Final “Free the 19″ Detainees Released By Cambodian Supreme Court on Bail

Ly Seav Minh, who gave up her scholarship to support her family through a land dispute. She faces up to two years in prison. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Ly Seav Minh, who gave up her scholarship to support her family through a land dispute. She faces up to two years in prison. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

The last of the “Free the 19’’ detainees was released on bail this morning in Cambodia following a decision by the Supreme Court. Ly Seav Minh spent more than five months in pre-trial detention at Prey Sar’s CC2 prison after she was arrested on November 18th 2014. She is charged with violence against the possessor of immoveable property and a potential two years in prison and $6,250 in fines.

Ly Seav Minh is the last of the Free the 19 activists to be released from Prey Sar’s CC1 and CC2 prisons. The cases against all those released remain open.

According to LICADHO, Ly Seav Minh and her family are involved in a long-running land dispute with the municipality and well-connected tycoon Khun Sear Import Export Company, to which the municipality sold their land in 2010.

Ly Seav Minh is a resident of the Toul Kork district of Phnom Penh. She was arrested on November 18, 2014 when visiting her father, Ly Srea Kheng, at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court following his arrest earlier that same day. Whilst Ly Seav Minh remains in prison, her father was released from pre-trial detention on December 4th 2014.

In 2010, the politically connected Khun Sear claimed ownership of the land on which the Ly family has lived for some 30 years. The family has been fighting eviction ever since and has accused company representatives on numerous occasions of making threats and attacks against them, including, destroying their property, beating them, attempted arson, throwing snakes into their house and poisoning their animals. The charges against the father and daughter relate to events on April 29th 2013 but the company did not file the complaint until September 5th 2014.

On April 13th, eight more of the Free the 19 activists were released from detention in Prey Sar’s CC1 prison. Three defrocked monks – Venerable Seung Hai, Venerable Khith Vannak, and Venerable Sang Kosal – and five Cambodia National Rescue Party members and supporters – Meach Sovannara, Sum Puthy, Tep Narin, Ke Khim, and Ouk Pich Samnang – were released on bail. All eight were arrested between September and November 2014 and face a variety of charges.

Ten Boeung Kak land rights activists who were granted a royal pardon on April 11th after having spent five months in prison for the offence of obstructing public traffic.

LICADHO has condemned these imprisonments and ‘’the continued abuse of the judicial system by the ruling party and well-connected individuals.’’

Of the 19 arrests, 16 occurred within a period of four days, from November 10th to November 13th. Eleven of the 16 were charged, tried, and convicted just one day after their arrest. Each received the maximum possible sentence. The rushed nature of these proceedings denied lawyers the opportunity to prepare a defence, violating the right the accused to receive a fair trial.

“These latest arrests and convictions demonstrate that the country’s judiciary is still wholly in the control of the government. Anyone who upsets the ruling party or who stands in the way of those with power and money is at risk of ending up in prison. It’s a sad reminder of how far this government really has to go to fully respect human rights”, said LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge said on International Human Rights Day.

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North Korea, Vietnam, China, Myanmar Among World’s Most Censored Countries

Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the 88 Generation Students group, speaks as political activists hold placards during a demonstration in support of freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, shot dead in Myanmar while in military custody in October 2014, protest his killing in Yangon. AP Photo/Khin Maung Win.

Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the 88 Generation Students group, speaks as political activists hold placards during a demonstration in support of freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, shot dead in Myanmar while in military custody in October 2014, protest his killing in Yangon. AP Photo/Khin Maung Win.

The Committee to Protect Journalists released its list of the 10 Most Censored Countries in advance of the publication of the latest Attacks on the Press report, forthcoming on April 27th. North Korea, Vietnam, China and Myanmar are among the world’s worst places for press freedom. These repressive nations threaten jail terms, Internet restrictions and other tactics to censor the press.

The list is based on research into the use of tactics ranging from imprisonment and repressive laws to harassment of journalists and restrictions on Internet access.

Imprisonment is the most effective form of intimidation and harassment used against journalists according to CPJ research. Seven of the 10 most censored countries-Eritrea, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Iran, China, and Myanmar-are also among the top 10 worst jailers of journalists worldwide, according to CPJ’s annual prison census.

More than half of the journalists imprisoned globally are charged with anti-state crimes, including in China, the world’s worst jailer and the eighth most censored country. Of the 44 journalists imprisoned-the largest figure for China since CPJ began its annual census in 1990-29 were held on anti-state charges. Other countries that use the charge to crush critical voices include Saudi Arabia (third most censored), where the ruling monarchy, not satisfied with silencing domestic dissent, teamed up with other governments in the Gulf Cooperation Council to ensure that criticism of leadership in any member state is dealt with severely.

According to CPJ, 9.7 percent of north Korea’s population has cell phones, a number that excludes access to phones smuggled in from China. In place of the global Internet, to which only a select few powerful individuals have access, some schools and other institutions have access to a tightly controlled intranet. And despite the arrival of an Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang in 2012, the state has such a tight grip on the news agenda that newsreel was re-edited to remove Kim Jong Un’s disgraced uncle from the archives after his execution.

These tactics are mirrored to varying degrees in other heavily censored countries. To keep their grip on power, repressive regimes use a combination of media monopoly, harassment, spying, threats of journalist imprisonment, and restriction of journalists’ entry into or movements within their countries.

