Yet Another Blogger Detained in Vietnam on Anti-State Charges

Press freedom organizations are condemning the arrest of Vietnamese blogger Hong Le Tho and calling on Vietnam’s government to cease its campaign of persecution against journalists and bloggers. Hong Le Tho, an independent blogger of Japanese origin, was detained in in Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday for posting “bad content and incorrect information that reduce trust in state agencies.”

Hong Le Tho was arrested on November 29th for posting an article critical of the ruling Communist Party on his blog “Nguoi Lot Gach” (“Bricklayer”), which dealt mainly with political issues. The authorities seized his laptop, his mobile phone and USB flash drive, and closed the blog shortly after his arrest (see cached version).

Aged 65, Hong Le Tho is facing a possible three-year jail sentence under article 258 of the criminal code for “abusing democratic freedoms to attack state interests and the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens.”

In a statement on its website, the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security said Tho had been arrested for “online articles with bad content and false information that discredit and create distrust among people about state agencies, social agencies and citizens.”

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Vietnam is the world’s second biggest prison for bloggers and cyber-dissidents, after China.

“The authorities has been waging an all-out campaign of repression for several years,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the RSF Asia-Pacific desk. “We urge them to stop gagging dissidents and to repeal criminal code article 258, which should not be used against any defender of freedom of information.”

Vietnam’s bloggers are a source of independently-reported news and information that is an alternative to the government media. They write about corruption, environmental problems and the country’s political developments.

Vietnam’s Communist Party-dominated government has increasingly used the law to stifle online criticism of its authoritarian rule. There have been several waves of arrests of bloggers, netizens and journalists in recent years. Mindful of the Arab uprisings, the Vietnamese authorities have been cracking down harder in order to suppress dissent and prevent any destabilization.

“We condemn the arrest of blogger Hong Le Tho on the bogus anti-state charge of ‘abusing democratic freedoms.’ We call on authorities to scrap Article 258 and unconditionally release all jailed journalists in Vietnam.” said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Bloggers continue to be leading targets of a regime that does not hesitate to use article 258 as grounds for harassing, arresting and jailing dissidents.

The 27 bloggers currently detained include the human rights activist Dieu Cay and the lawyer Le Quoc Quan. They also include Paulus Le Son, Ta Phong Tan, Bui Thi Minh Hang and Hao Ngo. They are all serving long sentences on such trumped-up charges as subversion, anti-government propaganda and trying to overthrow the government.

Their families are subjected to harassment and smear campaigns. The mother of the jailed blogger Ta Phong Tan took her own life by setting fire to herself in 2012 in an act of despair about the way her daughter has been treated.

In 2013, three prominent bloggers–Truong Duy Nhat, Pham Viet Dao and Dinh Nhat Uy–were arrested and later convicted under the law’s harsh provisions. Bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy were arrested in May under Article 258 and are being held in detention while police investigate the charges.

Vietnam’s bloggers formally created the Vietnamese Bloggers Network on December 10th 2013, with a campaign against article 258 and its use to silence dissidents as their first action.

Vietnam is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

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In Vietnam, Buddhist New Year Calendar Confiscated For Being “Anti-state Document”

New Year CalendarA Buddhist New Year calendar is an “anti-State” document according to authorities in Vietnam. The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) says that a young Buddhist monk, the Venerable Thich Minh Nghia, was intercepted and harassed by a group of plain-clothed security police on November 21st in Hue. He had just come out of a printing house where he had picked up 300 calendars ordered by the UBCV to offer to Buddhists in the coming Lunar New Year of the Goat. Security police confiscated the calendars on the grounds that they were “reactionary, anti-state documents.”

Vo Van Ai, UBCV International Spokesman and Director of the International Buddhist Information Bureau said: “Classifying a Buddhist calendar as an “anti-state document” is a new low for Vietnam. It highlights the absurdities faced by religious followers and human rights defenders every day. Vietnam claims to respect freedom of expression and religion, but its citizens can be harassed and intimidated simply for wishing each other “Happy New Year”.

