Death of American Student Shows That North Korea is a ‘’Black Hole’’

The tragic death of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old American student, shows the true colors of North Korea’s abusive regime, human rights organizations say. Warmbier died Monday afternoon at an Ohio hospital from injuries suffered during 17 months of detention in North Korea.

At a show trial in 2016, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years forced labor after he was charged with ‘’hostile acts against the state’’ for allegedly attempting to remove a political banner from his hotel.

Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that the international community must now recognize the reality that North Korea is a human rights black hole for both foreigners and citizens. Warmbier’s death should be a wake-up call to governments that focus must not just be on security, but also human rights concerns when dealing with Pyongyang.

“Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today,” the family wrote after his death.

While visiting North Korea as a tourist in January 2016, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for trying to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel, while traveling with a Chinese operated tour. The United States made diplomatic efforts to seek Warmbier’s release. Warmbier fell into a coma in prison and was released on June 13th 2017, after nearly 18 months there. He is believed to have been in a coma since March 2016, reportedly after being given a sleeping pill by prison officials.

Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) called  Warmbier’s death is a sad and shocking development: ‘’the Kim regime imprisoned and killed Otto Warmbier. Millions of unknown North Koreans are similarly subjected to the brutality of this regime. More than a hundred thousand men, women and children are being tortured, starved and abused in North Korea’s political prison camps. This continuing outrage is what motivates HRNK to do what the Kim regime fears the most: discover and disclose the truth about the regime’s crimes. To honor Otto Warmbier’s life and memory, we will continue to strive to inform, persuade and inspire political leaders to confront this terrible challenge to global security and to human values.’’

‘’We urge our political leaders to reach across the aisle and foster bipartisan support for the millions of faceless, nameless North Korean victims, by elevating the importance of addressing the human rights situation in that country,’’ Scarlatoiu added.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch said while Warmbier should have never been sent to trial in the first place, most expected that after a period of being isolated and interrogated, he would be returned home after the US made some political concessions to Pyongyang. After all, this is what North Korea has done with many Americans in the past.

‘’No one anticipated that Warmbier would be abused in a way that more closely resembles the manner in which North Korea treats its own citizens, where those who cross the government or show disloyalty to leader Kim Jong-Un face severe consequences, including death. At his trial, Warmbier cried out for forgiveness for making what he called the “worst mistake of my life.” But since he was a foreigner, few believed that mistake would cost him his life,’’ Robertson said.

Additionally, Robertson said that North Korea committed a grave injustice against Warmbier and his family, and they deserve the truth from Pyongyang about what happened: ‘’No one believes Pyongyang’s claim that his condition was triggered by botulism and a medically ill-advised sleeping pill. How did such a healthy young man suffer such severe brain damage that he remained in a coma since March 2016?’’

Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, said Warmbier’s case is “a reminder of the disastrous implications of the lack of access to adequate treatment for prisoners (in North Korea).” On June 16th, Ojea Quintana said “While I welcome the news of Mr. Warmbier’s release, I am very concerned about his condition, and the authorities have to provide a clear explanation about what made him slip into a coma. His case serves as a reminder of the disastrous implications of the lack of access to adequate medical treatment for prisoners in the DPRK.’’

Human Rights Watch said that North Korea should immediately release other foreigners it has detained – six South Korean, one Canadian and three Americans – and end its practice of seizing foreign nationals for political purposes. HRW stressed that governments around the world must now recognize that they can expect no special treatment from Pyongyang for their detained nationals: ‘’Only by making human rights a primary demand – for everyone in North Korea, citizens and foreigners alike – can they reasonably hope to change Pyongyang’s abusive practices.’’

Information on prisons is scarce in North Korea. In 2014 a United Nations commission of inquiry found that thousands of people were routinely detained in facilities across the country, held in inhumane conditions and subjected to torture and forced labor.

The country is also thought to operate up to five political prison camps for the most serious crimes. Foreign nationals have also been detained on political grounds, including two US university professors in Pyongyang who were arrested this year for allegedly plotting anti-state acts.

Ojea Quintana stressed that the authorities had failed to protect Mr. Warmbier from the start. “His ordeal could have been prevented had he not been denied basic entitlements when he was arrested, such as access to consular officers and representation by an independent legal counsel of his choosing,” the Special Rapporteur said.

The expert noted the DPRK has signed up to five human rights treaties and the 1963 Vienna convention on consular relations that guarantee these basic rights.

It is not clear how Mr. Warmbier’s release had been secured, although his rapidly declining health may have been an incentive for North Korea to discharge him. “The onus is on the DPRK government to clarify the causes and circumstances of the release,” Ojea Quintana insisted.

