Two Vietnamese Bloggers Jailed for “Abusing Democratic Freedoms”

Rights groups are strongly condemning a Hanoi court’s sentencing Wednesday of two Vietnamese bloggers to prison terms on charges of “abusing democratic freedoms.”

In a one-day trial, Hanoi’s People’s Court sentenced Nguyen Huu Vinh, founder of the news website and aggregator Ba Sam, and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, his editorial assistant, to five and three years respectively under article 258 of the Penal Code, which carries maximum penalties of seven years in jail for “abusing democratic freedoms to harm the interests of the State”. The two had been accused of “publishing online articles with bad contents and misleading information to lower the prestige and create public distrust of government offices, social organizations, and citizens.”

Both bloggers were held for more than 22 months in pre-trial detention. It wasn’t clear if the time they already served would count against the sentences the court imposed today. They were taken back to the B-14 detention center in Hanoi following the verdict.

The Vietnamese government must immediately end the ongoing repression of peaceful dissent, release all political prisoners, and repeal its draconian legislation, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its member organization the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) said.

“Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy should not have spent a single day in prison for merely exercising their right to freedom of expression. They must be immediately released, along with all other political prisoners in the country,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also criticized the verdict: “Today’s harsh convictions of bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy are inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “If Vietnam wants to be viewed as a responsible member of the international community and a reliable partner in multilateral agreements, these bogus anti-state convictions must stop immediately.”

Vietnamese authorities have increasingly used Article 258 to stifle media criticism and persecute independent bloggers and journalists, according to CPJ research.

The charges stemmed from 24 entries posted to Ba Sam and two other blogs Vinh established: Dan Quyen (Citizen’s Rights) and Chep Su Viet (Writing Vietnamese History). Both blogs were carried on Ba Sam‘s site, reports said. Judge Nguyen Van Pho ruled that the articles in question had distorted the ruling Communist Party’s policies, reduced public trust in the party and went against the interests of the nation.

Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy have been detained since their arrest on May 5th 2014 in Hanoi. Nguyen Huu Vinh, a former police officer, established Ba Sam (Talking Nonsense) as an independent news platform in September 2007. The blog posted links to state-run Vietnamese media, often with critical commentary added by the blog’s administrators, as well as translated versions of foreign news reports on political, economic, and social issues. The site also published articles and commentary from local activists and dissidents. In 2013 and 2014, hackers repeatedly attacked the website.

Vinh’s health has declined while in detention, according to a petition and separate appeal for action filed with authorities by his wife, Le Thi Minh Ha. After a prison visit last October, she said that Vinh had developed a rash all over his body, a condition she speculated was symptomatic of liver and blood disorders caused by lack of exposure to sunlight.

“Today’s verdict is all the more concerning because it could signal a new wave of repression as new party leaders assume control,” said Mr. Lahidji.

The trial of Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, originally scheduled for January 19th 2016, was postponed ahead of the Vietnam Communist Party’s (VCP’s) congress, held in Hanoi in January 2016. Between March 31st and April 12th 2016, Vietnam’s National Assembly will endorse the new leadership nominated by the VCP. Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang, who has overseen the ongoing crackdown on bloggers, activists, and human rights defenders, is slated to become the country’s new President.

“Without the repeal of the Vietnam’s numerous repressive laws that continue to be used to target government critics, it is extremely likely that the number of political prisoners will rise under a new hardline leadership. It is time for the international community to step up its pressure for genuine legislative and political reforms in Vietnam,” said VCHR President Vo Van Ai.

Vietnam holds about 130 political prisoners – the largest number among Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states.

Amendments to the Criminal Code, adopted by the National Assembly on November 27th 2015, failed to repeal numerous clauses that are inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations under international law. In addition to Article 258, other provisions that fail to comply with international standards include: (1) Article 79 (‘’activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration’’); Article 80 (‘’spying’’); Article 87 (‘’undermining national solidarity, sowing divisions between religious and non-religious people’’); and Article 88 (‘’conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’’). Vietnamese authorities have repeatedly used these provisions to suppress the right to freedom of opinion and expression and to detain government critics.

FIDH and VCHR have consistently denounced and called for the repeal of the above-referenced ‘’national security’’ legislation that is overly broad and totally inconsistent with Vietnam’s commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Vietnam held at least six reporters behind bars, including Vinh and Thuy, on December 1st 2015, when CPJ conducted its most recent census of journalists imprisoned around the world.

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UN Must Seek Justice for Forced Labor Victims in North Korea

UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Marzuki Darusman. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré.

UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Marzuki Darusman. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré.

United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) member states should protect victims of forced labor and focus on Pyongyang accountability for rights abuses by creating a panel of experts to devise a comprehensive strategy to address decades of impunity in North Korea, Human Rights Watch says.

The North Korean government systematically uses forced labor from its citizens, including women, students and children, prisoners, and workers deployed overseas. Demands for labor are not simply a part of normal civic obligations, but are used to sustain the country’s economy or as a component of punishment or discrimination. Coerced labor without compensation is also a central element of the government’s strategy to maintain control and its hold on power.

“Forced labor is an egregious human rights abuse condemned worldwide, but for many North Koreans, it’s at the core of their everyday life,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The Human Rights Council should take action now to bring accountability for those responsible for the pervasive use of forced labor in North Korea.”

A 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea revealed that the North Korean government has committed crimes against humanity, including enslavement, extermination, murder, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence.

