In Cambodia, Civil Society Condemns Escalating Intimidation and Detention of Human Rights Defenders

Human rights workers being arrested on May 9, 2016 as they attempted to make their way to a peaceful demonstration in Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Human rights workers being arrested on May 9, 2016 as they attempted to make their way to a peaceful demonstration in Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Eight Cambodian human rights defenders, including four land rights activists, were arrested on May 9th 2016, as they traveled to a demonstration outside Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh. Although they were released on the same day, civil society organizations are increasingly concerned by the arbitrary arrests and detentions against human rights defenders in Cambodia, intended to silence dissenting voices.

The detentions, which followed the pre-trial detention of four other rights workers and an election official last week, highlight an alarming surge in the Cambodian government’s latest campaign of intimidation against civil society. In a joint statement, 83 civil society groups said that the detentions are an egregious violation of the right to freedom of expression in Cambodia.

Six of the eight detained were arrested as they attempted to make their way to a planned gathering outside Prey Sar prison to take part in the first “Black Monday” demonstration, in which participants dressed in black calling for the release of the five human rights defenders who were arbitrarily detained and charged on May 2nd, 2016. Those five human rights defenders, who were charged on counts of bribery of a witness, and being accomplices to bribery of a witness, included staff from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), the National Election Committee (NEC) and the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) in Cambodia.

The demonstration was the first event of the “Black Monday” campaign, in which participants dressed in black to call for the release of the five human rights defenders.

“The arrests are yet another blatant misuse of the criminal justice system to intimidate civil society members,” said Naly Pilorge, Director of LICADHO, The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights and provides legal representation to victims of human rights abuses. “The detention of land activists and human rights workers was an outrageous scare tactic to prevent civil society from mobilizing in support of jailed fellow human rights defenders.”

At about 8:15 am, Ee Sarom and Thav Kimsan were arrested as they attempted join the gathering. After being stopped at a roadblock, the two men were negotiating for access before they were arrested by municipal police in the presence of the deputy governor of Dangkao district. Mr. Ee Sarom is the Executive Director of the NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) where he oversees the organisation’s technical and advocacy programs. STT, which is based in Phnom Penh works with impoverished urban communities on land issues and housing rights. Mr. Thav Kimsan is a deputy director at LICADHO.

They were held for questioning at Dangkao district police station until about 6:00 pm that evening, along with Sor Sorn, a land activist from Borei Keila community, who was arrested shortly after them.

Land activists being arrested on May 9 in Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Land activists being arrested on May 9 in Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

In a coordinated move, three members of Boeung Kak community – Song Sreyleap, Kong Chantha and Bov Sophea – were also intercepted and arrested yesterday morning as they attempted to leave their homes to join the gathering outside Prey Sar. They were detained at Daun Penh police station and denied access to lawyers until they, too, were released at about 6:00 pm.

As about 100 people gathered outside Dangkao district police station to call for the release of the rights workers and community members detained within, police took two international staff from LICADHO into custody and transported them to the immigration police office where they were held until about 7:30pm. The two were questioned about their work, the demonstration, and why they were wearing black clothes.

Two days ago, a government spokesman referred to the “Black Monday” campaign as a form of “urban rebellion”. One the same day, the Ministry of Interior told police and military police to “take action” against those wearing black T-shirts.

“The government’s fear of people wearing colors is ludicrous,” said Ee Sarom, STT Executive Director. “Authorities targeted us just for wearing a black T-shirt, which is a peaceful expression of dissent.”

Civil society groups have been holding events outside the prison in support of incarcerated human rights defenders since 2006. May 9th was the first time in a decade that supporters were prevented from doing so through use of roadblocks and heavy deployment of police. The arrests followed a violent attack on a small group of protesters who briefly assembled at one of eight police checkpoints close to the prison. Police confiscated banners calling for the release of the five and assaulted monitors who were taking pictures of the prison, forcing them to wipe their cameras. Three tuk tuks carrying monks who intended to join the gathering were among hundreds of supporters turned away at the police checkpoints.

“The government is so fearful of democratic expression that it consistently misrepresents it as ‘insurrection’ – and uses this rhetoric to quash fundamental freedoms and silence critics,” said Naly Pilorge.

