In Burma, Judicial and Police Reform Needed Urgently

A section of protesting farmers in Ayeyarwady division's Maubin township, Feb. 26, 2013. RFA photo.

A section of protesting farmers in Ayeyarwady division’s Maubin township, Feb. 26, 2013. RFA photo.

In Burma, there has been a string of attacks by the Burmese police on peaceful civilians in recent weeks. On August 14th, nearly 50 police personnel in the Mandalay Region shot at a group of around 200 farmers from Nyaung Wine Village in Singu Township. Across Burma, farmers are facing such vexing problems, where their land has been taken forcibly taken from them by the military. The farmers’ attempts to cultivate their land is being met with brutal crackdown by the military battalions, the courts and now even police shootings.

The farmers were protesting against the fact that over 6,000 acres of their land was confiscated in 1991 by the 121 Logistic Battalion of the Burma Army – without any compensation being provided – by continuing to plough their fields. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), a 30-year-old mother of two, Ma San Kyin Nu, is allegedly one of the victims, and has been admitted to Mandalay General Hospital for urgent medical treatment as a result of her injuries.

The AHRC said in a statement that ‘’this pattern of land grabbing and violent followup to the original crime, without any possibility of legal recourse for the victim farmers, and this most recent shooting, indicates that there is not even a vestige of the rule of law in Burma.’’ The rights group condemns the violence displayed by the police to intimidate the citizens, and insists that the government sets the farmers free immediately. It also urges the government of Burma to solve these land problems in a peaceful way and uphold the farmers rights to their land. Burma must make these changes if it would like to make a claim of being a democratic and free nation.

According to the Burma Partnership, after the police violence, the protesting farmers prevented police from making any arrests; however, later, another 100 police arrived and blockaded the entire village. Local residents then took matters into their own hands and briefly detained about 40 police officers, angered at the brutal approach of the police to the land conflict. Although the policemen were eventually released after negotiations, the organization says that the dangers and risks of uncontrolled police violence and impunity are evident: ”blood has been shed and anarchy has prevailed.” The organization says that even if police allegations that the protesters were armed with slingshots is true, under no circumstances is the use of live ammunition by police or other state security forces on civilian protesters proportionate or justified.

Additionally, on May 14th, All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) member Kaung Htet Kyaw was allegedly beaten by police during a suppression of a farmers’ protest in Thegon Township in Pegu Region. Kaung Htet Kyaw sustained severe head injuries and was charged with participating in an unauthorized protest.. ABFSU responded by releasing a statement denouncing police mistreatment. On May 22nd a group of students gathered to demand justice for Kaung Htet Kyaw. The group alleges to have been assaulted by more than 60 police officers after the rally. “We demand the release of the farmers who are in detention, and that all charges against them and our member, Kaung Htet Kyaw, be dropped,” said Min Thwe Thit of ABSFU.

The AHRC also reports that on July 4th, police in Bago No. 1 Police Station arrested a 37-year-old man, Zin Aung, without an arrest warrant or court order, and without notifying an administrative officer, on grounds of stealing bottles of motorcycle fuel. While in custody for three days, he was allegedly tortured, and subsequently died of his injuries. According to the AHRC, police have now been threatening the relatives of the deceased. This case follows on the heels of other custodial torture cases which implicate the Burma Police Force, such as those of Kyaw Nyunt, Than Htun, and Myo Myint Swe.

Moreover, the Network for Human Rights Documentation-Burma (ND-Burma) has published its periodic Report on the Human Rights Situation in Burma covering the first half of 2014. ND-Burma’s report focuses on 103 documented cases of human rights violations in Burma from January to June 2014. There are many serious human rights cases highlighted in the report, including ones of torture, extra-judicial killing, illegal arrests and detentions, forced displacement and rape. Many such cases clearly entail the collusion or actual involvement of the Burma police force or enforcement agencies.

ND Board member Salai Bawi Pi said that “Many human right defenders and activists have been arrested under repressive laws such as Section 18.” As an example, he drew attention to the recent case in Chin state where eight Chin activists were charged under Section 18 of ‘The Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act’ for protesting without permission. These activists requested permission, but were refused by local authorities. Their protest was related to an incident that allegedly occurred on June 10th, when a 55 year-old woman from Rezua sub-township, in the Matupi township area of Chin State, was brutally beaten during an attempted rape by a Burma Army soldier.

The Burma Partnership says that these cases show that there is a long way to go in terms of reforming the Burma police force. ‘’Rather than protecting people from violent crime, the police are perpetrating violent crime; rather than respecting people’s human rights, they are abusing them; rather than enhancing security, they are undermining it; rather than supporting the judiciary, they are using it to do their dirty work, or even by-passing it altogether; and rather than assuaging the fears of communities around the country, they are exacerbating those fears,’’ the organization says.

The European Union (EU) has been working with the Burma Police Force on its police reform program. The EU states that “it has decided to support the reform of the [Burma] police force in the areas of crowd management and community policing with a €10 million (approximately $13.3) package. Improving respect by the police for human rights and the accountability of the police to Parliament, civil society and the media will be at the heart of this action.”

In order to tack police impunity properly, the Burma Partnership says that the Burmese government needs to show political will, especially when it comes to reforming the judiciary, so that victims of police brutality will start to develop confidence in the system and feel that they have a genuine avenue to redress for such brutalities and rights abuses. The organization warns that if the police force remains unaccountable and impunity is not tackled, then police brutality will not only continue but the impunity will become more entrenched – however many millions the EU pours into its police reform programs.

Burma Partnership also maintains that the police require intensive, rigorous, principled training on effective policing and human rights compliance throughout the country. Disciplinary procedures need to be implemented at all levels of the police force.

In response to this crackdown on farmers, last Wednesday, about 1,000 farmers gathered in Burma’s northern Sagaing region to demand that authorities drop charges against fellow farmers.