On March 14th, Human Rights Watch and seven other groups will hold a panel discussion in Geneva, on the sidelines of the council’s 31st session. Marzuki Darusman, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in North Korea, whose mandate ends in July, will present his final report at this session.

The panel discussion will feature Darusman, Sifton, and three North Koreans who will describe their own experiences. They are: Kim Hang-Ok, who experienced the government’s mobilization of forced labor on a regular basis; An Su-Rim, forced to work for eight years without compensation at a paramilitary forced labor brigade; and a former North Korean overseas forced worker in Kuwait who goes by the surname Kim for fear of repercussions for family members left in North Korea.

Forced labor has been used for political coercion and punishment of perceived dissidents since the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, but more recently the government has made it part of the country’s economic backbone. After North Korea’s government-run food distribution system collapsed between 1993 and 1995, the country faced a severe famine that resulted in mass starvation. The famine compelled the government to permit for the first time small-scale private commercial activities, known as jangsa, or dealings with the marketplace.

Government agencies, including the ruling Korean Workers Party, the army, prisons, the police, state-owned companies, schools, and universities, could similarly no longer rely on government funding and began to participate in the semi-official, parallel, “grey” private sector economy to raise money. State agencies increased their use of forced labor for these projects to save on labor costs.

Ordinary North Korean workers are not free to choose their own job. The government assigns jobs to both men and unmarried women from cities and rural areas. In theory, they are entitled to a salary, but in many cases these enterprises do not compensate them, forcing them to find other jobs to survive.

The government also compels numerous North Koreans to join paramilitary forced labor brigades and work extended periods of time without pay. These brigades (known in Korean as dolgyeokdae) are controlled and operated by the ruling party, have military structures, and work primarily on construction projects for buildings and other basic public infrastructure.

North Korean students have told Human Rights Watch that their schools have forced them to work without pay on farms for a month at a time at least twice a year – plowing and seeding during planting time and again to bring crops in at harvest time.

Prisoners in North Korea’s political prisons, as well as detention facilities for ordinary crimes, face back-breaking forced labor in difficult and dangerous conditions, sometimes in winter weather without proper clothing or adequate housing.

A grim array of human rights abuses, driven by “policies established at the highest level of State,” have been and continue to be committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), according to the 2014 UN Commission’s report, which called for urgent action to address the rights situation in the country, including referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC). “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the Commission said in the report, which is unprecedented in scope.

On September 8th 2015, in his most recent report to the General Assembly, Darusman called for the creation of a panel of experts to make concrete recommendations to advance accountability in North Korea. Human Rights Watch called on the UNHRC to include the creation of the accountability panel in the resolution to be voted later this month.

In January 2016, Mr. Darusman called on the international community to further all efforts to improve the human rights situation in the country. “In addition to continuing political pressure to exhort the DPRK to improve human rights, it is also now imperative to pursue criminal responsibility of the DPRK leadership,” said Marzuki Darusman in Tokyo at the end of his last official visit as a UN Human Rights Council’s independent expert.

“Not much has changed in the country almost two years after the report of the Commission of Inquiry,” the Special Rapporteur added.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), since his appointment in 2010, Mr. Darusman has made several requests to visit DPRK; however, access was never granted. He has been visiting other countries in the region such as Japan, Thailand and the Republic of Korea.

“I regret to say that any act that can be construed as violence against the international community has negative implications on the human rights situation in the DPRK,” the expert stressed, noting that his visit to Japan took place following the latest nuclear test by the North Korean Government.

“Such an act immediately overshadows the continuous efforts by the international community to improve the human rights situation in the DPRK,” he stated, adding that it was all the more important for the international community to step up efforts to engage the DPRK in human rights dialogue while seeking to ensure accountability.

During his five-day mission in January, Mr. Darusman met with family members of victims of abduction and representatives of civil society organizations. He also met with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister in charge of the Abduction Issue, high-level officials from the Cabinet Intelligence, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cabinet Headquarters on the Abduction Issues and parliamentarians, as well as officials of the Ministry of Justice, the Supreme Court and the National Police Agency.

“I am disappointed that there has been no concrete progress since Japan and the DPRK signed a bilateral agreement almost two years ago to work towards a resolution of this issue,” he stressed. “I urge the DPRK to meet their commitment to the agreement and resume actively steps to restore the confidence between Japan and the DPRK.”

During his discussion with family members of victims of abduction and the Minister in charge of the Abduction Issue, the expert recalled that the former Supreme Leader of the DPRK, Kim Jong-il, acknowledged that the country had been involved in abductions of Japanese citizens.

“Such an acknowledgement, without concrete and comprehensive solutions, naturally raises suspicion that the country continues to be involved and implicated in the abductions,” he said. “We are therefore on a clear path and engaged in a just cause to pursue a final settlement of abduction of Japanese nationals, but also possibly of other nationals.”

“Abduction, as a form of enforced disappearance, is a continuous crime, which does not end until the victim’s family learns of the whereabouts of their loved one and, where possible, the survivors are immediately returned to their families,” the expert noted. “Resolving the abduction issue is a matter of urgency. The families of victims are advancing in age.”

The Special Rapporteur underscored that the issue also affects the international community. “Progress on the abduction issue will contribute to the beginning of building trust and good will. Failure to act will undermine any good will that any future engagement might be undertaken with reasonable measures of trust,” he said.