The incident took place at 3:00pm on Nguyen Lo Trach Street, when five plain-clothed men roughly accosted Thich Minh Nghia and pushed him towards a house. They told the monk he must go inside for a ‘’working session’’. Thich Minh Nghia refused, saying that only police had the right to interrogate citizens. The five men then announced that they were provincial security policemen. At that point, another man stepped out of the house. He showed the monk his police badge, introduced himself as Phung Viet Quy from the Hue municipal security police force and ordered the monk to come inside to answer charges of “administrative offenses and possession of illegal documents”. When Thich Minh Nghia refused, the men dragged him inside the courtyard and locked the gate.

Alerted by his cries for help, a crowd of people gathered outside. However, a group of youths – presumably also plain-clothed security agents – suddenly appeared and chased the people away.

The security police drew up a statement accusing the monk of “transporting and possessing documents bearing the name of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, an illegal organization that is not recognized by the State and moreover is considered to be reactionary and anti-State”.

Then they confiscated the “incriminating” documents, i.e. the 300 Lunar Year calendars. The men tried to force Thich Minh Nghia to sign a statement stating that he had committed a crime, but he refused. The young monk also demanded that the security police give him a receipt for the confiscated calendars, otherwise he would stage a sit-down protest in the house. After several hours and a telephone call to their superiors, the police finally let Thich Minh Nghia free.

Le Cong Cau, Secretary-general of the UBCV’s Executive Institute Viện Hóa Đạo and leader of the Buddhist Youth Movement sent a letter to the Chairman of the Hue Provincial People’s Committee protesting the incident and demanding the authorities to give the calendars back to the UBCV.

Vo Van Ai also said ‘’Hanoi accuses the UBCV of being “reactionary”, “illegal” and “anti-State”. Yet all that UBCV Buddhists want is the right of all Vietnamese to practice their faith independently and enjoy fundamental human rights. In reality, Hanoi’s accusations are just a pretext to repress the UBCV and stifle its independent voice.’’

Although Vietnam has never officially banned the UBCV, it has branded it “illegal” since the creation of the State-sponsored “Vietnam Buddhist Sangha” in 1981. Since then, UBCV leaders and members have suffered continuous harassments, police surveillance and detention. The UBCV leader Thich Quang Do has spent three decades under detention for his peaceful advocacy of religious freedom, human rights and democracy.

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Judicial Harassment Continues Against Luon Sovath Ahead of Trial

The Venerable Luon Sovath in an an undated photo. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

The Venerable Luon Sovath in an an undated photo. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Judicial harassment is continuing against Luon Sovath, a Buddhist monk from Siem Reap, Cambodia, according to rights groups. Venerable Luon Sovath is a human rights defender who faces ongoing harassment from the authorities for his work with communities struggling against land seizures. Known for his campaigns against forced evictions, he is a recipient of the 2012 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

Sometimes called “the Multimedia Monk,” he has worked in support of communities facing forced evictions throughout Cambodia. Forced evictions are among the most widespread human rights abuses in the country. They remove families from their homes and lands with little or no notice, and often without compensation or alternative housing plans.

In 2009, Venerable Sovath’s own village lost farmland in a dispute, leading to a stand-off in which police shot at the unarmed villagers, injuring his brother and nephew. He has said that “To be a human rights defender, you must have a broad heart for humanity and humankind, regardless of the personal cost to yourself.”

Luon Sovath will be tried on November 25th 2014, on charges of allegedly inciting and leading demonstrations against the Cambodian government in Chi Kreng, Siem Reap and Boeung Kak Lake. If found guilty, Venerable Luon Sovath could face up to two years in prison and a fine of $1,000.

Despite threats to his person, of arrest and disrobing, the Venerable Sovath, a non-violent Buddhist monk, uses videos, poems and songs to defend the right to housing. His advocacy touches powerful economic interests.

His trial stems from a separate prosecution that started in November 2011. On November 2nd 2011, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged Loun Sovath with incitement to commit a felony (Article 495 of the Penal Code) under case No. 3395. Mr. Sourn Serey Ratha, labelled a terrorist by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), is also charged under the same case.

