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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North Korea Must End Forced Child Labor

The North Korean government must immediately stop exploiting children by forcing them to work, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday. The human rights organization released its submission to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, detailing forced labor including farming, rock breaking, scrap-metal collecting, and other strenuous labor, as well as discrimination and other abuses faced by North Korean children.

“North Korea’s common use of forced labor is bad enough, but it’s wholly inexcusable when children are exploited,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “In destroying the lives of children, the ruling Kim family shows just how low it’s prepared to go to sustain political and economic power. For many children, forced labor is sadly a normal hazard in everyday life.”

North Koreans who recently escaped to South Korea or keep contacts in the North told Human Rights Watch that the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea and the Ministry of Education obtain payments and benefits of child labor from grade schools, vocational schools, colleges, universities, and national youth and children’s leagues. School administrators force children to work to meet those demands, as well as to maintain and manage schools, and earn profits.

North Korea stated in a May 2016 report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors state compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, that it abolished child labor 70 years ago. But North Koreans who spoke to Human Rights Watch detailed how the government ordered and received forced labor from children through activities or campaigns by the “socialist loyalty” movement, or from authorities requiring “patriotic labor.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 North Koreans, including several children, who left North Korea after 2013 or who have ongoing contacts in the country. Although the number of interviewees was not large enough to reach conclusions on overall conditions inside the country, the interviews provide a consistent picture of personal experiences. The interviewees provided disturbing accounts of requests for unpaid forced labor from children, physical punishments, and discrimination against children on political grounds.

Former teachers and students confirmed that the school systems also discriminate on the basis of songbun, a sociopolitical classification that distinguishes citizens on their personal performance and perceived loyalty to the ruling party and government. This classification affects access to food, basic services like health care and education, and jobs.

A former secondary school teacher from North Hamgyong province said that schools only focused on providing a serious education to students from families with good songbun, and such students were not forced to perform any labor. These students were typically those with money to afford private lessons, and were invariably the ones selected to attend regional competitions and national school events. Students said that the rest of the students were not allowed to ask any questions, and were compelled to memorize propagandistic teachings about the lives and accomplishments of the current Kim dynasty.

The 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry on the situation of human rights in North Korea found that the gravity, scale, and nature of violations revealed a state “without parallel in the contemporary world.” The commission’s report documented abuses including murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, and rape and other sexual violence, constituting crimes against humanity. The commission found that school children were indoctrinated to worship the Kim family and to incite discrimination, hostility, hate, racism, and violence, all contrary to educational goals found in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly also endorsed the commission’s report and condemned North Korea’s horrific rights record. In December 2016, the Security Council discussed human rights violations in North Korea for the third year in a row.

“By discriminating on the basis of loyalty to Kim Jong-un, North Korean schools cheat millions of children out of an education,” Robertson said. “North Korean children have nowhere to turn but the UN and foreign governments, who need to speak out now on the destruction of children’s lives, and put human rights at the center of their dealings with North Korea.”

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Cambodia Should Drop Politically Motivated Investigation of Human Rights Defenders

Cambodian authorities should immediately drop the politically motivated criminal investigation of human rights defenders Am Sam-at and Chan Puthisak, human rights groups said Tuesday. The two human rights defenders have been summoned as suspects in relation to violence that occurred when para-police blocked a peaceful World Habitat Day march in October 2016.

Cambodian officials have accused Sam-at, a respected human rights monitor at the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) for nearly 20 years, and Puthisak, a land rights activist from Boeung Kak Lake and former prisoner of conscience, of instigating violence at a October 10th 2016 demonstration.  

Para-police forces, who are regularly used to suppress demonstrations, violently dispersed what had been a peaceful protest in Phnom Penh.

According to LICADHO, during an otherwise peaceful march through Phnom Penh to the city’s Freedom Park on October 10th 2016, para-police – led by Daun Penh district para-police head Kim Vutha – blocked the march and forcibly confiscated musical instruments and banners from the marchers. At that time, para-police launched an unprovoked, violent and targeted attack on Chan Puthisak, who was filming the march. Am Sam Ath then attempted to peacefully de-escalate the situation and end the violence under his mandate as a human rights monitor. Para-police immediately launched a similarly unprovoked and targeted attack, surrounding Am Sam Ath and punching him in the face and neck repeatedly. Both men were left injured and in need of medical attention.