Mr. Darusman also underlined that the issue of trust goes to the heart of the obligations of every United Nations Member State to observe the Charter of the United Nations. “The DPRK has an obligation to uphold and respect the Charter and international human rights law, exemplary of any full member of the United Nations,” he concluded.

The UNHRC and the UN General Assembly have condemned the human rights situation in North Korea in previous resolutions and highlighted the need for accountability, including calls for the Security Council to consider referral to the International Criminal Court, consistent with the commission recommendations. The UN Security Council has recognized the gravity of the situation by addressing North Korea’s bleak human rights record as a formal agenda item two years in a row.

“One of the Human Rights Council’s biggest tasks is to hold accountable those responsible for rights abuses against North Koreans,” Sifton said. “Ensuring accountability is the only way forward if the international community is to help end decades of unchecked human rights abuses in North Korea.”

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Getting Away With Rape in Cambodia

A victim of rape in Cambodia. Photo: LICADHO.

A victim of rape in Cambodia. Photo: LICADHO.

To mark International Women’s Day, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) is releasing a new audio book and summary audio clip titled Getting Away With It: The Treatment of Rape in Cambodia’s Justice System. Both the book and the summary present evidence of the immense failure of the Cambodian justice system to properly investigate and prosecute cases of rape involving women and children. They provide details of multiple systemic flaws – corruption, discriminatory attitudes towards women and girls, misinterpretation of the law, and lack of resources – which, together, mean that many perpetrators of rape receive only very lenient punishment or go completely unpunished.

International Women’s Day, commemorated every year on March 8th, is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities. UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon said on the occasion: “Let us devote solid funding, courageous advocacy and unbending political will to achieving gender equality around the world. There is no greater investment in our common future.”

LICADHO’s audio book is based upon an extensive reported released under the same name in November 2015 by LICADHO which brings to light the failures of the Cambodian justice systems, which, combined with the factors mentioned above,  perpetuate and entrench a system in which impunity prevails.

“The trauma and suffering experienced by rape victims is so extreme, said Nap Somaly, Senior Women’s and Children’s Rights Monitor. “It’s really time that those at the very highest levels of government made the problem of sexual violence against women and children a priority issue.”

LICADHO’s report is based on an analysis of data on rape cases gathered by LICADHO during the last three years. It reveals serious and systemic flaws in the prosecution of rape cases resulting in a disturbingly low number of convictions. The reasons for this are varied but amongst the most significant factors are the high numbers of cases settled by financial compensation, the widespread negative impact of corruption amongst the police and judiciary, poor understanding and application of the law by judges, and the deleterious effect of discriminatory attitudes towards women, and in particular towards women’s sexuality.

In 2013, the United Nations published research on the prevalence of Cambodian men’s use of violence against women. It found that out of a sample of 1,812 men, 369 (20.4%) admitted to having committed rape. This figure included partner, non-partner and gang rape. Of that 369, nearly half had raped more than once and over 20% had raped more than one victim.1 These figures indicate that rape is a grave and widespread problem in Cambodia and yet despite this, there is a severe shortage of all kinds of services for rape victims with law enforcement being particularly inadequate.

A review of 762 cases of rape and attempted rape investigated by LICADHO in 2012, 2013 and 2014 was included in the report. The cases took place in Phnom Penh and the 12 provinces in which LICADHO had offices during that period. 225 cases involved women of 18 or over, and 537 cases involved children under 18. Of the victims under 18, 58 (10%) were under 6, 181 (32%) were 6-11 and 328 (58%) were aged 12-17.

Of the 762 cases, 424 were closed by the time of writing the report. While around a third of the closed cases ended with a conviction and sentence that was compliant with criminal law, another third ended before trial and the final third ended with a conviction that was in some way flawed, or with an acquittal.

More than half of the cases which ended before trial were settled by the payment of compensation to the victim by the suspect, in return for which the victim dropped the criminal complaint. Others ended with marriage between the victim and the suspect or with the victim simply dropping the complaint because of a variety of factors including poverty and disability.

The cases which closed with a flawed conviction were also varied: many ended with convictions for indecent assault despite an initial charge by the prosecutor of rape; others ended with a conviction for rape but were followed by a sentence that was less than that prescribed by the Criminal Code or by a wholly or partially suspended sentence.

The report finds that while the closed cases were flawed in many different ways, there was a common theme which united them: corruption. In almost every type of case, from those which ended with compensation negotiated at the police station to those that went all the way to trial, corruption was a feature.

“Corruption is everywhere,” said LICADHO Director, Naly Pilorge. “Every time the victim comes into contact with a public official, it’s likely that they will have to make a corrupt payment and if the suspect has money he will probably be able to buy his freedom. Sometimes it seems like the authorities don’t care about justice. Instead, rape cases are just a way for them to make money.”

The widespread use of compensation to settle rape cases is harmful in several ways. It implies that rape is not a criminal matter and that it is not serious enough to be dealt with by the courts.

It also undermines the deterrent effect of the law: all Cambodians know that criminal matters can be resolved with money and as a result there is very little disincentive to commit serious crimes like rape. Finally, when cases are settled at the police station, the information about those cases goes no further. This means that data about reported rape cases is lost and that rape appears to be a much less widespread problem than it really is. As a result, the resources necessary to begin to tackle the issue remain seriously lacking.

