Special Rapporteur Stresses Need To Improve Religious Freedom in Vietnam

Religious communities in Vietnam should be able to operate also outside of the officially established channels for religious practice, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, said Thursday at the end of an official visit to the country.

“Freedom of religion or belief has the status of universal human rights to be respected prior to, and independent of, any particular acts of administrative approval,” Mr. Bielefeldt stressed.

Mr. Bielefeldt acknowledged the increasing efforts of the Vietnamese government to improve freedom of religion or belief through legal instruments. However, he observed that serious violations of freedom of religion or belief are a reality in Vietnam. “Granting autonomy for religious communities to function independently would be a litmus test for the development of freedom of religion or belief in Vietnam. In the current situation, their ability to operate as independent communities is unsafe and restricted,” Heiner Bielefeldt noted.

These violations particularly affect independent groups of Buddhists, including Hoa Hao-Buddhists, and of the Cao Dai religion, some Protestant communities and activists within the Catholic Church. “Official registration status with the Government is no guarantee that freedom of religion or belief is fully respected,” Mr. Bielefeldt said.

He said that he has ‘’heard a number of serious allegations about concrete violations of freedom of religion or belief in Vietnam’’ and referenced reported violations which include heavy-handed police raids; repeated invitations to “work sessions” with the police; close surveillance of religious activities; disruption of religious ceremonies and festivals; house arrests, at times over long periods; imprisonments, also sometimes over long periods; beatings and assaults; dismissals from employment; loss of social benefits; pressure exercised on family members; acts of vandalism; destructions of houses of worship, cemeteries and funeral sheds; confiscations of property; systematic pressure to give up certain religious activities and instead to operate within the official channels provided for religious practice; pressure to denounce one’s religion or belief. Mr. Bielefeldt also met with one prisoner of conscience in the prison in which he is currently detained.

The independent expert from Germany expressed hope that the Vietnamese government would use the upcoming new legislation on religious affairs to bring the existing norms and practices more in line with everyone’s right to freedom of religion or belief.

He noted especially that the newly amended Vietnamese Constitution, adopted by the National Assembly in November 2013, covers in its second chapter “human rights and citizen’s fundamental rights and duties.” In this context, the 2013 Constitution also refers to freedom of belief or religion in article 24. Representatives of the Government repeatedly highlighted that rights holders of this provision are all human beings, whereas the respective provision within the 1992 Constitution was confined to citizens of Vietnam. This has been presented as an indicator of a generally more positive attitude towards freedom of religion or belief. Article 24 reads as follows:

  1. Every one shall enjoy freedom of belief and of religion; he can follow any religion or follow none. All religions are equal before the law.
  2. The State respects and protects freedom of belief and of religion.
  3. No one has the right to infringe on the freedom of belief and religion or to take advantage of belief and religion to violate the law.

Mr. Bielefeldt was due to visit Vietnam from July 21 – 31st 2014, but his planned visits to An Giang, Gia Lai and Kon Tum provinces were unfortunately interrupted from July 28 to 30th.

“I received credible information that some individuals with whom I wanted to meet had been under heavy surveillance, warned, intimidated, harassed or prevented from travelling by the police,” he said. “Even those who successfully met with me were not free from a certain degree of police surveillance or questioning.” Mr. Bielefeldt added that his whereabouts were closely monitored by undeclared “security or police agents” and that the privacy and confidentiality of some meetings could have been compromised. ‘’All these incidents are in clear violation of the terms of reference of any country visit,’’ he said.

In Hanoi, Tuyen Quang, Ho Chi Minh City and Vinh Long, Mr. Bielefeldt met with various government officials and local authorities in the country involved in freedom of religion or belief issues. He also held meetings with representatives of recognized and unrecognized religious or belief communities, as well as civil society organizations and the UN.

The Special Rapporteur noted that he noticed positive developments at the central level: “Most representatives of religious communities agreed that, in spite of ongoing serious problems, their space for religious practices has increased in recent years. Religious communities which had been forbidden post-1975 are now allowed to operate.’’ He added that it is hopeful that some representatives of Government agencies expressed their willingness to consider substantive revisions within the process of replacing the current Ordinance on Belief and Religion by passing a law governing these issues and that this opportunity should not be missed, saying that ‘’it might become a turning point for Vietnam’s protection of freedom of religion or belief.’’

The Special Rapporteur will present a report containing his conclusions and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2015. Mr. Bielefeldt said that he will continue to engage with and work in consultation with the Government and all relevant stakeholders to receive more information and clarification, especially on issues that relate to parts of the country that he was not able to visit.


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In Burma, Farmers Face Prison Sentences For Trespassing On Their Own Land

A section of protesting farmers in Ayeyarwady division's Maubin township, Feb. 26, 2013. RFA Photo.

A section of protesting farmers in Ayeyarwady division’s Maubin township, Feb. 26, 2013. RFA Photo.

The President of Burma has announced that the government cannot give back over 30,000 acres of paddy land that the state has been using since it was confiscated by the army two decades ago. President U Thein Sein ordered state and regional governments as well as the land management committee to cooperate with members of the parliament to solve the problem of land grabbing cases. At the same time, he has announced the government cannot return some land which is leading to prosecution and prison sentences for the farmers in conflict with the army regarding their land.

Land disputes in Burma are an on-going problem as the country emerges from decades of military rule, with rights groups expressing concern about a potential “land-grabbing epidemic” in the country.

According to the the President’s office official website, the President submitted a report for the period April 26th 2014 to June 24th 2014 to National Parliament regarding the confiscation of land by the military, ministries, regional government, and businesses with only small amounts of compensation. There are many more cases of the government neither paying compensation nor returning the land to its owners.

Farmers in the Delta region of Burma are being prosecuted by the Burmese army. In 1997-1998, the military confiscated 250 acres of land from farmers of Thabaung Township, Ayeyarwaddy Region. The original landowners have had no choice but to continue farming their land. However, in November 2013, Battalion Captains have prosecuted the landowners who have attempted to cultivate the land, under Penal Code Section 447/427. The army has accused them of trespassing on paddy land, which originally belonged to the farmers but was confiscated by army captains at gunpoint. The farmers face trial in several cases lodged against them and the ordeal has turned their lives upside down.

Now the military units have prosecuted the farmers, the owners of the land, by accusing them of trespassing and damaging their land. There are several issues faced by the farmers: they cannot work; and they spend whatever money and time they have to go to trial. The cases are ongoing, and the farmers have no respite despite it being rainy season which is the time to grow paddy. When the land was confiscated, the authorities involved did not follow the law of state ownership of agricultural land; rather, the land was grabbed at gunpoint. There was no compensation for the land either.

On May 27th and 28th 2014, 190 farmers from Pharuso Township, Kayah State were prosecuted for ploughing in land confiscated by No. 531 Light Infantry Battalion. The Tanintharyi regional government seized farmland for Dawei New Town Plan Project in Dawai Township and the District Administrative Officer with his team began   construction on the grabbed land. Twenty farmers did not take compensation for their land tried to halt the team. As a result, all the farmers were prosecuted

Ten were sentenced to three to nine months imprisonment and the others paid fines. There are 450 farmers from Kanbalu Township, Sagaing Region who are protesting against the military and have had cases filed against them for cultivating in the confiscated land. Their lands were used for a sugar cane project and a sugar production factory by the military and the Myanmar Economic Corporation. They were brought to court under the Penal Code, accused of trespassing and mischief on the land. They cases are still going on, more than 65 farmers have been sentenced to jail since the second week of July, and they all have been sent to various prisons around the country.

The military grabbed lands from civilians to build up places for military training operations, plantation and animal production, and various forms of military owned businesses. To get financial support for battalions, they offer to rent the land back to farmers, essentially requiring the farmers to pay to grow crops on their own land. The Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services gave an order to the battalions not to do business with civilian and avoid offering any such tenant agreements, but the order has been ignored.

Ministries and corporations have also confiscated farmland for new town plans and infrastructure projects. Some lands were confiscated under the Land Acquisition Act, but insufficient compensation was given to the farmers. Government corporations also grabbed the farmland to build state owned factories; however they sold the land to private companies instead.

Private companies that applied for the virgin lands from farmland management body have, instead, been given farmland and pastureland mislabelled as virgin land. District and Township Officers, companies and farmland management bodies cooperated together to change the documents and grab the land. As the government annulled pastureland, they did not give compensation to the farmers.

The Asian Human Rights Commission, a rights group based in Hong Kong, is calling for the military to offer sufficient compensation according to the Land Acquisition Act, as well as stop prosecutions of and provide justice for the farmers. The AHRC also condemns the military’s illegal land grabs, military cooperation business with private companies to use such lands and the practice of renting land back to the original owners.

In February, there were bloody clashes in southwest Burma between police and farmers who were among hundreds trying to take back land they say was confiscated by a private company without compensation. 

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Chinese Blogger Attacked

In China this week, unidentified men attacked dissident blogger and human rights activist Hu Jia as he was returning to his Beijing home on Wednesday. Hu believes the attack was prompted by the “Return to Tiananmen Square” online campaign that was launched to mark the pro-democracy movement’s 25th anniversary. Hu had also urged Internet users to visit Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel peace laureate who has been detained since December 2008.

Hu sustained injuries to the head and abdomen in the attack, which he immediately reported at a nearby police station. The police registered his complaint but no arrests have been made. He is the target of permanent police surveillance.

“This attack on Hu Jia is intolerable,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk. “He was clearly targeted and, in the light of his account, it is highly likely that the attack was carried out or at least instigated by the Chinese authorities.”

Hu was assaulted as he was about to get into his car, which was parked near the Caofang metro stop in the district of Chaoyang. Several men beat him and then left in their own car. Hu did not get the car’s license plate number but said he thought he recognized some of his assailants as men who are normally posted near his home with the job of watching him. The attack took place right beside his parked car, where a red cross on the ground reinforced the suspicion that it was planned.

Asked about a possible motive, Hu named the “Return to Tiananmen Square” campaign, which dissidents launched to mark the 25th anniversary of the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators on June 4th 1989. The campaign is a source of much annoyance to the authorities.

“We call on the entire international community to react promptly. How many more disappearances, beatings and reports citing torture will be needed before the Chinese government finally becomes the target of the tough statements and gestures it deserves?” Ismaïl asked.

Hu was recently abducted from his home during official visits by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Secretary of State John Kerry. Abduction has also been used with other dissidents such as the Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser to prevent them from seeing visiting foreign officials.

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Hong Kong Report Should Echo Demands for Universal Suffrage and Democracy

July 1, 2013, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his wife. AFP Photo/Anthony Wallace.

July 1, 2013, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his wife. AFP Photo/Anthony Wallace.

After returning to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the rights to peaceful assembly, association, and expression have mostly been respected in Hong Kong. But in recent years Hong Kong activists and non-governmental organizations have expressed alarm over the increasing number of arrests and prosecutions of protestors, as well as police use of cameras and video recording devices to film demonstrations even when there is no criminal behavior. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, should present to the central Chinese government a report reflecting strong demands from Hong Kong residents for genuine universal suffrage, Human Rights Watch said Monday. Leung is to present the report on July 15th, in a long-awaited step in the process toward electoral reform in Hong Kong.