“I call on the DPRK authorities to protect all prisoners, be they North Korean or foreigners. Release on humanitarian grounds should always be considered when the person’s health deteriorates to the point of putting their lives in danger, regardless of their crime,” he concluded.

Otto’s parents released the following statement on Monday:

It is our sad duty to report that our son, Otto Warmbier, has completed his journey home.  Surrounded by his loving family, Otto died today at 2:20 pm.

It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost — future time that won’t be spent with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds. But we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person.  You can tell from the outpouring of emotion from the communities that he touched — Wyoming, Ohio and the University of Virginia to name just two — that the love for Otto went well beyond his immediate family.

We would like to thank the wonderful professionals at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center who did everything they could for Otto. Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.

When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13th he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands. He looked very uncomfortable — almost anguished.  

Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day the countenance of his face changed — he was at peace. He was home and we believe he could sense that.

We thank everyone around the world who has kept him and our family in their thoughts and prayers.  We are at peace and at home too.

Fred & Cindy Warmbier and Family

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Reunions For Separated Korean Families Must Quickly Resume, Says UN Expert

Separated Korean families say farewell. Photo courtesy UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR).

A United Nation human rights expert on North Korea has backed proposals to resume family reunions for people separated since the 1950-1953 war, stressing that time is running out for many elderly relatives.

Thousands of families have been separated since the 1950-1953 Korean War through displacement, forced disappearance and abductions, and as a result of those fleeing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).  It is estimated that over one million and up to five million Koreans moved north or south during the war, leaving their families behind, and up to 100,000 were forcibly disappeared. Of these, less than 2,000 were able to receive information on their lost relatives or to see them in person, as of October 2015.

“There have not been any reunions since October 2015, and thousands of people are still desperate to connect with their loved ones or at least to know what happened to them,” said Tomás Ojea Quintana, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK.

Members of South Korea’s National Assembly announced plans on June 5th for a draft resolution to resume family reunion events in August. The debate is likely to create divisions within the assembly, as Pyongyang continues to carry out ballistic missile launches despite strong warnings by its neighbors and the international community.

The issue is also likely to be dogged by tensions over a group of North Korean restaurant workers who were resettled in Seoul last year, and whose return the DPRK has demanded as a precondition to further talks on family reunions.

Ojea Quintana said: “I welcome the proposal to organize reunions in August. Considering the ages of the family members concerned, and the plight they continue to suffer in old age, all political considerations must be removed. The reunions should be able to go ahead without conditions, to alleviate people’s suffering. This is a matter of absolute urgency that should not divide opinion.”

Nearly 130,000 people in the Republic of Korea (ROK) have registered since 1953 to be reunited with family members in the North, but more than half have died without knowing the whereabouts of their relatives, and the majority of those still alive are over 80.

New South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took office on May 9th, pledged during his election campaign to restore links between separated relatives. His administration has already taken steps to promote dialogue with Pyongyang, including the resumption of joint preventive activities to fight malaria in the North.

Ojea Quintana says the moment is ripe for the two countries to restart dialogue on separated families.

“There is a window of opportunity to discuss reunions as part of the wider outreach initiative by the Republic of Korea, and it should not be missed,” the Special Rapporteur said. “If the two countries can agree on conducting joint humanitarian activities, this is also their chance to respond to the reunion appeal made by the victims.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee says in their report Torn Apart: The Human Rights Dimension of the Involuntary Separation of Korean Families that separation has had a devastating effect on family relations since the Korean War. The continuing legacy of war division and the advanced age of most victims call for urgent attention for a prompt resolution of this problem. The issue has received renewed attention in recent months, with victims’ groups in the Republic of Korea calling for the international community’s support to help them to restore contact with their relatives in the DPRK.

The emergence of a collectivist political system in the northern part of the Korean peninsula in the late 1940s, following the retreat of Japanese troops, led to hundreds of thousands of Koreans fleeing to the south. A second wave of displacement occurred in the early 1950s, as North Korean forces, backed up by China and the Soviet Union, confronted South Korean troops who were aided by forces under the UN command consisting of 16 countries.

The Armistice Agreement of 1953 sealed the border between the two Koreas along the current ceasefire line, leaving relatives trapped on each side of the border. Since 1953, it is estimated that 129,616 individuals in the ROK have registered for reunion with their families in the DPRK. Whereas 2,325 families were able to meet their missing relatives at least once since the June 2000 Inter-Korean Summit, more than half of these applicants passed away without being given a chance to restore contact. At the end of February 2016, the list of candidates for reunion in the ROK contained 64,916 names of living victims. Around 55.3 percent of survivors are above the age of 80.

