Vietnamese Activist Finalist for International Human Rights Award

 

Pham Thanh Nghien in an undated photo, courtesy of Front Line Defenders.

After spending four years in prison for publicizing grave human rights violations in Vietnam, blogger Pham Thanh Nghien has been named as one of five finalists for the 2017 Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk. The annual Award recognizes activists who – despite severe and often life-threatening risks – have made exceptional contributions to protecting and promoting the rights of their communities.

Pham Thanh Nghien, 40, has been a vocal critic of the authorities in Vietnam, publishing several essays online and appearing frequently on radio to detail and discuss government violations of human rights. She promotes civil engagement in human rights issues, debate on territorial sovereignty, and tackling corruption. In 2009, she was a recipient of the Human Rights Watch Hellman/Hammett Award. She is a member of the Former Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience Association and Bloc 8406, a pro-democracy network of human rights defenders and organizations.

“Human rights defenders tell us that international visibility is vital to their work, particularly as governments and corporations work to defame, slander, and delegitimize their peaceful struggle for rights … Their struggle has not gone unnoticed and we in Ireland support their fight for rights,” said Andrew Anderson, Executive Director of Dublin-based Front Line Defenders.

In 2007, when the wool company where she worked went bankrupt, Pham Thanh Nghien started advocating on behalf of landless farmers and writing articles calling for human rights and democracy. Authorities barred her from attending the trial of her close friend, the democracy campaigner Le Thi Cong Nhan, and she has been repeatedly harassed by the police, who regularly bring her in for aggressive questioning. In June 2008, she was detained after co-signing a letter to the Public Security Ministry that requested authorization to organize a peaceful demonstration against corruption. A few days later, she was attacked and beaten by hooligans, who threatened her life if she continued “hostile actions” against the state.

On June 2nd 2015, Pham Thanh Nghien was severely beaten, along with family members and members of the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers, in a police attack outside her home in Haiphong. Besides suffering from bruises sustained in the beating, the human rights defender experienced acute pain following attack, in connection with a previous spinal degenerative disease and scoliosis.

In January 2010, Nghien was sentenced to four years imprisonment and three years of probation after being found guilty of spreading propaganda against the state. Prior to her sentencing, the human rights defender had been held in prison for over a year, awaiting trial in connection to her attempts to organize a peaceful pro-democracy protest.

Pham Thanh Nghien spent four years in prison for her work publicizing violations against and defending the rights of relatives of fishermen killed by Chinese patrols. Following her release, she was kept under house arrest, during which time she spearheaded numerous human rights campaigns and co-founded the renowned Vietnamese Bloggers’ Network. Nghien has had her home raided, been blocked from attending medical appointments, had a padlock placed on her door from the outside and been refused a marriage certificate. Nghien has also survived numerous physical assaults aimed at stopping her powerful, peaceful work uncovering and publicizing human rights violations in Vietnam.

Jury members selected human rights defenders from Ukraine, Nicaragua, Vietnam, South Africa and Kuwait after receiving 142 nominations from 56 countries. “These five defenders demonstrate the tenacity and will to persist in the face of severe, often life-threatening risks,” said Andrew Anderson.

The 2017 finalists and their families have faced attacks, defamation campaigns, legal harassment, death threats, prison sentences, and intimidation. Front Line Defenders works to promote the visibility and protection of the five finalists, who are critical to the human rights movements in their countries and communities.

The recipient of the 2017 Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk will be announced at a ceremony at Dublin’s City Hall on May 26th.

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Police DNA Database Threatens Privacy in China

In China, police are collecting DNA from individuals for a nationally searchable database without oversight, transparency or privacy protections, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday. Evidence suggests that the regional government in Xinjiang, an ethnic minority region with a history of government repression, intends to accelerate the collection and indexing of DNA.

In many parts of the country, police officers are compelling ordinary individuals – neither convicted nor even suspected of a crime – to have their blood drawn and DNA taken. Samples have also been collected from vulnerable groups already targeted for increased government surveillance, including migrant workers, dissidents, and minority Muslim Uyghurs. Because police wield wide powers, and because there are no actionable privacy rights in China, people have little ability to refuse the collection of such personal information.

“DNA collection can have legitimate policing uses in investigating specific criminal cases, but only in a context in which people have meaningful privacy protections,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Until that’s the case in China, the mass collection of DNA and the expansion of databases needs to stop.”

In the early 2000s, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security started building a searchable, national DNA database called the Forensic Science DNA Database System also known as National Public Security Agencies DNA Database Application System as part of a larger police information project known as the Golden Shield.

By late 2015, the Ministry of Public Security had accumulated 44 million “miscellaneous data entries.” The government claims it is the biggest in the world. It includes data from more than 40 million individuals, while 1.5 million entries refer to physical evidence related to crime scenes. The Ministry of Public Security runs a second, separate Combat Trafficking DNA Database with more than 513,000 DNA entries. Authorities have stated that the DNA databases are used for solving crimes, including terrorism and child trafficking, as well as to identify bodies and vagrants.

