In Myanmar, Ongoing Offensives and Impunity for War Crimes Undermine Peace Initiative

The Women’s League of Burma (WLB) says it is seriously concerned at the Tatmadaw’s recent new offensives and ongoing impunity for war crimes, which undermine the Myanmar government’s new peace initiatives. Since the new government took office in late March, the Tatmadaw has reinforced its troops and launched new large scale ground and air offensives in Kachin and Shan States.

As a result, villages have been bombed, civilians tortured and killed, and homes deliberately burned down. Thousands have been newly displaced, joining the hundreds of thousands facing untold hardship and trauma in IDP camps around the country.

Yet there has been no sign of condemnation against the Tatmadaw from the Myanmar government, and efforts by ethnic MPs to have the conflict debated in parliament have been blocked.

Meanwhile, perpetrators of past crimes such as the rape-murder of the two Kachin teachers in Kawng Kha village in January 2015, remain scot free,WLB says.

On May 18th, justice was further delayed when police refused to allow the Kachin Baptist Convention’s investigation team to directly question Tatmadaw personnel from Light Infantry Battalion 503, stationed in the village at the time of the crime. Chillingly, troops from the very same battalion, 503, took part in last month’s offensives against the Shan State

Progressive Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in Kyaukme and other areas of northern Shan State, in which civilians were tortured, killed and burned.

Evidently, without an end to military impunity, such crimes will be repeated again and again, WLB says. The systematic abuses being inflicted on ethnic civilians must stop now. It is urgently needed for the government to start reining in the power of the military institution they share office with, and which their national budget is funding.

Without an end to ongoing offensives and war crimes, there can be no trust in the government’s new peace initiatives, including the planned 21st Century Panglong Conference.

The government must take action so that the Tatmadaw stops their offensives and human rights violations, and pulls their troops back from the ethnic areas, so that a genuine peace process can take place. WLB urges foreign envoys to publicly denounce the Tatmadaw’s offensives and abuses, which undermine the peace process, and to stop all military-to-military relations with the Tatmadaw. WLB calls on donors to provide adequate humanitarian assistance to those newly displaced, as well as to continue supporting refugees and IDPs who remain unable to return home in safety.

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China Must Drop Cases Against Rights Lawyers Facing Politically Motivated Prosecutions

The Chinese authorities should immediately drop politically motivated cases and release detained human rights lawyers Xia Lin, Zhou Shifeng and others, Human Rights Watch said Thursday. Both Xia Lin, who has defended activists and victims of rights abuses in a number of well-known cases, and Zhou Shifeng, director of the embattled Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, face prosecutions that appear linked to their human rights legal work, the organization said.

Xia’s case is scheduled for trial on June 17th 2016. On June 12th, police recommended Zhou’s case for prosecution. These actions come nearly one year after the government engaged in a mass round-up of human rights lawyers.

“The Chinese government’s hostility toward human rights lawyers has not eased since the mass arrest of legal professionals last July,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “This heavy-handed campaign against lawyers can only further diminish public — and global — confidence in China’s justice system.”

The authorities have charged Xia Lin with extortion stemming from money he had allegedly borrowed from private individuals, though none of those individuals had filed police reports or brought civil claims prior to Xia’s detention. The case against Xia appears to be retaliation for his defense of Guo Yushan, the head of Transition Institute, a leading Beijing think tank.

Guo was detained in October 2014, and Xia was taken into custody a month later. Xia was initially also detained for gambling, though that charge was eventually dropped. His case has been delayed twice as the procuratorate has sent it back to the police due to insufficient evidence. Xia has been held in the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center, and will be tried at Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court on June 17th.

Among those that Xia has defended include Deng Yujiao, a hotel worker who killed a government official in self-defense against attempted rape, and Tan Zuoren, a Sichuan activist who was imprisoned for investigating the causes of school collapse during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.

Xia’s case has been rife with procedural irregularities, Human Rights Watch said. Police took Xia into custody without presenting a warrant to his family. China’s Criminal Procedure Law requires that a suspect’s family be informed within 24 hours of an individual’s formal detention, but Xia’s family was not informed of his whereabouts or the charges against him for five days. From November 2014 to February 2015, detention center officials repeatedly denied the requests of Xia’s lawyer to meet him, contrary to Chinese law allowing such access, claiming they were “checking his lawyer’s documents.”

Zhou Shifeng has been charged with subversion, a serious political crime that can result in a life sentence. Zhou’s prosecution stems from the mass detentions and interrogations of lawyers and activists in connection with the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, which has hired lawyers undertaking human rights defense work. Beginning on July 9th 2015, authorities took into custody more than 300 people across the country. Most were released after a day or two of questioning, through 24 are still in detention, according to the Hong Kong-based group Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group. Eleven of the 24 are lawyers and legal assistants.

Shortly after the wave of detentions began, state media outlets published unsubstantiated allegations about lawyers, activists, and the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, calling them “a major criminal gang” that “aim[s] to create disturbances and disturb order” in the name of “defending [human] rights.” On July 18th, Xinhua quoted the alleged confession of Zhou, stating that he had said the firm “had broken the law” and “brought great risks to social stability.”

