Myanmar Government Must Ensure Women’s Participation in Peace Talks

A displaced Kachin woman in Kachin State said that Burmese soldiers repeatedly fired upon her and her three grandchildren while they fled for safety. “When we ran the soldiers shot at us,” she said. “We were really afraid. We just ran and hid. There were many mosquitos and we were all wet in the rain, and everyone was crying.” Photo courtesy Human Rights Watch.

A displaced Kachin woman in Kachin State said that Burmese soldiers repeatedly fired upon her and her three grandchildren while they fled for safety. “When we ran the soldiers shot at us,” she said. “We were really afraid. We just ran and hid. There were many mosquitos and we were all wet in the rain, and everyone was crying.” Photo courtesy Human Rights Watch.

Myanmar’s government and ethnic armed groups should ensure that women meaningfully participate in efforts to end the country’s longstanding armed conflicts, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released Thursday. The government should also make women’s rights a priority as Myanmar continues its political transition. In late August 2016, the National League for Democracy-led government that was elected in November 2015, and various armed groups will meet at the “Panglong 21st Century Peace Conference” to begin talks.

Women make up just over half of the population in Myanmar, but have been noticeably absent from nearly four years of peace negotiations to end armed conflict in the country. Beyond women holding few, if any, senior positions in the parties involved in these negotiations, many women’s groups report being treated with disdain or as “spoilers” for pressing for the inclusion of women’s rights.

The 18-page report, ‘A Gentleman’s Agreement’: Women’s Participation in Myanmar’s Peace Negotiations and Political Transition, examines women’s participation in peace efforts in Myanmar and the devastating impacts of the country’s wars on women. Women have been almost entirely absent from nearly four years of peace negotiations to end the fighting in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi heads the National League for Democracy, and a few other women hold leadership positions in groups involved in these negotiations, but there have been only 10 women among 195 senior delegates in eight major peace efforts since 2012.

“Women in Myanmar are entitled to a meaningful and comprehensive role in determining their country’s future,” said Sarah Taylor, women’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “Myanmar’s women have long endured abuses but have worked hard to advance human rights. Their voices should now be front and center.”

Myanmar has endured a number of prolonged internal armed conflicts since its independence in 1948, with three of the country’s seven ethnic-minority states facing ongoing fighting or tensions. In recent years the fighting in several parts of the country has worsened, with escalating violence in Kachin and Shan States resulting in countless civilian deaths and injuries, and the protracted displacement of over 200,000 people.

In May 2016, Human Rights Watch spoke with more than 25 Burmese women’s rights activists, armed group representatives, ceasefire monitors, and foreign diplomats. Women’s groups reported that government officials and leaders of non-state armed groups have long treated women with disdain or as “spoilers” when they pressed for the inclusion of women’s rights in talks. One leading women’s rights activist said “tea break advocacy”– during breaks in meetings – has often been the only space for women to influence delegates in ongoing negotiations.

Women in Myanmar need a greater role in the peace process not only because they suffer many of the consequences of the conflicts, but also because their participation can help ensure that a full range of human rights concerns are addressed in any peace agreement, Human Rights Watch said. This is crucial for obtaining a long and durable peace.

According to the report, women in Myanmar have long been targeted for abuse during the country’s many internal armed conflicts. Sexual violence by the Tatmadaw, and to some extent ethnic armed groups, has been frequent. Persistent abuses against civilians, including sexual violence, have been facilitated by the lack of accountability for such crimes. Local and international human rights groups have reported numerous cases of alleged sexual violence that the military has refused to seriously investigate. The Ministry of Defence informed the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar that the military prosecuted 61 armed services personnel for rape between 2011 and 2015—but provided few details on convictions or punishments. Where investigations and prosecutions do occur, many proceedings take place in military courts that lack independence from the chain of command and are rarely, if ever, open to the public.

For example, in January 2015, the bodies of two ethnic Kachin teachers, Maran Lu Ra, 20, and Tangbau Hkawn Nan Tsin, 21, were found in Shan State, where villagers and activists allege they were raped and then brutally murdered by Burmese army soldiers. Local activists, international nongovernmental organizations, and the United States government called on Myanmar to investigate the cases. In May 2016, the Tatmadaw made public statements saying that an investigation had taken place, but there has been no information about charges being brought against suspects or about any trial, let alone convictions.

Sang Gang internally displaced persons camp, Kachin State, in 2011. Photo courtesy Human Rights Watch.

Sang Gang internally displaced persons camp, Kachin State, in 2011. Photo courtesy Human Rights Watch.

