Anger Over Dalai Lama’s Visa Denial

His Holiness the Dalai Lama with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Photo courtesy

His Holiness the Dalai Lama with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Photo courtesy

South Africa refused the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, a visa to visit Cape Town. The Dalai Lama was invited to attend the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates along with his fellow Nobel Laureates. South Africa has previously refused the Dalai Lama a visa, and London-based Free Tibet says that this repeated refusal is closely linked to South Africa’s relationship with their biggest trading partner, China.

South Africa’s Foreign Ministry insists the decision is independent.

Cape Town’s mayor says she is appalled by the decision. “Based on further discussions with the Dalai Lama’s representatives both in South Africa and Dharamsala, it has now become clear that the officials from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) contacted the Dalai Lama’s office to inform them that the South Africa government would not grant him a visa to attend the summit, due to sensitivities related to the Chinese government,” Patricia de Lille, the Executive Mayor of Cape Town, said in a statement on Friday.

“The actions of DIRCO are absolutely appalling, and an affront to a key theme of the summit: celebrating 20 years of South Africa’s constitutional democracy and the legacy of the late Nelson Mandela. It is indeed a dark day for South Africa when the ideals for which Nelson Mandela and so many others fought are sold to the highest bidder,’’ she added.

Patricia de Lille, the Executive Mayor of Cape Town. Photo courtesy City of Cape Town.

Patricia de Lille, the Executive Mayor of Cape Town. Photo courtesy City of Cape Town.

Mayor de Lille said that the Mandela, Luthuli, De Klerk and Tutu Foundations will be writing to South African President Zuma to appeal to him to intervene and ensure that a visa is granted so that the Dalai Lama can attend the summit.

Past Nobel Peace Laureates, including former heads of State, who have already signed the letter of appeal to President Zuma include President Lech Walesa, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Muhammad Yunus, Jody Williams, Betty Williams, Tawakkul Karman, Leimah Gbowee and Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo.

Ms. de Lille also warned the government that the attending Nobel Laureates may end up protesting against the country’s decision.

South Africa welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping in March 2013.  China is South Africa’s largest export market.

The Dalai Lama lives in exile in India. In 2011, he resigned from political duties. The same year, China applied pressure on the South African government to deny the former leader entry to celebrate Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s birthday. The Dalai Lama was invited by a number of universities and organizations including Stellenbosch University, the Tutu Centre and the Mahatma Gandhi Trust to give public talks and deliver Bishop Tutu’s 80th Birth Anniversary Inaugural. A South African court ruled that officials had “unreasonably delayed” a decision on granting a visa to His Holiness the Dalai Lama that year.

Mr. Tutu sharply criticized his government for cow towing to China and not supporting Tibetans, who is said are “viciously oppressed by the Chinese.” He said at the time that the decision “disgraceful” and worse than the apartheid regime.

The South African government also kept the Dalai Lama from attending a Nobel laureates’ peace conference in 2009, saying it would detract attention from the 2010 soccer World Cup that was hosted here.

Earlier this year, Norway’s government refused to meet the Dalai Lama during his visit to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his Nobel Peace Prize. The country’s reaction is similar to other countries who fear China’s reprisal if they accommodate the Dalai Lama or talk about China’s human rights record. At the time, the Chinese government has cautioned all government representatives from having any official meetings with the Tibetan Buddhist leader. Norway was blacklisted by China in 2010 when Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

Tibet today is one of the most repressed societies in the world. According to Free Tibet, Tibetans in Tibet are denied the right to speak freely, to celebrate their national identity and culture and to pursue their religion without state interference and control. They are even forbidden to carry or display images of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama and their national flag. Despite this repression and a lifetime of occupation, Tibetans continue to oppose China’s rule and seek freedom to exercise their right to self-determination as a people.

In struggling peacefully for their human and civil rights, Tibetans pay a heavy price. China uses lethal force, torture, arbitrary detention, punitive sentencing, collective punishments and surveillance in an attempt to control the Tibetan population.

The organization says further that China’s repression generates additional resistance, leading to a constant cycle of protest and human rights abuses.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited South Africa in 1996, 1999 and 2004. He met with the late South African President Nelson Mandela in 1996 and 2004.

