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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World Day Brings Focus to Abuses Against Child Workers

Cambodian child laborer Kompieng in an undated photo courtesy of LICADHO.

Cambodian child laborer Kompieng in an undated photo courtesy of LICADHO.

On the occasion of World Day Against Child Labor, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) released a two-part digital photo essay series highlighting links between child labor and issues such as poverty, school dropout rates and land eviction. LICADHO is urging authorities to end the root causes of child labor.

Child labor threatens the fundamental rights of children to survive with dignity, develop intellectually and physically, be protected from abuse, and participate in his/her community. Child laborers work in a variety of areas: domestic work, garment factories, garbage collecting, fishing, agriculture, brick factories, and construction, among others.

While some forms of child labor are more hazardous, most require children to work long hours that could be spent at school and nurturing relationships with peers, teachers and family. Many child domestic workers, for example, start working very early and end late at night. Since their work takes place behind closed doors, it is difficult for authorities and NGOs to monitor and safeguard their well-being.

Here are two stories of Cambodian children who are victims of child labor:

Out of School and Working: The Story of an Evicted Girl
In late 2006 and early 2007, Kompieng’s family was one of 51 families evicted by authorities from O Tres commune, Preah Sihanouk province, during a land dispute with a company and a private landowner. Many of the families claimed that they had been living at O Tres commune since 1993. Kompieng’s family relocated two kilometers away after they were evicted. However, her parents’ sudden loss of livelihoods, the high cost of transportation, and her mother’s ailing health pressured Kompieng to drop out of school and start doing odd jobs to help support her family. She dreams of finishing school and improving her life.

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Too Young to Work: The Life of a Former Shoe Factory Worker
Prum Dina, 14, dropped out of school when she was 12 to work at a shoe factory. She was later dismissed for being too young, but only after she had been working for over a year. In the shoe factory, Prum Dina was exposed to harmful conditions. Her responsibilities included handling glue, making leather, and sewing. She now attends school and is studying to be a Chinese translator. She hopes to work as a translator at the same factory so that she can earn a high salary and help pay for her mother’s medical treatment. A 2013 ILO survey found that about 48 percent of child laborers in Cambodia, including those working in hazardous conditions, have dropped out of, or have never attended, school.

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Child Labor A Symptom of Broader Societal Problems

In 2012, the International Labor Organization (ILO) found that there were 755,245 working children in Cambodia. Of this number, 429,380 (56.9 percent) classified as child laborers, while 236,498 (31.3 percent) worked in hazardous conditions, where they were exposed to harmful chemical substances or tools.

In cases where children work in hazardous conditions, there is a high risk of work-related injuries from dangerous machinery or chemical substances.

The high number of child laborers, especially those working in hazardous conditions, is a clear breach of Cambodia’s Labor Law that prohibits anyone younger than 18 years old from working in hazardous conditions, LICADHO says. Without proper implementation and enforcement, authorities allow companies and employers to exploit children without facing legal consequences.

“Child labor not only exploits children, but is itself a symptom of broader societal problems,” LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge says. “Specifically, authorities remain slow to implement and enforce labor-related laws and regulations. This has to change.”

Parents also bear responsibility for promoting child labor practice. In some households, parents adhere to traditional customs that require children to share the burden of supporting the family. As such, they do not consider it wrong when children drop out of school to work. In other cases, parents overwhelmed by poverty, unemployment, debt, health issues, and other unforeseen crises, believe that they have no choice but to ask their children to find a job to help support their family.

Child Laborers Vulnerable to Many Kinds of Abuse

Even in less hazardous working conditions, child laborers are vulnerable to physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse by older employers and co-workers. However child laborers are often unaware of their legal rights and may fear that the courts will penalize them for illegal labor rather than address the criminal complaint. They may also be unable or daunted by the process of filing a legal complaint against their abusers which requires a legal guardian to act on their behalf.

Child laborers in Cambodia. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Child laborers in Cambodia. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Cambodia’s high rate of land eviction also directly perpetuates child labor. Since 2000, LICADHO estimates that at least 500,000 people in roughly half the country have been affected by state-involved land conflicts. Many children from evicted families drop out of school because of inadequate facilities at their relocation site. Others start working because their parents need help earning money after losing their former livelihoods.

LICADHO urges authorities to focus on eradicating types of child labor and also to address its underlying causes. Specifically, the organization calls for the Cambodian authorities to improve labor inspections to ensure that there are no children under 18 working in hazardous conditions, or beyond the hours appropriate for their age, as outlined by the ILO. Authorities should also severely penalize employers who exploit child labor. They must also review the current labor-related laws and regulations to guarantee that all types of child laborers are protected.

