Cambodia Must Protect Montagnards Refugees

The Cambodian government should not carry out its threats to imminently return a group of ethnic Montagnards to Vietnam, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says they are refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution if sent back. Sending them back would violate Cambodia’s international and domestic legal obligations.

“Under no circumstances should Cambodia force these refugees back to Vietnam, where they would face severe persecution on political and religious grounds,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If the government forces them back to Vietnam, Cambodia’s reputation as a regional leader in protecting the rights of refugees will be left in tatters.”

Cambodia’s Interior Ministry has wrongly denied the claims of the 29 Montagnard refugees and is failing to cooperate with the UNHCR’s efforts to resettle them, Human Rights Watch says. The Cambodian government has not carried out a joint review process under which the UNHCR was to join a review of the government’s first-instance rejection decision. Cambodia then refused a UNHCR offer to relocate the refugees to a third country.

Members of the group reported receiving threats that they would be imprisoned if they ever tried to flee abroad so now they have great concerns about what sort of reception they will receive if returned to Vietnam.

One Montagnard in Phnom Penh who was imprisoned in Vietnam before fleeing to Cambodia told Human Rights Watch his fear of being returned: “They will not let me live in peace, they will arrest me, and they will do even more to me than they did before. They will say good words to try to convince people to go back. But when they go back they will be arrested. I know because I was in jail already.”

In mid-August 2017, a group of Cambodian Interior Ministry officials, including senior Refugee Department staff, traveled with Vietnamese authorities to some villages in Vietnam where family members of the asylum seekers in Cambodia live. Montagnard and nongovernmental group sources told Human Rights Watch that the officials intimidated some of the younger relatives to write letters saying it was safe for their relatives to return to Vietnam.

In April 2017, a Montagnard asylum-seeker who was returned to Vietnam from Cambodia was detained and interrogated for 12 days by Vietnamese authorities. In May, a video recording emerged on Vietnamese television of apparently forced confessions by Montagnards who claimed to be returned refugees

Vietnam imposes criminal penalties on dissenters returned under Article 91 of the Vietnamese Criminal Code, which provides 3 to 12 years in prison for those who “flee abroad or defect to stay overseas with a view to opposing the people’s administration.” Under that article, “organizers, coercers and instigators” of such movements face 5 to 15 years in prison; and those found to have committed “particularly serious crimes” – not defined – can be imprisoned for 12 to 20 years, or for life.

Vietnam has a long and well-documented history of persecuting Montagnards. Many from these upland ethnic minorities were allied with the French and Americans in Vietnam during the war years between 1946 and 1975, and many adopted Christianity. Since the Communist government assumed power, these groups have faced political persecution, forced repudiation of their faith, shuttering of Christian house churches, and constant monitoring and surveillance by Vietnam police, soldiers, and officials.

In 2005, Human Rights Watch documented the torture of Montagnards who were forced back from Cambodia to Vietnam. They had fled a government crackdown on activists who organized peaceful demonstrations demanding support for religious freedom and a return of their ancestral lands.

In 2015, Human Rights Watch documented intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and mistreatment in custody of Montagnards. Human Rights Watch found that Vietnamese authorities subjected Montagnards to constant surveillance if they were thought to have politically “autonomous thoughts,” or be involved in religious activities the government declared not “pure.” People arrested in this campaign suffered from mistreatment, including interrogations, beatings, and forced disappearances.

In April 2015, four Montagnards who returned to Vietnam from Cambodia disappeared from their village in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, while others familiar with the group were summoned for questioning.

In June 2016, the Cambodian government facilitated visits by Vietnamese officials, including some police officials from the refugees’ home villages, to more than 100 Montagnard asylum seekers in Cambodia, without their consent. The officials urged the assembled asylum seekers to return to Vietnam and promised to end persecution against them.

Cambodia is a State party to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol and the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Under these international treaties, Cambodia has an obligation not to return people to countries where they have a well-founded fear of persecution or torture.

A Cambodian government Sub-Decree No. 224/2009 on Procedure for Recognition as a Refugee or Providing Asylum Rights to Foreigners in the Kingdom of Cambodia provides that a refugee “shall not be expelled or returned in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his or her life, freedom or rights would be threatened on account of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or particular political opinion.”

