Seoul and Pyongyang Should Discuss Human Rights Urges UN Special Rapporteur

Human rights should feature high on the talks agenda in South Korea’s proposed initiative to resume military and humanitarian dialogue with the North, a United Nations rights expert says.

The Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Tomás Ojea Quintana, said the opportunity to discuss human rights must be seized as part of the current efforts to restore severed ties between the two countries.

“While I welcome the initiative by the administration of President Moon Jae-in to resume dialogue, it is important that that engagement serves as a platform for North Korea to discuss ways to improve human rights,” Ojea Quintana said, ending his second mission to the Republic of Korea (ROK) since his appointment by the UN Human Rights Council last year.

Pyongyang has recently rejected a call by Seoul to resume family reunions, which have not been held for two years, after the DPRK resumed nuclear tests and long-range missile launches.

North Korea has also said that further reunions can only take place if 12 restaurant workers, whom it says South Korea abducted from China in 2016, are returned. Ojea Quintana said the account he has received contains inconsistencies, and pledged to follow up on the issue with the concerned parties to help the women and their families reconnect.

The Special Rapporteur also met with a man who wishes to return to North Korea where his wife and son live, despite the risk of being punished for leaving for South Korea three years ago.

“If anything, these cases highlight the complexity of the family separation issue that started 70 years ago, and the fact that it continues to take new forms and affect people in the Korean peninsula in profound ways,” he argued.

The expert highlighted a surge in detentions and forced repatriations of North Koreans caught in China, who usually receive harsh labour sentences when they are sent back.

“North Koreans who leave their country are caught in a horrendous cycle of physical and psychological violence, and I received information that some take their own lives when they find out that they are scheduled for repatriation,” said Ojea Quintana.

The expert noted that China has a responsibility to abide by the principle of non-refoulement in international law. “I appeal to the Government of China to halt the policy, protect those in custody and engage with my mandate and with relevant UN agencies to think of alternatives,” he stressed.

The Special Rapporteur reiterated his deep concern about the human rights situation in North Korea.

“The information I have been receiving points to different violations that continue to affect the lives of ordinary North Koreans and even foreigners,” he said, highlighting allegations of arbitrary detention, human trafficking and enforced disappearances, as well as sexual and gender-based violence against women detained in holding centres in the border areas.

He also identified detention conditions as a matter of continuing concern: “The prospect of being sent to a political prison camp keeps haunting North Koreans. The fear is so great that people assume anyone who disappears must have been sent to one of the five known camps.”

“The issue concerns foreigners too, some of whom have been detained for months without access to consular assistance to which they are entitled”, he added.

A recent crackdown on the use of electronic equipment and foreign audiovisual material was brought to the expert’s attention. “The Government campaign seems to contrast with wider access to smart phones and foreign DVDs within the population. Information does come in despite all the restrictions and penalties,” he said.  

Since his appointment the expert has pursued what has been termed by his predecessor a ‘two-track approach’, combining calls for dialogue with an emphasis on the need to hold the authorities to account.

“While the debate on accountability will continue to expand following the latest DPRK resolutions at the UN Security and Human Rights Councils, we need to broaden the concept and consider it as part of the larger question of what it takes to ensure freedom and dignity for all North Koreans. Of course that conversation also involves the authorities”, Ojea Quintana emphasized.

During his five-day mission to Seoul, from July 17 to 21, the Special Rapporteur met senior members of the Government as well as representatives of civil society and other groups. His requests for access to North Korea have not been granted.

The Special Rapporteur will report his findings and recommendations to the UN General Assembly in October 2017.

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Myanmar Must Release Journalists, Stop Intimidation

The Myanmar authorities must immediately and unconditionally release three journalists who were arrested in conflict-ridden northern Shan State last month, Amnesty International said ahead of their trial scheduled for Monday.

Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Aung, both reporters for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), and Thein Zaw (aka Lawi Weng), a reporter for the Irrawaddy newspaper, were arrested on June 26th, along with four other people they were travelling with.

They have since been charged under the Unlawful Association Act and could face up to three years in prison if convicted. Three others arrested with them are also facing charges, including under the same Act, while a seventh man arrested on June 26th has since been released.

“The farcical charges against these journalists must be dropped immediately, they have done nothing but carry out their work peacefully,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “This is a clear attempt by the authorities to intimidate journalists and silence their critical coverage. It is exactly in northern Shan State and the other ethnic areas wracked by conflict, where appalling human rights abuses are rife, that independent journalism is needed the most.”

Soldiers from the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s armed forces – arrested the journalists as they tried to report on a drug-burning ceremony in an area controlled by the ethnic armed group Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).

The media workers were held incommunicado in a secret location for two days after their arrest, before they were transferred to Hsipaw prison in northern Shan State where they are currently detained. Their trial is due to start July 28th at the Hsipaw Township Court. Legal proceedings to date have been marred by a lack of transparency, and two earlier court appearances were unexpectedly rescheduled, raising concerns about access to lawyers.

The Myanmar authorities have for years used a slew of draconian laws to intimidate, harass, arrest and imprison critics and media workers. The Unlawful Association Act is one such law – it grants authorities sweeping powers to arrest people considered to be part of or in contact with an “unlawful association”, and is in particular often used in ethnic and religious minority areas.