Documented cases demonstrate that the collection of DNA does not appear to be connected to solving specific cases of crimes, Human Rights Watch said. Police have conducted campaigns to amass biometrics from ordinary citizens simply because it has identified gathering “basic information” a goal, important for the unspecified need to “solve crimes.” In these notices, local police stations hail the success of their drives, publicizing the dozens or hundreds of DNA samples they collected.

In addition, Chinese law appears to limit police collection of DNA samples to people connected to the investigation of a specific criminal case. Article 130 of the Criminal Procedure Law states that in the course of criminal investigations, in order to “ascertain certain features, conditions of injuries, or physical conditions of a victim or a criminal suspect, a physical examination may be conducted, and fingerprints, blood, urine and other biological samples may be collected. If a criminal suspect refuses to be examined, the investigators, when they deem it necessary, may conduct a compulsory examination.” But there are no legal guidelines on how long DNA samples can be stored, shared, or used, or how their collection can be challenged.

“Mass DNA collection by the powerful Chinese police absent effective privacy protections or an independent judicial system is a perfect storm for abuses,” Richardson said. “China is moving its Orwellian system to the genetic level.”

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Police Threaten and Harass Buddhist and Youth Activists in Vietnam

Members of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) and its affiliated Buddhist Youth Movement were subjected to threats, harassments and police interrogations as they organized celebrations of Vesak Day (Birth of Buddha) in the ancient capital of Hue, central Vietnam.

“For Buddhists around the world, Vesak Day is a celebration of peace and joy. Yet in Vietnam, it is marred by harassments and discrimination”, said VCHR President Võ Văn Ái. “The government claims progress in religious freedom with the adoption of a recent law, but on the ground, the reality of religious repression remains unchanged”.

Lê Công Cầu, the UBCV’s Secretary-general and head of the Buddhist Youth Movement, sent a report to the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights Friday describing a series of police restrictions, interrogations and threats against UBCV Buddhists in the run-up to the Vesak, especially in Phú Vang district, Huế, where the UBCV has a strong and active presence.

On April 28, 2017, security police summoned two leaders of the Buddhist Youth Movement (BYM), Ngô Đức Tiến and Nguyễn Văn Đê, both members of the BYM Central Committee, for interrogation at the Phú Vang police headquarters. They threatened to detain the two men, warning that (a) the UBCV was an illegal organization (b) participating in UBCV activities was a violation of the law (c) they must renounce membership of the UBCV and (d) they must not attend the UBCV’s Vesak ceremony at the Long Quang Pagoda in Huế.

The two youth leaders protested that there was no formal ban against the UBCV, and it was therefore a legitimate organization, and refused police pressure to sign a statement admitting their “wrongdoings”. On May 4th 2017, Lê Công Cầu was summoned for “working sessions” by security police for a whole day. He was also pressured to cease his involvement with the “illegal” UBCV. During this period, police and local officials visited homes of local Buddhists and warned them not to attend the UBCV Vesak ceremony.  

Police interference into celebrations of a traditional religious festival such as Vesak  demonstrates the deep contradictions in Vietnam’s religious policies. The government claims to have improved protection of religious freedom, notably with the adoption of a new Law on Belief and Religion that comes into force in January 2018, yet it imposes strict state controls on religious communities and arbitrarily represses non-registered groups such as the UBCV.

In an Open Letter to Vietnam’s National Assembly last year, 54 religious and civil society organisations inside and outside Vietnam called for amendments to the new law because it placed “unacceptable restrictions on the right to freedom of religion or belief and other human rights”, and was “contrary to the spirit and principle of the right to freedom of religion and belief”.

UBCV Patriarch Thích Quảng Độ has clearly stated that the UBCV will not apply to register with the communist state. He says that the UBCV has a long-standing legitimate status, and moreover that mandatory registration is a violation of international law.

The former UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, stressed after his visit to Vietnam that “the right to freedom of religion or belief is a universal right which can never be “created” by administrative procedures. Rather, it is the other way around: registration should be an offer by the State but not a compulsory legal requirement”.

 

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Cambodian Workers Rally for Rights on International Labor Day

On May 1st 2017, workers, trade unionists, farmers, tuk tuk drivers and youths gathered to celebrate International Labour Day and call for respect for workers’ rights, freedom of association, freedom of expression and the living wage. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

In Cambodia,  a group of over 1500 trade unionists, workers, farmers, tuk tuk drivers and youth rallied in central Phnom Penh to celebrate International Labor Day and call for respect for workers’ rights, freedom of association, freedom of expression and the living wage.