“The Cambodian government should be commending people like Sam-at and Puthisak for their work to promote and protect human rights rather than trying to intimidate them,” said Kingsley Abbott, Senior International Legal Advisor at the International Commission of Jurists. “The case should be immediately and formally closed and a genuine investigation initiated into wrongful use of force by the para-police.”

‘’Am Sam Ath and Chan Puthisak were victims of unprovoked attacks,’’ said Naly Pilorge, Deputy Director for Advocacy at LICADHO. ‘’It is farcical that an investigation against them is even being considered.’’

Amnesty International, Civil Rights Defenders, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists said that the case investigation of the two falls within a wider pattern of judicial intimidation in Cambodia. There are currently as many as 26 human rights and political activists in prison on charges which have all the hallmarks of being politically motivated. This includes 14 political activists who were jailed following a demonstration in July 2014, when para-police violently clashed with participants. No efforts have been reported of the authorities’ efforts to bring to justice the para-police responsible for the unlawful use of force.

“The investigation of Sam-at and Puthisak by the Cambodian authorities is a typically absurd and undisguised case of judicial harassment,” said Champa Patel, Southeast Asia and Pacific Director at Amnesty International. “As usual, unnecessary and excessive use of force by the para-police goes unpunished, and those who work to promote and protect human rights find themselves subject to criminal proceedings.”

Para-police, often referred to as “district security guards,” are auxiliary security forces that are regularly used to violently suppress demonstrations in Cambodia. No single legal document sets out the rules governing their functions and powers. Rather, their legal basis and the rules governing their activities are set out in a confusing combination of government statements and policies, and by instructions from the Ministry of Interior. They work in tandem with police, under the authority of district governors.

‘’It is obvious that the only violence committed that day was by para-police, who beat a land activist and a human rights monitor,’’ said Song Sreyleap, Boeung Kak Lake community representative. ‘’Authorities should help us achieve justice by investigating those who attacked us on the street.’’

Both Am Sam Ath and Chan Puthisak filed complaints to Chey Chomneas district police later that morning relating to the violence perpetrated against them. LICADHO, along with multiple national media sources, has extensive video footage and witness accounts of the brutal beatings, but neither complaint has so far been properly addressed, the organization said.

On November 4th, two members of the para-police filed a complaint with the Phnom Penh Court of First Instance, alleging that they were injured during the dispersal of the demonstration. The authorities are investigating Sam-at and Puthisak for instigating intentional violence, under Articles 27 and 217 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code, which carry penalties of up to three years in prison. There has been no indication that complaints filed against para-police by Sam-at and Puthisak after the incident on October 10th 2016 are being investigated.

The October 10th demonstration involved approximately 150 participants peacefully calling for respect for housing and land rights in Freedom Park, an area designated for demonstrations. The protestors were marching on a street adjacent to the park when the incident took place. Videos of the incident establish that the demonstration was peaceful and that Sam-at was wearing a blue human rights monitor vest when the para-police attacked him.

‘’Treating Am Sam Ath and Chan Puthisak as suspects after they were beaten themselves by para-police while trying to prevent further violence shows how biased authorities are against public assembly,’’ said Thav Kimsan, LICADHO director. ‘’Especially as para-police routinely commit violence with apparent impunity.’’

In face of the clear evidence that the two men were victims and not perpetrators of violence, LICADHO and Boeung Kak Lake community said that they hope that the prosecutor ends this preliminary investigation against Am Sam Ath and Chan Puthisak, and gives proper consideration to complaints against identifiable perpetrators of the violence.

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Assassination of Human Rights Lawyer a Tragedy for Myanmar

Human rights organizations condemn the killing of a prominent human rights lawyer at Yangon International Airport in Myanmar. U Ko Ni was a lawyer and legal adviser to the National League for Democracy, the ruling party led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

“The killing of prominent lawyer U Ko Ni in Yangon is an appalling act that has all the hallmarks of an assassination. It demands that the authorities immediately launch a thorough, independent and impartial investigation,’’ said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s Deputy Campaign Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Not only the fact of the killing but also the manner in which it took place is a reminder that the struggle for democratization and human rights in Myanmar is far from over, that that struggle is in the current period taking on new forms, and that the fight against impunity must surely continue.