The story of Ms. Park Dong-yeol, 85 years old, provides an illustration of the exacerbation of discrimination faced by women in the enjoyment of economic and social rights as a result of involuntary separation. Ms. Park fled her hometown in North Korea’s North Hamgyong province in December 1950. She was a second-year medical student at that time and wanted to pursue her studies in South Korea as her medical institute closed during the war. She was not allowed to board a boat for Busan where about 100 men from her extended family embarked because “it was commonly accepted that the presence of a woman on a boat would curse it”. Thus, she made her own way to South Korea by foot and joined the men in Busan as she had no other relatives to rely on. She was unable to continue her studies due to her deteriorating economic situation and was instead employed as a domestic worker and newspaper vendor.

Park Dong-yeol’s status as a single woman in a community of men – most of whom married in the ROK after the Armistice Agreement was signed – forced her to leave the community in Busan and seek employment in Seoul. There, being a single woman with no family ties raised the suspicion of the authorities that she could be a North Korean spy. In 1956, she was detained by police and intelligence officers and tortured, then released and kept under close police scrutiny. In her words: “I worried that I would be arrested again if I did not marry, so I married at the age of 27 after I had lost hope of returning to my family in North Korea”. It was only when she married that social and political pressure on her decreased a little, but she remained economically marginalized and estranged from her extended family for decades because of her North Korean origins.

The impact of surveillance on separated families is perceptible in the story of 88-year-old Ms. Ji Eungyeong, who took part in the latest family reunion event in October 2015. She was selected to meet a daughter whom she had left behind as a baby in 1951, and a granddaughter. Despite the impeccable organization, the family’s right to privacy was not respected due to the presence of North Korean monitors on one side and South Korean journalists on the other. Ms. Ji said that her daughter was only able to cry and speak to her without fear during the two hours they were allowed to meet in a private room. Although Ms. Ji hoped her daughter and granddaughter could stay in touch with her after the event and inform her of developments regarding the fate of other relatives in the North, she has not been able to converse with them since the reunion.

In 2015, 1,275 escapees from the DPRK – 80 per cent of whom are women – arrived in the ROK. Whereas the overall number of escapees has reportedly consistently decreased since 2008 due to stringent border patrols in the DPRK, 43 women continue to form the majority of escapees. This may be explained by the fact that women have more access to informal trading and smuggling routes with China than men, who are assigned to government work. Families are in many cases forced to split up during the escape journey as people usually cross the border individually rather than in groups to avoid being noticed by the authorities. A woman who escaped in 2013 told the United Nations: “I did not tell my parents that I was planning to escape. They would have never let me do it because they would know that they would never see me again. I am their only child”.

These experiences show that even though family separation has taken new forms since the Korean War, its root causes remain connected. The structural forms of violence, discrimination and impunity that are at play weaken the fabric of the family, diminish people’s sense of personal security, and push them to split from their next-of-kin and seek safety outside the DPRK. It is noticeable that young people, who constitute the vast majority of escapees today, were also the main victims of forced displacement 65 years ago. In both cases young people were pushed to flee because they found themselves in a situation of structural vulnerability limiting the enjoyment of their rights, such as the right liberty and security of person, freedom of movement, freedom of thought and conscience, the right to education and the right to an adequate standard of living.  

The responsibility to protect human rights primarily rests with the Governments of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and of the Republic of Korea. More efforts are required to determine responsibilities for cases of involuntary separation.

The legacy of systematic human rights violations of the Korean War must be addressed and perpetrators identified in order to end impunity and promote sustainable peace and reconciliation. This effort should seek to realize the rights of victims to reparations and to know the truth about violations, as well as to provide guarantees of non-recurrence of human rights violations in accordance with international law.

The recent rise in political and military tensions on the Korean peninsula continues to impede progress in the dialogue regarding family reunions. In 2016 two nuclear tests were reportedly conducted and several missiles reportedly launched by the Democratic People’s Republic of the Korea. According to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea the organisation of joint military exercises by the United States and the Republic of Korea has led to the suspension of family reunion events. As rising tensions reduce the chance of addressing the problem of family separation proactively as a common priority, victims risk being further marginalized.

“The emotional, psychological, social, and economic toll of involuntary separation persists to this day, as people continue to search for the truth and for contact with their loved ones,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

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Chinese Activists Detained for Researching Shoe Factory Labor Conditions

Three Chinese labor activists who were conducting undercover research investigations into the labor conditions at Huajian shoe factories, which supply to Ivanka Trump’s brand among others, were taken away by the authorities in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province in late May. State media announced that they have been criminally detained and are under investigation.