During their more than 11 months of detention, these lawyers and legal assistants have been held incommunicado, during which they have had no access to lawyers of their choice or their family members. Human Rights Watch is seriously concerned about their well-being, as their detention and politicized prosecutions leave them at risk of torture or ill-treatment. In late May, there were reports from activists in Tianjin, where most of the lawyers are being held, that Zhao Wei, detained legal assistant to Li Heping, who is also in custody, had been subjected to unspecified “sexual assault.” Human Rights Watch said they have been unable to verify this.

The Chinese government has dramatically narrowed space for free expression and civil society since President Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013, Human Rights Watch said. Authorities have targeted a wide range of civil society actors, such as liberal scholars and opinion leaders on social media, while asserting Communist Party supremacy and demanding increasing loyalty to the party.

Human rights lawyers appear to be a particular focus of the government’s assault on civil society, Human Rights Watch said. In December 2015, Beijing lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was convicted for “inciting ethnic hatred” and “disturbing public order” and given a three-year suspended sentence; in January 2016, Guangzhou lawyer Tang Jingling received five years in prison for promoting non-violent civil disobedience; Beijing lawyer Zhang Kai was detained incommunicado between August 2015 and March 2016 for providing legal advice to Christians who resisted the government’s campaign to remove crosses from churches in Zhejiang province.

“The Chinese government is going after lawyers, the very people who have provided a legal safety valve for rising social discontent,” Richardson said. “The government should recognize that embracing their role, rather than imprisoning them, is in the country’s best interests.”

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UN Experts Urge Vietnam to End Persecution of Religious Leaders, Rights Defenders

United Nations human rights experts are calling on the government of Vietnam to stop the persecution of Ms. Tran Thi Hong, who has been repeatedly arrested and tortured as retaliation for informing the international community of human rights violations against her husband, who is in prison for peaceful religious activities.

Ms. Tran, spouse of imprisoned Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh, was initially arrested on April 14th 2016. She was tortured and warned to stop her activities promoting freedom of religion. Since then, Ms. Tran Thi Hong has been repeatedly arrested and harassed by the authorities, who are trying to force her to ‘cooperate’ with the Government.

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, and the Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, also urged the Vietnamese authorities to put an end to all persecution and harassment, including criminalization, against religious leaders and human rights defenders, women human rights defenders and members of their families.

“We are concerned that the repeated arrests and the continuing detention of Ms. Tran resulted from her peaceful human rights work and exercise of her fundamental rights, which constitutes arbitrary detention,” the experts said calling for her unconditional release.

Ms. Tran’s husband has been in prison since 2011 for his religious activities as director of the Vietnam-U.S. Lutheran Alliance Church, which is considered as ‘’anti-Government’’ and ‘’anti-communist’’ by the authorities. In prison, he has been subjected to torture and deprived of contact with his family.

“The Vietnamese Government has the obligation to respect the right of religious communities to organize themselves as independent communities and to appoint their own leaders,” said Special Rapporteur Bielefeldt.

“The severe beating, by authorities who did not identify themselves, amounts to torture and must be investigated and those responsible held accountable, in accordance with Viet Nam’s international human rights obligations,” Mr. Méndez added.

The UN Special Rapporteurs concluded that “Vietnam should immediately and unconditionally release Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh and Ms. Tran Thi Hong, as well as all persons detained for their legitimate activities in the defense of human rights.”

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Civil Society Calls for Repeal of New Chinese NGO Law

Twenty-six international and China-based NGOs have signed a joint letter calling on the National People’s Congress to repeal a recently adopted law which provides broad tools to the government to severely suppress the activities of independent civil society organizations in China and violate independent groups’ right to freedom of association.

China’s legislature passed the Law on the Management of Foreign Non-Government Organizations Activities in China (the NGO Law) on April 27th despite critical international responses to the most recent draft that dates back to last spring. The adopted version retains the most troubling elements of the previous draft, and allows for even tighter government control over NGO activities. 

The NGO Law was developed during a period of escalating Chinese government hostility toward civil society. During the same period it has been under consideration, some of the most outspoken domestic groups, including anti-discrimination organization Yirenping, educational institution Liren Rural Libraries, and think tank Transition Institute have been targeted by the police for raids and arbitrary detentions. Swedish NGO worker Peter Dahlin, a co-founder of Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, which supported rights activists and petitioners to promote legal awareness, was detained in January and his group forcibly closed. The authorities accused the group of receiving foreign funding to finance “agents” to carry out works that “endanger state security.”

The law authorizes even greater power to police (compared to the prior draft) to exercise “daily supervision and monitoring” of overseas NGOs. Once the law takes effect on January 1st 2017, it will further restrict international NGOs working in China and suffocate the country’s already beleaguered independent organizations, says the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD). The law has kept perhaps the most worrisome provision, which hands the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) full authority over the registration and supervision of foreign-based NGOs operating inside China. This is a clear indication the government views such groups as a threat to national security.

The law has also retained the strict funding restrictions that appeared in the previous draft. As such, the legislation will deliver a heavy blow to mainland NGOs, which rely heavily on overseas NGOs’ financial support due to insurmountable obstacles to securing funding inside China. The fundamental focus of the legislation – to subject foreign groups to tighter police oversight and prohibit any activities considered to “endanger China’s national unity, national security, or ethnic unity” – remains, Human Rights Watch says. This is likely to disproportionately harm the work of groups engaged on issues the government deems “sensitive.”  