On August 20th 2012, case No. 3395 went to trial for the first time. Loun Sovath and Sourn Serey Ratha were tried in absentia. The judge’s verdict called for a reinvestigation of the case due to lack of evidence and ordered the prosecutor to separate the case into two separate proceedings, citing lack of evidence connecting the two men to each other. There is no evidence that a new case number was ever assigned.

In September 2014, Sourn Serey Ratha’s lawyer was informed about a new trial against Sovath. The court summons contained three cases against Sourn Serey Ratha, including the original case No. 3395, which had been combined into one new case numbered No. 3395, to be tried on September 18th 2014.

The summons listed the charges of all three cases as charges against Sovath: incitement against Government (Article 495 of the Penal Code), plotting against the Government (Article 453 of the Penal Code) and prohibiting and provoking people not to vote (Article 124 of the Election Law). The lawyers requested to postpone the trial because of short notice and on September 18th 2014, the judge agreed to delay the start of the trial to an unknown date.

On October 30th 2014, Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) and Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) lawyers received court summons for Loun Sovath for a new trial to be held on November 25th 2014. This court summons listed only the original 2011 charge of incitement to commit a felony (Article 495 of the Penal Code).

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) urges the authorities of Cambodia to guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of Venerable Loun Sovath, and all human rights defenders in Cambodia and to guarantee the right to peaceful assembly to human rights defenders in Cambodia.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders says the Cambodian government must ensure in all circumstances respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international human rights standards and international instruments ratified by Cambodia.

In particular, the authorities must conform with the provisions of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted on December 9th 1998 by the United Nations General Assembly.The declaration guarantees the right to peacefully assemble and states that “everyone has the right, individually or in association with others, to promote the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.’’

In addition, it says that the State ‘’shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration.”

Land seizures are common in Cambodia, where large tracts are being sold, often to foreign investors, for logging, agriculture, mining, tourism and fisheries, displacing thousands of people. Since then he has been a strong advocate against forced evictions, which remove families from their homes, often violently and little or no compensation.

According to local human rights groups, an estimated 400,000 Cambodians have been affected by forced evictions or land grabs since 2003 in the wake of ostensible development projects, land disputes and illegal land confiscation.

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As China Attempts to Shape Global Web Rules, Internet Freedom Faces New Attacks

Ahead of China’s first World Internet Conference, Amnesty International said today that the Chinese government’s increasing efforts to influence global cyberspace rules is a further sign that Internet freedom is under a sustained attack. The event, which takes place in the eastern Zhejiang province, between November 19 -21, brings together senior Chinese officials and global web leaders to discuss the future of the Internet.

“Internet freedom is under attack by governments across the world. Now China appears eager to promote its own domestic internet rules as a model for global regulation. This should send a chill down the spine of anyone that values online freedom,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International. “China’s internet model is one of extreme control and suppression. The authorities use an army of censors to target individuals and imprison many activists solely for exercising their right to free expression online,” he added.

The first-time event is seen by many Internet experts as part of China’s attempt to have a greater say in the rules that govern the web.

Since President Xi came to power, hundreds of people have been detained solely for expressing their views online. The authorities continue to abuse criminal law to suppress freedom of expression, including by detaining and imprisoning activists for online posts that fall foul of the censors.

Many members of the New Citizens Movement, a loose network of activists which aims to promote government transparency and expose corruption, such as Liu Ping, have been arrested in part due to the photos and opinions that they have posted online.

In September, Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uyghur scholar and founder of the website “Uyghur Online”, was sentenced to life imprisonment for “separatism” in a politically motivated trial. Articles from his website were the main evidence cited by the authorities.

The Chinese authorities continue to block access to thousands of websites, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Major international news sites are also banned. Additionally, scores of phrases are censored on social media including any mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown or the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

“Business leaders going to Zhejiang should speak out for online freedom and challenge the Chinese government’s shameful record. Human rights should not be the elephant in the room,” said William Nee.

The internet has proved invaluable to the development of human rights, the international human rights organization says, by revolutionizing access to information and improving transparency and accountability.

However, internet freedom continues to be undermined by governments across the world. Authorities are increasingly using web technology to crack down on freedom of expression, censor information on human rights violations and carry out indiscriminate mass surveillance in the name of security, often in collaboration with corporations.

