On Veng Sreng Anniversary, Still Waiting for Justice in Cambodia

On the one year anniversary of the state violence which led to the deaths of at least four men and the hospitalization of dozens in early January 2014 in Cambodia, the disappearance of a teenage boy and the wrongful imprisonment of 23 union leaders, activists and workers, civil society organizations are condemning the lack of progress made in investigating these human rights violations and in punishing those responsible.

On January 3rd, hundreds of people will gather at the site of the shootings on Veng Sreng road to mark the one year anniversary of the violence and to call for justice for those affected.

“On Saturday we will gather to remember those killed and missing as a result of last January’s violence and to stand with their families and friends,” said Moeun Tola, Head of the Community Legal Education Center’s labor program. “As we do so we also recall and condemn the government’s continued failure to establish a credible and independent investigation into the bloodshed.”

January’s violence followed days of widespread strikes over the minimum wage which converged with long-standing protests by the CNRP over the conduct and results of the July 2013 National Assembly election. As the peaceful protests continued to grow the government’s patience wore thin and the mass protests were brought to a swift and brutal end on January 3 when mixed security forces shot and killed at least four people.

Monitors from the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) witnessed security forces using live ammunition to shoot directly at civilians. According to monitors, the clash started when the authorities used electric batons toward the protestors, who then replied by throwing stones. In response, the military used disproportionate force by firing live ammunition in the crowd.

At least 38 others were taken to hospital to be treated for their injuries, mostly from bullet wounds. 15-year-old Khem Sophath disappeared that day having last been seen lying on the ground with an apparent bullet wound to his chest.

In the days immediately after the killings, rather than making efforts to identify those responsible, the government violently broke up a peaceful occupation of Freedom Park, issued summons for opposition party leaders and detained activists who were attempting to protest against the imprisonment of the 23 people who were arrested on January 2nd and 3rd.

A government “investigation” into the violence headed by the Minister of Interior Sar Kheng is reported to have lasted just three weeks. Few of its findings have been made public and no action is known to have been taken as a result of the investigation. Not one member of the security or armed forces has been suspended, let alone prosecuted in connection with the incidents. In contrast the 23 arrested were held in pre-trial detention for five months and convicted following a manifestly unfair trial.

“What we saw in the days leading up to January 3rd last year was something really positive, a real surge in non-violent, social activism from people making simple demands for better wages and fair elections. But rather than listening to the people the government responded with murderous violence showing that it would rather kill than pursue much needed reforms.” said LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge.

On May 24th 2014 two men found fragments of bones and remains of burned tires at a Military Brigade 70 base in Kampong Speu province, leading to speculation that the remains were those of Khem Sophath. Brigade 70 soldiers blocked rights workers and police investigators from accessing the site for two days and when police were finally allowed to visit on May 27, the site had apparently been destroyed by heavy machinery and covered with soil. When they dug up the area they found parts of the burned tires and bone fragments.

The government claims to have investigated Khem Sophath’s disappearance, to have conducted forensic tests on the remains and determined that they are not those of Khem Sophath. However authorities have provided no details of the investigation or forensic examinations nor how they were able to determine that the remains did not correspond to those of Khem Sophath. DNA samples of Khem Sophath’s relatives, which would be required to conduct such tests, have not been sought by the authorities.

The organizations say that failure to punish crimes by state forces and those in power is nothing new in Cambodia. However, the lack of any proper investigation into the violence committed at the start of 2014 has compounded the already existing environment of impunity and further strengthened a climate in which police, military police, district security guards and soldiers are able to use violence against civilians on a regular basis, confident in the knowledge that they will suffer no repercussions.

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Relentless Repression of Independent Voices Continues in Vietnam

Bui Thi Minh Hang is an undated photo courtesy of Frontline Defenders.

Bui Thi Minh Hang is an undated photo courtesy of Frontline Defenders.

The upheld convictions and jail sentences of three human rights defenders in Vietnam on trumped-up charges is the latest act of the government’s relentless repression of independent voices and a shameful example of a failed judiciary, rights groups say.

An Appellate Court upheld on December 12th the previous sentence handed down to human rights defenders Ms. Bui Thi Minh Hang and two other protesters Mr. Nguyen Van Minh and Ms. Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh, who were imprisoned on charges of “causing public disorder” under Article 245 of the Vietnamese Criminal Code.

“The conviction of Bui Thi Minh Hang, Nguyen Van Minh, and Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh is a stark reminder of the absence of an independent judiciary in Vietnam,” said International Federation for Human Rights President Karim Lahidji. “The three must be immediately released and provided adequate compensation for their unjust imprisonment.”

Police arrested Bui Thi Minh Hang, Nguyen Van Minh, and Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh on February 11th 2014, in Lap Vo District, Dong Thap Province, as the three were travelling from Ho Chi Minh City to Dong Thap Province to visit former prisoner of conscience Nguyen Bac Truyen and his wife. Two days earlier, police had raided the couple’s home and taken Truyen into custody. Bui Thi Minh Hang, Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh, and Nguyen Van Minh are well known for their peaceful campaigns for religious freedom, the release of political prisoners, and their support to victims of land confiscation.

