Female Prisoners in Cambodia Need More Rehabilitation Opportunities

On the occasion of  International Women’s Day, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) called on prison authorities to offer female prisoners, particularly female juvenile prisoners, a broader range of rehabilitation opportunities to build confidence and provide them with appropriate skills to find suitable employment once released.

Female prisoners currently make up 8% of the total prison population in Cambodia yet, in many prisons, educational and vocational training opportunities for women and girls remain inadequate. Female juveniles in particular should have the right, equivalent to male juveniles, to receive vocational training which will equip them for future employment.

“It is evident that, where training opportunities exist, they are largely geared towards male prisoners such as carpentry, welding or mechanics,” said Nget Sokun, LICADHO’s prison project supervisor. “There are few programs designed or adapted specifically for women and sadly, in some Cambodian prisons, women and girls have extremely limited vocational or educational opportunities.”

As is common around the world, women in Cambodian prisons tend to come from poor, marginalized communities and lack basic education or vocational skills. Many are accused of petty non-violent crimes but there are few, if any, efforts to divert them away from the criminal justice system or to consider non-custodial sentencing alternatives even if they have children to care for.

“Without meaningful opportunities to learn new skills, we are concerned that many women and girls will reoffend and return to prison,” said Naly Pilorge, LICADHO director, “Prison authorities should consult with female prisoners, assess their educational needs and design training programs which are relevant to the local job market.”

The problem is made worse by the fact that prison training programs are almost always designed for convicts nearing the end of their sentences, further excluding a large proportion of the female prisoner population. Those who lack training opportunities often, as a result, have fewer opportunities for out-of-cell time and access to fresh air and natural light.

By the end of 2013 there were 1,137 women in the Cambodian prison system. In addition there were 15 girls aged 17 or below in prison. Whilst representing a welcome 10% decrease since December 2012, more than 70% of incarcerated women and girls have not yet been convicted of a crime or are still awaiting final verdict of appeal. 30% were still awaiting trial .

On International Women’s Day LICADHO provided care packages to female prisoners and female prison guards in 14 prisons. Items included fruit, nutrient drinks, detergent, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste and sanitary towels. The organization also organized entertainment in 12 of these prisons and provided toys to children living with their mothers in prison.

LICADHO also calls on authorities to ensure that female prison guards are afforded the same training opportunities as male prison guards.

In January 2014, there were 11 pregnant women and 38 children living in prison with their mothers in the prisons monitored by LICADHO. Eight of the children were over the age of three, in contravention of the December 2011 prison law which reduced the age limit of children staying in prison from the age of six to the age of three. The current number of children living with their mothers in prison represents an almost 50% reduction in the number of children in prison since the law was first introduced.

 

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Growing Humanitarian Health Crisis in Rakhine State, Burma

A Drug-Resistant TB patient receives treatment at MSF’s clinic in Lashio, Shan state, Burma. Photo courtesy Eddy McCall/MSF.

A Drug-Resistant TB patient receives treatment at MSF’s clinic in Lashio, Shan state, Burma. Photo courtesy Eddy McCall/MSF.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) recently received a written order from the Burmese government to cease all operations in the country, which led to a full closure of all Dutch MSF clinics. This act left patients confused and desperately concerned across the whole country and has human rights organizations concerned about the escalating humanitarian health crisis in Rakhine state. Ongoing conflict, forced displacement and poverty have all had an impact on the general health of people living in certain parts of Burma.

MSF has a long history of working in Burma and has focused on serving populations within the country that otherwise would not be able to access health care. This includes approximately 30,000 people living with HIV/AIDS, several thousand living with TB and members of marginalized groups such as the Rohingya.

On February 27th, the Dutch order of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) received a written order from the Burmese government the shut down all operations in the country; this led to a full closure of all Dutch MSF clinics on February 28th. After dialogue with the government in Naypyitaw on February 28th, MSF was informed by the Minister of Health and the Minister of Home Affairs that the organization could resume part of the activities including HIV/AIDS treatment and other activities in Kachin and Shan states, as well as Yangon region.

MSF says that while they ‘’are encouraged by this and will resume these activities for now’’ they remain ‘’extremely concerned about the fate of tens of thousands of vulnerable people in Rakhine state who currently face a humanitarian medical crisis.’’

MSF clinics in Rakhine remain closed since February 27th. Prior to the suspension, MSF carried out a variety of activities in nine townships across in Rakhine, treating anyone who was unable to access the medical care they required.

In June 2012, deadly communal clashes in Rakhine State triggered an official state of emergency. An estimated 75,000 people were displaced; many had their homes burned down. Further outbreaks of violence last October exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, forcing an estimated 40,000 people to flee. Many ended up living in makeshift camps lacking sufficient shelter, water, sanitation, food and health care. According to official estimates, the vast majority of those displaced are Muslim. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people who are still living in their homes have had very limited access to health care because medical services were cut off. In many areas, medical services have still not resumed.

Widney Brown, Director of Programs for Physicians for Human Rights said that ‘’The government of Burma should re-think its decision regarding MSF operations in the country, and must heed the calls for an independent investigation of the massacre that initiated this incident. The government has an obligation to ensure the right to health for all of its people. If it is unable to do so – whether because it lacks the resources or because of conflict – it must seek international assistance to meet that obligation.’’

