Reporters Without Borders Calls For Release Of Two Leading Journalists in Myanmar

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Myanmar judicial system to drop criminal defamation proceedings against two leading journalists who have been held since November 11th over an editorial suggesting that Rangoon region chief minister Phyo Min Thein took a bribe.

The two journalists are Than Htut Aung, the CEO of the Eleven Media Group, and Wai Phyo, its chief editor.

The chief minister, who is a member of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), announced at a news conference on November 9th that he was bringing a complaint against the two journalists under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which penalizes defamation using a telecommunications network.

Published in the Eleven Media newspaper Eleven Daily and on Than Htut Aung’s personal Facebook page, the editorial claimed that the chief minister accepted a Philippe Patek watch worth 100,000 dollars from a businessman who was recently released from prison and who has been awarded a Rangoon region construction contract.

After refusing to respond to a police summons on November 10th, Than Htut Aung and Wai Phyo were arrested the next day and are now being held in Insein prison pending an appearance before a Rangoon court scheduled for November 25th.

“The Telecommunications Law criminalizes media offenses and, as such, constitutes a disproportionate response in a defamation case,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

“The Rangoon region’s chief minister has every right to defend himself against these allegations but it is completely unacceptable for journalists to be detained for several weeks because of what they publish, just as it is very pernicious for them to be threatened with jail sentences. This case is just reinforcing the already widespread self-censorship.”

This is the first time that a senior NLD official has brought a complaint under the Telecommunications Law. Complaints have in the past been filed against people who posted messages allegedly defaming State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi or President Hint Kyaw but not directly by a ruling party leader until now. A complaint was also filed with the Press Council, which regulates the Myanmar media. But the Press Council said it could not address the case because it had already been referred to the courts.

Representatives of journalists’ associations and a network of lawyers specialized in media issues issue a joint statement on November 13th calling on the Press Council to play its role as mediator in this case.

“Rather than obsessing about the issue of journalistic ethics, the authorities should first create a favorable climate for freedom of expression and information,” Ismaïl added. “We call for the immediate repeal of this repressive law, which is a hangover from the previous regime and has no place in today’s Myanmar. We also call for the Press Council’s mediating role to be reinforced in this kind of case.”

Despite significant progress from 2011 to 2014, the media freedom situation continues to be worrying in Myanmar, which is ranked 143rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.r

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China’s Counter Terrorism Law Represses Human Rights

China's counter terrorism forces in a photo from FIDH and ICT's joint report Dangers of China’s counter terrorism law for Tibetans and Uyghurs, November 15th 2016.

China’s counter terrorism forces in a photo from FIDH and ICT’s joint report Dangers of China’s counter terrorism law for Tibetans and Uyghurs, November 15th 2016.

China’s new counter terrorism law represses human rights and does not prevent terror, rights groups warn.

In a report released Wednesday, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) highlight the serious human rights risks and counter productive nature of China’s new counter terrorism law, which went into effect January 1st 2016 despite concerns voiced by human rights groups regarding the potential for this law to be used to repress religious and ethnic groups.

In particular, they warn of dangers to free expression for Tibetans and Uyghurs and say that Chinese government is using counter terrorism as a justification to crackdown on even mild expressions of religious identity and culture in Tibet and Xinjiang.

ICT’s EU Policy Director Vincent Metten said: “The sweeping measures introduced in the new law – which have alarmed governments globally – are focused less on preventing terror and protecting China’s citizens, and more on the elimination of dissent and enforcement of compliance to Communist Party policies. This is likely to heighten tensions and increase the risk of violence by shutting down other means of recourse, and it also undermines the legitimacy of genuine international counter terror efforts. Peace and stability cannot be achieved through hyper-securitization, nor by labeling as a terrorist the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate the Dalai Lama, whose leadership has ensured that Tibetans do not turn to violence in response to oppression.”

The report draws on ICT and FIDH’s analyses of China’s counter terrorism strategy and legislation, as well as the findings of an international round-table held in June 2016. Experts at this roundtable detailed how the Chinese government has sought to legitimize its repressive measures by passing legislation that intensifies the Chinese Communist Party’s control over free expression and broadens the scope to suppress dissent in Tibet and Xinjiang.

Concerns of the international community that the new law would strengthen an already restrictive security regime are well founded, the report says. Participants alerted the audience to the possible human rights consequences of the law due to its non-compliance with international standards and guidelines, including: the vague definition of terrorism in the legislation; the lack of independent judicial legal recourse; the reintroduction of the concept of ‘reform through education’ without the need for a criminal conviction for persons accused of posing a ‘danger to society’ and the increased concentration of power and attack on civil society by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping.