On August 26th,  in a one-day trial, Bui Thi Minh Hang was sentenced by the Court of First Instance to three-years’ imprisonment. Her co-defendants, Nguyen Van Minh and Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh, religious workers from the independent Buddhist Church, faced two-and-half-year and two-year sentences respectively. The three remain detained in Dong Thap Province.

A human rights defender and blogger, Bui Thi Minh Hang publishes information on human rights violations in Vietnam and provided support to victims of land grabs. She was one of 21 people beaten and detained when they attempted to visit the partner of a detained human rights lawyer who defends victims of forced evictions. The visit was meant to provide support and solidarity to the lawyer’s family after his detention during a police raid on their house on February 9th 2014. Nineteen of those arrested were released the next day, but Bui Thi Minh Hang, Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh and Nguyen Van Minh remained in detention and were charged under article 245 of Vietnamese Penal Code for “causing public disorder.”

Bui Thi Minh Hang was previously sent to a “re-education camp’’ for two years where she says she was  psychologically and physically terrorized. Her conviction is believed to have resulted from the human rights defender’s work on land rights.

Rights organization Front Line Defenders is gravely concerned about the recent verdict of the Dong Thap Appellate Court and the continued imprisonment of human rights defender Bui Thi Minh Hang. The organization urges the authorities in Vietnam to immediately and unconditionally release her and her co-defendants.

“Today’s verdict is a harsh reality check for those in the international community who are seeking to improve economic and military ties with Hanoi with the expectation that the Vietnamese government would embark upon reforms to show it respects the people’s fundamental rights,”  said Vietnam Committee on Human Rights President Vo Van Ai. “More international pressure on Hanoi is needed to ensure that arbitrary arrests and imprisonments stop and that all political prisoners, including human rights defenders, are released,” he urged.

In recent weeks, Vietnamese authorities have intensified the crackdown on freedom of expression, arresting two prominent bloggers. On November 29th, police in Ho Chi Minh City detained blogger Mr. Hong Le Tho, 65, charging him with “abusing democratic freedoms against the interest of the State” under Article 258 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code. The authorities accused Hong Le Tho of posting articles in his blog which included false information that ‘’with bad content and false information that discredit and create distrust among people about state agencies” .

On December 6th 2014, the police in Ho Chi Minh City detained blogger Mr. Nguyen Quang Lap, 58, under the same charges for posting articles online criticizing the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party and the government.

“The ongoing harassment, arbitrary detention, and imprisonment of human rights defenders illustrate Vietnam’s failure to live up to its repeated pledges to protect human rights,” said Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Secretary General Gerald Staberock. “At the end of its first year as a UN Human Rights Council member, Vietnam’s rights record remains abysmal and its authoritarian tendencies are increasing.”

Since January 2014, Vietnam has detained or imprisoned at least 11 bloggers and human rights defenders and it currently holds about 200 political prisoners, the largest number in Southeast Asia. Vietnam is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. It is also on the Reporters Without Borders list of Enemies of the Internet because of its persecution of bloggers and cyber dissidents.

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‘China’s Youngest Prisoner of Conscience’ Granted Asylum in United States

Anni and Lily Zhang, with American parents Reggie Littlejohn and husband Robert. Photo courtesy Women's Rights Without Frontiers.

Anni and Lily Zhang, with American parents Reggie Littlejohn and husband Robert. Photo courtesy Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.

On International Human Rights Day, some good news: Anni and Ruli Zhang have been granted political asylum in the United States. Detained overnight as a 10-year-old, Anni is known as “China’s youngest prisoner of conscience.” She and her older sister, Ruli, are the daughters of veteran prodemocracy activist Zhang Lin, who is currently serving a three-and-a-half year jail sentence for standing up for Anni’s right to go to school.

Anni has been dubbed “China’s youngest prisoner of conscience” after she was taken out of school and detained for several hours in February 2013, denied food water and a blanket, and later prevented from attending school and held under house arrest, according to rights groups.

With the help of brave activists in China and the U.S., Women’s Rights Without Frontiers (WRWF) President Reggie Littlejohn was able to secure safe passage to the U.S. for the girls. She and her husband Robert have taken the girls into their home and are raising them as their own daughters.

Littlejohn commented ‘’It is a great honor to be able to help a hero like Zhang Lin by caring for his daughters.  He has given up everything for freedom and democracy in China, and is now on his fourth jail sentence. It is a travesty that he is in jail simply for standing up for his daughter’s right to go to school.’’

‘’We are absolutely thrilled that Anni and Ruli have been granted asylum and can remain indefinitely in the United States.  We are very grateful to Attorney Jessica Kim, whose outstanding legal representation played a huge role in obtaining this excellent result. We are also grateful to Congressman Chris Smith and blind activist Chen Guangcheng for the letters they wrote on behalf of the girls’ asylum case,’’ Littlejohn said in a statement.

Zhang Lin (L) and his daughter Zhang Anni (R) in an undated photo. Photo courtesy the Zhang family.

