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

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the European Council, Brussels, October 5, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

(Brussels) – A meeting planned for May 25, 2017, between European Union leaders and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey should signal that discussion of upgraded economic cooperation is dependent on Ankara’s willingness to tackle its human rights and rule of law crisis, Human Rights Watch said today.

The meeting, on the sidelines of the NATO summit meeting in Brussels, between President Erdoğan and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk, is expected to include discussion of a possible new customs union.

“At the first meeting with President Erdoğan after he won a referendum that expands his power, the EU should put human rights firmly back into the picture,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “Presidents Juncker and Tusk should convey the message that with Turkey’s EU accession stalled, deeper economic cooperation under a possible new customs union will depend on Erdoğan ending the deplorable crackdown in Turkey and taking steps to uphold human rights and the rule of law.”

In December 2016, the European Commission formally asked the EU member states for a mandate to open talks to renew the existing Customs Union, which entered into force in 1995. Negotiations over modernizing the Customs Union are likely to take years. The European Commission has stated that, “Respect of democracy and fundamental rights will be an essential element of the agreement.”

President Erdoğan’s narrow win in Turkey’s landmark referendum for a new political system has ushered in an executive presidential system, giving enormous centralized power to Turkey’s president without the checks and balances needed to safeguard processes and institutions fundamental to democratic society. The referendum campaign took place in a deeply repressive climate under a state of emergency in the aftermath of the failed July 15, 2016 military coup.

Repeatedly extending emergency rule, Turkey’s president and government have silenced independent media, closed down media outlets, jailed more than 150 critical journalists and the leaders and members of parliament from the pro-Kurdish parliamentary opposition, and repeatedly threatened to reintroduce the death penalty. Emergency decrees resulted in the summary dismissal of more than 100,000 civil servants, including police, members of the military, teachers, academics, judges, prosecutors, and health professionals for alleged support for US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen or for unsubstantiated connections with other outlawed groups. Turkey accuses Gülen of masterminding the attempted coup.

Up to 50,000 people are in pretrial detention on suspicion of involvement in the coup attempt or membership of what the government terms the Fethullahist Terror Organization. The Turkish government has confiscated by decree and without a right of appeal at least 600 companies worth billions of dollars, contending that the companies supported the Gülen movement. In many cases, people have been detained or businesses seized without due process. The blanket charge of non-violent association with a religious group cannot alone be construed as a terrorist offense, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has also documented a pattern of police torture and ill-treatment of detainees since the coup. Human Rights Watch continues to receive allegations that some detainees have been beaten, threatened with rape or threatened with the rape of members of their family, and generally coerced into confessing crimes in violation of Turkey’s own laws and international human rights law.

Journalists held in prolonged pretrial detention face charges such as terrorism and coup plotting, for which the penalty is life in prison, simply for articles and television commentary that have not in any way advocated violence or supported military coups. Among those held in prison for periods of up to seven months are 13 journalists, board members, and executives for the respected daily newspaper, Cumhuriyet. They include the newspaper’s editor, Murat Sabuncu, and well-known journalists Kadri Gürsel and Ahmet Şık.

A number of respected journalists in their sixties and seventies, who wrote for publications associated with the Gülen movement, have been in prison for almost 10 months. They include Şahin Alpay, Ali Bulaç, Nazlı Ilıcak, Ahmet Turan Alkan, and Mümtaz’er Turköne. The well-known novelist and commentator Ahmet Altan and his brother, Mehmet Altan, an economics professor, have also been in prison for more than eight months. The German-Turkish Die Welt journalist Deniz Yücel has been jailed for over three months.

Turkey’s disastrous record on restricting free speech also extends to the internet, with the authorities blocking thousands of Twitter accounts and websites – including, since April 29, the entire Wikipedia site – because they allegedly include online content critical of President Erdoğan or the Turkish government.

Over the past eight months, President Erdoğan and the Turkish government have ruthlessly cracked down on the leaders and members of parliament from the pro-Kurdish parliamentary opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The Turkish government has jailed leading elected HDP members of parliament, including Selahattin Demirtaş, the party’s popular leader. All face terrorism charges, mainly based on their political speeches and lacking any credible evidence of activities that could amount to terrorism.

The Turkish government has also taken direct control of 86 municipalities in the mainly Kurdish southeast region of the country, suspending and jailing elected mayors. The crackdown on democratically-elected politicians not only violates their rights to political association and participation, and freedom of expression, but also deprives millions of voters of their chosen representatives in parliament and local government.

The dramatic deterioration in Turkey is inextricably linked with a state of emergency that allows the president to head the cabinet and rule by decree, bypassing parliamentary scrutiny and any judicial review of decrees. The more than 100,000 civil servants dismissed cannot currently appeal their dismissal through any court in Turkey. And they face major obstacles to finding employment or a livelihood after being blacklisted, with their names on a list of people linked with outlawed organizations.

The state of emergency was prolonged after Erdoğan’s referendum win on April 16. At the Justice and Development Party congress on May 21, Erdoğan assumed leadership of the party and announced that he saw no reason to end emergency rule in the period ahead.

“Today, Turkey is the world leader in jailing journalists and charging them with terrorist offenses purely for peaceful, albeit critical, writings and commentary,” Leicht said. “Juncker and Tusk should insist that EU-Turkey relations depend on Erdoğan’s releasing journalists and elected politicians, ending the state of emergency used to perpetuate a lawless crackdown on perceived opponents, and dropping any idea of reintroducing the death penalty.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Payao Akhad performs at a Walk for Justice at Wat Pathum Wanaram, Bangkok, on May 19, 2017. 

© 2017 Prachatai

Kamolkate “Kate” Akhad was a 25-year-old nurse tending to an injured man in a Buddhist temple compound in Bangkok on May 19, 2010, when Thai Special Forces soldiers shot and killed her. She was among the last victims of months of violent confrontations between state security forces and “red shirt” protesters that left at least 98 dead and over 2,000 injured.