In the letter to the National People’s Congress, the civil society organizations call for a repeal of the law and says that ‘’The Overseas NGO Law severely harms Chinese civil society by attacking these principles. The law tasks Chinese civil society organizations with carrying out state control of overseas NGOs, converting local NGOs into instruments of the public security apparatus. This diverts NGOs’ efforts away from their important work to improve the lives of the Chinese people.’’

A stable and effective Chinese society depends on diverse citizen-led organizations, free to operate independent of government intervention and free to seek the support of overseas NGOs, which can provide important resources, training and advocacy, the organizations say.

The law also impairs the ability of Chinese NGOs, universities, businesses, and even the Chinese government to engage with the global community. Efforts to gain information or resources, including technical expertise and partnerships, will often be monitored. Many aspects of programming and bank accounts are subject to tracking and intervention by the state.

The law also draws an unclear and arbitrary division between so-called “welcome” and “unwelcome” NGOs. When combined with substantial police powers, these features leave the regulation of civil society vulnerable to politicization, and are inconsistent with international law principles set out by the UN Human Rights Council in Resolution 24/2014, which calls for States to create and maintain, in law and in practice, a safe and enabling environment for civil society.

The organizations also express concern that the law constrains opportunities for Chinese citizens, including together with overseas NGO partners, to develop new approaches to social problems affecting their country—social problems that, if left unchecked by civil society, could lead to greater instability and burden on the state.  

During the past several years, Chinese public security has increasingly monitored and obstructed both domestic and overseas NGOs. This law now formalizes many of the problematic bureaucratic tools already in use against Chinese civil society organizations, and legalizes arbitrary police actions against domestic and overseas NGOs, the letter states.

Some of these previously informal practices now given a legal basis include:

  • The Public Security Bureau can monitor and investigate NGOs at will;
  • Police can detain NGO staff accused of conducting activities deemed to be ‘creating rumors,’ ‘engaging in defamation,’ or make ‘other situations that endanger state security or damage the national or public interest’;
  • NGO activities carried out without prior approval are punishable as a crime;
  • NGOs must report new employees to authorities;
  • NGOs found to violate these vague rules may be banned from future activities in China.

The law’s vague provisions grant broad enforcement authority to China’s public security apparatus and legalize perpetual surveillance on Chinese NGO employees who seek to advance dignity and prosperity for their compatriots. Formalizing restrictions will further impede civil society’s ability to provide support to many Chinese that currently benefit from NGO programs, including women, internal migrants, minorities, and those concerned with other issues such as public health and education.

In addition to minimizing civil society’s influence as a body of independent citizens, this law, together with the recently passed Charity Law, signifies that the PRC government views civil society with suspicion. The state should see civil society organizations as partners who offer value and capacity to address many of the issues confronting Chinese society today. The 26 civil society organizations call on the NPC to restore trust in the Chinese people and repeal the Overseas NGO Law in order to allow Chinese NGOs greater freedom in their activities and advocacy.

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Proposed Myanmar Law Restricts Speech

Myanmar’s parliament should amend a proposed law on public protest to better protect rights to peaceful assembly and expression, Human Rights Watch said Friday. The Peaceful Processions and Peaceful Assembly Act improves upon existing Myanmar law, but retains criminal penalties and contains overly broad and vague restrictions on speech contrary to international standards.

“The new Myanmar government has moved quickly to replace the country’s flawed assembly law, which has been used to imprison numerous activists for years. However, the proposed law needs significant revisions to bring it up to international standards.” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

The Bill Committee, in the National League for Democracy dominated Parliament, should consult with Myanmar legal experts and nongovernmental organizations to ensure the draft law fully protects the rights to freedom of assembly and expression, Human Rights Watch said. The bill greatly improves upon existing law by not requiring government consent for a demonstration, requiring instead that notice be given 48 hours in advance.

Additionally, the draft law, by requiring that any charges be brought within 15 days of the assembly and limiting them to where the assembly began, precludes two of the most abusive practices under current law – charging protesters months and even years after the protest and in multiple townships for the same offense.

However, the draft maintains the fundamental problem of existing law by allowing criminal penalties for violating any of the law’s broadly worded restrictions on speech, for deviating from the assembly’s specified location, and for failing to give notice. Current provisions have been used to arrest and prosecute over a hundred people since the law was enacted in 2012. The criminal penalties should be excised, since no one should be held criminally liable for merely organizing or participating in a peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said.

The draft law also allows the police to order the dispersal of an assembly for failure to give notice and for violation of minor rules, in violation of international legal standards. Dispersal should be a matter of last resort, and should only occur where there is an imminent threat of violence.

The law’s notification system, while a major improvement over the “consent” requirement of the existing law, is overly burdensome and should be simplified, Human Rights Watch said. By requiring information on the “topic” of the assembly and the “slogans” that will be used – and imposing criminal penalties on those who deviate from the specified slogans – the law contravenes international standards for protection of freedom of expression by giving the government control over the content of the assembly. It also fails to provide an exemption from the notice requirements for spontaneous assemblies for which it is impracticable to give advance notice.