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Charges Dropped Against 50 Journalists in Myanmar

On August 26th 2014, Myanmar authorities dropped charges against fifty journalists previously accused of peaceful protest arising from a gathering on July 12th 2014. Police decided to stop the investigation and refused to bring the case to court. However, the journalists who were charged have expressed concern that this announcement does not completely put them out of risk.

The journalists say that the police did not send them any official letters concerning their charges. They also did not receive any written notifications that may confirm the dismissal of the case. This fact raises serious concerns that the police can still use the case for future harassment and intimidation of the journalists, says human rights organization Front Line Defenders.

The fifty journalists had previously been identified, questioned and charged with violation of Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions Act of 2012.

Front Line Defenders urges the authority to issue an official order confirming the disposal of the case and also to refrain from similar harassment of human rights defenders and journalists.

The 50 protested against the sentencing on July 10th 2014 in Pakokku Township Court of four journalists and the CEO of the Unity Weekly Journal. The five Unity Weekly journalists were sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment with hard labor under the Official Secrets Act 1923 for “disclosing state secrets.” Those accusations related to the publication of a report challenging the transparency of government policy, specifically in relation to a military facility allegedly being used to manufacture chemical weapons.

Since the transition from military rule to a civilian government in early 2011, Myanmar has been commended by many for its steps towards a free press; a pre-publishing censorship board was abolished in August 2012, and many media workers exiled for decades have begun their cautious return to the country.

Then, Myanmar’s Interim Press Council, a semi-independent body, was established in September 2012. Independent journalists are also included in this council. This council is at present drafting a new ‘’Print Media Law and Broadcast Media Law.’’

Sayeed Ahmed, Protection Coordinator at Front Line, says that ‘’the establishment of the press council was welcomed and was seen as a positive move from a regime of total censorship in Myanmar. However, ahead of next year’s presidential election,President Thein Sein and the military in the background seem nervous with the increased press freedom.’’

It is believed that the decision to drop the charges has come as a result of a meeting between President Thein Sein and the Information Ministry and Interim Press Council in mid-August.

On July 10th, the verdict against four journalists and the owner of Unity
Journal was handed down; they were each sentenced to ten years in prison with
labor for publishing an investigative report in January 2014 alleging that a military facility was used for the production of chemical weapons. The journal was defunct anyway. Yet, this harsh punishment was seen by other journalists as a threat to their freedom. So they came out in huge protest. On July 12th, they were protesting outside the Myanmar
Peace Centre (MPC), where the President was paying a visit.

The police then filed a case against 50 unnamed journalists, basically to leave it open to arrest any leading journalist they want. The press council then had a series of meetings with the authority and finally the announcement came from the police.

Deputy Station Officer Maung Maung Oo, who levied the charges, said “We haven’t brought the case to court, and we have stopped the police investigation. But as we all have to live under the law, anyone who breaks the law again will be charged.”

Shwe Hmon, one of the 50 journalists who were charged, said “They didn’t send us official letters about the charges. Now they have dismissed the case without informing us. We, the media, can’t understand the laws and systems of power in our country.”

Since the charge was with the police station and it did not reach the court and has since been dismissed by the court, there is the chance to revive the charge any time by the police.

Front Line recommends that Myanmar repeal Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly act which criminalizes assembly without prior permission. The organization also encourages the government to refrain from bringing charges against unnamed people in mass.

Specifically regarding this case, they say that the police should close the case in their record and following the procedures they follow normally to do so, and also to make that evidence available to media and public. So far the notice of dropping the charges is just an informal announcement.

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Cambodian Villagers Conditionally Released Ahead Of Trial

Lor Peang community calling for the release of the five detained villagers. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Lor Peang community calling for the release of the five detained villagers. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Late Friday afternoon in Cambodia, five Lor Peang community members who were arrested and detained in the last month were provisionally released by the Investigating Judge of Kampong Chhnang Provincial Court. Three of the villagers were arrested during a 47 mile long peaceful march from Kampong Chhnang province to the capital Phnom Penh. The protesters were calling for a resolution to a long-standing land dispute between the villagers and K.D.C Company, and also demanding the release of two community members arrested weeks earlier.

The provisional release follows repeated attempts by the Lor Peang community to submit petitions to various government institutions over their conflict with K.D.C Company.