In addition to being targeted for sexual violence and other abuses, women and girls have often been impacted by armed conflict in other specific and disproportionate ways. As the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, noted in 2016: ‘’Sexual violence has been exacerbated by conflict and displacement, notably in Kachin and northern Shan States, linked to the collapse of social protection mechanisms, the increased presence of armed actors, and military camps in proximity to civilian centers. … A rise in trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced marriage was noted, with 45 cases recorded early in 2015. Stateless women and those who lacked identity documents were at greatest risk, including while travelling on crowded boats and staying in smugglers’ camps.’’

The displacement of civilian populations during the fighting has had multiple distinct impacts on women and girls in Myanmar. Although data is scarce, the UN Population Fund notes that displacement has resulted in a lack of access to livelihoods for affected populations, forcing many of the men to seek work away from their families. ‘’Their prolonged absence has a profound effect on the safety and security of women and girls. … recent reports indicate that GBV [gender based violence], including sexual violence, are a constant fear and threat.’’

As Myanmar women’s rights organizations repeatedly highlight, justice for women and girls in Myanmar remains elusive, particularly with regard to violence related to armed conflict. There is no institutionalized complaint mechanism for victims of sexual violence perpetrated by the Tatmadaw, consistent with the UN Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, which the government signed in 2014. When Tatmadaw soldiers are involved in abuses against civilians, victims and their families must rely on the Tatmadaw to initiate proceedings against its soldiers. Despite allegations of more than 70 cases of sexual violence perpetrated by the Burmese army over the past 4 years, few prosecutions have been publicly reported; in 2014 only two soldiers were known to have been convicted of rape.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in the Myanmar section of his 2015 report on conflict-related sexual violence, noted that “legal recourse needs to be available uniformly and systematically” and that special rapporteurs on Myanmar had called for the constitution to be amended so that security forces are subject to civilian oversight.

Burmese civilians have been victims of abuses during armed conflict since Myanmar’s independence in 1948. Fighting between government forces and ethnic armed groups has surged on and off in recent years, and ceasefire agreements have unraveled.

In addition to including women as full partners in peace talks, the new government should abolish or revise laws enacted by the previous administration that curtail the rights of women and criminal laws that provide inadequate protection to women, Human Rights Watch said. There is no specific law criminalizing violence against women at home or sexual harassment in the workplace, nor does current law allow women to seek protection from the state, including restraining orders on violent men.

International human rights law and the principles contained in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and subsequent resolutions on women, peace, and security oblige governments to take steps to remove discrimination against women in public life, and to respect their right to take part in public affairs. Such action should set the standard for the essential role of women in Myanmar in preventing and ending armed conflicts. This includes peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response, and post-conflict reconstruction.

“Myanmar’s government and military and ethnic armed groups should all commit to promoting respect for women’s rights,” Taylor said. “These parties can start at the upcoming Panglong Peace Conference by ensuring that women have a prominent place at the negotiating table.”

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New Report Urges Myanmar Government to Address Displaced Refugees

Three civil society organizations have released a joint report, titled Invisible Lives: The Untold Story of Displacement in Burma, underlying the ongoing challenges facing displaced ethnic communities in Myanmar. The report highlights the case of Mon refugees who were repatriated from Thailand in 1994 only to remain as internally displaced persons (IDPs) for the last twenty years. In Myanmar, one of the world’s longest running civil wars has inevitably led to a displacement crisis that has predominantly affected the ethnic minority communities.

In their report, Human Rights Foundation of Monland, Burma Link and Burma Partnership. In doing so, expose the factors that led to displacement, along with the obstacles facing IDPs upon their return to Myanmar. These findings may be applied not only to Mon refugees but also to the rest of Burma’s 644,000 displaced individuals, including the approximately 100,000 refugees living along the Thailand-Burma border. The organizations claim that recently, much attention surrounding Myanmar has focused on the democratic reform, 2015 elections and the future of the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led Government, while a profound humanitarian crisis and continuing concerns of the ethnic minority communities in the southeast have been largely ignored. The recent story of political and economic reform has insufficiently addressed the ongoing struggles of IDPs.

According to the report, the roots of Mon IDPs traces back to early conflict beginning in 1948, as Mon ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) fought for self-determination and ethnic equality. The following years, through periods of intense military campaigns by the Burma Army against the Mon EAOs, eventually resulted in the displacement of between 10,000 and 12,000 ethnic Mon civilians into Thailand in 1990. Unfortunately, this did not offer any respite for the Mon refugees, who were eventually forced back into Myanmar despite not having any guarantee that they would be free from violence or persecution.

To this day, returned Mon refugees continue to face serious challenges at IDP sites in Myanmar, including the inability to maintain a sustainable livelihood, food insecurity and limited access to healthcare.

In addition, Invisible Lives has documented the decreasing humanitarian aid available to Mon IDPs, a trend that has been observed throughout Burma’s ethnic border regions as international aid priorities have shifted to inside the country as a result of the country’s recent economic and political transitions.