According to Amnesty International and state media outlets, on May 30th Deng Guilian, the wife of labor activist Hua Haifeng, received a phone call from people in the public security bureau of Jiangxi province telling her that her husband had been detained on the charges of “illegal monitoring”. Hua Heifeng had been working with China Labor Watch (CLW), a New York-based organization that researches labor conditions in the supply chains of major multinationals. CLW’s most recent investigation was looking into working conditions at Huajian, one of the largest shoe manufacturers in the world, which produces shoes for Ivanka Trump’s brand, Coach and Nine West, among others.

Two other labor activists, Li Zhao and Su Heng, were also reported missing, and were presumed to be detained. On June 6th, The Paper, a state-run newspaper, said that, according to police, the three had been criminally detained on the charge of “unlawfully using special equipment or devices for eavesdropping or secret photographing”. The report claimed that the three had “confessed” to working undercover with the intent to collect information about working conditions and internal company secrets and provide the information to overseas organizations in order to gain funds. Hua Haifeng’s lawyer, who was able to meet his client on June 6th, told Bloomberg that the case was being handled by the national security unit of the public security bureau.

Deng Guilian, who has been outspoken in defending her husband, has said that her home is now under surveillance. She has been regularly visited by state security agents, and is now being followed by unidentified individuals when she leaves her home.

On May 17th, Bloomberg reported that China Labor Watch had sent a letter to Ivanka Trump, urging her to improve conditions in the factories that produce her shoe line. According to the report, China Labor Watch alleged that workers had to work 12 1/2 hours per day, six days a week, and that despite working with oils and glues, workers were not provided with safety training.

According to the New York Times, Hua tried to go to Hong Kong on May 25th in order to meet CLW’s executive director and a journalist from the New York Times, but was denied permission to enter Hong Kong. He was then told to talk to the police, who informed him that they knew he was investigating Huajian factories. Hua later went back to Ganzhou, where he was eventually detained. A United States State Department spokesperson called for the release of the labor activists on June 5th. However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that, “(o)ther nations have no right to interfere in our judicial sovereignty and independence”.

In recent years, China has enacted legislation and regulations to protect workers’ rights, but there is poor implementation of the laws. According to China National Bureau of Statistics, only 35 percent of China’s 281 million “migrant domestic workers” had labor contracts in 2016. At the same time, independent unions are banned, and the state run All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is the only body allowed to represent workers in China. ACFTU-affiliated unions at the enterprise level are often controlled by factory management, and have little capacity to protect workers’ interests.

The government has also taken a harsher approach to labor rights NGOs in recent years. In December 2015, the government in Guangdong province carried out a crackdown against labor NGOs, targeting at least 33 individuals; 31 were later released.

Labor activist Zeng Feiyang was denied access to lawyers and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, suspended for four years, in early October. Labor activist Meng Han was sentenced to one year and nine months’ imprisonment on November 3rd 2016. In many cases the detention centers initially denied access to lawyers on the grounds that the cases involved “endangering national security”.

In recent years the Chinese government has enacted a series of new national security laws that present serious threats to the protection of human rights. The Foreign NGO Management Law created additional barriers to the already limited rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression. Although the law was ostensibly designed to regulate and even protect the activities of foreign NGOs, it transferred to the Ministry of Public Security – the state policing agency – the responsibility to oversee the registration of these NGOs, as well as supervise their operations and pre-approve their activities. It also potentially criminalized any activities between overseas partners and Chinese domestic NGOs or individuals that are not expressly approved by the government.

The wide discretion given to police to oversee and manage the work of foreign NGOs raised the risk of the law being misused to intimidate and prosecute human rights defenders and NGO staff. During the consultation period, Amnesty International made a submission to the Chinese government, urging that the draft law be withdrawn or substantially amended in order to make it compatible with international human rights law and standards.

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United Nations Welcomes Orderly Vote in Cambodia, Calls for Reopening Civil Society Space

The UN Human Rights Office for South-East Asia welcomed the orderly conduct of voting in the communal elections held across Cambodia on June 4th, and expressed hope that the smooth and peaceful poll bodes well for the democratic process ahead of next year’s general election.

“We are pleased to have witnessed that the violence, military intervention, and arrests that were threatened prior to the elections did not take place and that the people of Cambodia expressed general satisfaction with the process,” said Katia Chirizzi, the deputy regional representative of the South-East Asia Office in Bangkok.

The UN Human Rights Office observed the human rights environment of the vote, as it has every election since the establishment of its office there in 1993. It applauded the fact that in contrast with previous ballots no voters this time claimed that they had been kept from voting.