Last Friday, seven years after Kate’s death, Thai police arrested her mother, Payao Akhad, and seven other activists staging a memorial performance for those killed at Wat Pathum Wanaram. Payao painted her face white with a red cross on her forehead, mirroring the Red Cross on the uniform Kate was wearing when she was killed. The activists were later released.

Payao has been a tireless advocate for victims of the 2010 violence and their families. Her daughter’s death spurred her role as a leading activist in what has proved a difficult search for justice. “My life has changed, from an ordinary housewife to a mother who has to fight for justice for my daughter,” she said.

Human Rights Watch documented soldiers’ excessive and unnecessary use of lethal force during the 2010 government crackdown, including the military’s deployment of snipers. Our research detailed how soldiers fired from elevated railroad tracks onto the temple grounds, which had been declared a “safe zone” by both the government and protesters, including the medic tent where Kate was working.

Despite overwhelming evidence of army responsibility, no officers or soldiers have been charged in the killings. This failure of accountability is emblematic of the impunity that has long protected Thailand’s security forces.

Avenues for justice were further blocked after the May 2014 military coup. Coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, now the country’s prime minister, has often said that soldiers should not be held responsible for the 2010 violence. The ruling junta, which has stifled free speech and suppressed critics, has shown no interest in prosecuting soldiers for abuses committed.

Yet even in the face of growing threats against peaceful activism, Payao has relentlessly spoken out against proposed amnesty bills, the obstruction of investigations, and court dismissals of charges against former senior civilian officials.

“They intercepted us probably because they feared we would find the truth,” Payao said of her arrest on Friday. “Justice can prevail only when the truth is revealed.”

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

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks during a news conference after his meeting with the National Security Council at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, August 15, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

(New York) – Thailand’s junta has failed to fulfill pledges to respect human rights and restore democratic rule three years after the military coup, Human Rights Watch said today. The ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), led by Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has instead prolonged its crackdown on basic rights and freedoms, and devised a quasi-democratic system that the military can manipulate and control.

“The Thai junta’s empty promises to respect rights and restore democratic rule have become some sort of a sick joke played on the Thai people and the international community,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Three years after the coup, the junta still prosecutes peaceful critics of the government, bans political activity, censors the media, and stifles free speech.”

Sweeping, Unchecked, and Unaccountable Military Power

General Prayuth and the Thai military staged a coup on May 22, 2014, and created the NCPO junta. On March 31, 2015, the nation-wide enforcement of the Martial Law Act of 1914 was replaced with section 44 of the 2014 interim constitution, which allows General Prayuth as the NCPO chairman to wield power without administrative, legislative, or judicial oversight or accountability, including for human rights violations. In addition, section 47 states that all such orders are “deemed to be legal, constitutional, and conclusive.” Section 48 further provides that NCPO members and anyone carrying out actions on behalf of the NCPO “shall be absolutely exempted from any wrongdoing, responsibility, and liabilities.”

Three years after the coup, the junta still prosecutes peaceful critics of the government, bans political activity, censors the media, and stifles free speech.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Key constitutional bodies set up by the NCPO – such as the National Legislative Assembly – are dominated by military personnel and other junta loyalists, meaning that there are no effective checks and balances on military rule.

The new constitution, which was promulgated on March 6, 2017, ensures that NCPO members will not be held accountable for any of the many rights violations committed since taking power. It also strengthens and prolongs military control of the government even after an election that the junta promises to hold in 2018.

“The new constitution whitewashes all junta rights violations, ensuring that Thai military leaders can continue to commit abuses without fear of prosecution,” Adams said.

Censorship and Restrictions on Free Expression

The junta’s promised reconciliation and “road map” to return to democratic civilian rule has become meaningless as a result of the censorship and prosecution of those expressing dissenting opinions.

Immediately after the May 2014 coup, the NCPO forced satellite TV channels and community radio stations from all political factions off the air. Some were later allowed to resume broadcasting if they agreed to self-censorship, by excluding programs on political issues.

A man watches Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha during his weekly TV broadcast in Bangkok, Thailand, May 19, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Since then, the junta has aggressively restricted media freedom and conducted extensive surveillance of the internet and other online communications. Print media have been ordered not to publicize commentaries critical of the junta. TV and radio programs have been instructed not to invite guests who might give negative comments about the situation in Thailand.

Three years after the coup, repression against anyone openly critical of the government continues. On March 27, 2017, a government order forced Voice TV – a private station known for its criticism of military rule – off the air. Voice TV had aired stories that contradicted and disparaged information provided by military authorities about the raid on Dhammakaya Temple, the army’s killing of a teenage ethnic Lahu activist, the arrest of anti-government groups for alleged weapons possession and plotting assassinations of the prime minister and others, and the controversial construction of a casino on the Thai-Cambodian border.

Asserting that political discussions and differences in political opinions could somehow undermine social stability and national security, Thai authorities have frequently canceled political events, academic panels, seminars, and public forums on issues related to the state of human rights and freedom in Thailand. Most recently, on World Press Freedom Day on March 3, Thai authorities ordered the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) to cancel its panel discussion on the disappearance of a plaque commemorating the end of absolute monarchy in Thailand in 1932. On May 19, police arrested eight activists in Bangkok after they staged a mime performance in memory of those killed and wounded from excessive use of force by the military during the political upheavals in 2010. Not only does the military remain completely untouchable, but many of the commanders involved in the 2010 crackdown – including General Prayuth – are now ruling Thailand.

Thailand’s new Computer-Related Crime Act, which the junta-installed National Legislative Assembly adopted in December 2016, gives broad powers to the government to restrict free speech and enforce surveillance and censorship. On May 16, Thai authorities threatened to shut down all access for users in Thailand to Facebook to pressure the social media platform to block or remove alleged lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) content posted by various users.

People charged with lese majeste, a serious criminal offense in Thailand, are routinely denied bail and held in prison for months or years while awaiting trial.  This is the case of prominent pro-democracy student activist Jatupat Boonphatthararaksa, who faces lese majeste and computer crimes charges for posting on his Facebook page a profile of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, published by the BBC Thai language service. Thai authorities deemed the article to be critical of the monarchy and blocked it in Thailand. Since the May 2014 coup, at least 105 people have been arrested on lese majeste charges, mostly for posting or sharing online commentary. Some have been convicted and sentenced to years or even decades of imprisonment.