The report concludes that the failure to punish perpetrators of rape reinforces existing public mistrust of the Cambodian justice system and conveys the message that rape is not an offence that will be treated seriously; it not only lets down the victims concerned but reduces the likelihood that future victims will take the risk of reporting the crimes committed against them. The report calls on the government to lead the response to this issue and provides a set of recommendations to the Cambodian authorities on how to address the multiple inadequacies in law enforcement raised by the report.

Some of the cases highlighted in the report include:

  • A 15-year-old girl was the victim of an attempted rape by her father, who was a soldier. At first, the victim told the district police and her father’s commanding officer about the attempted rape. Rather than allowing the police to arrest the suspect, the commanding officer kept him in the military barracks. The victim then came to LICADHO for help and monitors went to the provincial police to ask them to arrest the suspect. By then, however, the commanding officer had allowed the suspect to run away. He remains at large.
  • A 15-year-old girl was raped by a neighbour one night when she left her house to go to the toilet. When she informed the local police station about what had happened to her, the police told the suspect that the victim had made a complaint against him and that unless he gave them some money they would arrest him. The suspect paid the police and they allowed him to run away. The case is proceeding through court but the whereabouts of the suspect are unknown.
  • An 11-year-old girl was raped by a 54-year-old neighbour. He threatened that he would kill her if she told anyone what he had done. The girl’s family found out what had happened to her but decided to take no action. LICADHO heard about the case from another source and contacted the family to ask if they wanted any support. The family said they did not want to do anything as they had no faith in the legal process. Furthermore, they were worried that the suspect would take revenge if they reported him and that as they lived in the countryside, far from the police, no one would help them. They said that they were reasonably well off financially and therefore did not want to make a claim for compensation.
  • A 13-year-old girl was the victim of attempted rape by her 70-year-old neighbour. The girl’s family reported the case to the district police but later decided they did not want to take the case to court. They were very poor and lived 80 km from the court and could not afford the costs of travelling back and forth. They therefore negotiated a settlement of $300 with the help of the district police.

Many grave issues are raised in the report but worthy of particular mention is the far-reaching and destructive impact of corruption on the prosecution of rape cases. Although a third of the reviewed cases concluded with a satisfactory outcome, the details of the remaining two thirds of cases, alongside the experiences recounted by LICADHO’s monitors, make it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the majority of public officials – from local police and court clerks, to doctors and judges – look on rape cases as little more than a potential source of income, with both victims and suspects a target for extortion.

Legal provisions for tackling corruption by public officials exist but there have been very few genuine efforts to enforce them and the fact that those who give bribes are also liable for prosecution is a significant hindrance to whistle blowing. Furthermore, legal provisions to punish those who discredit court decisions – the intention of which is to protect the independence of the courts – in fact make it highly risky to criticize court judgments, even when they are blatantly flawed.

The  report ends with a series of practical recommendations to the Cambodian government which, if followed, will enable the process of change to begin.

The insidious nature of the corruption and the severity and complexity of the other issues raised in this report require a serious and long-term commitment from the very highest levels of government if they are to be resolved, LICADHO says. This commitment must take the form of an unequivocal condemnation of all acts of sexual violence as well as practical steps to address the multiple inadequacies in law enforcement raised by this report. It is only government-led fundamental change that will ensure an end to impunity for perpetrators of rape and justice for their victims.

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China Must Reform Laws That Undermine Rights

China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) should reject or revise laws that undermine domestic and international human rights protections, Human Rights Watch said Friday in a letter to NPC Chairman Zhang Dejiang. The NPC, the highest organ of state power in China, is to begin its annual meeting in Beijing on March 5th 2016.

“Since Xi Jinping became president, the Chinese government’s assault on free expression, peaceful protest, and human rights defenders has been unrelenting. Any efforts the National People’s Congress can make to reject rights-eroding legislation will be a glimmer of hope for people across China,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

In its letter, Human Rights Watch said that is it particularly concerned by long standing practices and recent developments in China that undermine human rights, including protection from arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and unfair trials, and respect for basic liberties, including freedom of expression, association, religion and peaceful assembly.

Since President Xi assumed power in March 2013, he and other senior government officials have stressed their commitment to the rule of law. Yet, Human Rights Watch says they continue to document systematic violations of basic human rights, including impunity for members of security forces who torture criminal suspects; denial of detainee’s access to lawyers; politicized prosecutions of human rights lawyers and other human rights defenders; and rapidly diminishing state tolerance for peaceful criticism, saying these are worrying trends that the NPC can reverse.

Human Rights Watch urges the NPC to:

  • Announce an intention to bring the State Security Law and the Counterterrorism Law, both passed in 2015, and the draft Cybersecurity Law into conformity with international law;
  • Reject the draft Foreign NGO Management Law, which would place broad and vague limitations on foreign organizations, among other restrictions;
  • Announce an intention to revise Detention Center Regulations and the Criminal Procedure Law to minimize torture in detention;
  • Seek revisions to the draft Charity Law to meet international standards; and
  • Ratify the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

The National People’s Congress consists of approximately 2,900 delegates who come from a tightly restricted pool of candidates vetted by the Chinese Communist Party, and who are elected by representatives of provincial-level people’s congresses whose members have been similarly selected.

While it is regarded as having little or no authority over the Communist Party, the real power-holding institution, NPC members have on occasion expressed their dissatisfaction with the government or pressed for revisions to proposed legislation on issues such as property rights.

