Rhonda COPELON – Paris 18th September 2010
Friends met on Saturday 18th 2010 in Paris to pay tribute to Rhonda Copelon as part of a meeting called by WICUR and RAFD. It was a moving ceremony as testimonies were interspersed with the reading of poems in Arabic and those texts chosen by Rhonda against a background of Yiddish music.
Zazi SADOU and Lalia DUCOS evoked Rhonda’s relentless activism and manifold commitments by the side of those voiceless victims of fundamentalisms, terrorism and injustice worldwide. Both Zazi and Lalia said it was hard to sum up all Rhonda’s achievements to advance women’s human rights stressing that Rhonda sometimes acted against the tide of mainstream human rights defenders and organizations. In this respect, what took pride of place during the ceremony was Rhonda’s total and unswerving support for Algerian women and democrats marked by the 1996 lawsuit Jane Doe v. Islamic Salvation Front and Anwar Haddam, which charged Algerian fundamentalists with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including assassination, rape and torture. All those who shared their memories concurred that usually friends who pass away are praised and described as exceptional but Rhonda was indeed exceptional.
Lalia DUCOS said she was overwhelmed with sadness and sorrow but was also grateful because for about three decades as a bright leftist activist Rhonda had been able to advance the world women’s movement embracing all fields of endeavour including political rights, gays and lesbians’ rights and abortion rights. She recalled the famous Filartiga v. Pena-Irala case which she said had set a precedent for the 1996 lawsuit Jane Doe v. Islamic Salvation Front and Anwar Haddam. Rhonda, she said, had dared to address the issue of non state actors charging Algerian fundamentalists with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including assassination, rape and torture. For Algerians, Lalia DUCOS added, Rhonda had played a major role in the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia with rape being recognized as a crime of genocide and torture in international law. Lalia DUCOS also mentioned that although exhausted by the disease Rhonda had made a special point in defending the cause of women in the Mexican city of Suarez and in standing by the side of Gita Sahgal who had been dismissed by Amnesty International for having denounced what Lalia called a “confusion between defending basic human rights and granting armed groups the legitimate status of human rights defenders”. Lalia DUCOS finally said all those who had known Rhonda who had the pleasure to know her will remember “a passionate, sincere and loyal friend full of humanity”.
In this respect, Zehira said that what struck her was Rhonda’s voice and soft tone and her readiness to listen. “Despite the language barrier we understood each other perfectly” she said adding that Rhonda’s sincere commitment only made this possible. She stressed that as from the beginning Rhonda knew who was killing in Algeria. One can remember that “Rhonda had fought to death for truth, our truth, may she rest in peace” she concluded.
In a message in writing, Asma said she was relieved when she knew that a lawsuit was being filed against Algerian fundamentalists in the USA. Although the task was huge Rhonda never dropped and continued fighting against oblivion and to revive the memory of those victims of fundamentalist terrorism.
Amine, for his part said that Rhonda’s commitment was unique as it sets as an example of courage, abnegation. She was “outstandingly clever”, and her loss is an opportunity for us to take on a part of our history and pay tribute to the memory of all those who had helped us and who understood that fundamentalism was not yet another opinion. I agree, he went on to say, that when people who pass away are described exceptional but Rhonda was exceptional indeed.
For his part, Abderrahmane, in a message in writing said that Rhonda had soon understood the genuine meaning of Algerian democrats’ struggle against fanaticism. He added that those who resist and struggle for a democratic Algeria today pay tribute to Rhonda.
Zazi SADOU took the floor saying that since Rhonda had passed away, it was an ordeal for her to evoke the latter’s life and work because Rhonda was now part of “our collective and painful history”. Zazi said that she and Rhonda had met in Beijing in 1995 thanks to Algerian activist Marie Aimée Helie Lucas. She indicated that at that time FIS leaders were welcomed in most Western capitals including Bonn and Washington. “Everyday during the Beijing conference, she said, Rhonda and I would discuss what could be done because Rhonda was shocked to learn that Anwar Haddam had left Algeria and was in Washington and was taking the floor in international auspices and making statements abetting terrorist acts”.
Building on the Filartiga v. Pena-Irala case, Rhonda embarked upon years of tireless work to bring together evidence and prevent Anwar Haddam from getting political asylum in the USA. Rhonda had developed an acute political analysis of our situation and within a few months she had grasped the meaning of our struggle and had organized meetings with high ranking US officials because she wanted our voices to be heard.
Beside her own commitment, she led a number of her students into reading and working on tons of documents mostly in French. It is worth noting, Zazi said, that the situation in Algeria was so dangerous that most plaintiffs wished to remain anonymous be they intellectuals, women or youths. With the exception of RAFD which was the only open plaintiff, she added.
It is worth recalling that lawyers in Washington had refused to take on Anwar Haddam’s defence when they knew that Rhonda was the lawyer for his adverse party.
Zazi said that paying tribute to Rhonda was an opportunity to hail the memory of two people: Anissa Asselah and Mohamed Issami, she said, who passed away and whose contribution to the lawsuit and to the struggle against fundamentalism had been tremendous. Mohamed Issami, she indicated, was an expert and was the author of two books on Islamic terrorism. And as an expert he had been heard officially as part of the case. Rhonda had met him twice while on a visit to Algeria in 2001 and 2002. She was then happy to meet in person the plaintiffs and other Algerians. Zazi said that in her search for evidence to bring against Anwar Hadddam, Rhonda had sought the support of the French authorities which had failed to be cooperative. Zazi however hailed the attitude of activists and friends in France whom she said had enabled us to carry on.
She added that Algerians had thought that 9/11 would sign a union among all anti fundamentalist forces but with US President Bush’s Patriot Act all illusions collapsed, she said. “Neither FIS nor Anwar Haddam have been condemned but History is going on and we have now to write this piece of History marked by battles we have fought and which have brought us together with activists who had helped us carry on and Rhonda will hold a special place even for those who had not known her in person”, she concluded.