NEW YORK, NY, Sept. 18, 2008 – An imprisoned Cuban physician and a Guatemalan forensic scientist have been awarded the 2008 New York Academy of Sciences Heinz R. Pagels Human Rights of Scientists Award.
The Academy's Human Rights Committee bestowed the awards on Oscar Elias Biscet, MD, and Fredy Peccerelli during the Academy's September 18 Annual Meeting. Dr. Angel Garrido of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, of which Dr. Biscet is president, accepted the award on his colleague's behalf.
Dr. Biscet, a Cuban physician, and Mr. Peccerelli, a Guatemalan forensic anthropologist, were selected in recognition of their dedicated and unwavering commitment to ending impunity and defending human rights.
Oscar Elias Biscet
Medical doctor Oscar Elias Biscet, 46, is the founder of the Lawton Foundation, a human rights organization that peacefully promotes the defense of all Cubans through nonviolent civil disobedience. Dr. Biscet is, probably, the best known Cuban political prisoner. He is known to 11 million Cubans as a physician, a community organizer, and an advocate for human rights.
In 1998 Dr. Biscet was fired from Havana Municipal Hospital for his open criticism of Cuban government. His wife, Elsa Morejon, chief nurse of the same hospital, was fired a few days later. In 1999 Dr. Biscet was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for his human rights work. After serving his prison term Dr. Biscet was released in 2002 only to be violently rearrested 36 days later for holding a seminar on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was accused of being a "mercenary at the service of a foreign state" and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
In 2003 and again in 2005, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention denounced Biscet's confinement. Other human rights advocates, including Amnesty International, petitioned the Cuban government for his immediate release. In November of 2007 Biscet was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President George Bush.
He is currently serving his 25-year sentence in the Combinado del Este prison and his health has deteriorated. Although imprisoned, he continues to advocate for a free Cuba. For speaking the truth Dr. Biscet has endured repeated harassment, beatings and detentions. The scientific community agrees that Dr. Biscet's imprisonment is unjust, yet the regime has refused every call for his release. For two decades, he has told the world what he has seen in Cuba.
Forensic Anthropologist, Guatemala
Fredy Peccerelli is a founding member of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) and currently serves as its executive director. Since 1992, Mr. Peccerelli and his colleagues at the FAFG have carried out exhumations of unmarked mass graves containing the remains of individuals murdered during Guatemala's 36-year internal armed conflict. The Historical Clarification Commission (the official name of the Guatemalan truth commission) issued a report in 1999 on "human rights violations and acts of violence that have caused suffering to the Guatemalan people" during the conflict. In the report, the Commission said exhumations are a significant step in achieving justice and national reconciliation and recommended that the government establish an exhumation program. Because the Guatemalan government has to date failed to adequately implement this recommendation, the nongovernmental FAFG has continued this important work. Exhumations conducted by FAFG personnel have provided forensic investigation teams with crucial scientific evidence in the few cases where perpetrators of human rights abuses have been convicted in Guatemala.
During the past five years, Mr. Peccerelli and other members of the FAFG staff, and their families, have received multiple death threats and have been subjected to serious acts of intimidation, particularly while conducting exhumations in rural areas of Guatemala. Last year, on January 9 and March 15, menacing text messages were sent to Mr. Peccerelli's cell phone. Earlier, on September 8, 2005, Mr. Peccerelli's sister, Bianka Peccerelli Monterroso, received a written death threat that mentioned him by name and warned him not to continue his work. Mr. Peccerelli reportedly has submitted detailed reports on these and other efforts to intimidate him to the appropriate Guatemalan authorities. He and his colleagues are clearly being targeted because of their work in the defense of human rights.
In 2002, Amnesty International reported that a typed letter, received by the FAFG on February 21, named Mr. Peccerelli and ten other forensic scientists and threatened that they and their children would be killed if they did not stop the exhumations. Shortly thereafter, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered the Guatemalan government to take precautionary measures to protect them. As a result, Mr. Peccerelli was to have received 24-hour police protection because of his high profile leadership role within the FAFG. This coverage has reportedly been intermittent, heightening concern for his physical safety.
Despite the threats against them, Mr. Peccerelli and his colleagues at the FAFG have been steadfast in carrying out their important work in Guatemala. Their commitment and courage has been an inspiration to many of us. In 2004, FAFG was awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Human Rights Program Award for "scientists who, through action and example, have promoted human rights, usually at great personal cost."
Mr. Peccerelli has personally been lauded for his leadership abilities. For example, in 1999, Time Magazine and CNN selected Mr. Peccerelli as one of the 50 "Latin American Leaders for the New Millennium." In the same year, he was named an "icon" for the youth of Guatemala by the Guatemalan Youth Commission.
In addition to his work in Guatemala, Mr. Peccerelli has led forensic archeological investigations of war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. In recent years, Mr. Peccerelli has spearheaded efforts to organize forensic scientists throughout Latin America into the Latin American Forensic Anthropology Association (ALAF) and has been personally supportive of colleagues in Peru and Colombia who are also under threat.
Mr. Peccerelli has longstanding ties to the state of New York, and is an avid Yankees baseball fan. His family emigrated from Guatemala to the United States in 1980 after his father, an attorney, received death threats. Mr. Peccerelli grew up in Brooklyn and graduated in 1996 from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He continued his formal education, during a sabbatical in 2004, and received a Masters of Science in Forensic and Biological Anthropology from Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom.