Loan Torondel, 21, worked with L’Auberge des Migrants in Calais for two years, helping to provide legal information and support and humanitarian assistance to migrants and asylum seekers in northern France.

© 2018 Loan Torondel
(Paris) – An appeals court’s confirmation of the defamation conviction of an aid worker on June 24, 2019 for an ironic tweet sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today. The case was a serious escalation in harassment and intimidation of aid workers in France

The Court of Appeal in Douai, northern France, found Loan Torondel, the aid worker, guilty of defamation for a tweet he published in early January 2018 and sentenced him to pay a 1,500 euro fine (about US$1,700), which it suspended, and ordered him to pay damages and court costs. It was the first defamation case against an aid worker in France for criticizing the French government’s actions against migrants. Torondel told Human Rights Watch that he would appeal to the Court of Cassation, France’s court of last resort.

“This decision against Loan Torondel is a worrying precedent and a blow to freedom of expression,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. “It resonates as a pernicious intimidation against staff or volunteers for organizations that speak out against police abuses against migrants.”

In January 2018, while working for the Auberge des Migrants, which provides crucial assistance to migrants and asylum seekers in Calais, Torondel published a tweet criticizing abusive police practices toward migrants. This tweet, with a photo showing two police officers standing over a young man seated in a field, imagined that the young man was protesting against the confiscation of his sleeping bag in the middle of winter and that the officer replied: “Maybe, but we are the French nation, sir,” an allusion to a speech President Emmanuel Macron gave in late December 2017.

Torondel was prosecuted following a complaint by one of the police officers and was sentenced by the first instance by a court in Boulogne-sur-Mer on September 25.

Torondel worked with Human Rights Watch earlier in 2019, and the organization is about to resume the collaboration to research police practices during identity checks in France.

A volunteer operating in Calais, Tom Ciotkowski, was also prosecuted, for “insult and violence” after filming French police officers who were impeding a food distribution to migrants and asylum seekers by volunteers in Calais. But he was acquitted on June 20 by the Boulogne-sur-Mer court. 

Torondel's conviction and Ciotkowski’s prosecution expand on what aid workers have regularly described as harassment by the French police to hinder or prevent aid workers and volunteers supporting migrants and asylum seekers from carrying out their work in Calais.

The aid workers have reported repeated fines for minor infractions and parking violations, excessive use of identity checks, and temporary confiscations of mobile phones to look through or delete their content. In some cases, aid workers have reported being improperly sprayed with tear gas or pushed or insulted by police officers. 

Human Rights Watch, the French Defender of Rights, UN observers, and four associations in Calais reported abusive practices by the police in Calais, both against migrants and asylum seekers and against aid workers. Amnesty International recently published a detailed report on the criminalization and harassment of people defending refugee and migrant rights in northern France. 

Criminal defamation laws are a disproportionate and unnecessary restriction on free speech and create a “chilling effect” that effectively restricts legitimate as well as harmful speech. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression and the representative on freedom of the media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), together with the Organization of American States’ special rapporteur for freedom of expression, have called for the abolition of such laws.

The UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression has said that countries should take particular care to ensure that defamation laws – civil or criminal – “should never be used to prevent criticism of government” and “should reflect the principle that public figures are required to tolerate a greater degree of criticism than private citizens.”

“Obstructing assistance to migrants and bringing legal proceedings that criminalize the denunciation of abuses is a shameful tactic to deter solidarity,” Jeannerod said. “France should not go down this dangerous path, which reduces the working space of both aid workers and government critics.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

The Parliament of Armenia adopted the bill granting the authorities broad surveillance powers to track coronavirus cases.

© 2020 National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia

(Berlin) – Armenia’s parliament on March 31, 2020 passed amendments giving the authorities very broad surveillance powers to use cellphone data for tracking coronavirus cases, Human Rights Watch said today. The amendments impose restrictions on the right to privacy and allow the authorities access to confidential medical information related to people exposed to the virus.

As of April 2, Armenia had 663 identified cases of COVID-19. The government declared a state of emergency from March 16 to April 14, imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 24, and took other measures to contain the spread of the virus.

“The Armenian government is facing a public health emergency, and technology has an important role to play in communicating public health messages and promoting access to health care,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But at the same time, the authorities need to address the ways that using mass surveillance undermines rights.”

Parliament adopted the law on March 31 after voting it down earlier that day.

The law requires telecommunications companies to provide the authorities with phone records for all of their customers, including phone numbers and the location, time, and date of their calls and text messages. The authorities would use that data to identify, isolate or put in self-isolation, and monitor anyone infected with COVID-19 or those who had been in close contact with infected people. The authorities would obtain information by obliging health care providers to report data to the authorities on “people tested, infected, persons having disease symptoms, persons treated in hospitals or persons who had contacts with the patient”

The government says that the law would allow the authorities to collect only phone records, and that they will not have access to the content of customers’ private communications. But such information can contain sensitive and revealing insights about an individual’s identity, location, behavior, associations, and activities, Human Rights Watch said.

While restrictions on the right to privacy to contain the pandemic may be permissible, the government must ensure that such restrictions are lawful, necessary, and proportionate.

The law requires the destruction of call records and other obtained data after the state of emergency ends. However, the government should also consider imposing strict limits on the collection of phone records, the purposes for which they are used or aggregated, and the agencies or officials that may access such information. People should also be made aware when their data has been collected.

The government should also establish stringent security protocols that minimize the risk of data breaches and protect people’s digital safety, Human Rights Watch said.