Internet access is highly restricted in countries under Communist Party rule-North Korea, Vietnam, China and Cuba. In countries with advanced technology such as China, Internet restrictions are combined with the threat of imprisonment to ensure that critical voices cannot gain leverage online. Thirty-two of China’s 44 jailed journalists worked online.

Specifically, a look at each of the countries in Asia making the list and the censorship tactics their regimes employ:

North Korea: Article 53 of the country’s constitution calls for freedom of the press, but even with an Associated Press bureau-staffed by North Koreans and located in the Pyongyang headquarters of the state-run Korean Central News Agency-and a small foreign press corps from politically sympathetic countries, access to independent news sources is extremely limited.

Nearly all the content of North Korea’s 12 main newspapers, 20 periodicals, and broadcasters comes from the official Korean Central News Agency, which focuses on the political leadership’s statements and activities. Internet is restricted to the political elite, but some schools and state institutions have access to a tightly controlled intranet called Kwangmyong, according to the AP.

North Koreans looking for independent information have turned to bootlegged foreign TV and radio signals and smuggled foreign DVDs, particularly along the porous border with China. Although cell phones are banned, some citizens have been able in recent years to access news through smuggled phones, which rely on Chinese cell towers.

South Korean newspapers have reported that North Korea in 2013 started manufacturing smartphones that run on a network built by the Egyptian company Orascom and the state-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corp. Traders in street markets are regularly seen with 3G phones that can support video exchange and texting, according to travelers returning from North Korea.

After Kim Jong Un ordered his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed (around the time of the second anniversary of his father’s death), any mention of Jang was removed from state media archives, including official video from which Jang was carefully edited. Jang was vilified in the media as the “despicable human scum, who was worse than a dog.”

Vietnam: Vietnam’s Communist Party-run government allows no privately held print or broadcast outlets. Under the 1999 Media Law (Article 1, Chapter 1), all media working in Vietnam must serve as “the mouthpiece of Party organizations.” The Central Propaganda Department holds mandatory weekly meetings with local newspaper, radio, and TV editors to hand down directives on which topics should be emphasized or censored in their news coverage. Forbidden topics include the activities of political dissidents and activists; factional divisions inside the Communist Party; human rights issues; and any mention of ethnic differences between the country’s once-divided northern and southern regions.

Independent bloggers who report on sensitive issues have faced persecution through street-level attacks, arbitrary arrests, surveillance, and harsh prison sentences for anti-state charges. Vietnam is one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, with at least 16 behind bars. Authorities widely block access to websites critical of the government, including such popular foreign-hosted blogs as Danlambao, which covers politics, human rights issues, and disputes with China. In September 2013, a new law extended state censorship to social media platforms, making it illegal to post any material, including foreign news articles, deemed to “oppose the state” or “harm national security.”

Authorities have increasingly used Article 258, the anti-state law that vaguely criminalizes “abusing democratic freedoms,” to threaten and prosecute independent bloggers. At least three bloggers have been convicted under the law, which allows for seven-year prison sentences.

China: For more than a decade, China has been among the top three jailers of journalists in the world, a distinction that it is unlikely to lose any time soon. Document 9, a secret white paper dated April 22, 2014, which was widely leaked online and to the international press, included the directive to “combat seven political perils” and reject the concept of “universal values” and the promotion of “the West’s view of media.” Document 9 made it clear that the role of the media is to support the party’s unilateral rule. The paper reasserted the necessity for China’s technological and human censors to be ever more vigilant when keeping watch over the country’s 642 million Internet users-about 22 percent of the world’s online population.

In late November 2014, Xu Xiao, a poetry and arts editor for the Beijing-based business magazine Caixin, was detained on suspicion of “endangering national security.” The Central Propaganda Department warned editors not to report on the investigation into Xu, raising fears that the tactics used to stifle political dissent would broaden to publications looking critically at the arts.

International journalists trying to work in China have faced obstacles, with visas delayed or denied. Although some visa restrictions between the U.S. and China have eased, during a press conference in Beijing with U.S. President Barack Obama in November 2014 Xi argued that international journalists facing visa restrictions had brought the trouble on themselves.

Gao Yu, one of 44 journalists behind bars in China, was detained on charges of illegally providing state secrets abroad, days after details of Document 9 appeared in Mirror Monthly, a Chinese-language political magazine in New York. Gao, 70, confessed on official state broadcaster CCTV, but during her closed trial, on November 21, 2014, she said that the confession was false and made only to prevent her son from being threatened and harassed, her lawyer said. She was handed a seven-year prison sentence in a Beijing court on Friday.

Myanmar: Despite an end to more than four decades of pre-publication censorship in 2012, Myanmar’s media remains tightly controlled. The Printers and Publishers Registration Law, enacted in March 2014, bans news that could be considered insulting to religion, disturbing to the rule of law, or harmful to ethnic unity. Publications must be registered under the law, and those found in violation of its vague provisions risk de-registration.

National security-related laws, including the colonial-era 1923 Official Secrets Act, are used to threaten and imprison journalists who report on sensitive military matters. For example, five journalists with the independent weekly newspaper Unity were sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor, reduced on appeal to seven years, for reporting on a secretive military facility allegedly involved in chemical weapons production.

Journalists are regularly barred from reporting from the military side of conflict with ethnic groups. Aung Kyaw Naing, a local freelance reporter who had embedded with rebel forces, was shot dead while in military custody in October 2014 after being apprehended by government troops in a restive area near the Thailand-Myanmar border.