A number of Mon IDPs interviewed for Invisible Lives expressed concern over their personal security when considering their return to their place of origin as “border-trade, land disputes and natural resource extraction have the potential of renewing outbreaks of armed conflict in the southeast.”

Despite a ceasefire in place, numerous interviewees spoke of the fragility of the peace process and questioned how they might be protected in the event of renewed conflict. This concern is not limited to just the ethnic Mon – the lack of genuine political will from successive Myanmar governments and military regimes to address the root causes of conflict in ethnic regions has led to numerous international and domestic human rights advocates, including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee to question how Myanmar’s current peace process is going to achieve sustainable peace. Failure to address these root causes will only further complicate the already complex lead-up process to the 21st Century Panglong Conference.

Returning refugees, the organizations say, must also contend with limited land ownership rights, which have long contributed to limited land security and further displacement. This feeling was best characterized by Khu Oo Reh, General-Secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council, who recently responded to a statement by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, during their meeting in which the state counselor asked political stakeholders to think about how they can “give” as oppose to “take” during the upcoming peace process. In contrast, Khu Oo Reh highlighted how historically, successive Myanmar governments and military regimes have continually exploited ethnic areas, stating, “Go and look at the non-Bamar ethnic states. Mountains have turned flattened, flat lands (plains) become desert, river, stream and ponds dried. Our villages were being destroyed and our population have fled to jungles and mountains. Our mineral resources have been depleted and no trees and bamboos (forest) exist anymore. Now, what do you want more from us? What should we give more?”

Invisible Lives has illuminated a number of factors that should be seriously considered by the new NLD-led Government with genuine political will ahead of the upcoming 21st Century Panglong conference. If the peace process is to be a success, all stakeholders must take the time to examine the factors that underscore the tensions between non-Myanmar ethnic nationalities groups, the Myanmar Army and the Myanmar government. All parties involved in the peace process, including international peace donors, must also recognize the dire conditions facing IDPs in Burma, namely to help provide sustainable livelihoods for conflict-affected displaced ethnic populations.

Finally, the report says, any talk of repatriation must be inclusive with meaningful consultation and participation of refugees and IDPs themselves and potential local hosts, as well as ethnic community-based organizations, to ensure that their concerns are addressed adequately and effectively for long term sustainable solutions. This should also include special attention to international instruments such as the UN’s Principles on Housing, Land and Property Rights for Refugees and Displaced Persons (also known as the ‘Pinheiro Principles’) and other best practices.

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Civil Society Launches #Freethe5KH Campaign in Support of Imprisoned Rights Defenders

Inffographic-_Free-the-5_ENGCivil society has launched a campaign in support of the five Cambodian human rights defenders, who are currently in pre-trial detention and under judicial investigation for allegations of bribery. The five face charges in regard to providing advice and legitimate reimbursement of food and transport costs to the woman alleged to have had an extra-marital relationship with the deputy opposition leader, Kem Sokha.

The five rights defenders have now spent over 100 days in prison.

More than 50 local, regional and international civil society organizations launched the #FreeThe5KH campaign in support of the five human rights defenders who are currently in pre-trial detention and under judicial investigation for trumped-up allegations of bribery. The organizations say the charges have all the hallmarks of being politically motivated, amounting to legal harassment.

Since April 28th 2016, the five Cambodian human rights defenders – four senior staff members from the NGO Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), Mr. Ny Sokha, Mr. Yi Soksan, Mr. Nay Vanda and Ms. Lim Mony, and deputy secretary-general of the National Election Committee (and former ADHOC staff member) Mr. Ny Chakrya – have been detained.

On May 2nd, the four ADHOC staff were indicted with bribing a witness, and Ny Chakrya was indicted as an accomplice to the same crime. United Nations (UN) staffer Mr. Soen Sally was also indicted as an accomplice; however, he remains free due to his immunity as a UN official. That same day, Chakrya was transferred to Police Judiciare and the four ADHOC staff were transferred to Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison.The Appeal Court denied the detainees bail on June 13th 2016. A final appeal against the bail decisions is currently pending before the Supreme Court.

While they may be behind bars, the five have not been forgotten.

The #FreeThe5KH campaign aims to garner support for the detained human rights defenders, to remind them that the public has not forgotten about their cause and to help keep their morale high while they remain in arbitrary detention.

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In Laos, Three Human Rights Activists Held Incommunicado

Three Lao human rights activists have been arrested in March 2016 in circumstances that may constitute enforced disappearances, says Amnesty International. They remain in incommunicado detention since they appeared on national television on May 25th in a report that confirmed that they had been arrested for threatening national security through social media postings.

Soukan Chaithad (32), Lodkham Thammavong (30) and Somphone Phimmasone (29) are Lao nationals who had been working in Thailand until February 2016, when they returned to Laos to obtain documentation to continue working there. The three had participated in a peaceful demonstration of around 30 people outside the Lao embassy in Bangkok on December 2nd 2015, Lao national day, and had posted a number of messages on Facebook criticising the Laos government for corruption, deforestation and human rights violations. 

