Refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court

On the eve of international human rights day, advocacy groups urged member states of the United Nations Security Council to refer the cases of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity in North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Under Article 13(b) of the Rome Statute, the ICC may exercise its jurisdiction with respect to crimes against humanity committed by a national of a non-member state if the case is referred to it by the UN Security Council.

As many as 100,000 are currently imprisoned in North Korean concentration camps or gulags, according to HRF. Hundreds of thousands more are deprived of food and other basic needs, and continue to suffer in abhorrent conditions.

Human Rights Foundation (HRF) called on the Council to discuss the issue of North Korea at its meeting on Friday, December 9th and refer the Kim regime to the ICC for investigation and prosecution. “As you know, the [Commission of Inquiry] on North Korea concluded that the Kim regime was responsible for ‘systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations’ that ‘entailed crimes against humanity based on State policies,’” says the letter signed by Thor Halvorssen, president of HRF. “We respectfully call upon you to heed the call of the international community and, on behalf of the people of North Korea, refer Kim Jong-un to the International Criminal Court, so that he can be held accountable for the crimes against humanity and the suffering of millions of people under his family’s dynastic rule.”

A grim array of human rights abuses, driven by “policies established at the highest level of State,” have been and continue to be committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), according to a United Nations-mandated report released in 2014 which also calls for urgent action to address the rights situation in the country, including referral to the ICC. It also recommended that the Security Council press for individual sanctions for those responsible for rights violations. These recommendations were later endorsed by resolutions adopted by the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, most recently last month when the third committee of the General Assembly adopted its resolution on North Korea with “yes” votes from 112 states.

Human Rights Watch said that United Nations Security Council members should demand justice for the countless victims of human rights violations by the North Korean government: “The Security Council’s spotlight on North Korea’s horrific rights record should spur calls for accountability for the government’s crimes against humanity,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Only intensified international pressure from UN member states has a hope of compelling North Korea to cease the severe rights violations that underpin Kim Jong-Un’s rule.”

Friday’s debate marks the third straight year that the Security Council has formally discussed North Korea’s rights violations as posing a threat to international peace and security. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, will brief the council members on the rights situation in North Korea, including the work of the UN Human Rights Office in Seoul to gather evidence of the abuses for which the government and North Korean leaders are responsible. Spain, as current president of the Security Council, needed the support of at least eight other members for this discussion to take place. Nine council members, including Spain, formally requested the meeting in a December 1st letter to the Spanish presidency.

Established by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2013 the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (COI) investigated for one year human rights violations  in North Korea, aiming to ensure full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity. “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the Commission said in the report, which is unprecedented in scope.

In a 400-page set of linked reports and supporting documents, culled from first-hand testimony from victims and witnesses, the COI documented in great detail the “unspeakable atrocities” committed in the country. It described crimes such as “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, forcible transfer of populations, enforced disappearance and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” 

The 2014 COI report specifically stated that they found “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” that “entailed crimes against humanity based on State policies.” The responsibility for these crimes reaches many organs of the North Korean government, and traces its way to the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. “Crimes against humanity are ongoing in the [DPRK] because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place,” the report said.

“The fact that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea…has for decades pursued policies involving crimes that shock the conscience of humanity raises questions about the inadequacy of the response of the international community,” the report stated. “The international community must accept its responsibility to protect the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from crimes against humanity, because the Government of the DPRK has manifestly failed to do so.”

Halvorssen called for action: “In light of this grave situation, we believe it is no longer bearable for the Security Council to remain silent regarding the crimes against humanity of North Korea’s regime. As you are aware, in a 2014 resolution of the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly Third Committee, it was recommended that the Security Council consider referring ‘the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the International Criminal Court.’ Additionally, last month, the Third Committee unanimously passed a North Korean human rights resolution calling for referring the Kim regime to the ICC.’’

In June 2015, following a resolution of the Human Rights Council, High Commissioner Zeid opened an office in Seoul to continue to gather information about North Korea’s human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. In March 2016, the Human Rights Council created a group of independent experts on accountability to more closely examine how to deliver truth and justice to victims in North Korea. The group will present its findings to the Human Rights Council in March 2017.

Last week, the Security Council expressed deep concern for the suffering of North Koreans in a resolution condemning North Korea’s September 9 nuclear test. The resolution states that the council “reiterates the deep concern at the grave hardship that the people of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] are subjected to, condemns the DPRK for pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles instead of the welfare of its people while people in the DPRK have great unmet needs, and emphasizes the necessity of the DPRK respecting and ensuring the welfare and inherent dignity of people in the DPRK.”