Three journalists and two publishers of the independent newspaper Bi Mon Te Nay were sentenced to two years in prison on charges of defaming the state. Their offense: publishing a false statement made by a political activist group that claimed that pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic group leaders had formed an interim government to replace Thein Sein’s administration.

The list of ten most censored countries is based on CPJ research: countries are measured with the use of a series of benchmarks, including the absence of privately owned or independent media, blocking of websites, restrictions on electronic recording and dissemination, license requirements to conduct journalism, restrictions on journalists’ movements, monitoring of journalists by authorities, jamming of foreign broadcasts and blocking of foreign correspondents.

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Vietnamese Blogger Me Nam Wins International Human Rights Award

Right to know

Vietnamese Blogger Me Nam participating in the Right to Know campaign. Photo courtesy Me Nam.

Vietnamese Blogger Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh is the winner of the 2015 Civil Rights Defender of the Year award from Civil Rights Defenders, presented to her in Stockholm via Skype on Friday. She was unable to travel to Sweden to accept her award in person due to the travel ban imposed on her by the Vietnamese government.

Quỳnh is the Coordinator for the Vietnamese Bloggers’ Network and well known for her use of social media to speak out against injustices and human rights abuses in Vietnam. Blogging under the pseudonym Me Nam (Mother Mushroom), she has openly criticized the Vietnamese government over human rights abuses and corruption. She began blogging in early 2006 when she paid a visit to a hospital and witnessed many poor people in the hot sun desperately waiting for treatment, but ignored because they lacked money to bribe hospital officials.

Because of her human rights activism for free expression, the right from torture, and arbitrary detention and other universal human rights, she was arrested, detained, interrogated, harassed and beaten up by security police on several occasions.  In 2009, she was taken away at midnight from her home and detained for 10 days while her young child was left home alone.  She was charged under article 258 of the Penal Code: ‘’abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State”. She lost her job due to security police’s interference.

In spite of these predicaments and continuing hardship, she persists to organize ‘’human rights coffee sessions”, human rights picnics, social meetings with like-minded bloggers and activists to discuss relevant UN human rights conventions, Vietnam’s role and duty to uphold its commitment to the UN Human Rights Council as a member state and to meet with Consulate staff members to raise concerns about fellow bloggers in distress and to advocate for the release of prisoners of conscience.

Civil Rights Defenders says she was chosen as this year’s honoree because “At great personal risk, Me Nam has been right at the forefront of human rights activism in Vietnam. With creativity and openness, she is a source of inspiration as she breaks new ground for freedom of expression and speaks out for those who can’t.”

Her personal motivation for blogging about injustices in Vietnam comes down to a very simple and personal reason, which she sums up in her own words: “I do not want my children to struggle and do what I’m doing now.”

Despite great personal risk, she is always devoted to speak up for those who can’t. She continues to be an activist that the authorities target and remains a force to be reckoned with.

As well as the international recognition that comes with the award, her organization also received a 50,000 Euro ($52,700 USD) award from Civil Rights Defenders.

I interviewed Quỳnh about her work and what the award means to her.

Congratulations! What does the international recognition of your work from this award mean for you?
First of all, this award definitely helps! It’s not just a personal recognition but actually it a protection for me and for the network members. More international recognition means less danger. Secondly, it helps us to remove the government’s “tools” to continue abusing human rights. Those “tools” include the legitimacy of an official member of a great international organization whose integrity was built by the mandate of protecting human rights at all costs. Those “tools” include many laws and decrees such as Article 258 that outright violate all the international conventions about human rights

What is the situation for bloggers like yourself and journalists in Vietnam today?
I was one of the people who was temporarily arrested and charged by the security police with the Article 258, for “abusing my freedom of expression”. Up until now, no one can show me what I did to harm the government or the society by saying what I thought. In Vietnam, the government still uses Article 258 to arrest bloggers and activists. More than that, this Article serves as a rope hung over all bloggers’ heads and creates fear: anyone can be arrested and sentenced to jail.

What are some of the threats that you have faced as a result of your work for human rights?
I could be detained or arrested anytime without [access to a] lawyer. My family is always harassed by police and “stranger” persons. My job can be ended without any warning.

What activities is the Vietamese Bloggers’s Network (VBN) engaged in? How many members do you have and what kinds of work do you do?
The VBN created a big new step in human rights activism in Vietnam. For the first time we conducted a campaign, fighting to pressure the government to abolish Article 258. Through this campaign, Vietnamese activists could work with the international community to protect and promote human rights in Vietnam. Initiating the collaboration and building a long working relationship between Vietnamese activists and international organizations indeed was the true purpose. We could not and should not isolate ourselves and stayed alone in fighting for the universal human rights. And now we are still continuing in that direction.

With the travel ban and after the arrest of [fellow blogger] Anh Ba Sam, fear started to spread quietly among bloggers and activists. In 2014, we launched a new campaign called The Right To Know. We combined the issue about the right to know to gain support from the international community and a “patriotic concern” about the nation political independence to have grass roots support from many people, especially from the communist party members who question the communist party and the government about the Vietnamese-Chinese relationship, particularly the secret signed agreement of the Chengdu conference in 1990.

A lot of ordinary people joined this campaign, posting their picture with the We Want To Know message on Facebook and blogs. We signed a letter and went straight to our parliamentary house with the letter. They closed parliament that day and temporary arrested some of my friends.

The members of the VBN show other people that we all can step out of our fear. We show them Don’t be afraid. We do this step by step and we call for joining together. If the Vietnamese people step out of their fear and joined together, the government will be forced to listen. They would have to answer us.  The “We want to know” campaign was one step in the process of removing fear from people.

