Cambodia Must Drop Charges Against Land Rights Defenders

Cambodian authorities should immediately end the politically motivated prosecution of six land rights activists, including the prominent advocate Tep Vanny, who has been jailed for nearly a year, Human Rights Watch said Friday. Tep Vanny has been detained for 333 days for peaceful protests.

On July 14th 2017, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court is expected to review charges of “public insult” and “death threats” that have been brought against Tep Vanny and other members of the Boeung Kak Lake community, namely Kong Chantha, Nget Khun, Cheng Leap, Heng Mom, and Tol Sreypov. The charges, dating back to a spurious complaint made in 2012, carry penalties of up to 10 million riels (US$2,400) for public insult (article 307) and up to two years in prison and 4 million riels ($970) for death threats (article 233).

“Prosecuting Tep Vanny and her fellow land rights activists is the Hun Sen government’s latest retaliatory act in its campaign to intimidate critical voices,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should drop these bogus charges immediately.”

In February, another court sentenced Tep Vanny to 30 months in prison for “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” under article 218 of the Cambodian Criminal Code. She was found guilty of assaulting security guards during a 2013 protest outside the house of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

No credible evidence was presented during the trial to substantiate these charges. The court refused to hear testimony from witnesses supporting Tep Vanny’s account that she and other protesters did not commit any violence during the protest. During the trial, para-police kicked, shoved, and dragged activists who had gathered outside the court, resulting in injuries to two Boeung Kak activists and one pregnant woman. Video footage of the incident shows para-police chasing demonstrators into a neighboring mall, and guards cornering one protester and repeatedly punching and kicking him.

Since August 15th 2016, Tep Vanny has been held at CC2 Prey Sar facility prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where she is now awaiting the outcome of her appeal against the February 2017 conviction and prison sentence.

Tep Vanny, one of Cambodia’s leading land rights activists, has worked to combat unlawful evictions and corruption by mobilizing affected communities in the Boeung Kak Lake area of Phnom Penh, where over 4,000 families have had to vacate their homes for a private development project. In 2013, she received a Vital Voices Global Leadership Award for her work on land rights.

She has also been an important voice on behalf of fellow activists, notably when she was arrested while leading a so-called Black Monday protest calling for the release of the “ADHOC Five.” The five current and former members of the human rights group ADHOC were recently released on bail after spending 427 days in arbitrary pre-trial detention. Tep Vanny has also been active in urging an independent investigation into the July 10, 2016 shooting death of Kem Ley, a popular social commentator and frequent government critic.

Cambodin authorities should drop the charges against Tep Vanny and the other land rights activists, and quash Tep Vanny’s earlier conviction and immediately release her. The government should cease persecution of human rights defenders and others exercising their fundamental rights to free expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

“Cambodia’s international donors should be outraged by this latest wave of politically motivated prosecutions of rights advocates,” Robertson said. “Together they should publicly call for the release of Tep Vanny and an end to the government’s campaign against peaceful protesters.”

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Chinese Authorities Must End Crackdown on Human Rights Defenders

The Chinese authorities must end their ruthless campaign of detention and torture of human rights lawyers and activists, Amnesty International says. Today marks the second anniversary of the start of an unprecedented crackdown launched under President Xi Jinping during which nearly 250 human rights lawyers and activists have been targeted during the nationwide sweep which began on July 9th 2015.

Six people have since been convicted for “subverting state power” or “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Three others are still awaiting trials or verdicts.

‘’This vicious crackdown marked by arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, torture and ill-treatment and fake confessions must end now,’’ said Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia Director at Amnesty International.

“For two years the Chinese government has been methodically decimating the ranks of human rights lawyers and activists. This vicious crackdown marked by arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, torture and ill-treatment and fake confessions must end now,” Bequelin added. “Lawyers and rights advocates play a crucial role in protecting human rights and the rule of law. The torment that they and their families continue to be subjected to flies in the face of the Chinese government claim that it upholds the rule of law.”

Torture and ill-treatment

The torture of detained lawyers remains a systemic issue. One lawyer released on bail in May, Xie Yang, told his lawyers he had suffered beatings, lengthy interrogations and was deprived of water and sleep during his 22 months in detention.

The wife of another lawyer, Li Heping, has described how her husband was force-fed with medicines and chained for up to 24 hours a day during his detention. Li was given a three year suspended prison sentence in April for“subverting state power”.

Vanished

Incommunicado detentions remain routine. Lawyer Wang Quanzhang was detained by the Chinese authorities in August 2015. As of today his family still have no information as to where he is, his condition or even if he is still alive.

Another prominent Chinese human rights lawyer, Jiang Tianyong, was taken away by police in November last year, after visiting the wife of a fellow lawyer who was detained in the first wave of the crackdown.