“Many had hoped that the days when Myanmar relied on its repressive legal framework to silence peaceful criticism were long gone, but sadly the same old patterns of repression continue. The Unlawful Association Act is so vaguely worded that it can easily be misused to jail political opponents as well as journalists on the most flimsy grounds – it must be repealed immediately,” said James Gomez.

The seven men were detained in northern Shan State, in the north part of Myanmar, an area that has seen intense fighting between the Myanmar Army and a range of ethnic armed groups in recent years. In a report released in June this year, Amnesty International documented how civilians from ethnic minority groups in Kachin and northern Shan State are suffering appalling abuses, including possible war crimes, at the hands of the Myanmar Army.

“All the Civilian Suffer”: Conflict, Displacement and Abuse in Northern Myanmar details how soldiers from Myanmar’s Armed Forces have carried out torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate shelling of civilian villages, and put punitive restrictions on movement and humanitarian access.

Amnesty International also documented human rights abuses carried out by ethnic armed groups operating in the area, including the TNLA, such as abductions, forced recruitment and forced taxation of civilians.

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Yet Another Vietnamese Human Rights Defenders Sentenced in Closed Trial

Vietnamese human rights defender and blogger Tran Thi Nga was sentenced to nine years imprisonment followed by an additional 5 years of house arrest. She was charged under Article 88 of the Vietnamese Penal Code for “using the Internet to spread propaganda videos and writings that are against the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” Rights groups strongly condemn her conviction and sentence. 

Tran Thi Nga, an activist who blogged under the pen name “Thuy Nga,” campaigned against state abuses, including trafficking, the confiscation of land and police brutality. Nga is a member of Vietnamese Women For Human Rights, a group that includes overseas Vietnamese wishing to lend support, training and encouragement to those who stand up to defend human rights in Vietnam. She has also assisted those whose land has been confiscated by local authorities and has demonstrated in support of democratic reform.

“The harassment, arbitrary arrest and trial of Tran Thi Nga follow a familiar pattern of repression that will inevitably continue unless Hanoi enacts significant institutional and legislative reforms, including the amendment of the country’s numerous repressive laws,” said FIDH President Dimitris Christopoulos.

Nga was held for over six months in pre-trial detention. On July 25th 2017, Tran Thi Nga was sentenced to nine years in prison and five years under house arrest on the charge of “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 88 of the Penal Code. Her trial, held in the People’s Court in the southern province of Ha Nam, was closed to independent journalists and foreign diplomats. The defender’s husband and her young children were not allowed to attend the trial, nor were activists who came to the province to support her.

A large number of police officers and plainclothes agents were deployed around the court premises, and some supporters reported being physically accosted as they tried to approach the building.

Nga was arrested on January 21st 2017 and charged under Article 88 of the 1999 Vietnamese Penal Code for posting articles and videos online in which she condemned human rights violations committed by Vietnamese authorities. On the same day, Tran Thi Nga’s partner Luong Dan Ly, a pro-democracy activist and blogger, was also arrested. He was released the following day.

According to the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) Tran Thi Nga has suffered repeated intimidation, harassment, detention, interrogation, and physical assaults by security agents because of her human rights activities. In May 2014, a group of five men assaulted her with iron rods, breaking her arm and leg. In the days prior to her arrest in January 2017, Tran Thi Nga was subjected to increased police intimidation and harassment, including surveillance of her home and the use of physical force to keep her from leaving her house. Police also refused to allow a neighbor to take her two young sons to the city to buy them food.

“The result of Tran Thi Nga’s trial is a foregone conclusion and it certainly won’t be the last conviction of a human rights defender by Viet Nam’s kangaroo courts. Without renewed international pressure, Hanoi’s crackdown on human rights defenders will continue unabated,” said VCHR President Vo Van Ai.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OCMT) and VCHR urged Vietnamese authorities to drop all charges against Tran Thi Nga and immediately release her.

“We strongly condemn the prosecution of Tran Thi Nga, which illustrates once more the Vietnamese Government’s relentless efforts to intimidate and silence human rights defenders for their legitimate human rights activities. Viet Nam must immediately and unconditionally free Tran Thi Nga and all other jailed human rights defenders,” said OMCT Secretary General Gerald Staberock.

Over the past few months Tran Thi Nga’s state of health has been declining due to a mucosal injury sustained in May 2014 after she was beaten by authorities in reprisal for her work documenting rights’ violations. According to her lawyer, she was denied proper medical treatment while detained in Ha Nam Police Detention Center.

Front Line Defenders says it believes Nga’s conviction to be solely motivated by her peaceful and legitimate work for human rights in Vietnam, and calls on the Vietnamese authorities to quash her conviction and immediately release her. Front Line Defenders further calls on Vietnamese authorities to ensure that Tran Thi Nga receives all necessary medical treatment.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned the verdict and called on Vietnamese authorities to cease jailing journalists.

“Vietnam’s repression of brave bloggers like Tran Thi Nga must stop,” Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s Southeast Asia representative, said. “We call on Vietnamese authorities to repeal this outrageous verdict and release all of the journalists now being held on trumped up anti-state charges.”