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Rights Groups Urge EU To Consider Human Rights During Trade Negotiations

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its member organization Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) have filed a complaint in Brussels to request that the European Union Ombudsman address the European Commission’s refusal to take human rights into account in negotiations for trade and investment agreements with Vietnam. Negotiations on the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement are taking place against a backdrop of intensifying repression in Vietnam.

In a fierce crackdown on freedom of expression, Vietnam prosecuted and imprisoned at least 65 bloggers and activists in 2013, and at least 14 more have been arrested in the first half of 2014. Scores of civil society activists were brutally beaten for staging peaceful demonstrations or holding human rights debates. Hundreds of dispossessed farmers were wounded and several others killed in massive protests over forced eviction and land confiscation.

“It is inadmissible that the European Commission is negotiating a Free Trade Agreement without any regard for human rights in Vietnam. Over the past year, human rights abuses have reached a climax. Top EU officials have repeatedly denounced the harsh sentences of bloggers and human rights defenders, yet the Commission proposes business as usual – and even upgrading trade relations with Vietnam. We call upon the Ombudsman to address this and help put human rights back at the center of the EU-Vietnam relationship,” said VCHR President Vo Van Ai.

Trade and investment agreements have the potential to exacerbate human rights violations in the context of laboir rights, access to land and natural resources or when recourse mechanisms are designed to protect investors and not affected communities.

In the on-going crackdown, peaceful activists and human rights defenders have been subjected to unprecedented police brutality, beatings and sexual assaults, harassment, arbitrary arrest and “administrative detention” in labor camps and psychiatric institutions.

During the same period, Vietnam also introduced legal measures to restrict the exercise of human rights. New decrees and regulations were adopted to curb freedom of expression on the Internet, freedom of religion, and to limit the legal operations of domestic and international NGOs in Vietnam.

Despite numerous calls by FIDH and VCHR and a resolution of the European Parliament for the European Commission to include human rights impact assessments (HRIA) in the ongoing trade and investment negotiations with Vietnam, the EU Commissioner for Trade stated that the Commission did not “envisage carrying out a specific human rights impact assessment for the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement.”

FIDH and VCHR believe that the European Commission’s refusal constitutes a case of maladministration. The two organizations urge the EU Ombudsman to address the situation and recommend that the European Commission review it.

“These human rights violations can be prevented by conducting human rights impact assessments and by including safeguards in trade and investment agreements that address violations, or offer redress mechanisms,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji. “We believe that the European Commission’s refusal to carry out HRIAs is inconsistent with its legal obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights”, he added.

The protection of human rights is guaranteed by the 1992 Vietnamese Constitution.

However, the exercise of these rights is severely curtailed by provisions in the Constitution and extensive domestic legislation that restricts human rights to compliance with “the policies and interests of the State.”

The EU has an obligation to ensure that the trade agreements it concludes do not lead and/or contribute to human rights violations in the EU and the countries where they are implemented.

In order to do so, the EU should conduct HRIAs and take all necessary measures to prevent trade and investment agreements from impeding the enjoyment of human rights in Europe and in other countries, the organizations say. Such an obligation is grounded in both international and EU law. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food stated, “there is a duty to identify any potential inconsistency between pre-existing human rights treaties and subsequent trade or investment agreements, and to refrain from entering into such agreements where such inconsistencies are found to exist.” “By preparing human rights impact assessments prior to the conclusion of trade and investment agreements, States are addressing their obligations under the human rights treaties.”

Vietnam is on Reporters Without Borders Enemies of the Internet list due to of its persecution of bloggers and cyber dissidents.

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Historic Conviction of Khmer Rouge Leaders An Important Step But Long Overdue Step Towards Justice

The Judges of the Trial Chamber enter the courtroom to pronounce the verdict in Case 002/01 on August 7th 2014. Photo courtesy ECCC.

The Judges of the Trial Chamber enter the courtroom to pronounce the verdict in Case 002/01 on August 7th 2014. Photo courtesy ECCC.

The convictions of two former Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity are an important step towards justice yet long overdue, rights groups said this week. On August 7th, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) convicted Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, and sentenced them to life in prison. It is the first time that high-ranking officials of the Khmer Rouge regime have been convicted by an independent court and represents a critical step against impunity. While welcoming the verdict, rights groups also expressed deep concern over political interference, delays and corruption during the trials.

Khmer Rouge rule under the leadership of Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and others resulted in the deaths of as many as two million Cambodians, more than one-quarter of the population. Pol Pot, known as “Brother Number One,” died in 1998 after years of protection from Thailand and China.

Nuon Chea, the former second in command of the Khmer Rouge regime, and Khieu Samphan, the regime’s former Head of State, faced a number of charges, including the forced movement of the population from Phnom Penh and elsewhere, and the execution of soldiers and officials of the Khmer Republic – the regime topped by the Khmer Rouge.

Nuon Chea waits for the verdict on case 00201 in the courtroom on August 7th 2014. Photo courtesy ECCC.They were found guilty of the crimes against humanity of murder, political persecution, forced transfer, attacks against human dignity, enforced disappearances and extermination during forced movements of population in Cambodia from April 17th 1975 to December 1977. They were also found guilty of the crimes against humanity of murder, political persecution and extermination of former soldiers and officials of the Khmer Republic at Tuol Po Chrey in Pursat Province. The ECCC trial judges also decided to order collective measures of reparation for Civil Parties yet they will not fund these reparation orders.

The ECCC also recognized that both Samphan and Chea have committed the majority of the above crimes in the framework of a common plan, to which they made a significant contribution.