The 83 civil society organizations reaffirm the rights and fundamental freedoms of peaceful human rights defenders to conduct their activities free from threats and punishment, and reiterate their condemnation of the Cambodian government’s escalating campaign of intimidation in an attempt to halt such activities.

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Myanmar Must Continue Efforts to Release all Remaining Prisoners of Conscience

One month after the Myanmar’s new government pledged that it would work to free all prisoners of conscience in the country, the authorities should double their efforts to ensure that no one is left behind bars for peacefully exercising their rights, Amnesty International says.

The human rights organization welcomes the recent releases of scores of student activists, human rights defenders and peaceful protesters as an important step towards ending the cycle of political arrest and imprisonment in the country but says that much remains to be done. Despite these releases, prisoners of conscience remain behind bars while others are still at risk of arrest, conviction and imprisonment for peacefully exercising their rights.

If the new government is to close the door on the country’s repressive past, it must ensure these individuals are immediately and unconditionally freed and charges pending against other peaceful activists – some in prison awaiting trial; some out on bail – are dropped.

Among those still behind bars are:

  • Former monk and activist U Gambira (aka Nyi Nyi Win) is currently serving six months in prison with hard labour after he was found guilty of immigration-related offenses on April 26th, 2015. He was found guilty under Section 13(1) of Myanmar’s 1947 Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act, which has often been used against peaceful activists. Amnesty International believes he has been targeted for his previous work as a peaceful human rights activist. U Gambira is detained in Mandalay’s Oh-Bo prison, where there are serious concerns for his health. U Gambira suffers from serious mental health issues, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as an apparent result of the torture he was subjected to while imprisoned between 2008 and 2012, and does not have adequate access to the specialist medical care he requires in prison. Moreover, there are concerns that his ongoing detention could seriously exacerbate his already fragile health.
  • Five men, three Bamar Muslims, one Bamar Buddhist and one ethnic Chinese have been detained for over five months in Yangon’s Insein prison. They have been charged with “incitement” under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code, which provides for a maximum of two years’ imprisonment. They were arrested in November 2015 after printing a 2016 calendar asserting that the Rohingya are an ethno-religious minority from Myanmar, and including information about their history. They are solely held for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. A sixth man of Rohingya ethnicity remains in hiding, facing the same charges.
  • Poet Maung Saungkha remains detained in Insein prison six months after his arrest in November 2015 in connection with a poem he wrote and posted online in which the narrator describes having an image of an unnamed President tattooed on his genitals. He has been charged with defamation under Section 66(d) of Myanmar’s 2013 Telecommunications Act. His next court hearing is scheduled for May 9th.

Unfortunately, Amnesty International believes that many more individuals are still detained simply for having peacefully exercised their human rights, in particular in ethnic areas where it is more difficult to access information about arbitrary arrests and detentions. It is unclear how the new government will ensure that none of these people are left behind bars, as there is a lack of transparency regarding the criteria and procedure used to identify prisoners of conscience and other political prisoners for release.

To address this concern, Amnesty International calls on the new government to establish – or re-establish – a committee to review all cases where individuals may have been deprived of their liberty simply for the peaceful exercise of their human rights with a view to securing the immediate release. The committee should also review the cases of those currently on trial who may become prisoners of conscience should they be imprisoned in the future as well as others who have been subjected to politically motivated trials. This committee should have a clear and broad mandate, should be composed of independent experts, including in international human rights law, and able to operate independently, effectively and transparently in consultation with former prisoners of conscience, political prisoners, their families and representatives.

Another fundamental step required to put an end to the cycle of political arrests and imprisonment in Myanmar is the review of all laws affecting the human rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. All laws found to contain restrictions which are unacceptable under international human rights law and standards must be repealed or revised. As long as repressive laws remain in place, activists and human rights defenders will remain at risk of arrest and imprisonment for peaceful activities. Amnesty International welcomes recent reports that parliament has begun a process of reviewing known repressive laws. This process should be open, transparent and inclusive, allowing for wide consultation with civil society actors, legal experts and others to help ensure that any revisions are in line with international human rights law and standards.