Article 88 has been widely used against human rights defenders who have highlighted abuses in Vietnam. On June 29th 2017, human rights defender Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh was given a 10 year jail sentence after a one day trial in the People’s Court in Nha Trang, Khanh Hoa province. She was jailed for her work demanding accountability and transparency following the illegal discharge of toxic waste into the sea off the Vietnamese coast in April 2016 by the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel company, a Taiwanese-owned steel plant in Ha Tinh province. The ensuing environmental disaster resulted in the deaths of millions of fish, leaving fishermen jobless in four coastal provinces. She was held incommunicado for more than eight months before her one-day trial.

Vietnam held at least eight journalists behind bars in late 2016, when CPJ last conducted its annual census of journalists jailed worldwide.

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Cambodia Must Drop Charges Against Land Rights Defenders

Cambodian authorities should immediately end the politically motivated prosecution of six land rights activists, including the prominent advocate Tep Vanny, who has been jailed for nearly a year, Human Rights Watch said Friday. Tep Vanny has been detained for 333 days for peaceful protests.

On July 14th 2017, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court is expected to review charges of “public insult” and “death threats” that have been brought against Tep Vanny and other members of the Boeung Kak Lake community, namely Kong Chantha, Nget Khun, Cheng Leap, Heng Mom, and Tol Sreypov. The charges, dating back to a spurious complaint made in 2012, carry penalties of up to 10 million riels (US$2,400) for public insult (article 307) and up to two years in prison and 4 million riels ($970) for death threats (article 233).

“Prosecuting Tep Vanny and her fellow land rights activists is the Hun Sen government’s latest retaliatory act in its campaign to intimidate critical voices,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should drop these bogus charges immediately.”

In February, another court sentenced Tep Vanny to 30 months in prison for “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” under article 218 of the Cambodian Criminal Code. She was found guilty of assaulting security guards during a 2013 protest outside the house of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

No credible evidence was presented during the trial to substantiate these charges. The court refused to hear testimony from witnesses supporting Tep Vanny’s account that she and other protesters did not commit any violence during the protest. During the trial, para-police kicked, shoved, and dragged activists who had gathered outside the court, resulting in injuries to two Boeung Kak activists and one pregnant woman. Video footage of the incident shows para-police chasing demonstrators into a neighboring mall, and guards cornering one protester and repeatedly punching and kicking him.

Since August 15th 2016, Tep Vanny has been held at CC2 Prey Sar facility prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where she is now awaiting the outcome of her appeal against the February 2017 conviction and prison sentence.

Tep Vanny, one of Cambodia’s leading land rights activists, has worked to combat unlawful evictions and corruption by mobilizing affected communities in the Boeung Kak Lake area of Phnom Penh, where over 4,000 families have had to vacate their homes for a private development project. In 2013, she received a Vital Voices Global Leadership Award for her work on land rights.

She has also been an important voice on behalf of fellow activists, notably when she was arrested while leading a so-called Black Monday protest calling for the release of the “ADHOC Five.” The five current and former members of the human rights group ADHOC were recently released on bail after spending 427 days in arbitrary pre-trial detention. Tep Vanny has also been active in urging an independent investigation into the July 10, 2016 shooting death of Kem Ley, a popular social commentator and frequent government critic.

Cambodin authorities should drop the charges against Tep Vanny and the other land rights activists, and quash Tep Vanny’s earlier conviction and immediately release her. The government should cease persecution of human rights defenders and others exercising their fundamental rights to free expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

“Cambodia’s international donors should be outraged by this latest wave of politically motivated prosecutions of rights advocates,” Robertson said. “Together they should publicly call for the release of Tep Vanny and an end to the government’s campaign against peaceful protesters.”

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Chinese Authorities Must End Crackdown on Human Rights Defenders

The Chinese authorities must end their ruthless campaign of detention and torture of human rights lawyers and activists, Amnesty International says. Today marks the second anniversary of the start of an unprecedented crackdown launched under President Xi Jinping during which nearly 250 human rights lawyers and activists have been targeted during the nationwide sweep which began on July 9th 2015.

Six people have since been convicted for “subverting state power” or “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Three others are still awaiting trials or verdicts.

‘’This vicious crackdown marked by arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, torture and ill-treatment and fake confessions must end now,’’ said Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia Director at Amnesty International.

“For two years the Chinese government has been methodically decimating the ranks of human rights lawyers and activists. This vicious crackdown marked by arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, torture and ill-treatment and fake confessions must end now,” Bequelin added. “Lawyers and rights advocates play a crucial role in protecting human rights and the rule of law. The torment that they and their families continue to be subjected to flies in the face of the Chinese government claim that it upholds the rule of law.”

Torture and ill-treatment

The torture of detained lawyers remains a systemic issue. One lawyer released on bail in May, Xie Yang, told his lawyers he had suffered beatings, lengthy interrogations and was deprived of water and sleep during his 22 months in detention.

The wife of another lawyer, Li Heping, has described how her husband was force-fed with medicines and chained for up to 24 hours a day during his detention. Li was given a three year suspended prison sentence in April for“subverting state power”.