To comply with its international obligations, the Cambodian government should refrain from taking any action toward forcibly returning the 29 at-risk Montagnards, and initiate the promised joint review with the UNHCR to ensure a fair determination of their claims for protection.

The Vietnamese government should also immediately cease its systematic political persecution and restrictions on freedom of religion for the Montagnard population in the Central Highlands. Vietnam should permit the UNHCR to exercise its refugee protection mandate, and Hanoi should agree to refrain from pressuring refugees to return home.

“The Cambodian government is required to make sure that these Montagnard refugees are protected, and not to send them back into harm’s way in Vietnam,” Robertson said. “International donors and the UN Country Team for Cambodia should warn the Cambodian government that it will become a refugee rights pariah state if the Montagnards are forced back to Vietnam over the UN refugee agency’s objections.”

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UN says Detention of Government Critics in Laos is Arbitrary, Urges Their Release

A United Nations (UN) body has demanded that Lao authorities immediately and unconditionally release three government critics who were recently sentenced to lengthy prison terms. In its opinion, the UN recalled that the Lao government had a track record of arresting and detaining individuals “solely for the peaceful exercise of the freedom of opinion and expression.”

In an opinion adopted on August 25th 2017, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) declared the detention of Ms. Lodkham Thammavong, Mr. Somphone Phimmasone and Mr. Soukan Chaithad arbitrary and requested that Lao authorities immediately and unconditionally release them and award them compensation for the arbitrary detention to which they have been subjected. The UNWGAD also called on the Lao government to ensure a full and independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding their arbitrary deprivation of liberty and to take appropriate measures against those responsible for the violation of their rights.

“The UN opinion that declares the detention of the three peaceful government critics arbitrary certifies that Laos has zero respect for its international human rights obligations. The Lao government should take note that it can no longer hide its repressive actions from the international community and immediately release all dissidents,” said Dimitris Christopoulos, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) President.

On March 22nd 2017, Lodkham, Somphone and Soukan were sentenced to 12, 20 and 16 years in prison respectively under Articles 56, 65 and 72 of the Criminal Code. They are detained in Samkhe Prison on the eastern outskirts of Vientiane. The three have been incarcerated since early 2016 as a result of their repeated criticism of the Lao government while they were working in Thailand. The three had posted numerous messages on Facebook that criticized the government in relation to alleged corruption, deforestation and human rights violations. On December 2nd 2015, Lodkham, Somphone and Soukan were among a group of about 30 people who protested against their government in front of the Lao embassy in Bangkok.

The UNWGAD concluded that the detention of Lodkham, Somphone and Soukan is arbitrary on the basis that: they were not promptly informed of the charges against them, contravening Articles 9(2) and 14(3)(a) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); their arrest and detention were intended to restrict the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of opinion and expression, guaranteed by Article 19 of the ICCPR; and their right to a fair trial, protected by Articles 9(3) and 14(3)(c) of the ICCPR, was violated. Laos is a state party to the ICCPR.

The UNWGAD also raised the issues of the incommunicado detention of Lodkham, Somphone and Soukan during their lengthy pre-trial detention and the lack of legal representation or legal assistance provided to them at any stage.

The UNWGAD noted that the criminalization of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly – illustrated by the imprisonment of Lodkham, Somphone and Soukan – is likely to have a “significant chilling effect” in deterring other individuals from exercising their fundamental freedoms.

“Lodkham, Somphone, and Soukan have been imprisoned for saying what everybody in Laos already knows – that the government is repressive and corrupt. The international community must start diverting resources away from dubious projects that line Vientiane’s pockets and provide vital support to civil society instead,” said Vanida Thephsouvanh, President of Lo Movement for Human Rights.

The UNWGAD urged Laos to bring its legislation, particularly Articles 56, 65 and 72 of the Criminal Code, into conformity with the country’s international human rights obligations. The UNWGAD also called on the Lao government to invite members of the Working Group to undertake a country visit.

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Chinese Government Must End Legalized Practice of Disappearance

To mark the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on August 30th, rights groups are calling on the Chinese government to end the legalized practice of involuntary or enforced disappearance of human rights defenders and their family members by repealing “residential surveillance at a designated location.”

The Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) says that the government must also urgently sign the International Convention for the Protection of Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

Under President Xi Jinping, government authorities have increasingly used a “legalized,” de-facto form of enforced disappearance. Under Article 73 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law (2012), police have the authority to hold individuals under “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL) for six months. This means a person can be held secretly, in a place determined by police, with no access to their family or lawyers if authorities declare the individual is suspected of offenses related to “national security,” “terrorism,” and “bribery.” Police extensively applied Article 73 in the “709 Crackdown” in 2015-16, putting a total of 17 human rights lawyers and activists under RSDL. Seven of those individuals have since come forward with allegations that police tortured them in RSDL to force confessions or punish them, including through beatings, forced medications, and sleep deprivation. Three later confessed and pleaded guilty at their trials, raising alarms about abuses they alleged occurred during RSDL.

As defined under international law, an enforced disappearance occurs when government agents detain an individual and then refuse to disclose the person’s fate or whereabouts or acknowledge their deprivation of liberty, which places such individuals outside the protection of the law. The families of disappeared individuals experience mental anguish, not knowing where their loved ones are or if they are being ill-treated, and may themselves be exposed to danger for searching for the truth. In China, human rights defenders (HRDs) are at high risk of being disappeared by police, which also makes it more likely they will be tortured or subjected to other kinds of mistreatment.

One extreme case of enforced disappearance in RSDL is human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang. Authorities took him into custody and held him in a secret location from August 2015 until January 2016, after which he was formally arrested on suspicion of “subversion of state power” and moved to Tianjin No. 2 Detention Center. For more than two years now, Wang has never been allowed to meet with a lawyer of his or his family’s choice; the lawyers hired by his family were blocked from meeting him and then “forcibly fired” by authorities. His wife, young son, and parents, who have been denied all contact with Wang, have suffered collective punishment; for example, authorities have pressured landlords not to rent apartments to his family and blocked Wang’s son from attending school. Wang is awaiting trial in Tianjin.

Another victim is human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong. Jiang was put on trial last week on trumped-up charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” Hunan police detained Jiang in secret locations for six months after seizing him in November 2016 at a train station. Jiang’s treatment has been in reprisal for his campaigning on behalf of other disappeared lawyers in the “709 Crackdown.” During his first 25 days in custody, his family heard nothing from authorities about his whereabouts, and police also refused to file a missing person’s report. It was not until mid-December that his family learned from state media that Jiang was alive and in police custody, and not until late-December when they received a written notice that he had been placed under RSDL in a secret location.

Chinese police have also disappeared family members of persecuted HRDs as a form of collective punishment. One such victim is poet and artist Liu Xia, who had been under illegal house arrest­—and barred from contact with the outside world—since her husband Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010. Following his death on July 13th 2017, Liu Xia disappeared and her current location is unknown; recently released brief videos of Liu Xia do not disclose her location or her condition. She has never been accused, charged or convicted of a crime.

In a similar case, the family of Zhao Suli, the wife of detained democracy activist Qin Yongmin, have been searching for her for more than two years after police detained Zhao and her husband in January 2015. Her son said last summer that the family did not know if Zhao was alive, and the family had filed a lawsuit to try to find out where she was.

China must honor its Human Rights Council membership pledge to uphold the highest international human rights standards by signing and ratifying key international human rights treaties, including the International Convention for the Protection of Persons from Enforced Disappearance, says CHRD. In responding to recommendations other UN member states made during the 2013 Universal Periodic Review, the Chinese government said it does not have plans to ratify the treaty since it has enacted “related regulations,” but China’s domestic laws, such as Article 73 of the Criminal Procedure Law, go against the Convention. RSDL must be immediately abolished.

The Chinese government has also refused to cooperate with the UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances: China has not responded to a request for a country visit by the Working Group. And, as of July 2016, China has refused to provide information about 41 cases of disappearance raised by the group of independent experts.

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Cambodia Broadens Crackdown on Criticism

The Cambodian government must end its escalating campaign of politically-motivated harassment, intimidation and legal action against the media, nongovernmental groups and human rights defenders, Human Rights Watch says. The organization warned that the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen is widening its efforts to curtail or silence independent voices in the country.