A Muslim, U Ko Ni was returning from a government-organized trip to Indonesia, part of wider efforts to foster interfaith tolerance and reconciliation. Recent years have seen a worrying rise in tensions between Myanmar’s Buddhist and Muslim communities, at times leading to deadly violence.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) also condemned the killing which took place on the evening of January 29th. As has been widely reported, U Ko Ni was shot dead at the front of Yangon airport when returning to Myanmar from a trip to Indonesia along with the information minister, U Pe Myint, and party. He was holding his grandchild and awaiting a vehicle when a man walked up behind and shot him in the back of the head. The killer, who also shot and killed U Nay Win as the driver and other onlookers foiled his escape, is a former ordinary criminal detainee, released from prison in 2014, and reportedly a native of upper Myanmar. There can be little doubt that he was hired for the job, AHRC said.

Benedict said that “His death will send shock waves across the human rights community in the country and beyond, and the authorities must send a clear message that such violence will not be tolerated and will not go unpunished. The killing of prominent lawyer U Ko Ni in Yangon today is an appalling act that has all the hallmarks of an assassination. His death will send shock waves across the human rights community in the country and beyond.’’

Although the motive for the killing is not yet clear, what is clear is that not only is Ko Ni’s death a tragic loss for Myanmar, but it also marks a new and dangerous development in the era of the country’s political change. Political assassination of this sort has been uncommon there, where hitherto power-holders had other means and modes of violence at their disposal than public killing of opponents.

AHRC also said that Ko Ni was one of the few Muslim professionals with close connections to senior government officials, and an outspoken opponent of the so-called “race and religion” laws passed in 2015 in response to nationwide anti-Muslim sentiment raises further concerns. Whether or not the killing has the goal of generating more violence between the dominant Buddhist community and Muslim minorities in the country, it has the potential to do so. But Ko Ni was also an outspoken critic of the military-drafted 2008 constitution, and advocate for the drafting of a new charter, and his killing has the further potential to chill public debate on a host of matters in which powerful and vested interests might feel threatened.

AHRC urged that the assassination be investigated openly and sincerely, and at the highest levels, so that not only the shooter but also the masterminds are identified and brought to justice. The relevant authorities in Myanmar are beholden to act urgently to ensure that the case is addressed to the satisfaction of all, and in a manner that prevents rather than exacerbates further violence.

U Ko Ni, an advocate of the Supreme Court and founding member of the Myanmar Lawyers Network, was much loved and deeply appreciated by everyone who knew and worked with him, both for his professionalism and his commitment to political change, human rights and the rule of law in Myanmar, and his loss will be felt profoundly, and in many different ways. It is beholden on all of us to carry forward his work, and his memory, so as to ensure that the struggle for democracy, human rights, equality, toleration and the demilitarization of Myanmar is ultimately successful, AHRC said.

“U Ko Ni was a tireless human rights campaigner, and his death marks the loss of an important voice in the fight for human rights in Myanmar. Amnesty International joins national and international activists in mourning his loss and expresses its deepest condolences to his family.” Benedict added.

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Rights Groups Condemn Arrests of Three Activist Bloggers in Vietnam

Photo courtesy Reporters Without Borders.

Rights groups are condemning the arrests of three bloggers and citizen journalists in the past few days in the run-up to the Vietnamese New Year, known as the Tet, and call for their immediate release and the withdrawal of all charges against them.

“This wave of arrests ahead of the Vietnamese New Year celebrations betrays the state of tension within the regime whenever civil society has an opportunity to express itself freely about violations of its rights and human rights in general,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific desk.

“These bloggers and citizen journalists did nothing more than cover protests and express views about violations of the rights of their fellow citizens. In other words, they defended the general interest. However, it is terrible to see that defence of the general interest and human rights is branded as anti-state propaganda in Vietnam. We ask the international community to press for their immediate release,” Ismaïl added.

