Vietnam Must Release Prisoners of Conscience

Nguyen Van Dai in an undated photo courtesy of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights.

Nguyen Van
Dai in an undated photo courtesy of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights.

Vietnam must end the ongoing incommunicado detention of human rights defenders Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha which is in violation of their human rights, including the right to freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, say several human rights organisations. Amnesty International has designated Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha prisoners of conscience.

“Human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, and his colleague Le Thu Ha seem to have been arrested and subjected to harassment and incommunicado detention for trying to defend the human rights of people in Vietnam,” said Sam Zarifi, Asia Director at International Commission of Jurists. “Their ongoing incommunicado detention sends a strong warning to lawyers and human rights defenders in Vietnam that they should not speak out in support of human rights, and significantly erodes the rule of law.”

An incommunicado detention is one in which a detainee is held without access to the outside world, particularly to family, lawyers, courts and independent doctors. The practice of incommunicado detention violates key rights of persons deprived of liberty and facilitates torture and other ill-treatment. Prolonged periods of incommunicado detention can themselves constitute a violation of the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment.

Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha were arrested on December 16th 2015 and charged under Article 88 of the Penal Code for ‘’Conducting propaganda against the state.’’ All efforts by family and legal counsel to visit the pair since their arrests have been denied.

Along with Amnesty, the organizations Boat People SOS, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Civil Rights Defenders, International Commission of Jurists, VETO! Human Rights Defenders’ Network and Vietnamese Women for Human Rights say that all charges against the two should be withdrawn and they should be immediately and unconditionally released.

Incommunicado detention of prisoners of conscience is in-built into Vietnam’s system of intimidation, harassment and punishment of peaceful activists. Following arrests, activists are usually held without access to the outside world for periods of months and even years. During this period, activists are often subject to other violations, including torture or other ill-treatment, through prolonged solitary confinement and severe physical abuse.

The UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment came into force in Vietnam in 2015. In addition, as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Vietnam is also obligated to uphold the rights of persons deprived of their liberty, including to be brought promptly before a judge and to access to legal counsel, as well as to be treated with humanity and dignity. These are rights which are violated by incommunicado detention.

Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang, President and CEO of Boat People SOS and co-founder of Campaign to Abolish Torture in Vietnam, commented: “We find the arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention of Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha particularly troubling; their treatment underlines Vietnam’s lack of good faith when it ratified the UN Convention against Torture.”

Article 88 of the Vietnamese Penal Code outlines crimes of ‘’Infringing national security’’. While Article 58 of the Criminal Procedure Code provides for the suspension of the participation of legal counsel in cases involving charges of infringing national security until the conclusion of the investigation, Article 58 specifically violates the right of access to legal counsel under international human rights law, and deprives detainees of an essential safeguard against torture or other ill-treatment, the prohibition of which is absolute.

The UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment state that communication of a detained individual with family or counsel shall not be denied for more than a matter of days. In the current case, Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha have been denied access to family and counsel for more than two months. This is a prolonged period of incommunicado detention by any measure and constitutes a violation of the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment.

“The incommunicado detention of Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha flies in the face of Vietnam’s recent ratification of the Convention against Torture. When the government ratified the treaty, it publicly trumpeted its ‘unwavering’ commitment to ending torture and other ill-treatment. Dai and Ha are prisoners of conscience. To show the world that its commitment to end torture is one of substance and not just words, Vietnam must immediately end the incommunicado detention of Dai and Ha, and release them immediately and unconditionally,” says Champa Patel, Director of Amnesty International’s South East Asia and Pacific Regional Office.

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Obama Must Demand Human Rights Progress During ASEAN Summit

Human rights organizations are urging US President Barack Obama to demand progress on human rights during the upcoming Summit with Southeast Asian leaders, during which Mr. Obama will meet with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states in Rancho Mirage, California  February 15-16th 2016.

“The US foreign policy shift to focus on the Asia-Pacific is destined to fail if it does not make democratic reforms and respect for human rights in the region its core component. It is imperative that President Obama press for progress on human rights as a precondition for any talks on strengthening political, security, and economic ties with ASEAN governments,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji.

Hundreds of political prisoners remain incarcerated in appalling conditions in jails across Southeast Asia. Governments in the region continue to use repressive laws that do not comply with international standards to harass, arbitrarily detain and imprison activists and human rights defenders.

Across the region, ethnic and religious minorities continue to suffer persecution at the hands of state actors or with their complicity or acquiescence.

In many ASEAN member states the space for civil society and political dissent is either non-existent or rapidly shrinking. Violations of civil and political rights, including the right to freely choose their elected representatives, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the right to freedom of association, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly are categorically denied or increasingly curtailed.

Even countries that seem to have made significant strides towards the respect of democratic principles, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, remain mired in serious human rights challenges, including impunity for serious past abuses, such as extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

Under the banner of the fight against terrorist networks, several governments in the region have already proposed or enacted laws that will allow for the encroachment on fundamental freedoms and the commission of further human rights violations. As a result, security cooperation between the US and ASEAN governments must be conducted within a rigorous regulatory framework that ensures the respect of international human rights standards.

FIDH and its Southeast Asian member organizations urge President Obama to put on hold any form of US military assistance to ASEAN governments whose security forces continue to commit human rights violations until clear benchmarks of democratization, respect for human rights, and accountability for abuses are met.