The Regional Office congratulated Cambodians who turned out in exceptionally high numbers, civil society organizations that also mobilized in large numbers to scrutinize the election, all the participating political parties and the National Election Committee on its preparations.  

However, reports were received prior to the vote of some opposition politicians being threatened and obstructed from campaigning, and some civil society election monitors being subjected to intimidation and harassment.

“Having done well with the organization of the vote, we are confident that the reformed National Election Committee will be able to deal with any election-related complaints that come to its attention in strict accordance with the law, including the internationally established human right to participate in public affairs,” said Chirizzi, stressing the importance of preventing a repeat of such intimidating behaviour ahead of the 2018 general election.

“The elections have set new benchmarks in transparency, while revealing some ways in which the process could be further strengthened next year. In particular, the politicized threats and arrests of civil society actors and members of opposition parties should cease, so that, in their respective capacities, they may continue to play their legitimate role in a democratic Cambodia, particularly ahead of next year’s election. The release of the ‘Adhoc 5’ and Tep Vanny would be a crucial test of that space,” Chirizzi added.

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Myanmar Violates Human Rights By Forcing Asylum Seeker Out

Myanmar authorities have put a Turkish asylum seeker, Muhammet Furkan Sökmen, at risk of serious human rights violations by pushing him back via Thailand, Human Rights Watch said Friday.

“Myanmar and Thailand flagrantly violated Furkan Sökmen’s human rights by caving in to pressure from Ankara and deporting him despite his claim for asylum and the real risk of ill-treatment and an unfair trial in Turkey,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

On May 24th 2017, Myanmar officials detained Sökmen at Yangon International Airport at the request of Turkish authorities who had canceled his passport. After he and his family were held for approximately 24 hours, he was forcibly sent to Turkey – via Thailand – because of alleged connections to the Gülen movement, led by US-based Sunni Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, which the Turkish authorities deem responsible for a failed coup in 2016 and has termed a terrorist organization.

In Thailand, he was held at an airport immigration detention center for approximately another 24 hours before being deported to Turkey on May 26th. Upon arrival in Turkey, authorities placed Sökmen in detention and transported him to his home province where a criminal investigation is set to begin. Little is known about his treatment now in the custody of Turkish authorities.

In two videos Sökmen sent from the immigration lockup at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok before his phone was confiscated and Thai officials handed him over to Turkish embassy staff, he said: “I am calling everyone, please help me. I am in the terminal area; they are pushing me. They are trying to give me to the Turkish Embassy. Please help me, all over the world, please help me.” In a second 20-second video he said: “Please help me, now I am in Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport in the terminal area. They are pushing me, to give me to Turkish Embassy staff, they are pushing me to go to Turkey. I don’t want to go to Turkey, I want to stay here. Please help me—all over the world please help me.”

The deportation of Sökmen went ahead even after the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and other UN agencies had informed key Burmese and Thai government agencies that there were substantial grounds to believe that he would face an imminent risk of human rights abuse upon his return to Turkey.

Forcing Sökmen back to Turkey – where he is at risk of ill-treatment in custody – without examining his claim for protection constitutes refoulement, Human Rights Watch said.

Under customary international law, the governments of Myanmar and Thailand are obligated to ensure that no one in their custody is forcibly sent to a place where they would risk serious human rights violations. The principle of non-refoulement is also included in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Thailand is a party.

“It is deeply alarming that both Burmese and Thai authorities prioritized showing deference to rights-violating demands from Turkey over respecting the bedrock principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits any government from returning an asylum seeker without examining his or her claim for protection,” Adams said.

Sökmen is an accountant who was formerly the director of a company that managed a recently closed international school in Rangoon that was associated with the Gülen movement. Turkish media reporting his return to Turkey have alleged he was a leading figure in the Gülen movement in Myanmar.

Since October 2016, he is at least the sixth person forced back from Southeast Asia to Turkey over alleged connections to the movement. The other five were sent back to Turkey from Malaysia, and all five are believed to still be in pre-trial detention.

Turkey accuses Fethullah Gülen of being behind a coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016. Gülen has denied any involvement.

Since the attempted coup, the Turkish government has put more than 50,000 people in pre-trial detention. Among those detained are military personnel, police officers, civil servants, teachers, academics, businessmen, judges, and prosecutors. The majority face terrorism charges based on their alleged links to the Gülen movement and many have been held in prolonged detention without due process or credible evidence of personal criminal wrongdoing. Some of those held have alleged that they were subjected to torture or other ill-treatment in police custody, and while in prison have excessive restrictions on visits by family members, receiving and sending letters, and having private communication with lawyers. Their prison detention conditions may amount to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in violation of international law.