“Although this decision is issued almost 40 years after the Khmer Rouge crimes, it is a historic victory for Civil Parties”, said Patrick Baudouin, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Honorary President and Civil Parties lawyer. “We hope this decision will contribute to the Cambodian society’s work towards sustainable peace and independent justice,”, he added.

“The decision issued by the Trial Chamber of the ECCC represents an important step against the impunity of former Khmer Rouge high-ranking officials. It is also a positive message for younger generations that these crimes cannot go unpunished,” said Latt Ky of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC).

The organizations welcome the decision to order collective reparations for victims, including permanent and mobile exhibitions or new chapters on Khmer Rouge crimes in teacher’s guidebooks. However, they expressed regret that the ECCC will not fund these reparation orders.

Khieu Samphan prepares to hear the verdict on August 7th 2014. Photo courtesy ECCC.

Khieu Samphan prepares to hear the verdict on August 7th 2014. Photo courtesy ECCC.

Almost 4,000 victims have been able to participate as Civil Parties in case 002/01, with rights as full parties to the case, including legal representation and opportunities to request investigative acts and call and question witnesses. Before the ECCC, no other international criminal tribunal trying crimes under international law had given victims a formal status during the proceedings.

Human Rights Watch said Friday that the convictions are too little, too late and do not make up for the fundamental failures of the Cambodian-controlled and United Nations-assisted Khmer Rouge tribunal. “The convictions of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are too little and too late to save the Khmer Rouge tribunal from being regarded as a failure,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The goal of justice for Khmer Rouge victims has been irrevocably tarnished by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political interference, the failure to bring more cases, long delays, and pervasive corruption. What should be a day of celebrating justice is instead a reminder of missed opportunities.”

The trial followed years of obstruction by Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander. Many Khmer Rouge responsible for large-scale atrocities during the group’s rule from 1975-79 continue to live freely, some in the same communities in which they carried out mass killings, forced labor, and other abuses. Hun Sen has said he would rather see the court fail than take up more cases, raising concerns that he is protecting former Khmer Rouge fighters now in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Human Rights Watch also said that the trial barely scratched the surface of the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge: “Cambodia is the country where the term ‘Killing Fields’ was coined, but this trial did not address how the Khmer Rouge systematically killed people it considered their enemies and dumped them in mass graves,” Adams said. “It is a sad indictment of the Khmer Rouge tribunal that after seven years and the expenditure of more than US$200 million, Cambodians now face the prospect that only three people will be held legally accountable for the destruction of their country,” Adams continued. “Men who ordered the deaths of tens of thousands of people are being allowed by Hun Sen and an indifferent international community to live out their lives in freedom, often in the same village or on the same street as their victims.”

At the direction of Hun Sen, government-installed Cambodian judges, prosecutors, and other court personnel have obstructed investigations and trials. The government did not require its members to provide evidence to the tribunal’s judicial investigation and trial proceedings. Serious corruption allegations affecting the proceedings have not been adequately investigated.

Cambodian judges and prosecutors have successfully blocked the arrest and indictment of five additional suspects whom UN prosecutors have named as responsible for serious crimes during the Khmer Rouge period. Hun Sen publicly said on multiple occasions that there should be no further trials.

Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia-Pacific Director Rupert Abbott said that the long-awaited ruling is an ‘’important step towards justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge period and highlights the importance of addressing impunity.” However, he expressed concern that ‘’the earlier refusal of senior Cambodian government officials to give evidence, as well as allegations of political interference in other ECCC cases, is troubling and raises concerns around the fairness of the proceedings and respect for victims’ right to hear the full truth regarding the alleged crimes.’’ He said it was crucial to have fair and effective trials if the ECCC is to leave a lasting legacy which strengthens Cambodia’s very fragile judicial system and contributes towards ending the deep culture of impunity.

Amnesty also said  that the  ECCC must complete all of its cases in a timely and fair manner without political interference, which will require the support of the Cambodian government and the international community and said that much more must be done by the government of Cambodia to repair the harm suffered by victims.

Human Rights Watch stressed that donors and other key governments have failed to make continued support for the tribunal contingent on the end of political interference, cooperation from the Cambodian government in further investigations, and allowing further cases to be filed based on the evidence and professional judgment of independent judges and prosecutors.

“Instead of issuing statements congratulating the Khmer Rouge tribunal on its long overdue verdicts, Japan, the European Union, Australia, the US, and others should be focussing on justice for victims,” Adams said. “Are they going to be silent partners in Hun Sen’s manipulation of justice, or will they fight for victims and survivors to have a credible judicial process?” Adams asked.

The decision can be appealed within 30 days. The evidence collected during proceedings in this case (Case 002/01) will be usable for trial proceedings in Case 002/02 which targets the same accused. The substantial trial in Case 002/02 is expected to start before the end of this year.

The Khmer Rouge took power in April 1975, at the end of the United States’ war in Indochina. Led by Pol Pot and Nuon Chea, they ruled the country until January 7th 1979, when Vietnam drove them out. Estimates suggest that as many as two million of Cambodia’s eight million people were killed or died from disease, starvation, or forced labor during this period.

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Nearly One Year Later, Chinese Investigative Journalist Who Exposed Corruption Released on Bail

Liu Hu in an undated photo courtesy of Reporters Without Borders.

Liu Hu in an undated photo courtesy of Reporters Without Borders.

Rights groups are welcoming the release of Chinese investigative reporter Liu Hu on bail but warn that China has its own agenda when it comes to whistleblowers and those exposing corruption. Liu Hu was released on August 3rd after nearly a year in detention on trumped-up defamation charges designed to silence him. He still faces trial on a defamation charge for drawing attention to corruption and it is still unclear what conditions there will be to his release.

Liu is the victim of an “anti-rumor campaign” used to crack down on anyone daring to draw attention to corruption. Despite the Communist Party’s pledge to combat corruption, it has continued to go after journalists who expose misuses of power.