“The Security Council should explore ways to translate these important annual discussions on North Korean abuses into action that would lead to accountability for the appalling crimes its leadership has perpetrated,” Robertson said. “The council discussion of Pyongyang’s disastrous human rights record shows that crimes against humanity cannot be ignored, and that those responsible for atrocities in North Korea should face justice.”

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China’s Secretive Detention System Relies on Solitary Confinement, Torture

The Chinese government must immediately abolish a secretive detention system used to coerce confessions from corruption suspects, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday in a new report. The 102 page report details abuses against shuanggui detainees, including prolonged sleep deprivation, being forced into stress positions for extended periods of time, deprivation of water and food and severe beatings.

The Communist Party-run system, known as shuanggui, has no basis under Chinese law but is a key component of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.

“President Xi has built his anti-corruption campaign on an abusive and illegal detention system,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Torturing suspects to confess won’t bring an end to corruption, but will end any confidence in China’s judicial system.”

Detainees are also subject to solitary and incommunicado detention in unofficial detention facilities. After “confessing” to corruption, they are typically brought into the criminal justice system, convicted and sentenced to often lengthy prison terms.

The report is based on 21 Human Rights Watch interviews with four former shuanggui detainees, as well as family members of detainees; 35 detailed accounts from detainees culled from over 200 Chinese media reports and an analysis of 38 court verdicts from across the country.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) oversees the shuanggui system, to which all of the party’s 88 million members are subject. The CCDI and its lower-level offices, local Commissions for Discipline Inspection (CDIs), typically target government officials, but those detained also include bankers, university officials and entertainment industry figures, among others. Bo Xilai, a former member of the party’s powerful Politburo, was reportedly held under shuanggui, where he said he confessed under “improper pressure” and was later sentenced to life in prison.

The start of a shuanggui investigation is often marked by an individual’s disappearance – family members are given no notification of the person’s detention or location, no information about the alleged infraction, or the length of detention. Detainees have no access to lawyers.

Although there are time limits for shuanggui, CDI investigators can seek repeated extensions, permitting detainees to be held indefinitely, often until they confess. Shuanggui facilities are typically rooms in hostels with special features, such as padded walls or a lack of windows, to prevent suicides or escapes. Detainees are guarded round-the-clock by shifts of officials, often put together in an ad hoc fashion for this purpose, and subjected to interrogations by CDI officers.

A former shuanggui detainee told Human Rights Watch, “If you sit you have to sit for 12 hours straight, if you stand then you have to stand for 12 hours as well. My legs became swollen, and my buttocks were raw and started oozing pus.”

While President Xi has characterized the fight against corruption as a “matter of life and death” for the Communist Party, the same is true for shuanggui detainees: there have been at least 11 deaths in shuanggui custody reported by the media since 2010. In most cases, authorities claimed these were suicides, but family members often suspected mistreatment, and the lack of comprehensive, impartial investigations into these deaths deepens these suspicions.

While former detainees reported that the harsh conditions in shuanggui prompted suicidal thoughts, they also said the constant surveillance and the room’s modifications, designed to prevent suicide attempts, made it difficult to put such thoughts into action.

Some CDIs, concerned about the reputational damage caused by deaths in custody, have partnered with hospitals and doctors to provide medical care for detainees whom the CDIs know will be subjected to torture and other ill-treatment.

CDIs are supposed to hand over evidence of crimes to the procuratorate, the state investigators and prosecutors who are responsible for investigating official crimes. Instead, Human Rights Watch found that procurators work together with CDI officers and participate directly in shuanggui. Such “joint investigations” extract confessions during shuanggui – where detainees have no procedural protections – and then use those confessions in formal legal proceedings. If in those proceedings detainees retract their confessions, claiming that they were made under duress, the procurators typically threaten to send them back to shuanggui. Judges commonly reject detainee objections in court on the grounds that shuanggui and its practices are outside of the scope of the judicial system.

“In shuanggui corruption cases, the courts function as rubber stamps, lending credibility to an utterly illegal Communist Party process,” Richardson said. “Shuanggui not only further undermines China’s judiciary – it makes a mockery of it.”

The shuanggui system has been a highly effective tool for Communist Party investigators: once they obtain a confession, there is little suspects can do to exonerate themselves. Acquittals are extremely rare, and, except in cases of detainee deaths, few investigators face punishments for abuses. Some interviewees told Human Rights Watch that those who tormented them and their families were promoted for their “effectiveness” in handling corruption cases.