In August 2016, senior UN advisor Philip G. Alston, a special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights for the United Nations, referred to these dangers when he said that the Chinese Communist Party’s tight grip on civil society was undermining basic rights and risking mass arrest. Mr. Alston, a New York University law professor who visited China in August, said that the Communist Party’s dominance of the legal system left citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with few avenues to complain about issues like pollution and inequality, dismissing the process for filing grievances as ‘’window dressing’’.

In Tibet, despite the absence of any violent insurgency, an aggressive “counter terrorism” drive has resulted in an expansion of militarization across the plateau. By conflating the expression of distinct religious and ethnic identities with “separatism”, and blurring distinctions between violent acts and peaceful dissent, the Chinese government is using counter terrorism as a justification to crackdown on even mild expressions of religious identity and culture in Tibet and Xinjiang.

“China’s intensifying national security strategy and its new counter-terrorism law will have severe consequences for freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and religion in China, which are already sharply curtailed under existing laws and policies,” said FIDH’s Director of Operations, Marceau Sivieude. “Punishing peaceful expression by qualifying any dissent as a threat to national security not only violates international human rights law, but risks increasing tensions and encouraging extremism by closing off all outlets for peaceful expression and dissent.”

China has expressed an interest in cooperating on counter-terrorism initiatives with other countries and inter-governmental agencies, including with EUROPOL. This is an opportunity for governments and international organizations to challenge the risks and human rights violations of China’s new counter-terrorism law, and to insist on a review of the law and China’s overall counter-terrorism strategy, FIDH and ICT said.

The report outlines how and why the law presents a risk to human rights and effective counter terrorism, and how the Chinese authorities and the international community can address these challenges, in order to ensure that China’s counter terrorism approach does not result in more violence.

Last month, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini warned that “The definition of terrorism in the law is vague and could be used to persecute groups or individuals, including from ethnic and religious minorities, who refuse to adhere to state political and socio-economic policies. This could constitute a threat to human rights in China, not only for the Tibetan minority but also for the ethnic and religious minorities in the Xinjiang province.’’

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Prison Reforms Should Respect Human Rights in Myanmar

Myanmar’s government should introduce key reforms to put prison legislation in line with international human rights standards, taking the opportunity to break with its grim past where prisoners were subject to torture and appalling conditions, a new briefing from Amnesty International said Thursday.

“Myanmar’s prisons are globally notorious as sites of human rights abuses. It is heartening to see that the government and the country’s parliamentarians, many of whom endured torture and other ill-treatment in these same prisons, are considering crucial prison reforms. Now, they must ensure that no other prisoners are subject to the same fate,” said Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The July 2015 draft Prisons Law represents a significant improvement on the archaic laws that are currently in force and that, for decades, facilitated conditions where prisoners were tortured, cramped into small cells or confined in overcrowded spaces, denied clean water and adequate healthcare, and subject to punitive transfers, forced labor and other horrific punishments, Amnesty said. However, the draft law still falls far short of international human rights standards.

The new Amnesty International briefing, Myanmar: Bring Rights to Prisons, details how the proposed legislation fails to prohibit torture and other ill-treatment or include safeguards against some of the worst abuses the country’s prison system has been known for, including unlawful detention and forced labor. The briefing outlines how mandatory independent monitoring of prison conditions and the establishment of an independent complaints mechanism for prisoners will create greater transparency for a prison system that has long relied on secrecy.

“As it stands, the draft will still leave people vulnerable to the human rights abuses that earned Myanmar’s prison system its bad name in the first place. If Myanmar is serious about improving prisons conditions and generally preventing torture and other ill-treatment, it needs to cast light into the dark cells where prisoners are kept and enact reforms that are worthy of the ambition,” said Rafendi Djamin.

Amnesty International’s briefing also urges Myanmar’s lawmakers to introduce provisions in the draft law that will guarantee that minimum standards of health, food, potable water, accommodation, sanitation and hygiene are met. The organization also calls for provisions that address the special needs of juveniles and women and regulate the use of force by prison officials to be added.

At the same time, Amnesty International is recommending that problematic provisions in the draft law be removed. These include, for example, the resort to restraint and prolonged solitary confinement as disciplinary measures.

In the briefing, Amnesty International carries out a detailed legal analysis of the draft law and offers alternative language that will ensure that international standards, including the Nelson Mandela rules that set out a minimum level of humane treatment of all prisoners, are met.

“Our briefing is designed to help lawmakers with their task. We welcome the spirit behind the new draft prison law, which will replace laws that are more than a century old and have no place in a modern, rights-respecting society. The recommendations we have made are there to help Myanmar break with a tradition of appalling prison practices and move towards a prison system that is focused on rehabilitation which treats detainees humanely,” said Rafendi Djamin.