Thai authorities continue to enforce the NCPO’s ban on political gatherings of more than five people, with violators subject to punishment that includes up to a year in prison and a 20,000 baht (US$600) fine. Thousands of dissenting activists, politicians, journalists, and human rights defenders have been taken to military camps for questioning and, in the junta’s parlance, “adjusting” of their attitude. The junta has also compelled those released from “attitude adjustment” programs to sign a written agreement that they will not make political comments, become involved in political activities, or oppose military rule – all in violation of their fundamental human rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Failure to comply with such agreements could result in a new detention or a sentence of two years in prison.

Arbitrary Secret Detention, Torture and Military Courts

Under NCPO Orders 3/2015 and 13/2016, military authorities have the power to secretly detain people for up to seven days without charge and interrogate them without access to lawyers or safeguards against mistreatment. The junta has repeatedly dismissed allegations that soldiers have tortured detainees but then failed to provide any evidence to rebut those allegations.

Human Rights Watch has frequently raised serious concerns regarding secret military detention in Thailand. The risk of enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill-treatment significantly increases when detainees are held incommunicado in military custody. The junta continues to refuse to provide information about people in secret detention.

On April 29, Prawet Prapanukul – a prominent human rights lawyer and critic of the monarchy – and five other people were secretly arrested and put in incommunicado military detention for allegedly posting and sharing commentary on Facebook that Thai authorities considered to be offensive to the monarchy. Their whereabouts were unknown for six days until they were transferred to the Police’s Technology Crime Suppression Division and charged with lese majeste, sedition, and computer crimes.

There have been no indications of any serious or credible official inquiry by Thai authorities into reports of torture and mistreatment in military custody. In November 2015, Human Rights Watch submitted a letter to the Thai government raising grave concerns about conditions at the 11th Military Circle Camp, where dissidents have routinely been held. The letter was prompted by the suspicious deaths of a fortune teller, Suriyan Sucharitpolwong, and Police Maj. Prakrom Warunprapa during their detention there.

The use of military courts, which lack independence and fail to comply with international fair trial standards, to try civilians remains a major problem. In September 2016, General Prayuth revoked Announcement 37 and other two NCPO announcements that empowered military courts to try civilians for national security offenses, including lese majeste and sedition. However, the action is not retroactive and does not affect the more than 1,800 cases already brought against civilians in military courts across Thailand.

“With each passing year in power, Thailand’s junta falls deeper into a dictatorship,” Adams said. “Pressure from Thailand’s friends is urgently needed to end repression and restore respect for basic rights that are essential for the country’s return to democratic civilian rule.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Chelsea Manning is free – finally.

On his last day in office, President Obama commuted Manning’s absurdly disproportionate 35-year sentence for passing classified documents to Wikileaks in 2010. The documents included the Collateral Murder video and the Afghan War Logs, which revealed the grim reality of US war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Manning has served 7 years and 120 days, and the law that enabled her draconian sentence remains unchanged and ready for use on the next leaker who may be a whistleblower. The law is the Espionage Act of 1917, which US authorities increasingly rely on to punish people who leak classified information to the media, and not to foreign governments as it was originally intended.

Those prosecuted under this law still cannot argue their actions were motivated by the public interest in their defense. Nor does the Espionage Act require prosecutors to prove national security was harmed as a result of the leak, much less that the harm outweighed the benefit of the public’s right to know.

Allowing for a public interest defense is necessary in any democratic society where government activity is often shrouded in secrecy. It is the only way to combat wrongdoing in the parts of the government subject to the least amount of oversight. The UN’s specialist on freedom of expression and access to information, David Kaye, has slammed the Espionage Act, calling it “antiquated, ill-suited to contemporary national security issues, a relic of the wartime hysteria of a century ago subject to government overreach and abuse.”

Cracking down on leaks – and potentially on whistleblowers as well – is unfortunately in fashion. The United Kingdom’s Law Commission recently recommended whistleblower protections be weakened  in the 1989 Official Secrets Act, potentially criminalizing the reporting of leaked information that could be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The UK government has since distanced itself from the report, and the Law Commission, suffering heavy criticism, reopened the consultation period.

The application of the Espionage Act in Manning’s case was unjust, but its impact was exacerbated by the lack of protection for transgender people in US prisons.

Today is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia, a good time to reflect on the maltreatment Manning suffered as a transgender woman in a military prison for men. Human Rights Watch has reported on abuses that transgender women face in US immigration detention and called on the US Congress to bar Immigration and Customs Enforcement from holding transgender women in men’s detention facilities. We should also not forget the other challenges she will face in accessing health care as a trans person.

Manning’s story should serve as a wakeup call for governments to reform whistleblower protections and fulfill their human rights obligations toward incarcerated transgender people.

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

Burma’s government should act to end the prosecution of peaceful critics in violation of their right to free speech.

When a group of high school and university students staged a play at a peace conference in Burma early this January, they never imagined that they would end up in prison.

The play, performed at a gathering of civil society organizations, satirically criticized those who supported the ongoing conflict between the Burmese military (the Tatmadaw) and ethnic armed groups. According to the lead organizer of the drama, “the message of our drama is that we don’t want wars.”

After a video of the performance was posted online, a lieutenant-colonel in the army filed a criminal complaint accusing the students of defaming the army and, on January 25, nine students were charged with criminal defamation. They now face up to three years in prison.

According to a police officer quoted in the media, the lieutenant-colonel lodged the complaint because the play, which included jokes about military wives having affairs while their husbands were away, “could disgrace and destroy the image of the Tatmadaw” and their families.

The charges against the students were filed under section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Act, a provision adopted by the then-military-controlled Parliament that criminalizes the use of a telecommunications device to “extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, unduly influence or intimidate” another person. Use of the provision has risen dramatically since the new government, dominated by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), took office, with at least 54 cases filed and eight people sentenced to prison in the past year. While section 66(d) is only one of three laws that criminalizes defamation in Burma, it is the only one for which bail can be denied pending trial.