For months, the authorities refused to provide Jiang Tianyong’s family any information about his whereabouts. In May, the police finally informed the family Jiang had been formally arrested for “subverting state power”, a charge which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. He is being held at Changsha City No. 1 Detention Center in central China, but his lawyers continue to be prevented from visiting him. He is still waiting to hear if prosecutors will pursue charges against him.

Continuing harassment

The detention of lawyer Wang Yu and her family on July 9th 2015 sparked the beginning of the government crackdown. Despite Wang Yu and her husband Bao Longjun being released on bail last year, they remain under close surveillance and continue to be harassed by the authorities.

“The authorities must end their cold-blooded treatment of human rights lawyers and activists. They must stop this torment and free the lawyers and activists who have been detained solely for doing their work and defending human rights,” said Nicholas Bequelin.

The crackdown against human rights lawyers is part of a calculated operation by the Chinese government to suppress civil society. New or proposed laws give the authorities nearly unchecked powers to target individuals and organizations that are seen to criticize the government and its policies.

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Cambodian Civil Society Condemns Denial of Medical Care to Human Rights Defenders

Cambodian civil society organizations are condemning the discriminatory and arbitrary denial of medical care to three of the five #Freethe5KH detainees at Phnom Penh’s CC1 (Prey Sar) prison facility. Mr. Ny Sokha, Mr. Nay Vanda and Mr. Yi Soksan have finally been granted access to doctors from the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), after such access had been arbitrarily restricted since April 2017.

All three detainees experienced a serious deterioration in their health while the restrictions were in place. They have now been held in pre-trial detention for 426 days, along with their colleague at the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), Ms. Lim Mony, and Deputy Secretary General of the National Election Committee and former ADHOC staff member, Mr. Ny Chakrya.

LICADHO doctors had been able to treat all five #FreeThe5KH detainees in the three different prison facilities located in Phnom Penh since the beginning of their detention, until restrictions were imposed in April in relation to the three detainees in CC1. In the past two weeks, sporadic, application-by-application access to two of the three human rights defenders (HRDs) was granted by the Investigating Judge and the Director of CC1, due to serious health concerns regarding Yi Soksan and Ny Sokha. Full access was granted again just last week.

The organizations are deeply concerned that the three detainees experienced serious deterioration in health – in particular that on June 18th 2017 Ny Sokha collapsed in a prison bathroom. The organizations believe this incident was exacerbated by the denial of regular medical check-ups by medical staff, as well as woeful conditions inside CC1. On June 21st, Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda, Yi Soksan and Lim Mony appeared at the Supreme Court for the hearing of their appeal against a further denial of bail in their case. During the hearing, Nay Vanda needed to be excused to rest in a side room as he was feeling nauseous, while Ny Sokha and Yi Soksan reported feeling weak due to a recent decline in their health.

“At the very least, Cambodian authorities must now take these serious health concerns into account and stop prolonging their baseless pre-trial detention through denial of bail,” said Naly Pilorge, LICADHO Deputy Director for Advocacy.

The right to adequate medical care, enshrined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a universal human right that is not diminished by incarceration. While there are prison medical staff in CC1, it is clear that the medical care currently provided by such staff is not adequate. The discriminatory obstruction of access to treatment by LICADHO medical teams therefore meant that the three were deprived of the adequate health care to which they are entitled under domestic and international law.

Prison conditions, which already fail to meet international standards, have significantly worsened since the Cambodian authorities began a crackdown on people who use drugs in January 2017. Mass arrests and the overuse of pre-trial detention have caused severe overcrowding in Prey Sar prison, leading to increasingly acute impacts on prisoners’ health.

In addition to the obstruction of access by medical staff, in recent months requests by civil society organizations to visit the #FreeThe5KH detainees, as well as detained human rights defender and land activist Tep Vanny, have been denied or ignored. This restriction on contact with the outside world has negatively affected the HRDs’ psychological health.

In November 2016 the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) ruled that all five #FreeThe5KH detainees had been discriminated against based on their status as human rights defenders, that the violation of the detainees’ rights to a fair trial, liberty, and freedom of association rendered their detention “arbitrary,” and called on the Cambodian authorities to immediately release them. More than seven months later, the five remain in prison, with their pre-trial detention extended for up to a further six months on April 27th 2017.

The on-going arbitrary detention of Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda, Yi Soksan, Lim Mony, and Ny Chakrya is in violation of international and Cambodian law and we call on the Cambodian authorities to comply with the UNWGAD’s decision and release them immediately and unconditionally, the organizations say: ‘’We call upon the General Department of Prisons to make the procedure to access healthcare more transparent, as arbitrary and opaque restrictions have already risked endangering the health and lives of detainees, and we call on the Cambodian authorities to maintain unrestricted access to all detainees by medical teams and prison monitors.’’