Vanished

Incommunicado detentions remain routine. Lawyer Wang Quanzhang was detained by the Chinese authorities in August 2015. As of today his family still have no information as to where he is, his condition or even if he is still alive.

Another prominent Chinese human rights lawyer, Jiang Tianyong, was taken away by police in November last year, after visiting the wife of a fellow lawyer who was detained in the first wave of the crackdown.

For months, the authorities refused to provide Jiang Tianyong’s family any information about his whereabouts. In May, the police finally informed the family Jiang had been formally arrested for “subverting state power”, a charge which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. He is being held at Changsha City No. 1 Detention Center in central China, but his lawyers continue to be prevented from visiting him. He is still waiting to hear if prosecutors will pursue charges against him.

Continuing harassment

The detention of lawyer Wang Yu and her family on July 9th 2015 sparked the beginning of the government crackdown. Despite Wang Yu and her husband Bao Longjun being released on bail last year, they remain under close surveillance and continue to be harassed by the authorities.

“The authorities must end their cold-blooded treatment of human rights lawyers and activists. They must stop this torment and free the lawyers and activists who have been detained solely for doing their work and defending human rights,” said Nicholas Bequelin.

The crackdown against human rights lawyers is part of a calculated operation by the Chinese government to suppress civil society. New or proposed laws give the authorities nearly unchecked powers to target individuals and organizations that are seen to criticize the government and its policies.

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Cambodian Civil Society Condemns Denial of Medical Care to Human Rights Defenders

Cambodian civil society organizations are condemning the discriminatory and arbitrary denial of medical care to three of the five #Freethe5KH detainees at Phnom Penh’s CC1 (Prey Sar) prison facility. Mr. Ny Sokha, Mr. Nay Vanda and Mr. Yi Soksan have finally been granted access to doctors from the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), after such access had been arbitrarily restricted since April 2017.

All three detainees experienced a serious deterioration in their health while the restrictions were in place. They have now been held in pre-trial detention for 426 days, along with their colleague at the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), Ms. Lim Mony, and Deputy Secretary General of the National Election Committee and former ADHOC staff member, Mr. Ny Chakrya.

LICADHO doctors had been able to treat all five #FreeThe5KH detainees in the three different prison facilities located in Phnom Penh since the beginning of their detention, until restrictions were imposed in April in relation to the three detainees in CC1. In the past two weeks, sporadic, application-by-application access to two of the three human rights defenders (HRDs) was granted by the Investigating Judge and the Director of CC1, due to serious health concerns regarding Yi Soksan and Ny Sokha. Full access was granted again just last week.

The organizations are deeply concerned that the three detainees experienced serious deterioration in health – in particular that on June 18th 2017 Ny Sokha collapsed in a prison bathroom. The organizations believe this incident was exacerbated by the denial of regular medical check-ups by medical staff, as well as woeful conditions inside CC1. On June 21st, Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda, Yi Soksan and Lim Mony appeared at the Supreme Court for the hearing of their appeal against a further denial of bail in their case. During the hearing, Nay Vanda needed to be excused to rest in a side room as he was feeling nauseous, while Ny Sokha and Yi Soksan reported feeling weak due to a recent decline in their health.

“At the very least, Cambodian authorities must now take these serious health concerns into account and stop prolonging their baseless pre-trial detention through denial of bail,” said Naly Pilorge, LICADHO Deputy Director for Advocacy.

The right to adequate medical care, enshrined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a universal human right that is not diminished by incarceration. While there are prison medical staff in CC1, it is clear that the medical care currently provided by such staff is not adequate. The discriminatory obstruction of access to treatment by LICADHO medical teams therefore meant that the three were deprived of the adequate health care to which they are entitled under domestic and international law.

Prison conditions, which already fail to meet international standards, have significantly worsened since the Cambodian authorities began a crackdown on people who use drugs in January 2017. Mass arrests and the overuse of pre-trial detention have caused severe overcrowding in Prey Sar prison, leading to increasingly acute impacts on prisoners’ health.

In addition to the obstruction of access by medical staff, in recent months requests by civil society organizations to visit the #FreeThe5KH detainees, as well as detained human rights defender and land activist Tep Vanny, have been denied or ignored. This restriction on contact with the outside world has negatively affected the HRDs’ psychological health.

In November 2016 the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) ruled that all five #FreeThe5KH detainees had been discriminated against based on their status as human rights defenders, that the violation of the detainees’ rights to a fair trial, liberty, and freedom of association rendered their detention “arbitrary,” and called on the Cambodian authorities to immediately release them. More than seven months later, the five remain in prison, with their pre-trial detention extended for up to a further six months on April 27th 2017.

The on-going arbitrary detention of Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda, Yi Soksan, Lim Mony, and Ny Chakrya is in violation of international and Cambodian law and we call on the Cambodian authorities to comply with the UNWGAD’s decision and release them immediately and unconditionally, the organizations say: ‘’We call upon the General Department of Prisons to make the procedure to access healthcare more transparent, as arbitrary and opaque restrictions have already risked endangering the health and lives of detainees, and we call on the Cambodian authorities to maintain unrestricted access to all detainees by medical teams and prison monitors.’’