“The National League for Democracy says there won’t be political prisoners during their government. But unless this proposed law is amended, peaceful protesters are likely to find themselves in jail,” Adams said. “The government needs legal reforms that don’t just weaken the tools of repression, but removes them entirely.”

The draft law also contains blanket prohibitions on speech at protests that “affects the State or the Union, race, or religion, human dignity and moral principles.” Such overly broad prohibitions on speech violate the right to freedom of expression. Critical statements about “the State or the Union” are at the heart of internationally protected speech, Human Rights Watch said.

The prohibition on speech that may cause “disturbance” or “annoyance” is similarly problematic, Human Rights Watch said. Under international law, even speech that is deeply offensive remains protected. While incitement to violence is prohibited, the fact that others may be disturbed or offended by the speech is no basis for restricting what is said at an assembly.

The draft retains other flaws from the existing law, including limits on the rights of non-citizens to assemble. Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that “everyone” has the right to peacefully assemble, which includes non-citizens. Successive Myanmar governments have denied most ethnic Rohingya Muslims citizenship under the discriminatory 1982 citizenship law, meaning that the law denies many members of an already marginalized community the right to peacefully assemble.

“Myanmar’s parliament needs to plug some very big holes in an otherwise promising law on freedom of assembly,” Adams said. “They should not hesitate to turn to expertise both inside and outside of Myanmar to get it right and avoid the serious problems of the past.”

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“Good to Know He’s Alive!”

The family of a Chinese activist who disappeared 226 days ago in Myanmar says it is good to know he is alive, but worries for his health and security. Xing Qingxian, who has been disappeared for more than seven months after being abducted in Myanmar, was formally arrested on May 6th on suspicion of “organizing others to cross national borders,” according to a Chinese police notice received by the family.

Xing Qianxian in an undated photo courtesy of China Change.

Xing Qianxian in an undated photo courtesy of China Change.

According to human rights organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), Xing Qingxian is being held in Tianjin Municipal No. 2 Detention Center—the first known confirmation of his exact whereabouts since he and another activist, Tang Zhishun, were taken away last October by Myanmar police and then handed over to Chinese officers and brought back to China. Xing’s arrest was reported on May 18th, 2016 — 226 days after the activists were first taken into custody and held incommunicado. Tang’s family has not received any police notice, but he is also believed to have been formally arrested, and likely on the same charge.

The activists’ case is intertwined with the “709” crackdown on human rights lawyers that was launched in July 2015. When seized at a guesthouse in Mong La, Myanmar, Xing and Tang were accompanying Bao Zhuoxuan, the 16-year-old son of now-arrested rights lawyers Wang Yu and Bao Longjun. With Xing’s reported arrest, CHRD has now confirmed 19 individuals from the “709” crackdown who have been formally arrested.

According to China Change, as part of the biggest assault on human rights in China last year, police on July 9th, 2015 detained the husband of Wang Yu, rights activist Bao Longjun, as well as their son Bao Zhuoxuan, at the Beijing Airport. Bao Zhuoxuan was set to make his way to Australia for his studies and his dad was accompanying him.

At the same time, Wang Yu was taken from the family home, while in the days that followed, several hundred human rights lawyers across China were disappeared, detained, or subject to questioning. It’s already been over 10 months since this took place, and over 20 lawyers and law firm staffers are still being held in secret detention, without access to counsel. It’s been widely feared that they have been subjected to torture.

The  “July 9 Incident”  highlights the arbitrariness and deteriorating conditions of China’s sham rule of law, China Change says. Strong and sustained criticism from the international community and human rights groups have fallen on deaf ears.

The 16-year-old Bao Zhuoxuan was released after a temporary detention, but police confiscated his passport and told him that he was forbidden to leave China to study. He was then sent off to the home of his paternal grandparents in Inner Mongolia.

On October 6th 2015, the two Chinese human rights activists Tang Zhishun and Xing Qingxian were arrested for attempting to help the son of human rights lawyer Wang Yu escape China through Myanmar. Their plan was to take him to Thailand through Myanmar, and then to the United States. But the authorities got wind of the plan, and they were arrested in Mong La, northern Myanmar. Local police made the arrest, and handed them to Chinese authorities for repatriation.

Now, seven months after their arrest, the first word of their fates has been heard: Xing Qingxian’s wife was provided with a notice of arrest dated May 5th, 2016 saying that he is suspected of “organizing human trafficking across borders.”

Tang Zhishun in an undated photo courtesy of China Change.

Tang Zhishun in an undated photo courtesy of China Change.

Tang Zhishun’s lawyer Qin Chenshou wrote on Twitter that “From their arrest last October, this is the first time we’ve learnt where they are being detained. Someone has to take responsibility for this forced disappearance and inhuman treatment.” He said the last seven months Xing Qingxian and Tang Zhushun have been subject to “forced disappearance by the government.”

Xing Qingxian’s wife He Juan and Tang Zhishun’s wife Gao Shen, as well as their eight-year-old daughter, are currently in the United States.

If Xing, 49, and Tang, 40, face trial for “organizing others to cross national borders,” a conviction carries a minimum prison sentence of two to seven years. An individual can be given seven years to life imprisonment if found to have been a “ringleader” or if there are other serious circumstances  according to article 318 of China’s Criminal Law.

