China Must Release Taiwanese Democracy Activist

Longtime Taiwanese democracy activist Li Ming-Che should be immediately released by Chinese authorities, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday. Li Ming-Che, 42, has been detained for a month on suspicion of endangering China’s national security. Chinese national security laws allow the authorities to deny Li access to his family and lawyers, leaving him at serious risk of mistreatment.

“Chinese authorities have offered no credible evidence for the grave allegations against Li Ming-Che,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately notify Li’s family of his whereabouts and allow his family and lawyer to visit him.”

Li has been missing since March 19th 2017, after he crossed from Macau into Zhuhai, in China’s Guangdong province. A friend of his who had planned to meet him in Zhuhai said Li never arrived. Ten days later, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office – the government agency responsible for cross-strait affairs – confirmed at a news conference that the “relevant authorities” had detained Li and placed him under investigation on suspicion of “engaging in activities that endanger national security.”

Li, a manager at Taipei’s Wenshan Community College, has worked for Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party and is a longtime supporter of civil society groups and activists in China. Li had used an account on WeChat, a Chinese social media and messaging app, to discuss human rights issues and Taiwan’s democratic transition with Chinese activists, but in 2015, he was blocked from sending group messages. Li has also taken books to Chinese activists and families of detained rights lawyers. On his most recent trip, Li planned to see friends and seek medical treatment for his mother-in-law.

On April 10th 2017, Li’s wife, Li Ching-yu, was prevented from boarding a flight from Taipei to Beijing to try to visit with and deliver medications to her husband. An airline employee at the airport informed her that her taibaozheng – a Beijing-issued travel permit necessary for Taiwanese to visit China – had been canceled.

A spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office warned at a second news conference on April 12th that outside interference with Li’s case would “complicate” matters and “harm the interests of the person concerned.”

Although China’s Criminal Procedure Law requires police to notify families within 24 hours of criminal detention, the requirement can be waived in cases involving “national security” and “terrorism,” and when the police believe that such notification could “impede the investigation.” Similarly, although the Criminal Procedure Law allows lawyer-client meetings within 48 hours of lawyers making such requests, in cases involving “national security,” “terrorism,” and “major corruption,” police approval is required before such meetings can take place.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013, authorities have apprehended citizens of other countries – inside and outside China – for their work helping Chinese human rights lawyers and activists or for speaking critically of Chinese leaders. Those detained include a Swedish human rights activist, Peter Dahlin; Gui Minhai, a bookseller also from Sweden; James Wang, an American businessman; and Lee Bo, a British bookseller. Some of the detainees had also been forced to give confessions on state media. Authorities have also used televised confessions to vilify detained journalists, bloggers, activists, and lawyers, and increasingly have used national security charges to prosecute and imprison activists solely for their peaceful criticism of the Chinese government.

Under international law, a government commits an enforced disappearance when state agents take a person into custody and then deny holding the person, or conceal or fail to disclose the person’s whereabouts. “Disappeared” people are often at high risk of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The use of televised confessions violates the right to a fair trial and can often be linked to torture or other ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said.

“Beijing’s persecution of those who work to advance human rights and justice in China increasingly targets non-citizens,” Richardson said. “Repeatedly leveling national security charges against peaceful activists marks another alarming escalation in Xi’s campaign against human rights.”

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China Leads World in Executions, Lacks Transparency

China executed more than all other countries in the world put together, Amnesty International said in its 2016 global review of the death penalty published Tuesday. China’s horrifying use of the death penalty remains one of the country’s deadly secrets, as the authorities continue to execute thousands of people each year.

A new in-depth investigation by Amnesty International shows that the Chinese authorities enforce an elaborate secrecy system to obscure the shocking scale of executions in the country, despite repeated claims it is making progress towards judicial transparency.

“China wants to be a leader on the world stage, but when it comes to the death penalty it is leading in the worst possible way – executing more people annually than any other country in the world,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

“The Chinese government has recognized it is a laggard in terms of openness and judicial transparency, but it persists in actively concealing the true scale of executions. It is high time for China to lift the veil on this deadly secret and finally come clean about its death penalty system,” Shetty added.

The Chinese government continues to conceal the extent to which capital punishment is being used in China, despite more than four decades of requests from UN bodies and the international community and despite the Chinese authorities’ own pledges to bring about increased openness in the country’s criminal justice system. This report focuses on the extent to which the authorities maintain near absolute secrecy over the death penalty system, while using partial and generally unverifiable disclosures to claim progress and reject demands for greater transparency.

This deliberate and elaborate secrecy system, which runs counter to China’s obligations under international law, conceals the number of people sentenced to death and executed every year, both of which Amnesty International estimates run into the thousands. All statistics on the use of the death penalty in China remain classified in law as state secrets and authorities continue to evade answering questions about this systematic concealing of the death penalty system.