“Myanmar and Thailand should ensure that anyone who alleges they are at risk of human rights abuse in Turkey can seek protection,” Adams said. “To make it clear they will not further violate international law, Myanmar and Thailand should immediately announce that they will provide UN agencies with access to conduct assessments of protection needs of any Turkish nationals wanted by Ankara, and not return to Turkey anyone determined to be a refugee.”

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Crackdown in Vietnam Continues

Vietnam must end the ongoing crackdown on dissidents, repeal its repressive laws and immediately release all political prisoners, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) said Monday. FIDH and VCHR’s call followed the latest case of imprisonment of government critics to lengthy jail terms.

“Until Vietnam repeals its repressive laws, the country’s prisons will continue to be the likely residence of government critics. It’s time for Hanoi to dismantle its arsenal of draconian laws and release all political prisoners,” said FIDH President Dimitris Christopoulos.

On May 26th 2017, the Court of Appeals in Hanoi upheld a lower court’s conviction of Tran Anh Kim and Le Thanh Tung for conducting “activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” under Article 79 of the Criminal Code and sentenced them to 13 and 12 years in prison and five and four years’ house arrest respectively.

On December 16th 2016, a court in Thai Binh Province jailed Tran Anh Kim and Le Thanh Tung for attempting to form a pro-democracy organization that authorities claimed was planning a coup to overthrow the government.

Both Tran Anh Kim and Le Thanh Tung are former army soldiers and long-time human rights advocates who have been repeatedly targeted by the authorities for their pro-democracy activities.

In December 2011, Le Thanh Tung was arrested on charges of “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 88 of the Criminal Code. Tung was released in June 2015, five months ahead of the completion of his jail sentence. Tung has been arrested more than a dozen times for his human rights activism.

Prior to his latest incarceration, Tran Anh Kim was released from prison in September 2016 after serving a five-and-a-half-year prison term under Article 79 of the Criminal Code. Kim has been a persistent government critic and has been jailed several times for his activism.

“The case of Tran Anh Kim and Le Thanh Tung shows the government’s callous determination to silence all forms of opposition and its total disinterest in upholding its international legal obligations. Stronger international pressure is urgently needed to end this human rights onslaught,” said VCHR President Vo Van Ai.

Vietnamese authorities have repeatedly used legislation inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations under international law to suppress the right to freedom of opinion and expression and to detain government critics.

In addition to Articles 79 and 88, other clauses of the Criminal Code that are inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations under international law include: Article 80 (‘’spying’’); Article 87 (‘’undermining national solidarity, sowing divisions between religious and non-religious people’’); and Article 258 (‘’abusing democratic freedoms to harm the interests of the state’’.)

Vietnam holds about 130 political prisoners.

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Vietnamese Activist Finalist for International Human Rights Award

 

Pham Thanh Nghien in an undated photo, courtesy of Front Line Defenders.

After spending four years in prison for publicizing grave human rights violations in Vietnam, blogger Pham Thanh Nghien has been named as one of five finalists for the 2017 Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk. The annual Award recognizes activists who – despite severe and often life-threatening risks – have made exceptional contributions to protecting and promoting the rights of their communities.

Pham Thanh Nghien, 40, has been a vocal critic of the authorities in Vietnam, publishing several essays online and appearing frequently on radio to detail and discuss government violations of human rights. She promotes civil engagement in human rights issues, debate on territorial sovereignty, and tackling corruption. In 2009, she was a recipient of the Human Rights Watch Hellman/Hammett Award. She is a member of the Former Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience Association and Bloc 8406, a pro-democracy network of human rights defenders and organizations.

“Human rights defenders tell us that international visibility is vital to their work, particularly as governments and corporations work to defame, slander, and delegitimize their peaceful struggle for rights … Their struggle has not gone unnoticed and we in Ireland support their fight for rights,” said Andrew Anderson, Executive Director of Dublin-based Front Line Defenders.

In 2007, when the wool company where she worked went bankrupt, Pham Thanh Nghien started advocating on behalf of landless farmers and writing articles calling for human rights and democracy. Authorities barred her from attending the trial of her close friend, the democracy campaigner Le Thi Cong Nhan, and she has been repeatedly harassed by the police, who regularly bring her in for aggressive questioning. In June 2008, she was detained after co-signing a letter to the Public Security Ministry that requested authorization to organize a peaceful demonstration against corruption. A few days later, she was attacked and beaten by hooligans, who threatened her life if she continued “hostile actions” against the state.