Leung’s report will request that the Chinese National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), the executive body of China’s legislature, approve the start of the reform process. It is also supposed to summarize the views of the people of Hong Kong regarding electoral reform collected through a five-month public consultation exercise.

On the same day, the Hong Kong government will release a more detailed summary of the public consultation. The NPCSC will meet in August, and is expected to hand down Beijing’s definitive view on the future of democracy in Hong Kong.

“The chief executive’s report should reflect the desire for greater political rights so clearly articulated by people in Hong Kong in recent weeks,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Failure to accurately reflect the views of Hong Kong’s people will make a mockery of this exercise, and risk further galvanizing public sentiment,” she added.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the territory’s quasi-constitution, states that the chief executive will be selected by “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” Until now, membership on the nominating committee has effectively been controlled by Beijing.

People of Hong Kong march during a rally for democracy, July 1, 2013. AFP Photo.

People of Hong Kong march during a rally for democracy, July 1, 2013. AFP Photo.

Proposals by pro-democracy groups have advocated “public nomination,” a process to require the nominating committee to put forward candidates who receive a certain number of nominations from ordinary voters. In June, nearly 800,000 people in Hong Kong voted in an unofficial referendum organized by the pro-democracy group Occupy Central. The vast majority endorsed proposals that include an element of “public nomination.”

Hong Kong and Beijing officials have repeatedly stated that “public nomination” is against the Basic Law. Beijing officials have also indicated that the committee will continue to be restricted to a small group of people in Hong Kong selected by Chinese authorities. This group acts as a screening mechanism to return “patriotic” chief executives who will not confront the central government.

A nominating process that screens out opposition candidates would violate international human rights standards, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the British applied to Hong Kong when it was a colony and which continues to apply to the territory says Human Rights Watch.

There is a five-step process to reforming Hong Kong’s electoral methods. First, the chief executive must submit a report to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on whether the city needs to amend its electoral methods. The standing committee then needs to give its approval. Third, the Hong Kong government will announce its chosen reform package – a step it is expected to take later, and then possibly conduct a second round of consultation. Fourth, the proposal will have to be approved by the Hong Kong Legislative Council and then by the chief executive. Finally, the standing committee has to give its final approval.

The first step of presentation of the chief executive’s report to the standing committee comes in the context of increasing tensions over Hong Kong’s autonomy and respect for fundamental human rights. Since early 2014, there have been attacks on a prominent editor, Kevin Lau, and owners of media outlets known to be critical of the central government, and deeply politicized arrests of and threats made to hundreds of organizers of and participants in peaceful demonstrations in early July.

In June, China’s State Council issued a “white paper” on Hong Kong, stating that the central government has “overall jurisdiction” over the territory, and that Hong Kong’s high level of autonomy “is limited to the level of autonomy granted by the central leadership.” The white paper also states that Hong Kong leaders, including the chief executive, must be “patriots” who are “loyal to the country.” These statements appear to contravene the rights and freedoms set out in the Basic Law and the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the international treaty governing the transfer of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997. The latter guarantees Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” except in foreign affairs and defense after return to Chinese sovereignty.

Following the presentation of the chief executive’s report, it is expected that during its August session, the standing committee will articulate a framework for Hong Kong’s political reform.

The Occupy Central movement has said it will stage a nonviolent sit-in in Hong Kong’s financial district if the Hong Kong and central governments fail to deliver genuine universal suffrage in the current debates about reform. Benny Tai, one of the three leaders of Occupy Central movement, has said that the sit-in could take place as early as August, after the standing committee session. But Tai also did not rule out the possibility of the nonviolent action beginning after the release of the chief executive’s report if it that document rules out genuine universal suffrage.

Demonstrations in Hong Kong are governed under its Public Order Ordinance, which requires that police be notified of demonstrations with over 30 people seven days in advance and that organizers receive a “notice of no objection” from the government before they can be held. The UN Human Rights Committee, an international treaty body which monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has repeatedly expressed concerns that the ordinance “may facilitate excessive restriction” to the right to freedom of assembly.

Protesters display placards during a rally to support press freedom in Hong Kong, March 2, 2014. AFP photo.

Protesters display placards during a rally to support press freedom in Hong Kong, March 2, 2014. AFP photo.

The right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in the Hong Kong Bill of Rights, as well as in the Basic Law and the ICCPR, an international treaty which still applies to Hong Kong from the days of British sovereignty. Article 27 of the Basic Law states that “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of … assembly.” Article 21 of the ICCPR states that no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and that are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association said on July 7th that ”the year under review has been the darkest for press freedom for several decades.” “As political tension between Hong Kong and Beijing increases, the HKJA expects further deterioration in press freedom in the years to come,” the statement on the group’s website said.

According to a recent HKJA poll, the territory’s journalists rated press freedom at 42 on a 100-point scale, as well as expressing concern about self-censorship and pressure from media owners and management.

“It’s in the interests of Hong Kong and Beijing governments to expand political rights in the territory,” Richardson said. “Curtailing rights is not only anachronistic, but also likely to increase tensions and alienation among the people of Hong Kong, who have waited patiently for years for the realization of the promise that ‘Hong Kong people rule Hong Kong.’”

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Burmese “Information Hero” Released, Other Journalists Remain Detained

Journalist Zaw Phay in an undated photo courtesy of Reporters Without Borders.

Journalist Zaw Phay in an undated photo courtesy of Reporters Without Borders.