Beijing-based lawyer Du Qing told Human Rights Watch ‘’I had a case, the client said for the first eight days he could only sleep for an hour [each day]. For the remaining 23 hours he was forced to stand, and he had to hold a book on his head without it falling off. He stood for eight days and couldn’t stand it, and confessed to everything and to whatever they said. After he said it, he was allowed two hours of sleep every day. At that point his feet were swollen like an elephant’s, and he could no longer urinate.’’

China has a serious problem with corruption, but successfully combating it requires an independent judicial system, a free media, and robust protections for the rights of suspects, Human Rights Watch said.

“Eradicating corruption won’t be possible so long as the shuanggui system exists,” Richardson said. “Every day this system threatens the lives of party members and underscores the abuses inherent in President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.”

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Myanmar Must End Prosecutions For Criticizing Government

Myanmar authorities continue to arrest and charge individuals, including members of the ruling party, for criticizing the military and government, Human Rights Watch said Monday.

On November 18th 2016, National League for Democracy (NLD) member Myo Yan Naung Thein was charged with defamation for a Facebook post criticizing the military for “failing to defend the country” against attacks in Rakhine State and calling for the commander-in-chief of the armed forces to resign. He is being held without bail, and faces up to three years in prison under Burma’s Telecommunications Law.

“No one seems safe from prosecution under Myanmar’s overly broad laws criminalizing free speech,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s crucial that the NLD, many of whose members spent long years in prison for their political views, act to end these prosecutions and amend the law.”

Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law is a vaguely worded provision that criminalizes “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person by using any telecommunications network.” A member of parliament who serves on the Parliamentary Commission for the Assessment of Legal Affairs and Special Issues recently announced that the commission was preparing to review the law in light of criticism of its continued use.

In recent months, the authorities have used section 66(d) to arrest individuals who allegedly insulted or defamed NLD leaderAung San Suu Kyi, President U Htin Kyaw, or the military. In September, Aung Win Hlaing was sentenced to nine months in prison for calling the president an “idiot” and “crazy” on Facebook. On November 11th, Ko Hla Phone was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly posting digitally altered images of former president Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing on social media. Section 66(d) is also now being used to prosecute the chief executive officer and chief editor of Eleven Media, Than Htut Aung and Wai Phyo, for an article that suggested that Rangoon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein had accepted an expensive watch from a prominent businessman.

Human Rights Watch says that defamation – a false statement of fact that harms someone’s reputation – should not be a criminal offense, as criminal penalties are always a disproportionate punishment for harm to someone’s reputation. Defamation cases involving public figures are particularly problematic, allowing those in power to penalize their critics or those who seek to expose official wrongdoing. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has made clear that speech that is considered insulting, even speech that insults those in a position of power, should never be the basis of a criminal prosecution.

“Exposure of corruption and criticism of the government, however crudely worded, are essential elements of a rights-respecting democracy, and should not be the basis of criminal prosecutions,” Robertson said. “The Myanmar parliament should move quickly to amend section 66(d) to bring it in line with international standards for the protection of free expression.”

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Reporters Without Borders Calls For Release Of Two Leading Journalists in Myanmar

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Myanmar judicial system to drop criminal defamation proceedings against two leading journalists who have been held since November 11th over an editorial suggesting that Rangoon region chief minister Phyo Min Thein took a bribe.

The two journalists are Than Htut Aung, the CEO of the Eleven Media Group, and Wai Phyo, its chief editor.

The chief minister, who is a member of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), announced at a news conference on November 9th that he was bringing a complaint against the two journalists under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which penalizes defamation using a telecommunications network.

Published in the Eleven Media newspaper Eleven Daily and on Than Htut Aung’s personal Facebook page, the editorial claimed that the chief minister accepted a Philippe Patek watch worth 100,000 dollars from a businessman who was recently released from prison and who has been awarded a Rangoon region construction contract.

After refusing to respond to a police summons on November 10th, Than Htut Aung and Wai Phyo were arrested the next day and are now being held in Insein prison pending an appearance before a Rangoon court scheduled for November 25th.

“The Telecommunications Law criminalizes media offenses and, as such, constitutes a disproportionate response in a defamation case,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

“The Rangoon region’s chief minister has every right to defend himself against these allegations but it is completely unacceptable for journalists to be detained for several weeks because of what they publish, just as it is very pernicious for them to be threatened with jail sentences. This case is just reinforcing the already widespread self-censorship.”

This is the first time that a senior NLD official has brought a complaint under the Telecommunications Law. Complaints have in the past been filed against people who posted messages allegedly defaming State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi or President Hint Kyaw but not directly by a ruling party leader until now. A complaint was also filed with the Press Council, which regulates the Myanmar media. But the Press Council said it could not address the case because it had already been referred to the courts.