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Vietnamese Activists Face Harassment and Threats

Three human rights defenders engaged in activism relating to an ecological disaster in Vietnam are facing severe harassment, including public denunciations, prosecution and death threats, according to Amnesty International. They could be arrested for “conducting propaganda” against the state.

Since the deaths of an estimated 70 tons of fish, shrimp, squid and other animals along a 200 kilometer (125 mile) stretch of the Vietnamese central-eastern coastline in April 2016, demonstrations and other activities have taken place calling for information on the cause of the disaster. After two months of speculation, at a press conference in June, the government declared that Taiwanese company Formosa Plastics Group had admitted responsibility for the serious environmental disaster and that the company had pledged to pay VND 11.5 trillion (US $500 million) in compensation to the Vietnamese government to improve conditions in the affected provinces.

Father Dang Huu Nam, Nguyen Van Trang and Paulus Le Van Son have been involved in organising activities calling for transparency and accountability in relation to the disaster, including compensation for those affected. Father Dang Huu Nam, a Catholic priest from Phu Yen parish, Vinh diocese in Nghe An province has been helping to organize mass protests. He has also assisted with legal complaints from 506 people to Vietnam’s authorities to claim compensation from Formosa Plastic Group company.

Nguyen Van Trang, a university student from Thanh Hoa province and a member of the Brotherhood for Democracy, an online pro-democracy discussion group, joined a protest against Formosa on May 1st and was arrested on May 7th and again on May 19th. Paulus Le Van Son, a former prisoner of conscience and Catholic social activist and journalist, has also participated in protests over the ecological disaster calling for justice and compensation.

Amnesty International says it is concerned that the three men are at imminent risk of arrest under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code for “conducting propaganda” against the state. These charges provides for between three and 20 years’ imprisonment.

The three men have also faced severe harassment which has intensified after their activities linked to the ecological catastrophe. Father Nam has been subjected to surveillance, death threats, arrests and beatings by security police and individuals in plain clothes. Nguyen Van Trang has been targeted through public denunciations in local media, on the radio and on neighborhood loudspeakers. Paulus Le Van Son has been subjected to surveillance, denounced in local media and now fears for his safety.

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Laos: Release Imprisoned Student Leaders

The five student leaders with the Lao Students Movement for Democracy, arrested in 1999. Photo courtesy FIDH.

The five student leaders with the Lao Students Movement for Democracy, arrested in 1999. Photo courtesy FIDH.

The Lao government must immediately and unconditionally release two former pro-democracy student leaders who have been arbitrarily detained for 17 years and disclose the fate or whereabouts of two others, rights groups said Wednesday.

Thongpaseuth Keuakoun and Sengaloun Phengphanh were arrested in Vientiane on October 26th 1999 along with fellow LSMD members Bouavanh Chanhmanivong, Keochay for planning peaceful demonstrations that called for democracy, social justice and respect for human rights. All five were subsequently sentenced to 20 years in prison for “generating social turmoil and endangering national security.” Former student leaders with the Lao Students Movement for Democracy (LSMD), they are believed to be detained in Samkhe prison, located on the eastern outskirts of Vientiane.

“Thongpaseuth and Sengaloun’s prolonged, arbitrary and incommunicado detention in atrocious conditions is a serious violation of international law. The fact that the two former student leaders are among Southeast Asia’s longest-serving political prisoners reflects Vientiane’s long-standing and severe repression of any dissent,” said Dimitris Christopoulos, President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

Mr. Khamphouvieng Sisa-at died in Samkhe prison in September 2001 as a result of serious food deprivation, prolonged heat exposure and lack of adequate medical care.

In 2006, the Lao government stated that Mr. Keochay had been released in 2002 upon completion of his prison term and “transferred to guardians to further educate him to become a good citizen”. However, Keochay’s family was never informed of his alleged release, and his fate or whereabouts remain unknown.

The government’s claim about Mr. Keochay’s release as well as Mr. Khamphouvieng’s death in custody contradict Vientiane’s earlier statement that only two LSMD members – Messrs. Thongpaseuth and Sengaloun – had been arrested on October 26th 1999.

The Lao government had initially refused to acknowledge even the detention of Thongpaseuth and Sengaloun. To this day, the fate and whereabouts of the fifth former student leader, Mr. Bouavanh, also remains unknown.

Gerald Staberock, Secretary General of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), said that “The authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Thongpaseuth and Sengaloun and provide compensation for their wrongful detention. The Lao government must conduct a thorough, impartial, and transparent investigation into the death of Khamphouvieng Sisa-at in Samkhe prison, and disclose the fate or whereabouts of Bouavanh and Keochay.”