Although the men’s lawyers were told in October that the case had been transferred to Tianjin, police from Tianjin Municipal Public Security Bureau have repeatedly refused to let the lawyers meet with their clients. Authorities denied lawyer visits in October and November 2015, and again in January and February 2016; police stated that the cases are of “grave significance, hence a meeting is not allowed.”

Due to their lengthy enforced disappearance, there are ongoing concerns about the activists’ vulnerability to mistreatment, including being deprived of necessary medication for serious health conditions. Xing Qingxian requires medicine to treat severe asthma, and he also suffers from rhinitis, a chronic inflammation of the nasal cavity. The Beijing-based Tang Zhishun has hyperthyroidism that requires daily medication and that, if left untreated, can lead to heart problems.

CHRD has sent two communications about the activists’ case to UN human rights experts, first in October 2015, shortly after Xing and Tang went missing, and again in early April 2016, after they had been disappeared for six months. The communication last month highlighted egregious legal and procedural violations in the case, including denied legal counsel and lack of family notification of detention as required by Chinese and international law. Also in April, the men’s wives wrote to Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and appealed for assistance in securing the men’s release, after learning of reports that she had recently played a key role in helping free political prisoners in Myanmar.   

Xing Qingxian is a human rights defender who has worked in both Chengdu and Guiyang, southwestern provincial capitals. Originally from Guiyang in Guizhou Province, he became involved in rights defense work after filing a lawsuit in 2004 over a wage dispute and termination against a company where he had worked as a technician.

While not a lawyer, he has since 2006 been helping the vulnerable members of the society to defend their rights using legal tools. In 2009, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment on charges of “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order” after participating in a peaceful protest outside the Chengdu Intermediate People’s Court. Following his release, Xing continued to document rights violations, assist petitioners, and train others on rights defense advocacy.

Tang Zhishun, who has worked as an engineer, began focusing on rights defense issues after his home was demolished in 2006. He wrote a training manual to assist others in defending land rights, assisted eight villages in Beijing where homes were threatened with demolition, and helped found an independent public welfare organization.

Xing Qingxian’s wife He Juan attempted to raise awareness about the disappearance of her husband online, but was quickly shut down by the censors. Two blogs she opened on Sina were only around for 20 days before being deleted; the third only survived only two days. “I’ve just been trying to raise awareness about my husband’s disappearance — I don’t know what would work,” she said.

Tang Zhishun’s wife Gao Shen, as well as He Juan, went to protest outside the Chinese consulate in San Francisco during the Lantern Festival this year, demanding that the Chinese government immediately release their husbands.

CHRD calls for the immediate release of Xing Qingxian and Tang Zhishun, and says that the activists have been detained as political persecution for their activism, including their efforts to rescue Bao Zhuoxuan from house arrest, and they are highly vulnerable to ill-treatment, including not having access to necessary medications.

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In Cambodia, Civil Society Condemns Escalating Intimidation and Detention of Human Rights Defenders

Human rights workers being arrested on May 9, 2016 as they attempted to make their way to a peaceful demonstration in Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Human rights workers being arrested on May 9, 2016 as they attempted to make their way to a peaceful demonstration in Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Eight Cambodian human rights defenders, including four land rights activists, were arrested on May 9th 2016, as they traveled to a demonstration outside Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh. Although they were released on the same day, civil society organizations are increasingly concerned by the arbitrary arrests and detentions against human rights defenders in Cambodia, intended to silence dissenting voices.

The detentions, which followed the pre-trial detention of four other rights workers and an election official last week, highlight an alarming surge in the Cambodian government’s latest campaign of intimidation against civil society. In a joint statement, 83 civil society groups said that the detentions are an egregious violation of the right to freedom of expression in Cambodia.

Six of the eight detained were arrested as they attempted to make their way to a planned gathering outside Prey Sar prison to take part in the first “Black Monday” demonstration, in which participants dressed in black calling for the release of the five human rights defenders who were arbitrarily detained and charged on May 2nd, 2016. Those five human rights defenders, who were charged on counts of bribery of a witness, and being accomplices to bribery of a witness, included staff from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), the National Election Committee (NEC) and the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) in Cambodia.

The demonstration was the first event of the “Black Monday” campaign, in which participants dressed in black to call for the release of the five human rights defenders.

“The arrests are yet another blatant misuse of the criminal justice system to intimidate civil society members,” said Naly Pilorge, Director of LICADHO, The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights and provides legal representation to victims of human rights abuses. “The detention of land activists and human rights workers was an outrageous scare tactic to prevent civil society from mobilizing in support of jailed fellow human rights defenders.”

At about 8:15 am, Ee Sarom and Thav Kimsan were arrested as they attempted join the gathering. After being stopped at a roadblock, the two men were negotiating for access before they were arrested by municipal police in the presence of the deputy governor of Dangkao district. Mr. Ee Sarom is the Executive Director of the NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) where he oversees the organisation’s technical and advocacy programs. STT, which is based in Phnom Penh works with impoverished urban communities on land issues and housing rights. Mr. Thav Kimsan is a deputy director at LICADHO.