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Liu Xiaobo Released On Medical Parole for Late-Stage Cancer Treatment, Should Be Reunited With His Wife

Candlelight vigil for activist Liu Xiaobo outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on January 12, 2010. AFP PHOTO/MIKE CLARKE

Responding to the news that Chinese Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo has developed late-stage liver cancer while in prison and is currently in the hospital receiving treatment, human rights organizations are saying that he never should have been imprisoned in the first place.

A prominent Chinese intellectual, democracy activist and the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Liu is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for inciting subversion of state power.

International human rights group Freedom Now, which has served as international counsel to the imprisoned activist, said their organization is deeply disturbed that Liu’s health was neglected by the Chinese authorities: “We are grateful for Dr. Liu’s release but are deeply disturbed by the circumstances under which the Chinese government granted him parole,” said Freedom Now Executive Director Maran Turner. “It is unconscionable that the government neglected Dr. Liu’s health, despite repeated calls from the international community to ensure proper care. The Chinese authorities must guarantee that Dr. Liu receive medical treatment for this grave condition and that he is able to be with his wife Liu Xia and his family during this time.”

Amnesty International’s China Researcher Patrick Poon said: “It adds insult to injury that Liu Xiaobo, who should never have been put in prison in the first place, has been diagnosed with a grave illness.’’ Poon also said “The Chinese authorities should immediately ensure that Liu Xiaobo receives adequate medical care, effective access to his family and that he and all others imprisoned solely for exercising their human rights are immediately and unconditionally released.’’

Liu was awarded the Nobel Prize in absentia in 2010 for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Liu was one of the leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen protests and was detained and arrested afterward. He was one of the leading authors of Charter 08, which was written to promote human rights and democratization in China.

“That he was ever in prison at all says all one needs to know about Chinese leaders’ profound hostility toward peaceful expression and the rule of law. It appears highly unlikely that his release will equal real freedom – for him, or for all others who simply seek peaceful, positive change in China,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

Poon also said that Liu and his wife Lu Jia should be freed and reunited: ‘’The authorities must also stop their shameful and illegal house arrest of Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, and ensure that she is able to receive visitors, travel freely and reunite with Liu Xiaobo.” 

Liu Xiaobo was arrested in December 2008 and held under ‘’residential surveillance”, a form of pre-trial detention, at an undisclosed location in Beijing until he was formally charged on June 23, 2009 with ‘’spreading rumors and defaming the government, aimed at subversion of the state and overthrowing the socialism system in recent years”. On December 25, 2009 Liu was charged and sentenced to eleven years in prison for ‘’inciting subversion of state power”; his sentence also includes two years of deprivation of his political rights. He has three years left of his current sentence. Prior to his current arrest, Liu has spent a total of five years in prison, including a three year sentence passed in 1996, and has suffered frequent short arrests, harassment and censorship.

Liu was poignantly represented by an empty chair at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo. When told of the announcement after October 8, he wept and told his wife, Liu Xia, that it was dedicated to the martyrs of Tiananmen. Liu Xia has been under house arrest since the award announcement and is incommunicado.

In 2013, more than 450,000 people from 130 countries signed a petition created by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to demand the couple’s immediate release. The petition was launched in solidarity with a letter signed by 134 Nobel laureates demanding Liu’s freedom.

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Death of American Student Shows That North Korea is a ‘’Black Hole’’

The tragic death of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old American student, shows the true colors of North Korea’s abusive regime, human rights organizations say. Warmbier died Monday afternoon at an Ohio hospital from injuries suffered during 17 months of detention in North Korea.

At a show trial in 2016, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years forced labor after he was charged with ‘’hostile acts against the state’’ for allegedly attempting to remove a political banner from his hotel.

Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that the international community must now recognize the reality that North Korea is a human rights black hole for both foreigners and citizens. Warmbier’s death should be a wake-up call to governments that focus must not just be on security, but also human rights concerns when dealing with Pyongyang.

“Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today,” the family wrote after his death.

While visiting North Korea as a tourist in January 2016, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for trying to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel, while traveling with a Chinese operated tour. The United States made diplomatic efforts to seek Warmbier’s release. Warmbier fell into a coma in prison and was released on June 13th 2017, after nearly 18 months there. He is believed to have been in a coma since March 2016, reportedly after being given a sleeping pill by prison officials.

Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) called  Warmbier’s death is a sad and shocking development: ‘’the Kim regime imprisoned and killed Otto Warmbier. Millions of unknown North Koreans are similarly subjected to the brutality of this regime. More than a hundred thousand men, women and children are being tortured, starved and abused in North Korea’s political prison camps. This continuing outrage is what motivates HRNK to do what the Kim regime fears the most: discover and disclose the truth about the regime’s crimes. To honor Otto Warmbier’s life and memory, we will continue to strive to inform, persuade and inspire political leaders to confront this terrible challenge to global security and to human values.’’

‘’We urge our political leaders to reach across the aisle and foster bipartisan support for the millions of faceless, nameless North Korean victims, by elevating the importance of addressing the human rights situation in that country,’’ Scarlatoiu added.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch said while Warmbier should have never been sent to trial in the first place, most expected that after a period of being isolated and interrogated, he would be returned home after the US made some political concessions to Pyongyang. After all, this is what North Korea has done with many Americans in the past.

