Recent reports that the US monitored calls between members of President Trump’s campaign staff and Russian intelligence personnel have renewed controversy about the surveillance powers of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI), and how those bodies handle the information they collect. But anyone concerned about the scope or legality of the US government’s warrantless intelligence surveillance should also worry about the way these programs may affect the country’s border and immigrant communities.

A general view shows part of the Loma Blanca neighborhood as a section of the border fence marking the boundarie with El Paso, U.S. is seen on the background, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico January 18, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

The US currently has two main “foreign” surveillance powers it can—in practice—use to obtain and sift through information on people within its borders without a warrant. (We do not yet know whether either of these was the legal basis for intercepting the conversations with Trump’s campaign staff). 

The first, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is scheduled to expire at the end of this year, setting the stage for an intense debate in Congress about reforming surveillance. Under Section 702, the NSA (with telecommunications companies’ help) automatically searches virtually all the Internet communications flowing over the fiber optic cables that connect the US to the rest of the world—a practice known as “upstream” scanning. 

As of 2015, 26 percent of people in the United States were first- or second-generation immigrants.  Upstream monitoring, as we currently understand it, means that whenever any of these tens of millions of people—or anyone else in the US—sends an email to a friend or family member in another country, the US government is likely searching those communications to see if they contain e-mail addresses or other “selectors” of interest. This kind of suspicionless, warrantless, disproportionate monitoring violates human rights.

In addition to Section 702, Executive Order 12333 allows the NSA and other US agencies to vacuum up the communications of US citizens and lawful permanent residents in the course of foreign surveillance. Leaked documents indicate that pursuant to EO 12333, the US has grabbed records of potentially all telephone calls in countries including Mexico and the Philippines. In other words, if you are in El Paso, Texas and have called your mother in Juárez, Mexico, US intelligence agencies probably have a record of your call. They can use this data to map social networks—and share it for law enforcement purposes.

The US’ vast warrantless surveillance powers are not only an issue for legal wonks or the technically savvy: they may be affecting people and communities throughout the United States and the world. Congress and the judiciary should regard them as direct threats to both US democracy and human rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(New York) – The latest revisions to China’s Criminal Law impose up to seven years in prison for “spreading rumors” about disasters, Human Rights Watch said today. The revised law, which took effect November 1, 2015, does not clarify what constitutes a “rumor,” heightening concerns that the provision will be used to curtail freedom of speech, particularly on the Internet.

“The revised Criminal Law adds a potent weapon to the Chinese government’s arsenal of punishments against netizens, including those who simply share information that departs from the official version of events,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities are once again criminalizing free speech on the Internet, which has been the Chinese people’s only relatively free avenue for expressing themselves.”

The National People’s Congress Standing Committee approved the addition of a provision to article 291(1) of the Criminal Law (Criminal Law Amendment Act (9)), which states that whoever “fabricates or deliberately spreads on media, including on the Internet, false information regarding dangerous situations, the spread of diseases, disasters and police information, and who seriously disturb social order” would face prison sentences – with a maximum of seven years for those whose rumors result in “serious consequences.” The vagueness of the provision means that individuals doing nothing more than asking questions or reposting information online about reported local disasters could be subject to prosecution.

In the past, the Chinese government has detained netizens who questioned official casualty figures or who had published alternative information about disasters ranging from SARS in 2003 to the Tianjin chemical blast in 2015, under the guise of preventing “rumors.”

The revision was made in the context of a wider effort to rein in online freedom since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013:

  • In August 2013, the authorities waged a campaign against “online rumors” that included warning Internet users against breaching “seven bottom lines” in their Internet postings, taking into custody the well-known online commentator Charles Xue, and closing popular “public accounts” on the social media platform “WeChat” that report and comment on current affairs;
  • In September 2013, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (the state prosecution) issued a judicial interpretation making the crimes of defamation, creating disturbances, illegal business operations, and extortion applicable to expressions in cyberspace. The first netizen who was criminally prosecuted after this took effect was well-known blogger Qin Huohuo, who was sentenced to three years in prison in April 2014 for allegedly defaming the government and celebrities by questioning whether they were corrupt or engaged in other dishonest behavior;
  • In July and August 2014, authorities suspended popular foreign instant messaging services, including KakaoTalk, claiming the service was being used for “distributing terrorism-related information”;
  • In 2015, government agencies such as the State Internet Information Office issued multiple new directives, including tightening restrictions over the use of usernames and avatars, and requiring writers of online literature in particular to register with their real names;
  • In 2015, the government has also shut down or restricted access to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which many users depend on to access content blocked to users inside the country and also help shield user privacy;
  • In March 2015, authorities also deployed a new cyber weapon, the “Great Cannon,” to disrupt the services of GreatFire.org, an organization that works to document China’s censorship and facilitate access to information;
  • In July 2015, the government published a draft cybersecurity law that will requires domestic and foreign Internet companies to increase censorship on the government’s behalf, register users’ real names, localize data, and aid government surveillance; and
  • In August 2015, the government announced that it would station police in major Internet companies to more effectively prevent “spreading rumors” online.
     

Activists in China are regularly prosecuted for speech-related “crimes,” Human Rights Watch said. The best known of these crimes is “inciting subversion,” which carries a maximum of 15 years in prison. But authorities have also used other crimes such as “inciting ethnic hatred,” as in the case of human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who has been detained since May 2014 for a number of social media posts questioning the government’s policies towards Uighurs and Tibetans.

While providing the public with accurate information during disasters is important, the best way to counter inaccurate information would be to ensure that official information is reliable and transparent, Human Rights Watch said.

Above all, journalists should have unimpeded access to investigate and inform the public about these events, and the wider public should have the freedom to debate and discuss disaster response.

“The casualties of China’s new provision would not be limited to journalists, activists and netizens, but the right of ordinary people and the world to know about crucial developments in China,” Richardson said. “The best way to dispel false rumors would be to allow, not curtail, free expression.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Last month, Alexander Korovainy shared an image on his Facebook page as part of the online “10-Year Challenge,” in which people post photos of themselves from a decade ago and today. Korovainy, who lives in Yeysk, in Russia’s Krasnodar region, made a tweak to the challenge, sharing an infographic comparing prices of household items such as a kilo of sugar in 2009 and 2019.

Alexander Korovainy.

© 2017 Daniel Burmaka

It sounds harmless enough. Except that the graphic was from MBKh Media, a news outlet founded by Mikhail Khordokovsky, a former oil tycoon, political prisoner and longstanding thorn in the Russian government’s side. And Korovainy, 34, is a member of Russia’s Yabloko opposition party and a deputy of Yeysk’s municipal council. He spent 10 days in jail in 2017 for taking part in a protest against corruption, and was fired from his teaching job on the same day. “I often ask uncomfortable questions” he told Human Rights Watch.

On March 14, Korovainy was summoned to the prosecutor’s office and informed that administrative charges had been filed against him under Russia’s 2015 law on “undesirable organizations,” which authorizes the prosecutor general to ban from the country any foreign or international organization that it perceives as harming Russia. The prosecutor alleged his post was related to Open Russia, an online movement that encourages transparency and independent information on Russia. In 2017, Russia’s prosecutor general designated Open Russia, a Khordokovsky initiative, an “undesirable organization.” Those who support Open Russia have also come under increasing pressure from the authorities.