Finally, it is important to remember that former prisoners of conscience continue to face a range of challenges stemming from their imprisonment and their status as former prisoners. These can include physical and psychological health problems, lack of access to education and employment opportunities and stigmatization. The new government must take swift steps to expunge the criminal records of all those convicted simply for the peaceful exercise of their rights, and to remedy the harm these individuals have suffered. This should include taking all the necessary steps to offer them with rehabilitation, compensation and other forms of support to rebuild their lives.

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New Chinese Law Strangles Civil Society

The Chinese government’s adoption of a new draconian law on overseas NGOs will have a profoundly detrimental impact on civil society in China, say human rights groups. The law gives police unprecedented power to restrict the work of foreign groups in the country and will also limit domestic groups’ ability to obtain foreign funding and work with foreign organizations.

China’s legislature passed the Law on the Management of Foreign Non-Government Organizations Activities in China (the NGO Law) on April 27th despite critical international responses to the most recent draft that dates back to last spring. The adopted version retains the most troubling elements of the previous draft, and allows for even tighter government control over NGO activities. It authorizes even greater power to police (compared to the prior draft) to exercise “daily supervision and monitoring” of overseas NGOs.

“Beijing hardly needs more ammunition to crack down on civil society groups,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The NGO Law is like many others of the Xi Jinping era: ever-stronger tools to legalize China’s human rights abuses.”

Once the law takes effect on January 1st 2017, it will further restrict international NGOs working in China and suffocate the country’s already beleaguered independent organizations, says the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders. The law has kept perhaps the most worrisome provision, which hands the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) full authority over the registration and supervision of foreign-based NGOs operating inside China. This is a clear indication the government views such groups as a threat to national security.

The law has also retained the strict funding restrictions that appeared in the previous draft. As such, the legislation will deliver a heavy blow to mainland NGOs, which rely heavily on overseas NGOs’ financial support due to insurmountable obstacles to securing funding inside China. CHRD calls for the repeal of the overseas NGO management law or, at minimum, significant revisions of its stipulations that violate independent groups’ right to freedom of association.

The fundamental focus of the legislation – to subject foreign groups to tighter police oversight and prohibit any activities considered to “endanger China’s national unity, national security, or ethnic unity” – remains, Human Rights Watch said. This is likely to disproportionately harm the work of groups engaged on issues the government deems “sensitive.”  

The NGO Law requires that foreign groups must be sponsored by a Chinese government organization and be registered with the police, rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs, as has been the case. It grants police extensive investigation and enforcement powers, including the ability to arbitrarily summon representatives of overseas groups, cancel activities deemed a threat to national security, blacklist groups considered to be involved in vaguely defined “subversive” or “separatist” activities, and permanently bar them from setting up offices or organize activities in the country. The ability to summon NGO representatives creates a legal basis for a longstanding practice, and there appears to be little if any opportunity for organizations to contest their treatment.

In addition, the NGO Law permits police investigating foreign NGOs to:

  • Enter its premises and seize documents and other information;
  • Examine its bank accounts and limit incoming funds;
  • Cancel activities, revoke registration, and impose administrative detention; and
  • Participate in the annual assessment of foreign NGOs, which determines whether a group can continue operating.

These expansions of police power underscore an essential function of the law—to restrict foreign influence and ideas from entering China, especially when the government perceives that they present a political threat or would offer different perspectives on human rights and other sensitive issues.

If foreign NGOs have carried out acts that are seen by the authorities as “splitting the state, damaging national unity, or subverting state power,” police can hand down administrative detentions. Foreigners found to have breached the new law can either be barred from leaving China or deported.

The law also steps up financial scrutiny of foreign NGOs, imposing strict regulations on the source of funding and account management of the groups, requiring that the organization’s financial accounts be audited and announced publicly.  

Regulations on nongovernmental organizations should not undermine the rights to freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly, which are protected under the Chinese constitution and international law, Human Rights Watch said. Registration requirements should also be minimal and free of surveillance.

Because the NGO Law fails to meet basic international standards, Human Rights Watch urges the Chinese government should substantially amend or revoke the measure.