According to LICADHO, the peaceful gathering was met with heavy deployments of para-police and riot police carrying batons and tear gas guns. The rally was obstructed by barricades and cordons of mixed forces for over two hours before eventually being permitted to march a short distance towards the National Assembly before again being blocked and prevented from marching the final 200 yards.

Representatives of the gathered groups delivered speeches in which they publicly stated their demands before submitting a petition to a representative of the National Assembly. Earlier in the rally, the authorities attempted to prevent speakers from using microphones. Many participants wore red headbands and emblazoned with the slogan “Our Rights” while others carried banners demanding respect for their rights.

After two hours of negotiations, the group of workers stood their ground and rallied for labor rights, freedom of association, the living wage and better working conditions.

Below are photos of the rally.

Para-police and police put up barricades in the early morning, blocking the planned International Labour Day march in central Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

More than 1,500 participants assembled at the road block, while authorities attempted to prevent speakers from using microphones. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Members of the building and wood workers union were among the crowd, demanding better working conditions in Cambodia’s booming construction sector. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Many participants wore red headbands, emblazoned with the slogan “Our Rights”. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Participants call for respect for freedom of association. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

After more than two hours the group was eventually allowed to march a few hundred yards towards the National Assembly…

before again being blocked by anti-demonstration police and prevented from marching the final 200 yards. Photos courtesy LICADHO.

Yang Sophorn, president of Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU), and other union leaders delivered speeches in which they publicly stated their demands before submitting a petition to a representative of the National Assembly. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

 

 

 

 

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Media Freedom Threatened Worldwide, Warns Reporters Without Borders

A photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un from RSF’s 2017 Press Freedom Index. Photo courtesy RSF.

Media freedom has never been so threatened, warns Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index released April 26th. The research reflects a world in which attacks on the media have become commonplace, shows an increase in the number of countries where the media freedom situation is very grave and highlights the scale and variety of the obstacles to media freedom throughout the world.

Global press freedom watchdog RSF says that the World Press Freedom map is getting darker. The global indicator calculated by RSF has never been so high, which means that media freedom is under threat now more than ever. RSF says that we have reached the age of post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms – especially in democracies.

The Asia-Pacific region is the third worst violator overall but holds many of the worst kinds of records. Two of its countries, China (176th) and Vietnam (175th), are the world’s biggest prisons for journalists and bloggers. It has some of the most dangerous countries for journalists: Pakistan (139th), Philippines (127th) and Bangladesh (146th). It also has the biggest number of “press freedom predators” at the head of the world’s worst dictatorships, including China, North Korea (180th), and Laos (170th), which RSF says are ‘’news and information black holes.’’

China, Vietnam and Laos have always languished near the bottom of the Index alongside North Korea (180th). But that is not all they have in common. They are all also totalitarian communist regimes in which journalists take their orders from the Party and, in China especially, citizen journalists and bloggers are prosecuted and jailed if they dare to offer the least criticism of the Party-State.

“More and more Asian governments deliberately confuse the rule of law with rule by law,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “By adopting increasingly draconian laws, governments with authoritarian tendencies hope to justify their attempts to gag the media and critics. When this is not enough to ward off condemnation by the international community, these governments are quick to brandish the principles of non-interference, sovereignty or even national security in order to escape their international human rights obligations and their constitutional duty to protect freedom of the media and information.”

Eritrea (up 1 at 179th) has for the first time in ten years relinquished the bottom place to North Korea, even if there has been no fundamental change in the situation in this aging dictatorship where freely reported news and information have long been banned.

North Korea (down 1 at 180th), now ranked last in the Index, has also shown more flexibility towards the foreign media. More foreign reporters have been allowed to cover official events and, in September 2016, Agence France-Presse was even able to open a bureau in Pyongyang. These developments might give the impression of more openness, but in fact there is no desire for real change. RSF says that North Korea continues to be a Cold War-era dictatorship.

The information available to the foreign media is still meticulously controlled and the population is kept in ignorance and terror. Listening to a radio station based outside the country can lead straight to a concentration camp. North Korea’s unparalleled determination to combat “hostile foreign forces” has driven many of its citizens to violate its draconian laws in order to acquire radio sets capable of receiving the shortwave broadcasts of exile radio stations, especially those based in South Korea.

The number of radio stations broadcasting to North Korea from Seoul has grown in the past decade or so. As more and more North Koreans get their hands on shortwave radio sets that are being smuggled into the country, the regime has stepped up its jamming and its persecution of those caught in the fact of listening to these “seditious” broadcasts.

Radio sets confiscated by the People’s Security Agency are generally locked onto the regime’s official radio station frequency (by means of soldering and withdrawal of electronic components). This is arguably a lesser evil because those caught listening to international radio stations at night usually pay a very high price.