Lodkham Thammavong and Somphone Phimmasone, who are a couple, were arrested at home in Ban Vang Tay Village, Nong Bok District, Khammuan Province on March 5th. Soukan Chaithad was arrested on March 22nd, reportedly at the Ministry of Public Security office in Savannaket City, western Laos, where he had gone to renew his passport. The arrests may amount to enforced disappearances, as the whereabouts of the three are being concealed after their arrests.  

On May 25th, the three appeared on state television wearing prison uniforms, sitting at a table in front of uniformed police and men in plain clothes, in a report that confirmed that they had been arrested for allegedly being a threat to national security through social media postings. During the report, Soukan Chaithad said that he would “change his attitude and stop all activities that betray the nation”. He added that his confession had not been coerced by the authorities.

The three still remain in incommunicado detention. It is unclear what offences they are accused of committing, whether they have been charged and where they are detained.  

Amnesty International is calling on the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Soukan Chaithad, Lodkham Thammavong and Somphone Phimmasone if they have been arrested solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. They also urge the authorities to publicly make known the charges against the three, their whereabouts and well-being and demand that the Lao authorities immediately cease the practice of enforced disappearances and ensure access of individuals arrested and charged with recognized criminal offenses to their family and lawyers of their choosing, in line with international standards.

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is a one-party state under the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are severely restricted in the country. In September 2014, a new Prime Ministerial Decree on management of information through the Internet was enacted. Since its enactment at least two people have been arrested in relation to information posted online, one of whom has since been released. The other, Bounthanh Thammavong, is a Polish national of Lao descent who was convicted of criticizing the ruling party on Facebook and other anti-government activities and sentenced to four years and nine months in prison.  

Laos signed the International Covenant on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances in September 2008 but has not yet ratified it. The most well-known enforced disappearance case in recent years involved Sombath Somphone, who was last seen at a police post in the capital Vientiane in December 2012. The government has acknowledged his disappearance but has failed to ensure a full and independent investigation.

Sompawn Khantisouk, an entrepreneur who was active on conservation issues, remains disappeared since being abducted by men believed to be police in 2007.

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Chinese Human rights Lawyer Wang Yu Released on Bail Following Confession

On August 1st 2016 a videotaped confession of Chinese human rights defender Wang Yu was circulated on Chinese state media websites in which she states that she has been released on bail. Wang Yu had been in detention since July 9th 2015 and in January 2016 was charged with ‘’subversion of state power.’’ She was one of scores of human rights lawyers who were rounded up in a nationwide crackdown and of whom around 20 still remain in detention.

The conditions surrounding Wang Yu’s bail and the extent of her freedom are unknown, furthermore doubts exist as to the veracity of her confession, according to international human rights group Frontline Defenders.

Wang Yu is a human rights lawyer who has taken on a number of so-called ‘’sensitive’’ cases since beginning her human rights work in 2011. Among those she has defended is Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti, who in September 2014 was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of separatism. She also provided legal assistance to the families of six schoolgirls who were sexually abused by their teachers in Hainan province.

In her confession released on August 1st, Wang Yu criticized fellow human rights lawyers, saying that they were motivated by money and fame and blamed overseas activists for using human rights defenders as tools to tarnish the reputation of the Chinese government.

Wang Yu’s confession is the most recent in a series of televised confessions of human rights defenders which have been broadcast in an attempt to undermine human rights work in the country. At least two of those who had previously appeared in such videos later said that their confessions were scripted and that they were pressured to participate.

A legal assistant, Zhao Wei, who was detained at the same time as Wang Yu, was reportedly released on bail on July 7th, although her husband has since been unable to contact her.

Wang Yu had been held incommunicado since July 9th 2015 and her husband, Bao Longjun, remains in detention, having been seized on the same day. Their 16 year old son, Bao Zhuoxuan, is under tight surveillance at the home of his grandparents following an unsuccessful attempt to flee China last year with the help of two human rights defender friends of his parents.

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In Vietnam, Attacks on Political Activists, Rights Defenders Must Be Investigated

Three recent attacks on people who have been deliberately knocked off their motorbikes appear to be part of a wider series of attacks against political activists, human rights defenders and their relatives. Amnesty International urges the Vietnamese authorities to immediately and impartially investigate these incidents and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Throughout July 2016, there were several attacks against political activists, human rights defenders and their relatives. These included three incidents within four days where the victims were forced from their motorbikes as they traveled at speed. The three incidents, described below, bear striking resemblances and took place in circumstances that strongly indicate the involvement of police or of people working under police orders.