They were held for questioning at Dangkao district police station until about 6:00 pm that evening, along with Sor Sorn, a land activist from Borei Keila community, who was arrested shortly after them.

Land activists being arrested on May 9 in Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Land activists being arrested on May 9 in Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

In a coordinated move, three members of Boeung Kak community – Song Sreyleap, Kong Chantha and Bov Sophea – were also intercepted and arrested yesterday morning as they attempted to leave their homes to join the gathering outside Prey Sar. They were detained at Daun Penh police station and denied access to lawyers until they, too, were released at about 6:00 pm.

As about 100 people gathered outside Dangkao district police station to call for the release of the rights workers and community members detained within, police took two international staff from LICADHO into custody and transported them to the immigration police office where they were held until about 7:30pm. The two were questioned about their work, the demonstration, and why they were wearing black clothes.

Two days ago, a government spokesman referred to the “Black Monday” campaign as a form of “urban rebellion”. One the same day, the Ministry of Interior told police and military police to “take action” against those wearing black T-shirts.

“The government’s fear of people wearing colors is ludicrous,” said Ee Sarom, STT Executive Director. “Authorities targeted us just for wearing a black T-shirt, which is a peaceful expression of dissent.”

Civil society groups have been holding events outside the prison in support of incarcerated human rights defenders since 2006. May 9th was the first time in a decade that supporters were prevented from doing so through use of roadblocks and heavy deployment of police. The arrests followed a violent attack on a small group of protesters who briefly assembled at one of eight police checkpoints close to the prison. Police confiscated banners calling for the release of the five and assaulted monitors who were taking pictures of the prison, forcing them to wipe their cameras. Three tuk tuks carrying monks who intended to join the gathering were among hundreds of supporters turned away at the police checkpoints.

“The government is so fearful of democratic expression that it consistently misrepresents it as ‘insurrection’ – and uses this rhetoric to quash fundamental freedoms and silence critics,” said Naly Pilorge.

The 83 civil society organizations reaffirm the rights and fundamental freedoms of peaceful human rights defenders to conduct their activities free from threats and punishment, and reiterate their condemnation of the Cambodian government’s escalating campaign of intimidation in an attempt to halt such activities.

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Myanmar Must Continue Efforts to Release all Remaining Prisoners of Conscience

One month after the Myanmar’s new government pledged that it would work to free all prisoners of conscience in the country, the authorities should double their efforts to ensure that no one is left behind bars for peacefully exercising their rights, Amnesty International says.

The human rights organization welcomes the recent releases of scores of student activists, human rights defenders and peaceful protesters as an important step towards ending the cycle of political arrest and imprisonment in the country but says that much remains to be done. Despite these releases, prisoners of conscience remain behind bars while others are still at risk of arrest, conviction and imprisonment for peacefully exercising their rights.

If the new government is to close the door on the country’s repressive past, it must ensure these individuals are immediately and unconditionally freed and charges pending against other peaceful activists – some in prison awaiting trial; some out on bail – are dropped.

Among those still behind bars are:

  • Former monk and activist U Gambira (aka Nyi Nyi Win) is currently serving six months in prison with hard labour after he was found guilty of immigration-related offenses on April 26th, 2015. He was found guilty under Section 13(1) of Myanmar’s 1947 Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act, which has often been used against peaceful activists. Amnesty International believes he has been targeted for his previous work as a peaceful human rights activist. U Gambira is detained in Mandalay’s Oh-Bo prison, where there are serious concerns for his health. U Gambira suffers from serious mental health issues, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as an apparent result of the torture he was subjected to while imprisoned between 2008 and 2012, and does not have adequate access to the specialist medical care he requires in prison. Moreover, there are concerns that his ongoing detention could seriously exacerbate his already fragile health.
  • Five men, three Bamar Muslims, one Bamar Buddhist and one ethnic Chinese have been detained for over five months in Yangon’s Insein prison. They have been charged with “incitement” under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code, which provides for a maximum of two years’ imprisonment. They were arrested in November 2015 after printing a 2016 calendar asserting that the Rohingya are an ethno-religious minority from Myanmar, and including information about their history. They are solely held for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. A sixth man of Rohingya ethnicity remains in hiding, facing the same charges.
  • Poet Maung Saungkha remains detained in Insein prison six months after his arrest in November 2015 in connection with a poem he wrote and posted online in which the narrator describes having an image of an unnamed President tattooed on his genitals. He has been charged with defamation under Section 66(d) of Myanmar’s 2013 Telecommunications Act. His next court hearing is scheduled for May 9th.

Unfortunately, Amnesty International believes that many more individuals are still detained simply for having peacefully exercised their human rights, in particular in ethnic areas where it is more difficult to access information about arbitrary arrests and detentions. It is unclear how the new government will ensure that none of these people are left behind bars, as there is a lack of transparency regarding the criteria and procedure used to identify prisoners of conscience and other political prisoners for release.

To address this concern, Amnesty International calls on the new government to establish – or re-establish – a committee to review all cases where individuals may have been deprived of their liberty simply for the peaceful exercise of their human rights with a view to securing the immediate release. The committee should also review the cases of those currently on trial who may become prisoners of conscience should they be imprisoned in the future as well as others who have been subjected to politically motivated trials. This committee should have a clear and broad mandate, should be composed of independent experts, including in international human rights law, and able to operate independently, effectively and transparently in consultation with former prisoners of conscience, political prisoners, their families and representatives.