For 2015, we are now in the early stage of organizing a human rights campaign, named We Are One – about human rights, freedom and democracy for Vietnam. And in this campaign we try to create collaboration between activists inside Vietnam and abroad, you could check it on http://nhanquyen2015.net.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
By blogging I understand and appreciate the power of the Internet and social media. Its power is what changed my life. It empowers me. With the Internet I know that I have a voice and that my voice can be heard. So what I do is share my ideas on social media and by doing that I help to protect and promote freedom of expression. The government doesn’t want us to talk about what they don’t want to hear. But the people, yes, the people do want to hear the people’s song. And my voice can be a part of what people want to hear: the truth. I can raise my voice and act for the changes.

What would you like to say to other people working for freedom of expression and human rights?
Be brave! We not alone in the struggle fighting for and protecting human rights. We fight, sacrifice ourselves, and continue to join our efforts with the international community for the ultimate goal: human rights for all. And who will speak up if we don’t?

You can view Me Nam’s blogs at the following addresses: http://facebook.com/mothermushroom and www.menam0.blogspot.com.

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Student Activist Po Po Arrested and Facing Charges in Myanmar

Po Po is seen at the student protest in March in Letpadan. Photo JPaing / The Irrawaddy.

Po Po is seen at the student protest in March in Letpadan. Photo JPaing / The Irrawaddy.

Human rights defender and 20 year old student activist Po Po was arrested at her home in Myanmar on April 8th. Warrants were issued for her arrest, along with fellow student activists Myat Thuya, Nanda Sitt Aung and Kyaw Ko Ko, by a Kamayut Township Judge on March 11th. Student organizations, such as the All Burma Federation of Student Union (ABFSU), of which Po Po is a member, have been heavily involved in protests since November 2014 against the National Education Bill, enacted by Parliament on September 30th 2014.

Student activists and independent experts have been highly critical of the law, which they claim restricts academic freedom. The ABFSU was one of a number of organizations that presented a list of ten demands to the Parliament for an amended statute, which include the adoption of ethnic languages in school curricula and the right to form student and teacher unions. The crackdown on student protesters are part of widespread restrictions on protests in Myanmar recently.

Po Po spent the night of her arrest in a Kamayut Township jail, and has since been remanded to Insein Prison. Nanda Sitt Aung was arrested a few days previously, while Myat Thuya and Kyaw Ko Ko remain free despite the pending warrant.

Po Po was involved in the peaceful student protest in Letpadan on March 10th 2015, but escaped the violent police response to the movement, which resulted in the arrest of approximately 126 students. On that date, students attempting to march from Letpadan, Pegu Division, to Yangon in protest over the education law were beaten and seriously injured by riot police and armed groups. Five days previously, students protesting the same law at the Sule Pagoda in Yangon were also severely beaten and arrested.

Along with Myat Thuya, Nanda Sitt Aung and Kyaw Ko Ko, Po Po led a protest in Yangon demanding the release of all students detained. She is due to be arraigned on Friday, April 10th, along with Nanda Sitt Aung, at the Kamayut Township Courthouse under articles 143, 145, 147 and 505(b) of the Penal Code. The charges against the pair are set to include participation in an unlawful assembly and rioting. The alleged offenses carry penalties of up to three years in prison.

Human rights organization Front Line Defenders expressed its grave concern at the detention of human rights defenders Po Po and Nanda Sitt Aung, which it believes to be solely the result of their human rights work, and the continued suppression of the right to peaceful assembly within Myanmar. The organization urges the authorities to immediately drop all legal proceedings against Po Po, Myat Thuya, Nanda Sitt Aung and Kyaw Ko Ko as it is believed that they are solely motivated by their legitimate and peaceful work in of human rights, and unconditionally release Po Po and Nanda Sitt Aung.

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Urging Transparency from Government, Rights Group Releases Results of Land Concession Investigation in Cambodia

An overview of land concessions in Cambodia. Graphic courtesy LICADHO.

An overview of land concessions in Cambodia. Graphic courtesy LICADHO.

The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) released on Monday its land concession dataset to the public, the culmination of five years of investigation into this sector, and is urging the government to follow suit. LICADHO says the government must publicly disclosing details of all land concessions granted in Cambodia.

Cambodians have the right and need to know who occupies areas next to their homes, LICADHO says. “Large-scale concessions have had a track record of destroying livelihoods and natural resources as well as negatively affecting development projects. If the government is serious about improving its policies on land, it must commit itself to being fully transparent about its dealings,” said LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge.

In May 2012, the Prime Minister signed a directive declaring a moratorium on the granting of new Economic Land Concessions (ELCs). The directive also contained the announcement of a systematic review of ELCs. Such a review can only be carried out properly if the government discloses all of its land dealings to the public.

However, to date the government has not disclosed the full extent of its land giveaway. According to LICADHO, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) has published an oversimplified and incomplete list of companies; the Ministry of Environment (MOE) has done even less, simply releasing the total number of companies involved and the total land area leased. Neither has disclosed the exact location of the over 2.1 million hectares of Cambodian land covered by existing land concessions.

LICADHO also urges the government and its development partners to conduct an open assessment of the general merits of large-scale concessions. Such an assessment would require full declaration by relevant ministries of revenues to the state arising from ELCs.

Due to the government’s lack of transparency, the information LICADHO has collated over five years remains incomplete and may contain some inaccuracies. As such, it is no substitute for full disclosure of the government’s own data.