Worldwide, media freedom has never been so threatened and RSF’s “global indicator” has never been so high (3872). This measure of the overall level of media freedom constraints and violations worldwide has risen 14% in the span of five years. In the past year, nearly two thirds (62.2%) of the countries measured have registered a deterioration in their situation, while the number of countries where the media freedom situation was “good” or “fairly good” fell by 2.3%.

“The democracies that have traditionally regarded media freedom as one of the foundations on which they are built must continue to be a model for the rest of the world, and not the opposite,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said. “By eroding this fundamental freedom on the grounds of protecting their citizens, the democracies are in danger of losing their souls.”

Published annually by RSF since 2002, the World Press Freedom Index measures the level of media freedom in 180 countries, including the level of pluralism, media independence, and respect for the safety and freedom of journalists. The 20017 index is based on accounts of violations between January 1st and December 31st 2016.

 

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China Must Release Taiwanese Democracy Activist

Longtime Taiwanese democracy activist Li Ming-Che should be immediately released by Chinese authorities, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday. Li Ming-Che, 42, has been detained for a month on suspicion of endangering China’s national security. Chinese national security laws allow the authorities to deny Li access to his family and lawyers, leaving him at serious risk of mistreatment.

“Chinese authorities have offered no credible evidence for the grave allegations against Li Ming-Che,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately notify Li’s family of his whereabouts and allow his family and lawyer to visit him.”

Li has been missing since March 19th 2017, after he crossed from Macau into Zhuhai, in China’s Guangdong province. A friend of his who had planned to meet him in Zhuhai said Li never arrived. Ten days later, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office – the government agency responsible for cross-strait affairs – confirmed at a news conference that the “relevant authorities” had detained Li and placed him under investigation on suspicion of “engaging in activities that endanger national security.”

Li, a manager at Taipei’s Wenshan Community College, has worked for Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party and is a longtime supporter of civil society groups and activists in China. Li had used an account on WeChat, a Chinese social media and messaging app, to discuss human rights issues and Taiwan’s democratic transition with Chinese activists, but in 2015, he was blocked from sending group messages. Li has also taken books to Chinese activists and families of detained rights lawyers. On his most recent trip, Li planned to see friends and seek medical treatment for his mother-in-law.

On April 10th 2017, Li’s wife, Li Ching-yu, was prevented from boarding a flight from Taipei to Beijing to try to visit with and deliver medications to her husband. An airline employee at the airport informed her that her taibaozheng – a Beijing-issued travel permit necessary for Taiwanese to visit China – had been canceled.

A spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office warned at a second news conference on April 12th that outside interference with Li’s case would “complicate” matters and “harm the interests of the person concerned.”

Although China’s Criminal Procedure Law requires police to notify families within 24 hours of criminal detention, the requirement can be waived in cases involving “national security” and “terrorism,” and when the police believe that such notification could “impede the investigation.” Similarly, although the Criminal Procedure Law allows lawyer-client meetings within 48 hours of lawyers making such requests, in cases involving “national security,” “terrorism,” and “major corruption,” police approval is required before such meetings can take place.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013, authorities have apprehended citizens of other countries – inside and outside China – for their work helping Chinese human rights lawyers and activists or for speaking critically of Chinese leaders. Those detained include a Swedish human rights activist, Peter Dahlin; Gui Minhai, a bookseller also from Sweden; James Wang, an American businessman; and Lee Bo, a British bookseller. Some of the detainees had also been forced to give confessions on state media. Authorities have also used televised confessions to vilify detained journalists, bloggers, activists, and lawyers, and increasingly have used national security charges to prosecute and imprison activists solely for their peaceful criticism of the Chinese government.

Under international law, a government commits an enforced disappearance when state agents take a person into custody and then deny holding the person, or conceal or fail to disclose the person’s whereabouts. “Disappeared” people are often at high risk of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The use of televised confessions violates the right to a fair trial and can often be linked to torture or other ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said.

“Beijing’s persecution of those who work to advance human rights and justice in China increasingly targets non-citizens,” Richardson said. “Repeatedly leveling national security charges against peaceful activists marks another alarming escalation in Xi’s campaign against human rights.”

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China Leads World in Executions, Lacks Transparency

China executed more than all other countries in the world put together, Amnesty International said in its 2016 global review of the death penalty published Tuesday. China’s horrifying use of the death penalty remains one of the country’s deadly secrets, as the authorities continue to execute thousands of people each year.

A new in-depth investigation by Amnesty International shows that the Chinese authorities enforce an elaborate secrecy system to obscure the shocking scale of executions in the country, despite repeated claims it is making progress towards judicial transparency.

“China wants to be a leader on the world stage, but when it comes to the death penalty it is leading in the worst possible way – executing more people annually than any other country in the world,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

“The Chinese government has recognized it is a laggard in terms of openness and judicial transparency, but it persists in actively concealing the true scale of executions. It is high time for China to lift the veil on this deadly secret and finally come clean about its death penalty system,” Shetty added.