‘’No one anticipated that Warmbier would be abused in a way that more closely resembles the manner in which North Korea treats its own citizens, where those who cross the government or show disloyalty to leader Kim Jong-Un face severe consequences, including death. At his trial, Warmbier cried out for forgiveness for making what he called the “worst mistake of my life.” But since he was a foreigner, few believed that mistake would cost him his life,’’ Robertson said.

Additionally, Robertson said that North Korea committed a grave injustice against Warmbier and his family, and they deserve the truth from Pyongyang about what happened: ‘’No one believes Pyongyang’s claim that his condition was triggered by botulism and a medically ill-advised sleeping pill. How did such a healthy young man suffer such severe brain damage that he remained in a coma since March 2016?’’

Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, said Warmbier’s case is “a reminder of the disastrous implications of the lack of access to adequate treatment for prisoners (in North Korea).” On June 16th, Ojea Quintana said “While I welcome the news of Mr. Warmbier’s release, I am very concerned about his condition, and the authorities have to provide a clear explanation about what made him slip into a coma. His case serves as a reminder of the disastrous implications of the lack of access to adequate medical treatment for prisoners in the DPRK.’’

Human Rights Watch said that North Korea should immediately release other foreigners it has detained – six South Korean, one Canadian and three Americans – and end its practice of seizing foreign nationals for political purposes. HRW stressed that governments around the world must now recognize that they can expect no special treatment from Pyongyang for their detained nationals: ‘’Only by making human rights a primary demand – for everyone in North Korea, citizens and foreigners alike – can they reasonably hope to change Pyongyang’s abusive practices.’’

Information on prisons is scarce in North Korea. In 2014 a United Nations commission of inquiry found that thousands of people were routinely detained in facilities across the country, held in inhumane conditions and subjected to torture and forced labor.

The country is also thought to operate up to five political prison camps for the most serious crimes. Foreign nationals have also been detained on political grounds, including two US university professors in Pyongyang who were arrested this year for allegedly plotting anti-state acts.

Ojea Quintana stressed that the authorities had failed to protect Mr. Warmbier from the start. “His ordeal could have been prevented had he not been denied basic entitlements when he was arrested, such as access to consular officers and representation by an independent legal counsel of his choosing,” the Special Rapporteur said.

The expert noted the DPRK has signed up to five human rights treaties and the 1963 Vienna convention on consular relations that guarantee these basic rights.

It is not clear how Mr. Warmbier’s release had been secured, although his rapidly declining health may have been an incentive for North Korea to discharge him. “The onus is on the DPRK government to clarify the causes and circumstances of the release,” Ojea Quintana insisted.

“I call on the DPRK authorities to protect all prisoners, be they North Korean or foreigners. Release on humanitarian grounds should always be considered when the person’s health deteriorates to the point of putting their lives in danger, regardless of their crime,” he concluded.

Otto’s parents released the following statement on Monday:

It is our sad duty to report that our son, Otto Warmbier, has completed his journey home.  Surrounded by his loving family, Otto died today at 2:20 pm.

It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost — future time that won’t be spent with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds. But we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person.  You can tell from the outpouring of emotion from the communities that he touched — Wyoming, Ohio and the University of Virginia to name just two — that the love for Otto went well beyond his immediate family.

We would like to thank the wonderful professionals at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center who did everything they could for Otto. Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.

When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13th he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands. He looked very uncomfortable — almost anguished.  

Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day the countenance of his face changed — he was at peace. He was home and we believe he could sense that.

We thank everyone around the world who has kept him and our family in their thoughts and prayers.  We are at peace and at home too.

Fred & Cindy Warmbier and Family

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Reunions For Separated Korean Families Must Quickly Resume, Says UN Expert

Separated Korean families say farewell. Photo courtesy UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR).

A United Nation human rights expert on North Korea has backed proposals to resume family reunions for people separated since the 1950-1953 war, stressing that time is running out for many elderly relatives.

Thousands of families have been separated since the 1950-1953 Korean War through displacement, forced disappearance and abductions, and as a result of those fleeing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).  It is estimated that over one million and up to five million Koreans moved north or south during the war, leaving their families behind, and up to 100,000 were forcibly disappeared. Of these, less than 2,000 were able to receive information on their lost relatives or to see them in person, as of October 2015.

“There have not been any reunions since October 2015, and thousands of people are still desperate to connect with their loved ones or at least to know what happened to them,” said Tomás Ojea Quintana, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK.

Members of South Korea’s National Assembly announced plans on June 5th for a draft resolution to resume family reunion events in August. The debate is likely to create divisions within the assembly, as Pyongyang continues to carry out ballistic missile launches despite strong warnings by its neighbors and the international community.

The issue is also likely to be dogged by tensions over a group of North Korean restaurant workers who were resettled in Seoul last year, and whose return the DPRK has demanded as a precondition to further talks on family reunions.

Ojea Quintana said: “I welcome the proposal to organize reunions in August. Considering the ages of the family members concerned, and the plight they continue to suffer in old age, all political considerations must be removed. The reunions should be able to go ahead without conditions, to alleviate people’s suffering. This is a matter of absolute urgency that should not divide opinion.”