A Burmese reporter who was sentenced to a year in prison in the northern city of Magway on April 7th on charges of trespassing on government property and disturbing a civil servant, was released on July 4th after a Magway township court reduced his sentence to three months on appeal. Zaw Phay is an experienced journalist who started out as a clandestine video reporter for Democratic Voice of Burma (now DVB Multimedia Group) during the Saffron Revolution in 2007. He is also a former political prisoner who was given a three-year jail sentence in 2010 for filming “without permission” while investigating a water shortage in Nat Mauk, in the central Magway region.

Zaw Phay was one of the 100 “information heroes” that Reporters Without Borders profiled on World Press Freedom Day in May. Released in a January 2012 amnesty, he went back to work at once. His journalistic dedication got him into trouble a few months later when he investigated a Japanese-funded scholarship program in Magway. A local education department official filed a complaint accusing him of trespassing on government property and disturbing a civil servant in the course of his duties. In April 2014, almost two years after the complaint, Zaw Phay was sentenced to a year in prison under articles 448 and 353 of the penal code.

“We are relieved to learn of the decision to release Zaw Phay, even if it came 83 days too late, because he was unjustly imprisoned,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk. “We urge the Magway court not to make the same mistake with the Unity Weekly journalists and to dismiss the charges against them.”

The Zaw Phay case dates back to August 2012, when the DVB reporter went with Win Myint Hlaing, the father of a student, to the local education department in Magway to interview an official about an alleged irregularity in the allocation of a Japanese-funded scholarship. The official subsequently filed a complaint against both Zaw Phay and Win Myint Hlaing, which led to their arrests and to the confiscation of Zaw Phay’s equipment. Both were sentenced to a year in prison when the trial was finally held two years later.

At the appeal hearing on July 4th, the court ruled that all they did was act as journalists and “simply enquire about a scholarship program, but did not commit the offenses the township court found them guilty of.” As they had already served three months of their one-year terms, they were freed after the court reduced their sentences to three months.

The fact that prosecution under the state secrets law is still one of the threats hanging over Burmese journalists shows that the work of overhauling the legislation governing freedom of information is far from over.

The same Magway township court is meanwhile trying the CEO of the Unity Weekly newspaper and four of his journalists in connection with a report about an alleged secret chemical weapons factory in the nearby town of Pauk, where they have been held since February. They are facing possible 14-year jail sentences on charges of violating the state secrets law and entering a restricted area.

The trial of the four Unity Weekly journalists – Lu Maw Naing, Yarzar Oo,Paing Thet Kyaw(aka Aung Thura) and Sithu Soe – and the newspaper’s CEO, Tint San, is currently reaching its conclusion. The offending article, headlined “A secret chemical weapon factory of the former generals, Chinese technicians and the commander-in-chief at Pauk Township,” said the plant had been built with the highest level of government’s approval and had been visited frequently by succeeding army commanders and vice presidents from 2009 to 2013.

“As long as all repressive legislation is not repealed and new protective measures are not adopted, news providers will continue to be vulnerable to the attacks of certain government officials, who show they want to keep the media under strict control although military rule is officially over,” Ismaïl said.

The Unity Weekly journalists, who were arrested in the week following the article’s publication, are being held in the Pauk township prison. A request for their release on bail was rejected on the grounds of the gravity of the charges against them. Their lawyers argue that they should be tried under the media law rather than the state secrets law. Unity Weekly closed its Rangoon bureau on June 30th because of financial difficulties resulting from their imprisonment.

Despite rising in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index in recent years, Burma is still only ranked 145th out of 180 countries.

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Cambodia Makes No Apologies for Rights Record at UN Review

Cambodia has brushed aside calls at the UN Human Rights Council to reverse its crackdown on human rights and reform its abusive policies and practices. Many recommendations had called on Cambodia to reform the electoral system, ensure the rights to peaceful assembly and association, and open up the media to full freedom of expression. Cambodia’s partners in the international community should redouble their pressure for Phnom Penh to address the many abuses the UN review process brought forward, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.

The organization said that the review came at a time of serious concern regarding the deterioration of the human rights situation in Cambodia. Cambodia must stop paying lip service to human rights principles while entrenching practices that violated them, Human Rights Watched urged. 

“Faced with an upsurge in demands for fundamental changes to ensure respect for human rights, the government of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has instead dug in his heels,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The international community should not acquiesce to the Cambodian government’s use of political violence, imprisonment of opponents on politically motivated charges, torture, and restrictions on free speech and public assembly,” he said.

Cambodia was responding to recommendations by other governments at its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session on June 26th 2014, at the UN Human Rights Council. The UPR is a rights review mechanism through which all UN member states are examined once every four years.

In a move that is tantamount to rejection, Cambodia merely “noted” that it had received a litany of recommendations addressing core human rights problems. Among issues deflected were calls for the government to end its arbitrary suspension of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of actions to ensure media freedom, including Internet freedom, and calls for no one to be detained or imprisoned due to their exercise of their right to freedom of expression.

R. Iniyan Ilango on behalf of the organizations Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) and the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) testified at the UN Human Rights Council on June 19th 2014 about the human rights situation in Cambodia: “While the government has accepted 171 recommendations, it has failed to respond early to 34 other recommendations pending acceptance, including those relating to the protection of human rights defenders and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. We reiterate our grave concern over the recent violent crackdown by state security forces against public assemblies, including the use of live ammunition on at least three occasions which resulted in at least six people killed and dozens injured,’’ he said.