The charges against Korovainy are consistent with the authorities’ wider crackdown on online expression. Prosecutions for speech offenses on social media have increased in Russia. That extends, as in Korovainy’s case, to posts the authorities deem merely connected to a foreign “undesirable organization”.

Korovainy, who faces a maximum 15,000 ruble fine (US$233) if convicted, told the prosecutor that MBKh Media, though blocked in Russia, is neither an undesirable organization nor the same as Open Russia. The prosecutor responded that MBKh media is a resource of Open Russia and “this is the same thing because MBKh stands for Mikhail Borisovich Khordokovsky.” Whether MBKh is or isn’t part of Open Russia is a distraction: neither should be banned from Russia. “I believe the case against me is intended to pressure me to stop my protest activities,” Korovainy said.

The authorities should stop exploiting vaguely worded laws to go after critics and drop the case against Korovainy.  

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping makes a speech at the opening of Australia's first Chinese Medicine Confucius Institute, at the RMIT University in Melbourne on June 20, 2010. 

© 2010 WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

 

(New York) – Institutions of higher learning around the world should resist the Chinese government’s efforts to undermine academic freedom abroad, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 21, 2019, Human Rights Watch published a 12-point Code of Conduct for colleges and universities to adopt to respond to Chinese government threats to the academic freedom of students, scholars, and educational institutions.

Many colleges and universities around the world with ties to the Chinese government, or with large student populations from China, are unprepared to address threats to academic freedom in a systematic way, Human Rights Watch said. Few have moved to protect academic freedom against longstanding problems, such as visa bans on scholars working on China or surveillance and self-censorship on their campuses.

“Colleges and universities that stand together are better equipped to resist Chinese government harassment and surveillance on campuses, visa denials, and pressures to censor or self-censor,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Most important, they will be better prepared to ensure academic freedom on their campuses for all students and scholars, particularly those from China.”

The proposed Code of Conduct is based on more than 100 interviews between 2015 and 2018 in Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States with academics, graduate and undergraduate students, and administrators, some of them from China. The people interviewed came from a range of institutions, including globally known universities, large public institutions, and small, private colleges. Almost all were from or study China, or have operated academic programs on behalf of their institutions in China.

Human Rights Watch found various threats to academic freedom resulting from Chinese government pressure. Chinese authorities have long monitored and conducted surveillance on students and academics from China and those studying China on campuses around the world. Chinese diplomats have also complained to university officials about hosting speakers – such as the Dalai Lama – whom the Chinese government considers “sensitive.”

Academics told Human Rights Watch that students from China have described threats to their families in China in response to what those students had said in the classroom. Scholars from China detailed being directly threatened outside the country by Chinese officials to refrain from criticizing the Chinese government in classroom lectures or other talks. Others described students from China remaining silent in their classrooms, fearful that their speech was being monitored and reported to Chinese authorities by other students from China. One student from China at a university in the United States summed up his concerns about classroom surveillance, noting: “This isn’t a free space.”

Many of the academics interviewed identified censorship and self-censorship as serious concerns. One said a senior administrator has asked them “as a personal favor” to decline media requests during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, fearing that it could have ramifications for their university.

At two US universities, senior administrators cancelled appearances by speakers they believed the Chinese government would deem “sensitive,” and in one of those cases, the dean explained to a faculty member that the school did not want to lose its growing number of students from China. In another case, colleagues discouraged a scholar at a university with a large population of students from China from assigning his classes potentially “sensitive” titles. Two described academics participating in hiring panels in which the candidates were questioned during job interviews about their views on Confucius Institutes, which are effectively international outposts of China’s Ministry of Education that offer classes in Chinese language and culture.

Many of those interviewed said they modified their remarks inside and outside classrooms because of fears of being denied access to China or to funding sources, of causing problems for students or scholars from China or their family members, or of offending or irking students or scholars from China.

Many expressed discomfort with the presence of Confucius Institutes on their campuses. They said the presence of such institutions fundamentally compromised their institution’s commitment to academic freedom, especially when Confucius Institutes had been invited to their campuses without broad faculty consultation. In 2019, Victoria University cancelled the screening of a documentary critical of Confucius Institutes after the university’s Confucius Institute complained.

A number of US institutions, including the University of Chicago, North Carolina State University, and the University of Massachusetts Boston have closed or announced they will close the Confucius Institutes on their campuses because of concerns about academic freedom, among other reasons.

Few of those interviewed believed that their institutions offered any guidance or practical protections to enable them to speak freely.

“Universities can’t continue to rely solely on honor codes or other statements of principle designed to address issues like cheating, plagiarism, or tenure to address pressure from the Chinese government on academic freedom abroad,” Richardson said. “Those don’t envision – let alone set out remedies for – the kinds of threats to academic freedom now widely reported.”

As concerns about the Chinese government undermining human rights around the world have grown, students and scholars from China told Human Rights Watch they increasingly feel they are regarded with suspicion within their educational institutions.

A recent Wilson Center study of Chinese political influence in higher education in the US found it important that “countermeasures neither vilify PRC [mainland] students as a group, nor lose sight of the fact that these students, along with faculty members of Chinese descent, are often the victims of influence and interference activities perpetrated by PRC diplomats and nationalistic peers.” Academic institutions should ensure that students and scholars from China feel welcomed, integrated, and protected, Human Rights Watch said.

“President Xi’s moves to strangle academic freedom inside China makes it all the more urgent to ensure that students and scholars of and from China can enjoy academic freedom abroad,” Richardson said. “Institutions can demonstrate their commitment to peaceful, critical expression by adopting smart, robust protections, and keeping their gates open to all who seek academic freedom.”

--

Resisting Chinese Government Efforts to Undermine Academic Freedom Abroad
A Code of Conduct for Colleges, Universities, and Academic Institutions Worldwide

Large numbers of students, scholars, scientists, and professors from China now study or work at colleges and universities abroad. In recent years, Chinese government authorities have grown bolder in trying to shape global perceptions of China on campuses and in academic institutions outside China. These authorities have sought to influence academic discussions, monitor overseas students from China, censor scholarly inquiry, or otherwise interfere with academic freedom.

Human Rights Watch investigations found that the Chinese government attempts to restrict academic freedom beyond its borders. To counter such pressures, ensure the integrity of academic institutions, and protect the academic freedom and free expression rights of students, scholars, and administrators, particularly those who work on China or are from China, Human Rights Watch proposes the following Code of Conduct. While the impetus for and focus of the provisions that follow is pressure emanating from China, academic institutions should apply the same principles to interactions with all governments that threaten academic freedom on their campuses.