The Chinese government continues to conceal the extent to which capital punishment is being used in China, despite more than four decades of requests from UN bodies and the international community and despite the Chinese authorities’ own pledges to bring about increased openness in the country’s criminal justice system. This report focuses on the extent to which the authorities maintain near absolute secrecy over the death penalty system, while using partial and generally unverifiable disclosures to claim progress and reject demands for greater transparency.

This deliberate and elaborate secrecy system, which runs counter to China’s obligations under international law, conceals the number of people sentenced to death and executed every year, both of which Amnesty International estimates run into the thousands. All statistics on the use of the death penalty in China remain classified in law as state secrets and authorities continue to evade answering questions about this systematic concealing of the death penalty system.

The government has claimed that such statistics are not available or, rather, that they are actually available in government work reports. The latter claim is misleading, says Amnesty, since death sentences were deliberately lumped together with data on other sentences, with no breakdown by type of sentence, thus making it impossible to know how many death sentences were handed out each year.

Put simply, the government’s claims to have reduced its use of the death penalty have not yet been supported by any concrete evidence. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that the reforms adopted so far, even if they had led to a decrease in the number of executions, will prove effective in the long term or that they could not be reversed at some point in the future. Amnesty International therefore renews its challenge to the Chinese authorities to prove that they are achieving their goal of reducing the application of the death penalty by publishing annual figures to document the number of death sentences handed down and executions carried out.

A key finding of the report is that the national public database of court verdicts that the government has hailed as a major advance in judicial transparency, China Judgements Online, does little to lift the veil of state-enforced secrecy over the application of the death penalty in the country. While it does provide new data and foster greater transparency in some areas of the justice system, cases of judicial executions remain vastly under-reported or are altogether missing. Amnesty International found only 701 individuals whose death sentences had been approved by the SPC — which reviews all death penalty sentences in the country — between 2011 and 2016, while the organization estimates that yearly the actual number runs into the thousands.

Amnesty International’s investigation exposes that hundreds of documented death penalty cases are missing from a national online court database that was initially touted as a “crucial step towards openness” and is regularly heralded as evidence that the country’s judicial system has nothing to hide. China’s database contains only a tiny fraction of the thousands of death sentences that Amnesty International estimates are handed out every year in China, reflecting the fact that the Chinese government continues to maintain almost total secrecy over the number of people sentenced to death and executed in the country.

China classifies most information related to the death penalty as “state secrets” and in any case virtually any information can be classified as a state secret under China’s overbroad secrecy laws.

Amnesty International found public news reports of at least 931 individuals executed between 2014 and 2016 (only a fraction of the total executions), but only 85 of them are in the state database.

The database also omits foreign nationals given death sentences for drug-related crimes -despite media reports of at least 11 executions of foreign nationals. Numerous cases related to “terrorism” and drug-related offences are also absent.

“The Chinese government uses partial disclosures and unverifiable assertions to claim progress in reducing the number of executions yet at the same time maintains near absolute secrecy. This is deliberately misleading. China is a complete outlier in the world community when it comes to the death penalty, out of step with international legal standards and in contravention with repeated UN requests to report how many people it executes,” said Salil Shetty.
Over the past few years the risk of people being executed for crimes they did not commit has caused increasing alarm among the public in China.In December 2016, the Supreme People’s Court overturned the wrongful conviction of one of the most prominent case of miscarriage of justice and wrongful execution, Nie Shubin. He had been executed 21 years earlier, at the age of 20. In 2016 Chinese courts decided four people facing the death penalty were innocent and quashed their death sentences.

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Human Rights Lawyer Victim of Death Threats in Myanmar

Human rights lawyer Robert Sann Aung in a 2015 photo. Photo courtesy Martin Ennals Award.

Human rights lawyer Robert Sann Aung has been receiving death threats and insulting messages since the assassination of another prominent lawyer in Myanmar. The authorities must take immediate steps to ensure Robert Sann Aung’s safety, investigate the threats and to hold those responsible to account, Amnesty International says.

Robert Sann Aung has been receiving regular death threats, insulting messages and phone calls since the assassination at Yangon airport of prominent lawyer U Ko Ni on January 29th 2017. In some of the phone calls he has been asked by an anonymous speaker “aren’t you afraid of dying?”, and threatened with “we know where you go so don’t think you are so smart and don’t touch the Constitution”. Robert Sann Aung has also received crude and deeply offensive text messages. In addition to receiving threatening phone calls and messages, Robert Sann Aung reports he is also being monitored by Myanmar’s security forces.

According to Robert Sann Aung, while having to transit in Mandalay for work, he has been followed by a man wearing civilian clothes who claims to be from the Military Intelligence. The man waits for him at the airport and follows him until he boards his connecting flight. This has now happened on four separate occasions since December 19th 2016. As a former prisoner of conscience, Robert Sann Aung is hesitant to report the death threats and intimidation to the authorities, Amnesty says. In addition to believing that they would not listen to him, he fears that the authorities might be connected to the threats and increased surveillance he has been receiving in the past few months.

