Friday, December 17, 2010

Benetech Human Rights Data Analysts Uncover Critical Evidence

As the worldwide debate continues about the release of government information by Wikileaks, history has shown that the uncovering of government data can be an important factor in human rights investigations. In 2010, Benetech’s Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) examined once hidden government documents from Guatemala and Chad that provided key evidence needed to hold former national leaders and security forces accountable for human rights violations. HRDAG analysis of this information was carried out with the support of the current governments and NGO communities in both these countries.

Discovered by chance, these police and prison records told the stories of serious human rights violations from the perspective of the perpetrators. They revealed the culpability of powerful people who never expected that these records would ever be exposed to public scrutiny - let alone scientific analysis. The past year of research by HRDAG analysts has supported key criminal prosecutions and uncovered the truth about political violence in Guatemala, Iran, Colombia, Chad and Liberia.

In conflict zones where abuses are often concealed and crimes are forgotten, the scientists of HRDAG have the tools to create truthful accounts that challenge impunity. Expert testimony from HRDAG statistician Daniel Guzmán provided critical evidence in the October 2010 conviction of two former police officers for the 1984 disappearance of Guatemalan labor leader Edgar Fernando García. Guzmán’s testimony was based on HRDAG’s analysis of the 31.7 million documents in the Guatemalan National Police Archive which was discovered by chance in 2005.

A cache of prison records generated by a former state security force in Chad provided data for a 2010 HRDAG report about human rights violations in Chad. The HRDAG analysis shows that former Chadian president Hissène Habré was well informed of the hundreds of prison deaths that occurred during his regime. The files were discovered by Human Rights Watch at the abandoned headquarters of Habré’s security force, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS). They contained detailed accounts of the interrogations, movements, and deaths of prisoners, as well as information on the internal functioning of the DDS. Habré has been accused of killing and systematically torturing thousands of political opponents. Representatives from the European Union, the African Union, Chad, and other countries agreed last month to finance Habré’s trial where prosecutors may use HRDAG’s analysis to argue Habré’s responsibility for the prison deaths.

HRDAG analysis of formerly hidden data has promoted respect for human rights and raised the cost of crimes against humanity. These researchers set the worldwide standard for calculating scientifically sound statistics and quantitative findings that support human rights claims which are transparently, demonstrably, undeniably true. Their work illustrates Benetech’s mission to create technology in the service of humanity.

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