In addition, Khem Sophath, a 16-year-old boy, has disappeared since the January 3rd 2014 protests. Ilango said that the Cambodian government has ‘’failed to launch credible investigations on any of these violations. Instead, it imposed an illegal ban on all public assemblies in January 2014 and convicted 25 workers and activists arbitrarily arrested at the time of the crackdowns despite a lack of incriminating evidence.’’ During the testimony, the rights groups urged government to accept and fully implement recommendations that call for an impartial investigation into cases of excessive use of force and killings during demonstrations.

Amnesty International welcomed recommendations on the rights to freedom of peaceful of assembly, association and expression, some of which had been accepted. Amnesty asked the Government to lift restrictions on peaceful assembly and to end the ban, announced earlier this year, imposed on this freedom. The organization said that it was disappointing that recommendations to investigate the use of excessive force and to end impunity had not been accepted by the Cambodian government.

Other governments’ recommendations that fell on deaf ears in Phnom Penh included that Cambodia end unfair trials, and take actions to create a more favorable human rights environment for opposition party members, human rights defenders, journalists, and activists. Cambodia also sidestepped demands to investigate recent incidents of excessive use of fatal force by security units, end impunity for such illegal violence, and take legal and institutional reforms to put an end to torture.

At the UPR, the United States urged Cambodia to follow through accepted recommendations in consultation with civil society and opposition parties. The United States noted with concern that the ban on demonstrations had not been lifted and that recommendations regarding the repeal or amendment of the penal code, such as articles regarding defamation or discrediting of judicial decisions, had not been accepted; and called on Cambodia to swiftly implement recommendations on workers’ rights and labor standards.

The Cambodian government also snubbed recommendations to end other abuses, to protect land rights as stipulated by Cambodia’s constitution and to cooperate more fully with UN human rights experts and mechanisms.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, ended his 11th fact-finding mission to Cambodia last week. Subedi noted progress in some human rights areas yet expressed sadness at seeing the democratic space in the country shrink, illustrated most starkly by the barricading of Freedom Park in Phnom Penh.

“Even though the general situation appears to have stabilized, the space for freedom of peaceful assembly and of speech seems to have shrunk in the aftermath of the most unfortunate violent incidents of the first week in January 2014,” he noted.

The Special Rapporteur also saw a need for an independent national human rights institution in Cambodia that would be able to expand the scope of rights, act as a focal point to champion people’s rights, make policy recommendations to the government and defend and protect people’s rights with the power to investigate cases of human rights violations, but only if it were truly independent.

In its presentation on June 26th, Cambodia also reneged on its earlier acceptance of four recommendations, including one calling on it specifically “to protect free and independent media” and three relating to the education of children.

Justifying the government’s position, Cambodia’s mission to the UN in Geneva said it had withheld acceptance of the noted recommendations because they might not “reflect the situation on the ground” or not be “in line with the national, regional situation.” It asserted the rejected recommendations were “contrary to the laws and Constitution of Cambodia.”

On June 27th, Chheang Vun, a spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said: “We have taken into account their recommendations on some laws already, but what we don’t listen to them … what we don’t accept from them cannot be applied in Cambodia, because Cambodian society is not theirs.” He said Cambodia opposed suggestions that would force “state institutions to become barricaded” off from acting against other parties or individuals protesting against the government.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen and those speaking on his behalf have shown their true colors in this process, ignoring serious recommendations and falling back on a false exceptionalism to justify their continued rights abuses,” Adams said. “Foreign donors who give so much assistance to Cambodia should jointly use their influence to push for the government to end its reliance on human rights violations to control the country.”

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Ilham Tohti’s Lawyer: Human Rights Defender Deprived of Food for Ten Days

Ilham Tohti in a photo courtesy of PEN America Center.

Ilham Tohti in a photo courtesy of PEN America Center.

Human rights defender Ilham Tohti, who has been in custody for over five months, was finally permitted to see his lawyer Li Fangping on June 26th 2014. Ilham Tohti, an ethnic Uyghur, was taken from his home in Beijing in January and later charged with separatism. Li reported that Tohti was shackled for 20 days at the start of his detention, and was denied food for 10 days from March 1 to March 10, in violation of international law barring acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

Ilham Tohti, 44, is an economist, writer, and public intellectual, and is a professor at Minzu University of China in Beijing (formerly Central Nationalities University). He is one of the best-known scholars on Uyghur issues, and is a co-founder of the website Uyghur Online, which was designed to promote understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. It is now blocked inside China. He was regularly subjected to surveillance, interrogation and periods of house arrest as a result of his advocacy for Uyghur people’s rights.

Ilham Tohti could face between 10 years and life in prison, or even a death sentence if convicted of separatism, according to his lawyer.

Li Fangping met the human rights defender in a detention centre in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province. The lawyer stated that from March 1-10th 2014, Ilham Tohti was deprived of food after a violent attack was carried out in the city of Kunming by suspected Uyghur militants, leading to the death of 29 people. Li also reported that Ilham had lost 16 kilograms (35 pounds) since his arrest. According to the lawyer, for the first twenty days of his detention, Ilham Tohti’s legs were shackled, and from January 16th 2014, he was on hunger strike, reportedly because of the failure to provide halal foods in the detention center. Concerns for his health and  well-being are mounting.

During the meeting, Tohti restated his innocence and reiterated that everything he had done was to promote the common interests of both the Uyghur and Han communities. Ilham Tohti was originally detained after a raid on his home in Beijing on January 15th 2014 and was formally arrested on charges of separatism in February after being held incommunicado.

Jewher Ilham testifies at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China in Washington, April 8, 2014. AFP Photo.