Amnesty further says that the US and UK governments have undermined online freedoms with the indiscriminate mass surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA) and General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) which are invading privacy globally. Companies based in western countries such as the UK, Germany and Italy are exporting software that allows governments to access the computers of human rights activists, bloggers and journalists and could lead to the persecution of individuals targeted, the organization warns.

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World Leaders Should Demand Release Of Chinese Activists

World leaders gathering Monday in Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit should urge China to release dozens of mainland activists detained for peacefully supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, Amnesty International says.

During the past month, Chinese police have detained people in connection with the pro-democracy protests, especially in Beijing, Jiangsu and the southern cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, which are close to Hong Kong.

Individuals have been held for posting pictures online with messages of support, shaving their heads in solidarity or for planning to travel to Hong Kong to participate in the protests. Scores of others have been called in for questioning by the authorities, known as being “invited for tea.”

“APEC leaders must end their recent silence on the crackdown against mainland Chinese activists expressing support for Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters. Political convenience should not trump principled action,” said Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International.

At least 76 people in mainland China remain in detention for supporting calls for genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong, according to the London-based international human rights organization.

“The leaders should take this opportunity to speak out and urge President Xi to ensure all those detained solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are immediately and unconditionally released,” Ms. Rife added.

Chinese state censors have attempted to ban photos and block any positive mentions online of the pro-democracy protests, while only allowing TV and newspapers to run government-approved news and commentary.

Ahead of APEC, the authorities have also prevented several mainland activists from travelling to Beijing. Activists in the capital have also been forced to leave the city ahead of APEC, including prominent activists Hu Shigen and Xiang Li. Meanwhile, student leaders in Hong Kong have said they plan to travel to Beijing during the APEC summit in an effort to meet with senior Chinese officials to stress their calls for electoral reform. Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters continue to occupy parts of downtown Hong Kong as part of the demonstrations which began on September 26th.

“The latest wave of detentions is part of a concerted attack on fundamental freedoms since President Xi took office. It makes a mockery of Xi’s recent claims that the rule of law and human rights will be fully respected in China by 2020,” said Roseann Rife.

The attack against freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association in the past year has seen individuals associated with the activists’ network “New Citizens’ Movement” sentenced to between two and six and a half years’ imprisonment.  More than 60 activists were arbitrarily detained or put under house arrest in the run-up to the 25th anniversary in June of the violent crackdown in 1989 of pro-democracy protests in and around Tiananmen Square.

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Is North Korea Willing To Discuss Human Rights?

North Korea is waging a diplomatic counter-offensive to divert international support from an upcoming United Nations General Assembly resolution recommending referring the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to the International Criminal Court (ICC). For the past ten years, the DPRK has ignored human rights resolutions and reports of the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, but now the regime has invited the European Union to visit the DPRK, which the EU says is currently under consideration.

Rights groups are urging nations to support recommendations made by a UN Commission on human rights, including referral to the ICC, which could mean prosecution of top Pyongyang officials at The Hague.

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 DPNK, according to the United Nations-mandated report released in February which also called for urgent action to address the rights situation in the country.

The draft resolution was submitted by the EU and Japan at the beginning of October urging the UN General Assembly to recommend the referral of North Korea to The Hague for crimes against humanity.

The Commission of Inquiry (COI) held extensive hearings of hundreds of witnesses, and produced a 400-page in-depth study which found systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations in the DPRK amounting to crimes against humanity. It called for referral of North Korea’s human rights situation to the UN Security Council with a view to accountability, including including referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and targeted sanctions.

Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson for the European Union’s External Action confirmed in an email on Tuesday that in the context of the political dialogue between the European Union and the DPRK that started in 1998, a visit by the European External Action Service to Pyongyang  for meetings with the DPRK authorities was scheduled to take place next week.

However, the EU’s mission  has been postponed to a future date ‘’due to the new entry restrictions adopted by the DPRK in relation to Ebola.’’