Representatives of journalists’ associations and a network of lawyers specialized in media issues issue a joint statement on November 13th calling on the Press Council to play its role as mediator in this case.

“Rather than obsessing about the issue of journalistic ethics, the authorities should first create a favorable climate for freedom of expression and information,” Ismaïl added. “We call for the immediate repeal of this repressive law, which is a hangover from the previous regime and has no place in today’s Myanmar. We also call for the Press Council’s mediating role to be reinforced in this kind of case.”

Despite significant progress from 2011 to 2014, the media freedom situation continues to be worrying in Myanmar, which is ranked 143rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.r

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China’s Counter Terrorism Law Represses Human Rights

China's counter terrorism forces in a photo from FIDH and ICT's joint report Dangers of China’s counter terrorism law for Tibetans and Uyghurs, November 15th 2016.

China’s counter terrorism forces in a photo from FIDH and ICT’s joint report Dangers of China’s counter terrorism law for Tibetans and Uyghurs, November 15th 2016.

China’s new counter terrorism law represses human rights and does not prevent terror, rights groups warn.

In a report released Wednesday, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) highlight the serious human rights risks and counter productive nature of China’s new counter terrorism law, which went into effect January 1st 2016 despite concerns voiced by human rights groups regarding the potential for this law to be used to repress religious and ethnic groups.

In particular, they warn of dangers to free expression for Tibetans and Uyghurs and say that Chinese government is using counter terrorism as a justification to crackdown on even mild expressions of religious identity and culture in Tibet and Xinjiang.

ICT’s EU Policy Director Vincent Metten said: “The sweeping measures introduced in the new law – which have alarmed governments globally – are focused less on preventing terror and protecting China’s citizens, and more on the elimination of dissent and enforcement of compliance to Communist Party policies. This is likely to heighten tensions and increase the risk of violence by shutting down other means of recourse, and it also undermines the legitimacy of genuine international counter terror efforts. Peace and stability cannot be achieved through hyper-securitization, nor by labeling as a terrorist the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate the Dalai Lama, whose leadership has ensured that Tibetans do not turn to violence in response to oppression.”

The report draws on ICT and FIDH’s analyses of China’s counter terrorism strategy and legislation, as well as the findings of an international round-table held in June 2016. Experts at this roundtable detailed how the Chinese government has sought to legitimize its repressive measures by passing legislation that intensifies the Chinese Communist Party’s control over free expression and broadens the scope to suppress dissent in Tibet and Xinjiang.

Concerns of the international community that the new law would strengthen an already restrictive security regime are well founded, the report says. Participants alerted the audience to the possible human rights consequences of the law due to its non-compliance with international standards and guidelines, including: the vague definition of terrorism in the legislation; the lack of independent judicial legal recourse; the reintroduction of the concept of ‘reform through education’ without the need for a criminal conviction for persons accused of posing a ‘danger to society’ and the increased concentration of power and attack on civil society by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping.

In August 2016, senior UN advisor Philip G. Alston, a special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights for the United Nations, referred to these dangers when he said that the Chinese Communist Party’s tight grip on civil society was undermining basic rights and risking mass arrest. Mr. Alston, a New York University law professor who visited China in August, said that the Communist Party’s dominance of the legal system left citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with few avenues to complain about issues like pollution and inequality, dismissing the process for filing grievances as ‘’window dressing’’.

In Tibet, despite the absence of any violent insurgency, an aggressive “counter terrorism” drive has resulted in an expansion of militarization across the plateau. By conflating the expression of distinct religious and ethnic identities with “separatism”, and blurring distinctions between violent acts and peaceful dissent, the Chinese government is using counter terrorism as a justification to crackdown on even mild expressions of religious identity and culture in Tibet and Xinjiang.

“China’s intensifying national security strategy and its new counter-terrorism law will have severe consequences for freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and religion in China, which are already sharply curtailed under existing laws and policies,” said FIDH’s Director of Operations, Marceau Sivieude. “Punishing peaceful expression by qualifying any dissent as a threat to national security not only violates international human rights law, but risks increasing tensions and encouraging extremism by closing off all outlets for peaceful expression and dissent.”

China has expressed an interest in cooperating on counter-terrorism initiatives with other countries and inter-governmental agencies, including with EUROPOL. This is an opportunity for governments and international organizations to challenge the risks and human rights violations of China’s new counter-terrorism law, and to insist on a review of the law and China’s overall counter-terrorism strategy, FIDH and ICT said.

The report outlines how and why the law presents a risk to human rights and effective counter terrorism, and how the Chinese authorities and the international community can address these challenges, in order to ensure that China’s counter terrorism approach does not result in more violence.