All institutions of higher education should:

  1. Speak out for academic freedom.  Publicly commit to supporting academic freedom and freedom of expression through public statements at the highest institutional levels, institutional policies, and internal guidelines. Explicitly recognize threats posed to academic freedom and freedom of expression by the Chinese government seeking to shape discussions, teaching, and scholarship on campus. Reaffirm a commitment to freedom of inquiry, enabling scholars and students to freely conduct research, and make clear that opposing direct and indirect censorship pressures or retaliation by third parties, including national and foreign governments, is integral to academic freedom.
  2. Strengthen academic freedom on campus. Emphasize the commitments and policies in support of academic freedom in student orientation, faculty hiring, handbooks and honor codes, and public gatherings. To avoid self-censorship or retaliation for stating opinions, academic institutions should publicize a policy that classroom discussions are meant to stay on campus, and never to be reported to foreign missions. 
  3. Counter threats to academic freedom.  Encourage students and faculty members to recognize that direct and indirect censorship pressures, threats, or acts of retaliation by Chinese government authorities or their agents against students or scholars for what they write or say threaten academic freedom. Develop and implement effective mechanisms, such as an ombudsperson, to whom such pressures, threats, or acts of retaliation can be privately or anonymously reported.
  4. Record incidents of Chinese government infringement of academic freedom. Actively track instances of direct or indirect Chinese government harassment, surveillance, or threats on campuses. Where warranted, they should be reported to law enforcement. Report annually the number and nature of these kinds of incidents.   
  5. Join with other academic institutions to promote research in China. Academic institutions should work in concert, including by making public statements and complaints where appropriate, in the event of unwarranted visa denials or prolonged delays for research in China.  Academic institutions should consider joint actions against Chinese government entities in response to visa denials or other obstacles to academic research.
  6. Offer flexibility for scholars and students working on China. Ensure that a scholar’s career advancement or a student’s progress will not be compromised if their research has to change direction due to Chinese government restrictions on research or access to source material in China. Institutions should consider steps, such as granting the scholar or student extra time to finish their research, supporting alternative research strategies, or publishing using pseudonyms, in the face of Chinese government obstacles, harassment, or reprisals. Academic institutions should be open to alternative research strategies when funding or receiving funds for academic work that has been rejected by a Chinese entity. Funders and review boards should provide comparable flexibility.
  7. Reject Confucius Institutes. Refrain from having Confucius Institutes on campuses, as they are fundamentally incompatible with a robust commitment to academic freedom. Confucius Institutes are extensions of the Chinese government that censor certain topics and perspectives in course materials on political grounds, and use hiring practices that take political loyalty into consideration.
  8. Monitor Chinese government-linked organizations. Require that all campus organizations, including the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), that receive funding or support from Chinese diplomatic missions and other Chinese government-linked entities, report such information.
  9. Promote academic freedom of students and scholars from China. Inform students and scholars from China that they are not required to join any organizations, and help mentor and support them to ensure they can enjoy full academic freedom.
  10. Disclose all Chinese government funding. Publicly disclose, on an annual basis, all sources and amounts of funding that come directly or indirectly from the Chinese government. Publish lists of all projects and exchanges with Chinese government counterparts.
  11. Ensure academic freedom in exchange programs and on satellite campuses. Exchange programs and satellite campuses in China should only be undertaken after the completion of a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese counterpart that has been transparently discussed by relevant faculty members and ensures the protection of academic freedom, including control over hiring and firing, and the curriculum.
  12. Monitor impact of Chinese government interference in academic freedom. Work with academic institutions, professional associations, and funders to systematically study and regularly publicly report on: a) areas of research that have received less attention because of fears about access; b) decline of on-campus discussions of topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese government, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre; c) efforts by academic institutions to curtail Chinese government threats to academic freedom; and 4) strategies collectively pursued by institutions to defend and promote academic freedom.

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

 

Image of Sum Moeun (left) and Moeun Mean (right). 

© 2019 VOD
(New York) – Cambodian authorities should immediately reveal the whereabouts of a land activist forcibly disappeared in Preah Vihear province, Human Rights Watch said today.

On January 20, 2019, at about 5:30 p.m., soldiers from Battalion 261 of Army Command Intervention Division 2 of the Cambodian armed forces arrested Sum Moeun, 54, a community leader in a local land dispute, and his son, Moeun Mean, 26, in Yeang commune, Chaom Ksan district. Soldiers transferred them to Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary Headquarters, where they were detained overnight. On January 21, only Moeun Mean was taken before the provincial court prosecutor. The wildlife sanctuary headquarters said that Sum Moeun had escaped at around 8 a.m. that morning.

“The Cambodian government needs to produce Sum Moeun in court and lawfully charge him or return him home to his family,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “There should be an immediate, independent investigation of this case with full cooperation from the army, which is commanded by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son, Gen. Hun Manet.”

Relatives of Sum Moeun said they received information that soldiers allegedly hit and beat him with gun butts and slapped him when they arrested him. A photo taken while he was in custody appears to show bruises on Sum Moeun’s face.

In June 2013, Cambodia ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED), which defines an enforced disappearance as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts. Because they are outside of the protection of the law, a person who has been forcibly disappeared is at heightened risk of torture and extrajudicial execution.

The convention against enforced disappearances obligates the government to investigate allegations that a person was forcibly disappeared, even in the absence of a formal complaint. The authorities are also required to take appropriate measures to protect relatives from any ill-treatment, intimidation, or sanction as a result of the search for information about a “disappeared” person.

“Sum Moeun’s wife has not heard from him since his arrest and has made repeated public calls to the authorities to help find her missing husband,” Adams said. “His family has good reason to fear for his safety.”

Between January 16 and 27, security guards and soldiers arrested 15 villagers as part of a crackdown on villagers in Yeang commune accused of illegal clearing of state forest land. Fourteen villagers remain in pre-trial detention, including Moeun Mean, and face 5 to 10 years in prison.

The land dispute stems from a concession granted in June 2012 by the Environment Ministry to Metrey Pheap Kakse Usahakam Co. Ltd., an agro-industrial company. The 8,520 hectares in the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary prompted a dispute between Metrey Pheap and over 300 families who claim the right to ownership of farmland in the area. Local authorities said that Metrey Pheap should settle the land dispute with the villagers but also asserted that parts of the land claimed by villagers were within state forest land.

Protracted land disputes resulting from illegal land confiscations by large companies and powerful tycoons with government backing are a major human rights problem in Cambodia. Land seizures for development are carried out without due process or fair compensation for affected individuals and communities, which has spurred local protests. Soldiers, gendarmes, and police have frequently been used to clamp down on protests or arbitrarily detain peaceful protesters.

The European Union currently has a delegation in Cambodia looking into whether Cambodia is in compliance with its “Everything but Arms” program, which provides trade preferences for countries meeting the program’s human rights standards.

“Cambodia does not have a recent history of enforced disappearances, but one-party rule and an increase in land seizures raises alarm bells,” Adams said. “The Cambodian government should promptly produce Sum Moeun and show it is committed to addressing the human rights concerns of the European Union and other governments.”

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Nasrin Sotoudeh. 

© 2019 The Center for Human Rights in Iran

(Beirut) – The prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh’s draconian sentence for her peaceful activism shows the threat posed by Iran’s revolutionary courts to human rights work, the Center for Human Rights in Iran and Human Rights Watch said today. Iran should immediately and unconditionally release Sotoudeh and other human rights defenders who are unjustly spending Nowruz, the Persian New Year, behind bars.

On March 11, 2019, Reza Khandan, Sotoudeh’s husband, announced that authorities had formally communicated to her that they had added another 33 years in prison and 148 lashes to Sotoudeh’s existing five-year sentence. According to Khandan, based on Iran’s penal code, if confirmed, Sotoudeh must serve 12 years in prison.

“Nasrin Sotoudeh joins the large number of activists in Iranian prisons who are there solely for their lawful activism,” said Hadi Ghaemi, CHRI executive director. “This reflects the depth of repression in Iran, where the most peaceful activities are criminalized, and the authorities disregard even the most minimum standards of law and justice.”

