Sonia Pierre, a human rights activist who had fought discrimination against Dominicans of Haitian descent since she was a child, died on 4 December following a heart attack at the age of 48. For decades her activism had made her the target of threats in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, but it earned her recognition from overseas as a defender of human rights, including an award from Amnesty International in 2003.
Pierre was one of 12 children raised in a Dominican migrant worker camp and was 13 when she was first arrested and threatened with deportation for leading her fellow Dominican residents of Haitian descent in a march for cane cutters' rights. She was jailed for a day and threatened with deportation to Haiti, where her mother was born.
Since then she had fought to secure citizenship and education for the beleaguered minority of Dominican-born ethnic Haitians. of whom between 500,000 and a million live in the Dominican Republic, many in isolated village slums. Most of those born in the Republic are descendants of Haitians who crossed the border fleeing violence or seeking economic opportunity. When she won the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2007, Pierre denounced what she said were "massive abuses" against people of Haitian descent, particularly children.
Her advocacy made her and her family targets in the Dominican Republic. She was once chased out of her Santo Domingo office by a man waving a pistol. She was also punched at a stop light by another man who told her, "I know who you are."
Pierre insisted she was trying to help her people and not malign the Dominican Republic. "I am not a critic of my country, and this is my country," she said. "I am a critic of my government."
Edwin Paraison, executive director of the Zile Foundation, a Haitian group that tries to improve relations between the two countries, said, "She was like a sister to me. The Haitian community has lost someone who was a huge advocate in the fight for Haitian rights." Pierre is survived by three children.
Sonia Pierre, human rights activist: born Dominican Republic 1963; died 4 December 2011.