On July 10th, La Viet Dung, well-known for his online political activism, was attacked after taking part in a soccer match with the No-U Football Club, a club which opposes Chinese foreign policy in Vietnam. Dung told Amnesty International that when he arrived to take part in the game, two uniformed police officers and eight to ten other men in plain clothes were present. According to Dung, these men ordered the staff of the football pitch facility to inform the team that they could not play. The players persisted, arguing that they had reserved the pitch and paid in advance.

When they eventually left the facility to congregate at a nearby restaurant, they were followed by the police and men in plain clothes. As the members of the team ate in the restaurant, the police and plain clothes men waited outside in and on their vehicles, which included one marked police car and six motorbikes without police insignia. When the players emerged from the restaurant and went their separate ways, several of them were followed by these men.

Dung told Amnesty International that when he was around one mile from the restaurant, travelling by motorbike, and as he turned on to a dark road he noticed that he was being followed by three motorbikes, each of which had a rider and passenger. One of the motorbikes cut in front of Dung, causing him to lose control. When Dung fell to the ground, the two other motorbikes stopped and their riders and passengers surrounded him, kicking him in the head as he lay on the ground. The motorbike that had cut him off turned around and its rider and passenger joined in the violence. The men kicked Dung countless times in the head. They also hit him several times on the head with a brick.

Dung’s assailants left when people emerged from houses along the road. A passing car took Dung to the hospital. He had sustained a number of injuries to the head. He explained to Amnesty International that his injuries would have been much worse had he not been wearing a helmet.

On July 13th, retired teacher and democracy activist To Oanh and his wife, Hoang Thi Nhu Hoa, were travelling by motorbike to their home in Bac Giang province when a man, who they say was in his 30s and who was travelling in the same direction, veered his motorbike in front of theirs, causing them to lose control. They both fell to the ground and were injured: To Oanh was knocked unconscious and a bone in his face was broken, and Hoang Thi Nhu Hoa sustained minor injuries. The assailant turned his vehicle around and rode back in the opposite direction.

On the morning of the same day, Nguyen Trung Duc, whose mother is human rights defender and recently released prisoner of conscience, Ho Thi Bich Khuong, sustained injuries to his head and arm in an almost identical incident to that involving To Oanh and his wife. As Duc was driving his motorbike in Nghe An province, two men riding parallel to him on another motorbike cut across him, causing him to lose control of the vehicle. Duc fell to the ground and was knocked unconscious. He woke a short time later covered in blood. As in the case of Oanh and Hoa, Duc’s assailant rode away from the scene.

Duc made his way to hospital where he received dozens of stitches to close a deep wound running 15cm along the top of his head and a 10cm wound running along his upper right arm. In the days before the attack on Duc, men in plain clothes known to be police were stationed outside the house where he and Ho Thi Bich Khuong live in Nam Dan district, Nghe An province, apparently keeping his mother under surveillance. On July 8th, Duc and Ho Thi Bich Khương visited his grandmother’s house. Shortly after they left there via a back entrance, police entered the house searching upstairs and downstairs, demanding to know where Ho Thi Bich Khuong had gone.

The three incidents outlined above were deliberate attacks, Amnesty says. The circumstances surrounding these attacks raise serious concerns that these attacks were undertaken by or at the instigation of police. Amnesty International calls on the Vietnamese authorities to immediately and impartially investigate these attacks and to prosecute those suspected of responsibility for them, regardless of their official capacity or otherwise.

Vietnam has a longstanding reputation of being one of Asia’s most prolific jailers of political activists and human rights defenders. Amnesty International conservatively estimates that there are currently at least 84 prisoners of conscience in the country. In recent years, physical attacks against political activists and human rights defenders have increased, with scores injured in vicious assaults committed by men in uniform or plain clothes known or believed to be police.

 

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Call to Release Detained Human Rights Defenders in Cambodia

The Cambodian Government must immediately release five prominent human rights defenders who are currently arbitrarily detained based on trumped-up charges that stem solely from their human rights activities, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and other human rights groups said Thursday. The call was made following a three-day mission conducted by the Observatory in Phnom Penh from July 17 to 19th 2016.

The Observatory also calls on the authorities to end threats, intimidation and harassment against human rights defenders in Cambodia.

“An increasing number of Cambodian human rights defenders find themselves behind bars or forced into exile. The Government must immediately end its campaign of repression against civil society and release all those who have been arbitrarily detained,” said Karim Lahidji, President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

On July 18th 2016, Ny Chakrya, former Head of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association’s (ADHOC) human rights section and current National Election Committee (NEC) Deputy Secretary-General, stood trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on charges of defamation brought by the former Deputy Prosecutor and the Investigative Judge at the Siem Reap Provincial Court.