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) called on Lao authorities to determine the fate or whereabouts of nine other activists who were detained in November 2009 for planning to participate in pro-democracy demonstrations. The Laos government has failed to determine the fate and whereabouts of nine activists – two women, Kingkeo and Somchit, and seven men, Soubinh, Souane, Sinpasong, Khamsone, Nou, Somkhit and Sourigna – who were detained in November 2009 for planning pro-democracy demonstrations in Vientiane.

Their detention, followed by the Lao government’s refusal to acknowledge their deprivation of liberty, amounts to enforced disappearance under Article 2 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED). Despite signing the ICPPED on September 29th 2008, Laos has yet to ratify the convention.

The Observatory and LMHR reiterate their call for the Lao government to conduct swift, thorough and impartial investigations into all cases of enforced disappearances in the country and hold those responsible accountable.

The groups also urge the Lao government to speed up the investigation into the enforced disappearance of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who was last seen at a police checkpoint on a busy street of Vientiane on the evening of December 15th 2012. The Lao authorities have failed to provide any specific information on the status and progress of the investigation into Sombath’s disappearance since June 2013.

“The international community must unequivocally condemn the government’s ongoing repression of civil society, urge the authorities to immediately release all detained activists and human rights defenders and demand that all cases of enforced disappearance in the country be thoroughly investigated and resolved,” said Vanida Thephsouvanh, LMHR President.

Last month FIDH and LMHR jointly published two briefing papers that document the severe restrictions on the right to freedom of expression in Laos and show that the country ranks near the bottom of many international indexes that measure respect for democratic principles and key civil and political rights.

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Myanmar Must Lift Restrictions on Humanitarian Aid

 A Rohingya girl sits atop a fishing boat on the outskirts of an IDP camp in Sittwe, Arakan State, Burma, September 2015. © 2015 David Scott Mathieson/Human Rights Watch


A Rohingya girl sits atop a fishing boat on the outskirts of an IDP camp in Sittwe, Arakan State, Myanmar, September 2015. © 2015 David Scott Mathieson/Human Rights Watch

The Myanmar government and army must urgently lift restrictions preventing access to humanitarian aid in Rakhine and Kachin states, rights groups say. Government security operations have cut off assistance to tens of thousands of people and forced many to flee their homes, leaving many vulnerable.

The intensification of the conflict in Kachin State, and the eruption of violence in northern Rakhine State, where a major security operation has led members of the Rohingya and Rakhine communities to flee their homes, has aggravated what was already a serious humanitarian situation in the country.

Fighting in Kachin state earlier this month led to the death of a child and two others being injured. In recent weeks, hostilities have seen the Myanmar military resorting to airstrikes and shelling.

Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s Director for South East Asia and the Pacific said that “The Myanmar authorities must immediately lift restrictions that are preventing the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies from reaching people in need. Both Rakhine and Kachin States already had tens of thousands of people been displaced by violence in recent years. The events of the past few weeks have aggravated that situation, and put more lives at risk.”

Human Rights Watch said that the United Nations and donor governments should publicly call on the Burmese government to ensure aid organizations can reach ethnic Rohingya and other vulnerable populations.

“Recent violence in northern Rakhine State has led the army to deny access to aid agencies that provide essential health care and food to people at grave risk,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Rohingya and others have been especially vulnerable since the ethnic cleansing campaign in 2012, and many rely on humanitarian aid to survive.”

Fighting in Kachin state earlier this month led to the death of a child and two others being injured. In recent weeks, hostilities have seen the Myanmar military resorting to airstrikes and shelling.

Amnesty International said that it has learned from credible sources that the authorities have not allowed UN and humanitarian agencies to deliver aid to people displaced in non-governmental controlled area since April 2016. The organization is concerned by reports that the authorities may instead require people displaced to cross conflict lines in order to receive aid.

“All parties to the armed conflict have an obligation to allow and facilitate delivery of impartial humanitarian assistance for civilians in need. Blocking such aid is a violation of international humanitarian law. Civilians cannot be put in a position where they have no other option but to put their lives in harm’s way to access much needed aid. The authorities must ensure free and unimpeded access for humanitarian organizations delivering aid and emergency assistance to all civilians who need it,” Rafendi Djamin said.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) there are currently approximately 87,000 displaced people in Kachin State, many of them in areas beyond government control. Fighting resumed there in June 2011 after a 17-year ceasefire between the Myanmar army and the Kachin Independence Army broke down.