In the past four years, human rights groups have documented an increase in the length of prison sentences handed down to human rights activists. Under article 134 of Iran’s penal code, which went into force in 2014, each defendant will only serve the harshest sentence among all, but the sentencing pattern suggests a significant increase in the criminalization of free speech and peaceful assembly.

On March 18, 2019, Khandan published a detailed note taken from the verdict showing that Sotoudeh had been sentenced solely for her peaceful activism. According to the published verdict, branch 28 of Tehran’s Revolutionary court sentenced Sotoudeh on the charges of: “assembly and collusion to act against national security” (7.5 years in prison); “propaganda against the state” (1.5 years in prison); “membership in illegal group of LEGAM” (Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty) (7.5 years in prison); “encouraging (moral) corruption and prostitution” (12 years in prison); “appearing without a headscarf in public” (74 lashes); “publishing false information to disturb public minds” (3 years in prison and 74 lashes); and “disrupting public order” (2 years in prison). The Revolutionary court has reportedly refused to provide Sotoudeh with a copy of the verdict.

According to article 134 of Iran’s penal code: “if the number of offenses that are committed are more than three, the penalty shall not be more than the maximum prescribed punishment provided that it shall not exceed 1.5 times the longest sentence. In these cases, only the harshest prison sentence shall be served.” Based on the information that Sotoudeh’s family has received regarding her case, that would be 12 years.

Branch 28 of Tehran’s Revolutionary court deemed Sotoudeh’s peaceful activities, such as “publishing a statement along with several prominent anti-revolutionary figures… [and] calling for a referendum under the supervision of the United Nations” as sufficient evidence for the charge of “assembly and collusion to act against national security.” The verdict also cites her other activities such as “conducting interviews with foreign media and against the Islamic Republic,” as well as participation in three “illegal” demonstrations, one of them by the local civil society group LEGAM in front of the United Nations Office in Tehran on October 12, 2017, as evidence against her.

According to the verdict, “after women appeared in the street and took off their headscarves, in order to promote corruption and prostitution in the society and in support of women who took off their hijab, [Sotoudeh] published a video of herself on social media without a headscarf in public and with the cooperation of her husband, Reza Khandan, and some other anti-government figures and to encourage people not to wear hijab went to the location the women had taken their headscarf and put a flower bouquet on the utility box and distributed badges that said, ‘I oppose compulsory hijab.’”

Khandan told the Center for Human Rights in Iran that Sotoudeh was tried in absentia in Tehran on December 30 at branch 28 of the revolutionary court, with Judge Mohammad Moghiseh presiding. She refused to appear in court because she was denied the right to choose her own lawyer and wanted to protest the unjust judicial process.

On March 11, Moghiseh told the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) that his court had sentenced Sotoudeh on the charge of “assembly and collusion against the state” to five years in prison and to two years on the charge of “insulting the supreme leader.” Sotoudeh’s family is not aware of this sentence and she does not face the charge of insulting the supreme leader, according to Sotoudeh’s family.

“On top of its shameless criminalization of human rights activism, the Iranian judiciary is further eroding justice through its lack of transparency in the judicial process and the sentence itself,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Journalists and the international community should challenge the Iranian authorities with respect to the charges and evidence they used to sentence Sotoudeh, a well-known and respected human rights defender.”

Iranian authorities arrested Sotoudeh on June 13, 2018 to serve a five-year sentence issued against her in absentia on September 3, 2016. She was arrested shortly after she filed a case on behalf of a woman who was arrested for removing her headscarf. The authorities had neither previously informed Sotoudeh of this sentence nor publicly announced the 2016 conviction or sentence.

Sotoudeh’s previous verdict said, citing Intelligence Ministry reporting, that she carried out:

Activities against national security in collaboration with domestic and foreign anti-revolutionary elements, including [by] participating in meetings with foreign diplomats suspected of having ties to intelligence services, and these meetings have taken place with a human right cover to increase pressure of enemy governments [on Iran] and to condemn Iran as a human rights violator…

The verdict also cites her public support of the “illegal” group Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to reducing executions in Iran. The verdict claims that Sotoudeh’s support for this group reveals “her strategy in opposing the Islamic rulings and abolishing death penalty and qisas,” a retributive punishment under Sharia law.

Scores of human rights defenders are behind bars in Iran for their peaceful activism, including Narges Mohammadi, Atena Daemi, Arash Sadeghi, Gholrokh Iraee, Ismal Abdi, and Mohammad Habibi. The Iranian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release all these rights defenders as Iranians celebrate the new year (Nowruz) in Iran, Human Rights Watch and the Center for Human Rights in Iran said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Almaty) – The Tajik government should immediately and unconditionally release a seriously ill political activist who says he has been tortured, nine human rights groups said today. The prisoner, Mahmadali Hayit, is deputy head of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the country’s largest opposition party, which was banned by the government in late 2015.

During a visit on March 9, 2019, Hayit showed his wife, Savrinisso Jurabekova, injuries on his forehead and stomach that he said were caused by beatings from prison officials to punish him for refusing to record videos denouncing Tajik opposition figures abroad. Jurabekova said that her husband said he was not getting adequate medical care, and they both fear he may die in prison as a result of the beatings. Hayit has spent more than three years in prison and is currently being held at detention center (SIZO) number 1 in Dushanbe.

Mahmadali Hayit, deputy head of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, lies in his hospital bed at the National Medical Center in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on April 20, 2013 after being beaten outside his home by unknown assailants the night before. Hayit, suffered severe wounds to the head, face, eyes, ribs, back, and stomach. Hayit is well-known for his outspoken criticism of the policies and human rights record of the current Tajik government, which has been ruled by President Emomali Rahmon continuously since 1994.

 

© 2013 Human Rights Watch

“These disturbing revelations about Mahmadali Hayit’s ill-treatment should jolt all of Tajikistan’s international partners into action,” said Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. “We ask diplomatic representatives on the ground in Dushanbe to seek permission to visit Hayit and other prisoners of concern and press for their immediate release.”

The groups are the Association for Central Asian Migrants, the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, Freedom House, Freedom Now, Global Advocates, Human Rights Vision Foundation, Human Rights Watch, International Partnership for Human Rights, and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

Hayit, 62, was arrested in September 2015 on politically motivated charges and sentenced to life in prison in June 2016 following a closed trial. The government banned the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan and then designed it a terrorist organization in 2015.

Following her March prison visit, Jurabekova told journalists and rights groups that her husband is very ill. Hayit told her that he is held in a “tiny, dirty cell” with other prisoners, and that prison officials have beaten him repeatedly during his three years of incarceration. Hayit said they beat him for refusing to participate in videos falsely incriminating the IRPT chairman, Muhiddin Kabiri, who lives in exile. Hayit named one of his former torturers as Nuriddin Rahmon, who had been the deputy head of the prison system until he was transferred in mid-2018 to another post in the prison’s administration.

Hayit suffers from liver and kidney problems. Hayit also told Jurabekova the prison authorities had denied him access to heart medication that she had brought to the prison and that he thought he had suffered a heart attack on February 6 but received no medical care. He told his wife that he had not reported his treatment earlier because had thought it might be better for him not to speak publicly about it, but he asked her to make it public now because he believes he may not survive another six months if the abuse continues.