Another fundamental step required to put an end to the cycle of political arrests and imprisonment in Myanmar is the review of all laws affecting the human rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. All laws found to contain restrictions which are unacceptable under international human rights law and standards must be repealed or revised. As long as repressive laws remain in place, activists and human rights defenders will remain at risk of arrest and imprisonment for peaceful activities. Amnesty International welcomes recent reports that parliament has begun a process of reviewing known repressive laws. This process should be open, transparent and inclusive, allowing for wide consultation with civil society actors, legal experts and others to help ensure that any revisions are in line with international human rights law and standards.

Finally, it is important to remember that former prisoners of conscience continue to face a range of challenges stemming from their imprisonment and their status as former prisoners. These can include physical and psychological health problems, lack of access to education and employment opportunities and stigmatization. The new government must take swift steps to expunge the criminal records of all those convicted simply for the peaceful exercise of their rights, and to remedy the harm these individuals have suffered. This should include taking all the necessary steps to offer them with rehabilitation, compensation and other forms of support to rebuild their lives.

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New Chinese Law Strangles Civil Society

The Chinese government’s adoption of a new draconian law on overseas NGOs will have a profoundly detrimental impact on civil society in China, say human rights groups. The law gives police unprecedented power to restrict the work of foreign groups in the country and will also limit domestic groups’ ability to obtain foreign funding and work with foreign organizations.

China’s legislature passed the Law on the Management of Foreign Non-Government Organizations Activities in China (the NGO Law) on April 27th despite critical international responses to the most recent draft that dates back to last spring. The adopted version retains the most troubling elements of the previous draft, and allows for even tighter government control over NGO activities. It authorizes even greater power to police (compared to the prior draft) to exercise “daily supervision and monitoring” of overseas NGOs.

“Beijing hardly needs more ammunition to crack down on civil society groups,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The NGO Law is like many others of the Xi Jinping era: ever-stronger tools to legalize China’s human rights abuses.”

Once the law takes effect on January 1st 2017, it will further restrict international NGOs working in China and suffocate the country’s already beleaguered independent organizations, says the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders. The law has kept perhaps the most worrisome provision, which hands the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) full authority over the registration and supervision of foreign-based NGOs operating inside China. This is a clear indication the government views such groups as a threat to national security.

The law has also retained the strict funding restrictions that appeared in the previous draft. As such, the legislation will deliver a heavy blow to mainland NGOs, which rely heavily on overseas NGOs’ financial support due to insurmountable obstacles to securing funding inside China. CHRD calls for the repeal of the overseas NGO management law or, at minimum, significant revisions of its stipulations that violate independent groups’ right to freedom of association.

The fundamental focus of the legislation – to subject foreign groups to tighter police oversight and prohibit any activities considered to “endanger China’s national unity, national security, or ethnic unity” – remains, Human Rights Watch said. This is likely to disproportionately harm the work of groups engaged on issues the government deems “sensitive.”  

The NGO Law requires that foreign groups must be sponsored by a Chinese government organization and be registered with the police, rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs, as has been the case. It grants police extensive investigation and enforcement powers, including the ability to arbitrarily summon representatives of overseas groups, cancel activities deemed a threat to national security, blacklist groups considered to be involved in vaguely defined “subversive” or “separatist” activities, and permanently bar them from setting up offices or organize activities in the country. The ability to summon NGO representatives creates a legal basis for a longstanding practice, and there appears to be little if any opportunity for organizations to contest their treatment.

In addition, the NGO Law permits police investigating foreign NGOs to:

  • Enter its premises and seize documents and other information;
  • Examine its bank accounts and limit incoming funds;
  • Cancel activities, revoke registration, and impose administrative detention; and
  • Participate in the annual assessment of foreign NGOs, which determines whether a group can continue operating.

These expansions of police power underscore an essential function of the law—to restrict foreign influence and ideas from entering China, especially when the government perceives that they present a political threat or would offer different perspectives on human rights and other sensitive issues.

If foreign NGOs have carried out acts that are seen by the authorities as “splitting the state, damaging national unity, or subverting state power,” police can hand down administrative detentions. Foreigners found to have breached the new law can either be barred from leaving China or deported.

The law also steps up financial scrutiny of foreign NGOs, imposing strict regulations on the source of funding and account management of the groups, requiring that the organization’s financial accounts be audited and announced publicly.  

Regulations on nongovernmental organizations should not undermine the rights to freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly, which are protected under the Chinese constitution and international law, Human Rights Watch said. Registration requirements should also be minimal and free of surveillance.

Because the NGO Law fails to meet basic international standards, Human Rights Watch urges the Chinese government should substantially amend or revoke the measure.

Previous versions of the law alarmed the international community, and sparked significant concerns due to its focus on national security and its overly broad scope. The legislation prompted unprecedented concern from foreign governments, universities, business groups, cultural organizations and others that have exchanges and cooperation with local groups in China. Some of their criticisms appear reflected in the government’s decision not to apply the law to certain kinds of groups. Governments and institutions concerned by Beijing’s efforts to stifle civil society should urge the law to be repealed or revised in conformity with international law.