Robert Sann Aung is a well-known human rights lawyer and human rights activist from Myanmar. He is also a former prisoner of conscience who has been imprisoned six times for his peaceful political and human rights activities. His defense of peaceful political activists, who were charged by the former military government, led the authorities to revoke his lawyer’s license in 1993. Ever since it was reinstated in 2012, Robert Sann Aung has continued to represent human rights defenders and peaceful activists charged in politically motivated cases, as well as victims of human rights violations and their family members. He is a 2015 finalist for the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

U Ko Ni was a lawyer and legal adviser to the National League for Democracy, the ruling party led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. His work included reforms to Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, which was drafted by the former military government. He was assassinated at Yangon International Airport on January 29th 2017, after returning from Indonesia.

To date, four people have been arrested in connection with the killing and are currently on trial. Under Article 2 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, each state has a duty to create the conditions necessary to defend human rights within their jurisdictions. However, Amnesty International continues to receive reports of intimidation, harassment and surveillance against human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists.

Activists are still subjected to many forms of surveillance by Special Branch and other intelligence units. Tactics used against activists include being followed; having their photograph taken when attending events and meetings; late night inspections of their homes and offices by police and General Administration Department (GAD) officials; and harassment of their family members, colleagues or friends.

Women human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and intimidation. In recent years, Buddhists nationalists have also been the author of threats and smear campaigns against human rights defenders speaking out against religious intolerance.

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Religious Freedom on Attack in China as Tibetan Buddhists Face Demolitions, Expulsions

Chinese authorities’ strategy of demolitions, expulsions, threats and restrictions on religious practice is clear-cut evidence of an attack on religious freedom as a major Tibetan Buddhist institution faces further demolitions. Chinese officials announced on March 12th 2017, that 3,225 homes at Larung Gar, the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist institution, would be torn down by April 30th. Human Rights Watch said Thursday that Chinese authorities should halt the expulsion and political re-education of monks and nuns and stop dismantling religious freedom.

Many of the monks and nuns already expelled from Larung Gar and the nearby religious community at Yachen Gar, both in Tibetan areas of Sichuan province, have been forced to return to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and subjected to exceptional restrictions on their liberty and to degrading treatment. In November 2016, the authorities forced at least one group to undergo political re-education and apparent public humiliation in Nyingtri in southeastern TAR.

“China is aggressively dismantling religious freedom along with religious life at Larung Gar by subjecting many expelled monks and nuns to forced re-education,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The restrictions imposed on former residents should be removed so they can exercise fully their rights to religious practice, including freely joining religious institutions and observing religious rituals.”

A senior abbot said in a speech to the community on March 23rd that the monks and nuns “who have left had never wanted to leave. And whether or not they had some place to go, they still had to leave.” He added that “the demolitions and expulsions come from the policy of the senior levels of government, and cannot be discussed” and called on all monks and nuns to “show great forbearance and not react with protest, suicide and the like.”

Demolitions in late July 2016, which the authorities said were necessary in order to carry out “correction and rectification,” reportedly prompted three suicides.

At least half of the more than 10,000 monks and nuns at Larung Gar face eviction following the demolition of numerous residences. The authorities have also pressured family members of certain nuns at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, another major religious institute, to summon their relatives home or face punishment, Human Rights Watch said.

Since mass demolitions began at Larung Gar, the monastery’s leaders have appealed to residents to avoid confrontations with government-employed demolition crews.However, three nuns at Larung Gar committed suicide in late July or early August in protest of the mass demolitions.

A video circulated on social media shows 25 young Tibetan women with shaven heads, who appear to be nuns, dressed in military jackets and standing in rows inside a police or government office decorated in Tibetan style. The women are chanting in unison, “The Tibetans and the Chinese are daughters of the same mother, the name of the mother is China,” part of a song often used by officials in Tibet to propagate the view that Tibetans are genetically or culturally Chinese. A photograph circulated at the same time shows the same women, dressed in full military fatigues, carrying out a military-style exercise inside a walled compound.

A second video, circulated a few days after the first, shows 12 Tibetan nuns dancing on the stage of a theater in front of what appears to be an audience of officials. The nuns, dressed in religious robes, perform a choreographed dance routine to the song, “The Song of the Emancipated Serfs.” The song is associated with official Communist Party celebrations and was originally performed in front of Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1959. A banner above the stage reads “Graduation Art Show for the Law and Politics Training Course for Buddhist Monks and Nuns, Kongpo Gyamda County.” Kongpo Gyamda county is in Nyingtri municipality, and the video is believed to have been filmed there on November 10th 2016.