The conclusion of free trade and investment agreements with ASEAN Member States is also a matter of grave concern. The current situation in Cambodia illustrates that the granting of trade privileges in the presence of a weak legal framework, rampant corruption, and a seriously flawed judicial system can result in serious violations of economic, social and cultural rights. In addition, the implementation of infrastructure and investment projects across the region has often led to unchecked exploitation of natural resources, forced evictions, displacement, loss of livelihood and environmental degradation.

“The US would be shooting itself in the foot if it pursues security cooperation and free trade agreements without prior adoption of strong human rights safeguards. Our region is already in distress from the deteriorating human rights situation, and none of us, the US included, can afford for it to get any worse,” said Altsean-Burma Coordinator and FIDH Secretary-General Debbie Stothard.

In his January 2015 State of the Union Address, President Obama declared that the US defends free speech, advocates for political prisoners, and condemns the persecution of women, religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The US President must repeat this message during the Summit and ensure that ASEAN leaders make public commitments towards improving the human rights situation in their respective countries, FIDH and its nine member organizations from Southeast Asia said.

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Chinese Authorities Must Free Disappeared Booksellers

Chinese authorities must immediately release five booksellers who the government has forcibly disappeared, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday. The five are affiliated with the Hong Kong-based Mighty Current Media, known for publishing books critical of senior Chinese leaders. Hong Kong authorities said on February 4th that mainland authorities had written confirming that “criminal compulsory measures” had been taken against Hong Kong residents Lui Por, Cheung Chi Ping and Lam Wing Kee for alleged “illegal activities.”

“The Chinese government should immediately release the five booksellers it abducted and ‘disappeared’ under the guise of law enforcement. Beijing’s actions are a clumsy attack on free speech in Hong Kong that has implications far beyond the fate of the five being held,” said Sophie RichardsonChina director at Human Rights Watch.

The three had been missing since mid-October 2015, with virtually no information regarding their whereabouts or the basis of their detention. A fourth bookseller, Gui Minhai, and a fifth, Lee Bo, went missing from Thailand and Hong Kong, respectively, and are believed to have been abducted by Chinese security agents, as there have been no records of them leaving those territories.

Any Hong Kong residents detained in connection to criminal investigations in the mainland should be afforded the same basic rights of Chinese nationals under China’s laws, such as access to lawyers and notification of families, as well as their rights under international law, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, the relevant Hong Kong authorities are obliged to provide assistance by liaising and communicating with their Chinese counterparts about their cases.

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. Family members and legal representatives are not informed of the person’s location, well-being, or legal status. “Disappeared” people are often at high risk of torture and other ill-treatment.

Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen who is the co-owner of Hong Kong Mighty Current publishing house, went missing from Pattaya, Thailand, in mid-October 2015. In mid-January, CCTV, China’s state television network, broadcast a “confession” by Gui in which he said he had returned voluntarily to the mainland to face charges related to a 2003 drunk-driving incident. Subsequent state media reports said Gui is now being investigated for other unspecified “criminal activities,” and that others have been investigated in connection with him. Gui has not had access to a lawyer, family members or representatives of the Swedish government.

In mid-October 2015, Causeway Bay Books general manager Lui Por, business manager Cheung Chi Ping, and manager Lam Wing Kee, who at the time were believed to be in Shenzhen and Dongguan in China’s Guangzhou province, went missing. Mainland authorities provided no information as to their whereabouts or well-being. There is no evidence that they have had access to lawyers or family members.

On December 30th 2015, Lee Bo, a British citizen and Hong Kong resident who ran Causeway Bay Books, went missing after being seen at Mighty Current’s Chai Wan warehouse. His wife, Choi Ka-ping, said Lee’s travel documents remained at home. Choi later received a letter purporting to be from Lee Bo, stating that he was in the mainland and “assisting [the police] with an investigation.” In a January 18th 2016 communication, mainland authorities reported to their Hong Kong counterparts that Lee was “in the mainland,” but provided no information about his whereabouts, well-being or access to lawyers or representatives of the British government.

Following Lee’s disappearance, Hong Kong authorities expressed “serious concern” about the case, and stated that mainland authorities’ carrying out of law enforcement activities in Hong Kong was “unacceptable and unconstitutional.” Article 4 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s functional constitution, stipulates that “only legal enforcement agencies in Hong Kong have the legal authority” to enforce law in Hong Kong.

Thailand has forcibly returned to China those with a well-founded fear of ill-treatment, such as the group of 109 Turkic asylum seekers sent back in July 2015, and two mainland democracy activists, Dong Guangping and Jiang Yefei, between November 14-15th 2015, even though they had been granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and offered expedited resettlement with their families to Canada. Most recently, Li Xin, a former correspondent at Southern Metropolis Weekly, a prominent mainland Chinese newspaper, went missing near the Laos-Thailand border in mid-January while seeking to renew his visa for Thailand. In early February, Li’s wife, in Henan province, received a call from him, stating that he was back in China and assisting police with an investigation. It is unclear how he returned to China from Thailand. Li’s wife believes that he had been abducted and held against his will.