During the week of August 21st 2017, the Cambodian government announced the expulsion of the nongovernmental, US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), threatened to close the independent nonpartisan daily newspaper the Cambodia Daily, forcibly ended broadcasts by the stations operated by Mohanokor Radio, which is owned by an opposition member of parliament, and stations operated by Voice of Democracy (VOD) Phnom Penh, which airs independent reports and viewpoints. The government also rescinded licenses to Voice of America and Radio Free Asia to broadcast in Cambodia on baseless allegations of registration and tax violations.

“The Cambodian government’s shutdown of independent media outlets and a respected democracy promotion group shows that Hun Sen is intensifying efforts to curb criticism of his rule,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Diplomats and donors should put Hun Sen on notice that if he doesn’t reverse course, elections in 2018 won’t be considered credible.”

On August 23rd, Cambodia’s foreign affairs ministry informed NDI that it must “stop operations and expel foreign staff from the Kingdom,” citing the repressive Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO). The arbitrary action, based on unsubstantiated allegations that the group failed to follow proper registration and taxation procedures, is the first forced closure of a nongovernmental organization using authority under that law. Human Rights Watch and other groups have severely criticized provisions of the law as violating the rights to freedom of expression and association.

The US Embassy in Phnom Penh issued a statement in support of NDI, which is funded by the US Democratic Party. It cited the group’s valid memorandum of understanding with the National Election Committee (NEC), its long history of impartial capacity-building activities with all political parties including the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and its previously unchallenged submission of registration documents required under the new law in September 2016.

The Cambodian government has also set the stage for shuttering the Cambodia Daily, an independent and well-regarded source of news in English and Khmer operating since 1993. On August 5, 2017, tax authorities hit the newspaper with an arbitrary US$6.3 million tax bill despite refusing to review financial records provided by the publisher. The government alleged non-payment since 2007, and gave the newspaper 30 days to pay or “pack up and go,” as stated in a recent speech by Hun Sen, in which he also described the Cambodia Daily as a “thief.” In Davos in May, Hun Sen also criticized the newspaper for its critical coverage and referred to its reporters as “servants of foreigners.

“The Cambodia Daily has served as an important mainstay of independent news and objective criticism for 25 years even as the government’s tolerance for critical views has markedly declined,” Robertson said. “Closing the Daily would be a devastating blow to freedom of the press that would have an impact well beyond the paper’s readership.”

The Cambodia Daily’s editor-in-chief Jodie Dejonge stated this week that she expects the paper will be raided and closed by authorities on September 4, the tax department’s deadline for payment.

The government has also taken steps against a consortium of nongovernmental organizations that worked together as the election-watch “Situation Room,” which reported on irregularities in the local commune elections in June. The government recently put the Situation Room under investigation for allegedly violating the new law on nongovernmental groups and serving as a base for a possible “color revolution” to topple the government.

Since the government ordered the Situation Room to stop its monitoring activities, three respected consortium organizations have received notices that they must address potential back tax issues. The three groups are the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), and the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL).

“The list of news, human rights and democracy-promoting organizations under attack by the Cambodian government seems to grow by the minute,” Robertson said. “Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule is being chiseled in stone.”

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Myanmar Must Act on the Rakhine Commission’s Recommendations

Myanmar must act on the Rakhine Commission’s recommendations put forth in their final report issued Thursday by the Kofi Annan-led Commission which recommends urgent and sustained action on a number of fronts to prevent violence, maintain peace, foster reconciliation and offer a sense of hope to the State’s hard-pressed population.

Included in the report is a clear outline of the many steps Myanmar’s authorities must take to end discrimination and segregation in the region.

Reacting to the report, James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said: ‘’People in Rakhine State, in particular the Muslim Rohingya minority, have suffered a horrific catalogue of rights abuses for decades. The government has spent the past year playing for time and trying to hide behind the Commission, but has now run out of excuses not to act. Authorities in Myanmar must swiftly move to implement the report’s recommendations for improving the human rights situation and ending discrimination. In particular, they must urgently lift restrictions on movement, allow full access for humanitarian workers and media, and review and amend the country’s discriminatory citizenship laws.’’

After one year of consultations held across Rakhine State and in other parts of the country and the region, the Advisory Commission submitted its final report to national authorities on August 23. The final report of the Advisory Commission chaired by Kofi Annan puts forward recommendations to surmount the political, socio-economic and humanitarian challenges that currently face Rakhine State. It builds on the Commission’s interim report released in March of this year.