Zhang Lin (L) and his daughter Zhang Anni (R) in an undated photo. Photo courtesy the Zhang family.

Zhang Lin, 51, is a veteran of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Anhui and was jailed several times for his political activities since the banning of the opposition China Democracy Party (CDP) in 1998. He was imprisoned most recently in the crackdown on peaceful assembly, association and expression, which began in earnest in March 2013.

His three-and-a-half-year prison sentence was announced by the Bengshan District People’s Court in Bengbu City on September 5th. Authorities seized Zhang in apparent retaliation for protests in support of his ten-year-old daughter, Anni Zhang, who was blocked by authorities from attending school in Hefei City. On February 27th 2013, Anni was removed from Hefei Hupo Elementary School and detained before she and her father were put under house arrest.

In April 2013, Zhang Lin along with several activists and lawyers tried to help Anni return to her school by staging rallies and hunger strikes in front of government buildings, but with no success. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2013 Human Rights Report on China, ”Under government pressure, Hupo Elementary School refused to enroll Zhang Anni for seven weeks.”

“According to their Open Letter, Anni and Ruli are delighted with their new lives in the United States, but they are justifiably concerned about their father. First of all, they are outraged by the injustice done him, as he has done nothing wrong. In addition, their father has been moved from a jail in his hometown, where his elderly parents could visit him, to a city several hours away, where his parents will not be able to visit often. If family members do not bring money to the jail for food, he will be fed only a thin, rice gruel with an ounce of salty vegetable. WRWF is sending money to Zhang Lin’s parents on his behalf, but if his parents cannot visit him, we have no means of getting the money to the jail to ensure that he can eat properly. His health is delicate, and we are worried that if he has to subsist on gruel, his health will break down,’’ Littlejohn said.

According to his daughters, Zhang has suffered numerous illnesses from past detentions and his health is in decline. Chinese Human Rights Defenders recently added Zhang to a watch list of Chinese detainees in urgent need of medical attention, as he is suffering from a condition in his vertebrae, a dental disease, and an eye infection that is threatening his vision.

Depriving medical treatment to individuals in custody is a life-threatening form of torture. Authorities’ failure or refusal to provide adequate medical care for detainees violates Chinese law and, among other international standards, the Convention against Torture, theInternational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners.

In the Concluding Observations from its review of China in May 2014, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed its concern about reports that detained Chinese activists and lawyers have been deprived of medical care as a form of government reprisal. Recognizing this serious issue, the Committee urged China to guarantee these individuals “have adequate access to health care in all circumstances.”

The deprivation of medical care to further persecute detainees and prisoners of conscience reflects a tacit central government policy and a systematic pattern in practice, says Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

This form of abuse has led to the death of activists, as seen most recently in the tragic case of Cao Shunli. Ms. Cao was managing health conditions at the time she was seized in September 2013, but she was not allowed to take medication that she had brought into detention. After not receiving adequate medical treatment, Cao eventually died in March 2014 from complications of illnesses that worsened or came about during over five months in custody. Others who have died after not being provided medical care in custody include Chen Xiaomin, Duan Huimin, and Goshul Lobsang.

The girls have appealed to US President Obama for the to intervene on their father’s behalf. Zhang supported and participated in the 1989 pro-democracy movement and was sentenced to two years in prison. After his release, he spent a total of six years in Re-education through Labor camps, and another four years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” for his continued activism on labor rights, democracy, and justice.

Zhang was one of the initial signatories of Charter 08, a manifesto on human rights and democracy in China. His autobiography, A Pathetique Soul, recounts his journey as an activist and received widespread acclaim, including from the Chinese Independent PEN Center.

Littlejohn reflected: ‘’Rob and I enjoy being the American parents of Anni and Ruli, and we are very proud of them.  Both girls have made an astonishing transition to life in the United States.  At home, we have them on a program of learning 50 English words a day. This may seem like a lot, but they are extremely smart and have been keeping pace without a problem.’’

“We will always remember Jing Zhang of Women’s Rights in China for connecting me with the Zhang daughters and helping get them out of China. We also thank Chinese activist Hu Jia, as well as the three activists who remain wrongfully jailed for helping Anni: Yao Cheng, Zhou Weilin, Li Huaping. Women’s Rights Without Frontiers demands their immediate, unconditional release,” Littlejohn added.

Since March 2013, Chinese police have taken into custody dozens of activists, lawyers and other citizens in a crackdown meant to suppress peaceful assembly, association, and expression around the country. The strident response by authorities has partially been triggered by advocacy campaigns waged against official corruption and other politically sensitive issues.

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Cambodia Must Close Detention Centers After Recent Death

A detainee peers out from behind a gate in the Social Affairs “Youth Rehabilitation Center” in Choam Chao, near Phnom Penh, 2001. Photo ©2001 Roberta Valerio / Human Rights Watch.

A detainee peers out from behind a gate in the Social Affairs “Youth Rehabilitation Center” in Choam Chao, near Phnom Penh, 2001. Photo ©2001 Roberta Valerio / Human Rights Watch.