In one of MSF’s largest programs in any country, teams have been working across Rakhine for nearly 20 years, providing primary and maternal health care and treating diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis (TB). Since 2005, MSF has treated more than 1.2 million people from all ethnic groups in Rakhine State for malaria. Rakhine is Myanmar’s second-poorest state and has historically received less investment in health care than other areas of the country. Over the years, MSF has treated hundreds of thousands of people across the state.

Violence and displacement have worsened the harsh living conditions that many people in Rakhine were already enduring and further limited their access to health care. The stateless Rohingya lack basic rights and freedoms and are subjected to severe restrictions and abusive treatment. Their health situation has been unacceptably poor for years.

For many years, malnutrition and maternal and primary health care needs have been particularly acute in the community, while gaps in official health care services have been more pronounced in areas where Rohingya live.

During one recent camp clinic, 40 percent of the children under five years of age that MSF saw were suffering from acute diarrhea. “Our children are dying from diarrhea,” said one man in a displacement camp in Pauktaw Township. “We all have diarrhea. We need more health care. Our latrines are full. We can only dig holes up till 40 centimeters [deep] and then we hit the salty water, so what should we do? The nearest source of water where we dare to go is 40 minutes by canoe. We received since we are here [since October] one time a tank with drinking water.”

Physicians for Human Rights says that MSF’s work has been lifesaving. ”The government, in shutting down the clinics where MSF provided much-needed services, is playing roulette with the lives of individuals and with the health of the general population. Not even the former military Juntas shut down operations of international organizations in Rakhine state, despite their clear dislike of the presence of outsiders in the region,” Ms. Brown added.

She also warned that depriving people of essential medicines such as anti-retrovirals and antibiotics for tuberculosis not only places individual patients at risk of illness and death, but may contribute to the emergence of strains of HIV or TB that are resistant to the medicines – placing a much larger group of people at risk.

Critically, the loss of an international presence from humanitarian organizations such as MSF greatly increases their risk of suffering more human rights abuses.

This is not the first time MSF has had to close down one of its operations in Burma. In 2006, the French section of MSF had to close down its medical programs there — mainly focused on malaria treatment — and leave the country. By the end of 2005, the military authorities had imposed so many travel restrictions on MSF and applied such pressure on local health authorities not to cooperate with our teams that it became impossible for them to work in an acceptable manner.

“The Burmese regime wants absolute control over any humanitarian actor present in these politically-sensitive regions,” explained Dr. Hervé Isambert, program manager for the French section of MSF, at the time. “If we accept the restrictions imposed on us today, we would become nothing more than a technical service provider subject to the political priorities of the junta. It appears that the Burmese authorities do not want anyone to witness the abuses they are committing against their own population.”

MSF has been providing health care around the world and in Burma for decades, meeting the medical needs of millions of people hailing from countless ethnic origins. Across Burma, MSF provides more than 26,000 people with lifesaving anti-retroviral treatment for AIDS and was among the very first responders to cyclones Nargis and Giri, providing medical assistance, survival items, and clean water for tens of thousands of people. All MSF services are provided based on medical need only, regardless of ethnicity, religion or any other factor. MSF says that it looks forward to continuing the dialogue with the government to ensure that essential life-saving services continue to reach those that need them.

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Yet Another Blogger Imprisoned in Vietnam for Criticizing Rights Situation

Truong Duy Nhat in an updated photo courtesy of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights.

Truong Duy Nhat in an updated photo courtesy of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights.

Vietnam has one of the fastest growing Internet populations in Asia. Scores of human rights defenders and cyber-dissidents are currently serving long prison sentences or awaiting trial in Vietnam. On Tuesday morning, a court in Danang, central Vietnam, sentenced prominent blogger and human rights defender Truong Duy Nhat to two years in prison under Article 258(2) of the Criminal Code for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State.”

With blogs, a culture of protest is gradually emerging in Vietnam. At the same time, bloggers and netizens in Vietnam face long-standing draconian restrictive legislations, policies and practices, while the government has intensified its crackdown on freedom of expression, both online and offline.

Truong Duy Nhat has been detained since his arrest on May 26th 2013. Police arrested him for publishing online articles critical of the Government on his blog A Different Point of View Truong Duy Nhat is a former journalist with State-run newspapers “Bao Cong An Quang Nam Danang” (Quang Nam Danang Security Police newspaper) and “Dai Doan Ket” (Great Solidarity newspaper). In 2011, he quit his work as a reporter to write for his blog which became widely known for its criticism of the government. In his blog, Truong Duy Nhat frequently critiqued the performance of top government officials, including the Prime Minister, from the point of view of the rights enshrined in Vietnam’s legislation and the international covenants Vietnam has signed.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR), denounce Truong Duy Nhat’s conviction and sentencing and call on the Vietnamese Government to release him and the other human rights defenders who are languishing in jails across the country.

“The sentencing of Truong Duy Nhat shows the total absurdity of Vietnam’s legal system – the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression but the Penal Code prohibits people from using it. Today, Vietnam holds the highest number of political prisoners in Southeast Asia, with more than 200 people detained for exercising their legitimate right to freedom of expression. Vietnam is unworthy of its seat on the UN Human Rights Council,” said Vo Van Ai, President of VCHR.

Another blogger, Pham Viet Dao, arrested in the first semester of 2013, faces a prison sentence of up to seven years also for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State”. His blog aims at informing people about human rights and advocating ways to promote and protect them.