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Liu Xiaobo Released On Medical Parole for Late-Stage Cancer Treatment, Should Be Reunited With His Wife

Candlelight vigil for activist Liu Xiaobo outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on January 12, 2010. AFP PHOTO/MIKE CLARKE

Responding to the news that Chinese Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo has developed late-stage liver cancer while in prison and is currently in the hospital receiving treatment, human rights organizations are saying that he never should have been imprisoned in the first place.

A prominent Chinese intellectual, democracy activist and the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Liu is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for inciting subversion of state power.

International human rights group Freedom Now, which has served as international counsel to the imprisoned activist, said their organization is deeply disturbed that Liu’s health was neglected by the Chinese authorities: “We are grateful for Dr. Liu’s release but are deeply disturbed by the circumstances under which the Chinese government granted him parole,” said Freedom Now Executive Director Maran Turner. “It is unconscionable that the government neglected Dr. Liu’s health, despite repeated calls from the international community to ensure proper care. The Chinese authorities must guarantee that Dr. Liu receive medical treatment for this grave condition and that he is able to be with his wife Liu Xia and his family during this time.”

Amnesty International’s China Researcher Patrick Poon said: “It adds insult to injury that Liu Xiaobo, who should never have been put in prison in the first place, has been diagnosed with a grave illness.’’ Poon also said “The Chinese authorities should immediately ensure that Liu Xiaobo receives adequate medical care, effective access to his family and that he and all others imprisoned solely for exercising their human rights are immediately and unconditionally released.’’

Liu was awarded the Nobel Prize in absentia in 2010 for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Liu was one of the leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen protests and was detained and arrested afterward. He was one of the leading authors of Charter 08, which was written to promote human rights and democratization in China.

“That he was ever in prison at all says all one needs to know about Chinese leaders’ profound hostility toward peaceful expression and the rule of law. It appears highly unlikely that his release will equal real freedom – for him, or for all others who simply seek peaceful, positive change in China,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

Poon also said that Liu and his wife Lu Jia should be freed and reunited: ‘’The authorities must also stop their shameful and illegal house arrest of Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, and ensure that she is able to receive visitors, travel freely and reunite with Liu Xiaobo.” 

Liu Xiaobo was arrested in December 2008 and held under ‘’residential surveillance”, a form of pre-trial detention, at an undisclosed location in Beijing until he was formally charged on June 23, 2009 with ‘’spreading rumors and defaming the government, aimed at subversion of the state and overthrowing the socialism system in recent years”. On December 25, 2009 Liu was charged and sentenced to eleven years in prison for ‘’inciting subversion of state power”; his sentence also includes two years of deprivation of his political rights. He has three years left of his current sentence. Prior to his current arrest, Liu has spent a total of five years in prison, including a three year sentence passed in 1996, and has suffered frequent short arrests, harassment and censorship.

Liu was poignantly represented by an empty chair at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo. When told of the announcement after October 8, he wept and told his wife, Liu Xia, that it was dedicated to the martyrs of Tiananmen. Liu Xia has been under house arrest since the award announcement and is incommunicado.

In 2013, more than 450,000 people from 130 countries signed a petition created by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to demand the couple’s immediate release. The petition was launched in solidarity with a letter signed by 134 Nobel laureates demanding Liu’s freedom.

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Death of American Student Shows That North Korea is a ‘’Black Hole’’

The tragic death of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old American student, shows the true colors of North Korea’s abusive regime, human rights organizations say. Warmbier died Monday afternoon at an Ohio hospital from injuries suffered during 17 months of detention in North Korea.

At a show trial in 2016, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years forced labor after he was charged with ‘’hostile acts against the state’’ for allegedly attempting to remove a political banner from his hotel.

Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that the international community must now recognize the reality that North Korea is a human rights black hole for both foreigners and citizens. Warmbier’s death should be a wake-up call to governments that focus must not just be on security, but also human rights concerns when dealing with Pyongyang.

“Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today,” the family wrote after his death.

While visiting North Korea as a tourist in January 2016, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for trying to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel, while traveling with a Chinese operated tour. The United States made diplomatic efforts to seek Warmbier’s release. Warmbier fell into a coma in prison and was released on June 13th 2017, after nearly 18 months there. He is believed to have been in a coma since March 2016, reportedly after being given a sleeping pill by prison officials.

Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) called  Warmbier’s death is a sad and shocking development: ‘’the Kim regime imprisoned and killed Otto Warmbier. Millions of unknown North Koreans are similarly subjected to the brutality of this regime. More than a hundred thousand men, women and children are being tortured, starved and abused in North Korea’s political prison camps. This continuing outrage is what motivates HRNK to do what the Kim regime fears the most: discover and disclose the truth about the regime’s crimes. To honor Otto Warmbier’s life and memory, we will continue to strive to inform, persuade and inspire political leaders to confront this terrible challenge to global security and to human values.’’