Previous versions of the law alarmed the international community, and sparked significant concerns due to its focus on national security and its overly broad scope. The legislation prompted unprecedented concern from foreign governments, universities, business groups, cultural organizations and others that have exchanges and cooperation with local groups in China. Some of their criticisms appear reflected in the government’s decision not to apply the law to certain kinds of groups. Governments and institutions concerned by Beijing’s efforts to stifle civil society should urge the law to be repealed or revised in conformity with international law.

The NGO Law was developed during a period of escalating Chinese government hostility toward civil society, Human Rights Watch said. During the same period it has been under consideration, some of the most outspoken domestic groups, including anti-discrimination organization Yirenping, educational institution Liren Rural Libraries, and think tank Transition Institute have been targeted by the police for raids and arbitrary detentions. Swedish NGO worker Peter Dahlin, a co-founder of Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, which supported rights activists and petitioners to promote legal awareness, was detained in January and his group forcibly closed. The authorities accused the group of receiving foreign funding to finance “agents” to carry out works that “endanger state security.”

Chinese Human Rights Defenders also says that the law must be repealed until significant revisions of the legislation are made to conform with international human rights standards on the protection of the right to free association. The organization recommends that governments and the European Union with bilateral human rights dialogues with China must raise serious concerns during such dialogues and in all meetings with high-level Chinese officials over the passage of this law, as well as the government’s new standard of using the pretext of “national security” to persecute civil society organizations and stifle human rights activities.

“Civil society groups have been one of the only human rights success stories in China in recent years, and their survival is crucial for the country’s future,” Sophie Richardson said. “So long as repressive restrictions are imposed on some parts of civil society in China, all organizations remain at risk.”

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Two New Laws in Vietnam Further Restrict Freedom of Expression

Two newly adopted laws in Vietnam add new tools to Vietnam’s arsenal of repressive legislation, just as the authorities are launching a fierce crackdown on freedom of expression in Vietnam. The amended Press Law and the new Law on Access to Information, adopted by  the Vietnamese National Assembly earlier this month, will further limit people’s rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

“These laws confirm once again the government’s all-out offensive against human rights. Under these laws, the one-Party State is empowered to stifle all free debate on politics, history, religion and social issues, and hide any information it wants from its population,” said Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) President Vo Van Ai.

Contrary to recommendations by the United Nations and civil society to bring Vietnam’s laws into line with international standards and norms, the amended Press Law continues to criminalize a wide range of activities which are left solely to the appreciation of the state, such as “propagating depraved lifestyles”, “violating the country’s traditions and values”, or “distorting history, denying revolutionary achievements or offending the nation or its heroes”.  The law comes into force on January 1st 2017.

According to VCHR, the amended Press Law appears more like a shield against anti-government criticism than a law on press freedom. It increases the number of “prohibited acts” from four to thirteen. All are unduly vague and place wide-ranging restrictions on the media. Banned activities include publishing “distorted information about the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” perceived to “defame the people’s government”, “run contrary to the country’s international unity policies”, “cause alarm amongst the people” or “sow division between the people and State authorities”. The diffusion of “confidential information” and “state secrets” is banned, and the lack of a clear definition of these terms enables the authorities to apply this classification to virtually any document.

Concerning freedom of religion or belief, the law bans “superstition”, without defining the term, and incorporates “national security” provisions from the Criminal Code such as “causing division between non-religious and religious people, people of different religions, between religious people and State authorities” which are routinely invoked to suppress independent religious activities.

More disturbingly, the law adds a new prohibition on information which“offends people’s religious belief”. This evokes the “defamation of religions” debate which has raised grave concerns in the United Nations and within civil society worldwide because it questions the right to freedom of expression and the universality of human rights.

The amended Press Law also maintains state control on journalists by continuing to require that they re-apply for their press cards every five years.

The new Law on Access to Information, which takes effect on July 1st 2018, raises serious concerns regarding freedom of expression and the right to know, or the right of individuals to access information held by public authorities.