Additionally, they say that there must be an end to illegal evictions that disrupt the livelihood of families, and result in children dropping out of school to find work. Ensuring that evicted families are fairly compensated, and that relocation sites include access to adequate schools and health centers for affected children is critical.

“Eradicating child labor and its root causes is not just an issue of child rights,” Child Rights Coordinator Kong Socheat says. “If many children continue to drop out of school and work, Cambodia’s long-term social and economic development will be jeopardized. Child labor practices can only continue to the extent that authorities, employers, parents, children and communities continue to believe that it is not an urgent issue, and even justifiable on grounds of profit, poverty and traditional customs.”

A Day of Action 

The International Labour Organization (ILO) launched the World Day Against Child Labor in 2002 to focus attention on the global extent of child labor and the action and efforts needed to eliminate it. Each year on June 12th, the World Day brings together governments, employers and workers’ organizations, civil society, as well as millions of people from around the world to highlight the plight of child laborers and what can be done to help them.

Around the world, large numbers of children are engaged in paid or unpaid domestic work in the home of a third party or employer. These children can be particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Their work is often hidden from the public eye, they may be isolated, and they may be working far away from their family home. Stories of the abuse of children in domestic work are all too common.

World Day 2014 calls for action to introduce, improve and extend social protection, in line with the ILO Recommendation No. 202 on social protection floors; national social security systems that are sensitive to children’s needs and help fighting child labor; and social protection that reaches out to especially vulnerable groups of children.

“Family poverty and income shocks are often catalysts of child labor. It is time to break this cycle and ensure that families living in poverty have adequate incomes, income security and health care. These social protection measures can help households weather shocks and keep their children in school and out of child labor,” says Juan Somavia, ILO Director-General.

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No Rights Improvements in Laos

The government of Laos has failed to address the country’s systemic human rights problems, Human Rights Watch said today in a critique of Lao’s human rights record submitted to the United Nations. The rights organization says that Laos must urgently end disappearances and systematic suppression of basic freedoms. Laos will appear for the country’s second Universal Periodic Review in October 2014 at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Human Rights Watch highlighted several human rights issues deserving international attention such as severe restrictions on fundamental liberties, absence of labor rights, and detention of suspected drug users without charge in abusive drug centers. Of particular concern is the forced disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone, in Vientiane in December 2012 after he was stopped by the police, and of an environmentalist, Sompawn Khantisouk, who has been missing since he was ordered to report to a police station in January 2007.

“The Lao authorities are defying international concerns by ignoring calls to respond to the enforced disappearance of activist Sombath Somphone,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Concerned governments need to drive home the point that they will not sit complacently by as disappearances and other abuses multiply in Laos.”

The Lao government has not made tangible changes toward meeting commitments made during its first UPR session in 2010, Human Rights Watch said. Laos should ratify core international human rights conventions; end restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, and the media; and bring its labor laws and regulations into line with core labor standards of the International Labor Organization.

The organization urged the Lao government to investigate and end abuses in its drug detention centers and shift to voluntary, community-based drug dependency treatment that is medically appropriate.

The government severely suppresses the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. The penal code outlaws activities that the government deems to be “slandering” or “weakening” the state. The government strictly controls all television, radio, and print media in the country. It bars any article or mass media broadcast considered contrary to “national interests” or “traditional culture and dignity.” People involved with unauthorized public protests have been sentenced to long prison terms.

Workers are similarly denied their rights, and prohibited from establishing or joining a trade union of their own choosing since all unions must be part of the government-controlled Lao Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU). They are also unable to exercise their right to strike because of restrictions in labor law and authorities’ proven willingness to forcibly break up workers’ protests.

“This government brooks no dissent from its people, and uses rights-abusing laws and long prison terms to prevent any challenge to its power,” Robertson said. “Lao people fear their government because they know officials can act with near total impunity.”

Lao authorities also violate the rights of people held in drug detention centers. Human Rights Watch found that detainees were held against their will for months and even years, in administrative detention without due process protections such as a court ruling, ongoing judicial oversight, or an appeal mechanism. Detainees at the Somsanga center outside Vientiane are given little effective treatment, locked in cells inside barbed wire compounds, and subjected to brutal beatings.