In recent weeks, Myo Yan Naung Thein was sentenced to six months in prison for criticizing the military commander-in-chief, while Aung Myint Tun was sentenced to six months in prison for posting on social media an erroneous report that NLD Central Executive Committee member U Win Thein had resigned due to health reasons. While Myo Yan Naung Thein was one of the prisoners who received a presidential pardon on April 12 in honor of New Year, he had already been detained for more than five months at the time of his release.

The law is so vague and overbroad that seemingly any criticism of government officials or the military can lead to arrest, detention without bail, and prosecution. Concern over the breadth of the law is so great that a recent article in The Huffington Post on military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing carried a warning that sharing the article on social media in Burma would result in arrest and prosecution under section 66(d).

With this and other laws being used to suppress dissent, the sense of disillusionment among activists who supported the NLD during its years in the wilderness is palpable. To be clear, only some of these cases have been filed by NLD members or on the instructions of NLD officials. Many are being filed by the military or its allies, perhaps as a test of the NLD’s resolve and commitment to an open society. But the NLD has taken no visible steps to halt these attacks on freedom of expression.

The NLD’s 2015 election manifesto included a promise to “revoke legislation that harms the freedom and security that people should have by right.” Many of those who voted for the party hoped that, at a minimum, people would no longer be going to jail for expressing their opinions. To their disappointment, that has not been the case.

Poet Maung Saung Kha served six months in prison for posting a poem online. He was released in May 2016. 

Some are translating their disappointment into action. Maung Saung Kha, who served six months in prison after being convicted under section 66(d) for “defaming” former president Thein Sein in a poem, is spearheading a new civil society group campaigning for amendment or repeal of the law. On January 23, he and other activists, lawyers and journalists held a protest against the law in Yangon’s Maha Bandoola Park. Although U Soe Thein, director general of the communications department at the Ministry of Transportation, announced on April 11 that the ministry was discussing possible amendments to section 66(d), there is no indication that the ministry intends to end criminal prosecutions for peaceful speech and end the misuse of defamation and other military-era laws.

In opposition, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD would have agreed with this simple proposition: no one should go to jail for insulting or criticizing a public official. The question is what they believe now that they share power with the military.

Burma’s Parliament, which is dominated by the NLD, should move quickly to repeal all laws that criminalize peaceful expression, including the criminal defamation provisions in section 66(d), the Penal Code and the News Media Law. Pending repeal, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should instruct her party members not to file any cases under the kinds of laws that once imprisoned thousands, including more than 100 current NLD members of Parliament, and President Htin Kyaw should make it clear that if the military or others file such cases it will be a waste of time, as he will pardon all those charged.

Until the ruling party acts to put an end to the arrests, harassment, and imprisonment of those who speak critically of the government or the military, the hopes of those who have long supported them will remain unfulfilled.

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

PEN International, ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, International Press Institute and Reporters Without Borders call the attention of the UN Human Rights Council to the continuous deterioration of freedom of expression and other human rights in Turkey. Following the coup attempt on 15 July 2016, the Turkish authorities have pursued an unprecedented crackdown against perceived critics and opponents. As noted by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression following his November visit to the country, counter-terrorism legislation and the prolonged state of emergency are being used to severely restrict fundamental rights and freedoms, stifle criticism and limit the diversity of views and opinions available in the public sphere.[i]

Since the Special Rapporteur’s visit, independent mainstream media have been all but silenced. There are now over 160 media outlets and publishing houses closed down since July 2016 and around 165 journalists and media workers jailed pending trial.[ii] Over 100,000 civil servants have been summarily dismissed, with over 47,000 including army, police and teachers jailed pending trial on charges of involvement in the coup plot and of association with the alleged Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ). There has been a rise in allegations of torture or ill-treatment in police custody.[iii]

Turkey’s Kurdish population has also been disproportionally affected. The Turkish authorities frequently prosecute non-violent pro-Kurdish political activism or journalism for links with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, the leaders of the parliamentary opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and other MPs from the party, have been in jail since November 2016. At least 87 municipalities in the southeast have been taken over by the government and their democratically elected mayors and officials removed or jailed.[iv] Several Kurdish journalists are incarcerated and most pro-Kurdish media outlets closed.

On 11 November 2016, the activities of some 370 NGOs were arbitrarily suspended, over half of them Kurdish organisations. Among the thousands of academics dismissed are around 400 who signed a January 2016 peace petition calling for an end to army abuses[v] in the southeast.

Restrictions reached new heights in the lead up to Turkey’s contested constitutional referendum on 16 April 2017 which concentrated power in the office of the president.[vi] The campaign was marred by the authorities threatening, detaining and prosecuting individuals who voiced criticism of the proposed amendments.

Immediately after the referendum President Erdoğan raised the prospect of reintroducing the death penalty, which would be another disastrous step away from human rights norms for Turkey.

Journalists caught in Turkey’s crackdown

According to the Journalists’ Union of Turkey, an estimated 2,500 journalists and media workers have lost their jobs since July 2016. There are now at least 165 journalists, writers and media workers in prison, making Turkey the biggest jailer of journalists in the world.

Among these are several well-known writers and columnists, including Ahmet Şık, Şahin Alpay, Nazlı Ilıcak, Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, Ali Bulaç, Kadri Gürsel and the editor-in-chief of the opposition daily Cumhuriyet, Murat Sabuncu. Emergency provisions have been used to harass family members of journalists who have fled abroad or gone into hiding, including by cancelling their passports or detaining them in the stead of those accused.

Most detained journalists have been held in pre-trial detention for excessively long periods, facing terrorism charges with no access to the evidence against them and without compelling grounds to justify prolonging pre-trial detention. Indictments against journalists charge them with membership of armed organisations or involvement in the attempted coup without citing any other evidence beyond writings and commentary which neither advocate nor incite violence.

Detainees are only allowed one hour-long consultation with their lawyer a week and under supervision by prison staff, in violation of their right to confidential access to counsel.