An attack on three police outposts on October 9th triggered fresh concerns about violence and displacement in Rakhine State when armed men attacked three police outposts in Maungdaw township near the border with Bangladesh, killing nine police officers and seizing weapons. The President’s Office blamed a previously unknown Rohingya group called Aqa Mul Mujahidin for the attacks, though other officials have said it is unclear who was responsible. Authorities responded by launching a major security operation to capture the perpetrators, tightening the already severe restrictions on movement that existed in the area.

According to local sources, members of both the Rohingya and Rakhine communities have fled their homes in fear. However, the severe isolation of northern Rakhine State and restrictions on independent journalists and monitors makes it extremely difficult to assess the scale of the displacement, or verify reports coming out of the region. Rohingya activists have alleged that government forces have committed serious abuses during the current operations, including summary executions and the burning of villages.

Government security forces declared the area an “operation zone” and began sweeps to find the attackers. According to senior members of the government, security forces have killed 30 people, while five members of the security forces have also been killed.

Since October 9, authorities have blocked all aid deliveries to Maungdaw township and aid agencies have not been able to conduct a needs assessment. “We have asked [for access] from township level to Union level,” a World Food Program (WFP) partnerships officer said. “The official explanation [for being denied access] is that security operations are ongoing.”

Under international law, authorities may restrict freedom of movement for specific security reasons for a limited period of time, but broad and open-ended restrictions are not permissible. Under the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, all authorities “shall grant and facilitate the free passage of humanitarian assistance and grant persons engaged in the provision of such assistance rapid and unimpeded access to the internally displaced.”

A number of UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations have long operated in northern Rakhine State, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), WFP, Medecins Sans Frontieres and Action Contre la Faim, providing food aid and mobile health clinics, among other services. WFP alone assists 152,000 vulnerable people with various services, including nutrition support for pregnant women, nursing mothers, children under five and people living with HIV and tuberculosis.

WFP told Human Rights Watch that while the government has recently permitted the resumption of food assistance to 37,000 people in Buthiduang township, 50,000 people remain without food aid in Maungdaw.

The blocking of aid will also severely impact nutritional programs and mobile health clinics that serviced the area, aid workers said. With freedom of movement restricted, ill or wounded people cannot access the main hospital in Maungdaw.

Amnesty International says it is deeply concerned that UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations have not been given authorization to access the affected populations to assess their needs and provide assistance.

“Local sources are telling us that Rohingya villagers are unable to access medical care. The Myanmar authorities must ensure that the human rights of these communities are respected, including ensuring that they have effective access to health care and other services,” said Rafendi Djamin.

Rohingya constitute approximately a third of Rakhine State’s population of over three million people. The Muslim minority has long suffered from discrimination and a host of serious human rights violations, including restrictions on the rights to freedom of movement, access to health care, and education. Successive Burmese governments have effectively denied Rohingya citizenship under Myanmar’s discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law.

The fighting has also increased tension in the camps for the nearly 120,000 displaced Rohingya near the town of Sittwe in Rakhine State. These people fled their homes after communal violence in 2012, which left large numbers of people dead and entire villages destroyed.

“The Burmese government has a responsibility to search for and arrest those who attacked the border posts,” Adams said. “But it is required to do so in a manner that respects human rights, ensures that the area’s people get the aid they need, and allows journalists and rights monitors into the area.”

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Jailed Uyghur Intellectual Wins Prominent Human Rights Award

Ilham Tohti in a photo taken March 13, 2016. Photo courtesy PEN America.

Ilham Tohti in a photo taken March 13, 2016. Photo courtesy PEN America.

Jailed Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti is the winner of the 2016 Martin Ennals Award Laureate for Human Rights Defenders. Currently serving a life sentence in China for separatism, Ilham Tohti has worked for two decades to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, despite an environment of religious, cultural and political repression suffered by Uyghurs. Selected by a jury of ten global Human Rights organizations, the award is given to Human Rights Defenders who have shown deep commitment and face great personal risk. The aim of the award is to provide protection through international recognition.

Uyghurs are a Muslim Turkic people living mainly in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. As a result of his efforts he was sentenced in September 2014 to life in prison following a two-day show trial. He remains a voice of moderation and reconciliation in spite of how he has been treated.

Ilham Tohti has rejected separatism and violence, and sought reconciliation based on a respect for Uyghur culture, which has been subject to religious, cultural and political repression in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

In 1994 he began to write about problems and abuses in Xinjiang, which led to official surveillance. From 1999 to 2003 he was barred from teaching. Since then the authorities have also made it impossible for him to publish in normal venues. As a response, he turned to the Internet to broaden public awareness of the economic, social and developmental issues confronting the Uyghurs. In 2006 he established Uyghurbiz.net, a Chinese-language site, to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Over the course of its existence, it has been shut down periodically, and people writing for it have been harassed.