The 2015 draft of this law was severely criticized by the Center for Law and Democracy, a Canadian-based nongovernmental organization which rated the draft law in November 2015 giving it 59 points out of a possible 150 on the RTI Rating scale. It placed Vietnam near the bottom (93rd out of 102) of a list of countries rated for their right to access to information legislation. First and foremost, citizens’ right to access to information does not appear to be an inherent right in Vietnam, but one which only exists as regulated by law.

Furthermore, the Law on Access to Information does not override existing legislation, but stipulates a number of grounds for restricting access to information which are unacceptable under international law. These include “state secrets”, which are not defined, or vague terms such as “social order and ethics”,“State security”, “interests of the nation, people and State”, or “propaganda”.

Moreover, the public will only have access to information produced after the law comes into force, and only information declassified by government. There is no time frame provided for the declassification of information.

In addition, VCHR says the law is dissuasive and cumbersome, requiring citizens who seek access to information explain why they need this information, and provide details of their names, addresses and ID or passport numbers. Under the law, the authorities are not obliged to provide receipts to those who request information, which deprives citizens of proof in case of dispute. Where access to information is denied, the authorities do not have to provide the reasons for their refusal, and the citizens have no alternative mechanisms of recourse. “Wrongful use of information” is subject to sanctions.

Also of concern is the lack of protection for whistleblowers. Vietnamese laws provide heavy penalties for such acts under a range of different pretexts, such as the case of Nguyễn Mạnh Hà and Trần Anh Hùng, sentenced respectively to five and six years in prison in October 2013 for leaking a draft government report on a controversial development project in Nhatrang to the media. They were accused of “revealing state secrets”.

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As Ferry Boat Carrying Rohingya Sinks in Myanmar, NLD Must Lift Aid Restrictions in Arakan State

On Tuesday, April 19th a ferry boat with 65 Rohingya passengers including men, women, children and babies, sank at the entrance of the Thay Choung river in Myanmar. According to the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, 15 Rohingya passengers died, about 20 are missing, 20 are alive and 10 are unconscious. Children and a baby are among the dead.

The boat sunk after being hit by a big wave while they were traveling from Sin Tat Maw (Sandama) the Internally Displaced Persons camp (IDP) in Pauktaw Township to Sittwe Township, Arakan, to buy food.

Enduring increased violence and repression since 2012, Rohingya people have faced a worsening humanitarian situation. Restrictions on travel and lack of security have made growing and buying food much more difficult for Rohingya people. Restrictions on international humanitarian assistance to those in IDP camps and the rest of Arakan State also make the humanitarian crisis much worse.

Since 2012, approximately 140,000 internally displaced people have been trapped in camps which UN officials have described as having some of the worst conditions in the world.

These restrictions and lack of security force Rohingya people to make long and sometimes dangerous journeys to find food. More than ten percent of the Rohingya population have fled Myanmar since 2012.

Previous governments have used a combination of impoverishment and repression to try to force Rohingya people out of Burma. The new National League for Democracy (NLD) led government must now end this policy, says the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK.

“The NLD-led government should immediately lift all restrictions on international humanitarian aid in Arakan State, and ensure security for aid workers,” said Tun Khin, President of Burmese Rohingya Organization UK. “People are dying every day. Tragedies like this ferry sinking have happened too often in the past and will happen again without action.”

The incoming NLD government presents the first opportunity in decades to not only halt the escalation of anti-Rohingya policies and laws, but also put it into reverse, ending violations of international law and applying the rule of law and international human rights standards.

For decades, successive regimes and governments in Myanmar have pursued a twin-track policy of impoverishment and human rights violations in order to attempt to wipe out the Rohingya community from Arakan State, the organization says. Under the government of President Thein Sein, human rights violations against the Rohingya sharply escalated, as he attempted to use Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim prejudice in the country to win public support.

Human Rights Watch stated that human rights violations against the Rohingya met the legal definitions of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Fortify Rights also found evidence of crimes against humanity. Studies by the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School and Fortify Rights, and by the International State Crime Initiative of Queen Mary University London, found evidence that amounts to genocide of the Rohingya. There is a humanitarian crisis in camps that Rohingya fled to in 2012, and senior members of the nationalist Arakan National Party continue to whip up hatred against the Rohingya.