Last month, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini warned that “The definition of terrorism in the law is vague and could be used to persecute groups or individuals, including from ethnic and religious minorities, who refuse to adhere to state political and socio-economic policies. This could constitute a threat to human rights in China, not only for the Tibetan minority but also for the ethnic and religious minorities in the Xinjiang province.’’

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Prison Reforms Should Respect Human Rights in Myanmar

Myanmar’s government should introduce key reforms to put prison legislation in line with international human rights standards, taking the opportunity to break with its grim past where prisoners were subject to torture and appalling conditions, a new briefing from Amnesty International said Thursday.

“Myanmar’s prisons are globally notorious as sites of human rights abuses. It is heartening to see that the government and the country’s parliamentarians, many of whom endured torture and other ill-treatment in these same prisons, are considering crucial prison reforms. Now, they must ensure that no other prisoners are subject to the same fate,” said Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The July 2015 draft Prisons Law represents a significant improvement on the archaic laws that are currently in force and that, for decades, facilitated conditions where prisoners were tortured, cramped into small cells or confined in overcrowded spaces, denied clean water and adequate healthcare, and subject to punitive transfers, forced labor and other horrific punishments, Amnesty said. However, the draft law still falls far short of international human rights standards.

The new Amnesty International briefing, Myanmar: Bring Rights to Prisons, details how the proposed legislation fails to prohibit torture and other ill-treatment or include safeguards against some of the worst abuses the country’s prison system has been known for, including unlawful detention and forced labor. The briefing outlines how mandatory independent monitoring of prison conditions and the establishment of an independent complaints mechanism for prisoners will create greater transparency for a prison system that has long relied on secrecy.

“As it stands, the draft will still leave people vulnerable to the human rights abuses that earned Myanmar’s prison system its bad name in the first place. If Myanmar is serious about improving prisons conditions and generally preventing torture and other ill-treatment, it needs to cast light into the dark cells where prisoners are kept and enact reforms that are worthy of the ambition,” said Rafendi Djamin.

Amnesty International’s briefing also urges Myanmar’s lawmakers to introduce provisions in the draft law that will guarantee that minimum standards of health, food, potable water, accommodation, sanitation and hygiene are met. The organization also calls for provisions that address the special needs of juveniles and women and regulate the use of force by prison officials to be added.

At the same time, Amnesty International is recommending that problematic provisions in the draft law be removed. These include, for example, the resort to restraint and prolonged solitary confinement as disciplinary measures.

In the briefing, Amnesty International carries out a detailed legal analysis of the draft law and offers alternative language that will ensure that international standards, including the Nelson Mandela rules that set out a minimum level of humane treatment of all prisoners, are met.

“Our briefing is designed to help lawmakers with their task. We welcome the spirit behind the new draft prison law, which will replace laws that are more than a century old and have no place in a modern, rights-respecting society. The recommendations we have made are there to help Myanmar break with a tradition of appalling prison practices and move towards a prison system that is focused on rehabilitation which treats detainees humanely,” said Rafendi Djamin.

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Vietnamese Activists Face Harassment and Threats

Three human rights defenders engaged in activism relating to an ecological disaster in Vietnam are facing severe harassment, including public denunciations, prosecution and death threats, according to Amnesty International. They could be arrested for “conducting propaganda” against the state.

Since the deaths of an estimated 70 tons of fish, shrimp, squid and other animals along a 200 kilometer (125 mile) stretch of the Vietnamese central-eastern coastline in April 2016, demonstrations and other activities have taken place calling for information on the cause of the disaster. After two months of speculation, at a press conference in June, the government declared that Taiwanese company Formosa Plastics Group had admitted responsibility for the serious environmental disaster and that the company had pledged to pay VND 11.5 trillion (US $500 million) in compensation to the Vietnamese government to improve conditions in the affected provinces.

Father Dang Huu Nam, Nguyen Van Trang and Paulus Le Van Son have been involved in organising activities calling for transparency and accountability in relation to the disaster, including compensation for those affected. Father Dang Huu Nam, a Catholic priest from Phu Yen parish, Vinh diocese in Nghe An province has been helping to organize mass protests. He has also assisted with legal complaints from 506 people to Vietnam’s authorities to claim compensation from Formosa Plastic Group company.

Nguyen Van Trang, a university student from Thanh Hoa province and a member of the Brotherhood for Democracy, an online pro-democracy discussion group, joined a protest against Formosa on May 1st and was arrested on May 7th and again on May 19th. Paulus Le Van Son, a former prisoner of conscience and Catholic social activist and journalist, has also participated in protests over the ecological disaster calling for justice and compensation.