Human Rights Watch says that in its role as guarantor of constitutional rights and international human rights law, the NPC should take forthright measures to reverse the practice of adopting laws that undermine those rights: “The National People’s Congress has the opportunity to reject laws that undermine China’s constitution and international law,” Richardson said. “Will it stand up for those rights – or approve further erosions?”

 

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Vietnam Must Release Prisoners of Conscience

Nguyen Van Dai in an undated photo courtesy of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights.

Nguyen Van
Dai in an undated photo courtesy of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights.

Vietnam must end the ongoing incommunicado detention of human rights defenders Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha which is in violation of their human rights, including the right to freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, say several human rights organisations. Amnesty International has designated Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha prisoners of conscience.

“Human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, and his colleague Le Thu Ha seem to have been arrested and subjected to harassment and incommunicado detention for trying to defend the human rights of people in Vietnam,” said Sam Zarifi, Asia Director at International Commission of Jurists. “Their ongoing incommunicado detention sends a strong warning to lawyers and human rights defenders in Vietnam that they should not speak out in support of human rights, and significantly erodes the rule of law.”

An incommunicado detention is one in which a detainee is held without access to the outside world, particularly to family, lawyers, courts and independent doctors. The practice of incommunicado detention violates key rights of persons deprived of liberty and facilitates torture and other ill-treatment. Prolonged periods of incommunicado detention can themselves constitute a violation of the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment.

Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha were arrested on December 16th 2015 and charged under Article 88 of the Penal Code for ‘’Conducting propaganda against the state.’’ All efforts by family and legal counsel to visit the pair since their arrests have been denied.

Along with Amnesty, the organizations Boat People SOS, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Civil Rights Defenders, International Commission of Jurists, VETO! Human Rights Defenders’ Network and Vietnamese Women for Human Rights say that all charges against the two should be withdrawn and they should be immediately and unconditionally released.

Incommunicado detention of prisoners of conscience is in-built into Vietnam’s system of intimidation, harassment and punishment of peaceful activists. Following arrests, activists are usually held without access to the outside world for periods of months and even years. During this period, activists are often subject to other violations, including torture or other ill-treatment, through prolonged solitary confinement and severe physical abuse.

The UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment came into force in Vietnam in 2015. In addition, as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Vietnam is also obligated to uphold the rights of persons deprived of their liberty, including to be brought promptly before a judge and to access to legal counsel, as well as to be treated with humanity and dignity. These are rights which are violated by incommunicado detention.

Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang, President and CEO of Boat People SOS and co-founder of Campaign to Abolish Torture in Vietnam, commented: “We find the arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention of Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha particularly troubling; their treatment underlines Vietnam’s lack of good faith when it ratified the UN Convention against Torture.”

Article 88 of the Vietnamese Penal Code outlines crimes of ‘’Infringing national security’’. While Article 58 of the Criminal Procedure Code provides for the suspension of the participation of legal counsel in cases involving charges of infringing national security until the conclusion of the investigation, Article 58 specifically violates the right of access to legal counsel under international human rights law, and deprives detainees of an essential safeguard against torture or other ill-treatment, the prohibition of which is absolute.

The UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment state that communication of a detained individual with family or counsel shall not be denied for more than a matter of days. In the current case, Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha have been denied access to family and counsel for more than two months. This is a prolonged period of incommunicado detention by any measure and constitutes a violation of the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment.

“The incommunicado detention of Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha flies in the face of Vietnam’s recent ratification of the Convention against Torture. When the government ratified the treaty, it publicly trumpeted its ‘unwavering’ commitment to ending torture and other ill-treatment. Dai and Ha are prisoners of conscience. To show the world that its commitment to end torture is one of substance and not just words, Vietnam must immediately end the incommunicado detention of Dai and Ha, and release them immediately and unconditionally,” says Champa Patel, Director of Amnesty International’s South East Asia and Pacific Regional Office.

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Obama Must Demand Human Rights Progress During ASEAN Summit

Human rights organizations are urging US President Barack Obama to demand progress on human rights during the upcoming Summit with Southeast Asian leaders, during which Mr. Obama will meet with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states in Rancho Mirage, California  February 15-16th 2016.

“The US foreign policy shift to focus on the Asia-Pacific is destined to fail if it does not make democratic reforms and respect for human rights in the region its core component. It is imperative that President Obama press for progress on human rights as a precondition for any talks on strengthening political, security, and economic ties with ASEAN governments,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji.

Hundreds of political prisoners remain incarcerated in appalling conditions in jails across Southeast Asia. Governments in the region continue to use repressive laws that do not comply with international standards to harass, arbitrarily detain and imprison activists and human rights defenders.

Across the region, ethnic and religious minorities continue to suffer persecution at the hands of state actors or with their complicity or acquiescence.

In many ASEAN member states the space for civil society and political dissent is either non-existent or rapidly shrinking. Violations of civil and political rights, including the right to freely choose their elected representatives, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the right to freedom of association, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly are categorically denied or increasingly curtailed.

Even countries that seem to have made significant strides towards the respect of democratic principles, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, remain mired in serious human rights challenges, including impunity for serious past abuses, such as extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

Under the banner of the fight against terrorist networks, several governments in the region have already proposed or enacted laws that will allow for the encroachment on fundamental freedoms and the commission of further human rights violations. As a result, security cooperation between the US and ASEAN governments must be conducted within a rigorous regulatory framework that ensures the respect of international human rights standards.