In an opinion released in May 2018, the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for Hayit’s immediate release because his detention violated Tajikistan’s international human rights obligations. Tajik authorities currently refuse the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) access to prisoners and detainees in the country. Tajik authorities should urgently act on the UN Working Group’s call, allow Hayit access to independent medical assistance. and release him, the organizations said.

The United States, the European Union, and other key international entities should make unequivocal calls for Hayit’s release and for the release of all others imprisoned in Tajikistan on politically motivated charges, the groups said. They should also request access for diplomatic representatives, including from the UN and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to visit Hayit in detention.

International entities should press the Tajik government to uphold its international obligations to respect freedom of association, assembly, expression, and religion and impose targeted punitive measures, such as asset freezes and visa bans, on Tajik government officials responsible for imprisoning peaceful activists, torture, and other grave human rights violations.

“Tajikistan’s international partners should publicly and unanimously condemn this mockery of justice,” said Marius Fossum, Central Asia representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “Tajikistan’s human rights situation has been spiraling downward rapidly, and Washington, Brussels, and all actors should consider enacting targeted punitive measures unless immediate human rights improvements are made.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks during a press conference about the government's achievements at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, Friday, Feb. 1, 2019. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

(New York) – Thailand’s military government has failed to create conditions for a free and fair national election on March 24, 2019, Human Rights Watch said. The process for forming a new government, in which the junta-appointed Senate will have half the total number of votes for the next government as the elected House of Representatives, severely undermines the right of Thai citizens to choose their leaders.

“Since the 2014 coup, the Thai military has made repeated promises to restore democratic rule, but the generals have set up this election to ensure continued military rule in suits instead of uniforms,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The junta has kept repressive laws, dissolved a main opposition party, taken control of the electoral commission, and handpicked a Senate with the power to thwart the will of the Thai people.”

Serious problems with Thailand’s electoral process include:

  • repressive laws restricting freedom of speech, association, and assembly;
  • media censorship;
  • lack of equal access to the media;
  • outsized role of a junta-appointed Senate in forming a government; and
  • lack of independence and impartiality of the national election commission, leading to the dissolution of a major opposition party.

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a party, states that, “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity … [t]o vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR, has stated in its General Comment on article 25 that:

  • “Where citizens participate in the conduct of public affairs through freely chosen representatives, it is implicit in article 25 that those representatives do in fact exercise governmental power and that they are accountable through the electoral process for their exercise of that power.”
  • “Freedom of expression, assembly, and association are essential conditions for the effective exercise of the right to vote and must be fully protected.”
  • “An independent electoral authority should be established to supervise the electoral process and to ensure that it is conducted fairly, impartially, and in accordance with established laws which are compatible with the Covenant.”
  • “In order to ensure the full enjoyment of rights protected by article 25, the free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates, and elected representatives is essential. This implies a free press and other media able to comment on public issues without censorship or restraint and to inform public opinion.”

“Foreign governments seeking the restoration of democracy in Thailand should publicly state that they will only recognize an election that meets international standards,” Adams said. “Thailand’s elections won’t be considered credible if the media is gagged and critical commentary about military rule is prohibited. The junta should understand that an election that is little more than a preordained victory for military rule will only be treated as a mockery of democracy.”

Concerns About the Electoral Process

Restrictions on Free Expression, Voting Rights

Since the May 2014 coup, the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta has broadly and arbitrarily interpreted peaceful criticism and dissenting opinions as criminal disinformation, seditious acts, and threats to national security. On December 11, 2018, the junta lifted its prohibition on public gatherings and political activities, allowing political parties to campaign for the parliamentary election. However, the authorities kept in place military orders severely restricting expression and authorizing criminal prosecution for speech critical of the junta, its policies and actions, and the monarchy.

NCPO Announcement 97/2014 bans “criticism of the work of the NCPO” and the dissemination of “information that could harm national security, cause confusion, or incite conflict or divisions in the country.” This announcement also compels all news outlets to distribute information issued by the junta.

NCPO Announcement 103/2014 prohibits the dissemination of news or the distribution of any publication containing information that the authorities consider “intentionally distorted to cause public misunderstanding that affects national security or public order.” In this regard, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) has become the junta’s primary censorship tool, with broad and unaccountable powers to suspend the broadcast of television and radio programs or to take a station off the air because of content that the authorities deem distorted, divisive, or a threat to national security.

On March 1, a prominent news anchor, Orawan Choodee, wrote on her Facebook page that she had been suspended from hosting the popular political debate program, “Election War19,” on the state-controlled MCOT Channel 9. Orawan was accused of having political bias for asking 100 students from 16 universities in the studio – all of them first-time voters – whether they agreed with the decision by Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha not to debate his political opponents. She also asked their view of the provisional clause in the 2017 Constitution allowing the 250 senators to vote for the prime minister; whether the NCPO’s 20-year National Strategy for Thailand is needed; and whether it does not matter if Thailand is democratic as long as people’s lives are improved. While the MCOT board, which the Prime Minister’s Office directly supervises, denied ordering her suspension, she has not returned to the program.

In the period before the election, international broadcasters covering Thailand have also faced censorship. The main cable television service provider, TrueVisions, cut off broadcasts of major news networks, such as BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg, and Australia Network, on February 8 and 9 and March 7 and 8, leaving only a blank screen with the message: “Programming will return shortly.” Neither TrueVisions nor Thai authorities officially informed the networks why they were censored.

The junta treats people who repeatedly express dissenting views and opinions about the government, or who show support for the previously deposed prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra, as threats to national security. It arrests and prosecutes them under Thailand’s sedition statute, which carries up to a seven-year prison sentence.

The authorities have charged many prominent politicians from opposition parties with serious criminal offenses for criticizing military rule. The Future Forward Party leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, in one example, was charged with violating the Computer-Related Crime Act in August 2018 for his commentary on Facebook Live criticizing the junta’s use of the Palang Pracharat Party to hold onto power.

The government has repeatedly charged Pichai Naripthaphan, Watana Muangsook, and other key members of the Pheu Thai Party with sedition and computer crimes for making critical comments about Thailand’s political and economic problems under military rule. In December, the junta filed computer crime complaints against the leader of the Seri Ruam Thai Party, Police Gen. Seripisut Temiyawet, for his media interviews criticizing the military’s attempts to stay in power after the election.

While opposition parties have faced numerous restrictions regarding their use of media for campaigning, Prayuth – as the NCPO chairman and incumbent prime minister – has unlimited access to state media to solicit support. He is given airtime on television and radio – including mandatory broadcasting of his weekly Friday speech – that is not available to other political leaders.

Although voting is compulsory in Thailand, Buddhist clergy and criminal detainees – even if not yet convicted – are denied the right to vote. This violates Thailand’s obligations under international human rights law providing for universal suffrage.

Lack of an Independent and Impartial Electoral Commission

An independent and impartial election body is crucial for ensuring public confidence that Thailand’s election will be free and fair, Human Rights Watch said. However, the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) has shown serious bias against candidates and parties opposing the military government.

After the Thai Raksa Chart Party nominated Princess Ubolratana, the king’s sister, in February as its candidate for prime minister, the ECT formally disqualified her and accused the party of violating the election law by committing an act hostile to Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. The ECT forwarded the case to the Constitutional Court, which on March 7 cited “customary law” as the basis for its decision to order the Thai Raksa Chart Party’s dissolution.

The court also banned the party’s 14 executives from running in elections, setting up political parties, or becoming political party executives for 10 years. Under a technicality in the election rules, the court’s ruling will also disqualify all Thai Raksa Chart candidates from running in the election.