A resident of the southwestern city of Chongqing, Liu worked for the Guangzhou-based Modern Express newspaper. He was arrested on August 24th 2013 for “spreading false rumors” after urging the authorities to investigate a local official he believed was engaged in misconduct. Formally charged with defamation after being held for 37 days, his bail request was rejected at that time and one of his lawyers was placed under disciplinary investigation for posting documents linked to the case online.

Announcing Liu’s release, his lawyer, Zhou Ze posted to his Weibo account that the authorities “were unable to proceed with his case in the allotted time frame’’ and noted that certain conditions would undoubtedly be attached to his release. ‘’I have always maintained that Liu Hu is innocent, and that his case should go no further than the procurator[ial] stage. Releasing Liu Hu on bail is a welcome step in the right direction,” Zhou added. After his release from Beijing detention center No. 1, Liu returned to Chongqing.

When I asked Bob Dietz, Asia Program Coordinator at New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists what he thought of Liu’s release and China’s crackdown on journalists exposing corruption, he said ‘’Ten months in prison for whistleblowing. That is what investigative reporting can get you, if you’re lucky, in China. And we still don’t know if there will be conditions attached to his release.’’

‘’The message here is that China’s government from Beijing down to the provinces and townships has its own agenda when it comes to going after corruption — and independent journalism and reporters like Liu Hu, who are not under their control, do not fit into their scheme of things,’’ Dietz warned.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Paris said Wednesday that Liu’s release demonstrates the weakness of the prosecution case against him. “We are delighted by Liu Hu’s release, even if it comes 344 days too late, and now the judicial authorities must drop all the charges against him. We call for an end to the persecution of journalists and bloggers who expose cases of corruption and for the release of those who are still detained, such as Yin Yusheng, Dong Rubin and Xu Zhiyong. The lack of evidence against them shows the hidden political motive for their detention,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

In September 2013, Chinese authorities yet again tightened social media controls. Under the new rules, people who post comments deemed libelous and that were reposted 500 or more times faced defamation charges and up to three years in prison.

On July 29th, Liu posted a note on his Sina Weibo account about Ma Zhengqi, the state administration deputy director for industry and commerce, accusing him of neglecting his duties while Chongqing party secretary and being implicated in corruption. Claiming he had solid evidence, Liu accused Ma of refusing to conduct an investigation into the privatization of two state state-owned companies that resulted in considerable losses for the state. Liu’s investigative reporting led to his being singled out for punishment by the authorities.

According to RSF, this directive was sent to the Chinese media: “Do not investigate, report, or comment on Modern Express reporter Liu Hu’s receipt of a written guarantee [of release] pending trial.”

In its report Challenged in China, the Committee to Protect Journalists urged the new Chinese leadership to implement reforms to bring China’s laws and practices in line with international standards for press freedom and freedom of expression. The press freedom organization specifically called for the decriminalization of defamation laws, including reforming civil defamation laws to prevent abuse by public figures and corporations.

China is among the world’s leading jailers of journalists. At least 30 journalists and 75 netizens continue to be detained in China, which is ranked 175th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.

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Special Rapporteur Stresses Need To Improve Religious Freedom in Vietnam

Religious communities in Vietnam should be able to operate also outside of the officially established channels for religious practice, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, said Thursday at the end of an official visit to the country.

“Freedom of religion or belief has the status of universal human rights to be respected prior to, and independent of, any particular acts of administrative approval,” Mr. Bielefeldt stressed.

Mr. Bielefeldt acknowledged the increasing efforts of the Vietnamese government to improve freedom of religion or belief through legal instruments. However, he observed that serious violations of freedom of religion or belief are a reality in Vietnam. “Granting autonomy for religious communities to function independently would be a litmus test for the development of freedom of religion or belief in Vietnam. In the current situation, their ability to operate as independent communities is unsafe and restricted,” Heiner Bielefeldt noted.

These violations particularly affect independent groups of Buddhists, including Hoa Hao-Buddhists, and of the Cao Dai religion, some Protestant communities and activists within the Catholic Church. “Official registration status with the Government is no guarantee that freedom of religion or belief is fully respected,” Mr. Bielefeldt said.

He said that he has ‘’heard a number of serious allegations about concrete violations of freedom of religion or belief in Vietnam’’ and referenced reported violations which include heavy-handed police raids; repeated invitations to “work sessions” with the police; close surveillance of religious activities; disruption of religious ceremonies and festivals; house arrests, at times over long periods; imprisonments, also sometimes over long periods; beatings and assaults; dismissals from employment; loss of social benefits; pressure exercised on family members; acts of vandalism; destructions of houses of worship, cemeteries and funeral sheds; confiscations of property; systematic pressure to give up certain religious activities and instead to operate within the official channels provided for religious practice; pressure to denounce one’s religion or belief. Mr. Bielefeldt also met with one prisoner of conscience in the prison in which he is currently detained.

The independent expert from Germany expressed hope that the Vietnamese government would use the upcoming new legislation on religious affairs to bring the existing norms and practices more in line with everyone’s right to freedom of religion or belief.

He noted especially that the newly amended Vietnamese Constitution, adopted by the National Assembly in November 2013, covers in its second chapter “human rights and citizen’s fundamental rights and duties.” In this context, the 2013 Constitution also refers to freedom of belief or religion in article 24. Representatives of the Government repeatedly highlighted that rights holders of this provision are all human beings, whereas the respective provision within the 1992 Constitution was confined to citizens of Vietnam. This has been presented as an indicator of a generally more positive attitude towards freedom of religion or belief. Article 24 reads as follows:

  1. Every one shall enjoy freedom of belief and of religion; he can follow any religion or follow none. All religions are equal before the law.
  2. The State respects and protects freedom of belief and of religion.
  3. No one has the right to infringe on the freedom of belief and religion or to take advantage of belief and religion to violate the law.