Canada, Germany, the European Parliament, the European Union, Japan, Sweden and the United States, among others, have strongly condemned the abductions and arbitrary detentions of the booksellers. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said during a visit to Beijing he had “urgently enquired” after Lee Bo.

Human Rights Watch called on these governments to raise these cases in upcoming high-level interactions, such as the February 26-27th 2016 meeting of G20 Finance Ministers in Shanghai, with Chinese counterparts until the five are released, and to immediately review the nature and scope of cooperation with Chinese law enforcement counterparts. US President Barack Obama should also publicly challenge Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha concerning his government’s role in the suspected abductions of Gui Minhai, Li Xin, and others at the upcoming US-ASEAN summit at Sunnylands, California on February 15-16th.

“Foreign governments have criticized China’s abductions and detentions of the Hong Kong booksellers, but they are going to have to turn up the heat until the five are released and returned home,” Richardson said. “Deterring Beijing’s unprecedented new impulse to snatch people outside its borders requires an unequivocal response before this outrageous practice becomes a norm.”

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Myanmar Must Fix New Law Granting Former Presidents Immunity

Myanmar should immediately repeal or amend a new law passed January 28th which could grant former presidents immunity for human rights violations and crimes under international law, Amnesty International says. Myanmar’s outgoing Parliament voted to pass the Former Presidents Security Law. The original draft had rung alarm bells as it granted former presidents immunity from prosecutions for undefined “actions” committed during their time in office.

“This piece of legislation is a threat to families’ rights to justice, truth and reparations and could violate Myanmar’s obligation to prosecute crimes under international law. Myanmar is a country where state officials and members of the security forces can – and do – commit human rights violations without having to worry about the consequences. Instead of further cementing this impunity, the authorities should take steps to ensure that victims and family members get the truth and justice they deserve,” says Champa Patel, Interim Director for South East Asia at Amnesty.

However, it now appears that the proviso “in accordance with the laws” has been added to the final version passed today. While an improvement, the law could still be interpreted as granting immunity to former presidents; including for crimes against humanity, war crimes and other crimes under international law.

The law was first tabled shortly after the opposition National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in the November 8th 2015 general elections. The new NLD government is set to take power in early April.

‘’This law has been rushed through parliament with minimal debate before the new government takes office, raising concerns that the outgoing government is determined to protect its ranks from any form of prosecution,’’ Patel says.

In recent years, Myanmar authorities have faced accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the context of internal armed conflicts, and have continued the state-sponsored persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Amnesty International also documented a range of human rights violations, including torture and other ill-treatment, extra-judicial executions, and arbitrary detentions, several of which constitute crimes under international law.

In Myanmar, state officials, including members of the security forces, are already protected from prosecution for human rights violations committed while the country was under military rule by Article 445 of the 2008 Constitution. The exclusive powers of the military justice system over members of the military also means that military personal are rarely, if ever, held to account for crimes they have committed.

Amnesty International is calling on Myanmar to immediately revoke or amend the Former Presidents Security Law to ensure it does not provide immunity for perpetrators of crimes under international law. The organization is also urging the new government that is about to take office to take concrete steps to improve accountability for human rights violations in the country.

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Kerry Must Raise Human Rights During Visit to Laos

In advance of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Southeast Asia, human rights organizations are calling for the diplomat to use his upcoming official visit to Vientiane, Laos on January 25th as an opportunity to raise important human rights issues they say the Lao government has left unaddressed for far too long.

Laos is ruled by one of the most repressive regimes of Southeast Asia. Authorities in the one-party state continue to severely restrict the right to freedom of information, association and peaceful assembly within its borders. Authorities have also continued to crack down on religious minorities and arrested numerous members of various Christian groups in 2015.

In an open letter to Mr. Kerry, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR), say that ‘’impunity continues to reign for enforced disappearances. Authorities have repeatedly refused to disclose any information concerning all victims of enforced disappearances in the country. To this day, the fate or whereabouts of at least 13 individuals remain unknown.’’

Among those individuals is civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who was abducted at a police checkpoint in Vientiane on the evening of December 15th 2012. The government has failed to conduct a competent, thorough, and transparent investigation into his enforced disappearance.  FIDH and LMHR call upon Mr. Kerry to urge the Lao authorities to accept international assistance to help determine Sombath’s fate or whereabouts.

Dissidents remain incarcerated in jails across the country. They include former student leaders Thongpaseuth Keuakoun and Sengaloun Phengphanh, who are in Vientiane’s Samkhe prison. They were arrested in Vientiane in October 1999 for planning peaceful demonstrations that called for democracy, social justice, and respect for human rights.

Also imprisoned is pro-democracy activist Bounthanh Khammavong, a Polish citizen of Lao origin who was sentenced in September 2015 to four years and nine months in prison for criticizing the Lao government on Facebook. The US has consistently called for the release of dissidents in other Southeast Asian countries and the organizations urge Mr. Kerry to demand the Lao government immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners.

The space for Lao civil society to conduct human rights activities remains non-existent, say FIDH and LMHR. The chilling effect stemming from the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone has been compounded by a new wave of repression. In 2015, authorities began to target individuals who used the internet to criticize the government or expose instances of corruption.

‘’We trust that during your visit you will send a strong message to the Lao leaders that healthy and mutually beneficial bilateral relations are contingent on Vientiane’s respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,’’ the letter concludes.