As the Special Rapporteur pointed out in his recommendations, “nobody should be held in detention for expressing opinions that do not constitute an actual incitement to hatred or violence”. Moreover, imposing sanctions on individuals solely for criticising the government can never be considered a proportionate restriction on freedom of expression.

Lack of media freedom and pluralism

As stressed by the UN Human Rights Committee, “a free, uncensored and unhindered press or other media is essential in any society to ensure freedom of opinion and expression and the enjoyment of other Covenant rights. It constitutes one of the cornerstones of a democratic society.”[vii] States are under an obligation to create a favourable environment where different and alternative ideas can flourish, allowing people to express themselves and to participate in public debates without fear.[viii]

The 16 April constitutional referendum took place in a repressive climate. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) election observation mission noted the “unlevel playing field” and reported major concerns, including restrictions on freedom of expression under the state of emergency, lack of independent media, police interventions, detentions at “No” campaign events and biased use of state resources. [ix] Several opposition parties raised concerns about possible election fraud and irregularities and the European Commission called on the authorities to launch transparent investigations.

Our organisations are also alarmed at reports of attacks and arrests directed at voters following the referendum.[x]

Rule of law and independence of the judiciary at risk

Turkey’s judicial system has come under attack since the failed coup. More than 4,000 judges and prosecutors have been permanently dismissed and among them around 2,500 are in pre-trial detention. Turkey’s Constitutional Court has not ruled on the thousands of pending cases relating to dismissals under state of emergency decrees and the government has not yet established its planned ad hoc commission to review the measures.

There are grave concerns that the constitutional amendments passed by referendum will lead to greater political control over the judiciary and further undermine the rule of law in Turkey. One amendment with immediate effect is the president’s ability to exert control over most appointments to the Council of Judges and Prosecutors. The modifications will have a profound impact on Turkey’s Constitutional Court, severely curtailing its ability to serve as an effective check of executive and legislative power and a guarantor of fundamental rights and freedoms.

Politicised court decisions against journalists and, conversely, the removal of judges who have granted bail to journalists have played a central role in the deterioration of press freedom.

Recommendations

The Turkish authorities have repeatedly failed to respect their obligations under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

In the preliminary observations following his visit to Turkey, the Special Rapporteur urged the Turkish government to take immediate steps to protect freedom of expression, listing a number of concrete measures necessary to achieve this. These still stand.

We urge the UN Human Rights Council to press the Turkish authorities to:

Immediately release all those held in prison for exercising their rights to freedom of opinion and expression;

End the state of emergency;

End the prosecutions and detention of journalists simply on the basis of the content of their journalism or alleged affiliations;

Permit the reopening and independent operation of closed media outlets (including online publications) and halt executive interference with independent news organisations, including in relation to editorial decisions, dismissals of journalists and editors, pressure and intimidation against critical news outlets and journalists;

End the far-reaching crackdown on freedom of expression that has consistently escalated since the failed coup of July 2016;

Uphold the independence of the judiciary;

Investigate all allegations of torture and ill-treatment in detention;

Review the Anti-Terror Law so as to ensure that counter-terrorism measures are compatible with Article 19(3) of the ICCPR;

Reject any proposal to reintroduce the death penalty.

The Association of European Journalists, the European Federation of Journalists and Index on Censorship, NGOs without consultative status, also share the views expressed in this statement.

[i] Preliminary conclusions and observations by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression to his visit to Turkey, 14-18 November 2016: www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=20891&LangID=E....

[ii] PEN International, Turkey: List of journalists detained & charged before and after coup attempt, 11 May 2017: www.pen-international.org/newsitems/turkey-list-of-journalists-detained-....

[iii] Human Rights Watch, A Blank Check: Turkey’s Post Coup Suspension of Safeguards against Torture, 24 October 2016: www.hrw.org/report/2016/10/24/blank-check/turkeys-post-coup-suspension-s....

[iv] Human Rights Watch, Turkey: Crackdown on Kurdish Opposition: www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/20/turkey-crackdown-kurdish-opposition.

[v] See Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the human rights situation in South-East Turkey, 10 March 2017: www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/TR/OHCHR_South-East_TurkeyReport_10Mar....

[vi] Human Rights Watch, Questions and Answers: Turkey’s Constitutional Referendum, 4 April 2017: www.hrw.org/news/2017/04/04/questions-and-answers-turkeys-constitutional....  

[vii] UN Human Rights Committee, General comment No. 34, CCPR/C/GC/34, para.13 www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrc/docs/gc34.pdf.

[viii] Turkey - Opinion on the Measures provided in the recent Emergency Decree Laws with respect to Freedom of the Media, adopted by the Venice Commission at its 110th Plenary Session (Venice, 10-11 March 2017): www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/?pdf=CDL-AD(2017)007-e.

[ix] OSCE, International referendum observation mission Republic of Turkey – Constitutional Referendum, 16 April 2017: www.osce.org/odihr/elections/turkey/311721?download=true.

[x] PEN International condemns the attacks and arrests following the referendum in Turkey, 19 April 2017: www.pen-international.org/newsitems/pen-international-condemns-the-attac....

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A protestor holds a sign calling for the release of unjustly imprisoned youth activists, Baku, September 18, 2016. 

©2016 Azadliq Radiosu/ RFERL
 

Four years ago today, Azerbaijani authorities arrested Ilkin Rustamzade, a member of the pro-democracy NIDA youth group, blogger, and critic of the government’s abysmal human rights record. The anniversary of his arrest marks another grim milestone in relentless crackdown on critics in Azerbaijan.

The story of his arrest is as absurd as the charges authorities pressed against him. Police arrested him first on hooliganism charges for alleged involvement in a satirical Harlem Shake video, a minute-long comedy sketch filmed in a pedestrian area in central Baku that was posted to YouTube. But later, authorities charged him with inciting violence and organizing mass disorder, for a peaceful protest in March 2013. It had barely started when police violently broke it up. Eventually the authorities lost interest in the Harlem Shake video.