Amnesty International says it is concerned that the three men are at imminent risk of arrest under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code for “conducting propaganda” against the state. These charges provides for between three and 20 years’ imprisonment.

The three men have also faced severe harassment which has intensified after their activities linked to the ecological catastrophe. Father Nam has been subjected to surveillance, death threats, arrests and beatings by security police and individuals in plain clothes. Nguyen Van Trang has been targeted through public denunciations in local media, on the radio and on neighborhood loudspeakers. Paulus Le Van Son has been subjected to surveillance, denounced in local media and now fears for his safety.

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Laos: Release Imprisoned Student Leaders

The five student leaders with the Lao Students Movement for Democracy, arrested in 1999. Photo courtesy FIDH.

The five student leaders with the Lao Students Movement for Democracy, arrested in 1999. Photo courtesy FIDH.

The Lao government must immediately and unconditionally release two former pro-democracy student leaders who have been arbitrarily detained for 17 years and disclose the fate or whereabouts of two others, rights groups said Wednesday.

Thongpaseuth Keuakoun and Sengaloun Phengphanh were arrested in Vientiane on October 26th 1999 along with fellow LSMD members Bouavanh Chanhmanivong, Keochay for planning peaceful demonstrations that called for democracy, social justice and respect for human rights. All five were subsequently sentenced to 20 years in prison for “generating social turmoil and endangering national security.” Former student leaders with the Lao Students Movement for Democracy (LSMD), they are believed to be detained in Samkhe prison, located on the eastern outskirts of Vientiane.

“Thongpaseuth and Sengaloun’s prolonged, arbitrary and incommunicado detention in atrocious conditions is a serious violation of international law. The fact that the two former student leaders are among Southeast Asia’s longest-serving political prisoners reflects Vientiane’s long-standing and severe repression of any dissent,” said Dimitris Christopoulos, President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

Mr. Khamphouvieng Sisa-at died in Samkhe prison in September 2001 as a result of serious food deprivation, prolonged heat exposure and lack of adequate medical care.

In 2006, the Lao government stated that Mr. Keochay had been released in 2002 upon completion of his prison term and “transferred to guardians to further educate him to become a good citizen”. However, Keochay’s family was never informed of his alleged release, and his fate or whereabouts remain unknown.

The government’s claim about Mr. Keochay’s release as well as Mr. Khamphouvieng’s death in custody contradict Vientiane’s earlier statement that only two LSMD members – Messrs. Thongpaseuth and Sengaloun – had been arrested on October 26th 1999.

The Lao government had initially refused to acknowledge even the detention of Thongpaseuth and Sengaloun. To this day, the fate and whereabouts of the fifth former student leader, Mr. Bouavanh, also remains unknown.

Gerald Staberock, Secretary General of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), said that “The authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Thongpaseuth and Sengaloun and provide compensation for their wrongful detention. The Lao government must conduct a thorough, impartial, and transparent investigation into the death of Khamphouvieng Sisa-at in Samkhe prison, and disclose the fate or whereabouts of Bouavanh and Keochay.”

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) called on Lao authorities to determine the fate or whereabouts of nine other activists who were detained in November 2009 for planning to participate in pro-democracy demonstrations. The Laos government has failed to determine the fate and whereabouts of nine activists – two women, Kingkeo and Somchit, and seven men, Soubinh, Souane, Sinpasong, Khamsone, Nou, Somkhit and Sourigna – who were detained in November 2009 for planning pro-democracy demonstrations in Vientiane.

Their detention, followed by the Lao government’s refusal to acknowledge their deprivation of liberty, amounts to enforced disappearance under Article 2 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED). Despite signing the ICPPED on September 29th 2008, Laos has yet to ratify the convention.

The Observatory and LMHR reiterate their call for the Lao government to conduct swift, thorough and impartial investigations into all cases of enforced disappearances in the country and hold those responsible accountable.

The groups also urge the Lao government to speed up the investigation into the enforced disappearance of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who was last seen at a police checkpoint on a busy street of Vientiane on the evening of December 15th 2012. The Lao authorities have failed to provide any specific information on the status and progress of the investigation into Sombath’s disappearance since June 2013.

“The international community must unequivocally condemn the government’s ongoing repression of civil society, urge the authorities to immediately release all detained activists and human rights defenders and demand that all cases of enforced disappearance in the country be thoroughly investigated and resolved,” said Vanida Thephsouvanh, LMHR President.

Last month FIDH and LMHR jointly published two briefing papers that document the severe restrictions on the right to freedom of expression in Laos and show that the country ranks near the bottom of many international indexes that measure respect for democratic principles and key civil and political rights.