The latest victim is Tran Thi Nga, a blogger also known as Thuy Nga, who was arrested at her home in the northern province of Ha Nam on January 21st. The mother of two children, Nga uses her blog to defend migrant workers and those whose land has been seized by the authorities.

Accused of posting “anti-state” content online, she has been charged under article 88 of the penal code, which provides for sentences of three to 20 years in prison for “propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”

Tran Thi Nga is a member of Vietnamese Women For Human Rights, a group that includes overseas Vietnamese wishing to lend support, training, and encouragement to those who stand up to defend human rights in Vietnam. She has also assisted those whose land has been confiscated by local authorities and has demonstrated in support of democratic reform.

She has been targeted a number of times because of her human rights work and in 2015 she was beaten by policemen for celebrating the release of another human rights defender from jail.

According to Frontline Defenders, In the days prior to her arrest, Ms. Tran Thi Nga complained of increasing police intimidation and harassment, including surveillance of her home and being physically stopped from leaving her house. Police also prevented a neighbour from taking the couple’s two young sons to the city to buy them food.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders condemns the arbitrary detention of Ms. Tran Thi Nga, as well as the charges against her, which seem to be aimed at sanctioning her legitimate and peaceful human rights activities. The Observatory calls on the Vietnamese authorities to immediately and unconditionally release her and to drop all charges against her.

Nguyen Van Oai, a citizen journalist who has been jailed in the past, was arrested on January 19th in the central province of Nghe An for allegedly resisting police officers and for leaving his home while on probation.

Arrested in 2011 and sentenced to four years in prison plus three years of home surveillance under penal code article 79 (penalizing “activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration”), Oai was released in August 2015 on completing the jail term. Articles 79 and 88 are the two that are most often used to gag bloggers and online activists.

Nguyen Van Oai is a Christian activist and citizen journalist who was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment in 2013 for ‘attempting to overthrow the government’. He is  a co-founder of the Association of Catholic Former Prisoners of Conscience. Following his release in 2015, he was placed on administrative probation for four years.

At around 10:00 pm on January 19th, Nguyen Van Oai was intercepted and detained by a group of unidentified men, later identified as police officers, as he returned from a day’s fishing near Hoang Mai commune, Nghe An province.  He was charged with resisting on-duty state officials after being accused of breaking the terms of his probation by leaving his locality without first informing the local authorities. It is unclear where he is currently being detained.

Front Line Defenders says it is gravely concerned at the arrests of Tran Thi Nga and Nguyen Van Oai which it believes are solely motivated by their legitimate and peaceful work in the defence of human rights in Vietnam.

Citizen journalist Nguyen Van Hoa was held incommunicado for more than a week after his arrest on January 11th, with the result that his family learned only two days ago that he is in the regime’s custody and has been charged under article 258, which punishes “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state.”

Hoa recently covered protests against Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a Taiwanese-owned steel plant responsible for a toxic spill that caused the deaths of thousands of tons of fish in April 2016.

As well as harassing, threatening and physically attacking outspoken bloggers and their loved-ones, the Vietnamese Communist Party also readily resorts to preventive arrests — arrests often amounting to enforced disappearances – in order to silence its critics in the run-up to national events.

Last October, RSF condemned the Vietnamese government’s policy of isolating journalists and bloggers and its systematic reprisals against those who dare to get in touch with the outside world.

Vietnam is ranked 175th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

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China Must Drop Charges Against Tibetan Education Activist

A Tibetan shopkeeper who has publicly supported education in the Tibetan language faces a 15-year sentence for promoting minority language. Human Rights Watch says the Chinese authorities should drop the politically motivated case against Tashi Wangchuk immediately. A trial is expected to take place soon.

Tashi Wangchuk, 31, was detained on January 27th 2016, after appearing in a New York Times video in which he advocated for the rights of Tibetans to learn and study in their mother tongue. Although he told the paper explicitly that he was not calling for Tibetan independence, he was charged in March 2016 with “inciting separatism,” and faces up to 15 years in prison.