On Thursday, October 30th, North Korean representative Kim Un Chol said that it had invited the top EU human rights official to visit and said his visit is expected in March 2015. Ms. Kocijancic  confirmed with me on Tuesday that  Mr. Stavros Lambrinidis,  the EU Special Representative for Human Rights has been invited to visit the DPRK. Ms. Kocijanci said that ‘’the invitation is currently being considered. The two sides will discuss timing and substance of a visit through appropriate diplomatic channels.’’

‘’The political dialogue with the DPRK is an integral part of the EU’s critical engagement policy towards the DPRK, which aims at achieving peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, upholding the international non-proliferation regime and improving the respect of human rights in the DPRK. These are the themes normally raised by the EU in its contacts with the DPRK  authorities,’’ Ms. Kocijancic said.

Marzuki Darusman, the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea’s human rights situation said on October 27th that referring DPNK to the ICC would show that the international community considers human rights abuses in that country to be a serious matter. “This would send an unequivocal signal that the international community is determined to take the follow-up to the work the Commission of Inquiry on the DPRK (North Korea) to a new level,” Mr. Darusman said.

However strong the signal would be, a UN general resolution is non-binding. Darusman also said that the UN General Assembly should submit the Commission’s report to the U.N. Security Council for further action. The ICC would only be able to prosecute DPNK on any alleged crimes if they are referred to by the UN Security Council.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights (JBI) are calling upon states in the United Nations General Assembly to back the Commission’s suggestions.

While cooperation should be pursued, “it cannot be used to barter away and gut the text of a UN resolution based on the COI findings and recommendations for accountability,” said HRNK Co-Chair Roberta Cohen.

“Words must be accompanied by deeds,” remarked Felice Gaer, JBI Director. “Any change on the part of the UN should be based on deeds– genuine and verifiable improvements on the ground.”

On October 21st, Justice Michael Kirby, Chair of the COI, addressing a special ‘side event’ at the United Nations, asked “will the United Nations back away because of the steps belatedly taken by North Korea?…my hope is that the answer to that question will be ‘no.’ We don’t back away.. we expect accountability for great crimes.” And that, he also said, “is the right of the people of North Korea,” who should be provided with copies of the COI report in Korean.

Kirby said at the report’s release that the suffering and the tears of the people of North Korea demand action. 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.”

According to Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of HRNK, “North Korea continues to deny well documented severe violations, in particular at the political prison camps. There is no discernable progress on the ground to match its diplomatic counteroffensive.”

“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. 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,” Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth, said at the time of the report’s release.

“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.

Ms. Kocijanci also said that the ‘’EU has repeatedly expressed its grave concerns on the human rights situation in the DPRK as well as its readiness to work with the government and society in addressing them.’’ She added that the EU considers that the upcoming United Nations General Assembly Resolution ‘’should reflect the serious situation on the ground with a view to promoting much needed and concrete improvement.’’

Established by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2013, for 11 months, the COI investigated 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.

DPNK officials dismissed the Commission’s report in February, calling it enemy propaganda.

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Disappeared Chinese Human Rights Defender Placed In Criminal Detention

A Chinese human rights defender whose whereabouts have been unknown since her disappearance on October 1st in Beijing has been placed in criminal detention on the charge of “causing trouble.” On October 23rd, human rights defender Liu Xizhen was charged and officially detained. Liu Xizhen is a human rights defender who has campaigned for Chinese Communist Party officials to disclose their assets and for the Chinese government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The day after she was detained, police officers raided her house. The next day her husband, Huang Hui Min received police documents confirming her detention. She was brought to Yuan He police station and is currently being held in Xinyu Detention Center in Jiang Xi province.

The human rights defender disappeared in Beijing on October 1st, where she went to attend a protest against the continued detention and ill treatment of human rights defender Ms. Liu Ping as well as a demonstration in support of protests in Hong Kong.

While it is difficult to ascertain all details due to the ongoing detention, since her reappearance it has emerged that she may have been arrested at an intersection near Zhon Nan Hai (People’s Republic of China state building) while attempting to hand over a petition and that she was subsequently brought back to Jiang Xi province and placed in a ‘black jail’ (an unofficial detention center) for twenty days.