‘’We urge our political leaders to reach across the aisle and foster bipartisan support for the millions of faceless, nameless North Korean victims, by elevating the importance of addressing the human rights situation in that country,’’ Scarlatoiu added.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch said while Warmbier should have never been sent to trial in the first place, most expected that after a period of being isolated and interrogated, he would be returned home after the US made some political concessions to Pyongyang. After all, this is what North Korea has done with many Americans in the past.

‘’No one anticipated that Warmbier would be abused in a way that more closely resembles the manner in which North Korea treats its own citizens, where those who cross the government or show disloyalty to leader Kim Jong-Un face severe consequences, including death. At his trial, Warmbier cried out for forgiveness for making what he called the “worst mistake of my life.” But since he was a foreigner, few believed that mistake would cost him his life,’’ Robertson said.

Additionally, Robertson said that North Korea committed a grave injustice against Warmbier and his family, and they deserve the truth from Pyongyang about what happened: ‘’No one believes Pyongyang’s claim that his condition was triggered by botulism and a medically ill-advised sleeping pill. How did such a healthy young man suffer such severe brain damage that he remained in a coma since March 2016?’’

Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, said Warmbier’s case is “a reminder of the disastrous implications of the lack of access to adequate treatment for prisoners (in North Korea).” On June 16th, Ojea Quintana said “While I welcome the news of Mr. Warmbier’s release, I am very concerned about his condition, and the authorities have to provide a clear explanation about what made him slip into a coma. His case serves as a reminder of the disastrous implications of the lack of access to adequate medical treatment for prisoners in the DPRK.’’

Human Rights Watch said that North Korea should immediately release other foreigners it has detained – six South Korean, one Canadian and three Americans – and end its practice of seizing foreign nationals for political purposes. HRW stressed that governments around the world must now recognize that they can expect no special treatment from Pyongyang for their detained nationals: ‘’Only by making human rights a primary demand – for everyone in North Korea, citizens and foreigners alike – can they reasonably hope to change Pyongyang’s abusive practices.’’

Information on prisons is scarce in North Korea. In 2014 a United Nations commission of inquiry found that thousands of people were routinely detained in facilities across the country, held in inhumane conditions and subjected to torture and forced labor.

The country is also thought to operate up to five political prison camps for the most serious crimes. Foreign nationals have also been detained on political grounds, including two US university professors in Pyongyang who were arrested this year for allegedly plotting anti-state acts.

Ojea Quintana stressed that the authorities had failed to protect Mr. Warmbier from the start. “His ordeal could have been prevented had he not been denied basic entitlements when he was arrested, such as access to consular officers and representation by an independent legal counsel of his choosing,” the Special Rapporteur said.

The expert noted the DPRK has signed up to five human rights treaties and the 1963 Vienna convention on consular relations that guarantee these basic rights.

It is not clear how Mr. Warmbier’s release had been secured, although his rapidly declining health may have been an incentive for North Korea to discharge him. “The onus is on the DPRK government to clarify the causes and circumstances of the release,” Ojea Quintana insisted.

“I call on the DPRK authorities to protect all prisoners, be they North Korean or foreigners. Release on humanitarian grounds should always be considered when the person’s health deteriorates to the point of putting their lives in danger, regardless of their crime,” he concluded.

Otto’s parents released the following statement on Monday:

It is our sad duty to report that our son, Otto Warmbier, has completed his journey home.  Surrounded by his loving family, Otto died today at 2:20 pm.

It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost — future time that won’t be spent with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds. But we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person.  You can tell from the outpouring of emotion from the communities that he touched — Wyoming, Ohio and the University of Virginia to name just two — that the love for Otto went well beyond his immediate family.

We would like to thank the wonderful professionals at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center who did everything they could for Otto. Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.

When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13th he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands. He looked very uncomfortable — almost anguished.  

Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day the countenance of his face changed — he was at peace. He was home and we believe he could sense that.

We thank everyone around the world who has kept him and our family in their thoughts and prayers.  We are at peace and at home too.

Fred & Cindy Warmbier and Family

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Reunions For Separated Korean Families Must Quickly Resume, Says UN Expert

Separated Korean families say farewell. Photo courtesy UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR).

A United Nation human rights expert on North Korea has backed proposals to resume family reunions for people separated since the 1950-1953 war, stressing that time is running out for many elderly relatives.

Thousands of families have been separated since the 1950-1953 Korean War through displacement, forced disappearance and abductions, and as a result of those fleeing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).  It is estimated that over one million and up to five million Koreans moved north or south during the war, leaving their families behind, and up to 100,000 were forcibly disappeared. Of these, less than 2,000 were able to receive information on their lost relatives or to see them in person, as of October 2015.

“There have not been any reunions since October 2015, and thousands of people are still desperate to connect with their loved ones or at least to know what happened to them,” said Tomás Ojea Quintana, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK.