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Myanmar’s President Should Free Political Prisoners Prior to Leaving Office


Myanmar President Thein Sein delivers a speech at an economic forum during the Japan-Mekong Summit in Tokyo, July 3, 2015. AFP Photo.

Myanmar President Thein Sein delivers a speech at an economic forum during the Japan-Mekong Summit in Tokyo, July 3, 2015. AFP Photo.

Authorities in Myanmar authorities should immediately drop all politically motivated charges against hundreds of detainees and unconditionally release them, Human Rights Watch says. The organization urged President Thein Sein to fulfill pledges he made over three years ago to free all of the country’s political prisoners which includes students, land rights activists and journalists.

“Myanmar’s growing number of political prisoners is the most glaring indictment of President Thein Sein’s human rights record,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “In the waning days of his administration, the president could leave a positive legacy by immediately and unconditionally freeing all of those unjustly held.”

Organizations of former political prisoners in Myanmar estimate that there are 128 people who have been convicted and are serving time for political offenses. Another 472 are currently facing apparently politically motivated charges, including 23 arrested since the November 8th election. Many are students, land rights activists, journalists, and an increasing number of people charged with criminal defamation for social media posts or allegedly “insulting religion.”

Many activists have been charged and convicted for violating section 18 of the seriously flawed Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which requires prior police approval for public assemblies.

Several prominent cases of current political prisoners include:

  • More than 50 Burmese students will again appear in court in Tharawaddy, Pegu Region on January 19th 2016, after being arrested in March 2015 following the police’s violent crackdown on their protest over the National Education Bill. They are charged under several provisions of the Penal Code for rioting and abuse of officials; no police officers have been charged for unnecessary or excessive use of force. Authorities have brought the students to court more than 30 times since their arrest. The group includes prominent student leaders Honey Oo and Phyo Phyo Aung, both of whom were imprisoned previously for peaceful political activities.
  • Social worker Patrick Kum Jaa Lee who has been charged under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law for defamation connected to a Facebook post in October that allegedly mocked the military. He remains jailed without bail despite his declining health. Youth activist Chaw Hsandi Tun was sentenced in December to six months in prison for a Facebook post from October comparing the color of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s skirt with the uniform of the military commander in chief.
  • Interfaith activists Zaw Zaw Latt and Ma Pwint Phyu Latt from the Mandalay Interfaith Social Volunteer Youth Group were arrested in July 2015 and charged with offenses under article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act as well as immigration offenses for visits they made to the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army in 2013. Both face a prolonged trial, and many local activists believe the authorities are prosecuting them because of their efforts to promote religious tolerance among all religions in Mandalay.
  • Writer and former National League for Democracy (NLD) information officer Htin Lin Oo was sentenced to two years hard labor in June 2015 for allegedly insulting religion in a speech at a literary event in which he called for religion not to be tainted by politics. The ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, or Ma Ba Tha, allegedly urged local officials to file charges against Htin Lin Oo. Three others were sentenced to two years hard labor in late 2014 on the same charges of insulting religion after posting an image of Buddha wearing headphones to a Facebook event page, which was deemed to demean the image of the Buddha.
  • Several journalists including the chief executive officer of the now defunct Unity news journal, Tint San, and four of his reporters, Yarzar Oo, Paing Thet Kyaw, Lu Maw Naing, and Sithu Soe, were sentenced in 2014 to 10 years for disclosing state secrets and trespassing as a result of a story Unity ran alleging the Burmese military was manufacturing chemical weapons. Their sentence has since been reduced to seven years.

“The rising number of activists wrongfully detained shows the urgent need to revoke the numerous rights-abusing laws used to target them,” Robertson said. “That such a wide cross-section of Burmese civil society voices have been locked up for exercising the freedoms the government touts as progress demonstrates the continued intensity of intimidation and repression in Myanmar.”

Prior to United States President Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar in November 2012, President Thein Sein had pledged to free the remaining political prisoners throughout Myanmar. Soon thereafter, he formed a Remaining Political Prisoner Scrutiny Committee, which included government officials, parliamentarians, and former political prisoner advocates. The committee made considerable progress, and by early 2014 there were only approximately 25 political prisoners remaining behind bars. But that number soon grew again as the government arrested and jailed people protesting on land rights, education, and other government policies and actions. In early 2015, the government formed a new political prisoner review committee and appointed as its leader a hardline deputy minister for home affairs, an army general. The committee excluded former political prisoners working as rights activists.

In January 2016, a senior official of the incoming NLD government, which won a landslide victory in the November 8th nationwide elections, pledged that their government would ensure there are no political prisoners during their term. The party also issued a definition of a political prisoner in order to guide decisions on releasing individuals from prison: a “political prisoner is anyone arrested, detained or imprisoned for their direct or indirect activities to promote freedom, equality, and human and civil rights, including ethnic minorities, as well as for involvement in anti-government protests.” The NLD has large numbers of former political prisoners among its members following decades of repression by the former military government.

The party will come under intense domestic pressure to release all remaining political prisoners and rein in local officials who still target activists, Human Rights Watch said.

“Thein Sein shouldn’t wait for the new government to take office in late March to free those who should never have been imprisoned in the first place,” Robertson said. “Their charges should be dropped and they should be released now.”