On October 5th 2014, Liu Xizhen’s husband informed the China-based Rights Defense Network of the disappearance of his wife and his fears that she may have been detained.

Following Liu Xizhen’s reappearance and her criminal detention, on October 28th 2014, Liu Xizhen’s husband was threatened by the manager of the Xinyu Steel factory, where he also works, and was warned not to hire a human rights lawyer or a lawyer from outside of Xinyu. The manager also threatened Liu Xizhen’s husband with imprisonment if he is found to be in contact with any human rights lawyers or human rights defenders.

The human rights organization Front Line Defenders has expressed its concern regarding the detention of Liu Xizhen and the threats against her husband. Furthermore, the organization believes that these actions are solely related to Liu Xizhen’s peaceful and legitimate work in defense of human rights.

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Two Year Jail Sentences for Media Workers in Myanmar

''The MDCF states the people have appointed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic democracy forces as the interim government” was the headline on the July 7th Bi Mon Te Nay weekly news journal.  Photo: Democratic Voice of Burma.

The MDCF states the people have appointed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic democracy forces as the interim government” was the headline on the July 7th Bi Mon Te Nay weekly news journal. Photo: Democratic Voice of Burma.

Five media workers have been sentenced to two years in prison in Myanmar over the publication of a news story. Rights groups say they are prisoners of conscience, detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and that the sentence is out of proportion for a reporting error.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Amnesty International are condemning the two year jail sentences that a court in Myanmar imposed on five members of the weekly Bi Mon Te Nay (Bi Midday Sun) staff. The five men had been arrested between July 7th – 16th after the Bi Midday Sun misreported on July 7th that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was forming an interim government.

Editors Ko Win Tin and Thura Aung, assistant editors Yin Min Htun and Kyaw Min Khine and journalist Kyaw Zaw Hein from the Bi Midday Sun newspaper in Myanmar were each sentenced to two years’ imprisonment by the Pabedan Township Court in Yangon on October 16th.

“This sentence is out of all proportion and constitutes a serious violation of media freedom,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia desk. “It shows that Burma’s current authorities have no intention of abandoning the former military government’s repressive legislation and using the new legislation, which shows more respect for freedom of information.”

Reporter Kyaw Zaw Hein, managing editor Ko Win Tin and Editor-in-chief Thura Aung who were arrested in Yangon on July 7th and 8th were first taken for interrogation to two different places in Yangon, where they were held for two weeks without access to lawyers or their families, before being transferred to Yangon’s Insein prison.

At the time, all five were initially charged under Myanmar’s Emergency Provisions Act, but subsequently charged under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code, which provides for up to two years’ imprisonment for anyone who makes, publishes or circulates information which may cause public fear or alarm, and which may incite people to commit offenses “against the State or against the public tranquility.”

Human rights defenders, journalists and political activists continue to be arrested in Myanmar simply for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, a right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Amnesty International has expressed concern about a range of laws in Myanmar, including Section 505(b) of the Penal Code, which are used to restrict the right to freedom of expression, and has consistently called for these laws to be repealed or else brought into line with international human rights law and standards.

This call has also been made by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, who had particularly identified Section 505(b) as one of a number of laws in the country used to jail prisoners of conscience.

At the initial hearing in August, charges against a third assistant editor, Ye Ming Aung, were dropped and the judge ordered her release. RSF said at the time that the Myanmar government should protect freedom of information and drop all charges against the others and ask the Press Council to handle the case instead of the courts.

Amnesty International said it is concerned by reports that the Myanmar authorities had earlier pressured four of the media workers into changing their lawyer by threatening them with longer prison sentences. They had previously been represented by a high profile human rights lawyer with connections to the international community.

The international human rights group said that it also continues to receive reports about prison conditions in Myanmar falling below international standards. These concerns include lack of access to adequate medical treatment, clean drinking water, nutritious food, and water for bathing .Amnesty has called on the Myanmar authorities to ensure that conditions of detention comply with those set out in the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Two years in prison is the maximum sentence for an erroneous press report under article 505(b) of the criminal code. Section 505 (b) of the penal code covers defamation and states: “Whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the state or against the public tranquility shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”

The arrest of the Bi Mon Te Nay staff members in early July came just days before five Unity Weekly journalists received ten-year jail terms on July 10th  on charges of violating state secrets. In response to the outcry about the crackdown on the media, President Thein Sein met with members of the Press Council on August 1st and assured them that he would mediate in the event of any problem.