FIDH and its Southeast Asian member organizations urge President Obama to put on hold any form of US military assistance to ASEAN governments whose security forces continue to commit human rights violations until clear benchmarks of democratization, respect for human rights, and accountability for abuses are met.

The conclusion of free trade and investment agreements with ASEAN Member States is also a matter of grave concern. The current situation in Cambodia illustrates that the granting of trade privileges in the presence of a weak legal framework, rampant corruption, and a seriously flawed judicial system can result in serious violations of economic, social and cultural rights. In addition, the implementation of infrastructure and investment projects across the region has often led to unchecked exploitation of natural resources, forced evictions, displacement, loss of livelihood and environmental degradation.

“The US would be shooting itself in the foot if it pursues security cooperation and free trade agreements without prior adoption of strong human rights safeguards. Our region is already in distress from the deteriorating human rights situation, and none of us, the US included, can afford for it to get any worse,” said Altsean-Burma Coordinator and FIDH Secretary-General Debbie Stothard.

In his January 2015 State of the Union Address, President Obama declared that the US defends free speech, advocates for political prisoners, and condemns the persecution of women, religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The US President must repeat this message during the Summit and ensure that ASEAN leaders make public commitments towards improving the human rights situation in their respective countries, FIDH and its nine member organizations from Southeast Asia said.

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Chinese Authorities Must Free Disappeared Booksellers

Chinese authorities must immediately release five booksellers who the government has forcibly disappeared, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday. The five are affiliated with the Hong Kong-based Mighty Current Media, known for publishing books critical of senior Chinese leaders. Hong Kong authorities said on February 4th that mainland authorities had written confirming that “criminal compulsory measures” had been taken against Hong Kong residents Lui Por, Cheung Chi Ping and Lam Wing Kee for alleged “illegal activities.”

“The Chinese government should immediately release the five booksellers it abducted and ‘disappeared’ under the guise of law enforcement. Beijing’s actions are a clumsy attack on free speech in Hong Kong that has implications far beyond the fate of the five being held,” said Sophie RichardsonChina director at Human Rights Watch.

The three had been missing since mid-October 2015, with virtually no information regarding their whereabouts or the basis of their detention. A fourth bookseller, Gui Minhai, and a fifth, Lee Bo, went missing from Thailand and Hong Kong, respectively, and are believed to have been abducted by Chinese security agents, as there have been no records of them leaving those territories.

Any Hong Kong residents detained in connection to criminal investigations in the mainland should be afforded the same basic rights of Chinese nationals under China’s laws, such as access to lawyers and notification of families, as well as their rights under international law, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, the relevant Hong Kong authorities are obliged to provide assistance by liaising and communicating with their Chinese counterparts about their cases.

Under international law, a government commits an enforced disappearance when state agents take a person into custody and then deny holding the person, or conceal or fail to disclose the person’s whereabouts. Family members and legal representatives are not informed of the person’s location, well-being, or legal status. “Disappeared” people are often at high risk of torture and other ill-treatment.

Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen who is the co-owner of Hong Kong Mighty Current publishing house, went missing from Pattaya, Thailand, in mid-October 2015. In mid-January, CCTV, China’s state television network, broadcast a “confession” by Gui in which he said he had returned voluntarily to the mainland to face charges related to a 2003 drunk-driving incident. Subsequent state media reports said Gui is now being investigated for other unspecified “criminal activities,” and that others have been investigated in connection with him. Gui has not had access to a lawyer, family members or representatives of the Swedish government.

In mid-October 2015, Causeway Bay Books general manager Lui Por, business manager Cheung Chi Ping, and manager Lam Wing Kee, who at the time were believed to be in Shenzhen and Dongguan in China’s Guangzhou province, went missing. Mainland authorities provided no information as to their whereabouts or well-being. There is no evidence that they have had access to lawyers or family members.

On December 30th 2015, Lee Bo, a British citizen and Hong Kong resident who ran Causeway Bay Books, went missing after being seen at Mighty Current’s Chai Wan warehouse. His wife, Choi Ka-ping, said Lee’s travel documents remained at home. Choi later received a letter purporting to be from Lee Bo, stating that he was in the mainland and “assisting [the police] with an investigation.” In a January 18th 2016 communication, mainland authorities reported to their Hong Kong counterparts that Lee was “in the mainland,” but provided no information about his whereabouts, well-being or access to lawyers or representatives of the British government.

Following Lee’s disappearance, Hong Kong authorities expressed “serious concern” about the case, and stated that mainland authorities’ carrying out of law enforcement activities in Hong Kong was “unacceptable and unconstitutional.” Article 4 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s functional constitution, stipulates that “only legal enforcement agencies in Hong Kong have the legal authority” to enforce law in Hong Kong.

Thailand has forcibly returned to China those with a well-founded fear of ill-treatment, such as the group of 109 Turkic asylum seekers sent back in July 2015, and two mainland democracy activists, Dong Guangping and Jiang Yefei, between November 14-15th 2015, even though they had been granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and offered expedited resettlement with their families to Canada. Most recently, Li Xin, a former correspondent at Southern Metropolis Weekly, a prominent mainland Chinese newspaper, went missing near the Laos-Thailand border in mid-January while seeking to renew his visa for Thailand. In early February, Li’s wife, in Henan province, received a call from him, stating that he was back in China and assisting police with an investigation. It is unclear how he returned to China from Thailand. Li’s wife believes that he had been abducted and held against his will.