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Concern Over China’s First Anti-Terrorism Law

Terrorist training exercises are not unprecedented in Tibetan areas, and also occurred some years ago, before the current political emphasis. This image depicts an anti-terrorist training in Kardze (Ganzi), Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Kham) in 2007. Photo courtesy ICT.

Terrorist training exercises are not unprecedented in Tibetan areas, and also occurred some years ago, before the current political emphasis. This image depicts an anti-terrorist training in Kardze (Ganzi), Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Kham) in 2007. Photo courtesy ICT.

Despite international concern, China has passed its first counter-terror law. Rights groups and international governments say that draconian measures in the name of national security are being used to crack down on Tibetans, Uyghurs and Chinese civil society and to undermine religious freedom. The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) published an analysis of the newly adopted law and how this repressive and vague legislation puts human rights in China at risk.

The new law, which will form the blueprint for China’s counter-terrorism strategy, was passed on December 27th 2015 and follows the imposition of oppressive and counter-productive policies in Tibet and Xinjiang that have been imposed since May 2013, involving extra-judicial killings, torture and imprisonment, and crackdowns on even mild expressions of religious identity and culture, says ICT. This is linked to a stronger emphasis from the central authorities on political control over Tibet linked to the ‘stability’ of the whole of the People’s Republic of China. An aggressive ‘’counter-terrorism’’ drive in Tibet with a strongly political dimension has involved an expansion of militarization despite the absense of any violent insurgency in Tibet.

Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said ‘’The sweeping measures introduced in the new law are not only about countering terrorism, but about silencing criticism of the CCP and in particular its ethnic policies. No one could argue against the need for China to protect its citizens, but this law provides a rubber stamp to legitimize persecution of peaceful dissent, and it emerges from policies implemented in Tibet and Xinjiang that have been deeply counter-productive.’’

The major criticisms of the law outlined by ICT are:

  • In conflating ”terrorism” with an undefined ”extremism” linked to religion, the Counter-Terrorism Law of the People’s Republic of China gives scope for the penalization of almost any peaceful expression of Tibetan identity, acts of non-violent dissent, or criticism of ethnic or religious policies, in a political climate in which the exiled Dalai Lama has been accused of inciting terrorism through self-immolations, and even terror through his teachings.
  • Terminology in the counter-terror law is both broad and vague at the same time, and introduces further extra-judicial measures, increasing the impunity of the Chinese Party state, and reinforcing the powers of local police and officials to impose restrictive measures and use violence against individuals.
  • While references to the link between terrorism and ‘’separatism’’ that appeared in the draft law have been dropped, this remains a strong element in the official discourse on counter-terrorism in Tibet. The ‘’hyper-securitized’’ environment in Tibet and a counter-terror drive since May 2013 has a clear political dimension, involving training of police in Buddhist monasteries, the characterization of religious teachings by the Dalai Lama as incitement to ‘’extremist action’’ and the implication that Tibetan self-immolations can be characterized as ‘’terrorism’’. This is despite the fact that self-immolations do not harm others, the lack of terror threats in Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s consistent emphasis on non-violence.
  • The new law broadens the reach of the state into lay society, for instance requiring the strengthening of “counter-terrorism education” in schools. In Tibet, this underlines the focus on political indoctrination in education, entrenching still further the negative impact of anti-Dalai Lama and “anti-separatism” propaganda.
  • There are some notable differences in language following the earlier drafts, indicating efforts to narrow the scope for criticism on sensitive points such as ‘’ethnicity’’. However, blanket references to human rights and the protection of ethnic culture in the law are rendered meaningless given the broad powers assigned to the authorities by the law, the opaque terminology, the absence of independent judicial oversight over restrictive measures that can be applied, says ICT.

The U.S. government expressed strong concerns when the law was in draft stage as it includes articles that require telecom and Internet companies to hand over encryption keys and install backdoors to their software to aid counter-terror investigations. 

European Parliamentarians warned in December 2015 that the human rights implications of a counter-terrorism structure with vast discretionary powers outlined in the law “may lead to further violations of the freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang as regions with minority populations”.

Concern about the implications of the counter-terror legislation was raised at the 34th EU-China human rights dialogue on November 30-December 1st 2015 in Beijing, and by the EU Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis on his second official visit to China in November 2015.The German government expressed its concern at the 30th UN Human Rights Council session in September 2015, with regard to potential restrictions for civil society and freedom of expression.

In a major debate in the European Parliament in December 2015, Parliamentarians expressed concern about the new counter-terror law (at that time in draft form), saying: “In recent years China’s anti-terrorism policy has evolved rapidly from a reactive ‘defense against terror’ approach to a proactive ‘war on terror’, along with permanent ‘crisis management’ entailing action to an unprecedented extent in affected regions and in society.”

ICT expressed concern over the opaque concept of ‘extremism’ in the new law is open to interpretation according to the political climate, and the authorities’ drive to secure convictions against specific individuals. For instance, in the context of the Chinese authorities openly blaming the Dalai Lama in exile for the wave of self-immolations across Tibet, keeping a small photograph of the Dalai Lama in one’s private possession could conceivably be termed ‘extremist’. Consistent with the strident official language used to emphasize the new counter-terror drive, a major religious teaching by the Dalai Lama in exile, the Kalachakra in Ladakh in 2014, was described by the Chinese state media in harsher language than before, saying that it incited terror.