One of the five journalists, Kyaw Zaw Hein, said at the end of the trial “This is totally unfair and if the country wants to change into a democracy, it needs press freedom.”

The five men plan to appeal against their convictions. They are all currently detained in Yangon’s Insein prison.

Pending their unconditional release, rights groups are calling on the authorities to ensure that Kyaw Zaw Hein, Ko Win Tin, Thura Aung, Yin Min Htun and Kyaw Min Khaing are not tortured or ill-treated in detention, that they have access to lawyers of their choosing and to visits from family members, that they are not transferred to prisons far from their relatives and that their conditions of detention meet international standards.

They also urge the authorities to take immediate steps to repeal or amend legislation which restricts the right to freedom of expression, in strict compliance with international human rights law and standards.

Myanmar is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

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Documentary Follows Victims of Khmer Rouge

Ms Ros, Civil Party in the Case n°002, in Phnom Penh, August 2014. Photo courtesy FIDH.

Ms. Ros, civil party in case n°002 visit the Tuol Sleng (S21) Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, August 2014. Photo courtesy FIDH.

As the second trial of Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea reopened Friday, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a documentary which tells the story of three Cambodian women living in France who travel to Phnom Penh on August 4th 2014 to attend the historic verdict against two of the highest-ranking living political leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime. Khieu and Nuon received life sentences two months ago and now face genocide charges.

Case No. 002 – History of a Verdict follows 
Mrs. Féniès, Mrs. Ou and Mrs. Ros, who were all victims of international crimes under the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. With the help of FIDH they filed a complaint as civil parties before the ECCC, seeking justice for themselves and their families who died under the Khmer Rouge regime, a justice they were awaiting for almost 40 years.

Khieu Samphan, 83, and Nuon Chea, 88, stood before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in the first case for crimes against humanity and genocide. On August 7th, the ECCC convicted Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, and sentenced them to life in prison. It is the first time that high-ranking officials of the Khmer Rouge regime have been convicted by an independent court and represents a critical step against impunity.

They were found guilty of the crimes against humanity of murder, political persecution, forced transfer, attacks against human dignity, enforced disappearances and extermination during forced movements of population in Cambodia from April 17th 1975 to December 1977. They were also found guilty of the crimes against humanity of murder, political persecution and extermination of former soldiers and officials of the Khmer Republic at Tuol Po Chrey in Pursat Province. Both men have appealed their convictions.

In opening statements Friday, deputy prosecutor William Smith said the hearings “will ensure a more comprehensive accounting” of the crimes of which Khieu and Nuon are accused, so that “Cambodia’s past is not buried but built and learnt from.”

Case 002/02 is the second trial against Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea. The alleged crime which form the basis for Case 002/02 include genocide against the ethnic Muslim Cham and the Vietnamese; nationwide forced marriages and rape; internal purges; and treatment of Buddhists, among other charges. Prosecutors will begin calling witnesses on Monday.

In the documentary, Mrs. Touch Féniès recalls: ”OnApril 17th 1975 the population of Phnom Penh was forced to walk into the jungle. They were on their bikes, with their guns, dressed in black uniforms. At each house, they would holler from their bikes for the people to come out so they could clean up the city. First we didn’t believe it but then we saw the neighbors running, terrified. Women giving birth on the side of the road, the Khmer Rouge kept making them walk.”

Mrs. Sokhon Neang Muong Ou remembered the same day: ”That April 17th they chased me from my home. We went where we were ordered to. And we didn’t know where they were taking us. We walked, and walked and walked. There were many people on the road. We were pressed up against each other. We had trouble moving forward. It was very hot. People began to die, one after another.”

Ms. Ros, Ms. Fenies and Ms Ou, civil parties in case n°002 in Phnom Penh, August 2014. Photo courtesy FIDH.