“Unless concerted action – led by the government and aided by all sectors of the government and society – is taken soon, we risk the return of another cycle of violence and radicalisation, which will further deepen the chronic poverty that afflicts Rakhine State”, said Kofi Annan, Chair of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.

“Without concrete action by the authorities to address long-standing grievances and redress decades of violations, people in the region will continue to be trapped in a cycle of deprivation and abuse,” James Gomez said.

The final report addresses in depth a broad range of structural issues that are impediments to the peace and prosperity of Rakhine State. Several recommendations focus specifically on citizenship verification, rights and equality before the law, documentation, the situation of the internally displaced and freedom of movement, which affect the Muslim population disproportionally.

The report is the outcome of over 150 consultations and meetings held by the Advisory Commission since its launch in September 2016. Commission members have travelled extensively throughout Rakhine State, and held meetings in Yangon and Naypyitaw, Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh and Geneva.

“The Commission has put forward honest and constructive recommendations which we know will create debate,” Commission Chair Kofi Annan said. “However, if adopted and implemented in the spirit in which they were conceived, I firmly believe that our recommendations, along with those of our interim report, can trace a path to lasting peace, development and respect for the rule of law in Rakhine State.”

With the submission of its final report, the Advisory Commission on Rakhine has completed its mandate. However, the Commission’s report recommends a national mechanism be established to ensure the effective implementation of its recommendations.

“We propose a ministerial-level appointment to be made with the sole function of coordinating policy on Rakhine State and ensuring the effective implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission’s recommendations,” said Commission Chair Kofi Annan. “The appointee should be supported by a permanent and well-staffed secretariat, which will be an integral part of the Central Committee on Implementation of Peace and Development in Rakhine State and support its work.”

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Tibetan Political Prisoner Released After 10 Years

Adruk Lopoe in an undated photo courtesy of Tibet Watch.

A Tibetan monk, Adruk Lopoe, was released Monday August 21st, after spending 10 years in prison.

According to human rights organizations Free Tibet and Tibet Watch, Adruk Lopoe was freed from Mianyang Prison in Sichuan Province at around 11:00 pm. His current health condition remains unknown.

The nephew of former Tibetan political prisoner Runggye Adak, Adruk Lopoe was arrested in 2007 for protesting against the detention of his uncle. On November 20th 2007, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for separatist activities and leaking state secrets.

Several other Tibetans who took part in the protest along with Adruk Lopoe were also arrested and tried on these charges, including Jamyang Kunkhen, a teacher and musician, and a nomad named Lothok. They were sentenced respectively to nine and three years in prison. Jamyang Kunkhen was released in August 2016. Adruk Lopoe was the last prisoner to be released among those arrested for this protest.

On August 1st 2007, Runggye Adak was arrested and then sentenced to eight years in prison for inciting “separatism”. A few minutes before his arrest, he had called on the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet and the release of the Panchen Lama, Gendun Choekyi Nyima and the late Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. He carried out his protest at the Lithang Horse Racing Festival, in the presence of Chinese authorities and thousands of Tibetans.

Runggye Adak was released on July 2015.

Even though Adruk Lopoe has been released, many other Tibetan political prisoners are still held in Chinese jails. Some of them are held in secret locations, with the Chinese authorities refusing to reveal any information about their location or current health condition and preventing them from contacting their relatives.

A U.S. State Department report released recently shines light on China’s suppression of Tibetan Buddhism, in what it calls ‘’widespread interference’’.

Earlier this month the US State Department published its annual ‘’International Religious Freedom Report’’ which highlighted the problems many Tibetans continue to face while practicing their faith.

The report begins by asserting: “[Chinese] authorities engaged in widespread interference in religious practices, especially in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries”. Additionally it highlights reports of forced disappearance, physical abuse, prolonged detention without trial and arrests of individuals due to their religious practices.

Travel restrictions and tightened security, often in advance of the Dalai Lama’s birthday, as well as “institutionalized discrimination” are raised as problems which Tibetan’s continue to face.

The State Department also noted developments in Larung Gar, the largest and one of the most significant sites in Tibetan Buddhism, and Yachen Gar where authorities have demolished homes and evicted more than 2,000 monks and nuns.