At the trial, Ny Chakrya objected to the continuation of the proceedings without the presence in court of the two plaintiffs. Ny Chakrya’s legal team argued that the absence of the two plaintiffs prevented their client from challenging his accusers. When the trial Judge Khy Chhai refused to adjourn the proceedings to allow for the presence of the plaintiffs, Ny Chakrya’s attorney requested that he be allowed to file a motion to recuse the judge within 30 days. As a result, Judge Khy Chhai adjourned the trial pending a decision on the request to recuse him. The proceedings lasted less than 20 minutes.

“The trial of Ny Chakrya exemplifies the Cambodian judiciary’s lack of impartiality and independence. Until he was faced with a request to have him recused, the judge appeared determined to proceed with the prosecution of the defendant in total disregard of standards for fair trials,” said Andrea Giorgetta, FIDH Director of Southeast Asia, who observed the court proceedings.

The Observatory recalls that Ny Chakrya has been detained since May 2, 2016, in relation to another case in which he is accused of having been an accomplice in the bribing of a witness, along with ADHOC staff members Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda, Yi Soksan and Lim Mony. If convicted, the five human rights defenders could face from five to ten years’ imprisonment.

“The ongoing detention of the five human rights defenders is arbitrary and comes as yet another confirmation of how the judiciary is being used by the Government of Cambodia to silence and intimidate dissenting voices. Courts should send a strong signal of judicial independence and grant bail to all detained human rights defenders as a first step towards their unconditional release,” said Gerald Staberock, World Organization Against Torture Secretary General.

On June 13th 2016, the Court of Appeals in Phnom Penh denied bail to Ny Chakrya, Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda, Yi Soksan and Lim Mony. The court’s refusal to release the five detained human rights defenders on bail is a significant obstacle to the exercise of their basic rights, including the fundamental right to liberty and the right to a fair trial.

Family members of the five expressed concerns over poor detention conditions in the prisons. They noted overcrowded cells, insufficient and poor quality food and inadequate medical care. In addition, the family members complained that their relatives were not segregated from the general prison population of convicted criminals, including those imprisoned for serious offenses.

The Observatory calls on the Cambodian Government to comply with the country’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cambodia is a State party. Article 9(3) of the ICCPR prescribes that pre-trial detention should be an exception and should be as short as possible. The refusal to grant bail to the human rights defenders also compromises their right to be presumed innocent (guaranteed by Article 14(2) of the ICCPR).

The Observatory also urges the Cambodian authorities to ensure the respect of international human rights standards related to prison conditions. These include the United Nations (UN) Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (”Nelson Mandela Rules”) and the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment.

During the Observatory’s mission in addition to the observation of Ny Chakrya’s trial and a visit to Ny Chakrya in Phnom Penh’s Police Judiciaire prison, Mr. Giorgetta, the mission delegate, also met with activists, human rights defenders, and members of civil society to discuss their human rights concerns, as well as with acting Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Deputy Leader Kem Sokha and European Union (EU) Ambassador to Cambodia George Edgar.

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Murder of Kem Ley Adds Grave Concern For Deteriorating Human Rights in Cambodia

1653-z-photo_2016-07-11_14-46-49The human rights community worldwide is condemning the murder of Cambodian activist and political analyst Kem Ley in Phnom Penh on July 10th 2016. Kem Ley was a strong advocate of democracy, good governance and human rights in Cambodia, who worked closely with grassroots movements.

20 human rights groups issued a statement Wednesday, joining 70 Cambodian civil society organizations who expressed their outrage Tuesday. The signatories call for a prompt, thorough, impartial and independent investigation into Kem Ley’s death, and call on the authorities to ensure accountability for this atrocious killing. They also call on the international community to support Cambodia’s civil society in their campaigns to obtain the immediate release of all political prisoners and an end to all human rights violations, including judicial harassment and attacks on human rights defenders and organizations.

Kem Ley, 46, was shot twice, in his chest and his head, in a heavily-frequented Caltex petrol station cafe in central Phnom Penh shortly before 9:00 on Sunday morning.

A suspect was arrested shortly after the shooting, about two kilometers away from the murder scene. Upon arrest, the man identified himself as “Chuob Samlab”, which translates in English as “Meet Kill”. He confessed to the murder, which he claimed was over an unpaid debt of $3,000. However, suspicions of underlying political motives behind Kem Ley’s death remain strong. Kem Ley’s wife has vehemently denied that her husband had any debts whatsoever. Further, 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.

Bystanders surrounding Kem Ley’s body after his death refused to allow authorities to remove his body from the crime scene over fears that the police would contaminate or destroy evidence. A growing number of people gathered outside the petrol station where Kem Ley’s body remained after the shooting before thousands began a procession marching across the city to bring him to Wat Chas pagoda, on Chrouy Changvar peninsular, on Sunday afternoon. By the time they reached the pagoda, about seven kilometres away, the march had swelled to around 5,000 people, including monks and local communities.