Canada, Germany, the European Parliament, the European Union, Japan, Sweden and the United States, among others, have strongly condemned the abductions and arbitrary detentions of the booksellers. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said during a visit to Beijing he had “urgently enquired” after Lee Bo.

Human Rights Watch called on these governments to raise these cases in upcoming high-level interactions, such as the February 26-27th 2016 meeting of G20 Finance Ministers in Shanghai, with Chinese counterparts until the five are released, and to immediately review the nature and scope of cooperation with Chinese law enforcement counterparts. US President Barack Obama should also publicly challenge Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha concerning his government’s role in the suspected abductions of Gui Minhai, Li Xin, and others at the upcoming US-ASEAN summit at Sunnylands, California on February 15-16th.

“Foreign governments have criticized China’s abductions and detentions of the Hong Kong booksellers, but they are going to have to turn up the heat until the five are released and returned home,” Richardson said. “Deterring Beijing’s unprecedented new impulse to snatch people outside its borders requires an unequivocal response before this outrageous practice becomes a norm.”

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Myanmar Must Fix New Law Granting Former Presidents Immunity

Myanmar should immediately repeal or amend a new law passed January 28th which could grant former presidents immunity for human rights violations and crimes under international law, Amnesty International says. Myanmar’s outgoing Parliament voted to pass the Former Presidents Security Law. The original draft had rung alarm bells as it granted former presidents immunity from prosecutions for undefined “actions” committed during their time in office.

“This piece of legislation is a threat to families’ rights to justice, truth and reparations and could violate Myanmar’s obligation to prosecute crimes under international law. Myanmar is a country where state officials and members of the security forces can – and do – commit human rights violations without having to worry about the consequences. Instead of further cementing this impunity, the authorities should take steps to ensure that victims and family members get the truth and justice they deserve,” says Champa Patel, Interim Director for South East Asia at Amnesty.

However, it now appears that the proviso “in accordance with the laws” has been added to the final version passed today. While an improvement, the law could still be interpreted as granting immunity to former presidents; including for crimes against humanity, war crimes and other crimes under international law.

The law was first tabled shortly after the opposition National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in the November 8th 2015 general elections. The new NLD government is set to take power in early April.

‘’This law has been rushed through parliament with minimal debate before the new government takes office, raising concerns that the outgoing government is determined to protect its ranks from any form of prosecution,’’ Patel says.

In recent years, Myanmar authorities have faced accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the context of internal armed conflicts, and have continued the state-sponsored persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Amnesty International also documented a range of human rights violations, including torture and other ill-treatment, extra-judicial executions, and arbitrary detentions, several of which constitute crimes under international law.

In Myanmar, state officials, including members of the security forces, are already protected from prosecution for human rights violations committed while the country was under military rule by Article 445 of the 2008 Constitution. The exclusive powers of the military justice system over members of the military also means that military personal are rarely, if ever, held to account for crimes they have committed.

Amnesty International is calling on Myanmar to immediately revoke or amend the Former Presidents Security Law to ensure it does not provide immunity for perpetrators of crimes under international law. The organization is also urging the new government that is about to take office to take concrete steps to improve accountability for human rights violations in the country.

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Kerry Must Raise Human Rights During Visit to Laos

In advance of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Southeast Asia, human rights organizations are calling for the diplomat to use his upcoming official visit to Vientiane, Laos on January 25th as an opportunity to raise important human rights issues they say the Lao government has left unaddressed for far too long.

Laos is ruled by one of the most repressive regimes of Southeast Asia. Authorities in the one-party state continue to severely restrict the right to freedom of information, association and peaceful assembly within its borders. Authorities have also continued to crack down on religious minorities and arrested numerous members of various Christian groups in 2015.

In an open letter to Mr. Kerry, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR), say that ‘’impunity continues to reign for enforced disappearances. Authorities have repeatedly refused to disclose any information concerning all victims of enforced disappearances in the country. To this day, the fate or whereabouts of at least 13 individuals remain unknown.’’

Among those individuals is civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who was abducted at a police checkpoint in Vientiane on the evening of December 15th 2012. The government has failed to conduct a competent, thorough, and transparent investigation into his enforced disappearance.  FIDH and LMHR call upon Mr. Kerry to urge the Lao authorities to accept international assistance to help determine Sombath’s fate or whereabouts.

Dissidents remain incarcerated in jails across the country. They include former student leaders Thongpaseuth Keuakoun and Sengaloun Phengphanh, who are in Vientiane’s Samkhe prison. They were arrested in Vientiane in October 1999 for planning peaceful demonstrations that called for democracy, social justice, and respect for human rights.

Also imprisoned is pro-democracy activist Bounthanh Khammavong, a Polish citizen of Lao origin who was sentenced in September 2015 to four years and nine months in prison for criticizing the Lao government on Facebook. The US has consistently called for the release of dissidents in other Southeast Asian countries and the organizations urge Mr. Kerry to demand the Lao government immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners.

The space for Lao civil society to conduct human rights activities remains non-existent, say FIDH and LMHR. The chilling effect stemming from the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone has been compounded by a new wave of repression. In 2015, authorities began to target individuals who used the internet to criticize the government or expose instances of corruption.