Nearly 130,000 people in the Republic of Korea (ROK) have registered since 1953 to be reunited with family members in the North, but more than half have died without knowing the whereabouts of their relatives, and the majority of those still alive are over 80.

New South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took office on May 9th, pledged during his election campaign to restore links between separated relatives. His administration has already taken steps to promote dialogue with Pyongyang, including the resumption of joint preventive activities to fight malaria in the North.

Ojea Quintana says the moment is ripe for the two countries to restart dialogue on separated families.

“There is a window of opportunity to discuss reunions as part of the wider outreach initiative by the Republic of Korea, and it should not be missed,” the Special Rapporteur said. “If the two countries can agree on conducting joint humanitarian activities, this is also their chance to respond to the reunion appeal made by the victims.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee says in their report Torn Apart: The Human Rights Dimension of the Involuntary Separation of Korean Families that separation has had a devastating effect on family relations since the Korean War. The continuing legacy of war division and the advanced age of most victims call for urgent attention for a prompt resolution of this problem. The issue has received renewed attention in recent months, with victims’ groups in the Republic of Korea calling for the international community’s support to help them to restore contact with their relatives in the DPRK.

The emergence of a collectivist political system in the northern part of the Korean peninsula in the late 1940s, following the retreat of Japanese troops, led to hundreds of thousands of Koreans fleeing to the south. A second wave of displacement occurred in the early 1950s, as North Korean forces, backed up by China and the Soviet Union, confronted South Korean troops who were aided by forces under the UN command consisting of 16 countries.

The Armistice Agreement of 1953 sealed the border between the two Koreas along the current ceasefire line, leaving relatives trapped on each side of the border. Since 1953, it is estimated that 129,616 individuals in the ROK have registered for reunion with their families in the DPRK. Whereas 2,325 families were able to meet their missing relatives at least once since the June 2000 Inter-Korean Summit, more than half of these applicants passed away without being given a chance to restore contact. At the end of February 2016, the list of candidates for reunion in the ROK contained 64,916 names of living victims. Around 55.3 percent of survivors are above the age of 80.

The story of Ms. Park Dong-yeol, 85 years old, provides an illustration of the exacerbation of discrimination faced by women in the enjoyment of economic and social rights as a result of involuntary separation. Ms. Park fled her hometown in North Korea’s North Hamgyong province in December 1950. She was a second-year medical student at that time and wanted to pursue her studies in South Korea as her medical institute closed during the war. She was not allowed to board a boat for Busan where about 100 men from her extended family embarked because “it was commonly accepted that the presence of a woman on a boat would curse it”. Thus, she made her own way to South Korea by foot and joined the men in Busan as she had no other relatives to rely on. She was unable to continue her studies due to her deteriorating economic situation and was instead employed as a domestic worker and newspaper vendor.

Park Dong-yeol’s status as a single woman in a community of men – most of whom married in the ROK after the Armistice Agreement was signed – forced her to leave the community in Busan and seek employment in Seoul. There, being a single woman with no family ties raised the suspicion of the authorities that she could be a North Korean spy. In 1956, she was detained by police and intelligence officers and tortured, then released and kept under close police scrutiny. In her words: “I worried that I would be arrested again if I did not marry, so I married at the age of 27 after I had lost hope of returning to my family in North Korea”. It was only when she married that social and political pressure on her decreased a little, but she remained economically marginalized and estranged from her extended family for decades because of her North Korean origins.

The impact of surveillance on separated families is perceptible in the story of 88-year-old Ms. Ji Eungyeong, who took part in the latest family reunion event in October 2015. She was selected to meet a daughter whom she had left behind as a baby in 1951, and a granddaughter. Despite the impeccable organization, the family’s right to privacy was not respected due to the presence of North Korean monitors on one side and South Korean journalists on the other. Ms. Ji said that her daughter was only able to cry and speak to her without fear during the two hours they were allowed to meet in a private room. Although Ms. Ji hoped her daughter and granddaughter could stay in touch with her after the event and inform her of developments regarding the fate of other relatives in the North, she has not been able to converse with them since the reunion.

In 2015, 1,275 escapees from the DPRK – 80 per cent of whom are women – arrived in the ROK. Whereas the overall number of escapees has reportedly consistently decreased since 2008 due to stringent border patrols in the DPRK, 43 women continue to form the majority of escapees. This may be explained by the fact that women have more access to informal trading and smuggling routes with China than men, who are assigned to government work. Families are in many cases forced to split up during the escape journey as people usually cross the border individually rather than in groups to avoid being noticed by the authorities. A woman who escaped in 2013 told the United Nations: “I did not tell my parents that I was planning to escape. They would have never let me do it because they would know that they would never see me again. I am their only child”.

These experiences show that even though family separation has taken new forms since the Korean War, its root causes remain connected. The structural forms of violence, discrimination and impunity that are at play weaken the fabric of the family, diminish people’s sense of personal security, and push them to split from their next-of-kin and seek safety outside the DPRK. It is noticeable that young people, who constitute the vast majority of escapees today, were also the main victims of forced displacement 65 years ago. In both cases young people were pushed to flee because they found themselves in a situation of structural vulnerability limiting the enjoyment of their rights, such as the right liberty and security of person, freedom of movement, freedom of thought and conscience, the right to education and the right to an adequate standard of living.  