On June 2nd 2015, Pham Thanh Nghien was severely beaten, along with family members and members of the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers, in a police attack outside her home in Haiphong. Besides suffering from bruises sustained in the beating, the human rights defender experienced acute pain following attack, in connection with a previous spinal degenerative disease and scoliosis.

In January 2010, Nghien was sentenced to four years imprisonment and three years of probation after being found guilty of spreading propaganda against the state. Prior to her sentencing, the human rights defender had been held in prison for over a year, awaiting trial in connection to her attempts to organize a peaceful pro-democracy protest.

Pham Thanh Nghien spent four years in prison for her work publicizing violations against and defending the rights of relatives of fishermen killed by Chinese patrols. Following her release, she was kept under house arrest, during which time she spearheaded numerous human rights campaigns and co-founded the renowned Vietnamese Bloggers’ Network. Nghien has had her home raided, been blocked from attending medical appointments, had a padlock placed on her door from the outside and been refused a marriage certificate. Nghien has also survived numerous physical assaults aimed at stopping her powerful, peaceful work uncovering and publicizing human rights violations in Vietnam.

Jury members selected human rights defenders from Ukraine, Nicaragua, Vietnam, South Africa and Kuwait after receiving 142 nominations from 56 countries. “These five defenders demonstrate the tenacity and will to persist in the face of severe, often life-threatening risks,” said Andrew Anderson.

The 2017 finalists and their families have faced attacks, defamation campaigns, legal harassment, death threats, prison sentences, and intimidation. Front Line Defenders works to promote the visibility and protection of the five finalists, who are critical to the human rights movements in their countries and communities.

The recipient of the 2017 Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk will be announced at a ceremony at Dublin’s City Hall on May 26th.

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Police DNA Database Threatens Privacy in China

In China, police are collecting DNA from individuals for a nationally searchable database without oversight, transparency or privacy protections, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday. Evidence suggests that the regional government in Xinjiang, an ethnic minority region with a history of government repression, intends to accelerate the collection and indexing of DNA.

In many parts of the country, police officers are compelling ordinary individuals – neither convicted nor even suspected of a crime – to have their blood drawn and DNA taken. Samples have also been collected from vulnerable groups already targeted for increased government surveillance, including migrant workers, dissidents, and minority Muslim Uyghurs. Because police wield wide powers, and because there are no actionable privacy rights in China, people have little ability to refuse the collection of such personal information.

“DNA collection can have legitimate policing uses in investigating specific criminal cases, but only in a context in which people have meaningful privacy protections,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Until that’s the case in China, the mass collection of DNA and the expansion of databases needs to stop.”

In the early 2000s, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security started building a searchable, national DNA database called the Forensic Science DNA Database System also known as National Public Security Agencies DNA Database Application System as part of a larger police information project known as the Golden Shield.

By late 2015, the Ministry of Public Security had accumulated 44 million “miscellaneous data entries.” The government claims it is the biggest in the world. It includes data from more than 40 million individuals, while 1.5 million entries refer to physical evidence related to crime scenes. The Ministry of Public Security runs a second, separate Combat Trafficking DNA Database with more than 513,000 DNA entries. Authorities have stated that the DNA databases are used for solving crimes, including terrorism and child trafficking, as well as to identify bodies and vagrants.

Documented cases demonstrate that the collection of DNA does not appear to be connected to solving specific cases of crimes, Human Rights Watch said. Police have conducted campaigns to amass biometrics from ordinary citizens simply because it has identified gathering “basic information” a goal, important for the unspecified need to “solve crimes.” In these notices, local police stations hail the success of their drives, publicizing the dozens or hundreds of DNA samples they collected.

In addition, Chinese law appears to limit police collection of DNA samples to people connected to the investigation of a specific criminal case. Article 130 of the Criminal Procedure Law states that in the course of criminal investigations, in order to “ascertain certain features, conditions of injuries, or physical conditions of a victim or a criminal suspect, a physical examination may be conducted, and fingerprints, blood, urine and other biological samples may be collected. If a criminal suspect refuses to be examined, the investigators, when they deem it necessary, may conduct a compulsory examination.” But there are no legal guidelines on how long DNA samples can be stored, shared, or used, or how their collection can be challenged.

“Mass DNA collection by the powerful Chinese police absent effective privacy protections or an independent judicial system is a perfect storm for abuses,” Richardson said. “China is moving its Orwellian system to the genetic level.”

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Police Threaten and Harass Buddhist and Youth Activists in Vietnam

Members of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) and its affiliated Buddhist Youth Movement were subjected to threats, harassments and police interrogations as they organized celebrations of Vesak Day (Birth of Buddha) in the ancient capital of Hue, central Vietnam.