‘’We trust that during your visit you will send a strong message to the Lao leaders that healthy and mutually beneficial bilateral relations are contingent on Vientiane’s respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,’’ the letter concludes.

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Myanmar’s President Should Free Political Prisoners Prior to Leaving Office

 

Myanmar President Thein Sein delivers a speech at an economic forum during the Japan-Mekong Summit in Tokyo, July 3, 2015. AFP Photo.

Myanmar President Thein Sein delivers a speech at an economic forum during the Japan-Mekong Summit in Tokyo, July 3, 2015. AFP Photo.

Authorities in Myanmar authorities should immediately drop all politically motivated charges against hundreds of detainees and unconditionally release them, Human Rights Watch says. The organization urged President Thein Sein to fulfill pledges he made over three years ago to free all of the country’s political prisoners which includes students, land rights activists and journalists.

“Myanmar’s growing number of political prisoners is the most glaring indictment of President Thein Sein’s human rights record,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “In the waning days of his administration, the president could leave a positive legacy by immediately and unconditionally freeing all of those unjustly held.”

Organizations of former political prisoners in Myanmar estimate that there are 128 people who have been convicted and are serving time for political offenses. Another 472 are currently facing apparently politically motivated charges, including 23 arrested since the November 8th election. Many are students, land rights activists, journalists, and an increasing number of people charged with criminal defamation for social media posts or allegedly “insulting religion.”

Many activists have been charged and convicted for violating section 18 of the seriously flawed Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which requires prior police approval for public assemblies.

Several prominent cases of current political prisoners include:

  • More than 50 Burmese students will again appear in court in Tharawaddy, Pegu Region on January 19th 2016, after being arrested in March 2015 following the police’s violent crackdown on their protest over the National Education Bill. They are charged under several provisions of the Penal Code for rioting and abuse of officials; no police officers have been charged for unnecessary or excessive use of force. Authorities have brought the students to court more than 30 times since their arrest. The group includes prominent student leaders Honey Oo and Phyo Phyo Aung, both of whom were imprisoned previously for peaceful political activities.
  • Social worker Patrick Kum Jaa Lee who has been charged under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law for defamation connected to a Facebook post in October that allegedly mocked the military. He remains jailed without bail despite his declining health. Youth activist Chaw Hsandi Tun was sentenced in December to six months in prison for a Facebook post from October comparing the color of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s skirt with the uniform of the military commander in chief.
  • Interfaith activists Zaw Zaw Latt and Ma Pwint Phyu Latt from the Mandalay Interfaith Social Volunteer Youth Group were arrested in July 2015 and charged with offenses under article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act as well as immigration offenses for visits they made to the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army in 2013. Both face a prolonged trial, and many local activists believe the authorities are prosecuting them because of their efforts to promote religious tolerance among all religions in Mandalay.
  • Writer and former National League for Democracy (NLD) information officer Htin Lin Oo was sentenced to two years hard labor in June 2015 for allegedly insulting religion in a speech at a literary event in which he called for religion not to be tainted by politics. The ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, or Ma Ba Tha, allegedly urged local officials to file charges against Htin Lin Oo. Three others were sentenced to two years hard labor in late 2014 on the same charges of insulting religion after posting an image of Buddha wearing headphones to a Facebook event page, which was deemed to demean the image of the Buddha.
  • Several journalists including the chief executive officer of the now defunct Unity news journal, Tint San, and four of his reporters, Yarzar Oo, Paing Thet Kyaw, Lu Maw Naing, and Sithu Soe, were sentenced in 2014 to 10 years for disclosing state secrets and trespassing as a result of a story Unity ran alleging the Burmese military was manufacturing chemical weapons. Their sentence has since been reduced to seven years.

“The rising number of activists wrongfully detained shows the urgent need to revoke the numerous rights-abusing laws used to target them,” Robertson said. “That such a wide cross-section of Burmese civil society voices have been locked up for exercising the freedoms the government touts as progress demonstrates the continued intensity of intimidation and repression in Myanmar.”

Prior to United States President Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar in November 2012, President Thein Sein had pledged to free the remaining political prisoners throughout Myanmar. Soon thereafter, he formed a Remaining Political Prisoner Scrutiny Committee, which included government officials, parliamentarians, and former political prisoner advocates. The committee made considerable progress, and by early 2014 there were only approximately 25 political prisoners remaining behind bars. But that number soon grew again as the government arrested and jailed people protesting on land rights, education, and other government policies and actions. In early 2015, the government formed a new political prisoner review committee and appointed as its leader a hardline deputy minister for home affairs, an army general. The committee excluded former political prisoners working as rights activists.

In January 2016, a senior official of the incoming NLD government, which won a landslide victory in the November 8th nationwide elections, pledged that their government would ensure there are no political prisoners during their term. The party also issued a definition of a political prisoner in order to guide decisions on releasing individuals from prison: a “political prisoner is anyone arrested, detained or imprisoned for their direct or indirect activities to promote freedom, equality, and human and civil rights, including ethnic minorities, as well as for involvement in anti-government protests.” The NLD has large numbers of former political prisoners among its members following decades of repression by the former military government.

The party will come under intense domestic pressure to release all remaining political prisoners and rein in local officials who still target activists, Human Rights Watch said.

“Thein Sein shouldn’t wait for the new government to take office in late March to free those who should never have been imprisoned in the first place,” Robertson said. “Their charges should be dropped and they should be released now.”

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