Unauthorized Science: Estate of Henrietta Lacks Sues Pharmaceutical Company For Using Cells Without Consent

By: Tim Murphy

Impunity Watch News Staff Writer

BALTIMORE, Maryland – The estate of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose continuously dividing cells have been used in scientific and medical research for decades, is suing the pharmaceutical company Thermo Fisher Scientific for unjust enrichment, stating that Lacks’s cells were taken without her consent and have been used without the estate’s compensation for decades.

Many may have learned about Henrietta Lacks from a high school biology class, or read about her life in Rebecca Skloot’s popular 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which was later adapted into a film starring Oprah Winfrey. Born in 1920, Lacks was a Black woman who was undergoing treatment for cervical cancer when a doctor took and used a sample of Lacks’s cells in a petri dish without her consent. The cells, which later became known as “HeLa cells,” continued to rapidly reproduce outside the body, becoming the first human cell line to do so. Henrietta Lacks died shortly after in 1951. Neither Lacks nor her family was not compensated for her cells. 

Four of Henrietta Lacks’ grandchildren and attorney Ben Crump outside the U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Sun.

It wasn’t until decades after her death that the general public became aware that the HeLa cells were originally taken and used without Lacks’s consent. While there are now policies in place to protect patients from non-consensual use of cell-samples, these regulations did not exist at the time Lacks was undergoing treatment. Regardless, companies like Thermo Fisher Scientific are still using and profiting from HeLa cells without the compensation of Lacks’s estate.

The lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific seeks “the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks.”  However, for grandson Ron Lacks, the lawsuit is not just about the money. “We will celebrate taking back control of Henrietta Lacks’ legacy,” he said. The estate also plans to file lawsuits in the following weeks against other companies that profit from the HeLa cell line.

For further information, please see:

CNN – Estate of Henrietta Lacks sues biotechnical company for nonconsensual use of her cells – 5 Oct. 2021

Live Science – Henrietta Lacks’ family sues biotech firm for use of ‘stolen’ cells – 8 Oct. 2021

NPR – Henrietta Lacks’ estate sued a company saying it used her ‘stolen’ cells for research – Oct. 4 2021

The Baltimore Sun – Family of Henrietta Lacks files suit against biotech company for using famous ‘HeLa’ cells without permission – 4 Oct. 2021

The Washington Post – 70 years ago, Henrietta Lacks’s cells were taken without consent. Now, her family wants justice – 4 Oct. 2021

ISIS-backed Group Deploys Children to Fight the Mozambique Government

By Ryan Ockenden

Impunity Watch News Staff Writer

CABO DELGADO, Mozambique – Across northern Mozambique, Al-Shabab – an ISIS-backed militant group – is kidnapping boys as young as twelve years old and training them to fight and raid their very own villages. Mothers and fathers are beaten and brutalized to relinquish their children, consistently offering themselves up to be taken instead. Once in Al-Shabab’s possession, the boys are trained in weaponry usage, given Islamic classes, and even told to pick a wife amongst the young girls that have also been kidnapped.

Since 2017, Al-Shabab has been terrorizing the gas-rich northern regions of Mozambique, raiding villages and towns to build their caliphate. As the caliphate grows larger, the organization has grown bolder. Their attacks on villages routinely leave dozens dead and thousands displaced. An attack earlier this year occurred on a multi-billion-dollar gas project, prompting a large military intervention from neighboring nations such as Rwanda, Botswana, and South Africa.

Military support from South Africa deployed to the Cabo Delgado region to fight against Al-Shabab, and unfortunately, the kidnapped children that have been forced to join. Photo Courtesy of Alfredo Zuniga from Barron’s.

In 2004, Mozambique ratified the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child for the involvement of children in armed conflict, which prohibits non-state armed groups, like Al-Shabab, from recruiting, let alone kidnapping, children. The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights have asserted that, in general, nation parties to the African Charter, which Mozambique is, bear the primary responsibility for protecting and promoting human rights, punishing perpetrators, and passing legislation to help rectify human rights abuses.