In 2009, he was arrested for several weeks after posting information on Uyghurs who had been arrested, killed and “disappeared” during and after protests. In the following years he was periodically subjected to house arrest, and in 2013, while bound to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Indiana University, USA, he was detained at the airport and prevented from leaving China.

On January 15, 2014, Ilham Tohti was arrested on charges of separatism and sentenced to life imprisonment, after a two-day trial. Numerous statements were issued by Western governments and the European Union condemning his trial and sentence, and in early 2016 several hundred academics petitioned the Chinese leadership for his release.

Ilham Tohti’s case is particularly important given the crucial international issues and human rights concerns on which it touches: the fostering of moderate Islamic values in the face of

state-directed religious repression; efforts to open lines of dialogue between a Muslim minority and a non-Muslim majority population; and the suppression of non-violent dissent by an authoritarian state.

Upon his nomination as a finalist for the Martin Ennals Award earlier this year, his daughter stated: “My father Ilham Tohti has used only one weapon in his struggle for the basic rights of the Uyghurs of Xinjiang: Words; spoken, written, distributed, and posted. This is all he has ever had at his disposal, and all that he has ever needed. And this is what China found so threatening. A person like him doesn’t deserve to be in prison for even a day.”

Martin Ennals Foundation Chair Dick Oosting stated “The real shame of this situation is that by eliminating the moderate voice of Ilham Tohti the Chinese Government is in fact laying the groundwork for the very extremism it says it wants to prevent”.

Strongly supported by the City of Geneva, the Award will be presented on October 11th.

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Myanmar Army’s Offensive in Karen State Threatens to Expand Conflict

A continued Burma military offensive into the contested Hat Gyi dam area threatens to ignite fighting with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and imperils a four-year-old ceasefire, Karen Rivers Watch said Thursday.

According to the organization, the latest news on the ground is that the Myanmar Army is stationing troops in villages along the Salween River, upstream from the Hat Gyi Dam site. Villagers told Karen Rivers Watch, a network of Karen community-based organizations working to protect the Salween River, that the Border Guard Force (BGF) and Myanmar Army told them to leave their villages near Hat Gyi Dam. Earlier this month, orders to evacuate the Mae Tha Waw dam access road were followed by BGF attacks against the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) splinter group.

KNLA sources told Karen Rivers Watch there are strong indications that the Myanmar military is seeking to expand and reinforce its territorial control in Karen State in order to secure the area around the controversial Hat Gyi Dam site, which is partially controlled by the KNLA. This includes the recently captured access road necessary for transporting dam construction materials from the Thai border. The long-delayed Hat Gyi Dam, planned by Chinese and Thai companies primarily for electricity export to Thailand, will flood large areas and disrupt the free flowing Salween River, which millions of people depend on.

“In order to implement the plan for Hat Gyi Dam, the Burmese and BGF must have full control of the road and the surrounding areas,” said Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh, second in command of the KNLA.

While the Burmese government and Karen leaders continue holding historic peace talks, recent outbreaks of fighting between the Myanmar Army-supported Border Guard Force and the DKBA splinter group in Karen State throws into doubt hopes that civil war victims could finally go home. In early September, over 5,000 villagers living east and south of the proposed Hat Gyi dam site were forced to flee their homes.

Many media reports tend to portray the conflict as inter-ethnic fighting. Karen leaders and villagers, on the other hand, see this as a continuation of the Myanmar Army’s divide and rule strategy. The Myanmar Army is using the pretense of eliminating the DKBA splinter group to take control of more Karen areas around the Hat Gyi Dam site, says Karen Rivers Watch.

So far, the KNU/KNLA, the largest Karen armed organization and a ceasefire signatory, has not been drawn into the most recent fighting. However, as the Myanmar Army advances further towards KNLA territory, that could change. Gen. Saw Johnny, KNLA Commander-in-Chief, warned the Myanmar Army, “If you cross the line [into our territory], there will be fighting.” But Gen. Saw Johnny went on to reiterate that the KNU is committed to the national peace process, stating, “We want to solve this conflict by peaceful means.”

Earlier on September 10th, the BGF demanded that the KNLA grant the BGF control of five separate locations along the western side of the Salween River. The five areas include territory adjacent to the Toh T’Bah Wai, Klaw Tae Hta, P’Tae Hta, Yaw Ma Hta and Mae Lah villages, all located around the Hat Gyi dam site. The KNLA refused, invoking the NCA terms.

Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh noted “the DKBA does not operate in the five areas in our 5th Brigade territory that were demanded by BGF.” The former DKBA camps were restricted to 7th Brigade territory. The movement of BGF and Myanmar Army troops to fortify positions on western sections of the Salween would contradict the terms of the NCA, and would only escalate tensions and increase the risk of armed conflict.

The KNU Executive Committee have all agreed on opposing any mega development project until a stable peace has been achieved. Gen. Saw Johnny, Commander-in-Chief of the KNLA, stated in no unclear terms, “if they plan to build the dam, we will oppose it.”

The Myanmar military’s actions only serve to further the aims of corporate dam developers from Thailand and China, which aim to export electricity and divert water from the Hat Gyi Dam to Thailand. “The central government’s claimed benefits of hydropower development will not reach the people of the Salween River basin, or even the people of Burma,” says Saw Tha Poe, coordinator for Karen Rivers Watch. “The land and people of a democratic Burma should not have to suffer for the sake of a few big companies and shopping malls.”

Militarization for corporate infrastructure development will only worsen conflict in Karen State, jeopardizing the ongoing peace process and preventing the return of displaced peoples, warns Karen Rivers Watch. “Economic development that requires violence against ethnic people, and marginalizes their voices and lives, cannot be the way forward for a democratic Myanmar,’’ the group says.

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Vietnam Criminalizes Peaceful Dissent Once Again

Vietnam must end the ongoing repression of peaceful dissent, repeal its repressive laws and immediately release all political prisoners, rights groups said Thursday. The call followed the imprisonment of three government critics in three days.

Amnesty InternationalFIDH and the Vietnamese Committee for Human Rights (VCHR) condemn Vietnam’s continuing failure to respect, protect, promote and fulfill the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, contrary to its obligations as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). According to VCHR, Vietnam holds about 130 political prisoners – the largest number among Southeast Asian countries.

“Vietnam’s relentless persecution of government critics using repressive laws and kangaroo courts shows that compliance with the country’s international human rights obligations ranks at the bottom of Hanoi’s priorities,” said FIDH President Dimitris Christopoulos.

On Thursday, the People’s Supreme Court in Hanoi upheld a lower court’s conviction of blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh and his assistant Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy for “abusing democratic freedoms to harm the interests of the State” under Article 258 of the Criminal Code and sentenced them to five and three years in prison respectively. The trial was held behind closed doors. In addition, Vinh’s wife, Le Thi Minh Ha, has not been allowed to visit him in prison for the past five months.

Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy were arrested on May 5th 2014 and accused of “publishing online articles with bad contents and misleading information to lower the prestige and create public distrust of government offices, social organizations, and citizens.” On March 23rd 2016, a People’s Court in Hanoi sentenced the two to five and three years in prison respectively.

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

“Vietnam’s protracted refusal to repeal its repressive laws and release all political prisoners shows it has absolutely no intention of respecting fundamental human rights. Hanoi’s repression must be met by stronger international condemnation, not friendly overtures,” said VCHR President Vo Van Ai.

Vietnam has criminalized peaceful protest yet again by convicting Can Thi Theu, a well-known land rights activist, by a court in Hanoi on September 20th. She was sentenced to 20 months in prison on charges of “disturbing public order” under Article 245 of the 1999 Penal Code.

Dozens of people who went to Dong Da district People’s Court to support Can Thi Theu were also arrested outside, including her son Trinh Ba Phuong, and taken to a police station in Ha Dong district; others who went to the police station to call for their release were also arrested. They were all released several hours later, with reports that some had been beaten.

Can Thi Theu was arrested at home on June 10th 2016 on accusations of posting photos on her Facebook page inciting protests against reclamation of land in Duong Noi, Ha Dong district of Hanoi, and also “inciting” a boycott of the May 2016 elections for the National Assembly. She is a veteran campaigner for the rights of farmers whose land has been confiscated by the authorities with unfair compensation. Her own family farm was confiscated in 2007. Following her arrest, Can Thi Theu went on hunger strike for 13 days in protest.

This is now the second time in two years that Can Thi Theu faces imprisonment. She was previously arrested in April 2014 and imprisoned for 15 months for “activities against public officials” under Article 257 of the 1999 Penal Code, for allegedly leading protests in Duong Noi.

Amnesty International called on Vietnam to quash the ruling and to cease their continuing intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders and activists. The authorities should immediately end the misuse of the legal and criminal justice system to prevent the effective enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the country.

Amnesty International has documented at least 82 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, either convicted after unfair trials and serving long sentences, or held in pre-trial detention solely for exercising their human rights. They include bloggers, labor and land rights activists, political activists, ethnic and religious minorities and advocates for human rights and social justice.