Today, over 31 million people in Vietnam use the Internet – more than one third of the total population of almost 89 million – compared with 2 million in 2000. Internet penetration is especially high amongst the young people, reaching up to 95 percent amongst those aged 15-22 in large cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Social networks are also widely popular, and 80 percent of young Vietnamese have at least one social network account.

The Vietnamese government has actively promoted the expansion of Internet access in order to support economic development. At the same time, however, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) perceives free access to the Internet as a potential threat to its political monopoly. As a result, the government has intensified online censorship and controls, adopted new restrictive legislation and subjected Internet users to arrest, harassment and imprisonment.

According to the 2013 report from VCHR and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Bloggers and Netizens Behind Bars: Restrictions on Internet Freedom in Vietnam. Amongst the prime targets of government repression are the blogs. Millions of blogs have sprung up recently, and despite government restrictions, the “blogosphere” is vibrant and diversified.

In Vietnam’s one-party system, blogs provide a source of independent news and comment that is impossible in the state-controlled media. They also provide a platform for civic activism and a new form of “citizens’ journalism”. Dissidents, human rights defenders and online journalists increasingly resort to the blogs to voice their political opinions, expose corruption and draw attention to land-grabbing and other official abuses of power.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and VCHR urge Vietnam to immediately repeal draconian laws that severely restrict freedom of opinion and expression and say that Vietnam’s claim that it respects and protects human rights will continue to ring hollow unless Vietnam upholds its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“Vietnam keeps the press and media under draconian control. That is why Truong Duy Nhat left his job on the State-run press, to express himself more freely. His conviction shows that Hanoi sees freedom of expression as a threat,” added Vo Van Ai.

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Cambodian Protesters Sentenced in Kbal Thnal Verdict

Cambodian armed forces look over barbed wire and roadblocks on the first day of the post-election protests on September 15th 2013. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Cambodian armed forces look over barbed wire on the first day of the post-election protests on September 15th 2013. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

On Friday morning in Cambodia, three of the six men arrested at Kbal Thnal during deadly clashes on September 15th 2013 were found guilty of intentional violence and intentional destruction of property. The other three men were cleared of the charges. All six men were tried at Phnom Penh Municipal Court on February 17th 2014. According to the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), all three men plan to appeal the verdict.

Meanwhile, no one from the armed forces has been prosecuted for ordering the use of live ammunition against unarmed civilians which resulted in the death of a bystander on September 15th.

Nguyen Thydoc, who has been held in CC1 since his arrest without bail, was was sentenced to three years in prison with two years suspended. He testified at trial that during his interrogation, police beat and shocked him with electric batons until he falsely confessed to throwing rocks. Van Neun and Lach Sameun, who were released on bail on October 22nd 2013, were also sentenced to three years with all their remaining sentences suspended.

“The court proceedings and eyewitness accounts make it clear that the police arbitrarily seized a few people from a crowd,” Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, said after the trial. “Instead of prosecuting the six to justify the security forces’ use of excessive force against protesters, the authorities should free them and bring charges against security personnel responsible for a death and many injuries.”

In September, civil society organizations condemned in the strongest terms what they called “indiscriminate police brutality” amid mass post-election protests that left one young person dead and several more injured when armed forces were given the green light to use live ammunition in a crowd of commuters, local residents and demonstrators.

LICADHO has repeatedly called for the Cambodian political parties to commit to prioritizing human rights and the protection of Cambodian people in political discussions since the disputed elections. ‘’This tragedy has shown that without this commitment, there can be no guarantees of peace and security for Cambodia,’’ said Naly Pilorge, Director of LICADHO, after the incident.

A group of 27 Cambodian NGOs called on authorities to conduct thorough, prompt and fully independent investigations into all incidents of excessive use of force, including who ordered the police to use live ammunition and the circumstances around which this was permitted. Anyone found responsible for human rights violations must be brought to justice without delay, and redress provided to victims and their families, the organizations said.

After a largely peaceful day of demonstrations marking the first day of a planned three-day protest by opposition party CNRP, tensions escalated. Barbed wire barricades had cut off major arteries of the city throughout the day, resulting in traffic chaos at key locations in the capital.

Near Monivong Bridge, police reacted with physical violence and tear gas to a late-evening stand-off between hundreds of police and a crowd of those caught up in the traffic, including commuters, local residents and demonstrators. The scene quickly escalated as military police geared up to use live ammunition, according to witnesses.

29-year-old Mao Sok Chan was shot in the head and died on the scene. A confirmed nine more men were seriously injured and taken to hospitals. Eight of these men were found to have bullet wounds. Many more young men, including teenagers, were beaten bloody by police.

One man had his right leg fractured by a bullet and another was hit by a bullet in his left forearm. They were taken to Russian Hospital, with another man who suffered head lacerations from beatings. Six more men were taken to Calmette Hospital, all suffering from bullet wounds.

“It looks as if security forces were ordered to fire live weapons indiscriminately into a crowd of unarmed people,” said Sar Mora, Head of Cambodian Food and Service Workers’ Federation. “This is clearly not a necessary and proportionate use of force and demonstrates the authorities’ blatant disregard for the Cambodian people.”

The day began with CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha heading separate marches from Tuol Kork and Meanchey districts. The marches culminated at Freedom Park, where approximately 30,000 supporters gathered to hear the opposition leaders call for a solution to what they allege are massive election irregularities. The demonstration is planned to last for another two days. On Monday morning, leaders and representatives from CPP and CNRP met at the National Assembly to discuss ways forward.