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Myanmar Must Lift Restrictions on Humanitarian Aid

 A Rohingya girl sits atop a fishing boat on the outskirts of an IDP camp in Sittwe, Arakan State, Burma, September 2015. © 2015 David Scott Mathieson/Human Rights Watch

A Rohingya girl sits atop a fishing boat on the outskirts of an IDP camp in Sittwe, Arakan State, Myanmar, September 2015. © 2015 David Scott Mathieson/Human Rights Watch

The Myanmar government and army must urgently lift restrictions preventing access to humanitarian aid in Rakhine and Kachin states, rights groups say. Government security operations have cut off assistance to tens of thousands of people and forced many to flee their homes, leaving many vulnerable.

The intensification of the conflict in Kachin State, and the eruption of violence in northern Rakhine State, where a major security operation has led members of the Rohingya and Rakhine communities to flee their homes, has aggravated what was already a serious humanitarian situation in the country.

Fighting in Kachin state earlier this month led to the death of a child and two others being injured. In recent weeks, hostilities have seen the Myanmar military resorting to airstrikes and shelling.

Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s Director for South East Asia and the Pacific said that “The Myanmar authorities must immediately lift restrictions that are preventing the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies from reaching people in need. Both Rakhine and Kachin States already had tens of thousands of people been displaced by violence in recent years. The events of the past few weeks have aggravated that situation, and put more lives at risk.”

Human Rights Watch said that the United Nations and donor governments should publicly call on the Burmese government to ensure aid organizations can reach ethnic Rohingya and other vulnerable populations.

“Recent violence in northern Rakhine State has led the army to deny access to aid agencies that provide essential health care and food to people at grave risk,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Rohingya and others have been especially vulnerable since the ethnic cleansing campaign in 2012, and many rely on humanitarian aid to survive.”

Fighting in Kachin state earlier this month led to the death of a child and two others being injured. In recent weeks, hostilities have seen the Myanmar military resorting to airstrikes and shelling.

Amnesty International said that it has learned from credible sources that the authorities have not allowed UN and humanitarian agencies to deliver aid to people displaced in non-governmental controlled area since April 2016. The organization is concerned by reports that the authorities may instead require people displaced to cross conflict lines in order to receive aid.

“All parties to the armed conflict have an obligation to allow and facilitate delivery of impartial humanitarian assistance for civilians in need. Blocking such aid is a violation of international humanitarian law. Civilians cannot be put in a position where they have no other option but to put their lives in harm’s way to access much needed aid. The authorities must ensure free and unimpeded access for humanitarian organizations delivering aid and emergency assistance to all civilians who need it,” Rafendi Djamin said.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) there are currently approximately 87,000 displaced people in Kachin State, many of them in areas beyond government control. Fighting resumed there in June 2011 after a 17-year ceasefire between the Myanmar army and the Kachin Independence Army broke down.

An attack on three police outposts on October 9th triggered fresh concerns about violence and displacement in Rakhine State when armed men attacked three police outposts in Maungdaw township near the border with Bangladesh, killing nine police officers and seizing weapons. The President’s Office blamed a previously unknown Rohingya group called Aqa Mul Mujahidin for the attacks, though other officials have said it is unclear who was responsible. Authorities responded by launching a major security operation to capture the perpetrators, tightening the already severe restrictions on movement that existed in the area.

According to local sources, members of both the Rohingya and Rakhine communities have fled their homes in fear. However, the severe isolation of northern Rakhine State and restrictions on independent journalists and monitors makes it extremely difficult to assess the scale of the displacement, or verify reports coming out of the region. Rohingya activists have alleged that government forces have committed serious abuses during the current operations, including summary executions and the burning of villages.

Government security forces declared the area an “operation zone” and began sweeps to find the attackers. According to senior members of the government, security forces have killed 30 people, while five members of the security forces have also been killed.

Since October 9, authorities have blocked all aid deliveries to Maungdaw township and aid agencies have not been able to conduct a needs assessment. “We have asked [for access] from township level to Union level,” a World Food Program (WFP) partnerships officer said. “The official explanation [for being denied access] is that security operations are ongoing.”

Under international law, authorities may restrict freedom of movement for specific security reasons for a limited period of time, but broad and open-ended restrictions are not permissible. Under the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, all authorities “shall grant and facilitate the free passage of humanitarian assistance and grant persons engaged in the provision of such assistance rapid and unimpeded access to the internally displaced.”

A number of UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations have long operated in northern Rakhine State, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), WFP, Medecins Sans Frontieres and Action Contre la Faim, providing food aid and mobile health clinics, among other services. WFP alone assists 152,000 vulnerable people with various services, including nutrition support for pregnant women, nursing mothers, children under five and people living with HIV and tuberculosis.