The government has claimed that such statistics are not available or, rather, that they are actually available in government work reports. The latter claim is misleading, says Amnesty, since death sentences were deliberately lumped together with data on other sentences, with no breakdown by type of sentence, thus making it impossible to know how many death sentences were handed out each year.

Put simply, the government’s claims to have reduced its use of the death penalty have not yet been supported by any concrete evidence. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that the reforms adopted so far, even if they had led to a decrease in the number of executions, will prove effective in the long term or that they could not be reversed at some point in the future. Amnesty International therefore renews its challenge to the Chinese authorities to prove that they are achieving their goal of reducing the application of the death penalty by publishing annual figures to document the number of death sentences handed down and executions carried out.

A key finding of the report is that the national public database of court verdicts that the government has hailed as a major advance in judicial transparency, China Judgements Online, does little to lift the veil of state-enforced secrecy over the application of the death penalty in the country. While it does provide new data and foster greater transparency in some areas of the justice system, cases of judicial executions remain vastly under-reported or are altogether missing. Amnesty International found only 701 individuals whose death sentences had been approved by the SPC — which reviews all death penalty sentences in the country — between 2011 and 2016, while the organization estimates that yearly the actual number runs into the thousands.

Amnesty International’s investigation exposes that hundreds of documented death penalty cases are missing from a national online court database that was initially touted as a “crucial step towards openness” and is regularly heralded as evidence that the country’s judicial system has nothing to hide. China’s database contains only a tiny fraction of the thousands of death sentences that Amnesty International estimates are handed out every year in China, reflecting the fact that the Chinese government continues to maintain almost total secrecy over the number of people sentenced to death and executed in the country.

China classifies most information related to the death penalty as “state secrets” and in any case virtually any information can be classified as a state secret under China’s overbroad secrecy laws.

Amnesty International found public news reports of at least 931 individuals executed between 2014 and 2016 (only a fraction of the total executions), but only 85 of them are in the state database.

The database also omits foreign nationals given death sentences for drug-related crimes -despite media reports of at least 11 executions of foreign nationals. Numerous cases related to “terrorism” and drug-related offences are also absent.

“The Chinese government uses partial disclosures and unverifiable assertions to claim progress in reducing the number of executions yet at the same time maintains near absolute secrecy. This is deliberately misleading. China is a complete outlier in the world community when it comes to the death penalty, out of step with international legal standards and in contravention with repeated UN requests to report how many people it executes,” said Salil Shetty.
Over the past few years the risk of people being executed for crimes they did not commit has caused increasing alarm among the public in China.In December 2016, the Supreme People’s Court overturned the wrongful conviction of one of the most prominent case of miscarriage of justice and wrongful execution, Nie Shubin. He had been executed 21 years earlier, at the age of 20. In 2016 Chinese courts decided four people facing the death penalty were innocent and quashed their death sentences.

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Human Rights Lawyer Victim of Death Threats in Myanmar

Human rights lawyer Robert Sann Aung in a 2015 photo. Photo courtesy Martin Ennals Award.

Human rights lawyer Robert Sann Aung has been receiving death threats and insulting messages since the assassination of another prominent lawyer in Myanmar. The authorities must take immediate steps to ensure Robert Sann Aung’s safety, investigate the threats and to hold those responsible to account, Amnesty International says.

Robert Sann Aung has been receiving regular death threats, insulting messages and phone calls since the assassination at Yangon airport of prominent lawyer U Ko Ni on January 29th 2017. In some of the phone calls he has been asked by an anonymous speaker “aren’t you afraid of dying?”, and threatened with “we know where you go so don’t think you are so smart and don’t touch the Constitution”. Robert Sann Aung has also received crude and deeply offensive text messages. In addition to receiving threatening phone calls and messages, Robert Sann Aung reports he is also being monitored by Myanmar’s security forces.

According to Robert Sann Aung, while having to transit in Mandalay for work, he has been followed by a man wearing civilian clothes who claims to be from the Military Intelligence. The man waits for him at the airport and follows him until he boards his connecting flight. This has now happened on four separate occasions since December 19th 2016. As a former prisoner of conscience, Robert Sann Aung is hesitant to report the death threats and intimidation to the authorities, Amnesty says. In addition to believing that they would not listen to him, he fears that the authorities might be connected to the threats and increased surveillance he has been receiving in the past few months.

Robert Sann Aung is a well-known human rights lawyer and human rights activist from Myanmar. He is also a former prisoner of conscience who has been imprisoned six times for his peaceful political and human rights activities. His defense of peaceful political activists, who were charged by the former military government, led the authorities to revoke his lawyer’s license in 1993. Ever since it was reinstated in 2012, Robert Sann Aung has continued to represent human rights defenders and peaceful activists charged in politically motivated cases, as well as victims of human rights violations and their family members. He is a 2015 finalist for the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

U Ko Ni was a lawyer and legal adviser to the National League for Democracy, the ruling party led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. His work included reforms to Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, which was drafted by the former military government. He was assassinated at Yangon International Airport on January 29th 2017, after returning from Indonesia.