Members of South Korea’s National Assembly announced plans on June 5th for a draft resolution to resume family reunion events in August. The debate is likely to create divisions within the assembly, as Pyongyang continues to carry out ballistic missile launches despite strong warnings by its neighbors and the international community.

The issue is also likely to be dogged by tensions over a group of North Korean restaurant workers who were resettled in Seoul last year, and whose return the DPRK has demanded as a precondition to further talks on family reunions.

Ojea Quintana said: “I welcome the proposal to organize reunions in August. Considering the ages of the family members concerned, and the plight they continue to suffer in old age, all political considerations must be removed. The reunions should be able to go ahead without conditions, to alleviate people’s suffering. This is a matter of absolute urgency that should not divide opinion.”

Nearly 130,000 people in the Republic of Korea (ROK) have registered since 1953 to be reunited with family members in the North, but more than half have died without knowing the whereabouts of their relatives, and the majority of those still alive are over 80.

New South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took office on May 9th, pledged during his election campaign to restore links between separated relatives. His administration has already taken steps to promote dialogue with Pyongyang, including the resumption of joint preventive activities to fight malaria in the North.

Ojea Quintana says the moment is ripe for the two countries to restart dialogue on separated families.

“There is a window of opportunity to discuss reunions as part of the wider outreach initiative by the Republic of Korea, and it should not be missed,” the Special Rapporteur said. “If the two countries can agree on conducting joint humanitarian activities, this is also their chance to respond to the reunion appeal made by the victims.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee says in their report Torn Apart: The Human Rights Dimension of the Involuntary Separation of Korean Families that separation has had a devastating effect on family relations since the Korean War. The continuing legacy of war division and the advanced age of most victims call for urgent attention for a prompt resolution of this problem. The issue has received renewed attention in recent months, with victims’ groups in the Republic of Korea calling for the international community’s support to help them to restore contact with their relatives in the DPRK.

The emergence of a collectivist political system in the northern part of the Korean peninsula in the late 1940s, following the retreat of Japanese troops, led to hundreds of thousands of Koreans fleeing to the south. A second wave of displacement occurred in the early 1950s, as North Korean forces, backed up by China and the Soviet Union, confronted South Korean troops who were aided by forces under the UN command consisting of 16 countries.

The Armistice Agreement of 1953 sealed the border between the two Koreas along the current ceasefire line, leaving relatives trapped on each side of the border. Since 1953, it is estimated that 129,616 individuals in the ROK have registered for reunion with their families in the DPRK. Whereas 2,325 families were able to meet their missing relatives at least once since the June 2000 Inter-Korean Summit, more than half of these applicants passed away without being given a chance to restore contact. At the end of February 2016, the list of candidates for reunion in the ROK contained 64,916 names of living victims. Around 55.3 percent of survivors are above the age of 80.

The story of Ms. Park Dong-yeol, 85 years old, provides an illustration of the exacerbation of discrimination faced by women in the enjoyment of economic and social rights as a result of involuntary separation. Ms. Park fled her hometown in North Korea’s North Hamgyong province in December 1950. She was a second-year medical student at that time and wanted to pursue her studies in South Korea as her medical institute closed during the war. She was not allowed to board a boat for Busan where about 100 men from her extended family embarked because “it was commonly accepted that the presence of a woman on a boat would curse it”. Thus, she made her own way to South Korea by foot and joined the men in Busan as she had no other relatives to rely on. She was unable to continue her studies due to her deteriorating economic situation and was instead employed as a domestic worker and newspaper vendor.

Park Dong-yeol’s status as a single woman in a community of men – most of whom married in the ROK after the Armistice Agreement was signed – forced her to leave the community in Busan and seek employment in Seoul. There, being a single woman with no family ties raised the suspicion of the authorities that she could be a North Korean spy. In 1956, she was detained by police and intelligence officers and tortured, then released and kept under close police scrutiny. In her words: “I worried that I would be arrested again if I did not marry, so I married at the age of 27 after I had lost hope of returning to my family in North Korea”. It was only when she married that social and political pressure on her decreased a little, but she remained economically marginalized and estranged from her extended family for decades because of her North Korean origins.

The impact of surveillance on separated families is perceptible in the story of 88-year-old Ms. Ji Eungyeong, who took part in the latest family reunion event in October 2015. She was selected to meet a daughter whom she had left behind as a baby in 1951, and a granddaughter. Despite the impeccable organization, the family’s right to privacy was not respected due to the presence of North Korean monitors on one side and South Korean journalists on the other. Ms. Ji said that her daughter was only able to cry and speak to her without fear during the two hours they were allowed to meet in a private room. Although Ms. Ji hoped her daughter and granddaughter could stay in touch with her after the event and inform her of developments regarding the fate of other relatives in the North, she has not been able to converse with them since the reunion.