“Compulsory detention in the Lao drug centers violates a slew of human rights,” Robertson said. “Suspected drug users are arbitrarily arrested, denied a fair trial, and subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment in the drug centers.”

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Election Restrictions in Burma Threaten Democratic Process

Burma’s electoral commission must immediately stop threatening and intimidating the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, Human Rights Watch said Thursday. The electoral commission should also drop proposals that would set limits on future election campaigning, and President Thein Sein and the Burmese government should publicly reject such proposals.

On May 22nd 2014, the Union Electoral Commission (UEC) warned the NLD and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, that she had made illegal and unconstitutional comments at a rally in Mandalay on May 18th by saying the military should not be afraid of constitutional change in support of democratic reform. The commission announced that such statements could jeopardize the re-registration of the NLD ahead of bi-elections scheduled for late 2014 for 19 seats in the national parliament and 12 in states and regions, as well as in nationwide elections at the end of 2015. The party replied on June 2nd that Suu Kyi’s statements were in line with the constitution and political party laws.

“It’s truly scandalous that the electoral commission is threatening a political party for violating a regulation that doesn’t exist,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s even worse that the threat is about a political speech on the future direction of the country.”

The National League for Democracy and the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society began a joint campaign in recent weeks to amend Burma’s 2008 constitution, which was passed in a sham referendum. In particular they are seeking to amend article 436, which grants the military effective veto power over constitutional amendments, and article 59(f), which bars elected members of parliament from the presidency if they have relatives with foreign citizenship. The discriminatory provision is aimed at disqualifying Suu Kyi, whose two sons have British citizenship.

The electoral commission should immediately stop intimidating opposition parties and threatening free expression in Burma, Human Rights Watch said.

The electoral commission’s chair, the former army general Tin Aye, has made numerous remarks in recent months that demonstrate a pro-military bias. In April, he defended the constitutional provision guaranteeing 25 percent of parliamentary seats to serving military officers, claiming the quota was needed to avert any future coup. He also promised that the 2015 elections would be free and fair, but would be conducted in “disciplined democracy style,” using rhetoric closely associated with past Burmese military governments.

“How President Thein Sein and the Burmese government respond to the proposals for arbitrary limits on campaigning and to reasonable demands for constitutional reform will tell the world whether they are interested in free and fair elections or are trying to rig the process,” Adams said. “Future elections will not have an ounce of credibility if anti-democratic rules put opposition parties at a disadvantage.”

In April, the electoral commission released a series of draft regulations that would seriously inhibit the conduct of campaigns and place restrictions on the rights to freedom of speech and movement. These proposals include prohibiting party leaders or members from canvassing in constituencies outside their home district, in a clear attempt to stop Suu Kyi from campaigning across the country.

The commission has also proposed requiring parties to provide local election commission officials with details in advance of proposed speaking venues, rally and march routes, and lists of planned participants.

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Challenging Dictators One Street At A Time

A group of bipartisan U.S. Members of Congress say that the street in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington should be renamed after jailed Nobel laureate and Chinese dissident Dr. Liu Xiaobo. The Chinese government responded to the request calling it disrespectful and provocative.” Thirteen members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Washington Mayor Vincent Gray, formally asking the city to rename the section of International Place NW that runs in front of the Chinese Embassy after Liu, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, as a way to highlight Liu’s unjust imprisonment and send a symbolic and strong message that the United States is committed to advocating for the protection of basic human rights worldwide.

In a letter to the mayor and the D.C. City Council, the members wrote that a precedent already exists, pointing to the renaming of the street in front of the Soviet Embassy Sakharov Plaza in the 1980s after prominent anti-Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

The empty chair with a diploma and medal that should have been awarded to Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (portrait L) at the Oslo City Hall, Dec. 10, 2010. AFP Photo.

The empty chair with a diploma and medal that should have been awarded to Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (portrait L) at the Oslo City Hall, Dec. 10, 2010.
AFP Photo.

Fifty-eight year old Liu was sentenced in 2009 to 11 years in prison for authoring Charter 08, a petition urging an end to one-party rule. He was previously involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests calling for democratic reform during which Chinese troops stormed the square  in the center of Beijing,  firing indiscriminately and killing and arresting thousands of pro-democracy protesters. In the weeks before, nearly a million Chinese joined together to call for the resignations of Chinese Communist Party leaders; they held daily vigils, and marched and chanted peacefully. In response, units of the Chinese military shot and killed untold numbers of unarmed civilians, many of whom were not connected to the protests in Beijing and other cities on June 3rd and 4th.