To date, four people have been arrested in connection with the killing and are currently on trial. Under Article 2 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, each state has a duty to create the conditions necessary to defend human rights within their jurisdictions. However, Amnesty International continues to receive reports of intimidation, harassment and surveillance against human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists.

Activists are still subjected to many forms of surveillance by Special Branch and other intelligence units. Tactics used against activists include being followed; having their photograph taken when attending events and meetings; late night inspections of their homes and offices by police and General Administration Department (GAD) officials; and harassment of their family members, colleagues or friends.

Women human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and intimidation. In recent years, Buddhists nationalists have also been the author of threats and smear campaigns against human rights defenders speaking out against religious intolerance.

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Religious Freedom on Attack in China as Tibetan Buddhists Face Demolitions, Expulsions

Chinese authorities’ strategy of demolitions, expulsions, threats and restrictions on religious practice is clear-cut evidence of an attack on religious freedom as a major Tibetan Buddhist institution faces further demolitions. Chinese officials announced on March 12th 2017, that 3,225 homes at Larung Gar, the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist institution, would be torn down by April 30th. Human Rights Watch said Thursday that Chinese authorities should halt the expulsion and political re-education of monks and nuns and stop dismantling religious freedom.

Many of the monks and nuns already expelled from Larung Gar and the nearby religious community at Yachen Gar, both in Tibetan areas of Sichuan province, have been forced to return to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and subjected to exceptional restrictions on their liberty and to degrading treatment. In November 2016, the authorities forced at least one group to undergo political re-education and apparent public humiliation in Nyingtri in southeastern TAR.

“China is aggressively dismantling religious freedom along with religious life at Larung Gar by subjecting many expelled monks and nuns to forced re-education,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The restrictions imposed on former residents should be removed so they can exercise fully their rights to religious practice, including freely joining religious institutions and observing religious rituals.”

A senior abbot said in a speech to the community on March 23rd that the monks and nuns “who have left had never wanted to leave. And whether or not they had some place to go, they still had to leave.” He added that “the demolitions and expulsions come from the policy of the senior levels of government, and cannot be discussed” and called on all monks and nuns to “show great forbearance and not react with protest, suicide and the like.”

Demolitions in late July 2016, which the authorities said were necessary in order to carry out “correction and rectification,” reportedly prompted three suicides.

At least half of the more than 10,000 monks and nuns at Larung Gar face eviction following the demolition of numerous residences. The authorities have also pressured family members of certain nuns at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, another major religious institute, to summon their relatives home or face punishment, Human Rights Watch said.

Since mass demolitions began at Larung Gar, the monastery’s leaders have appealed to residents to avoid confrontations with government-employed demolition crews.However, three nuns at Larung Gar committed suicide in late July or early August in protest of the mass demolitions.

A video circulated on social media shows 25 young Tibetan women with shaven heads, who appear to be nuns, dressed in military jackets and standing in rows inside a police or government office decorated in Tibetan style. The women are chanting in unison, “The Tibetans and the Chinese are daughters of the same mother, the name of the mother is China,” part of a song often used by officials in Tibet to propagate the view that Tibetans are genetically or culturally Chinese. A photograph circulated at the same time shows the same women, dressed in full military fatigues, carrying out a military-style exercise inside a walled compound.

A second video, circulated a few days after the first, shows 12 Tibetan nuns dancing on the stage of a theater in front of what appears to be an audience of officials. The nuns, dressed in religious robes, perform a choreographed dance routine to the song, “The Song of the Emancipated Serfs.” The song is associated with official Communist Party celebrations and was originally performed in front of Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1959. A banner above the stage reads “Graduation Art Show for the Law and Politics Training Course for Buddhist Monks and Nuns, Kongpo Gyamda County.” Kongpo Gyamda county is in Nyingtri municipality, and the video is believed to have been filmed there on November 10th 2016.

The timing and circumstances of the two videos and the photograph indicate that the women pictured are Tibetan nuns expelled in 2016 from Larung Gar or Yachen Gar. Buddhist nuns usually make a commitment to “refrain from singing, dancing, and viewing entertainments” as the sixth of the 10 sramenerika or novice vows taken by nuns or monks when they are first ordained. This strongly suggests that these performances were coerced and that officials required these nuns to sing and dance to humiliate or embarrass them. The use of forced singing and dancing as part of political re-education for expelled nuns is not known to have occurred previously in the TAR.

The government’s apparent treatment of these nuns violates their rights to freedom of religion but also amounts to degrading treatment prohibited under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which China is a party.

In late summer 2016, two nuns known to Human Rights Watch, who had been expelled from Larung Gar and returned forcibly to the TAR, were not allowed to remain in Lhasa, where they had previously lived for many years, but were forced to return to the village of their birth in a rural area of southern Tibet. The authorities required them to report at regular intervals to the local police station and did not allow them to join any nunneries or institutions in the TAR or elsewhere.