In September, prosecutors sent his case for trial by a criminal court in Yushu prefecture, Qinghai, but in December, they unusually asked the court to send the case back to them for further investigation. The re-investigation concluded by January 4th 2017, and the case has now been returned to the court for trial.

“Tashi Wangchuk has joined the ranks of those prosecuted in China by simply calling for rights to be respected and the law to be upheld,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Cultural rights, which include the right to use one’s own language, are protected under both the Chinese Constitution and international human rights law.”

Tashi Wangchuk ran a small shop in Kyegundo, in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province, selling Tibetan products such as caterpillar fungus, which he also marketed online. He began voicing concern publicly about the lack of Tibetan-language education after the authorities in Kyegundo stopped local monasteries and a private school in the area from teaching Tibetan to laypeople, according to the Times. Since 2012, public schools in Tibetan areas of Qinghai and neighboring Gansu Province, although nominally offering bilingual education in Chinese and Tibetan, had stopped using Tibetan as a medium of education and offered it only as a standalone subject, if at all.

China has set up a bilingual education system in minority schools, but in practice, teaching of Mandarin Chinese increasingly predominates or is exclusive. Regulations on the implementation of bilingual education in “ethnic minority areas,” issued by China’s State Council in August 2015, ordered authorities in those areas to “unswervingly implement the national common language and writing education to ensure that minority students master and use the basic national common language,” referring to Mandarin Chinese. But the regulations state only that the right of ethnic minorities to receive education in their own languages be “respected and guaranteed,” and does not explicitly require the government to provide minority language education.

Tashi Wangchuk traveled to Beijing in May 2015 to explore filing a formal complaint against officials in his home area for failing to support Tibetan language education. On that visit, he met with Times journalists and “insisted of doing on-the-record interviews,” according to the paper. In September 2015, the Times’ journalists traveled to Yushu to meet him, and in November 2015, the paper published articles about his efforts in English and Chinese, together with a nine-minute video in both languages.

The video shows Tashi Wangchuk traveling from Yushu to Beijing in September 2015, in an unsuccessful attempt to file a lawsuit against Yushu officials and to get Chinese media to take up the language issue. He is shown discussing his plans with a Times journalist before leaving Yushu, having a photograph of the Dalai Lama in his home, traveling with the journalist to Beijing, being accompanied by the journalist in Beijing during his efforts there, and answering a question as to whether he planned to self-immolate – actions that did not violate any Chinese laws but which would have been especially sensitive given the involvement of foreigners.

Tashi Wangchuk had also posted messages on his Sina Weibo or microblog account that expressed concerns about what he referred to as the “systematic slaughter of our culture.” His last microblog message, posted on January 24th 2016, called on the local people’s congress in Qinghai Province to enhance bilingual education and to hire more bilingual officials.

After being detained in January 2016, Tashi Wangchuk was held in secret in a detention center in Yushu while his case was investigated by the guobao, the section of China’s police force that deals with internal security. Although Chinese law requires that a detainee’s family be informed of a detention within 24 hours, such a requirement can be waived in cases involving “national security” and “terrorism” and when the police believe that such notification could “impede the investigation.”

His family was not provided such notice until March 24th. At that time, police notified his family that they intended to charge him with “inciting separatism.”

The case was referred by police to the Yushu procuratorate, which for unknown reasons requested the police to conduct an additional investigation into the case, which concluded on August 25th. The procuratorate handed the case over to the court for trial in September, but in December asked the court to delay the trial while the second re-investigation was carried out. This concluded in early January 2017, when the case was sent back to the court for trial.

The indictment has not yet been made public, and there is no publicly available evidence of his “inciting separatism.“ The Chinese government has a long record of using article 103(2) of China’s Criminal Law, which details this charge, to prosecute critics from ethnic minority communities.

Tashi Wangchuk had been detained briefly in 2006, for “trying to travel illegally to India,” and again in 2012, for posting online comments that criticized local officials about land seizures in his area.

“Chinese authorities are bound by law to allow Tibetan language education precisely as Tashi Wangchuk advocated,” Richardson said. “By prosecuting him, rather than dropping the charges and releasing him, the authorities are putting their own constitution on trial.”

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