In 2015, 1,275 escapees from the DPRK – 80 per cent of whom are women – arrived in the ROK. Whereas the overall number of escapees has reportedly consistently decreased since 2008 due to stringent border patrols in the DPRK, 43 women continue to form the majority of escapees. This may be explained by the fact that women have more access to informal trading and smuggling routes with China than men, who are assigned to government work. Families are in many cases forced to split up during the escape journey as people usually cross the border individually rather than in groups to avoid being noticed by the authorities. A woman who escaped in 2013 told the United Nations: “I did not tell my parents that I was planning to escape. They would have never let me do it because they would know that they would never see me again. I am their only child”.

These experiences show that even though family separation has taken new forms since the Korean War, its root causes remain connected. The structural forms of violence, discrimination and impunity that are at play weaken the fabric of the family, diminish people’s sense of personal security, and push them to split from their next-of-kin and seek safety outside the DPRK. It is noticeable that young people, who constitute the vast majority of escapees today, were also the main victims of forced displacement 65 years ago. In both cases young people were pushed to flee because they found themselves in a situation of structural vulnerability limiting the enjoyment of their rights, such as the right liberty and security of person, freedom of movement, freedom of thought and conscience, the right to education and the right to an adequate standard of living.  

The responsibility to protect human rights primarily rests with the Governments of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and of the Republic of Korea. More efforts are required to determine responsibilities for cases of involuntary separation.

The legacy of systematic human rights violations of the Korean War must be addressed and perpetrators identified in order to end impunity and promote sustainable peace and reconciliation. This effort should seek to realize the rights of victims to reparations and to know the truth about violations, as well as to provide guarantees of non-recurrence of human rights violations in accordance with international law.

The recent rise in political and military tensions on the Korean peninsula continues to impede progress in the dialogue regarding family reunions. In 2016 two nuclear tests were reportedly conducted and several missiles reportedly launched by the Democratic People’s Republic of the Korea. According to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea the organisation of joint military exercises by the United States and the Republic of Korea has led to the suspension of family reunion events. As rising tensions reduce the chance of addressing the problem of family separation proactively as a common priority, victims risk being further marginalized.

“The emotional, psychological, social, and economic toll of involuntary separation persists to this day, as people continue to search for the truth and for contact with their loved ones,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

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Chinese Activists Detained for Researching Shoe Factory Labor Conditions

Three Chinese labor activists who were conducting undercover research investigations into the labor conditions at Huajian shoe factories, which supply to Ivanka Trump’s brand among others, were taken away by the authorities in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province in late May. State media announced that they have been criminally detained and are under investigation.

According to Amnesty International and state media outlets, on May 30th Deng Guilian, the wife of labor activist Hua Haifeng, received a phone call from people in the public security bureau of Jiangxi province telling her that her husband had been detained on the charges of “illegal monitoring”. Hua Heifeng had been working with China Labor Watch (CLW), a New York-based organization that researches labor conditions in the supply chains of major multinationals. CLW’s most recent investigation was looking into working conditions at Huajian, one of the largest shoe manufacturers in the world, which produces shoes for Ivanka Trump’s brand, Coach and Nine West, among others.

Two other labor activists, Li Zhao and Su Heng, were also reported missing, and were presumed to be detained. On June 6th, The Paper, a state-run newspaper, said that, according to police, the three had been criminally detained on the charge of “unlawfully using special equipment or devices for eavesdropping or secret photographing”. The report claimed that the three had “confessed” to working undercover with the intent to collect information about working conditions and internal company secrets and provide the information to overseas organizations in order to gain funds. Hua Haifeng’s lawyer, who was able to meet his client on June 6th, told Bloomberg that the case was being handled by the national security unit of the public security bureau.

Deng Guilian, who has been outspoken in defending her husband, has said that her home is now under surveillance. She has been regularly visited by state security agents, and is now being followed by unidentified individuals when she leaves her home.

On May 17th, Bloomberg reported that China Labor Watch had sent a letter to Ivanka Trump, urging her to improve conditions in the factories that produce her shoe line. According to the report, China Labor Watch alleged that workers had to work 12 1/2 hours per day, six days a week, and that despite working with oils and glues, workers were not provided with safety training.

According to the New York Times, Hua tried to go to Hong Kong on May 25th in order to meet CLW’s executive director and a journalist from the New York Times, but was denied permission to enter Hong Kong. He was then told to talk to the police, who informed him that they knew he was investigating Huajian factories. Hua later went back to Ganzhou, where he was eventually detained. A United States State Department spokesperson called for the release of the labor activists on June 5th. However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that, “(o)ther nations have no right to interfere in our judicial sovereignty and independence”.

In recent years, China has enacted legislation and regulations to protect workers’ rights, but there is poor implementation of the laws. According to China National Bureau of Statistics, only 35 percent of China’s 281 million “migrant domestic workers” had labor contracts in 2016. At the same time, independent unions are banned, and the state run All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is the only body allowed to represent workers in China. ACFTU-affiliated unions at the enterprise level are often controlled by factory management, and have little capacity to protect workers’ interests.