Free Tibet reported on the situation in Larung Gar in July 2016 when demolitions started a month after authorities announced plans to sharply reduce the population around the monastery.

The State Department also cites reports that authorities forced many monks and nuns evicted from Larung Gar to attend “patriotic” re-education classes for up to six months.

The report also notes the decline of self-immolation protests over the year. According to the State Department such incidents were down to three in addition to three other suicide protests. Although the report goes to raise human rights organisation’s concerns that government intimidation and the enforcement of collective punish for protesters may be projecting a false image of stability.

In the report the US also puts on record its own efforts to pressure Beijing to allow Tibetans to preserve, practice, teach, and develop their religious traditions and language. It also highlighted President Obama’s private meeting with the Dalai Lama in June 2016.

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Chinese Human Rights Lawyer Gao Zhisheng Missing

Chinese human rights defender Gao Zhisheng was reported missing by his brother on August 13th. Gao Zhisheng has been kept under close surveillance by Yulin authorities following his release from detention on August 8th 2014.

Gao Zhisheng is a human rights lawyer who regularly takes on cases involving persecution of religious minorities, including Falun Gong practitioners and those associated with the unofficial ‘’house church’’ movement. For this, and other human rights defense work, Gao Zhisheng has been forcibly disappeared a number of times, and brutally tortured. His law practice was shut down in 2005 and the following year he was placed under house arrest having been found guilty of ‘’inciting subversion of state power’’.

Gao’s brother reported him missing following a visit to the defender’s home in Yulin City, Shaanxi Province. On August 13th 2017, at approximately 8:00am, Gao Zhisheng’s brother visited the human rights defender’s home and notified local police when he was unable to find Gao Zhisheng. Local police failed to locate the human rights defender in the vicinity. Gao Zhisheng’s wife, who fled to the United States in 2009 after repeated instances of harassment and abuse by Chinese authorities, has also reported being unable to reach her husband by phone. No news of Gao Zhisheng’s whereabouts have been reported as of August 16th 2017.

International human rights organization Front Line Defenders has reported on previous instances of the forced disappearance of Gao Zhisheng, who has been held alternatively under residential surveillance, incarceration and incommunicado detention in black jails since 2006. In August 2014, Gao Zhisheng had spent eight years in and out of detention, during which time he was subjected to torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment.

In June 2017, Gao Zhisheng’s written memoirs of his detention and torture by Chinese authorities were published in Taiwan, where local defenders following Gao Zhisheng’s case have expressed concern that his present disappearance may be an act of retaliation by Chinese authorities, in response to this publication.

Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned by the disappearance of Gao Zhisheng. Given the past instances of forced disappearance and incommunicado detention, Front Line Defenders is concerned that the human rights defender may be detained by the authorities, in which case we urge Gao Zhisheng’s arresting authorities to notify his family of his whereabouts and the reason for his arrest, as is required under Chinese law. If not, Front Line Defenders urges Chinese authorities to take all necessary steps to investigate Gao Zhisheng’s missing persons case and effect his secure return to his family.

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Imprisoned Chinese Writer Should Be Granted Medical Parole for Brain Tumor

Chinese authorities should immediately release imprisoned journalist Yang Tongyan from prison and allow him to seek medical care wherever he chooses, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday.

Relatives of Chinese writer Yang Tongyan, also known as Yang Tianshui, who is serving a 12-year jail term, said that authorities at Nanjing Prison informed them on Saturday that Yang had a brain tumor and told them to apply for medical parole, according to news reports. Prison officials told the journalists’ family that parole would be granted, but that Yang would not be allowed to leave the country, his relatives said.

Yang was jailed in 2006 on subversion charges, and has spent a total of 22 years in prison, including for an earlier conviction for opposing the 1989 military crackdown at Tiananmen Square. Previous applications for medical parole in 2010 and 2012 for other conditions, including tuberculosis, diabetes, and nephritis, were denied, according to reports.

The news of Yang’s tumor follows the death of Liu Xiaobo in July from liver cancer. Liu, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, died shortly after he was transferred from jail to confinement in a Chinese hospital.

“Yang Tongyan should be given immediate freedom to seek medical care anywhere in the world,” CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler said from Washington, D.C. “We urge Chinese authorities not to repeat the tragedy of Liu Xiaobo’s death in custody.”

