The Vigdis Freedom Foundation (VFF) is an international foundation organising legal help to female prisoners of conscience and their lawyers. Now the foundation is asking for help from Norwegian lawyers.

The name Vigdis is from Norse mythology, and consists of two separate elements. «Vig» which means sisters and «dis» which means fight but in the context of protection. The protector of the foundation is Iceland’s Vigdis Finnbogadottir, who is the first democratically-elected female president in the world. Anne Christine Kroepelien, a partner in the law firm, Mageli, explained that the foundation’s name is especially appropriate due to Vigdis of Iceland serving as the protector over the foundation. Anne is the founder of the VFF and also serves as Chairman of the Board. The board consists of members that, collectively, bring a broad range of experience and knowledge to the foundation. Fabian Stang, formerly Mayor of Oslo; Marina Nemat, a former prisoner of conscience; and  Ernst Nordtveit, a professor at the faculty of law at the University of Bergen, are examples of the uniquely experienced members that are serving the foundation.

The foundation aims to help female prisoners of conscience and their lawyers in countries where conditions for human rights are weak. A goal of the VFF is to provide both economical and legal aid to those who receive our support. We can help with legal investigations for lawyers on similar international cases. In many of the cases we will be working with, there will be little Internet access and strong censorship of online activities is prevalent. This situation makes it difficult for lawyers and court personnel to access essential sources of international law and other sources of helpful information. The VFF also provides financial aid, and partially finances legal fees for the lawyer.

Women face the most risk

We have chosen to only focus on women simply because it is impossible to help everyone. With that being said, it is also a fact that women are too often at the most risk as prisoners of conscience. The experience of women in peril is extremely gendered and their status in patriarchal societies disempowers them in ways dissimilar to male prisoners of conscience. Despite our primary focus on women, the VFF will, however, provide support for their lawyers, regardless of gender, says Kroepelien.

She describes the foundation as a legal aid project, and as a declaration of solidarity to the lawyers that are helping women fight for universal human rights. Our aim is to help the women before they are sentenced. Prevention and precautionary measures are better than having to repair the damage. This is why it is so important that the women who face court proceedings have the best possible lawyers to represent them.vigdis-01

Turkey first

The first project of the foundation is to help Eren Keskin, a Turkish lawyer who herself has long been aiding prisoners of conscience. For not the first, but hopefully last time, Keskin is now being charged for several criminal offences under Turkish law. The legal institutions in Turkey is presently at risk, both the opposition and their lawyers are being accused of several fictive offences and are being imprisoned. Keskin is risking her life by doing her work as a lawyer, Kroepelien explains. She is not concerned that involvement with the foundation will increase the risk for the lawyers.

When I asked Keskin about this, she said she wanted help. Several lawyers are already risking prosecution. We, of course, don’t want to contribute to exposing anyone to additional risk. We only seek to help those lawyers who are already engaged in supporting human rights, who need our support, and who can profit from our network, she says. She explains that many countries have legal obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights as outlined in the international and regional human rights treaties. Local lawyers can refer to these, the universal human rights in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Prisoner of conscience as a board member

The Vigdis Freedom Foundation has an international board. On the board is the author and former prisoner of conscience, Marina Nemat, from Iran. Today, she is an active human rights activist and has been living in Canada for the past 20 years. She is also on the board of the Oslo Freedom Forum

I’m noticing several similarities of my experiences in Iran to what is currently happening in Turkey, Nemat notes, and points to the uncertain state of legal security in Turkey today.

At age 16, Nemat was sentenced to death in Iran for wearing lipstick and asking when the youngsters would be learning mathematics in school. She was saved while on her way to be executed by a prison guard who had fallen in love with her.

Why did you choose to become engaged in this foundation in particular? First and foremost, because women’s rights have always been central to my involvement as an activist. When I learned that the foundation would be dealing with prisoners of conscience, as I am one myself, I simply could not say no to Anne Christine, Nemat says.

Engaging Norwegian Lawyers

Nordic women are the most privileged in the world, Kroepelien states. This makes it our duty to help lift up out of oppression those who seek privileges based in equality that are actively denied them, she points out. Legal aid can be expensive and therefore the foundation requires financial support via individual donations and grants. Until recently, it has been the law firm Mageli and Kroepelien who have provided the funds for the foundation. In order for the foundation to survive to serve women in need, financial and motivational support  will be sought from, inter alia,  Norwegian lawyers. Our goal is to be able to collect one million kroners in donations by the end of 2016, and the same goal for 2017. The money will be used to cover half of the legal fees for the local lawyers we decide to help. The law firms should now be expecting a phone call from me, says Kroepelien, and remarks that they are currently using VIPPS and will also be opening a PayPal account.

See the ful interview in Norwegian here: advokatbladet-10-2016-intervju