“We hope the additional information on the allocation of large-scale concessions can help move the debate on this type of development scheme forward and we emphasise the need for more information to be provided by the government,” said LICADHO Technical Coordinator Am Sam Ath. “Cambodia is overdue for an honest assessment of the pros and cons on this matter.”

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China Must Immediately Free Prominent Women’s Rights Defenders

The five female activists detained on March 6 and 7 (clockwise from top left): Zheng Churan, Li Tingting, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong and Wei Tingting. Photo courtesy Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

The five female activists detained on March 6 and 7 (clockwise from top left): Zheng Churan, Li Tingting, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong and Wei Tingting. Photo courtesy Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

Human rights organizations continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of five women’s rights defenders detained in China earlier this month, as their detention is only aimed to disrupt their peaceful human rights activities. The defenders had been promoting equal rights for women in the country and were about to launch a nationwide campaign to raise awareness about sexual harassment aboard public transportation and to join a march against sexual harassment in a Beijing park on the eve of International Women’s Day on March 8th.

They were all taken into custody prior to a planned anti-sexual harassment campaign for International Women’s Day. Given the surrounding circumstances, the five criminal detentions appear to be government retaliation for the activists’ NGO advocacy work promoting equal rights for women, including holding China accountable to commitments made before the United Nations to eliminate discrimination against women.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) call on the Chinese authorities to immediately and unconditionally release them and to respect their right to a fair trial. “All five women’s rights defenders must be released immediately, or at a minimum be presented with formal charges if they are to be detained,” said Karim Lahidji, FIDH President. “If they are charged, they should benefit from decent conditions of detention and from unhindered access to their lawyers.”

On March 6th and 7th, 2015, nine prominent women’s rights and gender equality defenders were arbitrarily detained. Four of the detained defenders were released on March 8th. Five of these defenders, namely Li Tingting, also known as “Li Maizi”, Manager of the LGBT program at the Beijing Yirenping Center; Wu Rongrong, Founder and Executive Director of the Weizhiming Women’s Center in Hangzhou; Zheng Churan, also known as “Datu,” staff member of Yirenping based in Guangzhou; Wei Tingting, Director of LGBT rights organization Ji’ande in Beijing; and Wang Man, Beijing-based coordinator for the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP), remain in detention.

The five women have all been transferred to Haidian District Detention Center in Beijing, where where they are reportedly being held under suspicion of the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” but have not yet been formally charged.

In light of the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference which began on March 5th, authorities increased their surveillance and repression of NGOs throughout the country.

The Observatory was also informed that the houses of Li Tingting, Zheng Churan and Wu Rongrong were searched and some of the banners and other materials meant for use during the anti-sexual harassment campaign were seized. Moreover, Zheng Churan and Wu Rongrong, who were arrested in Guangzhou, were transported to Beijing for their detention, which is more than 1,200 miles from their residence. This increases the difficulties they face in being able to communicate with their lawyers and families.

Representatives of the European Union and the United States have publicly called for the release of the five activists. The EU said in a statement Monday that ‘’The recent arrest and detention of women’s rights activists in China on the grounds that they wanted to launch a campaign against sexual harassment on International Women’s Day violates their right to demonstrate peacefully. We urge the Chinese authorities to release them immediately.

As the UN is preparing to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 4th World Conference on Women and the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, we urge China not to restrict the activities of human rights defenders promoting the human rights of women.’’

China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded to international critics on Wednesday, saying that ‘’No one has the right to ask China to release relevant persons, so we hope that relevant people will stop interfering in China’s judicial sovereignty in such a manner.”

All of the nine activists arrested on March 6th and 7th have fought for the rights of individuals suffering from HIV/AIDs and Hepatitis B; disabled persons; women discriminated against in rural land entitlement cases, employment, and higher education; female victims of rape or sexual harassment; as well as the rights of LGBT individuals.

During the first six days of their detention, all five defenders were denied access to their lawyers. Since then, four of the defenders have been allowed contact with their lawyers.

After their meeting on March 16th, Wu Rongrong’s lawyer reported that her medical condition is not suitable for continued detention and that she did not receive proper medical care in prison, including having her medication confiscated. Wu Rongrong, who suffers from diabetes and Hepatitis B, reportedly had her medication confiscated at the time of her arrest and has been required to sleep on the floor, according to Frontline Defenders.

Wei Tingting and Zheng Churan, who are both severely near-sighted, have not been allowed access to their glasses.

According to Frontline Defenders, on March 18th, the legal representative of Wu Rongrong was informed that her health condition had continued to deteriorate during her detention. Reportedly, Wang Man recently suffered a heart attack in the same detention centre, allegedly as a result of long hours of daily interrogation, and is now receiving medical treatment in the Public Safety Hospital.

Wu Rongrong’s legal representative reports that when she met with her client on March 16th and 18th, she was pale, suffering from pain in her liver and had been spitting up blood in the mornings. The women’s rights activist was hospitalized for 12 days in February 2015, and if she continues to be denied medical treatment, she is at risk of liver failure.

On March 23rd, Wu Rongrong’s legal representative attempted to visit the activist in Haidian District Detention Center and was told that this would not be possible as Wu Rongrong was in a police hospital. At approximately 11:00 three days before, around 16 persons who had gone to the Haidian District Detention Centre to demand that Wu Rongrong receive medical treatment, were taken away in three police cars and held for ten hours before being released.