The Cambodian government must immediately close all centers which arbitrarily detain people outside the criminal justice system, Licadho and Human Rights Watch say. The abusive nature of these centers was highlighted by the death of a man on November 26th who was arbitrarily detained and denied medical treatment at the Prey Speu center outside Phnom Penh. Licadho, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations have documented torture and systematic cruel and inhumane treatment, as well as rapes, killings and other abuses at the Prey Speu center since it became operational in 2004.

“Keeping Cambodia’s detention centers open is an endless invitation to the authorities to violate the human rights of people deemed ‘undesirable,’” said Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho. “The systematic abuse of Cambodia’s most vulnerable people occurs at these centers and the government should close them immediately.”

The two human rights organizations say that around November 2nd authorities brought a man named Phea to Prey Speu’s Po Senchey Vocational Training Center, according to a center official and other witnesses. Phea had been picked up during “sweeps” by security forces in Phnom Penh to clear homeless people and others considered “undesirable” off the streets prior to Cambodia’s traditional Water Festival being held from November 5-7.

The sweeps, which are part of an operation that also aimed to deter anti-government protests during the holiday, were carried out by police, para-police “public order” contingents and heavily-armed gendarmes acting on orders from Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatevong. The governor, through the municipal Department of Social Affairs, Veteran, and Youth Rehabilitation, has authority over the Prey Speu facility.

Phea, who had been living on the streets, was seriously ill when taken into custody. He was extremely thin and covered with infected wounds on his legs and other parts of his body. Sources said that during his weeks-long detention, the center staff made no effort to provide him medical treatment and refused to take him elsewhere for care. He died on the morning of November 26th, after which his body was taken for immediate cremation at Wat Sopheakhuon, a Buddhist temple. Police failed to launch any proper investigation into his death.

The United Nations Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment provides that medical care and treatment shall be provided to detainees whenever necessary and free of charge. Whenever a person dies in detention, “an inquiry into the cause of death … shall be held by a judicial or other authority.” In addition, “[t]he findings of such inquiry … shall be made available upon request.”

The poor conditions at the Prey Speu center resulting in Phea’s death are faced by other detainees at the facility, Licadho and Human Rights Watch say. Approximately 30 other people were in Prey Speu at the time of Phea’s death. These include two small children who were with their physically ill mother, and a third small child who was with his or her father, in violation of international law prohibitions against the arbitrary detention of children. All are being held without charge or trial. A late-term pregnant woman detained at the center escaped when she believed she was going into labor, fleeing with a transgender person who was also being held, according to one source.

“Cambodian authorities need to admit that it’s impossible to transform Prey Speu and similar centers into institutions that respect human rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The latest death at Prey Speu should be the last straw for donors, UN agencies, and embassies, who should together demand Prey Speu be shuttered, and commit to back genuinely voluntary services to assist marginalized Cambodians.”

In late 2008, following public revelation of abuses at Prey Speu and other centers run by the Ministry of Social Affairs, government authorities claimed that Prey Speu had stopped arbitrarily detaining people. While there were initial indications that some people were released and others held for shorter periods, in more recent years the Prey Speu center has reverted to detaining people against their will for weeks and sometimes months.

Across Cambodia, authorities routinely detain alleged drug users, homeless people, “street” children, sex workers and people perceived to have disabilities in a haphazard system of detention centers around the country. Some of those detention centers are ostensibly for drug treatment, while others are ostensibly for “social rehabilitation.”

In addition to Prey Speu, the Ministry of Social Affairs also has authority for the Phnom Bak center in Sisophon town, Banteay Meanchey province, and jointly manages a drug detention center with the military on a military base in Koh Kong town, Koh Kong province. There are a further six drug detention centers across the country that each year hold at least 2,000 people without due process.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented how guards and other staff whip detainees with rubber water hoses, beat them with bamboo sticks or palm fronds, shock them with electric batons, sexually abuse them, and punish them with physical exercises intended to cause intense physical pain. The organization says that individuals in these centers are not being treated or rehabilitated but rather than they are being illegally detained and often tortured. Detainees from some centers have been forced to work on construction sites, including in at least one instance to help build a hotel.

Authorities hold out the prospect of on-site treatment by nongovernmental organizations of a small number of mentally-ill “residents” to justify Prey Speu’s continued existence. There is no reason why this treatment cannot be provided on a voluntary basis, outside the confines of a center in which systemic abuses occur and that has proved stubbornly resistant to reform, Licadho and Human Rights Watch said. Homeless and other marginalized people who remain there “voluntarily” often do so because they fear being harmed on the streets by the security forces and believe there are no voluntary, community-based services available to them.

In March 2012, 12 United Nations agencies, including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Health Organization, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and UNAIDS, issued a joint statement calling for the closure of drug detention centers and the release of detained individuals “without delay.” However, international donors continue to provide funding and other support to many centers, despite the human rights consequences.