“By renaming the street in front of the Chinese Embassy after Dr. Liu, we would send a clear and powerful message that the United States remains vigilant and resolute in its commitment to safeguard human rights around the globe,” the group wrote. “The timing is auspicious for such a move with the Tiananmen anniversary fast approaching. This modest effort would undoubtedly give hope to the Chinese people who continue to yearn for basic human rights and representative democracy and would remind their oppressors that they are in fact on the wrong side of history.”

On the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown this week, I spoke with David Keyes, Executive Director of New York-based Advancing Human Rights, about his hard work to make ”Liu Xiaobo Plaza” a reality.

RFA: How did you come up with this idea?

Sakharov Plaza in Washington DC. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Sakharov Plaza in Washington DC. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

David Keyes: A few months ago, Garry Kasparov and I were talking over lunch about our favorite subject: how to pressure dictatorships. He reminded me that in 1984 the US Congress renamed the street in front of the Soviet embassy “No. 1. Andrei Sakharov Plaza,” after the most famous Soviet scientist and human rights advocate. Every time the Soviets walked out of their embassy, they were confronted with the brutality of their regime.

The free world showed that they would not forget the human cost of Soviet tyranny. They raised the name of one of the greatest Soviet human rights advocates ever and in doing so applied real pressure on the regime. It was part of a comprehensive strategy of raising the names of dissidents.

I thought that was brilliant and wanted to recreate that experience today with dictatorships around the world.  I wanted people in free societies to know the names of those brave dissidents imprisoned for nothing more than speaking out. I think it’s important for dictatorships to know that we have not forgotten about their political prisoners. It is critical that human rights advocates on the front lines fighting tyranny know that they are not alone — that we care about them and support them.

Dictatorships always try to silence critics and make them feel isolated.  It is our duty to push back and support democratic dissidents–rhetorically, politically, morally and symbolically.

RFA: How did these efforts in Congress come to fruition and what did it take to make it happen?

David Keyes: Last November, Kasparov and I co-authored an op-ed about the idea in The Wall Street Journal.  There was also a feature in The Daily Beast about Magnitksy Plaza, named after Sergei Magnitsky who died tragically in Russian prison after exposing Putin’s corruption.

But the idea got its biggest push on January 16th, when Natan Sharansky asked me to accompany him to Congress. During testimony before the Lantos Human Rights Commission, Sharansky said:

Advancing Human Rights Executive Director David Keyes. Photo courtesy David Keyes.

Advancing Human Rights Executive Director David Keyes. Photo courtesy David Keyes.

“Here is also present my friend, David Keyes, who is running the organization Advancing Human rights. I think, among other things, they came up with a great idea. In the past, there was a square in Washington in front of the Soviet embassy which was called ‘Sakharov Plaza.’ So each time they had to write something at the Soviet embassy, they had to mention Sakharov.  Why not do it in front the Iranian embassy–in front of every embassy of every dictatorship in the world? To name the streets in America and other free countries of the world. And that will be the best reminder that the world cares, that the world remembers. And that we will not permit…[dissidents to] disappear.”

Congressman Frank Wolf, co-chairman of the Commission, responded: “That was really powerful…if we can get a list of five embassies, we can have [Nabil] Rajab Square in front of the Bahraini embassy and we’ll do it in front of the Chinese embassy.  We’ll ask the DC city council to do this.  But that’s a great idea and we will do it and get those letters off.”

Sharansky spent nine years in Soviet prison and he credits pressure from the free world for securing his release. So this issue is very close to his heart. Many of the members of Congress present that day campaigned for his release back in the 80s. So for him to come before them and say they had a new opportunity today to stand up for democratic dissidents and apply real pressure was really moving. In a sense, it was the closing of a circle.

RFA: What has been the reaction from China?

David Keyes: The Chinese government responded by furiously denouncing our idea. They said it was disrespectful and provocative.

RFA: What do you say to that?

David Keyes: Well I think it’s disrespectful to jail people for advocating democracy.  I think it’s provocative to impose dictatorships on over a billion people.

I expected the Chinese government to react as they did because individual dissidents often symbolize much more than themselves. This is a struggle over the future of China. Will the Chinese government allow dissent and debate or will it continue to brutally repress lawyers, activists, journalists and bloggers?  Will China become a democracy or continue to impose dictatorship on so many people?

The fact that the Chinese government was so irked means that our idea is on the right track.

RFA: What are your thoughts on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown?