Front Line Defenders expresses its grave concern for the physical and psychological integrity of Wu Rongrong and Wang Man, as well as the other detained women’s rights activists. The organization believes that the detentions are solely the result of their peaceful and legitimate work to promote gender equality.

Rallies have been organized worldwide in support of the detainees. On March 18th, marches took place in New Delhi, India, in Seoul, South Korea in front of the Chinese Embassy, and in New York City, USA, in front of the UN headquarters where the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was taking place. The main focus of the CSW is “the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, including current challenges that affect its implementation and the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women.”

“The Observatory has recorded a high number of attacks against women’s rights defenders. Discriminatory practices against women’s rights defenders cannot be tolerated,” said Gerald Staberock, World Organisation Against Torture Secretary General.

These arrests come after the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women expressed its concerns to the Chinese government over excessive restrictions on the work of women’s rights organisations and called for the protection of women human rights defenders late last year. In May 2014, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reminded China of its obligation under international law ‘to protect human rights and labor activists, as well as their lawyers, against any form of intimidation, threat and retaliation’.

‘’The Chinese government has not responded adequately to any of these concerns. It has continuously allowed the systematic harassment and intimidation of women human rights defenders and failed to hold perpetrators accountable. The arrest of these women human rights defenders is a stark example of this,’’ commented Phil Lynch, Director of the International Service for Human Rights. ‘’We urge the international human rights community to intervene to safeguard the fundamental human rights of these women human rights defenders.’’

Li, Wu, and Zheng have all actively promoted the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in China by conducting trainings, disseminating information, organizing events to raise public awareness, documenting cases of rights violations, and participating in CEDAW reviews. As part of reviewing the Chinese government’s compliance with the Convention, the CEDAW Committee stated in Concluding Observations in November 2014 that it was concerned about reprisals against NGOs and activists taking part in the review process, and about restrictions and censorship faced by NGOs in China.

According to the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), the detentions and raids on NGO offices come at a time when the Chinese government is introducing strong measures, including a draft law to restrict the funding and the operations of foreign NGOs inside China, to further close off space for NGOs to function. The draft law on regulating foreign NGOs, which is working its way through the bureaucratic process, appears to give police vast supervisory powers over foreign NGOs operating inside China, and requires pre-approval by government agencies regarding project work, restrictions that could force foreign organizations to close their doors in the mainland.

The draft law also follows on regulations proposed by authorities in Guangzhou in October 2014, which sparked public protests by labor groups that eventually led city authorities to scale back provisions that would shut down NGOs that received funding from overseas. Since President Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013, crackdowns on civil society have led to the detentions of dozens of Chinese citizens who work at NGOs or have affiliations with such groups. They are among nearly 1,500 human rights defenders who have been deprived of their liberty in the past two years, according to partial data compiled by CHRD.

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Growing Religious Intolerance in Myanmar as Guilty Verdict Handed Down in Buddha Bar Case

The conviction and sentencing of two managers and the owner of a bar in Myanmar on Tuesday for displaying an image of the Buddha wearing headphones should be overturned immediately and is a chilling indication of the growing climate of religious intolerance in the country, Amnesty International said.

Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin from Myanmar and Philip Blackwood from New Zealand were imprisoned for “insulting religion”. The charges stem back to December 2014 when the Buddha image was used to promote their Yangon bar online.

“Today’s verdict is yet another blow to freedom of expression in Myanmar. While international human rights law permits restrictions to the right to freedom of expression, these restrictions are clearly defined and limited in scope. There is no way that the charges and prosecution in this case can meet the narrow human rights criteria for restricting this right under international human rights law,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Research Director for South East Asia and the Pacific.

“It is ludicrous that these three men have been jailed simply for posting an image online to promote a bar. They should be immediately and unconditionally released,” Abbott said.

The case against Tun Thurein, Htut Ko Ko Lwin and Philip Blackwood comes amid growing religious tensions in Myanmar. National and international NGOs have raised concerns about hardline Buddhist groups using inflammatory language to incite hostility, violence and discrimination. However, the authorities have yet to take concrete action to address the growing use of hate speech.

Myanmar has seen a disturbing rise in religious intolerance in recent years, often fuelled by hardline Buddhist nationalist groups, leading to increased hostility and discrimination against non-Buddhists and Muslims in particular.

“The shrinking space for religious freedom in Myanmar is deeply worrying, as is the growing influence of rhetoric by hardline Buddhist nationalist groups. Authorities should do all they can to reverse this disturbing trend – not seek to inflame the situation further by pursuing cases like this,” said Rupert Abbott.

On December 4th 2014 writer Htin Lin Oo was also charged with “insulting religion” by the Chaung-U Township Court in Sagaing Region after he criticized the use of Buddhism as a tool for discrimination in a speech at a literary event. He is currently on trial and faces up to three years in prison.

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Violent Crackdown Against Students Continues in Myanmar

A violent crackdown on students in Myanmar continues as students attempting to march from Letpadan to Yangon in protest beaten and seriously injured by riot police and armed groups on March 10th. A number of students were also arrested. They were protesting against a new law on education which restricts academic freedom. Five days previously, students protesting the same law at the Sule Pagoda in Yangon were severely beaten and arrested.

The National Education Bill was enacted by Parliament on September 30th 2014. Student organizations and independent experts were highly critical of the law, which they claim restricts academic freedom. In response, they issued a list of ten demands for an amended statute, which include the adoption of ethnic languages in school curricula and the right to form student and teacher unions. A number of protests against the law have been held since November 2014.