“We are shocked and grieving at Kem Ley’s murder,” said Tep Vanny, Boeung Kak Lake community representative. “He stood up for human rights and justice and a better Cambodia, and now we in turn demand for justice for him, his family and all Cambodian people.”

Kem Ley’s death is a tragic loss for civil society in Southeast Asia. He was a prominent and brave political commentator and a strong advocate of democracy, good governance and human rights in Cambodia, who worked closely with grassroots movements.

In 2014, Kem Ley founded grassroots advocacy group Khmer for Khmer, aimed at encouraging the formation of grassroots-based political parties across Cambodia. A year later, the group began the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP). Kem Ley had no part in the leadership of the new party, but he remained an outspoken political analyst and government critic. He leaves a wife, who is five months pregnant, and four children.

“Kem Ley was a vibrant leader who inspired thousands of community activists through his work,” said Sahmakum Teang Tnaut executive director Ee Sarom. “Everyone who knew him is shocked at his brutal murder, and will miss his independent and original ideas.”

The murder comes days after Kem Ley spoke on a radio talk show on popular broadcaster Radio Free Asia about a recent report from London-based international organization Global Witness.

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, including at debates at the UN Human Rights Council, which concluded its 32nd session at the beginning of this month. The killing of Kem Ley has only added to concerns over the situation in Cambodia, after the arbitrary arrest and detention of five human rights defenders in May 2016 on trumped-up charges.

The groups said 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.

International organizations, numerous Phnom Penh-based embassies and UN experts have condemned the murder. A statement released Monday by Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior warned against national and international communities “delivering unconfirmed information which could potentially mislead the public”. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen also urged the public not to treat the murder as political.

Political tensions are rising in Cambodia ahead of commune elections in 2017 and national elections in 2018. Cambodian civil society groups say it is imperative that the investigation surrounding Kem Ley’s murder be conducted with the utmost transparency if it is to be credible and diffuse misunderstandings, which would impact on the chances of upcoming elections to be free and fair.

“Cambodians must be free to participate in democracy without fear,” said Naly Pilorge, Deputy Director of Advocacy at LICADHO. “His assassination is a big loss for democracy in Cambodia and we demand swift action, beginning with a full independent investigation using international experts, to achieve justice.”

“Kem Ley was a brave and outspoken critic of the government, and now his voice has been silenced. His murder might be an attempt to intimidate other critical voices, but Cambodian people will continue to express our opinion, exercise our freedoms and speak out,” said Moeun Tola, executive director of labor rights NGO CENTRAL.

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One Year On, China Must Free Rights Lawyers

One year after the Chinese government began a nationwide round-up of more than 300 human rights lawyers, legal assistants and rights activists on July 9th 2015, 24 still remain in detention, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

The government has blocked lawyers and families from meeting with 18 of these 24 detainees, putting them at high risk of torture and other ill-treatment. Human Rights Watch said these lawyers and activists are being held for exercising their fundamental rights and should immediately be released.

“Mass arrests, forced confessions, and secret detentions are Beijing’s answer to rights lawyers who have been working to protect the rights of others in China,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Every day these people languish in detention, Beijing harms ordinary people’s access to justice, dissuades other lawyers from taking sensitive cases, and deepens the stain on China’s reputation.”

The authorities have formally arrested the 24 lawyers and activists, although no credible evidence against them has been made publicly available. Eleven have been charged with the serious crimes of “subversion,” which can carry a life sentence, and five have been charged with “inciting subversion,” which can result in up to 15 years in prison. Three have been charged with “creating disturbances,” three with “gathering crowds to disturb social order,” and two with “organizing others to illegally cross national borders.” Most of the 24 are held in detention centers in Tianjin municipality in northeastern China.  

Eighteen of these 24 detainees have been denied access to lawyers of their own choosing or families, according to the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group. Article 37 of the Criminal Procedure Law requires that suspects’ lawyers request permission from the investigators of the case before they can meet with the suspects in cases of “major corruption,” terrorism and state secret cases.

In all of these 18 cases, the police have repeatedly denied their lawyers’ requests to meet them because “there was no such person” in the detention center; the “officers in charge of the case are not there”; or because the detained lawyers have “already appointed their own lawyers” and do not wish to see the lawyers appointed by their families.

The authorities have also harassed and interrogated family members of these lawyers, including children, and prevented them from leaving the country. In one case, Beijing police detained, then on three separate occasions interrogated Bao Mengmeng, the 16-year-old son of detained lawyer Wang Yu and legal advocate Bao Lungjun, who was heading to study in Australia; they also confiscated his passport. When Bao Mengmeng fled to a border town in Myanmar, unidentified men kidnapped him and brought him back to his relatives’ home in Inner Mongolia, where he has been subjected to house arrest since.