‘This tragedy was entirely avoidable,” said Tim Malay, President of Cambodia Youth Network. “We need to know who permitted the police forces to use live ammunition. Their response was not proportionate to any threat posed by the young demonstrators.”

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Vietnamese Dissident Attacked by Police in Hanoi

Nguyen Bac Truyen after the beating on Monday February 24th 2014. Photo courtesy Vietnam Committee on Human Rights.

Nguyen Bac Truyen after the beating on Monday February 24th 2014. Photo courtesy Vietnam Committee on Human Rights.

Human rights groups are disturbed by reports that Vietnamese dissident Nguyen Bac Truyen and his wife Bui Thi Kim Phuong were beaten by police as they made their way to the Australian Embassy in Hanoi on Monday. The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) said it is deeply shocked by the brutality. The couple was invited by the embassy to report on prior police violence during a raid at their home in Dong Thap Province earlier in the month.

According to reports, Truyen — a lawyer and former political prisoner — was in a taxi with his wife around 2:30 in the afternoon when plain clothed security agents suddenly intercepted the vehicle at the intersection of Tuan Dao and Lieu Giai streets. They dragged them both out of the car and brutally beat them. They also beat the taxi driver. Truyen was beaten in the face and knocked to the ground. His wife was also punched in the face.

The security agents continued the beatings until a crowd gathered. They then walked away, leaving the couple covered with blood. Truyen and his wife continued on to the Australian Embassy, and were taken by staff for treatment at a nearby hospital.

Mr. Vo Van Ai, President of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, deplored this act of aggression: “Just this month, at its UPR in Geneva, Vietnam told the UN Human Rights Council that: ‘It is always the consistent policy of Vietnam to respect and promote all fundamental human rights in all political, civil, economic, cultural and social domains.’ The brutal aggression of Nguyen Bac Truyen reveals the horrendous gulf between rhetoric and reality in Vietnam.”

Nguyen Bac Truyen, aged 47, has been repeatedly detained and harassed because of his advocacy for human rights, in particular the rights and treatment of political and religious prisoners. In 2011, he was sentenced to 40 months in prison on charges of “circulating anti-Socialist propaganda.”

Most recently, on February 9th 2014, when he went to the southern province of Dong Thap to prepare for his marriage with Hoa Hao Buddhist follower Bui Thi Kim Phuong, Police conducted a violent raid on their home, breaking furniture and ransacking the Hoa Hao altar. Truyen was arrested and interrogated, then forced to return to his mothers’ home in Saigon.

In September 2013, Nguyen Bac Truyen sent audio testimony to a briefing organized by the International Federation on Human Rights (FIDH) and the VCHR at the UN Human Rights Council describing police harassment against bloggers and dissidents in Vietnam.

Mr. Ai called on Vietnam to “cease police violence against Nguyen Bac Truyen and all other citizens who have done nothing other than exercise the right to freedom of expression enshrined in Vietnam’s Constitution and in the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Vietnam acceded in 1982.”

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Chinese Rights Activist in Intensive Care in Beijing

Cao Shunli in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Weiquanwang website.

Cao Shunli in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Weiquanwang website.

Detained Chinese human rights defender Ms. Cao Shunli is in very poor health and has been transferred to the hospital. She has been repeatedly denied appropriate medical attention while in detention in Beijing, and numerous applications for medical parole have also been unsuccessful. Cao Shunli, who has been in custody since September 2013 and suffering from various medical conditions including tuberculosis and liver disease, was in intensive care at the Beijing Qinghe 999 Hospital on Thursday and was later transferred to the intensive care unit at Haidian District 309 Hospital.

Liu Xiaofang, an activist who worked with Cao, told Human Rights in China (HRIC) that when she visited Cao at the Qinghe 999 Hospital, Cao was on a ventilator and barely responsive.

Cao Shunli was disappeared on September 14th 2013 as she was preparing to board a flight to Switzerland to take part in a human rights training on UN mechanisms. Before being taken into custody, Cao had spent years seeking civil society participation in China’s international reporting on its human rights progress. Ms. Cao has been campaigning since 2008 for greater civil society involvement in China’s drafting of its reports for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and of its National Human Rights Action Plans. Under the UPR, each country’s human rights record is reviewed every four years.

Her disappearance drew expressions of concern from high-level international authorities, including independent UN experts and the EU’s High Representative of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Cao was formally arrested in October on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and has been held in the Chaoyang Detention Center in Beijing.

The Chinese government has ramped up its efforts to squash dissent by arresting activists, taking into custody critics and online opinion leaders, and increasing controls on social media, online expression and public activism.

Cao’s detention by state security agents was only formally acknowledged on September 28th 2013, and she was not permitted to see her lawyer until October 30th 2013. At that time, Wang Yu reported that Cao Shunli was extremely thin and had not received any medical attention in the detention center.

Wang Yu told HRIC that Cao’s brother, Cao Yunli received a call Thursday morning from Director Wang of the Chaoyang Detention Center, telling Cao Yunli to start an application for medical parole for his sister. Wang Yu said she believes that the detention center wants to avoid responsibility by releasing Cao: “When I took on Cao Shunli’s case, I found out that she was suffering from tuberculosis, liver disease, and other serious health conditions. I’ve requested medical parole in writing, orally, and over the phone. It is only now when her life is in danger that the detention center has finally agreed to release her on medical parole,” Wang said. “The detention center sees human lives as child’s play.”