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Yet Another Blogger Detained in Vietnam on Anti-State Charges

Press freedom organizations are condemning the arrest of Vietnamese blogger Hong Le Tho and calling on Vietnam’s government to cease its campaign of persecution against journalists and bloggers. Hong Le Tho, an independent blogger of Japanese origin, was detained in in Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday for posting “bad content and incorrect information that reduce trust in state agencies.”

Hong Le Tho was arrested on November 29th for posting an article critical of the ruling Communist Party on his blog “Nguoi Lot Gach” (“Bricklayer”), which dealt mainly with political issues. The authorities seized his laptop, his mobile phone and USB flash drive, and closed the blog shortly after his arrest (see cached version).

Aged 65, Hong Le Tho is facing a possible three-year jail sentence under article 258 of the criminal code for “abusing democratic freedoms to attack state interests and the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens.”

In a statement on its website, the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security said Tho had been arrested for “online articles with bad content and false information that discredit and create distrust among people about state agencies, social agencies and citizens.”

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Vietnam is the world’s second biggest prison for bloggers and cyber-dissidents, after China.

“The authorities has been waging an all-out campaign of repression for several years,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the RSF Asia-Pacific desk. “We urge them to stop gagging dissidents and to repeal criminal code article 258, which should not be used against any defender of freedom of information.”

Vietnam’s bloggers are a source of independently-reported news and information that is an alternative to the government media. They write about corruption, environmental problems and the country’s political developments.

Vietnam’s Communist Party-dominated government has increasingly used the law to stifle online criticism of its authoritarian rule. There have been several waves of arrests of bloggers, netizens and journalists in recent years. Mindful of the Arab uprisings, the Vietnamese authorities have been cracking down harder in order to suppress dissent and prevent any destabilization.

“We condemn the arrest of blogger Hong Le Tho on the bogus anti-state charge of ‘abusing democratic freedoms.’ We call on authorities to scrap Article 258 and unconditionally release all jailed journalists in Vietnam.” said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Bloggers continue to be leading targets of a regime that does not hesitate to use article 258 as grounds for harassing, arresting and jailing dissidents.

The 27 bloggers currently detained include the human rights activist Dieu Cay and the lawyer Le Quoc Quan. They also include Paulus Le Son, Ta Phong Tan, Bui Thi Minh Hang and Hao Ngo. They are all serving long sentences on such trumped-up charges as subversion, anti-government propaganda and trying to overthrow the government.

Their families are subjected to harassment and smear campaigns. The mother of the jailed blogger Ta Phong Tan took her own life by setting fire to herself in 2012 in an act of despair about the way her daughter has been treated.

In 2013, three prominent bloggers–Truong Duy Nhat, Pham Viet Dao and Dinh Nhat Uy–were arrested and later convicted under the law’s harsh provisions. Bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy were arrested in May under Article 258 and are being held in detention while police investigate the charges.

Vietnam’s bloggers formally created the Vietnamese Bloggers Network on December 10th 2013, with a campaign against article 258 and its use to silence dissidents as their first action.

Vietnam is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

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In Vietnam, Buddhist New Year Calendar Confiscated For Being “Anti-state Document”

New Year CalendarA Buddhist New Year calendar is an “anti-State” document according to authorities in Vietnam. The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) says that a young Buddhist monk, the Venerable Thich Minh Nghia, was intercepted and harassed by a group of plain-clothed security police on November 21st in Hue. He had just come out of a printing house where he had picked up 300 calendars ordered by the UBCV to offer to Buddhists in the coming Lunar New Year of the Goat. Security police confiscated the calendars on the grounds that they were “reactionary, anti-state documents.”

Vo Van Ai, UBCV International Spokesman and Director of the International Buddhist Information Bureau said: “Classifying a Buddhist calendar as an “anti-state document” is a new low for Vietnam. It highlights the absurdities faced by religious followers and human rights defenders every day. Vietnam claims to respect freedom of expression and religion, but its citizens can be harassed and intimidated simply for wishing each other “Happy New Year”.

The incident took place at 3:00pm on Nguyen Lo Trach Street, when five plain-clothed men roughly accosted Thich Minh Nghia and pushed him towards a house. They told the monk he must go inside for a ‘’working session’’. Thich Minh Nghia refused, saying that only police had the right to interrogate citizens. The five men then announced that they were provincial security policemen. At that point, another man stepped out of the house. He showed the monk his police badge, introduced himself as Phung Viet Quy from the Hue municipal security police force and ordered the monk to come inside to answer charges of “administrative offenses and possession of illegal documents”. When Thich Minh Nghia refused, the men dragged him inside the courtyard and locked the gate.

Alerted by his cries for help, a crowd of people gathered outside. However, a group of youths – presumably also plain-clothed security agents – suddenly appeared and chased the people away.

The security police drew up a statement accusing the monk of “transporting and possessing documents bearing the name of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, an illegal organization that is not recognized by the State and moreover is considered to be reactionary and anti-State”.

Then they confiscated the “incriminating” documents, i.e. the 300 Lunar Year calendars. The men tried to force Thich Minh Nghia to sign a statement stating that he had committed a crime, but he refused. The young monk also demanded that the security police give him a receipt for the confiscated calendars, otherwise he would stage a sit-down protest in the house. After several hours and a telephone call to their superiors, the police finally let Thich Minh Nghia free.