Before his arrest, Rustamzade, a 21-year-old university student, had been involved in peaceful protests, and served 15 days in administrative detention for participating in an unsanctioned peaceful rally.  

After an unfair trial, a court sentenced him to eight years in prison in May 2014, with seven other members of NIDA. While all the others have been released – after some had written humiliating letters of repentance to President Ilham Aliyev – Rustamzade remains in prison, refusing to repent for crimes he did not commit.

The Azerbaijani government has renewed its vicious crackdown on critics and independent groups. 

Prison authorities put Rustamzade in solitary confinement at least twice in 2014, in apparent retaliation for his letters from prison critical of the government and his statement at the appeal hearing, where he reported abuses against other inmates.  

Authorities continue to pressure Rustamzade. Less than two weeks ago, he told his lawyer, security officials visited him in his prison cell, and tried to convince him to become an informant for the State Security Service, if he ever wanted to be freed or get treatment for his failing health.

Rustamzade is one of dozens of political and youth activists who have been arrested on politically motivated criminal charges in Azerbaijan in recent years. Amnesty International has recognized Rustamzade as a prisoner of conscience.

Rustamzade’s been in prison for four years for crimes he didn’t commit. That’s exactly four years too long. He should be immediately freed and allowed to exercise his fundamental rights. 

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

Logos of Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki social networks are seen on the screen of a payment terminal in this picture illustration taken May 16, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

(Kyiv) – Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on May 15, 2017, signed a decree banning public access to Russian social media platforms, news outlets, and a major search engine widely used in Ukraine, Human Rights Watch said today. Poroshenko should immediately reverse the ban, which affects such internet platforms as VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, RBC, and Yandex, and take steps to protect freedom of expression and information in Ukraine.

“This is yet another example of the ease with which President Poroshenko unjustifiably tries to control public discourse in Ukraine,” said Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Poroshenko may try to justify this latest step, but it is a cynical, politically expedient attack on the right to information affecting millions of Ukrainians, and their personal and professional lives.”

Ukrainian internet service providers would be required to block access to internet companies that are on a government sanctions list. The decree includes an appendix with a widely expanded list of individuals and companies under sanction in Ukraine. Experts said it would be hard to enforce.

The decree imposes a ban on access to popular Russian social media networks, such as VK (formerly VKontakte) and Odnoklassniki, both owned by the Mail.Ru Group. Alisher Usmanov, an oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin, owns stakes in the Mail.Ru Group. As of April, 78 percent of all internet users in Ukraine, or around 20 million, had a VK account.

World Report 2017: Ukraine

World Report 2017: Ukraine

Civilians in both Ukrainian and Russia-backed separatists’ detention were subjected to serious abuses in 2016.

The decree also orders a block on public access to the Russian search engine Yandex and its various services, such as Yandex.Music, Yandex.Money, and dozens of others with .ua and .ru domains. As of March, 48 percent of internet users in Ukraine used Yandex daily.

Various software programs, such as the language processing software ABBYY and accounting software 1C, used by many Ukrainian companies, have also been banned. Other companies affected are the Russian media companies RBC, Ren-TV, TNT, NTV Plus, the 1 Channel, Zvezda, Moscow 24, a Russian state news agency Rossiya Segodnya, and internet security companies Kaspersky Lab and DrWeb. Russian banks, airlines, oil companies, defense industry companies, and Crimean businesses are also affected.

The presidential decree, which enacts a decision by the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, was published on May 16, 2017. It is one in a series of measures imposing economic sanctions on individuals and legal entities with ties to the Russian government. Such sanctions include freezing of assets in Ukraine and other economic and financial restrictions; for individuals, it also means a ban on people on the sanctions list entering the country.

This is yet another example of the ease with which President Poroshenko unjustifiably tries to control public discourse in Ukraine.

Tanya Cooper

Ukraine Researcher

The decree expands the list of those under sanction in Ukraine to 1,228 individuals and 468 legal entities in Russia, Russia-occupied Crimea, areas in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions controlled by Russia-backed separatists, and other countries. The duration of sanctions varies from one to three years.

The decree assigns monitoring the sanctions to Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers, the National Security Service, and the National Bank of Ukraine.

Oksana Romaniuk, executive director of Kyiv-based Institute of Mass Information, told Human Rights Watch that the government had not provided a valid justification for why such a broad ban on online companies was necessary. She also insisted that the decree would be hard to enforce without changing the law. Currently, only a court can order internet service providers to take action against a website. The head of Ukraine’s internet association, Oleksandr Fedienko, said in a media interview that Ukrainian internet service providers don’t have the technical ability to block Russian social media and news websites. He also said the ban would be ineffective due to a variety of ways to circumvent online censorship.

Ukraine is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which guarantee freedom of expression, including access to information. Only restrictions that are necessary and proportionate for a legitimate purpose may be imposed, and the ban set out in the decree does not pass that test.

In the past two years, Poroshenko has signed similar decrees introducing sanctions. In June 2016, a presidential decree banned 17 Russian journalists, editors, and media executives from traveling to Ukraine. In September 2015, the government banned several hundred Russian individuals and legal entities from entering Ukraine for a year. Among them were 41 journalists and bloggers from several countries, including Russia, Israel, the United Kingdom, and Germany. In May 2016, Poroshenko removed 29 people from the list of those sanctioned.

“In a single move Poroshenko dealt a terrible blow to freedom of expression in Ukraine,” Cooper said. “It’s an inexcusable violation of Ukrainians’ right to information of their choice, and the European Union and Ukraine’s other international partners should immediately call on Ukraine to reverse it.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Fayzinisso Vohidova. 

© TajInfo

(Bishkek) – Tajik border guards on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border on May 14, 2017, prevented a prominent human rights lawyer from leaving the country, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said today. Tajik authorities should immediately rescind the ban on Fayzinisso Vohidova and immediately and unconditionally release three other human rights lawyers imprisoned or detained on politically motivated charges.