Mr. Bielefeldt was due to visit Vietnam from July 21 – 31st 2014, but his planned visits to An Giang, Gia Lai and Kon Tum provinces were unfortunately interrupted from July 28 to 30th.

“I received credible information that some individuals with whom I wanted to meet had been under heavy surveillance, warned, intimidated, harassed or prevented from travelling by the police,” he said. “Even those who successfully met with me were not free from a certain degree of police surveillance or questioning.” Mr. Bielefeldt added that his whereabouts were closely monitored by undeclared “security or police agents” and that the privacy and confidentiality of some meetings could have been compromised. ‘’All these incidents are in clear violation of the terms of reference of any country visit,’’ he said.

In Hanoi, Tuyen Quang, Ho Chi Minh City and Vinh Long, Mr. Bielefeldt met with various government officials and local authorities in the country involved in freedom of religion or belief issues. He also held meetings with representatives of recognized and unrecognized religious or belief communities, as well as civil society organizations and the UN.

The Special Rapporteur noted that he noticed positive developments at the central level: “Most representatives of religious communities agreed that, in spite of ongoing serious problems, their space for religious practices has increased in recent years. Religious communities which had been forbidden post-1975 are now allowed to operate.’’ He added that it is hopeful that some representatives of Government agencies expressed their willingness to consider substantive revisions within the process of replacing the current Ordinance on Belief and Religion by passing a law governing these issues and that this opportunity should not be missed, saying that ‘’it might become a turning point for Vietnam’s protection of freedom of religion or belief.’’

The Special Rapporteur will present a report containing his conclusions and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2015. Mr. Bielefeldt said that he will continue to engage with and work in consultation with the Government and all relevant stakeholders to receive more information and clarification, especially on issues that relate to parts of the country that he was not able to visit.


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In Burma, Farmers Face Prison Sentences For Trespassing On Their Own Land

A section of protesting farmers in Ayeyarwady division's Maubin township, Feb. 26, 2013. RFA Photo.

A section of protesting farmers in Ayeyarwady division’s Maubin township, Feb. 26, 2013. RFA Photo.

The President of Burma has announced that the government cannot give back over 30,000 acres of paddy land that the state has been using since it was confiscated by the army two decades ago. President U Thein Sein ordered state and regional governments as well as the land management committee to cooperate with members of the parliament to solve the problem of land grabbing cases. At the same time, he has announced the government cannot return some land which is leading to prosecution and prison sentences for the farmers in conflict with the army regarding their land.

Land disputes in Burma are an on-going problem as the country emerges from decades of military rule, with rights groups expressing concern about a potential “land-grabbing epidemic” in the country.

According to the the President’s office official website, the President submitted a report for the period April 26th 2014 to June 24th 2014 to National Parliament regarding the confiscation of land by the military, ministries, regional government, and businesses with only small amounts of compensation. There are many more cases of the government neither paying compensation nor returning the land to its owners.

Farmers in the Delta region of Burma are being prosecuted by the Burmese army. In 1997-1998, the military confiscated 250 acres of land from farmers of Thabaung Township, Ayeyarwaddy Region. The original landowners have had no choice but to continue farming their land. However, in November 2013, Battalion Captains have prosecuted the landowners who have attempted to cultivate the land, under Penal Code Section 447/427. The army has accused them of trespassing on paddy land, which originally belonged to the farmers but was confiscated by army captains at gunpoint. The farmers face trial in several cases lodged against them and the ordeal has turned their lives upside down.

Now the military units have prosecuted the farmers, the owners of the land, by accusing them of trespassing and damaging their land. There are several issues faced by the farmers: they cannot work; and they spend whatever money and time they have to go to trial. The cases are ongoing, and the farmers have no respite despite it being rainy season which is the time to grow paddy. When the land was confiscated, the authorities involved did not follow the law of state ownership of agricultural land; rather, the land was grabbed at gunpoint. There was no compensation for the land either.

On May 27th and 28th 2014, 190 farmers from Pharuso Township, Kayah State were prosecuted for ploughing in land confiscated by No. 531 Light Infantry Battalion. The Tanintharyi regional government seized farmland for Dawei New Town Plan Project in Dawai Township and the District Administrative Officer with his team began   construction on the grabbed land. Twenty farmers did not take compensation for their land tried to halt the team. As a result, all the farmers were prosecuted

Ten were sentenced to three to nine months imprisonment and the others paid fines. There are 450 farmers from Kanbalu Township, Sagaing Region who are protesting against the military and have had cases filed against them for cultivating in the confiscated land. Their lands were used for a sugar cane project and a sugar production factory by the military and the Myanmar Economic Corporation. They were brought to court under the Penal Code, accused of trespassing and mischief on the land. They cases are still going on, more than 65 farmers have been sentenced to jail since the second week of July, and they all have been sent to various prisons around the country.

The military grabbed lands from civilians to build up places for military training operations, plantation and animal production, and various forms of military owned businesses. To get financial support for battalions, they offer to rent the land back to farmers, essentially requiring the farmers to pay to grow crops on their own land. The Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services gave an order to the battalions not to do business with civilian and avoid offering any such tenant agreements, but the order has been ignored.

Ministries and corporations have also confiscated farmland for new town plans and infrastructure projects. Some lands were confiscated under the Land Acquisition Act, but insufficient compensation was given to the farmers. Government corporations also grabbed the farmland to build state owned factories; however they sold the land to private companies instead.

Private companies that applied for the virgin lands from farmland management body have, instead, been given farmland and pastureland mislabelled as virgin land. District and Township Officers, companies and farmland management bodies cooperated together to change the documents and grab the land. As the government annulled pastureland, they did not give compensation to the farmers.