Yang, known for his work for websites banned in China criticizing the ruling Communist Party and advocating the release of writers Zheng Yichun and Zhang Lin, is scheduled to complete his sentence in December.

CPJ has also called for the release of imprisoned journalist Huang Qi on medical parole. Huang’s lawyer, who met with Huang for the first time on July 28th — eight months after Huang’s arrest on charges of sharing state secrets abroad — reported that Huang’s medical treatments had been cut off on July 5th and that his health was deteriorating.

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China Must Protect Detained North Koreans Who Face Risk of Prison, Torture and Forced Labor

China should not deport 15 North Koreans held in Chinese detention back to North Korea, but should either grant them asylum or allow them to safely go to a third country, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday. North Koreans who are forcibly returned after fleeing their country face a real risk of torture, sexual violence and abuse, incarceration in forced labor camps and death.

According to North Koreans who have fled the country since 2013, or who maintain contacts inside the country, people repatriated by China face incarceration in forced labor camps, political prison camps (kwanliso), or even execution. Political prison camps in North Korea are characterized by systematic abuses and often deadly conditions, including meager rations that pose risk of starvation, virtually no medical care, lack of proper housing and clothes, regular mistreatment that includes sexual assault and torture by guards, and summary executions. Death rates in these camps are reported by former North Korean prisoners and guards to be extremely high. Detainees in ordinary prison camps also face forced labor in dangerous working conditions, food and medicine shortages, and regular mistreatment by guards.

“China needs to recognize that sending these 15 North Koreans back to their country means condemning them to suffer horrific rights violations, and immediately halt any effort to send them back into harm’s way,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “China’s leaders should instead call for Pyongyang to cease the human rights violations that are compelling people to flee the country in the first place.”

Human Rights Watch learned about the situation of the 15 detainees through a father whose son left North Korea and was apprehended by Chinese authorities with four other North Koreans in early July. This father learned that five people were first detained near the Laos border, then grouped with another ten North Koreans, including three children, in detention in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan province.

The father told Human Rights Watch that some family members of the detained North Koreans managed to visit the detention center where they were being held. They found out that on August 1, the group had been moved to the Tumen immigration detention facility in Jilin province, right across the border from the North Korean city of Namyang in North Hamgyong province. This facility is usually one of the last detention centers where North Koreans who face imminent forced return are held. On August 4th 2017, the father heard from a credible source that the 15 detainees, including his son, had arrived in Tumen, and authorities were preparing to send the group back to North Korea.

China regularly labels North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants” and forcibly repatriates them to North Korea under a 1986 bilateral border protocol.

According to interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch with North Koreans who have previously been apprehended in China and returned to North Korea, the North Korean government harshly punishes all those who leave the country without permission. In 2010, North Korea’s Ministry of People’s Security adopted a decree making defection a crime of “treachery against the nation,” punishable by death. Human Rights Watch considers all North Koreans in China who left without permission to have refugee status (as refugees sur place) because they have a well-founded fear of persecution if forcibly returned.

Forcing North Korean refugees back to their country constitutes refoulement, or the sending of persons back to territory where they face threats to life or freedom, which is forbidden by international treaties to which China is a party as well as by customary international law. Under the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, as well as the 1984 Convention against Torture, China is specifically obligated not to force back North Koreans, who would be placed at risk of persecution or torture.

For North Koreans who are returned and not sent to political prisoner camps, the authorities may sentence them to between two to 15 years forced labor in ordinary prison camps (kyohwaso, or re-education correctional facilities) for living or working illegally in China.

A former senior official in the North Korean state security service (bowibu), who previously worked on the border and received North Koreans sent back from China, told Human Rights Watch that officials under his command tortured every returnee to find out where they went in China, who they contacted, and what they had done while outside North Korea.

The 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea found that crimes against humanity, including torture, execution, enslavement, and sexual violence, are committed against prisoners and people forcibly returned to North Korea from China. On July 27, 2017, Tomás Ojea Quintana, the special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, said: “North Koreans who leave their country are caught in a horrendous cycle of physical and psychological violence, and I received information that some take their own lives when they find out that they are scheduled for repatriation.”