Other sources told Human Rights Watch that no former monks and nuns who have been returned to the TAR are allowed to join any monastery or nunnery there, which means they are considered to be “mobile religious personnel.”

Since an official announcement in September 2012, such unaffiliated monks and nuns are not permitted to carry out religious rituals in the TAR outside their own homes unless they have a special permit. This means that the returned monks and nuns cannot carry out religious services for others, which would constitute their normal source of income, and that Tibetans in the TAR face increasing difficulties in finding religious practitioners to recite prayers at funerals and other family events.

In June 2016, the local government in Serta county, Sichuan, ordered the monks running Larung Gar to begin reducing its occupant numbers to a maximum of 5,000 by September 2017. The institution is estimated to have had between 10,000 and 20,000 occupants before evictions began. It is unclear whether the March 12 decision requiring the demolition of 3,225 homes includes the 1,500 or more homes that have already been demolished. So far, 4,500 residents have been forced to leave, according to the March 23 statement from a senior abbot.

Authorities appear to have made certain concessions in response to requests from the monastery regarding the demolition and eviction procedures at Larung Gar, including unconfirmed reports that some monks and nuns there were compensated for their demolished homes, and that approximately 1,200 expelled nuns have been rehoused in four temporary camps in neighboring counties within Qinghai and Sichuan provinces. But the demolitions and evictions remain a violation of the community members’ rights of religious freedom and practice.

In November 2016, seven experts from the United Nations wrote to the Chinese government requesting detailed information regarding the mass expulsion of Tibetan, Chinese, and other monks and nuns from the monastic settlements at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar. The statement also asked the government to provide information about the legal grounds for the demolitions and expulsions, and what steps had been taken to resettle or rehouse those made homeless. It also requested an explanation about the reported lack of consultation with local religious leaders, the rationale for involving government officials in monastic affairs, and what steps authorities would take to ensure the right of religious freedom.

The UN has said that the Chinese government replied to these requests on December 5th 2016. The UN should publicly release China’s reply, Human Rights Watch said.

“China’s conduct at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar shows a cruel and unyielding disrespect for religious freedom,” Richardson said. “Chinese authorities can undo some of the harm by halting the destruction of this community, fairly addressing the needs of the religious community, and providing transparent explanations about its conduct at Larung Gar and in Nyingtri.”


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Civil Society Demands Independent Investigation into Murder of Cambodian Activist


A portrait of Kem Ley in an undated photo courtesy of LICADHO.

In Cambodia on Thursday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court today convicted Oeuth Ang – otherwise known as ‘Chuob Samlab’ – of the premeditated murder of prominent political analyst Dr. Kem Ley as well as illegal possession of a weapon under Articles 200 and 490 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code. Presiding judge Leang Samnat sentenced Oeuth Ang to life imprisonment three weeks after a four-hour trial hearing. Civil society groups demand an independent inquiry, saying the investigation was inadequate and that the trail was a charade.

Sixty-six civil society organizations said in a joint statement that there must be an independent inquiry into Kem Ley’s death. Kem Ley was a strong advocate of democracy, good governance and human rights in Cambodia, who worked closely with grassroots movements. In 2014, Kem Ley founded the advocacy group Khmer for Khmer, aimed at encouraging the formation of grassroots-based political parties across Cambodia.

Despite compelling evidence that Oeuth Ang was the gunman who shot and killed Kem Ley, the lack of transparency in the investigation of Kem Ley’s death, the brevity of the trial proceedings, and the failure to fully investigate motive, potential accomplices and the circumstances of Oeuth Ang’s arrest, raise serious concerns about the adequacy of this criminal process, the Cambodian and international NGOs said.

‘’Lack of independent investigations feeds into the rampant impunity inherent in Cambodia’s justice system. It is unsurprising that this engenders continuing distrust in Cambodia’s institutions,’’ said Chak Sopheap, Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).

Dr. Kem Ley, 46, was shot dead on the morning of July 10th at a petrol station café in the middle of Phnom Penh, where he was known to often have morning coffee. Oeuth Ang was arrested shortly after the shooting, about two kilometers from the murder scene, and charged with premeditated murder on July 12th. Upon his initial arrest, he gave his name as ‘’Chuob Samlab’’, which translates in English as ‘’Meet Kill’’, and confessed to the murder. He claimed it was over an unpaid debt of $3,000 – an allegation that has been widely rejected by both Dr. Kem Ley’s family and Oeuth Ang’s wife.

The Ministry of Interior also publicly stated in December through a spokesperson that it, too, did not believe this was plausible. Nevertheless, the investigation into Dr. Kem Ley’s murder drew to a close in less than six months after the killing with Oeuth Ang the sole suspect.

The groups called for the establishment of an independent Commission of Inquiry into the circumstances of Kem Ley’s murder, in accordance with international best practices in light of the inadequacies in the investigation into Kem Ley’s death.