Ms. Ros, Ms. Fenies and Ms Ou, civil parties in case n°002 visit the Tuol Sleng (S21) Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, August 2014. Photo courtesy FIDH.

Since 2008, FIDH, through lawyers from its Litigation Action Group (LAG), has been representing 10 victims, living in France and Civil Parties in Case 002/01 before the ECCC. FIDH enabled them to attend the verdict hearing in Phnom Penh. FIDH, together with its member organisations in Cambodia, ADHOC and LICADHO, has organized various missions and seminars in Cambodia on the ECCC and has published several reports and position papers, focusing on the role of victims in ECCC proceedings, their rights to participation, legal representation and reparation. ADHOC enabled 46 Civil Parties from 23 provinces in Cambodia to attend the hearing.

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

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

You can view the documentary, with sub-titles in French, English, Spanish and Khmer here:

A live audio and video stream of  the hearings is available on the ECCC website throughout the trial.

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Cambodian Investigative Journalist Victim Of “Cold Blooded Murder”

Cambodian journalist Taing Try was shot dead Sunday in Cambodia while investigating the illegal logging in the southern province of Kratie along with five other journalists. Three suspects have been arrested. Rights organizations are appalled by the act and calling for a thorough investigation.

Taing Try was shot while in his car early Sunday.  He was investigating claims that a local warehouse was housing illegal timber. Reporters Without Borders said that it was a ‘’cold-blooded murder’’ of a journalist who was investigating a sensitive story.

According to reports, a freelance reporter and a member of the independent Khmer Journalists for Democracy Association, Taing Try was traveling with a group of other journalists. Soon after, the vehicle carrying Try and another reporter became stuck on a dirt road. An assailant approached and shot Try in the forehead. The assailant attempted to drive away from the scene, but was forced to flee on foot after his vehicle crashed. The car of the suspected killer was found 200 meters down the road where he had to abandon it.

The deputy police chief in Kratie province, Oum Phy, briefed reporters Monday and said that the authorities had concluded their investigation. “Three people were involved with the murder—one is the killer, one is an accomplice, and another one owns the gun. After our investigation, there are no more suspects,” he said Monday.

Oum Phy identified the suspects as business partners: Ben Hieng, 31, Mondolkiri police chief Ben Hieng; Khim Pheakdey, 27, a military police officer; and La Narong, 32, a member of the Cambodia Royal Air Force, who is the suspected gunman.

“The fact that some of the people running this lucrative trafficking in timber hold senior positions must not afford them any kind of immunity,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk. “If the three detained suspects really were involved in this shocking murder, we hope they will be tried like anyone else.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the killing and called on authorities to identify the motive and ensure the perpetrators are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. “Cambodian journalists reporting on sensitive environmental issues, especially the rampant illegal logging trade, are all too frequently targeted with threats and reprisals,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “We call on Cambodian authorities to identify the motive behind the killing and ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice.”

At the press conference, Oum Phy said Taing Try had threatened to report the three suspects to the authorities.

Hean Chheavkun, the provincial head of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) said that her organization had not yet concluded its investigation of the murder. She said authorities need to provide better protection for journalists as well as staff of NGOs.

The National Press Council of Cambodia, a coalition of 10 press associations, condemned the killing Monday. “This is an act of brutality against the reporter. The authorities must ensure that the killers are prosecuted,” the council said in a statement.

Illegal logging activities are rife in Cambodia, and news coverage of the trade has proven to be extremely dangerous for journalists, according to CPJ research.

In September 2012, environmentalist reporter Hang Serei Oudom lost his life because of his coverage of deforestation and illegal logging in protected areas. He frequently reported on illegal logging in eastern Ratanakiri province, was found murdered in the trunk of his car. Two suspects, a military police officer and his wife, were acquitted in April 2013 due to lack of evidence.

In April 2012, environmental activist Chut Wutty was shot and killed in April while leading two Cambodian Daily reporters to an illegal logging site in southern Koh Kong province. The gunman was killed in unclear circumstances.

Cambodia is ranked 144th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Freedom of information is increasingly restricted in Cambodia and journalists who cover illegal logging are often the targets of threats.

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