The government has also taken a harsher approach to labor rights NGOs in recent years. In December 2015, the government in Guangdong province carried out a crackdown against labor NGOs, targeting at least 33 individuals; 31 were later released.

Labor activist Zeng Feiyang was denied access to lawyers and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, suspended for four years, in early October. Labor activist Meng Han was sentenced to one year and nine months’ imprisonment on November 3rd 2016. In many cases the detention centers initially denied access to lawyers on the grounds that the cases involved “endangering national security”.

In recent years the Chinese government has enacted a series of new national security laws that present serious threats to the protection of human rights. The Foreign NGO Management Law created additional barriers to the already limited rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression. Although the law was ostensibly designed to regulate and even protect the activities of foreign NGOs, it transferred to the Ministry of Public Security – the state policing agency – the responsibility to oversee the registration of these NGOs, as well as supervise their operations and pre-approve their activities. It also potentially criminalized any activities between overseas partners and Chinese domestic NGOs or individuals that are not expressly approved by the government.

The wide discretion given to police to oversee and manage the work of foreign NGOs raised the risk of the law being misused to intimidate and prosecute human rights defenders and NGO staff. During the consultation period, Amnesty International made a submission to the Chinese government, urging that the draft law be withdrawn or substantially amended in order to make it compatible with international human rights law and standards.

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United Nations Welcomes Orderly Vote in Cambodia, Calls for Reopening Civil Society Space

The UN Human Rights Office for South-East Asia welcomed the orderly conduct of voting in the communal elections held across Cambodia on June 4th, and expressed hope that the smooth and peaceful poll bodes well for the democratic process ahead of next year’s general election.

“We are pleased to have witnessed that the violence, military intervention, and arrests that were threatened prior to the elections did not take place and that the people of Cambodia expressed general satisfaction with the process,” said Katia Chirizzi, the deputy regional representative of the South-East Asia Office in Bangkok.

The UN Human Rights Office observed the human rights environment of the vote, as it has every election since the establishment of its office there in 1993. It applauded the fact that in contrast with previous ballots no voters this time claimed that they had been kept from voting.

The Regional Office congratulated Cambodians who turned out in exceptionally high numbers, civil society organizations that also mobilized in large numbers to scrutinize the election, all the participating political parties and the National Election Committee on its preparations.  

However, reports were received prior to the vote of some opposition politicians being threatened and obstructed from campaigning, and some civil society election monitors being subjected to intimidation and harassment.

“Having done well with the organization of the vote, we are confident that the reformed National Election Committee will be able to deal with any election-related complaints that come to its attention in strict accordance with the law, including the internationally established human right to participate in public affairs,” said Chirizzi, stressing the importance of preventing a repeat of such intimidating behaviour ahead of the 2018 general election.

“The elections have set new benchmarks in transparency, while revealing some ways in which the process could be further strengthened next year. In particular, the politicized threats and arrests of civil society actors and members of opposition parties should cease, so that, in their respective capacities, they may continue to play their legitimate role in a democratic Cambodia, particularly ahead of next year’s election. The release of the ‘Adhoc 5’ and Tep Vanny would be a crucial test of that space,” Chirizzi added.

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Myanmar Violates Human Rights By Forcing Asylum Seeker Out

Myanmar authorities have put a Turkish asylum seeker, Muhammet Furkan Sökmen, at risk of serious human rights violations by pushing him back via Thailand, Human Rights Watch said Friday.

“Myanmar and Thailand flagrantly violated Furkan Sökmen’s human rights by caving in to pressure from Ankara and deporting him despite his claim for asylum and the real risk of ill-treatment and an unfair trial in Turkey,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

On May 24th 2017, Myanmar officials detained Sökmen at Yangon International Airport at the request of Turkish authorities who had canceled his passport. After he and his family were held for approximately 24 hours, he was forcibly sent to Turkey – via Thailand – because of alleged connections to the Gülen movement, led by US-based Sunni Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, which the Turkish authorities deem responsible for a failed coup in 2016 and has termed a terrorist organization.

In Thailand, he was held at an airport immigration detention center for approximately another 24 hours before being deported to Turkey on May 26th. Upon arrival in Turkey, authorities placed Sökmen in detention and transported him to his home province where a criminal investigation is set to begin. Little is known about his treatment now in the custody of Turkish authorities.

In two videos Sökmen sent from the immigration lockup at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok before his phone was confiscated and Thai officials handed him over to Turkish embassy staff, he said: “I am calling everyone, please help me. I am in the terminal area; they are pushing me. They are trying to give me to the Turkish Embassy. Please help me, all over the world, please help me.” In a second 20-second video he said: “Please help me, now I am in Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport in the terminal area. They are pushing me, to give me to Turkish Embassy staff, they are pushing me to go to Turkey. I don’t want to go to Turkey, I want to stay here. Please help me—all over the world please help me.”