The Asian Human Rights Commission, a rights group based in Hong Kong, is calling for the military to offer sufficient compensation according to the Land Acquisition Act, as well as stop prosecutions of and provide justice for the farmers. The AHRC also condemns the military’s illegal land grabs, military cooperation business with private companies to use such lands and the practice of renting land back to the original owners.

In February, there were bloody clashes in southwest Burma between police and farmers who were among hundreds trying to take back land they say was confiscated by a private company without compensation. 

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Chinese Blogger Attacked

In China this week, unidentified men attacked dissident blogger and human rights activist Hu Jia as he was returning to his Beijing home on Wednesday. Hu believes the attack was prompted by the “Return to Tiananmen Square” online campaign that was launched to mark the pro-democracy movement’s 25th anniversary. Hu had also urged Internet users to visit Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel peace laureate who has been detained since December 2008.

Hu sustained injuries to the head and abdomen in the attack, which he immediately reported at a nearby police station. The police registered his complaint but no arrests have been made. He is the target of permanent police surveillance.

“This attack on Hu Jia is intolerable,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk. “He was clearly targeted and, in the light of his account, it is highly likely that the attack was carried out or at least instigated by the Chinese authorities.”

Hu was assaulted as he was about to get into his car, which was parked near the Caofang metro stop in the district of Chaoyang. Several men beat him and then left in their own car. Hu did not get the car’s license plate number but said he thought he recognized some of his assailants as men who are normally posted near his home with the job of watching him. The attack took place right beside his parked car, where a red cross on the ground reinforced the suspicion that it was planned.

Asked about a possible motive, Hu named the “Return to Tiananmen Square” campaign, which dissidents launched to mark the 25th anniversary of the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators on June 4th 1989. The campaign is a source of much annoyance to the authorities.

“We call on the entire international community to react promptly. How many more disappearances, beatings and reports citing torture will be needed before the Chinese government finally becomes the target of the tough statements and gestures it deserves?” Ismaïl asked.

Hu was recently abducted from his home during official visits by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Secretary of State John Kerry. Abduction has also been used with other dissidents such as the Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser to prevent them from seeing visiting foreign officials.

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Hong Kong Report Should Echo Demands for Universal Suffrage and Democracy

July 1, 2013, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his wife. AFP Photo/Anthony Wallace.

July 1, 2013, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his wife. AFP Photo/Anthony Wallace.

After returning to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the rights to peaceful assembly, association, and expression have mostly been respected in Hong Kong. But in recent years Hong Kong activists and non-governmental organizations have expressed alarm over the increasing number of arrests and prosecutions of protestors, as well as police use of cameras and video recording devices to film demonstrations even when there is no criminal behavior. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, should present to the central Chinese government a report reflecting strong demands from Hong Kong residents for genuine universal suffrage, Human Rights Watch said Monday. Leung is to present the report on July 15th, in a long-awaited step in the process toward electoral reform in Hong Kong.

Leung’s report will request that the Chinese National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), the executive body of China’s legislature, approve the start of the reform process. It is also supposed to summarize the views of the people of Hong Kong regarding electoral reform collected through a five-month public consultation exercise.

On the same day, the Hong Kong government will release a more detailed summary of the public consultation. The NPCSC will meet in August, and is expected to hand down Beijing’s definitive view on the future of democracy in Hong Kong.

“The chief executive’s report should reflect the desire for greater political rights so clearly articulated by people in Hong Kong in recent weeks,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Failure to accurately reflect the views of Hong Kong’s people will make a mockery of this exercise, and risk further galvanizing public sentiment,” she added.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the territory’s quasi-constitution, states that the chief executive will be selected by “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” Until now, membership on the nominating committee has effectively been controlled by Beijing.

People of Hong Kong march during a rally for democracy, July 1, 2013. AFP Photo.

People of Hong Kong march during a rally for democracy, July 1, 2013. AFP Photo.

Proposals by pro-democracy groups have advocated “public nomination,” a process to require the nominating committee to put forward candidates who receive a certain number of nominations from ordinary voters. In June, nearly 800,000 people in Hong Kong voted in an unofficial referendum organized by the pro-democracy group Occupy Central. The vast majority endorsed proposals that include an element of “public nomination.”

Hong Kong and Beijing officials have repeatedly stated that “public nomination” is against the Basic Law. Beijing officials have also indicated that the committee will continue to be restricted to a small group of people in Hong Kong selected by Chinese authorities. This group acts as a screening mechanism to return “patriotic” chief executives who will not confront the central government.

A nominating process that screens out opposition candidates would violate international human rights standards, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the British applied to Hong Kong when it was a colony and which continues to apply to the territory says Human Rights Watch.

There is a five-step process to reforming Hong Kong’s electoral methods. First, the chief executive must submit a report to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on whether the city needs to amend its electoral methods. The standing committee then needs to give its approval. Third, the Hong Kong government will announce its chosen reform package – a step it is expected to take later, and then possibly conduct a second round of consultation. Fourth, the proposal will have to be approved by the Hong Kong Legislative Council and then by the chief executive. Finally, the standing committee has to give its final approval.

The first step of presentation of the chief executive’s report to the standing committee comes in the context of increasing tensions over Hong Kong’s autonomy and respect for fundamental human rights. Since early 2014, there have been attacks on a prominent editor, Kevin Lau, and owners of media outlets known to be critical of the central government, and deeply politicized arrests of and threats made to hundreds of organizers of and participants in peaceful demonstrations in early July.

In June, China’s State Council issued a “white paper” on Hong Kong, stating that the central government has “overall jurisdiction” over the territory, and that Hong Kong’s high level of autonomy “is limited to the level of autonomy granted by the central leadership.” The white paper also states that Hong Kong leaders, including the chief executive, must be “patriots” who are “loyal to the country.” These statements appear to contravene the rights and freedoms set out in the Basic Law and the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the international treaty governing the transfer of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997. The latter guarantees Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” except in foreign affairs and defense after return to Chinese sovereignty.