The Prime Minister of Mozambique, Carlos Agostinho do Rosario, announced this week that the nation needs $300 million to reconstruct the insurgency in the Cabo Delgado region. While it is absolutely important to secure funding for post-conflict reconstruction, the conflict is not even over. Young boys continue to be kidnapped and trained to fight against the government. Young girls continue to be kidnapped to be child-brides. Innocent families continue to be displaced, left homeless and separated from one another.

It is important for the Mozambique government to create a plan for reconstruction, but they will not reach the reconstruction phase if they cannot put a stop to Al-Shabab’s continued assault on the nation. Before they can rebuild for their people, they must save their people.

For further information, please see:

ACHPR – Press release on the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers – 13 Feb. 2019

All Africa – Mozambique: Al-Shabaab Deploying Child Soldiers in Mozambique, Says HRW – 1 Oct. 2021

Human Rights Watch – Mozambique ISIS-Linked Group Using Child Soldiers – 29 Sept. 2021

Yahoo News – Mozambique Insurgents Train Child Soldiers: HRW – 29 Sept. 2021

Achimota School Appeals Judgment that Greenlights Wearing Dreadlocks in School

By: Spencer Kwabena Boateng Mensah

Impunity Watch News Staff Writer

ACCRA, Ghana – On May 31, 2021, an Accra High Court ordered against the senior high school’s regulation that demanded Tyron Marhguy and Oheneba Nkrabea, two Rastafarians by religion, to cut their dreadlocks before being admitted into the school. 

Teroe Marhguy grants interview to multiple media persons after High Court ruling in favor of his son, Tyrone Marhguy who is behind his father taking selfies in the midst of crowded Rastafarians. Photo Courtesy of My Joy Online.

Achimota School and the Attorney General are in the Court of Appeals challenging a judgment by the Human Rights Division of the High Court which declared that wearing dreadlocks in the school is lawful.

In its judgment, the court stated that “[i]n the absence of such compelling justification grounded on the public good of the school as a whole in the face of constitutionally guaranteed rights, I am unable to tip the balance in favor of the implementation of the rule of the Respondents to restrict the Fundamental Human Rights of the Applicant to practise and manifest his religious belief.”

The court further declared that the failure or refusal of the school to admit the applicant on the basis of his Rastafarian religion inclination, beliefs, and culture characterized by his keeping of rasta is a violation of his right to education guaranteed under Ghana’s Constitution.

After admitting the students in their dreadlocks however, the school and the Attorney General have filed an appeal seeking the decision of the High Court to be set aside.

According to them, the High Court erred in declaring that the school’s uniformity regulation which required the students to cut their dreadlocks interferes with his expression of religion.

Achimota School admission forms specify that admission is conditioned on “good academic work, good conduct and strict observation of all school rules and regulations.” The rules among others require all boys in the school to “keep their hair low.”

The judgment divided the public into two sides; while others praised the applicant for setting a precedent, others were concerned that the judgment will open a flood gate of non-compliance of schools’ rules and regulations.    

Reacting to the appeal, father of Tyron, Tereo Marhguy told local news sources that the decision of the school to appeal is motivated by what the school’s alumni want. “If [the school] had filed the appeal shortly after the ruling, it would have made sense,” he stated and added that it was actually because his son was nominated to represent the school for the annual National Science and Maths Quiz.

Ghana’s Constitution advocates for freedom of religion and right to education as fundamental human rights; and the people of Ghana are keenly waiting for a decision from the Court of Appeals on the case – which was filed on September 13, 2021. 

For further information, please see:

Citi Newsroom – Achimota School, AG appeal court ruling on rastafarian student Tyrone Marhguy – 13 Sept. 2021.

Hen Ara Ghana – Achimota vs Rasta students verdict: People are doing Facebook argument – Kwaku Azar – 6 June 2021.