The NGO Law was developed during a period of escalating Chinese government hostility toward civil society, Human Rights Watch said. During the same period it has been under consideration, some of the most outspoken domestic groups, including anti-discrimination organization Yirenping, educational institution Liren Rural Libraries, and think tank Transition Institute have been targeted by the police for raids and arbitrary detentions. Swedish NGO worker Peter Dahlin, a co-founder of Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, which supported rights activists and petitioners to promote legal awareness, was detained in January and his group forcibly closed. The authorities accused the group of receiving foreign funding to finance “agents” to carry out works that “endanger state security.”

Chinese Human Rights Defenders also says that the law must be repealed until significant revisions of the legislation are made to conform with international human rights standards on the protection of the right to free association. The organization recommends that governments and the European Union with bilateral human rights dialogues with China must raise serious concerns during such dialogues and in all meetings with high-level Chinese officials over the passage of this law, as well as the government’s new standard of using the pretext of “national security” to persecute civil society organizations and stifle human rights activities.

“Civil society groups have been one of the only human rights success stories in China in recent years, and their survival is crucial for the country’s future,” Sophie Richardson said. “So long as repressive restrictions are imposed on some parts of civil society in China, all organizations remain at risk.”

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Two New Laws in Vietnam Further Restrict Freedom of Expression

Two newly adopted laws in Vietnam add new tools to Vietnam’s arsenal of repressive legislation, just as the authorities are launching a fierce crackdown on freedom of expression in Vietnam. The amended Press Law and the new Law on Access to Information, adopted by  the Vietnamese National Assembly earlier this month, will further limit people’s rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

“These laws confirm once again the government’s all-out offensive against human rights. Under these laws, the one-Party State is empowered to stifle all free debate on politics, history, religion and social issues, and hide any information it wants from its population,” said Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) President Vo Van Ai.

Contrary to recommendations by the United Nations and civil society to bring Vietnam’s laws into line with international standards and norms, the amended Press Law continues to criminalize a wide range of activities which are left solely to the appreciation of the state, such as “propagating depraved lifestyles”, “violating the country’s traditions and values”, or “distorting history, denying revolutionary achievements or offending the nation or its heroes”.  The law comes into force on January 1st 2017.

According to VCHR, the amended Press Law appears more like a shield against anti-government criticism than a law on press freedom. It increases the number of “prohibited acts” from four to thirteen. All are unduly vague and place wide-ranging restrictions on the media. Banned activities include publishing “distorted information about the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” perceived to “defame the people’s government”, “run contrary to the country’s international unity policies”, “cause alarm amongst the people” or “sow division between the people and State authorities”. The diffusion of “confidential information” and “state secrets” is banned, and the lack of a clear definition of these terms enables the authorities to apply this classification to virtually any document.

Concerning freedom of religion or belief, the law bans “superstition”, without defining the term, and incorporates “national security” provisions from the Criminal Code such as “causing division between non-religious and religious people, people of different religions, between religious people and State authorities” which are routinely invoked to suppress independent religious activities.

More disturbingly, the law adds a new prohibition on information which“offends people’s religious belief”. This evokes the “defamation of religions” debate which has raised grave concerns in the United Nations and within civil society worldwide because it questions the right to freedom of expression and the universality of human rights.

The amended Press Law also maintains state control on journalists by continuing to require that they re-apply for their press cards every five years.

The new Law on Access to Information, which takes effect on July 1st 2018, raises serious concerns regarding freedom of expression and the right to know, or the right of individuals to access information held by public authorities.

The 2015 draft of this law was severely criticized by the Center for Law and Democracy, a Canadian-based nongovernmental organization which rated the draft law in November 2015 giving it 59 points out of a possible 150 on the RTI Rating scale. It placed Vietnam near the bottom (93rd out of 102) of a list of countries rated for their right to access to information legislation. First and foremost, citizens’ right to access to information does not appear to be an inherent right in Vietnam, but one which only exists as regulated by law.

Furthermore, the Law on Access to Information does not override existing legislation, but stipulates a number of grounds for restricting access to information which are unacceptable under international law. These include “state secrets”, which are not defined, or vague terms such as “social order and ethics”,“State security”, “interests of the nation, people and State”, or “propaganda”.

Moreover, the public will only have access to information produced after the law comes into force, and only information declassified by government. There is no time frame provided for the declassification of information.

In addition, VCHR says the law is dissuasive and cumbersome, requiring citizens who seek access to information explain why they need this information, and provide details of their names, addresses and ID or passport numbers. Under the law, the authorities are not obliged to provide receipts to those who request information, which deprives citizens of proof in case of dispute. Where access to information is denied, the authorities do not have to provide the reasons for their refusal, and the citizens have no alternative mechanisms of recourse. “Wrongful use of information” is subject to sanctions.

Also of concern is the lack of protection for whistleblowers. Vietnamese laws provide heavy penalties for such acts under a range of different pretexts, such as the case of Nguyễn Mạnh Hà and Trần Anh Hùng, sentenced respectively to five and six years in prison in October 2013 for leaking a draft government report on a controversial development project in Nhatrang to the media. They were accused of “revealing state secrets”.

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