WFP told Human Rights Watch that while the government has recently permitted the resumption of food assistance to 37,000 people in Buthiduang township, 50,000 people remain without food aid in Maungdaw.

The blocking of aid will also severely impact nutritional programs and mobile health clinics that serviced the area, aid workers said. With freedom of movement restricted, ill or wounded people cannot access the main hospital in Maungdaw.

Amnesty International says it is deeply concerned that UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations have not been given authorization to access the affected populations to assess their needs and provide assistance.

“Local sources are telling us that Rohingya villagers are unable to access medical care. The Myanmar authorities must ensure that the human rights of these communities are respected, including ensuring that they have effective access to health care and other services,” said Rafendi Djamin.

Rohingya constitute approximately a third of Rakhine State’s population of over three million people. The Muslim minority has long suffered from discrimination and a host of serious human rights violations, including restrictions on the rights to freedom of movement, access to health care, and education. Successive Burmese governments have effectively denied Rohingya citizenship under Myanmar’s discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law.

The fighting has also increased tension in the camps for the nearly 120,000 displaced Rohingya near the town of Sittwe in Rakhine State. These people fled their homes after communal violence in 2012, which left large numbers of people dead and entire villages destroyed.

“The Burmese government has a responsibility to search for and arrest those who attacked the border posts,” Adams said. “But it is required to do so in a manner that respects human rights, ensures that the area’s people get the aid they need, and allows journalists and rights monitors into the area.”

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Jailed Uyghur Intellectual Wins Prominent Human Rights Award

Ilham Tohti in a photo taken March 13, 2016. Photo courtesy PEN America.

Ilham Tohti in a photo taken March 13, 2016. Photo courtesy PEN America.

Jailed Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti is the winner of the 2016 Martin Ennals Award Laureate for Human Rights Defenders. Currently serving a life sentence in China for separatism, Ilham Tohti has worked for two decades to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, despite an environment of religious, cultural and political repression suffered by Uyghurs. Selected by a jury of ten global Human Rights organizations, the award is given to Human Rights Defenders who have shown deep commitment and face great personal risk. The aim of the award is to provide protection through international recognition.

Uyghurs are a Muslim Turkic people living mainly in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. As a result of his efforts he was sentenced in September 2014 to life in prison following a two-day show trial. He remains a voice of moderation and reconciliation in spite of how he has been treated.

Ilham Tohti has rejected separatism and violence, and sought reconciliation based on a respect for Uyghur culture, which has been subject to religious, cultural and political repression in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

In 1994 he began to write about problems and abuses in Xinjiang, which led to official surveillance. From 1999 to 2003 he was barred from teaching. Since then the authorities have also made it impossible for him to publish in normal venues. As a response, he turned to the Internet to broaden public awareness of the economic, social and developmental issues confronting the Uyghurs. In 2006 he established, a Chinese-language site, to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Over the course of its existence, it has been shut down periodically, and people writing for it have been harassed.

In 2009, he was arrested for several weeks after posting information on Uyghurs who had been arrested, killed and “disappeared” during and after protests. In the following years he was periodically subjected to house arrest, and in 2013, while bound to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Indiana University, USA, he was detained at the airport and prevented from leaving China.

On January 15, 2014, Ilham Tohti was arrested on charges of separatism and sentenced to life imprisonment, after a two-day trial. Numerous statements were issued by Western governments and the European Union condemning his trial and sentence, and in early 2016 several hundred academics petitioned the Chinese leadership for his release.

Ilham Tohti’s case is particularly important given the crucial international issues and human rights concerns on which it touches: the fostering of moderate Islamic values in the face of

state-directed religious repression; efforts to open lines of dialogue between a Muslim minority and a non-Muslim majority population; and the suppression of non-violent dissent by an authoritarian state.

Upon his nomination as a finalist for the Martin Ennals Award earlier this year, his daughter stated: “My father Ilham Tohti has used only one weapon in his struggle for the basic rights of the Uyghurs of Xinjiang: Words; spoken, written, distributed, and posted. This is all he has ever had at his disposal, and all that he has ever needed. And this is what China found so threatening. A person like him doesn’t deserve to be in prison for even a day.”

Martin Ennals Foundation Chair Dick Oosting stated “The real shame of this situation is that by eliminating the moderate voice of Ilham Tohti the Chinese Government is in fact laying the groundwork for the very extremism it says it wants to prevent”.

Strongly supported by the City of Geneva, the Award will be presented on October 11th.

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