A Motive and Opportunity To Crackdown On Human Rights Defenders: International Human Rights Group Warns Of Downward Trends In Asia

Blind Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng served four years imprisonment as a result of his work exposing human rights abuses in Linyi City, Shangdong Province. Since his release from prison in September 2010, he and his wife have been subjected to strict house arrest. Image courtesy Frontline Defenders.

The past year was an especially difficult one for human rights defenders in Asia, said Dublin-based Front Line Defenders in its 2012 annual report on the global trends for human rights defenders in 2011.

The report entitled Inspiring Hope and Provoking a Backlash underlines the crucial role played by human rights defenders in standing up for the rights of others, challenging oppression and speaking out for those who have no voice, said Front Line Defenders’ Executive Director Mary Lawlor. Her organization works to provide fast and effective action to help protect human rights defenders (HRDs) at risk so they can continue their work as key agents of social change.

Their report also highlights the fact that while much international media and public attention were largely focused on the dramatic events unfolding across the Middle East, elsewhere repressive governments continued to respond to any challenge to their power and privileges with violent repression. Virtually all abuses against human rights defenders were committed in a climate of absolute impunity, across all countries and regions.

Though protests did not develop as intensely in other regions, regimes in Asia were worried enough to restrict their laws and regulations.Especially concerned with China’s reaction to the Arab Spring, Frontline Defenders said that the Arab Spring provided the Chinese Government with both the motive and the opportunity to launch a crackdown on HRDs working in a variety of different areas. With the attention of the world elsewhere, and partly in response to anonymous online calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” to take place in China, the authorities took the chance to target scores of HRDs who had been at the forefront of human rights defense in China.

Frontline reported that up to 200 HRDs were questioned, harassed, severely threatened, beaten, detained, or simply disappeared. At least 24 HRDs, including 11 human rights lawyers, were forcibly disappeared for time periods ranging from a few days in some cases to over six months in others.

While many of the disappeared, on their release, declined to disclose details of their treatment, a number of HRDs to whom Front Line Defenders spoke described being beaten, forced to go days without sleep and being made stay in the same position without moving for hours on end.

Their rights under the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders  continued to be infringed upon by state and non-state actors alike. HRDs were monitored and intimidated by the authorities in many countries across Asia. Draconian security laws were used to target HRDs working on issues viewed as controversial or political by the authorities. In Vietnam, charges of attempting to overthrow the Government under Article 79 of the Penal Code, which provides for capital punishment, were used against HRDs critical of the Government. Minor criticism or criticism on non-political issues was also met with the same severity.

“It is an international scandal that human rights defenders whose only crime is to show the courage of their convictions by defending the rights of others are targeted in so many countries. Their daily courage reminds us of the urgent need for the protection of human rights defenders at risk to be made a priority of international foreign policy,” said Ms. Lawlor.

Bloggers and media activists using the internet to raise human rights awareness or expose abuses were harassed, arrested and under heavy surveillance in Burma, China, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Websites of human rights organisations were blocked or hacked. Paulus Le Van Son, a prominent Vietnamese blogger, was arrested and held without access to his family and lawyer since September 2011 for writing about human rights.

Frontline also said that HRDs in Asia were still looking forward to the prospect of having a credible regional human rights mechanism in their subregions. The ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights  (AICHR), set up in October 2009, remained non-operational as the initial two years were spent on the drafting of the ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights. Despite disappointment at the lack of progress, many HRDs remain engaged and hopeful that the AICHR may evolve into a fully fledged mechanism with both promotion and protection mandates. Positively, several governments in South Asia expressed interest in the development of a similar mechanism.

Yet in another worrying development in China, draft amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law published in August 2011, if passed, will effectively legalize enforced disappearances for up to six months in cases where suspects are held on charges of, amongst others, ‘endangering state security’.

This charge is often used against HRDs, and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo remains in prison on such a charge, while his wife is still under (illegal) house arrest.

Also under house arrest is blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng. Chen, along with his wife, mother and six-year old daughter, is being kept prisoner in his own home. Chen and his wife have been severely beaten, and all attempts by fellow HRDs to visit him have been unsuccessful and many have been met with violence. Notwithstanding this, the organization of an online grassroots campaign by HRDs to visit Chen and to raise greater awareness of his case and the injustices involved was an encouraging development that was mentioned in Frontline’s annual report, noting that this campaign has highlighted the increasingly important role that social media are playing in the defense of human rights in China.

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