In February 2016, the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK published proposals for four steps the new NLD government could take to start to address the Rohingya crisis, including ending restrictions on aid.

Addressing the root causes of prejudice and human rights violations against the Rohingya will take many years, but in order to start this process, and to have an immediate impact saving lives and reducing human rights violations, here are practical steps an NLD government can take in its first six months:  

  1. Action against hate-speech and extremists – Take action to prevent hate speech and incitement of violence, and demonstrate moral leadership, with Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders personally and specifically speaking out against prejudice and hatred, and challenging the extreme nationalist narrative.
  2. Ensure humanitarian access – Immediately lift all restrictions on the operations of international aid agencies, ensure safe return to homes, and also start to devote more government resources to assisting IDPs and isolated villagers.
  3. Reform or repeal of the 1982 Citizenship Law – The lack of full citizenship lies at the root of most of the discrimination faced by the Rohingya. There is no way this issue can be avoided, and it is much better that an NLD-led government bite the bullet and deal with it at the start of their period in government when they have a new and strong mandate, strong party unity, and elections are years away. It will have to be addressed at some point. Better it is done while the NLD-led government is strongest.
  4. Justice and accountability – An NLD-led government should set up a credible independent investigation with international experts to investigate these crimes and propose action. If the NLD government fails to do so, the United Nations should establish its own Commission of Inquiry.
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Tibetan Education Advocate Detained in China for “Inciting Separatism”

A screen shot of Tashi Wangchuk from the 2015 New York TImes documentary “A Tibetan’s Journey for Justice”.

A screen shot of Tashi Wangchuk from the 2015 New York TImes documentary “A Tibetan’s Journey for Justice”.

A young Tibetan who advocates for Tibetan language education has been detained and charged with “inciting separatism”, with no access to family and lawyer. Tashi Wangchuk, 30, has been detained by the Chinese authorities since January 27th 2016, in Yushu, Qinghai Province, in western China. Tashi could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty.

Tashi is an advocate for greater Tibetan language education in schools in Tibetan populated areas. Currently, Mandarin has become the sole language of instruction. Prior to his detention, he expressed on social media his anxieties about many Tibetan children being unable to speak their native language fluently, as well as the gradual extinction of Tibetan culture.

According to the International Campaign for Tibet, Tashi’s family was not informed of his detention until March 2016, when they received the document stating Tashi was charged with “inciting separatism”. 

In 2015, the New York Times published an article and produced a short documentary video about his unsuccessful efforts to use the legal system to challenge government policies on language instruction. “A Tibetan’s Journey for Justice” reported his trip to Beijing to seek legal help in filing a lawsuit against local officials for the lack of Tibetan language education in schools. The video showed how no law firm was willing to take on his lawsuit, and media outlets refused to report on his case.

Amnesty International urges that the Chinese authorities ensure Tashi has regular, unrestricted access to his family and lawyer of his choice, without delay, and is protected from torture and other ill-treatment. The international human rights organization also calls on them them to immediately and unconditionally release Tashi, unless he is formally charged with an internationally recognizable criminal offense.

Ethnic Tibetans in China face discrimination and restrictions on their rights to freedom of religious belief, expression, association and peaceful assembly. Tibetan monks, writers, protesters and activists are regularly detained as a result of their peaceful activities. On March 19th 2015, Tibetan writer and blogger Druklo (pen-name Shokjang) was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment by the Peoples’ Intermediate Court in Huangnan (Malho), Qinghai province, for “inciting separatism”, as a result of articles he wrote describing the increased presence of Chinese security officers ahead of a politically-sensitive Tibetan anniversary.

In recent years the Chinese government has enacted or drafted a series of sweeping laws and regulations under the pretext of enhancing national security. There are fears that they could be used to silence dissent and crack down on human rights defenders through expansive charges such as “inciting subversion” and “separatism”.

Harsh criminal sentences continue to be imposed in China on writers, bloggers, journalists, academics, whistle-blowers and ordinary citizens for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. Amnesty International has documented the misuse of the various charges of “separatism” and “terrorism” to violate the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and religion.