Le Cong Cau, Secretary-general of the UBCV’s Executive Institute Viện Hóa Đạo and leader of the Buddhist Youth Movement sent a letter to the Chairman of the Hue Provincial People’s Committee protesting the incident and demanding the authorities to give the calendars back to the UBCV.

Vo Van Ai also said ‘’Hanoi accuses the UBCV of being “reactionary”, “illegal” and “anti-State”. Yet all that UBCV Buddhists want is the right of all Vietnamese to practice their faith independently and enjoy fundamental human rights. In reality, Hanoi’s accusations are just a pretext to repress the UBCV and stifle its independent voice.’’

Although Vietnam has never officially banned the UBCV, it has branded it “illegal” since the creation of the State-sponsored “Vietnam Buddhist Sangha” in 1981. Since then, UBCV leaders and members have suffered continuous harassments, police surveillance and detention. The UBCV leader Thich Quang Do has spent three decades under detention for his peaceful advocacy of religious freedom, human rights and democracy.

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Judicial Harassment Continues Against Luon Sovath Ahead of Trial

The Venerable Luon Sovath in an an undated photo. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

The Venerable Luon Sovath in an an undated photo. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Judicial harassment is continuing against Luon Sovath, a Buddhist monk from Siem Reap, Cambodia, according to rights groups. Venerable Luon Sovath is a human rights defender who faces ongoing harassment from the authorities for his work with communities struggling against land seizures. Known for his campaigns against forced evictions, he is a recipient of the 2012 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

Sometimes called “the Multimedia Monk,” he has worked in support of communities facing forced evictions throughout Cambodia. Forced evictions are among the most widespread human rights abuses in the country. They remove families from their homes and lands with little or no notice, and often without compensation or alternative housing plans.

In 2009, Venerable Sovath’s own village lost farmland in a dispute, leading to a stand-off in which police shot at the unarmed villagers, injuring his brother and nephew. He has said that “To be a human rights defender, you must have a broad heart for humanity and humankind, regardless of the personal cost to yourself.”

Luon Sovath will be tried on November 25th 2014, on charges of allegedly inciting and leading demonstrations against the Cambodian government in Chi Kreng, Siem Reap and Boeung Kak Lake. If found guilty, Venerable Luon Sovath could face up to two years in prison and a fine of $1,000.

Despite threats to his person, of arrest and disrobing, the Venerable Sovath, a non-violent Buddhist monk, uses videos, poems and songs to defend the right to housing. His advocacy touches powerful economic interests.

His trial stems from a separate prosecution that started in November 2011. On November 2nd 2011, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged Loun Sovath with incitement to commit a felony (Article 495 of the Penal Code) under case No. 3395. Mr. Sourn Serey Ratha, labelled a terrorist by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), is also charged under the same case.

On August 20th 2012, case No. 3395 went to trial for the first time. Loun Sovath and Sourn Serey Ratha were tried in absentia. The judge’s verdict called for a reinvestigation of the case due to lack of evidence and ordered the prosecutor to separate the case into two separate proceedings, citing lack of evidence connecting the two men to each other. There is no evidence that a new case number was ever assigned.

In September 2014, Sourn Serey Ratha’s lawyer was informed about a new trial against Sovath. The court summons contained three cases against Sourn Serey Ratha, including the original case No. 3395, which had been combined into one new case numbered No. 3395, to be tried on September 18th 2014.

The summons listed the charges of all three cases as charges against Sovath: incitement against Government (Article 495 of the Penal Code), plotting against the Government (Article 453 of the Penal Code) and prohibiting and provoking people not to vote (Article 124 of the Election Law). The lawyers requested to postpone the trial because of short notice and on September 18th 2014, the judge agreed to delay the start of the trial to an unknown date.

On October 30th 2014, Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) and Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) lawyers received court summons for Loun Sovath for a new trial to be held on November 25th 2014. This court summons listed only the original 2011 charge of incitement to commit a felony (Article 495 of the Penal Code).

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) urges the authorities of Cambodia to guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of Venerable Loun Sovath, and all human rights defenders in Cambodia and to guarantee the right to peaceful assembly to human rights defenders in Cambodia.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders says the Cambodian government must ensure in all circumstances respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international human rights standards and international instruments ratified by Cambodia.

In particular, the authorities must conform with the provisions of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted on December 9th 1998 by the United Nations General Assembly.The declaration guarantees the right to peacefully assemble and states that “everyone has the right, individually or in association with others, to promote the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.’’

In addition, it says that the State ‘’shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration.”

Land seizures are common in Cambodia, where large tracts are being sold, often to foreign investors, for logging, agriculture, mining, tourism and fisheries, displacing thousands of people. Since then he has been a strong advocate against forced evictions, which remove families from their homes, often violently and little or no compensation.

According to local human rights groups, an estimated 400,000 Cambodians have been affected by forced evictions or land grabs since 2003 in the wake of ostensible development projects, land disputes and illegal land confiscation.