On March 13, the ECT began an inquiry into a plan by former Thai Raksa Chart candidates to urge their supporters to vote for the allied Future Forward Party or cast “no” votes, even though the election law does not prohibit such actions. The ECT also threatened the Future Forward Party with an investigation because former Thai Raksa Chart members campaigned on its behalf though that is not prohibited under Thai law. The ECT has also investigated the Future Forward Party and its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, in response to numerous complaints brought by junta supporters.

The ECT has handled complaints filed against the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party at a much slower pace. These include complaints alleging financial sponsorship by state officials and agencies of the Palang Pracharat Party’s fund-raising dinner on December 19, which raised 650 million Thai baht (US$20.3 million).

The ECT has failed to promote independent and impartial election monitoring, Human Rights Watch said. Although the ECT has repeatedly stated that it has no objection to foreign organizations seeking access to observe the election, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai has opposed the participation of foreign observers on the grounds that the election is an internal affair and that their involvement was not needed and would indicate that Thailand is a problematic country.

The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) is the only group that has received ECT accreditation for election monitoring. The European Union and other foreign governments will depend on staff from their diplomatic missions in Thailand. Prominent domestic groups, such as the People’s Network for Elections (P-Net), have complained that the ECT was slow to provide formal guidelines for observing the elections to monitoring groups and political party agents.

Junta-Appointed Senate

The junta-drafted 2017 constitution entails a weakened role for the elected House of Representatives. As a result, the party or parties winning the election are not likely to be able to form a government. Instead, it is expected that the government will be formed by a majority vote of the elected 500-member House of Representatives combined with the appointed 250-member Senate.

The ruling NCPO, led by Prayuth, who is the candidate for prime minister for the Palang Pracharat Party, will appoint the entire Senate. The only exceptions are six seats reserved for the armed forces commanders, the supreme commander, the defense permanent secretary, and the national police chief – all of whom are junta members. This means that the military-backed party will only need to gather one-third of elected House members to form a majority and install its candidate as prime minister. Opposition parties could win up to two-thirds of House of Representative seats and still not be able to block that person from becoming prime minister and from appointing other members of the cabinet.

On March 13, Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon indicated that such an outcome was likely, telling the media that he thought it would not be difficult for the junta to form the new government because the appointed senate would be “controllable.”

The junta-appointed senators will also play an important role that could make the electoral portfolio and campaign pledges of political parties meaningless because the constitution requires them to ensure that Thailand’s future governments and parliaments will follow the NCPO’s National Strategy plan for the next 20 years.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Pro-democracy protesters carry a photo of detained Taiwanese rights activist Lee Ming-Che (L) and other activists during a demonstration in Hong Kong, China September 11, 2017.

March 19 marks two years since police in China’s Guangdong province forcibly disappeared Taiwanese democracy activist Li Ming-che. Authorities eventually charged Li with “subversion of state power” for having online discussions about transitional justice and democracy in Taiwan and sharing books on human rights with friends in the mainland. On November 28, 2017, a court sentenced him to five years in prison.

Since then, Li has endured ill-treatment and deteriorating health; according to his wife, Li Ching-yu, he has lost 30 kilograms. Authorities froze his commissary account, necessary to buy better food, after two unnotified and unexplained prison transfers, and does not allow his wife to send items, including clothing. Li Ming-che is prohibited from sending letters or receiving a phone card or books, even those that meet government approval. Under the Prison Law, prisoners are entitled to family visits at least once a month, but Li Ching-yu has only been approved to visit her husband six times. She has been denied entry to China four times.

Li Ching-yu was last allowed to visit Li Ming-che at Chishan Prison in Hunan province in December 2018. On January 22, prison authorities revoked Li Ching-yu’s right to visit her husband for three months, claiming public statements she made following her last visit in December had “disrupted the prison’s standard operations for upholding the law and impeded [Li’s] reformation.” Undeterred, she issued a statement on January 29, demanding authorities to allow diplomats from Taiwan to visit on her behalf. On March 12, the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, called for Li’s release during a visit to Taipei. The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded by opposing official US-Taiwan contact.

Since 2016, the Chinese government has forcibly disappeared and prosecuted citizens of other countries for helping Chinese activists or speaking critically of the government, including Swedish activist Peter Dahlin, British bookseller Lee Bo, and Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai, whose whereabouts remain unknown.

Imprisoning people for peaceful speech and ill-treating them in detention only further weakens Chinese authorities’ claim to uphold the rule of law, and presents a growing threat to activists outside China seeking change.    

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Sharofiddin Gadoev, a 33-year-old political activist who had fled repression in Tajikistan, was kidnapped by Russian officials during a visit to Moscow. He was forced onto a plane to Tajikistan and paraded around in concocted videos as someone who had seen the light and returned to Tajikistan willingly.  But his case confirms that naming and shaming by other governments and human rights activists can make a difference.

For the past five years, amid a growing cult of personality around the authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon and his family, serious human rights abuses have become commonplace in Tajikistan. Hundreds of political prisoners have been jailed. Dissidents’ families – even young children – have been harassed and barred from travelling abroad.  Local nongovernmental groups are under pressure, and torture in prison is rife.

Gadoev fled Tajikistan in 2012 and lives with his wife in the Netherlands, where he’s had refugee status since 2015. Together with his cousin, Umarali Kuvvatov, Gadoev formed a peaceful opposition group popular among Tajik migrant workers in Russia known as Group 24, which called for democratic reforms. It quickly earned the ire of the Tajik government.

Opposition figure Sharoffidin Gadoev at a meeting with his relatives in the presence of Tajik Interior Ministry officials in Dushanbe on February 15.

© 2019 Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry

Tajikistan has been aggressively hunting its critics abroad in countries including RussiaTurkeyBelarusMoldova; even using Interpol “red notices” to detain Tajik activists in countries within the European Union such as Greece. On March 6, 2015, Kuvvatov was shot and killed on the street in Istanbul in circumstances that pointed to Tajik government involvement.

Fast forward to February 2019, when Gadoev appears to have been lured to Moscow by Russian officials for the purpose of orchestrating his forced return to Tajikistan.

Those familiar with Russia’s terrible human rights record might wonder why any Tajik democracy activist would even consider going to Moscow. After all, Russia’s security services have cooperated with the governments of Central Asia for decades in maintaining tight controls over their populations at home and also have apprehended Central Asian dissidents in Russia.

But Tajikistan, the poorest Central Asian state, is among the most labor migration-dependent countries in the world. In 2015, it received the equivalent of 37 percent of its GDP in the form of remittances. Tajikistan’s population is reaching 9 million; at any given time, well over a million Tajiks live and work in Russia.

Hence, Gadoev told Human Rights Watch, going to discuss Tajikistan’s future with the Russian government was a risky but essential step. As Human Rights Watch research documented, Russian officials nabbed Gadoev in Moscow, placing a cellophane bag over his head and tape over his mouth, and drove him straight to the Moscow airport.

There, officials circumvented passport control and placed him onto a flight to Tajikistan, where Tajik officials took custody of him, brutally beating him. They beat him so violently during the four-hour flight to Dushanbe that on arrival his clothes were soaked with blood.

Gadoev later told Human Rights Watch that his interrogators interrupted the beatings just long enough to threaten him, “You have three options: cooperate, go to prison for 25 years, or die.”