Wang had said previously that, in her meeting with Cao in October 2013, Cao told her that the food was particularly bad in the detention center, and because she did not have medications and treatment in detention, her condition had deteriorated.

Cao Shunli has been campaigning since 2008 for greater civil society involvement in China’s drafting of its reports for the UPR and of its National Human Rights Action Plans. The rules governing the periodic human rights review set up by the UN Human Rights Council encourage countries to consult the public and to include public participation in drafting the country’s report. The Chinese government’s report to the UPR claimed that “broad public input on the report was sought via the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

In October 2012, Cao Shunli wrote to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to inquire about public participation in the drafting of the National Human Rights Report for China’s UPR, which took place on October 22nd 2013, and asked that the details be made public. The following month, the Ministry responded saying that some of the information she applied for was not suitable ‘for public disclosure’ due to the State Secrets law. Cao Shunli, along with a number of fellow human rights defenders, engaged in a number of sit-ins outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from June 2013 to demand greater participation in the UPR process. These protests were repeatedly broken up by police.

According to Dublin-based international human rights organization Front Line Defenders, ‘’While seeking to exert an ever greater influence within the UN system, the Chinese government has continued to undermine that system by targeting human rights defenders upholding the rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the two subsequent Covenants on Civil and Political and Economic, Social and Cultural rights. Over the last four years human rights defenders in the country have had to face wave after wave of attack while the government developed and refined its tactics of oppression.’’

The organization also says that evidence indicates that the disappearance and subsequent reported detention of Cao Shunli are directly related to her peaceful and legitimate work in defence of human rights; in particular, her advocacy for Chinese citizen involvement in the UPR process.

In October, a group of United Nations independent rights experts expressed serious concern at reports that Chinese human rights defenders, including Cao Shunli, have suffered reprisals for seeking to participate in a major UN human rights assessment of China. Activists were reportedly threatened, arrested or banned from taking part in demonstrations or stopped from leaving China. The experts said that these cases seem part of a pattern of increased harassment by China of those calling for greater accountability of public officials, transparency and political and legal reforms.

“These reports suggest there have been acts of reprisals against people who seek to cooperate with the UN,” said Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders Margaret Sekaggya. “Defenders play a key role in holding States to account for the implementation of their human rights obligations, including at the international level. Their legitimate work should be fully respected.”

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New UN Report Details Unspeakable Atrocities in North Korea

Left to right: Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman, Commission Chairman Michael Kirby and Sonja Biserko at a briefing in Geneva. UN Photo Jean-Marc Ferré

Left to right: Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman, Commission Chairman Michael Kirby and Sonja Biserko at a briefing in Geneva. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré.

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 a United Nations-mandated report released Monday which also calls 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 says in the report, which is unprecedented in scope.

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

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

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

Evidence of Crimes Against Humanity

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

The second, more detailed, section of the report cites evidence provided by individual victims and witnesses, including the harrowing treatment meted out to political prisoners, some of whom said they would catch snakes and mice to feed malnourished babies. Others told of watching family members being murdered in prison camps, and of defenseless inmates being used for martial arts practice.

“The fact that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea…has for decades pursued policies involving crimes that shock the conscience of humanity raises questions about the inadequacy of the response of the international community,” the report stated. “The international community must accept its responsibility to protect the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from crimes against humanity, because the Government of the DPRK has manifestly failed to do so.”

The Commission found that the DPRK “displays many attributes of a totalitarian State” and spotlights that there is “an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association,” and that propaganda is used by the State to manufacture absolute obedience to the Supreme Leader and to incite nationalistic hatred towards some other States and their nationals.

“There is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association,” the report says, adding that propaganda is used by the State to manufacture absolute obedience to the Supreme Leader and to incite nationalistic hatred towards some other States and their nationals.

Along with its chairman, Michael Kirby, a retired judge from Australia, the panel comprises Sonja Biserko, founder and president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, and Marzuki Darusman, former Attorney General of Indonesia and the current UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in DPRK. At a briefing by the Commission in Geneva on Monday, Michael Kirby said: “The suffering and the tears of the people of North Korea demand action.”

Political Prison Camps

It is estimated that between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners are currently detained in four large political prison camps, where deliberate starvation has been used as a means of control and punishment. Gross violations are also being committed in the ordinary prison system, according to the Commission’s findings.

To coincide with the release of the commission’s report, Human Rights Watch released a video, “North Korea: Tales from Camp Survivors,” with interviews of North Koreans who survived years of abuse while incarcerated in political prison camps (kwanliso), including systematic use of beatings, food deprivation and starvation, and public executions, to control those held there. The film includes interviews with former camp guards detailing camp administration and atrocities:

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“This shocking report should open the eyes of the UN Security Council to the atrocities that plague the people of North Korea and threaten stability in the region,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch. “By focusing only on the nuclear threat in North Korea, the Security Council is overlooking the crimes of North Korean leaders who have overseen a brutal system of gulags, public executions, disappearances, and mass starvation. The unspeakable atrocities that are being committed against inmates of the kwanliso political prison camps resemble the horrors of camps that totalitarian states established during the 20th century.”

“The devastating findings of this inquiry should not be ignored,” Roth added. “Since the crimes were perpetrated by state actors, only an international tribunal can properly carry out criminal investigations aimed at holding perpetrators accountable.”