The authorities linked their attempts to prevent Tibetans from attending the Dalai Lama’s teachings in exile with ‘counter-terrorist’ work in the ‘frontline’ border areas of Tibet, including Ngari (Chinese: Ali) in the Tibet Autonomous Region, which borders India.

Additionally, the newly established “national leading institution for counter-terrorism” is the sole body that determines which organisations are suspected of, or defined as, terrorist. There is no appeal through a court possible, its decisions are final, and there is no judicial oversight. This institution is also not a judicial branch, as it is formed by the Chinese Party state, and its organizational principle is top-down.

ICT also warned that the definition of ‘terrorism’ in the law is vague. While there is no binding international legal definition of what constitutes terrorism, the Chinese definition appears to be very broad in its scope, and it goes far beyond suggestions made in the international legal debate. There are provisions in the law that compel telecommunications and internet providers to allow for and provide technical interfaces, decryption and other technical support to the authorities in case of a terrorist or ‘’extremist’’ investigation, or even for ‘’prevention’’. It is not specified in the law what constitutes lawful measures of ‘’prevention.’’

The law also includes provisions for disallowing and halting internet and telecommunications services with regard to ‘’terrorist content’’. As is already the case in Tibet, the law calls for the installation of public video surveillance at “key positions of main roads, transportation hubs and public areas”, “as needed”. There is already a comprehensive and secret ‘grid’ system of surveillance in Tibet, known as ‘Skynet’, involving an expansive system of cameras, police posts, high tech equipment to monitor individuals and security patrols. According to Article 19 of the law, “Network communications, telecommunications, public security, state security and other such departments discovering information with terrorist or extremist content shall promptly order to the relevant units to stop their transmission and delete relevant information, or close relevant websites, and terminate relevant services.”

The law also provides for measures to curtail media freedom, and also aims at individuals, clearly targeting bloggers or social media with Article 20 focusing upon penalties for “[…] news media and other units [that] create or disseminate false information on terrorist incidents”.

Despite the Chinese authorities’ declared abolition of the ‘Re-education through Labor’ (RTL) system, it re-introduces another means of such detention allowing for unlimited ‘educational placements’ for those being a ‘’danger to society’’ – in other words, those who may express views that differ from the Party state, and have committed no crime according to penal law.

Article 17 of the law states that: “Administrative management departments for education and human resources, schools and relevant vocational training institutions shall include knowledge of prevention and response to terrorist activities within their teaching, studies and training content.” In Tibet, this could entail the strengthening of political indoctrination in schools.

‘’The intensification of militarization accompanied by efforts to crush expressions of Tibetan national identity have led to increasing tensions, not less. Peace and stability cannot be achieved through hyper-securitization and suppression of human rights – nor by a political campaign against a globally-renowned Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the Dalai Lama, whose influence has been critical in ensuring that Tibetans do not turn to violence as an answer to oppression,” Matteo Mecacci added.

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Chinese Forced Population Control Still Cruel Under Two Child Policy

As of January 1st, officials in China say that China will let all married couples have two children instead of one – prompting a slew of media headlines hailing that China has “ended,” “abandoned,” or “ditched” the infamous One Child Policy. Washington-based rights group Women’s Rights Without Frontiers and activists warn that the forced population control system is as as severe as ever under the Two Child Policy.

Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng said in October “This is nothing to be happy about. First the CCP would kill any baby after one. Now they will kill any baby after two.”

At a hearing for the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China on December 3rd 2015, several experts joined with Congressional leaders in calling on China to end the forced population control still in force despite the change in name.

“Coercion is the core of the policy,” said Reggie Littlejohn, President of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, who urged a “world laden with compassion fatigue” not to let China off the hook.

Littlejohn said the Chinese government wouldn’t give up forced population control without further pressure for many reasons, such as the opportunity for terror-based control through the infamous Family Planning Police, especially amid increasing public upheaval.

“Regardless of the number of children allowed, women who get pregnant without permission will still be dragged out of their homes, strapped down to tables, and forced to abort babies that they want,” said Littlejohn.

CECC Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith said that, instead of applauding China’s policy, “we should be insisting they abolish all birth limits – forever.”

“China’s new two-child policy is as indefensible and inhumane as the one child policy it replaces,” said Co-Chairman Sen. Marco Rubio.

A Chinese woman at the hearing shared her story of having to flee to America in order to escape the forced abortion of her second child – even though the Two Child Policy had already been announced.

Steven Mosher of the Population Research Institute noted that the Two Child Policy merely continued the longstanding policy of jihua shengyu (“planned birth”), instituted by Chairman Mao Tsetung in the 1950s.

Jihua shengyu, the panelists said, continues to result in well-documented forced abortions, forced sterilizations, crippling “terror fines,” and other forms of torture.

The law has led to not only the hukuo system effectively banishing “illegal” children from society, but the severe gender imbalance of China’s population, due to the selective abortions of baby girls thanks to cultural son-preference and a limited window for childbearing.

All this, said panelists, is set to continue in 2016.

“Foreign observers have generally greeted the apparent end of the one-child policy with euphoria, as if it somehow represents a new birth of reproductive freedom in China,” said Mosher.

Political economist Nicholas Eberstadt concurred that “Beijing is not relinquishing its claim that the state, rather than parents, is the proper authority for deciding how many children China’s families may have.”