Border guards with the State Committee on State Security at the Auchi-Kalyacha border post stopped Vohidova as she sought to travel to Kyrgyzstan. They detained her for eight hours, stating there was a “defect” in her passport and that she “had no right to leave Tajikistan.” In the weeks preceding her stop, Tajik security services interrogated Vohidova several times. She had made critical remarks about the government’s imprisonment of Buzurgmehr Yorov, a human rights lawyer who was sentenced to 25 years following a prosecution and trial that appeared politically motivated.

“Tajik authorities are blatantly violating Vohidova’s right to freedom of movement,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This appears to be part of a pattern to keep critical voices, including Tajikistan’s independent lawyers, from spreading information about the ongoing and severe political crackdown in the country.”

Vohidova, a Khujand-based lawyer known for her human rights and criminal defense work, has long been the target of government harassment and intimidation for taking on politically sensitive cases. When she was stopped at the border, the guards initially asserted that there was a problem with the stamp on her passport before conceding that Vohidova had been put on a list of people banned from leaving the country. There is no avenue for citizens to appeal a travel ban.

Arbitrary bans on travel, including to leave one’s own country, violate article 12(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees everyone the right to leave any country. Tajikistan became a party to the ICCPR in 1999.

In April, Vohidova made a public appeal to President Emomali Rahmon on Facebook, criticizing the government’s imprisonment of Yorov and of Nuriddin Makhkamov, another independent lawyer. The two were first arrested in September 2015, days after saying they would provide legal representation to members of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).

Yorov and Makhkamov were sentenced in October 2016 to 23 and 21 years, respectively, on politically motivated charges of inciting social unrest and issuing public calls for the overthrow of the government. Prosecutors later successfully added two years to Yorov’s sentence, charging him with insulting a government official, for citing a stanza of the 11th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam during his own trial. An approximate translation, available on RFE/RL, reads:

With these ignorant few who foolishly

Consider themselves the intelligent ones of the world

Should be donkeys, because they are so deep in donkeyness

That they call "blasphemous" whomever is not a donkey

Tajikistan’s Prosecutor General’s office brought new charges against Yorov in March 2017 for “insulting the president.” The charges refer to an interview Yorov gave to an independent news website Payom.net, in which he stated that the laws under which he worked as an attorney were signed by Rahmon. Therefore, the president would be the appropriate party to whom any accusations of corruption should be made. Yorov faces up to five additional years if convicted on these charges. He had no legal representation during most of the trial on the new charges.

Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee have repeatedly labeled Yorov and Makhkamov’s prison terms arbitrary and said that Tajik authorities should immediately and unconditionally release them. A third lawyer, Shukhrat Kudratov, has been in prison since January 2015 after he acted as the legal representative of an imprisoned opposition figure, Zayd Saidov. Authorities had publicly announced that Kudratov would be released in an amnesty in late 2016, but he remains behind bars.

Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee believe there is a pattern of Tajik security services placing travel bans on perceived government critics and the relatives of dissidents abroad, including by confiscating their passports. On March 8, 2017, border guards in the Kulob airport removed Hafizamo Gadoeva, sister of an exiled opposition figure, Sharofiddin Gadoev, from her Moscow-bound flight. Authorities told her that she and her children had been banned from leaving the country because of her brother’s opposition activity.

On December 29 and 30, 2016, Tajik security services in Kulob, Dushanbe, and the Vakhsh district of the southern Khatlon region detained relatives, including children, of at least two dissidents living outside of Tajikistan, confiscating passports and accusing the dissidents of being “extremists.”

“Tajik authorities have jailed dissidents and lawyers in the past two years and are now turning the country’s own borders into de facto prison walls,” said Marius Fossum, Central Asia representative for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “The total lack of checks on the power of the State Committee for National Security leaves citizens without recourse.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Amin Yeleusinov.

© 2017 Sania Toiken (RFE/RL)

(Berlin) – A Kazakh court on May 16, 2017, sentenced a trade union leader to two years in prison on politically motivated embezzlement charges, Human Rights Watch said today. In addition, the trade unionist, Amin Yeleusinov, 55, is banned from engaging in any trade union activities for five years, will have any “illegally obtained property” confiscated, and must pay US$26,300 in damages. Yeleusinov’s conviction is the latest development in an ongoing crackdown on independent labor movement in Kazakhstan, Human Rights Watch said.

The targeting of Yeleusinov for prosecution appears to be motivated by the government’s discontent over protests in western Kazakhstan in January. Oil Construction Company workers staged a hunger strike against the closure of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, after which Yeleusinov and his colleague, Nurbek Kushakbaev, were arrested.

“Yeleusinov is the second trade union leader to be imprisoned in Kazakhstan in the last two months,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kazakh officials should know that imprisoning trade union leaders in retaliation for legitimate trade union activities is a serious violation of the right to freedom of association.”

Yeleusinov, chairman of the Oil Construction Company trade union, was convicted on criminal charges of “large-scale embezzlement,” “publicly insulting a state official,” “disobeying a state official,” and “committing a violent act against a state official.” The charges carry a maximum prison sentence of seven years.

On May 16, an Astana court approved an agreement between the prosecutor and Yeleusinov, in which Yeleusinov was given a lesser sentence of two years if he admitted guilt.

Tolegen Shaiqov, a defense lawyer for Yeleusinov, told Human Rights Watch that Yeleusinov only agreed to a deal after he learned that Kushakbaev had been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. Yeleusinov suffers from rheumatic heart disease and was worried his poor health would not last a seven-year jail term, his lawyer said.

Shaiqov said that Yeleusinov did not get a fair trial. Among other concerns, during the investigation and trial, both an investigator and the judge denied defense motions to gain access to exculpatory financial documents that had been confiscated during the investigation.

Another trade union leader, the president of the now-shuttered Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, Larisa Kharkova, is also under investigation on alleged embezzlement charges. Kharkova remains under close police surveillance and her freedom of movement is restricted, a union colleague told Human Rights Watch.

International bodies, including the International Trade Union Confederation and the former United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of association and assembly, Maina Kiai have expressed serious concerns about harassment of trade union leaders and the closure of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan in recent months.