State-sponsored Violence

The report finds that, since 1950, the “State’s violence has been externalized through State-sponsored abductions and enforced disappearances of people from other nations. These international enforced disappearances are unique in their intensity, scale and nature.”

Roberta Cohen, Co-chair of the Washington based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) observed “For the first time, a United Nations body has recognized that the government of North Korea is committing crimes against humanity and that its leaders should be brought to account. It is now up to the world community to take action to protect those persecuted and bring the perpetrators to justice. The report is clear recognition that the Kim regime’s systematic murder, abduction, torture, starvation, religious persecution and political imprisonment of its people must be brought to a halt.”

State surveillance permeates private lives and virtually no expression critical of the political system goes undetected – or unpunished, says the Commission, detailing that the key to the country’s political system is the “vast political and security apparatus that strategically uses surveillance, coercion, fear and punishment to preclude the expression of any dissent.”

Military spending – predominantly on hardware and the development of weapons systems and the nuclear programme – has always been prioritized, even during periods of mass starvation, the report says. The State also maintains a system of inefficient economic production and discriminatory resource allocation that inevitably produces more avoidable starvation among its citizens.

Violations of the rights to food and to freedom of movement have resulted in women and girls becoming vulnerable to trafficking and forced sex work outside the DPRK. Many take the risk of fleeing, mainly to China, despite the high chance that they will be apprehended and forcibly repatriated, then subjected to persecution, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention and, in some cases sexual violence.

“Repatriated women who are pregnant are regularly subjected to forced abortions, and babies born to repatriated women are often killed,” the report states.

While the Government did not respond to requests for access to the DPRK and for information, the Commission obtained first-hand testimony through public hearings with about 80 witnesses in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington D.C., and more than 240 confidential interviews with victims and other witnesses, including in Bangkok. Eighty formal submissions were also received from different entities.

The report includes a letter sent by the Commissioners to the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, containing a summary of the systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations that “entail crimes against humanity.”

The letter states that the three-member panel would recommend referral of the situation in the DPRK to the International Criminal Court “to render accountable all those, including possibly yourself, who may be responsible for the crimes against humanity referred to in this letter and in the Commission’s report.”

Recommendations and Next Steps

Among wide-ranging recommendations to the DPRK, to China and other States, and to the international community, the Commission calls on the UN Security Council to adopt targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity, stressing that sanctions should not be targeted against the population or the economy as a whole.

The report concludes that information it collected constitutes “reasonable grounds. . .to merit a criminal investigation by a competent national or international organ of justice,” which could include the ICC, or an ad hoc tribunal created by the UN Security Council or by the consent of UN member states.

Besides referring North Korea to the ICC, the report notes that the UN Security Council has the power to set up a special tribunal for North Korea. This would be an appropriate step since many of the crimes documented by the commission occurred before 2002, when the ICC statute came into force, Human Rights Watch said. Tribunals created with UN Security Council resolutions have been set up for crimes committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

Independent of the Security Council, the report notes that the UN General Assembly could pass a resolution aimed at establishing an ad hoc tribunal operated by a set of willing countries. Such a tribunal, set up by UN member states without Security Council authorization, would lack compulsory power under the UN Charter but could carry out many of the same functions as a Security Council-authorized tribunal.

Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director, said “Following the release of the COI’s findings, the price of unconditionally supporting a regime that has committed crimes against humanity is going to be higher. In particular, permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) attempting to block action to establish accountability in North Korea will find that price to be increasingly higher over the long run. “

Human Rights Watch urged Security Council members to immediately invite the Commission of Inquiry to brief them on their findings, and called on other countries to support efforts to achieve accountability for crimes committed in North Korea.

“The UN was set up in the aftermath of the Second World War precisely to address this kind of massive abuse,” Roth said. “The atrocities described in this report are a profound challenge to the founding ideals of the UN and should shock the organization into bold action. The suffering and loss endured by victims demand swift and definitive action aimed at bringing those responsible to justice.”

Human Rights Watch urged the Human Rights Council to endorse the commission’s recommendations by adopting a strong resolution on North Korea during its March session, and task the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with transmitting the report directly to the UN Security Council and General Assembly for action.

HRNK called upon governments, parliamentarians, regional and international organizations as well as civil society groups to take steps to carry out the recommendations made by the COI report.

 The Commission is scheduled to formally present its findings to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 17th 2014.

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Vietnam Must Stop Retaliation Against Human Rights Defenders

Mr. Nguyen Bac Truyen calling for the release of family lawyer Le Quoc Quan. RFA Photo

Mr. Nguyen Bac Truyen calling for the release of family lawyer Le Quoc Quan. RFA Photo

Just days before his wedding, Vietnamese police temporarily detained lawyer and former political prisoner Nguyen Bac Truyen. The police also briefly detained his fiancée, Bui Thi Kim Phuong, and several visitors to their home. Although Nguyen Bac Truyen reported being questioned about supposed economic transgressions, the action was more likely motivated by his recent activism on behalf of other political prisoners, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

“This looks like a shameful and personalized act of retaliation against human rights defenders,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Donors and other international actors who want to see reforms in Vietnam should publicly call for an immediate end to such blatantly abusive security force behavior.”

According to interviews with RFA and materials posted online by Nguyen Bac Truyen and others at the scene, on February 9th, police and plainclothes security officers surrounded the couple’s home in Dong Thap province, and, after his Internet connection was cut, entered the premises, ransacked part of the house, and took him away for questioning. His fiancé said she was also detained for several hours.