Throughout Oeuth Ang’s four-hour trial on March 1st, Oeuth Ang reiterated his claim that he had shot Dr. Kem Ley over the unpaid debt. This motive was not challenged by the trial judges – who appeared satisfied to accept Oeuth Ang as the sole perpetrator – despite its total lack of plausibility and the questionable credibility of Ang’s testimony. Statements by Oeuth Ang’s family and friends in the months preceding the trial cast further doubt on this explanation. The judgment given today failed to make any references to the debt, despite Oeuth Ang’s repeated claim that this was the sole motivation for the killing.

Kem Ley was often critical of Cambodia’s ruling party. Before he was killed, Kem Ley had commented on the business interests of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family, reportedly worth at least US $200 million.

The trial showed extracts of CCTV footage taken from the Caltex petrol station during and after the shooting, but not of the period immediately before it. Further footage that was shown at the trial showed Oeuth Ang running down a pavement on Mao Tse Tung boulevard after the shooting, followed by a motorbike carrying a man openly carrying a rifle. At one point in the footage, another large motorbike – carrying the insignia of the National Police – changes direction to follow Oeuth Ang as well. Oeuth Ang briefly jumps on this motorbike, before dismounting and continuing to run down the street. This bizarre behavior remains without credible explanation, the groups said.

Oeuth Ang testified that he had met Dr. Kem Ley only once at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, arranged by an acquaintance from Thailand, who he named Pou Lis, at which he gave Kem Ley $3,000. Oueth Ang also claimed that he had bought the gun used to shoot Dr. Kem Ley in Thailand from a Thai national called Chak. Neither man was called as a witness, although they are reported to be under investigation in relation to the case.

A series of witnesses, mostly from the police, read out brief witness statements. There was no comprehensive cross-examination.

‘’A court is supposed to be inquisitive in order to uncover the truth. But the evidence showed, and the footage the prosecution chose not to show, left us with more questions than answers, which the court did not inquire into,’’ said Moeun Tola, Director of the Center for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL).

‘’This investigation was inadequate and the trial was a charade. We demand an independent inquiry with international assistance to investigate Dr. Kem Ley’s death, which will be the only way to achieve justice for his family and friends,’’ said Naly Pilorge, Deputy Director for Advocacy at the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO).

The obligation to carry out an effective investigation, as well as to ensure that all perpetrators are brought to justice, is a crucial element of the state’s obligation to respect the right to life, enshrined in Article 32 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a party.

Civil society said that in light of serious shortcomings with regards to the responsibility of the court to critically examine the evidence before it, and in order to ensure conformity with international best practices, an independent Commission of Inquiry is needed to investigate Dr. Kem Ley’s death.

They added that the Commission should be comprised of international experts from outside Cambodia, and have access to all available evidence, including all available CCTV footage: ‘’Given the inadequacies in the original investigation and trial, as described above, an independent Commission of Inquiry is now the only means by which to safeguard the independence and transparency of the investigation, comply with Cambodia’s obligation to fully investigate possible breaches of the right to life, and ultimately to find justice for the family of Dr. Kem Ley.’’

Kem Ley’s killing occurred amid a sharp deterioration in the space for fundamental freedoms in Cambodia over the past year. Civil society group members, opposition leaders and government critics have been arrested and subjected to judicial harassment, and in some cases, violence.

Cambodia’s deteriorating human rights situation has resulted in widespread international condemnation of the Cambodian authorities. The killing of Kem Ley has only added to concerns over the situation in Cambodia.

Civil society groups say that the Cambodian Government has a responsibility to ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders, civil society and government critics to freely operate without fear of retaliation and they are highly concerned that this space is under severe threat in Cambodia.

Political tensions are rising in Cambodia ahead of commune elections in June 2017 and national elections in 2018.


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No ”Quick Fixes” for Human Rights Situation in North Korea, Say UN Experts

The Human Rights Council chamber in Geneva. UN Photo/Elma Okic.

At an interactive dialogue on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), United Nations independent human rights experts called on the DPRK government to take immediate steps to ensure human rights protection. Special Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana highlighted that there were no “quick fixes or instant solutions” to tackle human rights abuses of the scope and nature that have been reported in the country for a long time.

“The focus on developments in the political and military arenas should not shield ongoing violations from the scrutiny of this Council,” Quintana said. “Nor should it prevent it from taking a leading role on inspiring and coordinating international action on this situation of great concern.”

The DPRK continues to deny the existence of political prison camps, despite evidence confirming this from the UN Commission of Inquiry, civil society and NGOs. This is a significant challenge to all efforts to address the grave human rights violations taking place within these facilities and other places of detention, including forced labor, deliberate starvation and torture and other ill-treatment.

The rights expert also expressed particular concern over continuing escalation in hostilities on the Korean peninsula, including nuclear tests and missile launches, and underlined that such tensions only further isolated the country.

Drawing attention to last month’s killing of DPRK leader Kim Jong Un’s brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Kuala Lumpur, he urged all parties to cooperate in carrying out a transparent, independent and impartial investigation, as well as to observe guidelines regarding witness protection.

