On Oct. 28, a group of armed masked men burst into Digna Ochoa y Placido's Mexico City home and tied her up. They interrogated her for several hours, accusing her of ties to leftist guerrillas, and then turned the gas on before leaving her to die.
Mrs. Ochoa y Placido is a human rights lawyer. This time she was rescued. But her ordeal illustrates a disturbing worldwide trend, say human rights observers: Human rights activists are increasingly finding themselves the victims of abuse.
"Repression practiced against [rights] defenders ... seems to have increased in intensity," says a report published this week by the Paris-based Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. "From summary execution to threats made to their children, the range of oppressive techniques seems endless."
More than 200 activists have been murdered, "disappeared," tortured, or detained this year, the report finds.
In one sense, this violence is a sign of success. "As human rights activists have gotten more effective at challenging government policies around the world, governments have retaliated," says Reed Brody, advocacy director for the New York based Human Rights Watch.
Today thousands of grass-roots associations all over the world are thorns in the side of authority, fighting slavery, forced disappearances, child labor, violations of minority and womens' rights, and a host of other injustices. Their members are priority targets for security forces working on the theory that removing the witness removes the crime.
Repressive governments, from the Soviet Union to South Africa always found such people troublesome and locked them up, if not worse. Now, says Patrick Baudouin of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights, dramatic murders and abductions are only the tip of the iceberg.
"There is an increase in repression that is more and more organized and sophisticated, using a panoply of methods" to stifle human rights workers, he says. These range from death threats to their families, to being followed constantly, to being fired. At the same time, governments from Southeast Asia to Latin America use catch-all national security laws to silence criticism.
Activists say that the reasons why governments are picking on them - despite a United Nations declaration last year designed to protect them - differ from region to region.
In Africa, for example, where "intimidation, plots, and murder attempts are routine" according to the report, governments often target human rights groups because they have become their most vocal critics, says David Banza, a Congolese activist currently in exile in The Netherlands.
Political parties have not been able to channel peoples' aspirations," he says. "In the 1990s, it has been the human rights defenders who have been able to ... mobilize people."
In Burkina Faso, a citizens' movement launched last year to demand an investigation into the murder of journalist Norbert Zongo - who had implicated the president's brother in a murder - quickly adopted broader demands for democratization in the country.
"All over Africa human rights workers are hunted down and banned simply because they have filled the vacuum left by the political parties," argues Mr. Banza.
That makes them enemies. "If I were to return home, I would be put up before a military court on charges of being a counter-revolutionary and I would be executed within a week," Banza adds.
"We are not against our rulers as such, but our rulers are against us," says Adrian Ramirez Lopez, head of the Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights. That, he says, is because in their fight against guerrilla groups, and even non-violent social movements, "the security forces want a free hand to do what they like."
In Turkey, on the other hand, it is the country's international image that is at stake, as Ankara seeks to join the European Union, says Nazmi Gur, secretary- general of the Turkish Human Rights Association.
The Turkish Army has repeatedly been accused of human rights abuses in its fight against separatist Kurd guerrillas in the Southeast of the country, dashing the government's European ambitions.
Often out of the public eye, grass-roots human rights activists are highly vulnerable to threats and intimidation. But increasingly, says Mr. Baudouin of the FIDH, they are seeking strength in numbers.
"They have recognized that working in their own countries alone is not enough," he says. "They are creating solidarity networks among themselves, regionally and internationally, and that gives them strength."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society