Nguyen Bac Truyen said he was blindfolded, handcuffed, and transported on the afternoon of February 9th to a police station where he was interrogated about supposed financial irregularities at a company he once owned, before being released on the morning of February 10th and sent to his fiancée’s parents’ home in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Truyen previously served three and a half years in jail for “anti-state propaganda” and  faced harassment since his release in 2010.

In early February 2104, Nguyen Bac Truyen renewed his public criticisms of the government, in particular condemning its continued imprisonment of the elderly and frail political prisoner Nguyen Huu Cau, who has been held since 1982, dashing hopes he might be released as a humanitarian gesture.

This may have been among the triggers for the police operation. “The Vietnamese authorities have a track record of using spurious allegations of economic crimes as a pretext for harassing and even prosecuting human rights activists and bloggers,” Adams said.

A lawyer, writer (under the pen-name Minh Chinh), and businessman, Nguyen Bac Truyen was first arrested in August 2006 after he made many contributions to overseas news websites describing repression, injustice, and human rights violations committed by the Vietnamese government. He was also an activist for the fledgling People’s Democratic Party, which challenged the monopoly of political power by the ruling Vietnam Communist Party,  and a member Bloc 8406, a coalition of activists and intellectuals who signed an April 2006 manifesto calling for multi-party democracy.

He was prosecuted in 2007 under article 88 of the Vietnamese penal code for conducting propaganda against the state, a provision routinely used to punish people for peaceful expression of critical views, a freedom guaranteed by international human rights law and Vietnam’s constitution. The particulars of the charges were that he had distributed materials advocating multi-party democracy and leaflets critical of the government; communicated online with government critics outside Vietnam; and taken part in setting up an opposition party. In a May 2007 trial which lasted four hours, he was sentenced to four years in prison to be followed by two years or probation. The judge characterized his activities “dangerous for society” and declared they had weakened government authority.

In August 2007, the Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) City Supreme People’s Court reduced his sentence to three and a half years plus probation. After being released in May 2010, Nguyen Bac Truyen faced constant government harassment. He nevertheless remained an outspoken member of the Vietnamese Political and Religious Prisoners Fellowship Association, which provides support to prisoners and their families. He continued writing, focusing on describing the plight of his still-detained fellow political prisoners and the difficulties and discrimination that former political prisoners face.

In August 2012 he joined other former political prisoners in visiting the home of detained blogger Ta Phong Tan, to attend the funeral of her mother who committed suicide by self-immolation to protest her daughter’s incarceration. In August 2013, he publicly alleged that the police surrounded his home after he met with a delegation of the Foreign Affairs Committee of US House of Representatives and officials from the US Embassy in Vietnam to discuss the human rights situation in the country.

“Unless the authorities suddenly produce credible evidence of a criminal act by Nguyen Bac Truyen, their actions must be seen as a continuation of the unjustified targeting of human rights defenders for exercising their fundamental human rights,” Adams said.

On February 11th  2014, according to Vietnamese bloggers’ reports, the police again detained Nguyen Bac Truyen’s fiancé, Bui Thi Kim Phuong, and also arrested as many as 21 other people whose detention seemed to arise from their attempt to visit Nguyen Bac Truyen’s Dong Thap province home. As of February 13th, three of those arrested were said to be still in custody, including Bui Thi Kim Phuong.

Prominent dissident blogger Bui Thi Minh Hang and the rest of the group had been going to investigate the reasons for Truyen’s arrest and comfort those close to him, according to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

“We are appalled by the continuing persecution of independent news and information providers, whose most fundamental rights, including the freedom of assembly and the right to information, are being openly flouted,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, head of Reporters Without Border’s Asia-Pacific desk. “By ordering these arrests, the Vietnamese government is thumbing its nose at the United Nations despite having been appointed as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council last year and despite having undergone a Universal Periodic Review by the council only last week,” he added.

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Bail Again Denied For Human Rights Defenders in Cambodia

Rong Chhun was arrested alongside other human rights defenders on January 21st. Photo courtesy Frontline Defenders.

Rong Chhun was arrested alongside other human rights defenders on January 21st. Photo courtesy Frontline Defenders.

On Tuesday in a closed trial, the Cambodian Court of Appeal denied bail to 21 of a group of 23 individuals, including human rights defenders Vorn Pao, Theng Savoeun, Chan Putisak and 20 other activists and protesters. The group have been detained since demonstrations demanding the right to decent work and fair wages in early January 2014. Nationwide strikes by garment factory workers were met with a heavy-handed reaction by Cambodian security forces during which four civilians were shot dead by military forces and at least 39 people were injured, including a 17-year-old boy and a pregnant woman.

Strikes across Cambodia by garment factory workers, monks, victims of forced evictions and supporters of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party outside the Yak Jin and Canadia factories were quelled by Cambodian security forces at that time. Since their arrest, the 23 have repeatedly been denied their rights to a fair trial as enshrined in international and Cambodian law.

They were held incommunicado by the authorities for five days, without access to lawyers, medical care or their families. The authorities revealed on January 7th that they were being held at Correctional Center 3 in Kampong Cham province. Since then, it is reported that civil society groups have not been allowed to visit them.