The responsibility to protect human rights primarily rests with the Governments of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and of the Republic of Korea. More efforts are required to determine responsibilities for cases of involuntary separation.

The legacy of systematic human rights violations of the Korean War must be addressed and perpetrators identified in order to end impunity and promote sustainable peace and reconciliation. This effort should seek to realize the rights of victims to reparations and to know the truth about violations, as well as to provide guarantees of non-recurrence of human rights violations in accordance with international law.

The recent rise in political and military tensions on the Korean peninsula continues to impede progress in the dialogue regarding family reunions. In 2016 two nuclear tests were reportedly conducted and several missiles reportedly launched by the Democratic People’s Republic of the Korea. According to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea the organisation of joint military exercises by the United States and the Republic of Korea has led to the suspension of family reunion events. As rising tensions reduce the chance of addressing the problem of family separation proactively as a common priority, victims risk being further marginalized.

“The emotional, psychological, social, and economic toll of involuntary separation persists to this day, as people continue to search for the truth and for contact with their loved ones,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

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Chinese Activists Detained for Researching Shoe Factory Labor Conditions

Three Chinese labor activists who were conducting undercover research investigations into the labor conditions at Huajian shoe factories, which supply to Ivanka Trump’s brand among others, were taken away by the authorities in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province in late May. State media announced that they have been criminally detained and are under investigation.

According to Amnesty International and state media outlets, on May 30th Deng Guilian, the wife of labor activist Hua Haifeng, received a phone call from people in the public security bureau of Jiangxi province telling her that her husband had been detained on the charges of “illegal monitoring”. Hua Heifeng had been working with China Labor Watch (CLW), a New York-based organization that researches labor conditions in the supply chains of major multinationals. CLW’s most recent investigation was looking into working conditions at Huajian, one of the largest shoe manufacturers in the world, which produces shoes for Ivanka Trump’s brand, Coach and Nine West, among others.

Two other labor activists, Li Zhao and Su Heng, were also reported missing, and were presumed to be detained. On June 6th, The Paper, a state-run newspaper, said that, according to police, the three had been criminally detained on the charge of “unlawfully using special equipment or devices for eavesdropping or secret photographing”. The report claimed that the three had “confessed” to working undercover with the intent to collect information about working conditions and internal company secrets and provide the information to overseas organizations in order to gain funds. Hua Haifeng’s lawyer, who was able to meet his client on June 6th, told Bloomberg that the case was being handled by the national security unit of the public security bureau.

Deng Guilian, who has been outspoken in defending her husband, has said that her home is now under surveillance. She has been regularly visited by state security agents, and is now being followed by unidentified individuals when she leaves her home.

On May 17th, Bloomberg reported that China Labor Watch had sent a letter to Ivanka Trump, urging her to improve conditions in the factories that produce her shoe line. According to the report, China Labor Watch alleged that workers had to work 12 1/2 hours per day, six days a week, and that despite working with oils and glues, workers were not provided with safety training.

According to the New York Times, Hua tried to go to Hong Kong on May 25th in order to meet CLW’s executive director and a journalist from the New York Times, but was denied permission to enter Hong Kong. He was then told to talk to the police, who informed him that they knew he was investigating Huajian factories. Hua later went back to Ganzhou, where he was eventually detained. A United States State Department spokesperson called for the release of the labor activists on June 5th. However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that, “(o)ther nations have no right to interfere in our judicial sovereignty and independence”.

In recent years, China has enacted legislation and regulations to protect workers’ rights, but there is poor implementation of the laws. According to China National Bureau of Statistics, only 35 percent of China’s 281 million “migrant domestic workers” had labor contracts in 2016. At the same time, independent unions are banned, and the state run All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is the only body allowed to represent workers in China. ACFTU-affiliated unions at the enterprise level are often controlled by factory management, and have little capacity to protect workers’ interests.

The government has also taken a harsher approach to labor rights NGOs in recent years. In December 2015, the government in Guangdong province carried out a crackdown against labor NGOs, targeting at least 33 individuals; 31 were later released.

Labor activist Zeng Feiyang was denied access to lawyers and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, suspended for four years, in early October. Labor activist Meng Han was sentenced to one year and nine months’ imprisonment on November 3rd 2016. In many cases the detention centers initially denied access to lawyers on the grounds that the cases involved “endangering national security”.

In recent years the Chinese government has enacted a series of new national security laws that present serious threats to the protection of human rights. The Foreign NGO Management Law created additional barriers to the already limited rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression. Although the law was ostensibly designed to regulate and even protect the activities of foreign NGOs, it transferred to the Ministry of Public Security – the state policing agency – the responsibility to oversee the registration of these NGOs, as well as supervise their operations and pre-approve their activities. It also potentially criminalized any activities between overseas partners and Chinese domestic NGOs or individuals that are not expressly approved by the government.

The wide discretion given to police to oversee and manage the work of foreign NGOs raised the risk of the law being misused to intimidate and prosecute human rights defenders and NGO staff. During the consultation period, Amnesty International made a submission to the Chinese government, urging that the draft law be withdrawn or substantially amended in order to make it compatible with international human rights law and standards.

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