Authorities have also refused to divulge information about 18 of the cases to families and their lawyers, or even provide the names of the main officers responsible for the cases, as is required under Chinese law.

Shortly after the wave of detentions began, state media outlets published unsubstantiated allegations about lawyers, activists, and the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, the firm with which some of the 24 were affiliated, 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 2015, the Chinese news agency Xinhua quoted the alleged confession of the firm’s director, Zhou Shifeng, stating that he had said the firm “had broken the law” and “brought great risks to social stability.”

Four lawyers who attempted to seek answers about the cases’ progress from the Tianjin Procuratorate and to submit formal complaints about Tianjin police’s procedural violations were themselves taken into custody on June 6th 2016. Tianjin police seized them and a separate group of family members of detained lawyers protesting in front of the procuracy, and held them for nearly 24 hours before releasing them.

“One year after these lawyers were detained, there is no evidence whatsoever that these individuals committed a recognizable criminal offense,” Richardson said.

The Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, which employed four of those detained in addition to director Zhou Shifeng, has effectively been shut down over the past year. Most of the 55 lawyers who had worked there left to work for other firms. The Beijing Bureau of Justice has refused to let two partners of the law firm, rights lawyers Liu Xiaoyuan and Zhou Lixin, transfer to other law firms or let them pass the bureau’s annual evaluation of lawyers, without which they cannot practice law as of June 1st.

Since the late 1970s, Chinese authorities have enacted thousands of laws and regulations, created a modern court system, established hundreds of law schools to train legal professionals, and publicized through constant propaganda campaigns the concept of the “rule of law.”

Yet those authorities also treat lawyers – particularly those like Gao Zhisheng and Chen Guangcheng, who worked on politically sensitive cases – with hostility. They have long faced violence inside and outside courtrooms; intimidation; threats, surveillance, harassment, arbitrary detention, prosecution, and suspension or disbarment from practicing law for pursuing their profession.

Harassment of the legal profession has intensified under President Xi Jinping, who assumed power in March 2013. Some prominent rights lawyers targeted by authorities since that time include: Xu Zhiyong, founder of the New Citizens Movement who was sentenced to four years in prison in 2014; Pu Zhiqiang, who was given a three-year suspended sentence for “inciting ethnic hatred” and “creating disturbances” in December 2015; legal advocate Guo Feixiong, who has been on a hunger strike since May 9, 2016, while serving his six-year term; and Guangzhou lawyer Tang Jingling, who was given a five-year prison term in January 2016 for promoting the ideas of non-violent civil disobedience.

Countries and international bodies, including the European Union, Germany, the United States, Canada and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, have called for the release of the lawyers, as have major bar associations around the world. In March, a dozen countries issued a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council calling for their release.

“China’s community of human rights lawyers has thrived despite government harassment and detention, assisting countless victims of rights abuses and other injustices,” Richardson said. “The Chinese government should recognize that China’s lawyers and the rule of law are crucial for China’s future, and act now to reverse this clampdown.”

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Authorities Must Investigate Destruction of Mosques in Myanmar

Myanmar authorities must undertake a prompt, independent, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation into the violent destruction of buildings in a mosque compound in central Myanmar, Amnesty International says.

Failure to investigate and hold those suspected to be responsible to account would send a worrying message that attacks against religious minorities can continue to go unpunished, Amnesty said.

“The authorities must take swift action to show that it is treating such incidents against Muslims and other religious minorities seriously. This incident must be immediately and independently investigated and those suspected of involvement must be brought to justice and victims receive effective remedies including reparations,” said Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

On June 23rd, an unidentified mob partially destroyed a mosque and other buildings in the mosque compound in Thuyethamain village, Bago Region. According to information received by Amnesty International, the attack erupted after a dispute about a building under construction in the mosque compound.

One Muslim man was injured during the attack, and is currently in the hospital receiving treatment for head injuries. The authorities have since taken control of the scene, however some Muslim villagers fled in fear and are afraid to return to their homes.

“Failure to investigate and hold those suspected to be responsible to account would send a worrying message that attacks against religious minorities can continue to go unpunished,” said Rafendi Djamin.

The past years in Myanmar have seen a disturbing rise in religious intolerance, often fueled by hard-line Buddhist nationalist groups, directed particularly at Muslims. Such sentiments were stoked in the past when the former government failed to effectively investigate similar instances of violence.  Instead of tackling these issues head on and trying to defuse tensions, the Myanmar authorities continue to take steps that could fan the flames of intolerance even further.

“The new government must condemn this attack, and other attacks on religious minorities, and make it clear that such violence is a criminal offence and will not be tolerated. It must also condemn unequivocally all incitement to hatred, violence and discrimination and take concrete action to protect the rights of all people in Myanmar regardless of their religion,” said Rafendi Djamin.

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