In the following week, Tajik authorities broadcast crude choreographed videos of him ostensibly happy to be back with relatives and friends and confessing his “crimes.” But Gadoev was never outside the presence of security services, not allowed access to an attorney, nor able to call his wife, who was terrified at home in the Netherlands.

Several other Tajik government critics have been forcibly returned to the country from Russia and Turkey under disturbing circumstances that point to government involvement, and several are still serving out prison sentences following flawed trials.

But this case turned out differently.

A Dutch parliamentarian found out that a refugee had ended up in Tajikistan against his will, and members of parliament sent questions to the Foreign Ministry about what was being done to bring him home. The concern in Europe quickly spread to the German embassy in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, where staff took up the role of representing Dutch interests (in a country where the Netherlands has no embassy).

Pressure mounted on February 19, when Gadoev’s colleagues abroad uploaded to YouTube a video recorded earlier by Gadoev in which he states:

If you see this video, it means I have been murdered, kidnapped or that I have gone missing…If I suddenly turn up on state television or on YouTube declaring that I am in Tajikistan and that I have returned of my own free will, you must not believe this. I would under no circumstance ever return to Tajikistan of my own free will.”

The video, along with statements from rights groups, landed like a thunderbolt and ended the charade of Gadoev’s happy voluntary return to Tajikistan. Then Gadoev went missing for several days, raising fears that like several activists before him, he would reappear in a show trial, where he’d receive a lengthy sentence.

But on March 2 another video emerged. It showed Gadoev being allowed to call a friend in Europe, saying that all was going well in Tajikistan, that all exiled opposition activists should come back, but that he himself was going to be soon returning to Europe. After the choreographed phone call, Gadoev was taken to the airport and put on a flight to Frankfurt, then transferred back home to the Netherlands.

One news outlet said that an impending visit in early March by the Luxembourg foreign minister, who was expected to raise the case with President Rahmon, was a factor that led the Tajik authorities to release Gadoev. The meeting, according to Rahmon’s spokespeople, was “rescheduled.”

While details are still emerging around Gadoev’s forced transfer and ill-treatment one lesson is clear: pressure worked.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, left, passes the opening speech to King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah during the opening of the 14th parliament session at the Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Monday, March 11, 2019. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Vincent Thian
(New York) – The Malaysian authorities should halt the investigation targeting organizers of the Women’s March in Kuala Lumpur on March 9, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. The march’s organizers are being investigated for possible violations of Malaysia’s Sedition Act and Peaceful Assembly Act.

The Women’s March, in observance of International Women’s Day, called for an end to violence based on gender and sexual orientation, the right of women to make choices over their bodies and lives, an end to child marriage, and an end to a system of patriarchy.

“The Malaysian government promised in its election manifesto to get rid of the notorious sedition law, yet it is now using it against organizers of the Women’s March,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “This is shockingly hypocritical. The authorities should immediately end the investigation and restate its commitment to protecting the rights to peaceful protests and speech.”

The participants included a wide array of Malaysian citizens. Following the march, conservative groups criticized the presence of LGBT people, with the minister for religious affairs, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, calling their participation an “abuse of democratic space.” The backlash against participants has been vocal and severe, with some reporting harassment on social media, including threats of violence.

On March 14, the police called in seven organizers for police questioning. In a statement, the organizers announced that they were being investigated under the Sedition Act – a law that has long been used to penalize peaceful political dissent. The Sedition Act criminalizes any conduct with a “seditious tendency,” such as broadly tending to “excite disaffection against” or “bring into hatred or contempt” the government, the judiciary, the king, or the ruler of any state. The governing Pakatan Harapan coalition, recognizing that the Sedition Act is “oppressive and unjust,” promised in its 2018 election manifesto to repeal it.

The organizers are also being investigated under section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act, which requires organizers of assemblies to give police notice of any event 10 days in advance, a requirement that the government has also promised to review. March organizers have told local media that they provided the police with notice 10 days in advance and maintained open lines of communication with the police during the event.

The Malaysian government should follow through with its campaign promises to repeal the draconian Sedition Act. It should also revise overly restrictive provisions of the Peaceful Assembly Act.

“Rather than using abusive laws against people marching for basic rights, Malaysia’s government should be addressing the critical women’s rights issues that the march highlighted,” Adams said. “The government should use this episode as a wake-up call to accelerate efforts to repeal the Sedition Act and amend or repeal other laws restricting freedom of speech, including overly restrictive provisions of the Peaceful Assembly Act.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

This week, I attended a Jerusalem District Court hearing for Human Rights Watch’s appeal of the Israeli government’s decision to revoke the work permit of, and expel, our Israel and Palestine director, Omar Shakir. 

A dossier compiled by Israel’s Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Ministry on the activities of Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine Director, which served as the basis for the government’s May 7, 2018 decision to revoke his work visa.

Thirty years ago, I had Shakir’s job. I arrived during the first Intifada, the first of many Human Rights Watch researchers who, over the past 28 years, Israeli authorities have allowed to enter and work without obstacle – except for Gaza, which they have kept largely off-limits for the past decade. We have throughout this period documented and publicized abuses by Israeli authorities, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and Palestinian armed groups.

Israel’s policy shifted in 2017, when authorities initially denied us a permit to enable Shakir, a foreign national, to work locally on the grounds that the organization promotes “Palestinian propaganda.” They eventually relented, only to revoke his visa one year later on different grounds: 2017 legislation that empowers the Interior Ministry to deny entry to foreigners who call publicly for a boycott of Israel “or an area under its control.”

In court, the state attorney presented no evidence that Shakir, while employed by us, had advocated boycotts of Israel. Instead the state’s case rested mainly on Shakir’s tweets espousing our well-known position that businesses should halt their activities in illegal West Bank settlements, because this inevitably makes them complicit in violating the human rights of Palestinians.    

The state also sought to separate Shakir from Human Rights Watch, which does not figure on its list of boycott organizations. It inaccurately claimed that Shakir was tweeting in a “private” capacity, whereas the organization encourages all of its researchers to tweet and requires them to reflect the group’s positions when doing so.

The judge will rule within weeks whether our efforts to stop businesses trading in the settlements warrants Shakir’s expulsion. The decision will come amid the backdrop of Israel’s tightening restrictions on the work of human rights groups.

Three decades ago, I did not imagine that today, the occupation, with all its abuses, would remain alive and well, much less that Israel might join the likes of Venezuela and Burundi in expelling our staff.

Yet another example of how its policies toward the West Bank and Gaza are narrowing the space for free expression within Israel itself.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A sketch of Somchai Neelapaijit, a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer abducted in Bangkok on March 12, 2004. 

© 2015 Private
Fifteen years ago this week, I received a phone call in the middle of the night with the news that Somchai Neelapaijit had gone missing. At the time, Somchai was chair of Thailand’s Muslim Lawyers Association and vice-chair of the Human Rights Committee of the Lawyers Council of Thailand.

Official investigations have at least established that Somchai was abducted on March 12, 2004 and later murdered, though his body has never been found. His alleged assailants are a group of police officers who sought retaliation for Somchai’s involvement in lawsuits alleging widespread police torture of Muslim suspects in Thailand’s insurgency-ridden southern border provinces.

But over the past decade and a half, seven prime ministers, including current Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, have failed to bring Somchai’s killers to justice.