“Should the investigation confirm the involvement of State actors, Mr. Kim Jong Nam would be a victim of an extrajudicial killing and measures would need to be taken to assign responsibilities and protect other persons from targeted killings,” Quintana said.

The rights expert also spoke of the humanitarian situation in the country including in response to the typhoon last year, the situation of migrant workers and labor issues, and on DPRK’s engagement with UN human rights mechanisms.

The Special Rapporteur’s briefing was followed by an update from the Group of Independent Experts on Accountability designated pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 31/18 on the country.

Amnesty International welcomed the reports of the Special Rapporteur and the group of experts. The Special Rapporteur noted concerns which Amnesty International has also raised, including political prison camps, abductions and separated families, the right to food and the exploitation of overseas workers.

In line with the recommendation of the group of experts, Amnesty International called on the Human Rights Council to urge the UN and the international community to respond in a coordinated and unified manner to ensure the enjoyment of all human rights in the DPRK.

Amnesty International also calls on the Human Rights Council to urge the government of the DPRK to: 

  • Close down all political prison camps, and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience.  
  • Ensure full access for humanitarian workers to those in need, including persons in detention facilities and prisons.  
  • Introduce an official moratorium on executions, as a first step towards abolition of the death penalty.  
  • Grant prompt and unrestricted access to all UN Special Procedures and independent human rights monitors.
  • Ensure that everybody in the DPRK is able to communicate with family members and others without interference, unless this is compliant with international human rights law.

In his report for the council released on February 22, Quintana highlights the need to address allegations of crimes against humanity and other violations that require perpetrators to be held accountable. He calls for a “two-track strategy” of engagement with North Korea on human rights wherever possible, while also pursuing accountability as necessary for bringing tangible and sustainable human rights improvements. Quintana also endorses the recommendations of the group of independent experts on accountability.

In February, the group of independent experts, created in September 2016 by the Human Rights Council to recommend practical accountability mechanisms for North Korean abuses, released its report as an addendum to Quintana’s report. The experts, Sonja Biserko and Sara Hossain, found that the “crimes described in the COI [commission of inquiry] report are of a gravity rarely seen, involving systems of abuse that have been operating for decades. These crimes are of international concern and cannot go unpunished.” They concluded that addressing these crimes “requires the international community to enhance efforts [in] laying the ground for future criminal trials.”

The group of experts also backs having the UN Security Council refer the grave human rights situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court, but recognizes the possibility of a veto from North Korea’s allies China and Russia. They recommend that the high commissioner’s Seoul field office be strengthened with international criminal justice experts to assess available information and evidence, map government command structures to identify gaps and develop possible investigation and prosecution strategies as well as blueprints of suitable international or internationally assisted court models.

The 2014 commission of inquiry found that the gravity, scale, and nature of the human rights violations taking place in North Korea reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world, and amount to crimes against humanity. The Security Council has recognized the gravity of the situation by addressing North Korea’s bleak human rights record as a threat to regional peace and security as a formal agenda item three years in a row.

“A crucial task for the Human Rights Council is to make justice for rights abuses by the North Korean government against its people a genuine future possibility,” said John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch also said that the United Nations Human Rights Council should strengthen the UN rights office documenting grave abuses in North Korea, specifically they said that the Seoul office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should be upgraded to include international criminal justice experts who can develop strategies to prosecute North Korean leaders responsible for human rights crimes.

“The Human Rights Council needs to do all it can to ensure that North Korean leaders implicated in grave crimes are brought to justice,” said Fisher. “The council can bolster the UN’s existing efforts by approving legal experts who can set out a prosecution strategy for alleged crimes against humanity in North Korea.”

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Vietnam Should Free Female Human Rights Defenders, End Persecution of Activists

Me Nam has been detained in Vietnam for 148 days at the time of writing.

International Women’s Day (IWD) should be a wake-up call for the Vietnamese authorities to halt the repression and abuse of women who speak out for human rights, social justice and progress, international human rights organiztion Civil Rights Defenders said ahead of IWD celebrations on Wednesday. The group ssays that the  IWD 2017 theme “Be Bold for Change,” is an opportunity for Vietnam to take a first step to demonstrate its commitment to women’s rights by releasing all women human rights defenders, activists and bloggers it arbitrarily detains.

“It is supreme hypocrisy for Vietnam to claim to uphold women’s rights while directly targeting women who advocate for a more just, open and gender-equal society,” said Civil Rights Defenders. “The Vietnamese authorities should immediately and unconditionally release blogger Me Nam and all other women who are detained solely for the legitimate exercise of their rights.”

Blogger Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh, known by her pen name “Mother Mushroom” (Me Nam), was arrested on October 10th 2016 and accused of conducting “anti-state propaganda” on the basis of Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. She has been held incommunicado since and has been prevented from receiving visits from her family, including her two young children, and her lawyer. She faces up to 20 years of imprisonment for her peaceful online advocacy against abuse of power, corruption and social injustice.