All five members have been released under judicial supervision with the conditions that they appear before the court when summoned; do not change residence without informing the court; and that they present themselves to their local police station every month.

On August 12th there was a violent dispersal of more than 50 villagers from Lor Peang community who had begun the march. The peaceful march was violently broken by a large group of police and military police officers while the community was approaching the border of Kampong Chhnang and Kandal Provinces. A total of eight villagers were injured.

The latest arrests were the result of a land dispute, dating back to 2001, when an initial 19 families had their land grabbed. K.D.C Company has claimed ownership of the land against the local residents in Ta Ches commune, Kampong Tralach district, Kampong Chhnang. K.D.C is owned by Mrs. Chea Kheng, wife of the Cambodian Minister of Mines and Energy, Suy Sem.

The recent violence between the villagers of Lor Peang and K.D.C should have sent a warning signal to authorities that a resolution for this decade-long land conflict needs to be undertaken. Instead the state continues its attempts at violently suppressing the voices of villagers and threatening the community with additional arrests.

“Clearly, this decade-long land conflict won’t go away by violently beating up the community and arresting a few more villagers,” said LICADHO Technical Coordinator Am Sam Ath said at the time of the arrests. “It was said before, and now it is long overdue that the government realizes that unresolved land conflicts are a threat to Cambodia’s social stability, and have to be addressed so villagers can be given the land rights they deserve.”

The dispute has grown over the last 13 years, affecting land rights to over 100 families in Lor Peang village. During that time, community representatives and a local village chief were jailed for advocating on behalf of the affected villagers. A human rights worker from local organization The Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) was also found guilty of defamation on January 25th 2011.

The arrest of the three marchers in August followed a violent clash between villagers and K.D.C company workers in July, while the company was building a 6 feet high concrete wall around the disputed land. Following the incident, two villagers – Mr. Seang Heng and Mr. Mang Yav – were arrested and are currently in pre-trial detention pending trial.



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Sentencing In Vietnam A Shameful Example Of A Failed Judiciary

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

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

The arbitrary imprisonment of three human rights defenders on trumped up charges makes a mockery of Vietnam’s human rights commitments and obligations, rights groups said Wednesday.

“Eight months after being elected to the UN Human Rights Council, Vietnam continues its business-as-usual repression of all voices of dissent”, said The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) President Karim Lahidji. “Vietnam’s pledges to improve its legal and judicial system and to adopt policies and measures to ensure respect of human rights have not materialized. It’s time for the international community to make the release of all political prisoners, including human rights defenders, a key demand in its interaction with Hanoi,” he added.

The Dong Thap Provincial People’s Court sentenced Ms. Bui Thi Minh Hang, 50, to three years in prison; Mr. Nguyen Van Minh, 34, to two years and six months; and Ms. Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh, 28, to two years in prison. They had been charged under Article 245, paragraph 2, of the Criminal Code for “causing public disorder.” The three remain detained in An Binh Commune, Cao Lanh City, Dong Thap Province. They are particularly known for their peaceful campaigns for religious freedom, the release of political prisoners and their support to victims of land confiscation.

Police intercepted, harassed, and prevented scores of activists from attending the trial. Defense lawyers unsuccessfully requested a postponement of the proceedings after the court refused to hear testimony from 14 witnesses presented by the defense.

“Voicing your opinion, travelling to visit other prisoners or advocating for the rights of others is a right  – but never a criminal offense. The ruling of today is a shameful example of a judiciary not fulfilling its tasks as protector of rights but serving as a willful instrument of power,” noted Gerald Staberock, Secretary General of Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. “We should all remember that the baseline agreement of any state pretending to undertake reforms is that those speaking out on human rights can do so in safety.”

Police arrested the three on February 11th 2014, in Lap Vo District, Dong Thap Province, as the three were travelling from Ho Chi Minh City to Dong Thap Province to visit former political prisoner Nguyen Bac Truyen and his wife. Two days earlier, police had raided the couple’s home and taken Truyen into custody.

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

“The Vietnamese Government must immediately and unconditionally release the three human rights defenders and all other political prisoners”, said Vietnam Committee on Human Rights President Vo Van Ai. “The international community must demand that Hanoi match its words with actions,” he urged.

