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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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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