Me Nam is one of the many women human rights defenders, activists and bloggers who have been targeted by the Vietnamese authorities as a result of their peaceful advocacy or merely for exercising their rights. The list includes bloggers, such as Nguyễn Thị Minh Thúy, who was sentenced to three years in prison; activists and campaigners, among whom Trần Thị Nga, a member of the Vietnamese Women for Human Rights group arrested in January 2017, and Cấn Thị Thêu, a land rights campaigner sentenced to 20 months of imprisonment; and members of peaceful religious groups such as Đỗ Thị Hồng and Trần Thị Thúy.

Women who engage in human rights advocacy, activism, independent reporting or even peaceful religious community activities in Vietnam face many forms of repression, including physical and judicial harassment, surveillance, intimidation, smear campaigns, arrest, detention, ill-treatment, sexual violence and physical assault. These attacks – often led, sponsored or condoned by the state – occur in a society where women and girls are subjected to prejudice, discrimination and violence and often assigned to gender-normative, stereotyped roles. In the absence of independent avenues for freedom of expression, assembly or association that could be used to challenge patriarchal structures and attitudes, many women are left voiceless.

In 2015, Vietnam’s women’s rights record was reviewed by the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It found that, despite Vietnam’s claim that it upholds women’s rights and works to advance the condition of women, the effective realization of Vietnamese women’s rights was impeded by numerous legislative, policy, societal and attitudinal obstacles. The Committee also urged Vietnam to investigate allegations of harassment, arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of women human rights defenders, prosecute those responsible and provide remedies to the victims.

“Beyond releasing the women they arbitrarily detain, the Vietnamese authorities should hold all perpetrators of abuses against women, including women human rights defenders, activists and bloggers, to account and put an end to impunity for such abuses,” Civil Rights Defenders said. Vietnam should also ensure all detained persons have access to a lawyer, their family and adequate medical care and to treat them in accordance with the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (“Nelson Mandela Rules”).


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Laos Must Not Extradite Thai Activists Seeking Refuge

Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is urging the Lao government to uphold the country’s obligations under international law and protect pro-democracy activists seeking refuge in Laos from the Thai government. Last week, Laos accepted Thailand’s request to capture and return Thai dissidents within Laos’ borders, including activists facing charges for expressing criticism of the government.

Some of these dissidents, such as Wutthipong Kotchathamkhun, face lèse-majesté charges if sent back to Thailand. Thailand’s junta-led regime is known for abusing lèse-majesté, a type of criminal defamation provision, to silence peaceful critics of the government. Thailand’s aggressive abuse of lèse-majesté has drawn denouncement from various international bodies and organizations, including HRF, for violating international law on freedom of expression.

“To capture these courageous individuals and forcibly return them back to Thailand means Laos will participate in Thailand’s human rights abuses as an accomplice, and may open the door for Laos to be subject to international condemnation and sanctions,” said the letter signed by Thor Halvorssen, president of HRF. “We respectfully urge Laos to uphold international law and reverse the decision to assist Thailand in extraditing dissidents charged with lèse-majesté.”

Just last month, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, condemned the use of lèse- majesté in Thailand and stated that the criminal provision is “incompatible with the international human rights law.” Critics of the government charged under this law receive grossly disproportionate punishment. Each charge of lèse-majesté calls for up to 15 years of imprisonment. Dissidents such as Kotchathamkhun are prodemocracy government critics that should not be put in jail for merely expressing their political opinion.

Currently, the 1999 Treaty on Extradition between the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the Kingdom of Thailand does not allow Laos to extradite to Thailand anyone who is charged with a crime that does not exist under the Lao legal system. Since Laos does not have lèse-majesté criminal provisions, the Lao government must abide by the 1999 Treaty and refrain from extraditing Thai dissidents back to Thailand. Doing anything other than allowing them to remain in Laos will violate the 1999 Treaty.

Laos also has the responsibility under international law to reject the extradition of Thai persons back to their home country, when they are in danger of being subjected to torture.

In the letter to Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and Minister of Foreign Affairs Saleumxay Kommasith, HRF said that agreeing to extradite non-violent prodemocracy activists that desire nothing but to seek refuge in Laos betrays the promise the Lao government has made to the international community.

The legal principle of non-refoulement is embedded in the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), which Laos has ratified. The CAT states “No State Party shall expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” Torture and ill-treatment in detention is evidently rampant in Thailand, and individuals charged with lèse-majesté are among those that face torture in prison.

Additionally, the principle of non-refoulement on the basis of risk of torture is also found in Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Laos joined as a state party in 2000 and ratified in 2009. By ratifying the above-mentioned international conventions, the Lao government has made the promise to uphold international law in the highest regard.

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Student Leader Convicted for Facebook Post Released in Cambodia

Kong Raya after his release from prison on February 22, 2017. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Cambodian student political prisoner Kong Raya was released from CC1 prison on Wednesday after serving his full 18 month prison sentence for “incitement to commit a felony” under Articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s criminal code.