Bui Thi Minh Hang was previously sent to a “re-education camp’’ for two years where she says she was  psychologically and physically terrorized.

A six-week hunger strike in February-March 2014, in protest against her detention, caused serious concerns for Bui Thi Minh Hang’s health. She was also severely beaten at the time of the arrest. She may have had pre-existing health problems, including kidney stones, that could have been aggravated by the hunger strike. Front Line Defenders urges the government of Vietnam to quash the sentences as they appear ‘’to be solely motivated by their legitimate human rights activities.’’ They are particularly concerned about Bui Thi Minh’s health conditions.

Since January 2014, Vietnam has detained or imprisoned at least nine bloggers and human rights defenders. Vietnam currently holds about 200 political prisoners, the largest number in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. It is also on the Reporters Without Borders list of Enemies of the Internet because of its persecution of bloggers and cyber dissidents.

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In Burma, Judicial and Police Reform Needed Urgently

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.

In Burma, there has been a string of attacks by the police on farmers and other civilians in recent weeks. On August 14th, police in the Mandalay Region shot at a group of around 200 farmers from Nyaung Wine Village in Singu Township as they were protesting against illegal and unjust land grabbing by the military.

The protest centered on land confiscated by the Burmese military two decades ago and handed over to a Chinese company, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), which says the land has yet to be returned or compensated.  It accused the Burmese police of having “joined military battalions, crony corporations, and corrupt courts in crushing hopes of farmers that have been subject to land grabbing across Burma.”

AHRC said nearly 50 police personnel with weapons and shields arrived and attacked the farmers, who had gathered near the local school for the protest against the land grab. The police forcibly dispersed and beat the farmers before opening fire on them. A 30-year-old mother of two, identified as Ma San Kyin Nu, was allegedly one of the victims, and has been admitted to Mandalay General Hospital for urgent medical treatment as a result of gunshot injuries on her calf.

AHRC said in a statement that ‘’this pattern of land grabbing and violent followup to the original crime, without any possibility of legal recourse for the victim farmers, and this most recent shooting, indicates that there is not even a vestige of the rule of law in Burma.’’ The rights group condemns the violence displayed by the police to intimidate the citizens, and insists that the government sets the farmers free immediately. It also urges the government of Burma to solve these land problems in a peaceful way and uphold the farmers rights to their land. Burma must make these changes if it would like to make a claim of being a democratic and free nation.

According to the Burma Partnership, after the police violence, the protesting farmers prevented police from making any arrests; however, later, another 100 police arrived and blockaded the entire village. Local residents then took matters into their own hands and briefly detained about 40 police officers, angered at the brutal approach of the police to the land conflict. Although the policemen were eventually released after negotiations, the organization says that the dangers and risks of uncontrolled police violence and impunity are evident: ”blood has been shed and anarchy has prevailed.” The organization says that even if police allegations that the protesters were armed with slingshots is true, under no circumstances is the use of live ammunition by police or other state security forces on civilian protesters proportionate or justified.

Additionally, on May 14th, All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) member Kaung Htet Kyaw was allegedly beaten by police during a suppression of a farmers’ protest in Thegon Township in Pegu Region. Kaung Htet Kyaw sustained severe head injuries and was charged with participating in an unauthorized protest.. ABFSU responded by releasing a statement denouncing police mistreatment. On May 22nd a group of students gathered to demand justice for Kaung Htet Kyaw. The group alleges to have been assaulted by more than 60 police officers after the rally. “We demand the release of the farmers who are in detention, and that all charges against them and our member, Kaung Htet Kyaw, be dropped,” said Min Thwe Thit of ABSFU.

The AHRC also reports that on July 4th, police in Bago No. 1 Police Station arrested a 37-year-old man, Zin Aung, without an arrest warrant or court order, and without notifying an administrative officer, on grounds of stealing bottles of motorcycle fuel. While in custody for three days, he was allegedly tortured, and subsequently died of his injuries. According to the AHRC, police have now been threatening the relatives of the deceased. This case follows on the heels of other custodial torture cases which implicate the Burma Police Force, such as those of Kyaw Nyunt, Than Htun, and Myo Myint Swe.