“Let us not abandon the women of China, who continue to face forced abortion, and the baby girls of China, who continue to face sex-selective abortion and abandonment under the new Two-Child Policy,” Littlejohn concluded.

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Human Rights Lawyer Arrested in Vietnam, Faces 20 Years in Prison

Nguyen Van Dai in an undated photo courtesy of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.

Nguyen Van Dai in an undated photo courtesy of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights condemn the arrest and arbitrary detention of Nguyen Van Dai, a human rights lawyer and well-known defender of religious freedom in Vietnam, who could face twenty years in prison if convicted.

According to the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, on December 16th, 2015 at around 8:30 am, about 25 police officers arrested Nguyen Van Dai at his house in Hanoi after searching his house and confiscating several of his belongings, including two laptops and one desktop computer, several USB sticks, a camera and two camcorders, books on human rights, four envelopes containing money that Nguyen Van Dai uses to support relatives of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam and his savings account bank book.

Nguyen Van Dai’s arrest occurred as he was preparing to meet European Union (EU) delegates who were in Hanoi for the fifth EU-Vietnam human rights dialogue, held on December 15th.

In a statement posted on its website, the Ministry of Public Security announced it had issued an arrest warrant on December 15th for Nguyen Van Dai’s arrest.

Nguyen Van Dai was charged under Article 88 of the Criminal Code (“spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”) for organizing meetings and discussions on the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution. Nguyen Van Dai was informed that he would be temporarily jailed for four months at the B14 Prison in Hanoi, pending trial. If convicted, he faces three to 20 years in prison.

His arrest took place after he was subject to a brutal attack on December 6th 2015. On that day, Nguyen Van Dai and three associates were returning to Hanoi in a taxi after conducting a human rights workshop for residents of Nghe An Province. The four were intercepted and beaten up by men they identified as plainclothes police officers driving two unregistered cars and five motorcycles. The assailants beat Nguyen Van Dai using metal bars, then dragged him into another vehicle, where masked men took his mobile phone, wallet, and other personal items, before finally releasing him about 50 kms from the place where the attack had taken place.

The Observatory recalls that, in July 2002, the United Nations Human Rights Committee denounced the provisions of Article 88 as “incompatible” with international human rights law and demanded their immediate repeal.

The Observatory recalls that it is not the first time Nguyen Van Dai is being intimidated or judicially harassed. Also, in 2007, Nguyen Van Dai was sentenced to five years in prison and four years probationary detention (house arrest) on charges of anti-government propaganda. The sentence was reduced to four years on appeal.

The Observatory condemns the arbitrary arrest of Nguyen Van Dai, as well as the charges against him, which seem to be aimed at sanctioning him for his legitimate and peaceful human rights activities and calls on the Vietnamese authorities to immediately and unconditionally release him and to drop all charges held against him. Moreover, the Observatory is concerned over the authorities’ ongoing crackdown on bloggers and human rights activists, which has significantly worsened during the year 2015.

Since Nguyen Van Dai founded the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam (now named the Vietnam Human Rights Center) in November 2006, he has been summoned repeatedly for police interrogations because of his statements in favour of human rights and democracy. During the meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which took place in Hanoi from November 17 to 19, 2006, 10 security police officers surrounded his home and prohibited all visitors.

On February 28th 2007, following pressure from Security Police, the Business Registration Office of Hanoi’s Planning and Investment Bureau issued a “Decision” to withdraw the licence of the Translation and Legal Consultation Firm (TNHH) in Hanoi, of which Nguyen Van Dai is a co-founder and the Executive Director.

On March 6th 2007, security forces raided the residence of Nguyen Van Dai in Hanoi and placed him under arrest. He was charged with “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” (Article 88 of the Criminal Code).

On May 11th 2007, the People’s Court of Hanoi sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment and four years’ house arrest under Article 88 of the Criminal Code.

On November 28th 2007, the Hanoi Appeals Court reduced his sentence to four years’ imprisonment and four years’ house arrest.

Following his release in 2011, Nguyen Van Dai continued his human rights activities, submitting testimony to international institutions. He founded the “Brotherhood for Democracy” in 2013.

In June 2013, his house was bugged by the police, and in January and March 2015, his door was twice broken down by police.

The Committee and the Observatory say that the authorities in Vietnam must immediately and unconditionally release Nguyen Van Dai as his detention seems to merely sanction his human rights activities and is contrary to national and international law.

They also urge the authorities in Vietnam to guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of Nguyen Van Dai and all other human rights defenders in Vietnam and put an end to all acts harassment, including at the judicial level, against Nguyen Van Dai, as well as against all human rights defenders in Vietnam. The organizations also argue that Vietnam must  amend Article 88 of the Criminal Code, to bring it in conformity with international human rights standards.

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Trial of Chinese Lawyer Pu Zhiqiang An Act of Political Persecution

Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who has been held on questionable charges since May 2014, in an undated file photo.

Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who has been held on questionable charges since May 2014, in an undated file photo.

The Chinese authorities must end their persecution of prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, Amnesty International said, ahead of his trial which begins Monday in Beijing.