“Yeleusinov and Kushakbaev are paying a hefty price with their freedom for defending the rights of workers in Kazakhstan,” Rittmann said. “The Kazakh government should end this crackdown on the independent trade union movement and let workers organize freely.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Ramazan Yesergepov.

© 2016 Kazis Toguzbaev (RFE/RL)

(Berlin) – A prominent Kazakh journalist and activist was violently attacked in the early morning hours of May 14, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The Kazakh authorities should ensure that the attack is investigated promptly, thoroughly, and impartially and that the attackers are identified and brought to justice.

Ramazan Yesergepov, chairman of the board of Journalists in Danger, a Kazakh media freedom group that provides legal advice and representation and training for journalists, was stabbed in the abdomen by two unidentified men during a train journey from Almaty to Astana. He was scheduled to meet in Astana with foreign diplomats about activists and journalists imprisoned in Kazakhstan and about the government’s failure to comply with United Nations Human Rights Committee decisions, including in his own case. Yesergepov was hospitalized following the attack and underwent surgery.

“This violent, targeted attack on a prominent journalist-activist and long-standing government critic raises serious concerns,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Kazakhstan authorities should ensure that there is a thorough investigation of this vicious attack and that those responsible are identified and brought to justice.”

Yesergepov, 61, had stepped out of his compartment for some air when two unidentified assailants stabbed him in the abdomen with a sharp object. Yesergepov told Human Rights Watch that the men identified him as that “Magnitsky” guy. The reference appears to relate to Yesergepov’s public call for Kazakh officials to impose visa and financial sanctions on anyone allegedly involved in torturing and killing whistleblowers. A similar United States sanctions law relates to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer, in a Russian prison.

Yesergepov said he was taken to the hospital at the next stop, in Shu, a town in southern Kazakhstan, where he underwent surgery. The police have opened a criminal case for attempted murder.

Rozlana Taukina, director of Journalists in Danger, told Human Rights Watch she believes the attack was politically motivated because of Yesergepov’s harsh criticism of government, in particular of the authorities’ refusal to implement the UN Human Rights Committee March 2016 decision regarding violations of Yesergepov’s right to a fair trial and unlawful detention. The committee monitors provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and can consider individual complaints.

Yesergepov has repeatedly appealed to government and judicial bodies to carry out the decision, but the authorities have not taken any action on his case, he said. On Friday, May 12, Yesergepov filed a lawsuit against the head of the presidential administration, the chairman of the Supreme Court, the prosecutor general, and the ministers of foreign affairs and finance over the failure to enforce the decision, he said.

Yesergepov is the former editor of the independent newspaper Alma-Ata Info. After his newspaper published an article alleging corruption against local officials based on classified documents, he was sentenced to three years in prison in August 2009, on charges of disclosing state secrets. He was also banned from engaging in journalistic activities for two years. Yesergepov’s trial was not open to the public, and he was denied a lawyer of his choice. He was released on January 6, 2012, after he completed his sentence.

The authorities should ensure that the investigation into the attack on Yesergepov examines the possibility that he was attacked in retaliation for his outspoken criticism of government and his media freedom activism, Human Rights Watch said.

The environment for free speech and media freedom in Kazakhstan is highly restrictive. It is marked by harassment and attacks on independent journalists, closure of independent and opposition media outlets, prohibitive penalties for civil defamation, and criminal penalties for libel.

This is not the only time a critical journalist has been the target of a violent attack in Kazakhstan in recent years. In August 2013, Igor Larra, a journalist with the independent newspaper Svoboda Slova, was badly beaten by four assailants in his hometown, Aktobe. In April 2012, two unidentified men stabbed Lukpan Akhmedyarov, a journalist with the independent newspaper Uralskaya Nedelya in Uralsk, eight times and shot him with a non-lethal weapon.

“This violent attack on Yesergepov is a pressing reminder of the highly restrictive space for freedom of expression in Kazakhstan,” Rittmann said. “The Kazakh government should take immediate and urgent steps to lift restrictions on independent journalists and media outlets so they can carry out their work without fear of violent repercussions.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Protesters supporting Edward Snowden confront policemen as they demand that US President Barack Obama grant Snowden a pardon, outside the US Consulate in Hong Kong, China, on September 25, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

(New York) – Seven people who sheltered the whistleblower Edward Snowden in June 2013 are at risk of return to torture and persecution at home, Human Rights Watch said today. On May 11, 2017, the Hong Kong Immigration Department rejected their asylum claim; their lawyers are in the process of appealing the decision and pursuing a separate case for entry and asylum in Canada, where sponsors are ready to assist them.

“Those who helped Edward Snowden in Hong Kong when he was seeking asylum now find themselves at dire risk if sent back to their countries,” said Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Canada has the opportunity to a prevent a terrible outcome and should act immediately.”

The asylum-seekers include two men and a woman from Sri Lanka, and a woman from the Philippines, along with their three children who were born in Hong Kong and are stateless. The adults allege that they suffered torture and persecution in their home countries, and have been pursued by powerful people or officials who have tracked or threatened them.

Their asylum lawyer, Robert Tibbo, brought Snowden, another client, to their homes in 2013 after he revealed he had disclosed classified information to the press. The families each freely allowed Snowden to stay with them for a short time after his disclosures became public but before his arrest was sought.

Neither the asylum-seekers nor their lawyer revealed their role in Snowden’s journey. However, journalists independently discovered their identities shortly before the release of an Oliver Stone movie about Snowden that shows him being hidden among asylum-seekers in Hong Kong. At that point, the asylum-seekers went public in an effort to have some control over how they were portrayed in the media.

Stories and photographs of the asylum-seekers have been published worldwide, including in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, where they fear persecution. In October 2016, Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department officers were in Hong Kong trying to locate the asylum-seekers, showing their photographs to people there. The asylum-seekers have since moved location in Hong Kong but are living in considerable fear of being forcibly returned to their countries. 

“This could end very badly for these people, who have identified persecutors searching for them,” said PoKempner, who noted that Hong Kong for many years has had a shockingly poor record on recognition of asylum claims. “It is all the more urgent for Canada to intervene swiftly and protect them.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am