Moreover, the Network for Human Rights Documentation-Burma (ND-Burma) has published its periodic Report on the Human Rights Situation in Burma covering the first half of 2014. ND-Burma’s report focuses on 103 documented cases of human rights violations in Burma from January to June 2014. There are many serious human rights cases highlighted in the report, including ones of torture, extra-judicial killing, illegal arrests and detentions, forced displacement and rape. Many such cases clearly entail the collusion or actual involvement of the Burma police force or enforcement agencies.

ND Board member Salai Bawi Pi said that “Many human right defenders and activists have been arrested under repressive laws such as Section 18.” As an example, he drew attention to the recent case in Chin state where eight Chin activists were charged under Section 18 of ‘The Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act’ for protesting without permission. These activists requested permission, but were refused by local authorities. Their protest was related to an incident that allegedly occurred on June 10th, when a 55 year-old woman from Rezua sub-township, in the Matupi township area of Chin State, was brutally beaten during an attempted rape by a Burma Army soldier.

The Burma Partnership says that these cases show that there is a long way to go in terms of reforming the Burma police force. ‘’Rather than protecting people from violent crime, the police are perpetrating violent crime; rather than respecting people’s human rights, they are abusing them; rather than enhancing security, they are undermining it; rather than supporting the judiciary, they are using it to do their dirty work, or even by-passing it altogether; and rather than assuaging the fears of communities around the country, they are exacerbating those fears,’’ the organization says.

The European Union (EU) has been working with the Burma Police Force on its police reform program. The EU states that “it has decided to support the reform of the [Burma] police force in the areas of crowd management and community policing with a €10 million (approximately $13.3) package. Improving respect by the police for human rights and the accountability of the police to Parliament, civil society and the media will be at the heart of this action.”

In order to tack police impunity properly, the Burma Partnership says that the Burmese government needs to show political will, especially when it comes to reforming the judiciary, so that victims of police brutality will start to develop confidence in the system and feel that they have a genuine avenue to redress for such brutalities and rights abuses. The organization warns that if the police force remains unaccountable and impunity is not tackled, then police brutality will not only continue but the impunity will become more entrenched – however many millions the EU pours into its police reform programs.

Burma Partnership also maintains that the police require intensive, rigorous, principled training on effective policing and human rights compliance throughout the country. Disciplinary procedures need to be implemented at all levels of the police force.

In response to this crackdown on farmers, last Wednesday, about 1,000 farmers gathered in Burma’s northern Sagaing region to demand that authorities drop charges against fellow farmers.

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Rights Groups Urge EU To Consider Human Rights During Trade Negotiations

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its member organization Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) have filed a complaint in Brussels to request that the European Union Ombudsman address the European Commission’s refusal to take human rights into account in negotiations for trade and investment agreements with Vietnam. Negotiations on the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement are taking place against a backdrop of intensifying repression in Vietnam.

In a fierce crackdown on freedom of expression, Vietnam prosecuted and imprisoned at least 65 bloggers and activists in 2013, and at least 14 more have been arrested in the first half of 2014. Scores of civil society activists were brutally beaten for staging peaceful demonstrations or holding human rights debates. Hundreds of dispossessed farmers were wounded and several others killed in massive protests over forced eviction and land confiscation.

“It is inadmissible that the European Commission is negotiating a Free Trade Agreement without any regard for human rights in Vietnam. Over the past year, human rights abuses have reached a climax. Top EU officials have repeatedly denounced the harsh sentences of bloggers and human rights defenders, yet the Commission proposes business as usual – and even upgrading trade relations with Vietnam. We call upon the Ombudsman to address this and help put human rights back at the center of the EU-Vietnam relationship,” said VCHR President Vo Van Ai.

Trade and investment agreements have the potential to exacerbate human rights violations in the context of laboir rights, access to land and natural resources or when recourse mechanisms are designed to protect investors and not affected communities.

In the on-going crackdown, peaceful activists and human rights defenders have been subjected to unprecedented police brutality, beatings and sexual assaults, harassment, arbitrary arrest and “administrative detention” in labor camps and psychiatric institutions.

During the same period, Vietnam also introduced legal measures to restrict the exercise of human rights. New decrees and regulations were adopted to curb freedom of expression on the Internet, freedom of religion, and to limit the legal operations of domestic and international NGOs in Vietnam.