Jewher Ilham testifies at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China in Washington, April 8, 2014. AFP Photo.

Tohti, who was born in Artush, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), is married with two young sons. His daughter, Jewher Ilham, is studying at Indiana University. His daughter Jewher Ilham firmly defends her father’s innocence and testified before Congress in April. “He didn’t do anything wrong. He was very careful in his work, he didn’t cross any lines,” she told the Committee to Protect Journalists in May when her father was highlighted by the press freedom organization in its recent 10 Journalists To Free from Prison. “He spoke up for human rights, not just for the Uyghurs, but for everyone, and felt no one should face discrimination. The world needs to know that what is being done to him is wrong. I hope that he will be freed one day,” she said. “We have to keep trying.”

Ilham Tohti is the winner of the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award which his daughter accepted on his behalf. “Tohti represents a new generation of endangered writers who use the web and social media to fight oppression and broadcast to concerned parties around the globe,” said PEN American Center President Peter Godwin. “We hope this honor helps awaken Chinese authorities to the injustice being perpetrated and galvanizes the worldwide campaign to demand Tohti’s freedom.”

During the acceptance speech, his daughter said: 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 that he has ever had at his disposal, and all that he has ever needed. And this is what China finds so threatening.’’

You can learn more about Tohti’s case in this video from PEN America:

Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) said in a statement that the conditions which Tothi has been subjected to constitute a violation of international human rights standards. The organization says that the Chinese authorities should allow Tohti access to proper medical treatment and release him.

“The Chinese government’s treatment of Ilham Tohti is scandalous,” said UHRP director Alim Seytoff in a statement. “By any standard, deprivation of food and water as some kind of retribution for a crime he did not commit is cruel. This state sanctioned brutality is happening to him all because he wanted to have a rational and open discussion about the documented discrimination and marginalization of the Uyghur people in China,” Seytoff said.

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UN Special Rapporteur Expresses Sadness over Shrinking Democratic Space in Cambodia, Urges Future Reforms

Surya Subedi meets with  land grab victims in Cambodia on June 21, 2014. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Surya Subedi meets with land grab victims in Cambodia on June 21, 2014. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, ended his 11th fact-finding mission to Cambodia this week. Subedi noted progress in some human rights areas yet expressed sadness at seeing the democratic space in the country shrink, illustrated most starkly by the barricading of Freedom Park in Phnom Penh.

“Even though the general situation appears to have stabilized, the space for freedom of peaceful assembly and of speech seems to have shrunk in the aftermath of the most unfortunate violent incidents of the first week in January 2014,” he said.

“When visiting Freedom Park – a symbol of democracy– I was sorry to see it surrounded by barbed wire, preventing people from going there and exercising their freedom of speech and assembly. It gives the impression that there has been an attempt to put democracy in a cage in Cambodia. I hope that this situation will be remedied, and that the constitutional right to peaceful assembly, including at Freedom Park, will be promptly and fully reinstated for all Cambodians,” he added.

Establishing a mechanism to protect human rights

The Special Rapporteur also saw a need for an independent national human rights institution in Cambodia that would be able to expand the scope of rights, act as a focal point to champion people’s rights, make policy recommendations to the government and defend and protect people’s rights with the power to investigate cases of human rights violations, but only if it were truly independent.

While sensing “a deep-rooted frustration among the population, especially the youth, rural poor and other disfranchised and dispossessed people, about the lack of progress on some of the promised reforms,” the Rapporteur was “encouraged by the progress in the implementation of some of my recommendations, and the acceptance on the national agenda of those relating to electoral and parliamentary reform in particular.”

He noted that the latter have yet to see concrete progress, despite being the keys to resolving the current political deadlock. He concluded that “At this juncture what is needed is a clear assurance that the recommendations for electoral reform will be implemented with the degree of seriousness required to win the trust and confidence of the people, with a strict time frame to design and implement the reform, including through amendment of the Constitution.”

Concern over land grabbing and forced evictions

While welcoming progress made by the Government in policy development relating to land rights, including the adoption of the National Housing Policy, a White Paper on Land Policy and the drafting of an Environmental Impact Assessment Law, Subedi remained concerned about issues of transparency and accountability, and the absence of an effective dispute settlement mechanism.

During his visit, Subedi held discussions with land grab victims in Chikhor Leu village, Sre Ambel District, Koh Kong province. The land overlapped with an economic land concession given over to the production of sugar which was linked to ruling-party senator Ly Yong Phat.

He also visited Spean Ches community in Preah Sihanouk province. Some residents of this community were among the over 100 families violently evicted on April 20th 2007 from a plot of land 500 meters away in Commune 4, Mittapheap District, Sihanoukville, by 150 armed forces including military. Subedi held discussions with community members before meeting with the provincial governor.

Subedi’s visit throws light on long-standing land grabbing cases that remain unresolved. In both cases, the state-involved land grabs happened over half a decade ago.

“I am deeply concerned by the numerous reports of violent evictions conducted in 2014, including physical assaults and the burning and bulldozing of homes. They demonstrate the urgent need for a national resettlement policy that properly regulates eviction and resettlement processes, and a re-examination of how the Government deals with land disputes involving poor families living on state land, including those that cannot provide proof of their claims,” he said. “The sense of injustice may be passed on to new generations for a long time to come unless urgently remedied, not only in new cases but also for those who suffered forced evictions long ago.”

Causes for optimism

In general, “I remain convinced that there is reason for optimism for the long-term development of the nation,” Subedi said, noting that people seem to have growing awareness of their human rights. “Democracy is about dialogue, debate and accommodation of competing interests for the greater good of the country. I welcome the release, even though on suspended prison sentence, of the 25 arrested and detained in relation to events in November 2013 and January 2014,” he said.