Vorn Pao, Theng Savoeun and Chan Putisak were previously denied bail on January 13th on the basis of “ending crime, preventing new crime and ensuring detainees are available for trial.” However, the latest decision to deny bail was made without the defendants present and international observers were not allowed to attend the trial. Serious concerns remain regarding the health of some of the group. Two of the group were granted bail on February 7th and released under judicial supervision the next day.

Vorn Pao is president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA). Theng Savoeun is a member of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC). Chan Putisak is a labor rights defender. The arrests took place on January 2nd during a strike demanding a higher increase than that proposed by the government in the minimum wage for garment factory workers. Police reportedly used excessive force against the protesters. It is further reported that Vorn Pao received an injury, possibly a bite, to the head. The five monks were released later on that same day.

On January 3rd, Vorn Pao, Theng Savoeun and Chan Putisak were taken to Phnom Penh Municipal Court of First Instance to be questioned. They were charged under Articles 218 and 414 of the Penal Code with “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” and “intentional damage with aggravating circumstances.” The human rights defenders face up to 18 months pre-trial detention and up to 5 years’ imprisonment as well as fines ranging from US $1,000 to 2,500.

From January 3-8th, family members, lawyers and independent medical professionals were denied information regarding the detainees’ whereabouts and medical condition, despite the fact that there were grave concerns regarding the physical condition of the human rights defenders following the violence at the protest. Nationwide strikes demanding better wages for garment workers have been met with violence by the Cambodian security forces. Thirteen individuals were arrested on January 3rd during clashes in which at least four men were shot dead and at least 39 were injured near Canadia Industrial Park, where many clothing factories are located.

The arrested protesters were charged on January 4th under the above-mentioned articles of the Penal Code. On January 6th at 8:40am, five women human rights defenders –Tep Vanny, Yorm Bopha, Pan Chunreth, Bo Chorvy and Srong Srey Leap — were arrested as they prepared to protest outside the French embassy for the release of the above-mentioned human rights defenders. They were released at 4:45pm after they signed a letter agreeing not to engage in further protests.

On January 4th, the Ministry of the Interior issued a temporary ban on all forms of assembly and protest until “public order and security are restored”. Front Line Defenders is concerned that the judicial harassment detailed above is in response to the legitimate exercise of the right to peaceful assembly. International human rights organization Front Line Defenders is further concerned that the temporary ban on peaceful assembly contravenes the rights of Cambodians to protest peacefully as enshrined by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Frontline Defenders is further concerned that the arrest and ongoing detention of Vorn Pao, Theng Savoeun and Chan Putisak is solely related to their legitimate activities in defence of human and labour rights in Cambodia, in particular for exercising their right to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly. Front Line Defenders is further concerned that the recent arrests and charges brought against protesters are intended as a message to subdue the current strikes in Cambodia.

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Vietnam Named to Press Freedom Risk List

The Committee to Protect Journalists has published its Risk List, which identifies the 10 countries worldwide where press freedom suffered the most in 2012. CPJ’s Risk List highlights 10 places where the space for free expression is shrinking and includes Vietnam.

In determining the list, CPJ staff examined six press freedom indicators: fatalities, imprisonments, restrictive legislation, state censorship, impunity in anti-press attacks, and journalists driven into exile. Countries named to the Risk List are not necessarily the world’s worst places for journalists; such a list would include nations like North Korea and Eritrea, where free expression has long been suffocated.

Instead, the Risk List identifies the 10 places where CPJ documented the most significant downward trends during 2012.

Though Vietnam has been applauded for economic strides, it has lagged in terms of openness and freedom of the press. Conditions worsened in 2012, as Vietnamese authorities ramped up efforts to stifle dissent by imprisoning journalists on anti-state charges.

With at least 14 journalists behind bars, Vietnam is Asia’s second-worst jailer of the press, according to CPJ’s annual worldwide census. Many of those detained have been charged or convicted of anti-state crimes related to their blog posts on politically sensitive topics. A 2012 CPJ special report found that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s administration has targeted online journalism by imprisoning bloggers and enacting restrictive legislation.

The Communist Party-dominated government controls all traditional news outlets in Vietnam; the authorities meet weekly with top newspaper editors to prescribe the news agenda and identify banned topics. “In Vietnam, there are a lot of issues that are not right–corruption, social issues, political problems–that journalists are not allowed to write about,” said Huynh Ngoc Chenh, a retired senior editor at Thanh Nien newspaper and a blogger.

Blogs and other online news outlets, once a relatively vibrant place for critical viewpoints, are the new targets of government censorship. Recent measures aimed at stifling online press freedom have included heightened surveillance of blogs, laws barring the posting of information viewed as a threat to national security or unity, and the deployment of security officials who pose online as ordinary Internet users and harshly criticize and harass bloggers, CPJ research found.

A draft executive decree, if passed, would force international technology companies to set up data centers and offices in Vietnam, which analysts say would erode the security of IP addresses and make critical writers even more vulnerable.

CPJ identified Egypt, Ecuador, Turkey, and Syria, among other countries, and included the supranational platform of cyberspace because of the profound erosion of freedom on the Internet. The organization identified Syria and Somalia, which are racked by conflict, along with Iran, Vietnam, and Ethiopia, nations that are ruled with an authoritarian grip. But half of the nations on the Risk List – Brazil, Turkey, Pakistan, and Russia, along with Ecuador — practice some form of democracy and exert significant influence on a regional or international stage.

To see highlights of where press freedom was under attack in 2012, check out CPJ’s video:

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