Despite numerous calls by FIDH and VCHR and a resolution of the European Parliament for the European Commission to include human rights impact assessments (HRIA) in the ongoing trade and investment negotiations with Vietnam, the EU Commissioner for Trade stated that the Commission did not “envisage carrying out a specific human rights impact assessment for the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement.”

FIDH and VCHR believe that the European Commission’s refusal constitutes a case of maladministration. The two organizations urge the EU Ombudsman to address the situation and recommend that the European Commission review it.

“These human rights violations can be prevented by conducting human rights impact assessments and by including safeguards in trade and investment agreements that address violations, or offer redress mechanisms,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji. “We believe that the European Commission’s refusal to carry out HRIAs is inconsistent with its legal obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights”, he added.

The protection of human rights is guaranteed by the 1992 Vietnamese Constitution.

However, the exercise of these rights is severely curtailed by provisions in the Constitution and extensive domestic legislation that restricts human rights to compliance with “the policies and interests of the State.”

The EU has an obligation to ensure that the trade agreements it concludes do not lead and/or contribute to human rights violations in the EU and the countries where they are implemented.

In order to do so, the EU should conduct HRIAs and take all necessary measures to prevent trade and investment agreements from impeding the enjoyment of human rights in Europe and in other countries, the organizations say. Such an obligation is grounded in both international and EU law. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food stated, “there is a duty to identify any potential inconsistency between pre-existing human rights treaties and subsequent trade or investment agreements, and to refrain from entering into such agreements where such inconsistencies are found to exist.” “By preparing human rights impact assessments prior to the conclusion of trade and investment agreements, States are addressing their obligations under the human rights treaties.”

Vietnam is on Reporters Without Borders Enemies of the Internet list due to of its persecution of bloggers and cyber dissidents.

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Historic Conviction of Khmer Rouge Leaders An Important Step But Long Overdue Step Towards Justice

The Judges of the Trial Chamber enter the courtroom to pronounce the verdict in Case 002/01 on August 7th 2014. Photo courtesy ECCC.

The Judges of the Trial Chamber enter the courtroom to pronounce the verdict in Case 002/01 on August 7th 2014. Photo courtesy ECCC.

The convictions of two former Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity are an important step towards justice yet long overdue, rights groups said this week. On August 7th, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) convicted Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, and sentenced them to life in prison. It is the first time that high-ranking officials of the Khmer Rouge regime have been convicted by an independent court and represents a critical step against impunity. While welcoming the verdict, rights groups also expressed deep concern over political interference, delays and corruption during the trials.

Khmer Rouge rule under the leadership of Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and others resulted in the deaths of as many as two million Cambodians, more than one-quarter of the population. Pol Pot, known as “Brother Number One,” died in 1998 after years of protection from Thailand and China.

Nuon Chea, the former second in command of the Khmer Rouge regime, and Khieu Samphan, the regime’s former Head of State, faced a number of charges, including the forced movement of the population from Phnom Penh and elsewhere, and the execution of soldiers and officials of the Khmer Republic – the regime topped by the Khmer Rouge.

Nuon Chea waits for the verdict on case 00201 in the courtroom on August 7th 2014. Photo courtesy ECCC.They were found guilty of the crimes against humanity of murder, political persecution, forced transfer, attacks against human dignity, enforced disappearances and extermination during forced movements of population in Cambodia from April 17th 1975 to December 1977. They were also found guilty of the crimes against humanity of murder, political persecution and extermination of former soldiers and officials of the Khmer Republic at Tuol Po Chrey in Pursat Province. The ECCC trial judges also decided to order collective measures of reparation for Civil Parties yet they will not fund these reparation orders.

The ECCC also recognized that both Samphan and Chea have committed the majority of the above crimes in the framework of a common plan, to which they made a significant contribution.

“Although this decision is issued almost 40 years after the Khmer Rouge crimes, it is a historic victory for Civil Parties”, said Patrick Baudouin, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Honorary President and Civil Parties lawyer. “We hope this decision will contribute to the Cambodian society’s work towards sustainable peace and independent justice,”, he added.

“The decision issued by the Trial Chamber of the ECCC represents an important step against the impunity of former Khmer Rouge high-ranking officials. It is also a positive message for younger generations that these crimes cannot go unpunished,” said Latt Ky of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC).