Subedi welcomed, in principle, the enactment of three fundamental laws to strengthen the functioning of the judiciary. However, he expressed concern about provisions for a strong presence and influence of the Executive in the Supreme Council of Magistracy, as well as provisions giving influence to the Ministry of Justice in matters relating to other activities of the judiciary.

“I sincerely hope that the members of the judiciary would sever their ties with the political parties, which is not conductive to the independence of the judiciary nor to the perception of independence, and that the Government would provide the additional resources needed for the new mechanisms created by these new laws to work effectively,” he said.

Subedi also encouraged the Government to ensure that such important pieces of legislation benefit from consultations with all relevant stakeholders. He also called for speedy parliamentary reform. “A functional Parliament capable of giving voice to the multitude of demands in society and able to hold the executive to account is the embodiment of a healthy democracy”, he said, and in Cambodia is “essential to enable the opposition to play a meaningful role”.

The Special Rapporteur called on all political parties to also consider reforming the Constitutional Council to make it truly independent and non-partisan, stressing that this would enable it to command the trust and respect of the entire population in crucial matters of national importance, such as the handling of electoral disputes and the interpretation of the Constitution, including the status of human rights in the Cambodian constitutional architecture.

Subedi commended the Cambodian government’s response to a recent sudden and massive return of Cambodian migrant workers from Thailand. He called on the Thai authorities to investigate the reported deaths of the Cambodians in Thailand and ascertain the reasons behind the sudden return of such large numbers of Cambodians.

Subedi also welcomed the progress toward improving labor relations, particularly by the emerging consensus among all the principal actors in this industry on the procedure and criteria to be applied in setting the minimum wage, but expressed concerns about workers and trade union leaders facing intimidation, including judicial intimidation, as a result of their involvement in industrial action. He added that it remained unclear whether a ban on demonstrations announced by the government in January had been lifted.

“I call upon the government to publicly declare that the ban the government announced in early January – which had no legal justification in the first place – is no longer in place,” he said.

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Three Tibetan Political Prisoners Released

Gaybay, freed Tibetan singer. Photo courtesy Free Tibet.

Gaybay, freed Tibetan singer. Photo courtesy Free Tibet.

Tibetan singer Gaybay, who was arrested in May after a concert, has been released from jail after his family paid a deposit to the Chinese authorities, according to London-based human rights organization Free Tibet. Gaybay took part in a concert in Ngaba in eastern Tibet along with a group of well-known Tibetan singers. He performed songs including “Will Be Perished” which expresses the importance of preserving Tibetan language and culture. Gaybay is one of at least eleven musicians jailed by China since 2012.

In 2012, Gaybay released an album containing Tibetan patriotic songs that was subsequently banned by the Chinese authorities and the singer withdrew from public appearances. No further information is available on how much was paid or whether his release is permanent.

Trinley Tsekar, sentenced to nine years in prison. Photo courtesy Free Tibet.

Trinley Tsekar, sentenced to nine years in prison. Photo courtesy Free Tibet.

Since 2012, China has jailed eleven Tibetan singers after they have written and performed songs celebrating Tibet, opposing China’s occupation and calling for freedom. In December 2013, singer Trinley Tsekar was sentenced to nine years in prison, for involvement in an anti-mining protest in 2013. It is the longest sentence for any of the singers thus far. Other sentences range from two to six years, but no information is currently available about four of the musicians. 22 year-old Trinley Tsekar is from Driru County, where Tibetans staged a mass demonstration against Chinese mining on a sacred site in May 2013.

Music is a vital part of Tibetans’ resistance to Chinese rule. Singers like these not only keep alive a culture that China is trying to erase from the world, but their songs articulate the aspirations, fears and courage of a people who remain proud and defiant after 60 years of occupation.

Those who have used their songs to express patriotic views or criticize China’s policies have been imprisoned by China.The others have been given sentences of up to nine years or have yet to be tried.

Here is a Gaybay performing “Will Be Perished” on May 24th 2014, just prior to his arrest:

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Tibetan monk released
Monk Ngawang Lobsang was released from Chinese prison in Kardze on June 13th 2014 after serving three years for shouting slogans calling for free Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, to Tibet. He was greeted by local Tibetans and Kardze Monastery monks.

Newly released Tibetan distributes protest letter
Political prisoner Gangbu Yudrum was also released on June 13th and received a warm welcome from people in his village, who hailed him as a “Tibetan fighter for truth.” Upon his release he wrote and distributed copies of a letter to local Tibetans in his village stating that “Tibetans have to save Tibet not anybody else.” He was arrested in 2012 for founding an organization that protested against the policies of the Chinese Communist Party and Tibet’s occupation. He was previously arrested for being part of the mass protests in 2008.

Free Tibet says that the the Chinese state has undermined, dismantled and systematically attacked Tibetan culture for decades. By persecuting these musicians China is suppressing the culture of Tibet, as well as abusing their human rights.

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Prominent Chinese Human Rights Lawyer Formally Charged

Beijing human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang in a 2007 photo. RFA photo.

Beijing human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang in a 2007 photo. RFA photo.

On June 13th 2014, Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was formally arrested and charged with “creating a disturbance” and “illegally obtaining personal information.” The human rights defender was detained on May 5th 2014 as part of a crackdown on human rights defenders in advance of the 25th Anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, following his attendance at a small, private commemoration of the protests and their subsequent violent suppression. When his arrest was approved, the legal limit for holding him under criminal detention without either arresting or releasing him —37 days— was set to expire.