Following the presentation of the chief executive’s report, it is expected that during its August session, the standing committee will articulate a framework for Hong Kong’s political reform.

The Occupy Central movement has said it will stage a nonviolent sit-in in Hong Kong’s financial district if the Hong Kong and central governments fail to deliver genuine universal suffrage in the current debates about reform. Benny Tai, one of the three leaders of Occupy Central movement, has said that the sit-in could take place as early as August, after the standing committee session. But Tai also did not rule out the possibility of the nonviolent action beginning after the release of the chief executive’s report if it that document rules out genuine universal suffrage.

Demonstrations in Hong Kong are governed under its Public Order Ordinance, which requires that police be notified of demonstrations with over 30 people seven days in advance and that organizers receive a “notice of no objection” from the government before they can be held. The UN Human Rights Committee, an international treaty body which monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has repeatedly expressed concerns that the ordinance “may facilitate excessive restriction” to the right to freedom of assembly.

Protesters display placards during a rally to support press freedom in Hong Kong, March 2, 2014. AFP photo.

Protesters display placards during a rally to support press freedom in Hong Kong, March 2, 2014. AFP photo.

The right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in the Hong Kong Bill of Rights, as well as in the Basic Law and the ICCPR, an international treaty which still applies to Hong Kong from the days of British sovereignty. Article 27 of the Basic Law states that “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of … assembly.” Article 21 of the ICCPR states that no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and that are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association said on July 7th that ”the year under review has been the darkest for press freedom for several decades.” “As political tension between Hong Kong and Beijing increases, the HKJA expects further deterioration in press freedom in the years to come,” the statement on the group’s website said.

According to a recent HKJA poll, the territory’s journalists rated press freedom at 42 on a 100-point scale, as well as expressing concern about self-censorship and pressure from media owners and management.

“It’s in the interests of Hong Kong and Beijing governments to expand political rights in the territory,” Richardson said. “Curtailing rights is not only anachronistic, but also likely to increase tensions and alienation among the people of Hong Kong, who have waited patiently for years for the realization of the promise that ‘Hong Kong people rule Hong Kong.’”

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Burmese “Information Hero” Released, Other Journalists Remain Detained

Journalist Zaw Phay in an undated photo courtesy of Reporters Without Borders.

Journalist Zaw Phay in an undated photo courtesy of Reporters Without Borders.

A Burmese reporter who was sentenced to a year in prison in the northern city of Magway on April 7th on charges of trespassing on government property and disturbing a civil servant, was released on July 4th after a Magway township court reduced his sentence to three months on appeal. Zaw Phay is an experienced journalist who started out as a clandestine video reporter for Democratic Voice of Burma (now DVB Multimedia Group) during the Saffron Revolution in 2007. He is also a former political prisoner who was given a three-year jail sentence in 2010 for filming “without permission” while investigating a water shortage in Nat Mauk, in the central Magway region.

Zaw Phay was one of the 100 “information heroes” that Reporters Without Borders profiled on World Press Freedom Day in May. Released in a January 2012 amnesty, he went back to work at once. His journalistic dedication got him into trouble a few months later when he investigated a Japanese-funded scholarship program in Magway. A local education department official filed a complaint accusing him of trespassing on government property and disturbing a civil servant in the course of his duties. In April 2014, almost two years after the complaint, Zaw Phay was sentenced to a year in prison under articles 448 and 353 of the penal code.

“We are relieved to learn of the decision to release Zaw Phay, even if it came 83 days too late, because he was unjustly imprisoned,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk. “We urge the Magway court not to make the same mistake with the Unity Weekly journalists and to dismiss the charges against them.”

The Zaw Phay case dates back to August 2012, when the DVB reporter went with Win Myint Hlaing, the father of a student, to the local education department in Magway to interview an official about an alleged irregularity in the allocation of a Japanese-funded scholarship. The official subsequently filed a complaint against both Zaw Phay and Win Myint Hlaing, which led to their arrests and to the confiscation of Zaw Phay’s equipment. Both were sentenced to a year in prison when the trial was finally held two years later.

At the appeal hearing on July 4th, the court ruled that all they did was act as journalists and “simply enquire about a scholarship program, but did not commit the offenses the township court found them guilty of.” As they had already served three months of their one-year terms, they were freed after the court reduced their sentences to three months.

The fact that prosecution under the state secrets law is still one of the threats hanging over Burmese journalists shows that the work of overhauling the legislation governing freedom of information is far from over.

The same Magway township court is meanwhile trying the CEO of the Unity Weekly newspaper and four of his journalists in connection with a report about an alleged secret chemical weapons factory in the nearby town of Pauk, where they have been held since February. They are facing possible 14-year jail sentences on charges of violating the state secrets law and entering a restricted area.

The trial of the four Unity Weekly journalists – Lu Maw Naing, Yarzar Oo,Paing Thet Kyaw(aka Aung Thura) and Sithu Soe – and the newspaper’s CEO, Tint San, is currently reaching its conclusion. The offending article, headlined “A secret chemical weapon factory of the former generals, Chinese technicians and the commander-in-chief at Pauk Township,” said the plant had been built with the highest level of government’s approval and had been visited frequently by succeeding army commanders and vice presidents from 2009 to 2013.

“As long as all repressive legislation is not repealed and new protective measures are not adopted, news providers will continue to be vulnerable to the attacks of certain government officials, who show they want to keep the media under strict control although military rule is officially over,” Ismaïl said.