A key reason is that Thailand’s penal code does not recognize enforced disappearance as a criminal offense. Without the body, prosecutors could only file charges of robbery and coercion against the five police officers implicated in the case. Their trial, hampered by official cover-ups, ended in their acquittal in December 2015.

Efforts by Somchai’s family to obtain justice have been hampered by a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that the family cannot act as a co-plaintiff, because there is no concrete evidence showing he is dead or otherwise incapable of bringing the case himself. The ruling placed the impossible burden on disappeared people of proving they had been disappeared.

Somchai’s case is the only one ever brought before a Thai court, even though the United Nations has recorded 82 enforced disappearance cases in Thailand since 1980. None have been resolved, and no one has ever been punished.

The Prayut government has repeatedly pledged to ratify the international convention on enforced disappearance, which Thailand signed in 2012.

But as we mark 15 years since Somchai disappeared, that promise has still not been kept.

Even today, Thai authorities are creating conditions conducive to enforced disappearance, such as the use of secret detention by anti-narcotics units and in national security cases.

Thailand’s victims of enforced disappearance and their families deserve better.

Another year should not pass without justice for Somchai and so many others.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Al-Jadeed TV correspondent Adam Chamseddine, Sept. 26, 2018. 

© 2018 Hasan Shaaban/The Daily Star
 

The sentencing of Lebanese TV correspondent Adam Chamseddine to three months in jail for “insulting” a security agency in a Facebook post is the latest escalation in the crackdown on speech criticizing public officials and state institutions.

The prison sentence, the second issued to a journalist in absentia by a military court and one in a growing list targeting journalists, reflects all that is wrong with the continued prosecution of journalists for exercising their right to free speech.

Chamseddine’s post criticized State Security for leaking details of an investigation of a detainee who had AIDS. Chamseddine claimed that the same State Security interrogators used a similar tactic with Ziad Itani, who was exonerated in 2018 of spying for Israel, knowing that in both cases, public opinion would turn against the suspects.

There has been an alarming increase in the use of Lebanon’s criminal defamation laws, which authorize imprisonment for up to three years for insulting state officials and institutions. SKeyes, an organization that monitors free speech in Lebanon, recorded more than 90 prosecutions against journalists, artists, and activists since October 2016, with 62 in 2018 alone. Digital rights group, Social Media Exchange said the number of cases over online posts almost quadrupled between 2017 and 2018.

Military courts have such broad jurisdiction over civilians they can end up in military court for any interaction with security services or their employees. Defendants, lawyers, and Lebanese human rights activists allege that authorities are using this power to silence dissent. Chamseddine is only one of many outspoken journalists, activists, and human rights lawyers who have been tried in military courts.

Those who have been tried in military courts have described torture, forced confessions, incommunicado detention, lengthy pretrial detention, decisions issued without an explanation, seemingly arbitrary sentences, and a limited ability to appeal. Such trials violate defendants’ rights to due process and international law.

In Chamseddine’s case, local media reported that he was tried in absentia because he failed to receive appropriate legal notice to appear for questioning or in court.

The threat of arrest and the possibility of ending up before a military court have a deep chilling effect on critics of Lebanon’s government and state institutions. At a time when the state has failed to deliver even the most basic of services to its citizens and has engaged in serious rights violations, public debate should be encouraged, not persecuted.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Saidah Saleh Syamlan 

© 2019 Safenet
(Jakarta) – Indonesia’s Judiciary Commission should review the prosecution of Saidah Saleh Syamlan for criminal defamation in the Surabaya district court, Human Rights Watch said today.

On February 26, 2019, the court sentenced Syamlan to 10 months in jail for defamation for allegedly sending four WhatsApp messages to two banks regarding a company’s performance. She denies sending the messages. The Indonesian government should repeal criminal provisions that restrict peaceful free expression online.

“Sending someone to prison on flimsy evidence for sending WhatsApp messages critical of a company will have a disastrous and chilling effect on free speech,” said Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia researcher. “The Saidah Syamlan case shows that criminal defamation laws are open to manipulation by people with political or financial power who can influence the behavior of investigators.”

Sending someone to prison on flimsy evidence for sending WhatsApp messages critical of a company will have a disastrous and chilling effect on free speech.

Andreas Harsono

Indonesia Researcher

Syamlan’s husband, Aziz Hamedan had long been the finance director of Pisma Textile but retired in 2016. The WhatsApp messages are four short sentences, in Javanese language, sent on June 23, 2017, separately to two bankers in Jakarta – Eximbank Indonesia and Bank Negara Indonesia officials – that questioned the credibility of Pista Textile, a well-known textile company that makes sarongs.

The messages came from Syamlan’s former phone number. Jamal Ghozi Basmeleh, the owner of Pisma Textile, suspected that Hamedan had sent those messages to the banks and asked his lawyer to report Hamedan to the police in July 2017, he testified in court.

On September 12, 2017, Pisma Textile’s lawyer, Muhammad Bayu Kusharyanto, reported “the owner of that mobile phone number” to the Surabaya police, accusing the sender of defaming the firm and providing the police screenshots of the chat messages.

On October 4, 2017, the Surabaya police questioned Hamedan and Syamlan. Both denied sending the messages.

Syamlan acknowledged that the number apparently used to send those messages was hers but said that she no longer had the phone. She said that it had been broken and that she had lost it in April 2017. She said she had used a new phone with a different number after that.

Syamlan, herself an ethnic Arab born in Jakarta, said in court that she does not speak Javanese, though it is widely spoken in Surabaya. Most Indonesian citizens speak the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, and their respective native tongues.

On January 15, 2018, the police searched Hamedan and Syamlan’s home while they were out of the country. According to Syamlan, the police did not find any device connected to the messages. In March 2018, the police nevertheless charged Syamlan with criminal defamation. Syamlan told the Surabaya Police’s Division of Profession and Internal Security that she felt she was being harassed and intimidated and complained to the division but the police investigators soon sent her case to the Surabaya public prosecutors’ office.

Her trial took place between October 2018 and February 2019. Prosecutors sought an 18-month prison term and a fine of IDR 500 million (US$35,500), under article 27 (3) and article 45 (3), which deal with electronic defamation under the 2016 Electronic Information and Transactions Law (Internet Law).

On February 26, 2019, the Surabaya district court found Syamlan guilty of defaming Pisma Textile and sentenced her to 10 months in prison and a fine of IDR 5 million (US$355). She is still free on appeal.

In 2010, Human Rights Watch published an analysis of the negative impact of criminal defamation laws in Indonesia (including the 2008 Internet Law) and urged their repeal. These laws can be exploited by powerful people to retaliate against people who had made allegations of corruption, fraud, or misconduct against powerful interests or government officials.

In 2016, the House of Representatives amended the 2008 Internet Law, reducing the jail term for defamation from six years to four but retaining criminal penalties if alleged defamatory statements are communicated over the internet.

The Indonesian government should repeal criminal defamation articles, including in the 2016 Internet Law, replacing them with civil defamation provisions that contain adequate safeguards to protect freedom of expression from unjustified interference.

“It is shocking that people like Syamlan can go to prison on the basis of vague and severe criminal defamation laws compounded by questionable evidence,” Harsono said. “Instead, the government should establish civil rather than criminal penalties, and only applicable in cases in which the information is not an opinion, but a demonstrably false claim that causes real harm or damage.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am