Prisoners of conscience in Vietnam are at risk of enforced disappearances; prolonged periods of incommunicado detention and solitary confinement; the infliction of severe physical pain and suffering; the withholding of medical treatment and punitive prison transfers.

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China Must End Evictions, Demolition of Tibetan Buddhist Centers

 

Chinese authorities are reportedly forcing at least 1,000 religious adherents to withdraw from two major Tibetan Buddhist institutions, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday. The government should resolve genuine safety and health issues at the Buddhist institutions without infringing on the rights to religious belief and freedom of movement.

“The authorities’ strategy of demolitions, expulsions, threats and restrictions on religious practice is clear-cut evidence of an attack on religious freedom, not the actions of a genuinely concerned government trying to address a housing problem,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

The evictions follow demolitions in late July at the Tibetan Buddhist institute Larung Gar in Sichuan province. The demolitions, which the authorities said were necessary in order to carry out “correction and rectification,” reportedly prompted three suicides.

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

Since mass demolitions began at Larung Gar, the monastery’s leaders have appealed to residents to avoid confrontations with government-employed demolition crews.

However, three nuns at Larung Gar committed suicide in late July or early August in protest of the mass demolitions. Two of the nuns, Rinzin Drolma and Tsering Drolma, left notes referring to the demolitions or to government “harassment,” according to several media reports.

During the first week after the demolitions began, government workers at Larung Gar reportedly demolished 600 of the nuns’ cabins and homes, and since then an estimated 2,000 total dwellings have been removed. Before the demolitions began, an estimated 1,500 police and paramilitary troops were moved to nearby villages and towns.

The authorities have banned tourists from visiting Larung Gar and local residents from taking photographs or video of the demolitions. Those who have sent images or information abroad have come under investigation from the authorities. Images of the demolitions published in early August show some hillsides covered with debris, with no standing structures.

The threat facing residents at Larung Gar stems from a local government order to the monastery instructing it to reduce the number of monks and nuns to a total of 5,000 by September 2017. This means that at least 5,000 other residents – likely several times that figure – will be forced to leave, whether or not their housing survives.

So far the demolitions at Larung Gar have focused on the homes of nuns, apparently because they are presumed less likely to put up active resistance. Although some nuns will be allowed to move into new solid-structure dormitories built by the monastery, it is not yet clear how many will be allowed to stay. One report claimed that up to 2,000 nuns had been required to leave Larung Gar and return to their hometowns in other provinces.

Since about April, up to 1,000 nuns at Yachen Gar, another major monastic encampment in Pelyul (Beiyu) county, Kardze prefecture in Sichuan province, have been compelled to leave the institution and return to their homes in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), west of Yachen Gar. Yachen Gar, about 300 kilometers southwest of Larung Gar, has an estimated 10,000 residents, mostly nuns. It has not experienced major demolitions except for some associated with a road construction project, and, unlike Larung Gar, it remains open to foreign tourists.

The Yachen Gar evictions were carried out not by local authorities, but by officials in the TAR. TAR officials have pressured the families of nuns from the TAR to return immediately to their registered homes or face serious punishments, such as confiscation of family identity cards. The media reported that monks and nuns at Larung Gar from Chamdo and Nagchu prefectures in the TAR have been similarly ordered by TAR authorities to return to their places of registration.

The Chinese authorities have previously expressed concerns about fire and other structural risks at the Larung Gar community, which they have a responsibility to address. However, resolving legitimate safety and health concerns cannot be a pretext for reducing the size of a religious community or compelling religious adherents to leave. The right to freedom of religious belief is recognized under article 36 of China’s constitution. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects both the right to freedom of religion “either alone or in community with others” (article 18), and the right to freedom of movement and residence within a country’s borders (article 13).

There are unconfirmed reports that officials plan to offer compensation of up to 20,000 yuan (US$3,000) to those forced to leave Larung Gar or whose homes have been demolished. No such compensation has been offered to nuns forced to leave Yachen Gar. While such payments lessen the financial cost to those uprooted by the government’s actions, they do not address the serious violations of basic rights to freedom of religion and movement suffered – violations that would be better addressed by permitting improved and expanded residential facilities at the Buddhist institutions, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch urged Chinese authorities to immediately investigate reports that TAR officials are threatening family members of monks and nuns to compel their relatives to leave their chosen places of religious study. The government should also allow any nuns forced to leave Yachen Gar or other religious institutions to continue their religious activities.

“Chinese authorities should address concerns about overcrowded religious institutions by allowing Tibetans to establish more institutes and build more facilities. China’s government should respect its own constitution and international legal obligations and permit full freedom of religious practice,” Richardson said.

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