The organizations welcome the decision to order collective reparations for victims, including permanent and mobile exhibitions or new chapters on Khmer Rouge crimes in teacher’s guidebooks. However, they expressed regret that the ECCC will not fund these reparation orders.

Khieu Samphan prepares to hear the verdict on August 7th 2014. Photo courtesy ECCC.

Khieu Samphan prepares to hear the verdict on August 7th 2014. Photo courtesy ECCC.

Almost 4,000 victims have been able to participate as Civil Parties in case 002/01, with rights as full parties to the case, including legal representation and opportunities to request investigative acts and call and question witnesses. Before the ECCC, no other international criminal tribunal trying crimes under international law had given victims a formal status during the proceedings.

Human Rights Watch said Friday that the convictions are too little, too late and do not make up for the fundamental failures of the Cambodian-controlled and United Nations-assisted Khmer Rouge tribunal. “The convictions of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are too little and too late to save the Khmer Rouge tribunal from being regarded as a failure,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The goal of justice for Khmer Rouge victims has been irrevocably tarnished by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political interference, the failure to bring more cases, long delays, and pervasive corruption. What should be a day of celebrating justice is instead a reminder of missed opportunities.”

The trial followed years of obstruction by Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander. Many Khmer Rouge responsible for large-scale atrocities during the group’s rule from 1975-79 continue to live freely, some in the same communities in which they carried out mass killings, forced labor, and other abuses. Hun Sen has said he would rather see the court fail than take up more cases, raising concerns that he is protecting former Khmer Rouge fighters now in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Human Rights Watch also said that the trial barely scratched the surface of the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge: “Cambodia is the country where the term ‘Killing Fields’ was coined, but this trial did not address how the Khmer Rouge systematically killed people it considered their enemies and dumped them in mass graves,” Adams said. “It is a sad indictment of the Khmer Rouge tribunal that after seven years and the expenditure of more than US$200 million, Cambodians now face the prospect that only three people will be held legally accountable for the destruction of their country,” Adams continued. “Men who ordered the deaths of tens of thousands of people are being allowed by Hun Sen and an indifferent international community to live out their lives in freedom, often in the same village or on the same street as their victims.”

At the direction of Hun Sen, government-installed Cambodian judges, prosecutors, and other court personnel have obstructed investigations and trials. The government did not require its members to provide evidence to the tribunal’s judicial investigation and trial proceedings. Serious corruption allegations affecting the proceedings have not been adequately investigated.

Cambodian judges and prosecutors have successfully blocked the arrest and indictment of five additional suspects whom UN prosecutors have named as responsible for serious crimes during the Khmer Rouge period. Hun Sen publicly said on multiple occasions that there should be no further trials.

Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia-Pacific Director Rupert Abbott said that the long-awaited ruling is an ‘’important step towards justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge period and highlights the importance of addressing impunity.” However, he expressed concern that ‘’the earlier refusal of senior Cambodian government officials to give evidence, as well as allegations of political interference in other ECCC cases, is troubling and raises concerns around the fairness of the proceedings and respect for victims’ right to hear the full truth regarding the alleged crimes.’’ He said it was crucial to have fair and effective trials if the ECCC is to leave a lasting legacy which strengthens Cambodia’s very fragile judicial system and contributes towards ending the deep culture of impunity.

Amnesty also said  that the  ECCC must complete all of its cases in a timely and fair manner without political interference, which will require the support of the Cambodian government and the international community and said that much more must be done by the government of Cambodia to repair the harm suffered by victims.

Human Rights Watch stressed that donors and other key governments have failed to make continued support for the tribunal contingent on the end of political interference, cooperation from the Cambodian government in further investigations, and allowing further cases to be filed based on the evidence and professional judgment of independent judges and prosecutors.

“Instead of issuing statements congratulating the Khmer Rouge tribunal on its long overdue verdicts, Japan, the European Union, Australia, the US, and others should be focussing on justice for victims,” Adams said. “Are they going to be silent partners in Hun Sen’s manipulation of justice, or will they fight for victims and survivors to have a credible judicial process?” Adams asked.

The decision can be appealed within 30 days. The evidence collected during proceedings in this case (Case 002/01) will be usable for trial proceedings in Case 002/02 which targets the same accused. The substantial trial in Case 002/02 is expected to start before the end of this year.