Pulse Ghana – Achimota School’s appeal against my son ill-motivated – Rasta student’s dad – 15 Sept. 2021.

ECHR finds Russia responsible in the death of Alexander Litvinenko

By: Elyse Maugeri

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

STRASBOURG, France – In 2006, while living in London, former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko died after being poisoned with polonium 210, a radioactive substance. It has been long believed that Moscow was behind the attack due to the allegations that Mr. Litvinenko as working with western European authorities to prove high levels of corruption and organized crime in the Russian intelligence services. Now, the European Court of Human Rights confirmed what many suspected, that Russia was behind the attack.

The Litvinenko Inquiry, the report used during the investigation. Photo curtsey of Reuters.

In October 2006, over the course of the month, two Russian men, Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitriy Kovtun, both acquaintances of Mr. Litvinenko, visited him in London for multiple meetings. After each meeting, there were found to be trace amounts of polonium contamination in areas where the men had met. During the final meeting on 31 October 2006, Mr. Litvinenko and the two men met in their hotel’s bar and drank tea together. Three days later, Mr. Litvinenko fell extremely ill and was admitted to a hospital in London. Trace amounts of polonium were found in the teapot. He was later transferred to the University College Hospital, where it was suspected he had been poisoned using a radioactive substance. Mr. Litvinenko died three weeks later, with cause of death as acute radiation syndrome.

Shortly after he died, UK police opened an investigation into the poisoning. In 2007, they determined that there was sufficient evidence to charge Mt. Lugovoy for the murder. Later, in 2011, Mr. Kovtun was also charged. However, due to Russian extradition laws, neither man stood trial in the UK. In fact, later in 2007, Mr. Lugovoy became a member of Russian Parliament and acquired parliamentary immunity.

The Russian Prosecutor General launched its own investigation but provided little to no information for the ECHR.

In the UK a public inquiry was carried out, finding that beyond a reasonable doubt, Mr. Lugovoy and Mr. Kovtun poisoned Mr. Litvinenko with polonium. It also rejected any allegation that the two men had been set up by British authorities or that Mr. Litvinenko accidentally or purposefully poisoned himself. The inquiry also found that the two men had strong ties with the Russian state and the assassination had been directed by the FSB. All information in the inquiry was provided to the ECHR.

In its decision, the ECHR found that Russia failed to provide any necessary documents that had been requested, such as the investigation file, Mr. Lugovoy’s statements, and legal assistance requests. Further, despite Russian objection, the UK’s inquiry was permissible to be used as evidence because it was an independent and unbiased inquiry.

The Court also determined that since Russia investigated the death, a jurisdictional link had been established in the incident. Also, there existed a “special feature” in the case, that Russia retained an exclusive jurisdiction over Mr. Lugovoy, which further established the jurisdictional link. The Court acknowledged the lack of information provided by Russia in their investigation and thus concluded that the investigation was not effective in identifying and punishing those involved.

In the UK inquiry, it was determined that neither Mr. Lugovoy nor Mr. Kovtun had specific reason to kill Mr. Litvinenko, leaving State involvement as the most, and only, plausible reason. This paired with Russia’s refusal to cooperate, strengthened the belief that the assassination was ordered by the Russian State.

The Court held that Russia was to pay the applicant, Mr. Litvinenko’s widow Marina Litvinenko, €100,000 for non-pecuniary damage and €22,500 for costs and expenses. Punitive damages were not awarded.

For further information, please see:

The European Court of Human Rights – Press Release: Russia was responsible for assassination of Aleksandr Litvinenko in the UK – 21 Sept. 2021

BBC News – Russia behind Litvinenko murder, rules European rights court – 21 Sept. 2021

NPR – Russia Fatally Poisoned A Prominent Defector In London, A Court Concludes – 22 Sept. 2021

Reuters – Russia was behind Litvinenko assassination, European court finds – 21 Sept. 2021