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As China Attempts to Shape Global Web Rules, Internet Freedom Faces New Attacks

Ahead of China’s first World Internet Conference, Amnesty International said today that the Chinese government’s increasing efforts to influence global cyberspace rules is a further sign that Internet freedom is under a sustained attack. The event, which takes place in the eastern Zhejiang province, between November 19 -21, brings together senior Chinese officials and global web leaders to discuss the future of the Internet.

“Internet freedom is under attack by governments across the world. Now China appears eager to promote its own domestic internet rules as a model for global regulation. This should send a chill down the spine of anyone that values online freedom,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International. “China’s internet model is one of extreme control and suppression. The authorities use an army of censors to target individuals and imprison many activists solely for exercising their right to free expression online,” he added.

The first-time event is seen by many Internet experts as part of China’s attempt to have a greater say in the rules that govern the web.

Since President Xi came to power, hundreds of people have been detained solely for expressing their views online. The authorities continue to abuse criminal law to suppress freedom of expression, including by detaining and imprisoning activists for online posts that fall foul of the censors.

Many members of the New Citizens Movement, a loose network of activists which aims to promote government transparency and expose corruption, such as Liu Ping, have been arrested in part due to the photos and opinions that they have posted online.

In September, Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uyghur scholar and founder of the website “Uyghur Online”, was sentenced to life imprisonment for “separatism” in a politically motivated trial. Articles from his website were the main evidence cited by the authorities.

The Chinese authorities continue to block access to thousands of websites, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Major international news sites are also banned. Additionally, scores of phrases are censored on social media including any mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown or the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

“Business leaders going to Zhejiang should speak out for online freedom and challenge the Chinese government’s shameful record. Human rights should not be the elephant in the room,” said William Nee.

The internet has proved invaluable to the development of human rights, the international human rights organization says, by revolutionizing access to information and improving transparency and accountability.

However, internet freedom continues to be undermined by governments across the world. Authorities are increasingly using web technology to crack down on freedom of expression, censor information on human rights violations and carry out indiscriminate mass surveillance in the name of security, often in collaboration with corporations.

Amnesty further says that the US and UK governments have undermined online freedoms with the indiscriminate mass surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA) and General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) which are invading privacy globally. Companies based in western countries such as the UK, Germany and Italy are exporting software that allows governments to access the computers of human rights activists, bloggers and journalists and could lead to the persecution of individuals targeted, the organization warns.

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World Leaders Should Demand Release Of Chinese Activists

World leaders gathering Monday in Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit should urge China to release dozens of mainland activists detained for peacefully supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, Amnesty International says.

During the past month, Chinese police have detained people in connection with the pro-democracy protests, especially in Beijing, Jiangsu and the southern cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, which are close to Hong Kong.

Individuals have been held for posting pictures online with messages of support, shaving their heads in solidarity or for planning to travel to Hong Kong to participate in the protests. Scores of others have been called in for questioning by the authorities, known as being “invited for tea.”

“APEC leaders must end their recent silence on the crackdown against mainland Chinese activists expressing support for Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters. Political convenience should not trump principled action,” said Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International.

At least 76 people in mainland China remain in detention for supporting calls for genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong, according to the London-based international human rights organization.

“The leaders should take this opportunity to speak out and urge President Xi to ensure all those detained solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are immediately and unconditionally released,” Ms. Rife added.

Chinese state censors have attempted to ban photos and block any positive mentions online of the pro-democracy protests, while only allowing TV and newspapers to run government-approved news and commentary.

Ahead of APEC, the authorities have also prevented several mainland activists from travelling to Beijing. Activists in the capital have also been forced to leave the city ahead of APEC, including prominent activists Hu Shigen and Xiang Li. Meanwhile, student leaders in Hong Kong have said they plan to travel to Beijing during the APEC summit in an effort to meet with senior Chinese officials to stress their calls for electoral reform. Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters continue to occupy parts of downtown Hong Kong as part of the demonstrations which began on September 26th.

“The latest wave of detentions is part of a concerted attack on fundamental freedoms since President Xi took office. It makes a mockery of Xi’s recent claims that the rule of law and human rights will be fully respected in China by 2020,” said Roseann Rife.

The attack against freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association in the past year has seen individuals associated with the activists’ network “New Citizens’ Movement” sentenced to between two and six and a half years’ imprisonment.  More than 60 activists were arbitrarily detained or put under house arrest in the run-up to the 25th anniversary in June of the violent crackdown in 1989 of pro-democracy protests in and around Tiananmen Square.

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Is North Korea Willing To Discuss Human Rights?

North Korea is waging a diplomatic counter-offensive to divert international support from an upcoming United Nations General Assembly resolution recommending referring the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to the International Criminal Court (ICC). For the past ten years, the DPRK has ignored human rights resolutions and reports of the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, but now the regime has invited the European Union to visit the DPRK, which the EU says is currently under consideration.

Rights groups are urging nations to support recommendations made by a UN Commission on human rights, including referral to the ICC, which could mean prosecution of top Pyongyang officials at The Hague.