The 25-year-old former President of the Cambodian Student Network was initially arrested in August 2015 for a Facebook post calling for “color revolution in order to change the cheap regime running Cambodian society.”

His arrest came less than a month after Prime Minister Hun Sen called on police and armed forces to take action over any group or individual attempting a “color revolution”, and his conviction was part of a growing trend for authorities to take action against online expression.

There has been a dramatic increase in detentions for online activity in Cambodia, with several people arrested for posts or comments made online, and many publically threatened with prosecution.

Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, says the conviction of Kong Raya exemplifies the government’s stance toward negative comments. Observers said he was not politically influential, and Raya apologized, saying he had no intent to lead an uprising but was merely expressing his frustration with the government.

Kong Raya was convicted and sentenced on March 15th 2016 after months of pre-trial detention, a verdict subsequently upheld by the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. His conviction was the first in a spate of crackdowns on online expression.

In Freedom House’s report Freedom on the Net 2016, Cambodia is ‘’partly free’’.

Last year, Internet freedom declined following a number of arrests for online speech and the passage of a problematic telecommunications law with inadequate protections for user privacy.

Even so, the internet continues to be the nation’s freest medium for sharing information. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sun urged government officials to use Facebook and social media to engage with citizens, and even launched his own application to keep users up to date with his news.

At the same time, he threatened Facebook critics and reminded internet users that the government is monitoring their activity. Several arrests and criminal charges were documented in relation to legitimate online speech, marking a disturbing new trend that threatens to increase self-censorship.

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Vietnam Joins Ranks of World’s Worst Executioners

Vietnam executed a total of 429 prisoners between August 2013 and June 2016 according to a report published by the Ministry of Public Security in Vietnam. With this figure, Vietnam now ranks fifth on a list of the world’s worst executioners following China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and topping the United States, according to figures from Amnesty International.

Peaceful political dissent is punishable by death under vaguely defined “national security laws”, (Article 109 of the 2015 amended Criminal Code), which makes no distinction between acts of terrorism and peaceful expression. Many civil society activists are serving sentences of up to life imprisonment under this clause, simply for calling for the respect of environmental rights and democratic reforms.

“These figures are devastating”, said Vietnam Committee for Human Rights (VCHR) President Vo Van Ai. ‘’The use of the death penalty is especially disturbing because of the lack of due process of law in Vietnam’s one-party state. People can be killed by the state in a country where due process of law is not upheld.”

The report gave an overview of the use of the death penalty in Vietnam over the past five years (2011-2016), since the Law on Execution of Criminal Judgements and the Decree on Execution by Lethal Injection were adopted by the National Assembly (see VCHR Report on the Death Penalty in Vietnam). To cope with the large number of executions, it said, Vietnam was building five new execution compounds to supplement the five currently operational in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Nghe An, Son La and Dak Lak, and Security officials are being rapidly trained to administer lethal injections.

Vietnam adopted the use of lethal injections to replace execution by firing squad in 2010 to make the death penalty “more humane”. After the law was adopted, Vietnam continued to impose death sentences, but could not apply them because of an EU ban on exporting lethal substances. By 2013, over 700 condemned prisoners were on death row in inhumane conditions. Executions resumed in 2013 after Vietnam passed legislation authorising the use of “domestic poisons”. The effects of these substances had never been tested, and it took over two hours for the first prisoner, Nguyen Anh Tuan, to die in August 2013.

The report gives a rare insight into the status of death sentences and executions in Vietnam’s communist state and the situation of prisoners on death row. Such information has been unavailable since 2004, when Vietnam classed statistics on the death penalty as “state secrets”. According to the report, 681 prisoners were awaiting execution in June 2016, 80 were granted stays of execution and retrials because of wrongful convictions, and 36 prisoners died on death row in the five year period.

The high number of deaths reported by the Ministry of Public Security report confirms media concerns about the growing suicide rate on Vietnam’s death row, which is the 12th largest in the world. Prisoners are not informed of their execution in advance, and many prefer to die rather than live with the terror of waiting for an unknown execution date.

The report also noted that many prisons do not have special quarters for prisoners condemned to death, which causes “complications in the management of prisoners”, according to the report.

Despite two reforms in the Criminal Code in 1999 and 2009 which reduced the number of crimes punishable by death from 44 to 22, according to the report the number of death sentences pronounced each year has not diminished, thus indicating the failure of capital punishment as a deterrent to crime, says VCHR.

Despite demands by the international community, Vietnam has not removed the death penalty for vaguely-worded “national security” offenses in the Criminal Code which are frequently invoked to detain political and religious dissidents. On the contrary, one new crime was added, making a current total of six national security crimes punishable by death in Vietnam.

VCHR says that the death penalty is particularly dangerous in a one-Party State such as Vietnam, where the judiciary is totally subservient to the Communist Party and where citizens may be condemned to death on “national security” charges simply for the peaceful advocacy of democracy or human rights.

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