According to his lawyers, Pu Zhiqiang, 50, faces up to eight years in prison on the charges of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and “inciting ethnic hatred”, primarily on the basis of seven social media posts, in total around 600 characters which he published online between July 2011 and May 2014 and in which he criticized the government.

“The chances of Pu Zhiqiang receiving a fair trial are close to zero. He is being punished solely for standing up to the Chinese government in his courageous defense of human rights,” said Patrick Poon, China Researcher at Amnesty International.

 Although Pu has frequently been questioned by police for his rights-related work, this is the first time he has been prosecuted.

“His trial is an act of political persecution in which the authorities are trying to silence an independent voice. His pre-trial detention has lasted for more than 18 months, with his treatment at the hands of the authorities marred by many irregularities. If there is any justice Pu Zhiqiang would be immediately and unconditionally released,” Poon added.

Pu Zhiqiang (front right) attends a seminar about the Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing, May 3, 2014. Photo courtesy CHRD.

Pu Zhiqiang (front right) attends a seminar about the Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing, May 3, 2014. Photo courtesy CHRD.

On May 3rd 2014, Pu attended a small private seminar in Beijing on the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre with more than a dozen other activists. The following night, Beijing police took Pu from his home and detained him on May 6th on the charge of “creating a disturbance”.  He has now been in detention for 19 months.

His prosecution has been marred by repeated procedural irregularities including prolonged pre-trial detention, the denial of adequate medical care and prosecutors refusing to disclose evidence against him to his defense lawyers.

Pu Zhiqiang has represented individuals in many ‘sensitive’ human rights cases, including those linked with the ‘New Citizens’ Movement’, a loose network of activists who aim to promote government transparency and expose corruption.

Among his cases, Pu represented environmental activist Tan Zuoren in 2009, artist Ai Weiwei in 2011 and petitioner Tang Hui  in 2013; Tang had been sent to Re-education Through Labor (RTL) after seeking justice for her daughter, who was raped at the age of 11.

In 2012, he embarked on a series of RTL cases in Chongqing which helped raise public awareness of the system, and contributed to a wider debate about RTL in both foreign and domestic media. After the abolishment of RTL in 2013, he turned to taking on cases related to shuanggui, an extralegal disciplinary process for Party officials. In addition to practicing law, Pu Zhiqiang has been involved in promoting rule of law. He was one of the first signatories of Charter 08, a manifesto for political and legal reforms to advance democracy and human rights in China.

Human Rights Watch said that Chinese authorities should drop all charges against Pu Zhiqiang and free him immediately.

“Nothing Pu Zhiqiang has written has violated any law, but the authorities’ treatment of him certainly has,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “A guilty verdict will be an indictment of the Chinese government, its law, and its legal system – not of Pu.”

Pu posted the seven Weibo comments a total of 12 times between July 2011 and May 2014. The prosecution alleges that three of them, criticizing two government officials and a pro-government author, “created disturbances” because they used “insulting language” that “led to adverse social impact.” The other four posts cited as evidence of “inciting ethnic hatred” criticized the central government’s policies in Xinjiang and Tibet that repress minorities’ religious and ethnic identities and called for reform. The indictment says Pu’s messages had “provoked ethnic relations…and damaged ethnic unity.” There is no publicly available evidence of an “adverse social impact” or any other consequences of Pu’s postings.

Pu, who has diabetes, has had access to insulin and other diabetes medication and has been taken at least once to a Beijing hospital while being held in Beijing Number 1 Detention Center. Pu’s lawyer earlier submitted a request to have him released on medical grounds, but the application was denied. Before Pu was arrested, an application for his medical bail was rejected, with officials stating Pu would “pose a danger to society” if released.  In China’s detention centers, medical care is rudimentary at best, according to Human Rights Watch.

Pu was a student activist who participated in the pro-democracy protests of 1989. After the Tiananmen Square crackdown, he became a lawyer and taught law for three years at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute, now the Beijing Communications University. He is one of China’s most well-known lawyers and was featured regularly in the mainstream Chinese press. In 2013, he was chosen by the state-run magazine China Newsweek as the most influential person promoting the rule of law in China.

Best known for advocating the abolition of the abusive administrative detention system known as Re-education Through Labor by representing detainees in a number of high-profile cases, Pu has pushed for an end to shuanggui, a form of arbitrary detention used by the Chinese Communist Party to investigate disciplinary violations.

Since President Xi Jinping came into power in March 2013, his government has further limited already meager civil and political freedoms, Human Rights Watch says. It has carried out a wide-ranging assault on civil society and detained hundreds of activists, targeting lawyers in particular. In July 2015, nearly 300 human rights lawyers and activists were detained in connection with the case of the Fengrui Law Firm. At least 40 lawyers remain in detention, many of them held incommunicado and in secret detention and are at risk of torture.

Despite promises to usher in an era of “the rule of law” during the Fourth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in late 2014, President Xi’s government has demonstrated that the law remains a tool of the party, and not for ordinary people to defend themselves against arbitrary state power. In addition to using the legal system to punish outspoken individuals and whistleblowers, the government has drafted and passed new laws in the name of state security to further empower the security apparatus to suppress critics perceived to challenge one-party rule.

“Pu is the canary in the coalmine – his sentence will indicate the extent to which the government will further deprive civil society of the air it needs to flourish,” Richardson said. “Genuine respect for the rule of law requires Pu’s immediate release.”

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