The Khmer Rouge took power in April 1975, at the end of the United States’ war in Indochina. Led by Pol Pot and Nuon Chea, they ruled the country until January 7th 1979, when Vietnam drove them out. Estimates suggest that as many as two million of Cambodia’s eight million people were killed or died from disease, starvation, or forced labor during this period.

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Nearly One Year Later, Chinese Investigative Journalist Who Exposed Corruption Released on Bail

Liu Hu in an undated photo courtesy of Reporters Without Borders.

Liu Hu in an undated photo courtesy of Reporters Without Borders.

Rights groups are welcoming the release of Chinese investigative reporter Liu Hu on bail but warn that China has its own agenda when it comes to whistleblowers and those exposing corruption. Liu Hu was released on August 3rd after nearly a year in detention on trumped-up defamation charges designed to silence him. He still faces trial on a defamation charge for drawing attention to corruption and it is still unclear what conditions there will be to his release.

Liu is the victim of an “anti-rumor campaign” used to crack down on anyone daring to draw attention to corruption. Despite the Communist Party’s pledge to combat corruption, it has continued to go after journalists who expose misuses of power.

A resident of the southwestern city of Chongqing, Liu worked for the Guangzhou-based Modern Express newspaper. He was arrested on August 24th 2013 for “spreading false rumors” after urging the authorities to investigate a local official he believed was engaged in misconduct. Formally charged with defamation after being held for 37 days, his bail request was rejected at that time and one of his lawyers was placed under disciplinary investigation for posting documents linked to the case online.

Announcing Liu’s release, his lawyer, Zhou Ze posted to his Weibo account that the authorities “were unable to proceed with his case in the allotted time frame’’ and noted that certain conditions would undoubtedly be attached to his release. ‘’I have always maintained that Liu Hu is innocent, and that his case should go no further than the procurator[ial] stage. Releasing Liu Hu on bail is a welcome step in the right direction,” Zhou added. After his release from Beijing detention center No. 1, Liu returned to Chongqing.

When I asked Bob Dietz, Asia Program Coordinator at New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists what he thought of Liu’s release and China’s crackdown on journalists exposing corruption, he said ‘’Ten months in prison for whistleblowing. That is what investigative reporting can get you, if you’re lucky, in China. And we still don’t know if there will be conditions attached to his release.’’

‘’The message here is that China’s government from Beijing down to the provinces and townships has its own agenda when it comes to going after corruption — and independent journalism and reporters like Liu Hu, who are not under their control, do not fit into their scheme of things,’’ Dietz warned.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Paris said Wednesday that Liu’s release demonstrates the weakness of the prosecution case against him. “We are delighted by Liu Hu’s release, even if it comes 344 days too late, and now the judicial authorities must drop all the charges against him. We call for an end to the persecution of journalists and bloggers who expose cases of corruption and for the release of those who are still detained, such as Yin Yusheng, Dong Rubin and Xu Zhiyong. The lack of evidence against them shows the hidden political motive for their detention,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

In September 2013, Chinese authorities yet again tightened social media controls. Under the new rules, people who post comments deemed libelous and that were reposted 500 or more times faced defamation charges and up to three years in prison.

On July 29th, Liu posted a note on his Sina Weibo account about Ma Zhengqi, the state administration deputy director for industry and commerce, accusing him of neglecting his duties while Chongqing party secretary and being implicated in corruption. Claiming he had solid evidence, Liu accused Ma of refusing to conduct an investigation into the privatization of two state state-owned companies that resulted in considerable losses for the state. Liu’s investigative reporting led to his being singled out for punishment by the authorities.

According to RSF, this directive was sent to the Chinese media: “Do not investigate, report, or comment on Modern Express reporter Liu Hu’s receipt of a written guarantee [of release] pending trial.”

In its report Challenged in China, the Committee to Protect Journalists urged the new Chinese leadership to implement reforms to bring China’s laws and practices in line with international standards for press freedom and freedom of expression. The press freedom organization specifically called for the decriminalization of defamation laws, including reforming civil defamation laws to prevent abuse by public figures and corporations.

China is among the world’s leading jailers of journalists. At least 30 journalists and 75 netizens continue to be detained in China, which is ranked 175th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.

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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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