A grim array of human rights abuses, driven by “policies established at the highest level of State,” have been and continue to be committed in DPNK, according to the United Nations-mandated report released in February which also called for urgent action to address the rights situation in the country.

The draft resolution was submitted by the EU and Japan at the beginning of October urging the UN General Assembly to recommend the referral of North Korea to The Hague for crimes against humanity.

The Commission of Inquiry (COI) held extensive hearings of hundreds of witnesses, and produced a 400-page in-depth study which found systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations in the DPRK amounting to crimes against humanity. It called for referral of North Korea’s human rights situation to the UN Security Council with a view to accountability, including including referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and targeted sanctions.

Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson for the European Union’s External Action confirmed in an email on Tuesday that in the context of the political dialogue between the European Union and the DPRK that started in 1998, a visit by the European External Action Service to Pyongyang  for meetings with the DPRK authorities was scheduled to take place next week.

However, the EU’s mission  has been postponed to a future date ‘’due to the new entry restrictions adopted by the DPRK in relation to Ebola.’’

On Thursday, October 30th, North Korean representative Kim Un Chol said that it had invited the top EU human rights official to visit and said his visit is expected in March 2015. Ms. Kocijancic  confirmed with me on Tuesday that  Mr. Stavros Lambrinidis,  the EU Special Representative for Human Rights has been invited to visit the DPRK. Ms. Kocijanci said that ‘’the invitation is currently being considered. The two sides will discuss timing and substance of a visit through appropriate diplomatic channels.’’

‘’The political dialogue with the DPRK is an integral part of the EU’s critical engagement policy towards the DPRK, which aims at achieving peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, upholding the international non-proliferation regime and improving the respect of human rights in the DPRK. These are the themes normally raised by the EU in its contacts with the DPRK  authorities,’’ Ms. Kocijancic said.

Marzuki Darusman, the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea’s human rights situation said on October 27th that referring DPNK to the ICC would show that the international community considers human rights abuses in that country to be a serious matter. “This would send an unequivocal signal that the international community is determined to take the follow-up to the work the Commission of Inquiry on the DPRK (North Korea) to a new level,” Mr. Darusman said.

However strong the signal would be, a UN general resolution is non-binding. Darusman also said that the UN General Assembly should submit the Commission’s report to the U.N. Security Council for further action. The ICC would only be able to prosecute DPNK on any alleged crimes if they are referred to by the UN Security Council.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights (JBI) are calling upon states in the United Nations General Assembly to back the Commission’s suggestions.

While cooperation should be pursued, “it cannot be used to barter away and gut the text of a UN resolution based on the COI findings and recommendations for accountability,” said HRNK Co-Chair Roberta Cohen.

“Words must be accompanied by deeds,” remarked Felice Gaer, JBI Director. “Any change on the part of the UN should be based on deeds– genuine and verifiable improvements on the ground.”

On October 21st, Justice Michael Kirby, Chair of the COI, addressing a special ‘side event’ at the United Nations, asked “will the United Nations back away because of the steps belatedly taken by North Korea?…my hope is that the answer to that question will be ‘no.’ We don’t back away.. we expect accountability for great crimes.” And that, he also said, “is the right of the people of North Korea,” who should be provided with copies of the COI report in Korean.

Kirby said at the report’s release that the suffering and the tears of the people of North Korea demand action. Describing crimes such as “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, forcible transfer of populations, enforced disappearance and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation,” the report adds: “Crimes against humanity are ongoing in the [DPRK] because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place.”

According to Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of HRNK, “North Korea continues to deny well documented severe violations, in particular at the political prison camps. There is no discernable progress on the ground to match its diplomatic counteroffensive.”

“This shocking report should open the eyes of the UN Security Council to the atrocities that plague the people of North Korea and threaten stability in the region. By focusing only on the nuclear threat in North Korea, the Security Council is overlooking the crimes of North Korean leaders who have overseen a brutal system of gulags, public executions, disappearances, and mass starvation,” Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth, said at the time of the report’s release.

“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the Commission says in the report, which is unprecedented in scope.

Ms. Kocijanci also said that the ‘’EU has repeatedly expressed its grave concerns on the human rights situation in the DPRK as well as its readiness to work with the government and society in addressing them.’’ She added that the EU considers that the upcoming United Nations General Assembly Resolution ‘’should reflect the serious situation on the ground with a view to promoting much needed and concrete improvement.’’

Established by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2013, for 11 months, the COI investigated the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in North Korea, aiming to ensure full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity.

In a 400-page set of linked reports and supporting documents, culled from first-hand testimony from victims and witnesses, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has documented in great detail the “unspeakable atrocities” committed in the country.

With a one-year mandate, the Commission was tasked with investigating several alleged violations, including those concerning the right to food and those associated with prison camps; torture and inhuman treatment; arbitrary detention; discrimination; freedom of expression, movement and religion; the right to life; and enforced disappearances, including abductions of nationals to other countries.

DPNK officials dismissed the Commission’s report in February, calling it enemy propaganda.

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