Torture and other ill-treatment remain endemic in all places of detention in China, and this risk is even greater for those who are not allowed access to their family or lawyer.

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In Vietnam, Seven Bloggers and Activists Sentenced in One Week

During the last week of March 2016, Vietnam convicted seven bloggers and rights activists and sentenced them to prison. The Vietnam government should immediately free these prominent bloggers and activists imprisoned for exercising their rights, Human Rights Watch says.

“Vietnam has been on a tear, convicting seven activists for statements that would be a normal part of political life in most countries,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The Vietnam government is making clear that the human rights honeymoon during the TPP trade negotiations is over, raising a major challenge for President Obama and the US.”

On March 23rd 2016, the People’s Court of Hanoi sentenced Nguyen Huu Vinh, a blogger, to five years in prison and his colleague, Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, to three years for operating a website that provides links to social, political, economic, environmental and cultural issues in Vietnam. The two were charged with “abusing rights to democracy and freedom to infringe upon the interests of the State” under article 258 of the penal code.

Pham Doan Trang, the co-author of one of the articles cited in the indictment, sought to attend the trial as a concerned witness, but police detained her on the morning of the trial and only released her after the verdict was issued.

“Running a website that brings diverse views to Vietnamese readers shouldn’t be considered a crime. Given Vietnam’s pervasive control and censorship of the media, such websites are the only place many Vietnamese can see independent news and views,’’ Robertson said.

On March 24th, the People’s Court of Thanh Hoa convicted the 73-year-old anti-corruption campaigner Dinh Tat Thang and sentenced him to seven months and 11 days in prison, also for violating article 258. The indictment reported by state media said that he “continuously sent letters to denounce, slander, insult and offend the individual honor, dignity and prestige of a number of leaders from the central level, from Thanh Hoa province and from the Party cell, the People’s Committee and the Police of Tho Xuan district.”

Dinh Tat Thang wrote a letter on August 5th 2015 to the Vietnam Fatherland Front, a party-controlled umbrella group of pro-government mass movements in Vietnam, denouncing the practice of faking paperwork to receive state benefits for wounded veterans in Thanh Hoa province. The letter cited the older brother of police director of Thanh Hoa province as an example of someone whom he alleged was not entitled to such benefits. Police arrested Dinh Tat Thang 11 days later. This is not the first time, though, that the authorities have imprisoned him for fighting corruption. In 2008, he was sentenced to nine months in prison, also for denouncing corrupt leaders, both local and national.

“How can Vietnam effectively fight corruption when it allows local officials to imprison people trying to expose it, such as Dinh Tat Thang?” Robertson asked. “People who expose corruption in government should be protected, not imprisoned.”

On the morning of March 30th the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City sentenced a prominent blogger, Nguyen Dinh Ngoc, to four years in prison, to be followed by three years on probation that require him not to leave his residential ward.

In the afternoon, the same court convicted three land rights activists – Ngo Thi Minh Uoc, 57, Nguyen Thi Be Hai, 58, and Nguyen Thi Tri, 58 – to four years, three years and three years respectively. They will also have to serve two to three additional years on probation with restricted movement after completing their sentences.

A former staff member at Ho Chi Minh City Television, Nguyen Dinh Ngoc, 50, also known as Nguyen Ngoc Gia, writes about social and political issues relating to democracy and human rights for the Vietnamese page of Radio Free Asia, and on politically independent websites including Dan Luan, Dan Lam Bao, and Dan Chim Viet. He has also expressed support for bloggers and activists imprisoned for exercising their basic rights, such as Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Le Quoc Quan, Dinh Nguyen Kha, and Bui Thi Minh Hang.

According to the indictment reported by state media, on December 25th 2014, the police received correspondence from the Saigon Post and Telecommunications Service Corporation, contending that Nguyen Dinh Ngoc was using the internet to “disseminate articles that speak badly of the Party and the State of Vietnam.” He was arrested two days later and charged with “conducting propaganda against the state” under article 88 of the penal code.

