10-month guest worker visas and placed in isolated labor camps.
Signal International, a subsidiary of defense contractor Northrop Grumman, is a marine construction company based in the U.S. Gulf Coast. The Indian workers were hired to help with reconstruction on the company's sites that had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina.Â
"I personally gave about $20,000 to come into this country," Raju said. "Right now, my mother, my father, my wife, and a son I've never seen live in a rental home. If you ask me, 'Why did you give this money?' I will say because I thought I was saving my parents and I would be able to live with my family here."
Raju paused to regain control of his shaking voice. "But the experience I had after coming here was living like a slave," he said.
Raju went on to detail the "journey of justice," where more than 100 workers formed the Indian Workers Congress and walked off the job site in March. The men walked from New Orleans to Washington, DC, where they embarked on a 29-day hunger strike and testified before Congress about the abuses they suffered. As a result of their advocacy, four witnesses from the Indian Workers Congress have been interviewed by the Department of Justice, and an investigation into the case is ongoing.
"There is still a need for all of your support," Raju said. "I hope that we can all join hands to work against the injustices that have been perpetrated against workers and human beings in the United States."
Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards presented the International Award to APRODEH for its work to bring former President Alberto Fujimori, who ruled Peru from 1990 to 2000, to trial for alleged crimes against humanity.
"[APRODEH] has been working for 25 years in the fight to defend human rights," Edwards said. "What we have here is a testament to just good ol' fashioned advocacy and organizing."
APRODEH led the international pressure campaign that saw Fujimori extradited last year from Chile, where he had taken refuge. It was the first time a former head of state had been extradited to his own country to stand trial for human rights violations.
During his ten years in power, Fujimori was accused of rights violations in what he described as a campaign to uproot terrorism in Peru. Fujimori was allegedly involved in the 1991 Barrios Altos massacre of 15 men, women, and children as well as the disappearance and murder of nine students and a professor from La Cantuta University in 1992, according to Amnesty International.Â Â
APRODEH founder Francisco Soberon and attorney Gloria Cano accepted the award on behalf of the organization. Soberon spoke about the human rights organizations both in the United States and around the world that he has worked with and learned from. He said he is proud of the extended network of which his group is a part, both in Latin America and globally.
"We have to look not only at what is happening in our countries, we have to look abroad in other countries," Soberon said.
The Letelier-Moffitt Awards were established in 1976 when Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and IPS development associate Ronni Karpen Moffitt were killed by a car bomb that was allegedly detonated by agents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.Â
This year, five members of the Letelier family were present at the awards ceremony. "It feels very poetic and just to be here this year," said Francisco Letelier, one of Orlando Letelier's sons. "It is remarkable to me to understand what a powerful thing the human rights awards have become. They have grown much larger than the legacy of one man, or one nation."