David Keyes: Tiananmen is also a symbol– of hopes and dreams quashed by the Chinese government. The fact that China continues to censor online material about the events of decades ago shows how much they fear open discourse. Tiananmen is a bellwether.  When the Chinese government no longer fears the truth about those events, then real progress will have been made.

RFA: When can we expect to see a street sign for Liu Xiaobo Plaza? 

David Keyes: Fourteen Republicans and Democrats signed the letter about Liu Xiaobo. It’s not everyday that conservative Republicans like Frank Wolf and liberal Democrats like Minority leader Nancy Pelosi agree.  But they came together in a display of real bi-partisanship. In the name of human rights, veteran members joined with the youngest member of the House, Patrick Murphy. They all deserve credit.

On Friday, the mayor’s office and the DC City Council said that given the importance of the signatories, they are seriously considering the proposal. I hope one day in the not too distant future to stand in front of the Chinese embassy along with human rights activists, Chinese dissidents and all who care about a free China to unveil “Liu Xiaobo Plaza.”

RFA: How do you hope this will bring renewed attention to the plight of Liu Xiaobo and the human rights situation in China?

David Keyes: I think in a sense this initiative has already put a lot of light on Liu Xiaobo and China’s gross violations of human rights. Within hours of the Congressional letter, Liu Xiaobo’s name was written up in [many international] newspapers.

The Chinese government was forced to respond. They blasted the members of Congress and called Xiaobo a criminal. Imagine that. What kind of society criminalizes dissent and throws a Noble Prize winner behind bars for more than a decade? Liu Xiaobo should be celebrated as a hero, not a criminal.

The more press we can garner for dissidents languishing in prison, the better. The more we know the names of political prisoners, the better. The more pressure dictatorships feel, the better. The more we can open closed societies, the better.

I believe strongly that we can only trust states as much as those states trust their own people. How much does China trust it’s people if it does not even allow them to read about Tiananmen? How much does it trust their people when the government imprison bloggers, lawyers and journalists? So how can we trust China as a state on the international stage?

There is a tendency of some to say, well, we need China economically so forget the human rights file. But only free societies have lasting stability. Only open societies can be trusted in the long term. Democracies pursue peace far more than dictatorships because their decisions are not made by a handful of un-elected and unaccountable people.

Andrei Sakharov’s ethical credo was “In the end, the moral choice turns out to be also the most pragmatic choice.” Today, pressuring dictatorships and raising the names of democratic dissidents remains the moral and pragmatic choice.

RFA: Russia and China are two of the biggest dictatorships in the world. What’s up next for you to apply pressure?

David Keyes: This idea doesn’t apply to China alone.  A few months ago in New York, I had a heated exchange with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohamed Zarif.  I asked him when famed student leader Majid Tavakoli would be freed. Zarif said he didn’t know who Tavakoli was. Iran’s UN ambassador also told me he hadn’t heard of him.  It is our job to make sure that no Iranian diplomat can ever again claim that they don’t know their own political prisoners. One way to do that is to change the street address in front of every Iranian embassy to the name of an imprisoned dissident.  Interestingly, the only human rights advocate I mentioned that Iran’s UN ambassador admitted to having heard about was Nasrin Sotoudeh.  He said this was because her name was all over the media.

Shortly after my confrontation with the Iranian foreign minister there was an uproar from Iranians.  Zarif’s Facebook page was filled with Iranians asking him why on Earth he hadn’t heard of one of their most famous political prisoners.  Within days, Tavakoli was released temporarily from prison on furlough. This experience showed yet again that even the most repressive states care about their PR and are susceptible to pressure.

Former Soviet leader Gorbachev said he released Natan Sharansky after nine years in Soviet prison because it wasn’t worth the international price they were paying.  The same was true for a brief moment regarding Iran and Tavakoli. How many of these moments can we recreate?  I suspect many, many more.

It is a real pity that all anyone talks about today is the type of weapons Iran is developing. The problem isn’t the type of weapon, but the type of regime.  The Iranian government hangs poets, kills opposition, tortures bloggers and jails student leaders.  The more we can pressure the Iranian regime on human rights, the safer it will be for everyone.

So next up is “Majid Tavakoli Plaza.”  I want to ensure that no matter where an Iranian diplomat goes, he is confronted with the faces and names of activists whose his government jails merely for speaking out.  Tavakoli has been in prison for years for advocating freedom.  He is young and doesn’t deserve to be in prison.  There are hundreds and even thousands more like him currently languishing in jail.

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