Ngo Thi Minh Uoc, Nguyen Thi Be Hai and Nguyen Thi Tri, were also convicted for “conducting propaganda against the state” under article 88. They were accused of waving flags and slogans that the government maintains “have the content opposing the state and propagandizing for a change of government” in a protest outside the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City on July 7th 2014. According to the jury, reported by state media, three activists’ actions were “very serious, infringing on national security, distorting, instigating, causing suspicion, and mistrust of the people in the [Communist] Party and state.” The three are long-time land rights activists from the Mekong Delta who have spent years petitioning local government for the loss of their land to no avail.

“By tightening the screws on these activists, and on independent bloggers and social commentators, Vietnam is challenging the US and the international community to react,” Robertson said. “These actions should be met with forceful condemnation that makes it clear to Hanoi that if it wants to earn the respect of trading partners, it must respect human rights.”

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Myanmar Should End Restrictions Against Rohingya

The Myanmar government should promptly end abusive restrictions against ethnic Rohingya and other Muslims, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday. On March 29th 2016, the day before Myanmar’s transfer of power to a new government, outgoing President Thein Sein ordered the lifting of the state of emergency imposed on Arakan State in 2012 during communal violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

“President Thein Sein’s last minute repeal of Arakan State’s state of emergency puts the new government on firm footing to ensure basic freedoms for the long persecuted Rohingya minority,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s now up to the new government to work with local officials and security forces to ensure that ending the emergency translates into real improved respect for the rights of all the state’s people.”

Nyi Pu, the newly appointed chief minister of Arakan State from the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, and incoming national President Htin Kyaw should strengthen efforts to ensure that all communities receive equal protection without discrimination, Human Rights Watch said. Curbs on basic freedoms maintained by security forces and military-controlled ministries should be immediately removed.

Since the communal violence in 2012, which Human Rights Watch research found constituted ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, over 130,000 Rohingya Muslims remain displaced. Local officials and security forces restrict aid agencies’ access to camps for internally displaced Rohingya in Sittwe and to Rohingya communities in northern Arakan State.

Swiftly repealing discriminatory local measures would immeasurably improve the living standards of stateless Rohingya and other Muslim minorities, Human Rights Watch said.

The government’s effective denial of Myanmar citizenship to 1.2 million Rohingya under the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law has facilitated human rights violations, including restrictions on their right to freedom of movement, discriminatory limitations on access to education, arbitrary detention and taxation, forced labor and confiscation of property.

For example, Rohingya must apply for permission to travel within and between townships, which has had a devastating effect on their access to health care and ability to earn a living. Rohingya in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships must also contend with a raft of regulations requiring them to seek permission to marry and register births.

On February 8th 2016, officials in northern Arakan State extended for two months a curfew that bans gatherings of more than five people in public places, including mosques. It is not clear if this local order is covered under the state of emergency, but state officials should make it a priority to lift all curfews.

“The state of emergency was only one element of a repressive apparatus that effectively segregated the Rohingya population and denied them basic services,” Robertson said. “Removing these draconian measures is needed to reach a long-term resolution of the Rohingya crisis, which affects everyone in Arakan State.”

Human Rights Watch also said that the state and national governments and the Myanmr military should end arbitrary arrests under the Unlawful Associations Act, used to detain civilians suspected of assisting or supporting the insurgent Arakan Army. Over the last year, fighting between the military and the Arakan Army, a Buddhist Arakanese insurgent force, has escalated in northern Arakan and southern Chin States. The authorities have arbitrarily arrested and charged scores of civilians under the act.

The increased fighting in Arakan State has been accompanied by reports of human rights abuses by state and non-state forces against civilians, including forced labor and the use of indiscriminate antipersonnel landmines near civilian settlements. Thousands of civilians have been temporarily displaced by the fighting and excessive security restrictions have in some cases hampered access by aid agencies.

“The Myanmar army should cease its abuses against the Arakanese Buddhist population caught up in the slowly building armed conflict there,” Robertson said. “Continued harassment and abuse by the security forces will shatter efforts to rebuild trust and respect for rights following the 2012 communal violence.”

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Two Vietnamese Bloggers Jailed for “Abusing Democratic Freedoms”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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UN Must Seek Justice for Forced Labor Victims in North Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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