The students in Letpadan were attacked when they attempted to dismantle police blockades preventing them from continuing their march. The same day, students in Yangon held protests in reaction to the crackdown, which were also quashed by police and members of government-sponsored youth groups.

On March 3rd, students in Letpadan had attempted to resume their march and the Burmese authorities deployed over 300 police officers, leading the approximately 100 students in Letpadan to stage a sit-in. The march had been suspended temporarily since a draft amendment bill – the result of negotiations held between authorities and student organizations – was agreed on February 11th.

The agreed bill had been presented to Parliament on February 16th 2015, but the government presented a separate amendment bill at the same time that did not comply with the students’ demands. Discussions on both bills took place in February 2015, but no resolution was reached, leading to the resumption of protests.

Human rights organization Front Line Defenders expressed its grave concern at the crackdown on student protesters in Myanmar, which it believes results directly from their legitimate exercise of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression in the context of the right to education. The incidents come in a wider context of widespread restrictions on protests in Myanmar. The organization calls on the authorities to release all detained protesters and to carry out an immediate, thorough and impartial investigation into allegations of excessive use of force against the students.

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Transparency Needed as Two New Suspects Charged Before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia

Ms. Ros, Ms. Fenies and Ms Ou, civil parties in case n°002 in Phnom Penh, August 2014. Photo courtesy FIDH.

Ms. Ros, Ms. Fenies and Ms Ou, civil parties in case n°002 in Phnom Penh, August 2014. Photo courtesy FIDH.

Human rights organizations welcome the charges brought against two former Khmer Rouge commanders but say that serious concerns remain over attempts at political interference and lack of transparency in the court proceedings. On March 3rd, the international Co-Investigating Judge of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) charged two new suspects with crimes against humanity in ongoing Cases 003 and 004.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) said Thursday that they hope that this step forward taken by the international Co-Investigating Judge will expedite the much-delayed legal process in these cases and said that the Court should also ensure that the two suspects, who are not under an arrest warrant, will cooperate with the Chambers and appear before the Court when needed.

“This new development sends an encouraging signal to the almost 2000 victims who applied to participate as Civil Parties in Cases 003 and 004 and have been waiting for justice for more than 40 years. We hope this will trigger more transparency in the progress of these cases, but remain concerned by attempts at political interference by Cambodian authorities,”  said FIDH and its member organizations.

In Case 003, the ECCC International Co-Investigating Judge charged Meas Muth, former commander of the Khmer Rouge navy, in absentia with the crimes of homicide, crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, persecution on political and ethnic grounds, and other inhumane acts) and war crimes (unlawful confinement of civilians, willful deprivation of a prisoner of war or civilian’s rights to fair and regular trials, willful killing, unlawful deportation or transfer, willful causing of great suffering or serious injury to body or health, and torture). These crimes were allegedly committed in various security centers, against Vietnamese, Thai and other foreigners at sea, and on the islands over which Democratic Kampuchea claimed sovereignty.

In Case 004, the ECCC International Co-Investigating Judge charged Im Chaem, former district commander during the Khmer Rouge regime, in absentia with homicide and crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, persecution on political grounds, and other inhumane acts). These crimes were allegedly committed at the Phnom Trayoung security centre and the Spean Sreng worksite.

Four cases have been brought before the ECCC, a hybrid UN-backed tribunal established to judge former high ranking officials from the Khmer Rouge regime.

In Case 001, Kaing Guek Eav, known as “Duch”, was sentenced in appeal in February 2012 to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in the S-21 detention and torture centre he was heading at Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Case 002 was initially targeting four former senior Khmer Rouge leaders, but now only two of them, Nuon Chea, ideologist of the Khmer Rouge regime and Pol Pot’s right hand man, and Khieu Samphan, former Head of State of Democratic Kampuchea, are being prosecuted. Ieng Sary has died and Ieng Thirith was declared unfit to stand trial. After a severance order, Case 002 was divided into different trials.

After a trial in Case 002/01, the ECCC Trial Chamber, in August 2014, found Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea guilty of crimes against humanity related to forced movements of population and the execution of former Khmer Republic soldiers and officials and sentenced them to life imprisonment. This decision is under appeal. The trial inCase 002/02, targeting the two same accused, is currently ongoing and concerns the alleged crimes of genocide, forced marriages and rape, treatment of Buddhists, internal purges, targeting of former Khmer Republic officials, as well as 4 security centers, 3 worksites and 1 cooperative.

Cases 003 and 004 have been brought by the international Co-Prosecutor late 2009 and are being investigated by the Co-Investigating Judges since then. Case 003 is said to be targeting two suspects, among them former Khmer Rouge navy commander Meas Muth, and Case 004 four suspects, among them former Khmer Rouge district commander Im Chaem.

FIDH released a documentary which tells the story of three Cambodian women living in France who travel to Phnom Penh on August 4th 2014 to attend the historic verdict against two of the highest-ranking living political leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime. when leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea received life sentences.

Case No. 002 – History of a Verdict follows 
Mrs. Féniès, Mrs. Ou and Mrs. Ros, who were all victims of international crimes under the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. With the help of FIDH they filed a complaint as civil parties before the ECCC, seeking justice for themselves and their families who died under the Khmer Rouge regime, a justice they were awaiting for almost 40 years.

Khmer Rouge rule under the leadership of Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and others resulted in the deaths of as many as two million Cambodians, more than one-quarter of the population. Pol Pot, known as “Brother Number One,” died in 1998 after years of protection from Thailand and China.