A prolific writer and an outspoken critic of government policies, Pu, participated in the 1989 student demonstrations and has assisted the group Tiananmen Mothers in seeking accountability for their loved ones killed in the massacre. Due to his activism, he was not assigned a job when he graduated from China University of Politics and Law with a Masters in law in 1991. Having practiced law since 1997, Pu has defended many high-profile human rights cases. Among those he has represented are artist and activist Ai Weiwei, activist and environmentalist Tan Zuoren, and Tang Hui, who was sent to Re-education through Labor after seeking justice for her daughter, who was raped at the age of 11.

Pu, 49, has taken on a number of freedom of speech cases and also defended Communist Party members seeking redress for torture they endured during extralegal corruption investigations. He is now one of China’s most prominent lawyers and is featured regularly in the mainstream Chinese press. In 2013, he was chosen by the state-run magazine China Newsweek as the most influential person in promoting the rule of law. Pu is also known for his public criticism in February 2013 of the powerful former Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang.

It is unclear what actions the charges against Pu Zhiqiang relate to. The formal arrest order follows the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau’s rejection on June 9th 2014 of the human rights defender’s application for release on medical bail. Pu Zhiqiang’s release was denied on the basis that it would “pose a danger to society.” Pu has reportedly been subjected to daily interrogations lasting up to 10 hours.

The crime of “creating a disturbance” carries up to ten years in prison and the crime of “illegally obtaining citizens’ personal information” carries up to three years in prison. Pu could be sentenced to up to 13 years if convicted of both charges. Beijing police also stated that they are conducting further investigations into Pu’s other suspected crimes. The basis for these two charges is not yet clear.

Pu Zhianqiang’s niece, Qu Zhenhong has also been formally arrested after being detained since May 15th 2014. The human rights lawyer was a member of Pu Zhianqiang’s legal defense team and works in his law firm. It is reported that Qu Zhenhong was detained in relation to charges of “illegally obtaining personal information,” and that her arrest is closely tied to her uncle’s.

“Pu’s ‘crime’ appears to be nothing more than peacefully pushing the legal system to follow its own laws,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “By arresting Pu, President Xi has gutted his own commitments to the rule of law, and halted the work of someone critical to legal reform efforts.”

Pu has diabetes.  According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), officials confiscated his medication when he arrived at the detention facility in Beijing, and he was later offered pills that he did not recognize. Before Pu was arrested, an application for his medical bail was rejected, with officials stating Pu would “pose a danger to society” if released. Pu’s lawyer said that he is being interrogated nearly every day for up to 10 hours a day, and that as a result his legs are swollen. In China’s detention centers, medical care is rudimentary at best. In March 2014, Beijing activist Cao Shunli died after her health deteriorated while in detention.

“Pu’s health condition greatly concerns us,” says Renee Xia, CHRD’s international director. “He has serious diabetic conditions which require close monitoring and regular medication, and for which he was hospitalized a few years ago. China’s detention facilities are notorious for providing no or minimal, low-quality care, and persecution of detained activists by depriving medical care is a well-documented problem. We have seen this end tragically, like with Cao Shunli, who died in March after not getting necessary medical care. Authorities will seemingly stop at nothing to try and break down political detainees.”

This is the first time Pu has been put under criminal detention and arrest. Pu has in recent years been subjected to regular police questioning. Police detained him briefly after he spoke to the media about the October 2010 announcement that the Chinese writer and activist Liu Xiaobo would receive that year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Since President Xi Jinping came into power in March 2013, his government has further restricted already meager civil and political freedoms. It has initiated an internet crackdown on “online rumors” and “pornography,” detained “big Vs” (online opinion leaders), closed WeChat and QQ accounts en masse, and issued judicial interpretation expanding existing definitions of crime to include peaceful online expression. It has detained dozens of activists on public order charges, including well-known moderates such as the New Citizens Movement founder Xu Zhiyong and the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti.  Lawyers in particular have been under increasing attack.

“That Beijing sees Pu, Xu, Tohti, and others as threats who must be silenced – not as essential assets in the struggle for a functional legal system – is a powerful indicator of just how far the situation has deteriorated in the past year,” Richardson said. “Unless Pu and others are released, President Xi’s legal reform rhetoric rings increasingly hollow.”

In March 2014, four prominent human rights lawyers were detained and some tortured when trying to meet with clients in Heilongjiang Province. In May, just ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, a number of lawyers were put under criminal detention. Tang Jingling was detained for “creating a disturbance” in Guangdong Province; Liu Shihui in Shanghai; and Chang Boyang and Ji Laisong for “gathering crowds to disturb public order” in Henan Province. Tang, Chang, and Ji remain in detention. These lawyers have represented victims of human rights violations in a wide variety of cases, ranging from land evictions to tainted milk powder to discrimination.

“The arrest of Pu Zhiqiang shows the escalation of Xi Jinping administration’s assault on dissent, especially against highly influential figures in civil society,” said Renee Xia. “Pu has become a major symbol of the momentum for political and legal reform inside China, making admirable use of his wisdom, passion, and eloquence along with his legal professionalism. Authorities want to alienate him from the population, marginalize his work, and silence his voice—just as they have done to others who challenge the government.”

Pu is the only individual still in custody among those seized after taking part in a private event on May 3rd commemorating the Tiananmen anniversary. Four others in attendance were released on June 5th. In addition, two journalists detained with ties to Pu have also been let go on bail. Though no longer detained, all of these individuals still face restrictions, such as not being allowed to leave Beijing, write articles, or conduct other activities for up to a year without police permission.

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