Human Rights Watch calls on China to protect those in Chinese custody, to grant North Koreans asylum or safe passage to other countries, and to allow the UN refugee agency to exercise its mandate and protect North Korean asylum seekers.

“China should demonstrate to the UN and governments around the world that it will no longer be complicit with the North Korean government’s rights violations against its own people,” Robertson said. “By protecting these 15 North Koreans, Beijing would send a strong message that China will no longer play along and ignore North Korea’s human rights abuses.”

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Lao Authorities Must Immediately Investigate Abduction of Thai Activist

The Lao authorities should urgently investigate the abduction of an exiled Thai activist Wuthipong Kachathamakul, also known as Ko Tee, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday. Eyewitnesses stated that a group of unknown armed assailants abducted him in Vientiane on July 29th 2017, raising grave concerns for his safety.

On July 29th at approximately 9:45 a.m., a group of 10 armed men dressed in black and wearing black balaclavas assaulted Wuthipong, his wife, and a friend as they were about to enter Wuthipong’s house in Vientiane according to multiple witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch. The assailants hit them, shocked them with stun guns, tied their hands with plastic handcuffs, covered their eyes, and gagged their mouths. Wuthipong was then put in a car and driven away to an unknown location while his wife and his friend were left at the scene.

According to Wuthipong’s wife and his friend, the assailants were speaking among themselves in Thai. The incident was reported to Lao authorities in Vientiane.

“Wuthipong’s shocking abduction by armed men in Vientiane needs to be fully investigated; it should not be treated with silence or swept under the rug,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Lao government needs to move quickly to ascertain the facts and publicly report their findings, including an assessment of Wuthipong’s whereabouts and who might be responsible for this crime that was so boldly carried out in its own capital city.”

Lao authorities should mount a serious effort to find Wuthipong if he is still in Laos, and take immediate steps to prosecute any persons in Laos who were involved in this abduction, Human Rights Watch said.

The Lao government should also permit the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to open an office in Vientiane to provide protection for persons fleeing political persecution in Thailand and other countries.

In media interviews on July 31st 2017, Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan and the army chief Gen. Chalermchai Sitthisart denied knowledge of Wuthipong’s abduction and said they have not received any official reports from Lao authorities yet.

Wuthipong operated a community radio network affiliated with the red-shirted United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) in Thailand’s Pathum Thani province. His programs were known for having a strong anti-monarchy stance. Thai authorities have repeatedly accused him of using his radio program to call for the use of violence, and playing an instrumental role in several violent clashes with the royalist People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).

After the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) staged a coup and took power in the May 2014, he fled to Laos to escape lese majeste (insulting monarchy) charges. The Thai government also accused him of involvement with anti-government militia groups and plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha and other members of the NCPO junta.

The Thai government lists Wuthipong as one of the most wanted of the exiled activists that Thai authorities have repeatedly requested the Lao government to arrest and extradite to Thailand. While in exile in Laos, Wuthipong continued to broadcast online radio programs in which he strongly criticized both military rule in Thailand and the Thai monarchy.

Since taking office in April 2016, the new Lao government of Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith has repeatedly failed to adequately respond to the country’s serious human rights problems, Human Rights Watch said. Lao authorities have routinely disregarded concerns raised by human rights groups. In June 2016, Itthipol Sukpaen, an exiled Thai activist who broadcasted anti-monarchy radio programs, vanished in Vientiane. The Lao government failed to conduct a serious investigation.

Laos has signed, but not ratified, the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Under international law, an enforced disappearance occurs when a person is detained by persons acting on behalf of the state, followed by a refusal of the state to acknowledge their detention or whereabouts, with the intention of placing them outside the law.

Despite its obligation to conduct a transparent, thorough, and impartial investigation into all cases of alleged enforced disappearances, to resolve them, and bring those responsible to justice, the Lao government has failed to make progress on at least 10 cases of enforced disappearance, including the case of prominent civil society activist Sombath Somphone—who was last seen being taken away from a police checkpoint in Vientiane on December 15th 2012.

“The Lao government has a responsibility to find out what happened to Wuthipong and identify all those responsible, regardless of the political consequences,” Adams said. “Foreign donor organizations and governments with relationships with the Lao government should speak up now to press Vientiane to answer what happened to Wuthipong.”

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