The Khmer Rouge took power in April 1975, at the end of the United States’ war in Indochina. Led by Pol Pot and Nuon Chea, they ruled the country until January 7th 1979, when Vietnam drove them out. Estimates suggest that as many as two million of Cambodia’s eight million people were killed or died from disease, starvation, or forced labor during this period.

You can view the documentary, with sub-titles in French, English, Spanish and Khmer here:

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Amnesty: Global Outlook On State Of Human Rights Bleak But Solutions Possible

410AC77B-ACDD-4E27-B472-D695F72581C2_w640_r1_cx8_cy0_cw76_sWorld leaders must act urgently to confront the changing nature of conflict and protect civilians from horrific violence by states and armed groups, urged Amnesty International as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world. The group said that there is a tightening muzzle on free speech across the Asia Pacific region as governments locked up dissenting voices on the pretext of national security.

The international human rights organization called the global response to atrocities by states and armed groups ‘shameful and ineffective’. The report highlights horrific violence by states and armed groups and global failure to protect civilians and says that governments must ‘’stop pretending the protection of civilians is beyond their power.’’

Without action, Amnesty forecasts growing restrictions on free speech, rising religious intolerance and a worsening refugee crisis in Asia-Pacific. ‘’Speaking out is becoming a crime in too many countries, leaving media and civil society less space to operate,” said Richard Bennett, Asia Pacific Director at Amnesty International.

“Over the past year, we saw governments use draconian security laws to suppress civil society, locking up and punishing critical voices on the pretext of ‘national security’. States are growing increasingly fearful of the power of new technology and are suppressing the use of online tools,” Bennett added.

Governments from Pakistan to Vietnam were in 2014 stifling open debate, often locking up and targeting dissenting voices under the guise of national security. “There’s a tightening muzzle on free speech across the Asia Pacific region. In a positive sign, we saw growing youth activism across Asia in 2014, as people embraced new technologies to claim their rights. However, many governments reacted to this trend with further oppression online,” said Rupert Abbott, South East Asia Research Director.

In Southeast Asia, the trend is downward. In Vietnam, authorities showed little tolerance for dissent, no matter how innocuous, said Rupert Abbott. In 2014, at least 18 bloggers and activists were tried and sentenced under Article 258 for ‘abusing democratic freedoms’. And at least another five more bloggers were arrested and charged under the same provision for posting or writing articles critical of the government, officials and policies. ‘’This harsh and growing crackdown on freedom of expression must end,” Rupert Abbott said.

The Lao government has also kept a tight grip on freedom of expression. Abbott said that the continuing failure to adequately investigate the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a prominent member of civil society, had a chilling effect on freedom of expression and civil society generally.

“Last year saw a real backslide on human rights in Myanmar. Arrests of peaceful protesters picked up pace, as the government used draconian laws to silence critics and peaceful protesters,’’ Abbott said. At least 10 media workers were imprisoned at the end of the year, adding to the growing numbers of new prisoners of conscience in the country’s jails. In July, five staff members of the Unity newspaper were sentenced to 10 years in prison after publishing an article about an alleged secret chemical weapons factory. ‘’Although their sentences have been reduced to seven years on appeal, the verdict was a stark example of the restrictions still facing media workers in the country,” he added.

Amnesty warned that space will continue to shrink for civil society and media, with legislation – including national security laws in, for example, South Korea, Thailand and Myanmar– used to silence those critical of the authorities. Governments across the region – in, for example, China, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos – will most likely continue to try to control public.

Buddhist extremist groups in Myanmar and Sri Lanka used hate speech or violence against other groups; repressive blasphemy laws in Pakistan and Indonesia were used to target mainly minority groups; while India has seen an alarming escalation of rhetoric from a range of actors against Muslim and Christian minorities.

Tens of thousands of persecuted Rohingya fled Myanmar and many were held in appalling conditions by traffickers. China, and other countries, continue to forcibly return people to North Korea, where they are often subject to arbitrary imprisonment, forced labour, torture or other ill-treatment, and may be subject to execution. Australia toughened up its harsh policies towards refugees, turning back boats and continuing to ship asylum seekers to offshore processing centers. Asian migrant workers continue to face deplorable conditions, both inside and outside of the region.

“2014 was a catastrophic year for millions caught up in violence. The global response to conflict and abuses by states and armed groups has been shameful and ineffective. As people suffered an escalation in barbarous attacks and repression, the international community has been found wanting,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

“The United Nations was established 70 years ago to ensure that we would never again see the horrors witnessed in the Second World War. We are now seeing violence on a mass scale and an enormous refugee crisis caused by that violence. There has been a singular failure to find workable solutions to the most pressing needs of our time.”

Amnesty International is urging governments to ensure their response to security threats do not undermine fundamental human rights or fuel further violence. “The global outlook on the state of human rights is bleak, but there are solutions. World leaders must take immediate and decisive action to avert an impending global crisis and take us one step closer to a safer world in which rights and freedoms are protected,” said Salil Shetty.

Amnesty International’s Annual Report provides a comprehensive overview of human rights in 160 countries during 2014, including 29 countries in Asia Pacific where there has been a harsh crackdown on freedom of expression across the region. You can view it in full here and watch this video:

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”We must hope that, looking backward to 2014 in the years to come, what we lived through will be seen as an ultimate low point from which we rose up and created a better future,” Salil Shetty said.

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