The deportation of Sökmen went ahead even after the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and other UN agencies had informed key Burmese and Thai government agencies that there were substantial grounds to believe that he would face an imminent risk of human rights abuse upon his return to Turkey.

Forcing Sökmen back to Turkey – where he is at risk of ill-treatment in custody – without examining his claim for protection constitutes refoulement, Human Rights Watch said.

Under customary international law, the governments of Myanmar and Thailand are obligated to ensure that no one in their custody is forcibly sent to a place where they would risk serious human rights violations. The principle of non-refoulement is also included in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Thailand is a party.

“It is deeply alarming that both Burmese and Thai authorities prioritized showing deference to rights-violating demands from Turkey over respecting the bedrock principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits any government from returning an asylum seeker without examining his or her claim for protection,” Adams said.

Sökmen is an accountant who was formerly the director of a company that managed a recently closed international school in Rangoon that was associated with the Gülen movement. Turkish media reporting his return to Turkey have alleged he was a leading figure in the Gülen movement in Myanmar.

Since October 2016, he is at least the sixth person forced back from Southeast Asia to Turkey over alleged connections to the movement. The other five were sent back to Turkey from Malaysia, and all five are believed to still be in pre-trial detention.

Turkey accuses Fethullah Gülen of being behind a coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016. Gülen has denied any involvement.

Since the attempted coup, the Turkish government has put more than 50,000 people in pre-trial detention. Among those detained are military personnel, police officers, civil servants, teachers, academics, businessmen, judges, and prosecutors. The majority face terrorism charges based on their alleged links to the Gülen movement and many have been held in prolonged detention without due process or credible evidence of personal criminal wrongdoing. Some of those held have alleged that they were subjected to torture or other ill-treatment in police custody, and while in prison have excessive restrictions on visits by family members, receiving and sending letters, and having private communication with lawyers. Their prison detention conditions may amount to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in violation of international law.

“Myanmar and Thailand should ensure that anyone who alleges they are at risk of human rights abuse in Turkey can seek protection,” Adams said. “To make it clear they will not further violate international law, Myanmar and Thailand should immediately announce that they will provide UN agencies with access to conduct assessments of protection needs of any Turkish nationals wanted by Ankara, and not return to Turkey anyone determined to be a refugee.”

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Crackdown in Vietnam Continues

Vietnam must end the ongoing crackdown on dissidents, repeal its repressive laws and immediately release all political prisoners, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) said Monday. FIDH and VCHR’s call followed the latest case of imprisonment of government critics to lengthy jail terms.

“Until Vietnam repeals its repressive laws, the country’s prisons will continue to be the likely residence of government critics. It’s time for Hanoi to dismantle its arsenal of draconian laws and release all political prisoners,” said FIDH President Dimitris Christopoulos.

On May 26th 2017, the Court of Appeals in Hanoi upheld a lower court’s conviction of Tran Anh Kim and Le Thanh Tung for conducting “activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” under Article 79 of the Criminal Code and sentenced them to 13 and 12 years in prison and five and four years’ house arrest respectively.

On December 16th 2016, a court in Thai Binh Province jailed Tran Anh Kim and Le Thanh Tung for attempting to form a pro-democracy organization that authorities claimed was planning a coup to overthrow the government.

Both Tran Anh Kim and Le Thanh Tung are former army soldiers and long-time human rights advocates who have been repeatedly targeted by the authorities for their pro-democracy activities.

In December 2011, Le Thanh Tung was arrested on charges of “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 88 of the Criminal Code. Tung was released in June 2015, five months ahead of the completion of his jail sentence. Tung has been arrested more than a dozen times for his human rights activism.

Prior to his latest incarceration, Tran Anh Kim was released from prison in September 2016 after serving a five-and-a-half-year prison term under Article 79 of the Criminal Code. Kim has been a persistent government critic and has been jailed several times for his activism.

“The case of Tran Anh Kim and Le Thanh Tung shows the government’s callous determination to silence all forms of opposition and its total disinterest in upholding its international legal obligations. Stronger international pressure is urgently needed to end this human rights onslaught,” said VCHR President Vo Van Ai.

Vietnamese authorities have repeatedly used legislation inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations under international law to suppress the right to freedom of opinion and expression and to detain government critics.

In addition to Articles 79 and 88, other clauses of the Criminal Code that are inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations under international law include: Article 80 (‘’spying’’); Article 87 (‘’undermining national solidarity, sowing divisions between religious and non-religious people’’); and Article 258 (‘’abusing democratic freedoms to harm the interests of the state’’.)

Vietnam holds about 130 political prisoners.

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