The timing and circumstances of the two videos and the photograph indicate that the women pictured are Tibetan nuns expelled in 2016 from Larung Gar or Yachen Gar. Buddhist nuns usually make a commitment to “refrain from singing, dancing, and viewing entertainments” as the sixth of the 10 sramenerika or novice vows taken by nuns or monks when they are first ordained. This strongly suggests that these performances were coerced and that officials required these nuns to sing and dance to humiliate or embarrass them. The use of forced singing and dancing as part of political re-education for expelled nuns is not known to have occurred previously in the TAR.

The government’s apparent treatment of these nuns violates their rights to freedom of religion but also amounts to degrading treatment prohibited under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which China is a party.

In late summer 2016, two nuns known to Human Rights Watch, who had been expelled from Larung Gar and returned forcibly to the TAR, were not allowed to remain in Lhasa, where they had previously lived for many years, but were forced to return to the village of their birth in a rural area of southern Tibet. The authorities required them to report at regular intervals to the local police station and did not allow them to join any nunneries or institutions in the TAR or elsewhere.

Other sources told Human Rights Watch that no former monks and nuns who have been returned to the TAR are allowed to join any monastery or nunnery there, which means they are considered to be “mobile religious personnel.”

Since an official announcement in September 2012, such unaffiliated monks and nuns are not permitted to carry out religious rituals in the TAR outside their own homes unless they have a special permit. This means that the returned monks and nuns cannot carry out religious services for others, which would constitute their normal source of income, and that Tibetans in the TAR face increasing difficulties in finding religious practitioners to recite prayers at funerals and other family events.

In June 2016, the local government in Serta county, Sichuan, ordered the monks running Larung Gar to begin reducing its occupant numbers to a maximum of 5,000 by September 2017. The institution is estimated to have had between 10,000 and 20,000 occupants before evictions began. It is unclear whether the March 12 decision requiring the demolition of 3,225 homes includes the 1,500 or more homes that have already been demolished. So far, 4,500 residents have been forced to leave, according to the March 23 statement from a senior abbot.

Authorities appear to have made certain concessions in response to requests from the monastery regarding the demolition and eviction procedures at Larung Gar, including unconfirmed reports that some monks and nuns there were compensated for their demolished homes, and that approximately 1,200 expelled nuns have been rehoused in four temporary camps in neighboring counties within Qinghai and Sichuan provinces. But the demolitions and evictions remain a violation of the community members’ rights of religious freedom and practice.

In November 2016, seven experts from the United Nations wrote to the Chinese government requesting detailed information regarding the mass expulsion of Tibetan, Chinese, and other monks and nuns from the monastic settlements at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar. The statement also asked the government to provide information about the legal grounds for the demolitions and expulsions, and what steps had been taken to resettle or rehouse those made homeless. It also requested an explanation about the reported lack of consultation with local religious leaders, the rationale for involving government officials in monastic affairs, and what steps authorities would take to ensure the right of religious freedom.

The UN has said that the Chinese government replied to these requests on December 5th 2016. The UN should publicly release China’s reply, Human Rights Watch said.

“China’s conduct at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar shows a cruel and unyielding disrespect for religious freedom,” Richardson said. “Chinese authorities can undo some of the harm by halting the destruction of this community, fairly addressing the needs of the religious community, and providing transparent explanations about its conduct at Larung Gar and in Nyingtri.”

 

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Civil Society Demands Independent Investigation into Murder of Cambodian Activist

 

A portrait of Kem Ley in an undated photo courtesy of LICADHO.

In Cambodia on Thursday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court today convicted Oeuth Ang – otherwise known as ‘Chuob Samlab’ – of the premeditated murder of prominent political analyst Dr. Kem Ley as well as illegal possession of a weapon under Articles 200 and 490 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code. Presiding judge Leang Samnat sentenced Oeuth Ang to life imprisonment three weeks after a four-hour trial hearing. Civil society groups demand an independent inquiry, saying the investigation was inadequate and that the trail was a charade.

Sixty-six civil society organizations said in a joint statement that there must be an independent inquiry into Kem Ley’s death. Kem Ley was a strong advocate of democracy, good governance and human rights in Cambodia, who worked closely with grassroots movements. In 2014, Kem Ley founded the advocacy group Khmer for Khmer, aimed at encouraging the formation of grassroots-based political parties across Cambodia.

Despite compelling evidence that Oeuth Ang was the gunman who shot and killed Kem Ley, the lack of transparency in the investigation of Kem Ley’s death, the brevity of the trial proceedings, and the failure to fully investigate motive, potential accomplices and the circumstances of Oeuth Ang’s arrest, raise serious concerns about the adequacy of this criminal process, the Cambodian and international NGOs said.

‘’Lack of independent investigations feeds into the rampant impunity inherent in Cambodia’s justice system. It is unsurprising that this engenders continuing distrust in Cambodia’s institutions,’’ said Chak Sopheap, Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).