“For Buddhists around the world, Vesak Day is a celebration of peace and joy. Yet in Vietnam, it is marred by harassments and discrimination”, said VCHR President Võ Văn Ái. “The government claims progress in religious freedom with the adoption of a recent law, but on the ground, the reality of religious repression remains unchanged”.

Lê Công Cầu, the UBCV’s Secretary-general and head of the Buddhist Youth Movement, sent a report to the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights Friday describing a series of police restrictions, interrogations and threats against UBCV Buddhists in the run-up to the Vesak, especially in Phú Vang district, Huế, where the UBCV has a strong and active presence.

On April 28, 2017, security police summoned two leaders of the Buddhist Youth Movement (BYM), Ngô Đức Tiến and Nguyễn Văn Đê, both members of the BYM Central Committee, for interrogation at the Phú Vang police headquarters. They threatened to detain the two men, warning that (a) the UBCV was an illegal organization (b) participating in UBCV activities was a violation of the law (c) they must renounce membership of the UBCV and (d) they must not attend the UBCV’s Vesak ceremony at the Long Quang Pagoda in Huế.

The two youth leaders protested that there was no formal ban against the UBCV, and it was therefore a legitimate organization, and refused police pressure to sign a statement admitting their “wrongdoings”. On May 4th 2017, Lê Công Cầu was summoned for “working sessions” by security police for a whole day. He was also pressured to cease his involvement with the “illegal” UBCV. During this period, police and local officials visited homes of local Buddhists and warned them not to attend the UBCV Vesak ceremony.  

Police interference into celebrations of a traditional religious festival such as Vesak  demonstrates the deep contradictions in Vietnam’s religious policies. The government claims to have improved protection of religious freedom, notably with the adoption of a new Law on Belief and Religion that comes into force in January 2018, yet it imposes strict state controls on religious communities and arbitrarily represses non-registered groups such as the UBCV.

In an Open Letter to Vietnam’s National Assembly last year, 54 religious and civil society organisations inside and outside Vietnam called for amendments to the new law because it placed “unacceptable restrictions on the right to freedom of religion or belief and other human rights”, and was “contrary to the spirit and principle of the right to freedom of religion and belief”.

UBCV Patriarch Thích Quảng Độ has clearly stated that the UBCV will not apply to register with the communist state. He says that the UBCV has a long-standing legitimate status, and moreover that mandatory registration is a violation of international law.

The former UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, stressed after his visit to Vietnam that “the right to freedom of religion or belief is a universal right which can never be “created” by administrative procedures. Rather, it is the other way around: registration should be an offer by the State but not a compulsory legal requirement”.

 

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Cambodian Workers Rally for Rights on International Labor Day

On May 1st 2017, workers, trade unionists, farmers, tuk tuk drivers and youths gathered to celebrate International Labour Day and call for respect for workers’ rights, freedom of association, freedom of expression and the living wage. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

In Cambodia,  a group of over 1500 trade unionists, workers, farmers, tuk tuk drivers and youth rallied in central Phnom Penh to celebrate International Labor Day and call for respect for workers’ rights, freedom of association, freedom of expression and the living wage.

According to LICADHO, the peaceful gathering was met with heavy deployments of para-police and riot police carrying batons and tear gas guns. The rally was obstructed by barricades and cordons of mixed forces for over two hours before eventually being permitted to march a short distance towards the National Assembly before again being blocked and prevented from marching the final 200 yards.

Representatives of the gathered groups delivered speeches in which they publicly stated their demands before submitting a petition to a representative of the National Assembly. Earlier in the rally, the authorities attempted to prevent speakers from using microphones. Many participants wore red headbands and emblazoned with the slogan “Our Rights” while others carried banners demanding respect for their rights.

After two hours of negotiations, the group of workers stood their ground and rallied for labor rights, freedom of association, the living wage and better working conditions.

Below are photos of the rally.

Para-police and police put up barricades in the early morning, blocking the planned International Labour Day march in central Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

More than 1,500 participants assembled at the road block, while authorities attempted to prevent speakers from using microphones. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Members of the building and wood workers union were among the crowd, demanding better working conditions in Cambodia’s booming construction sector. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Many participants wore red headbands, emblazoned with the slogan “Our Rights”. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Participants call for respect for freedom of association. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

After more than two hours the group was eventually allowed to march a few hundred yards towards the National Assembly…

before again being blocked by anti-demonstration police and prevented from marching the final 200 yards. Photos courtesy LICADHO.

Yang Sophorn, president of Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU), and other union leaders delivered speeches in which they publicly stated their demands before submitting a petition to a representative of the National Assembly. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

 

 

 

 

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