The Unity Weekly journalists, who were arrested in the week following the article’s publication, are being held in the Pauk township prison. A request for their release on bail was rejected on the grounds of the gravity of the charges against them. Their lawyers argue that they should be tried under the media law rather than the state secrets law. Unity Weekly closed its Rangoon bureau on June 30th because of financial difficulties resulting from their imprisonment.

Despite rising in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index in recent years, Burma is still only ranked 145th out of 180 countries.

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Cambodia Makes No Apologies for Rights Record at UN Review

Cambodia has brushed aside calls at the UN Human Rights Council to reverse its crackdown on human rights and reform its abusive policies and practices. Many recommendations had called on Cambodia to reform the electoral system, ensure the rights to peaceful assembly and association, and open up the media to full freedom of expression. Cambodia’s partners in the international community should redouble their pressure for Phnom Penh to address the many abuses the UN review process brought forward, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.

The organization said that the review came at a time of serious concern regarding the deterioration of the human rights situation in Cambodia. Cambodia must stop paying lip service to human rights principles while entrenching practices that violated them, Human Rights Watched urged. 

“Faced with an upsurge in demands for fundamental changes to ensure respect for human rights, the government of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has instead dug in his heels,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The international community should not acquiesce to the Cambodian government’s use of political violence, imprisonment of opponents on politically motivated charges, torture, and restrictions on free speech and public assembly,” he said.

Cambodia was responding to recommendations by other governments at its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session on June 26th 2014, at the UN Human Rights Council. The UPR is a rights review mechanism through which all UN member states are examined once every four years.

In a move that is tantamount to rejection, Cambodia merely “noted” that it had received a litany of recommendations addressing core human rights problems. Among issues deflected were calls for the government to end its arbitrary suspension of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of actions to ensure media freedom, including Internet freedom, and calls for no one to be detained or imprisoned due to their exercise of their right to freedom of expression.

R. Iniyan Ilango on behalf of the organizations Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) and the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) testified at the UN Human Rights Council on June 19th 2014 about the human rights situation in Cambodia: “While the government has accepted 171 recommendations, it has failed to respond early to 34 other recommendations pending acceptance, including those relating to the protection of human rights defenders and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. We reiterate our grave concern over the recent violent crackdown by state security forces against public assemblies, including the use of live ammunition on at least three occasions which resulted in at least six people killed and dozens injured,’’ he said.

In addition, Khem Sophath, a 16-year-old boy, has disappeared since the January 3rd 2014 protests. Ilango said that the Cambodian government has ‘’failed to launch credible investigations on any of these violations. Instead, it imposed an illegal ban on all public assemblies in January 2014 and convicted 25 workers and activists arbitrarily arrested at the time of the crackdowns despite a lack of incriminating evidence.’’ During the testimony, the rights groups urged government to accept and fully implement recommendations that call for an impartial investigation into cases of excessive use of force and killings during demonstrations.

Amnesty International welcomed recommendations on the rights to freedom of peaceful of assembly, association and expression, some of which had been accepted. Amnesty asked the Government to lift restrictions on peaceful assembly and to end the ban, announced earlier this year, imposed on this freedom. The organization said that it was disappointing that recommendations to investigate the use of excessive force and to end impunity had not been accepted by the Cambodian government.

Other governments’ recommendations that fell on deaf ears in Phnom Penh included that Cambodia end unfair trials, and take actions to create a more favorable human rights environment for opposition party members, human rights defenders, journalists, and activists. Cambodia also sidestepped demands to investigate recent incidents of excessive use of fatal force by security units, end impunity for such illegal violence, and take legal and institutional reforms to put an end to torture.

At the UPR, the United States urged Cambodia to follow through accepted recommendations in consultation with civil society and opposition parties. The United States noted with concern that the ban on demonstrations had not been lifted and that recommendations regarding the repeal or amendment of the penal code, such as articles regarding defamation or discrediting of judicial decisions, had not been accepted; and called on Cambodia to swiftly implement recommendations on workers’ rights and labor standards.

The Cambodian government also snubbed recommendations to end other abuses, to protect land rights as stipulated by Cambodia’s constitution and to cooperate more fully with UN human rights experts and mechanisms.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, ended his 11th fact-finding mission to Cambodia last week. Subedi noted progress in some human rights areas yet expressed sadness at seeing the democratic space in the country shrink, illustrated most starkly by the barricading of Freedom Park in Phnom Penh.

“Even though the general situation appears to have stabilized, the space for freedom of peaceful assembly and of speech seems to have shrunk in the aftermath of the most unfortunate violent incidents of the first week in January 2014,” he noted.

The Special Rapporteur also saw a need for an independent national human rights institution in Cambodia that would be able to expand the scope of rights, act as a focal point to champion people’s rights, make policy recommendations to the government and defend and protect people’s rights with the power to investigate cases of human rights violations, but only if it were truly independent.

In its presentation on June 26th, Cambodia also reneged on its earlier acceptance of four recommendations, including one calling on it specifically “to protect free and independent media” and three relating to the education of children.

Justifying the government’s position, Cambodia’s mission to the UN in Geneva said it had withheld acceptance of the noted recommendations because they might not “reflect the situation on the ground” or not be “in line with the national, regional situation.” It asserted the rejected recommendations were “contrary to the laws and Constitution of Cambodia.”

On June 27th, Chheang Vun, a spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said: “We have taken into account their recommendations on some laws already, but what we don’t listen to them … what we don’t accept from them cannot be applied in Cambodia, because Cambodian society is not theirs.” He said Cambodia opposed suggestions that would force “state institutions to become barricaded” off from acting against other parties or individuals protesting against the government.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen and those speaking on his behalf have shown their true colors in this process, ignoring serious recommendations and falling back on a false exceptionalism to justify their continued rights abuses,” Adams said. “Foreign donors who give so much assistance to Cambodia should jointly use their influence to push for the government to end its reliance on human rights violations to control the country.”

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