Dr. Kem Ley, 46, was shot dead on the morning of July 10th at a petrol station café in the middle of Phnom Penh, where he was known to often have morning coffee. Oeuth Ang was arrested shortly after the shooting, about two kilometers from the murder scene, and charged with premeditated murder on July 12th. Upon his initial arrest, he gave his name as ‘’Chuob Samlab’’, which translates in English as ‘’Meet Kill’’, and confessed to the murder. He claimed it was over an unpaid debt of $3,000 – an allegation that has been widely rejected by both Dr. Kem Ley’s family and Oeuth Ang’s wife.

The Ministry of Interior also publicly stated in December through a spokesperson that it, too, did not believe this was plausible. Nevertheless, the investigation into Dr. Kem Ley’s murder drew to a close in less than six months after the killing with Oeuth Ang the sole suspect.

The groups called for the establishment of an independent Commission of Inquiry into the circumstances of Kem Ley’s murder, in accordance with international best practices in light of the inadequacies in the investigation into Kem Ley’s death.

Throughout Oeuth Ang’s four-hour trial on March 1st, Oeuth Ang reiterated his claim that he had shot Dr. Kem Ley over the unpaid debt. This motive was not challenged by the trial judges – who appeared satisfied to accept Oeuth Ang as the sole perpetrator – despite its total lack of plausibility and the questionable credibility of Ang’s testimony. Statements by Oeuth Ang’s family and friends in the months preceding the trial cast further doubt on this explanation. The judgment given today failed to make any references to the debt, despite Oeuth Ang’s repeated claim that this was the sole motivation for the killing.

Kem Ley was often critical of Cambodia’s ruling party. Before he was killed, Kem Ley had commented on the business interests of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family, reportedly worth at least US $200 million.

The trial showed extracts of CCTV footage taken from the Caltex petrol station during and after the shooting, but not of the period immediately before it. Further footage that was shown at the trial showed Oeuth Ang running down a pavement on Mao Tse Tung boulevard after the shooting, followed by a motorbike carrying a man openly carrying a rifle. At one point in the footage, another large motorbike – carrying the insignia of the National Police – changes direction to follow Oeuth Ang as well. Oeuth Ang briefly jumps on this motorbike, before dismounting and continuing to run down the street. This bizarre behavior remains without credible explanation, the groups said.

Oeuth Ang testified that he had met Dr. Kem Ley only once at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, arranged by an acquaintance from Thailand, who he named Pou Lis, at which he gave Kem Ley $3,000. Oueth Ang also claimed that he had bought the gun used to shoot Dr. Kem Ley in Thailand from a Thai national called Chak. Neither man was called as a witness, although they are reported to be under investigation in relation to the case.

A series of witnesses, mostly from the police, read out brief witness statements. There was no comprehensive cross-examination.

‘’A court is supposed to be inquisitive in order to uncover the truth. But the evidence showed, and the footage the prosecution chose not to show, left us with more questions than answers, which the court did not inquire into,’’ said Moeun Tola, Director of the Center for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL).

‘’This investigation was inadequate and the trial was a charade. We demand an independent inquiry with international assistance to investigate Dr. Kem Ley’s death, which will be the only way to achieve justice for his family and friends,’’ said Naly Pilorge, Deputy Director for Advocacy at the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO).

The obligation to carry out an effective investigation, as well as to ensure that all perpetrators are brought to justice, is a crucial element of the state’s obligation to respect the right to life, enshrined in Article 32 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a party.

Civil society said that in light of serious shortcomings with regards to the responsibility of the court to critically examine the evidence before it, and in order to ensure conformity with international best practices, an independent Commission of Inquiry is needed to investigate Dr. Kem Ley’s death.

They added that the Commission should be comprised of international experts from outside Cambodia, and have access to all available evidence, including all available CCTV footage: ‘’Given the inadequacies in the original investigation and trial, as described above, an independent Commission of Inquiry is now the only means by which to safeguard the independence and transparency of the investigation, comply with Cambodia’s obligation to fully investigate possible breaches of the right to life, and ultimately to find justice for the family of Dr. Kem Ley.’’

Kem Ley’s killing occurred amid a sharp deterioration in the space for fundamental freedoms in Cambodia over the past year. Civil society group members, opposition leaders and government critics have been arrested and subjected to judicial harassment, and in some cases, violence.

Cambodia’s deteriorating human rights situation has resulted in widespread international condemnation of the Cambodian authorities. The killing of Kem Ley has only added to concerns over the situation in Cambodia.

Civil society groups say that the Cambodian Government has a responsibility to ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders, civil society and government critics to freely operate without fear of retaliation and they are highly concerned that this space is under severe threat in Cambodia.

Political tensions are rising in Cambodia ahead of commune elections in June 2017 and national elections in 2018.

 

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