If the state of emergency persists over a prolonged period, the government should regularly review whether phone records that are no longer relevant should be destroyed. Activists criticized the bill for not being necessary and effective to prevent the virus’s spread.

Armenia’s Ombudsperson has also expressed concerns that the law lacks adequate human rights guarantees

The Parliament of Armenia debates a bill that would allow for interference with privacy rights. 

© 2020 National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia

Armenia’s constitution protects the right to privacy of telecommunications and medical information. International law, including the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, also protect against arbitrary or unlawful interference in “privacy, family, home or correspondence.” Armenia is a party to both, but deposited derogations, or exceptions, on March 20, after it declared the state of emergency.

“Armenia’s authorities have been respecting COVID-19 patients’ privacy rights thus far,” Gogia said. “But, so they do not undermine the trust that is needed for an effective public health response, they should explain how they will continue to do so and ensure that these digital surveillance measures are strictly in line with long-established human rights safeguards.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Myanmar press freedom and youth activists demonstrate for the release of two jailed Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, in Yangon, Myanmar, September 16, 2018. 

©2018 Reuters/Ann Wang
(Bangkok) – Myanmar authorities should immediately drop all charges against an editor for broadcasting an interview with an armed group representative, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 30, police arrested and charged Nay Myo Lin, the editor-in-chief of the Mandalay-based Voice of Myanmar, under Myanmar’s overly broad Counter-Terrorism Law for an interview with the Arakan Army spokesperson.

In recent weeks, the Myanmar government has expanded its crackdown on journalists, including several editors. The actions have severely undermined press freedom and access to information in the country.

“The Myanmar authorities’ assault on media freedom by arresting journalists who are simply doing their job harms everyone’s access to information,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor. “Nay Myo Lin was unjustly charged and should immediately be released.”

On March 23, the Myanmar government designated the insurgent Arakan Army as a terrorist organization under the Counter-Terrorism Law and as an “unlawful association” under section 15(2) of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act. On March 27, Nay Myo Lin interviewed the Arakan Army spokesperson Khaing Thu Kha and broadcast the interview under the title “Peace Process has stopped.”

The Mandalay Special Branch police filed a criminal complaint against Nay Myo Lin under sections 50(a) and 52(a) of the Counter-Terrorism Law. Section 50(a) of the law authorizes a minimum sentence of ten years and a maximum of life imprisonment for, among other actions, “causing fear among the public” or “damaging the security of the public.” Section 52(a) authorizes a sentence of three to seven years in prison for activities that “knowingly involve a terrorist group.”

Nay Myo Lin’s arrest reflects the government’s deepening crackdown on independent media. On March 31, police raided the home of the editor-in chief of the Yangon-based Khit Thit News media outlet. Police also raided the office of the Sittwe-based Narinjara news outlet, arresting three journalists – Thein Zaw, Aung Lin Htun, and Htun Khaing – and releasing them later that evening. The Democratic Voice of Burma reported that the editor-in-chief of Narinjara, Khaing Mrat Kyaw, has been charged under the Counter-Terrorism Law but has not been arrested.

“The baseless charges against Nay Myo Lin and Khaing Mrat Kyaw make clear that every journalist trying to cover Myanmar’s many conflicts is at risk,” Lakhdhir said. “So too are the humanitarian workers trying to bring aid to civilians at risk and human rights advocates monitoring abuse in conflict areas.”

While international human rights law allows governments to place restrictions on the media for national security reasons, these restrictions must be strictly necessary for a legitimate purpose and not be overbroad. They may not be used to suppress or withhold information of legitimate public interest not harmful to national security, or to prosecute journalists for reporting such information. For the government to fulfill this responsibility, journalists should be able to speak to and meet with a variety of people without fear of arrest or harassment – including those who are in conflict with the government or military.

The Myanmar government has repeatedly used draconian laws against journalists for reporting on military abuses or ethnic armed groups. In 2018, two Reuters journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act after uncovering a massacre of Rohingya Muslims. They were released on a presidential pardon after spending more than a year in jail. Aung Marm Oo, the editor-in-chief of the news agency Development Media Group (DMG), which has reported on the conflict in Rakhine State, is currently facing a complaint under the Unlawful Associations Act, which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Access to information is rapidly diminishing under Myanmar’s current government. On March 23, the Ministry of Transport and Communications instructed four mobile operators to block access to 221 websites deemed to be spreading “fake news” or containing explicit content, according to the media.

Narinjara and Development Media Group said that since March 24, they have been blocked by all four mobile operators, which include Norway’s Telenor, Qatari-owned Ooredoo, military-affiliated MyTel and the state-owned MPT. Telenor is the only telecommunications provider to have issued a statement about the government directive.

The current editor-in-chief of DMG, Phadu Tun Aung, told local media that by blocking the only two ethnic-Rakhine media outlets, the government had effectively silenced ethnic Rakhine voices. “By blocking our websites, [the government is] restricting the people’s right to information,” he said. Other registered media outlets in Shan and Karen States and Mandalay region also reported that they were blocked.

Any government restrictions on websites should clearly explain why the content is being taken down and should focus on specific content rather than whole domains.

The government should also lift the continued internet shutdowns in nine townships in Rakhine and Chin States, which threaten the safety of civilians as fighting between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar armed forces continues. The blanket shutdown violates international human rights law, which requires internet-based restrictions to be necessary and proportionate.

Internet service providers should fully resist unjustified internet shutdowns or takedowns, including by seeking a legal basis for any shutdown order and interpreting requests to cause the least intrusive restrictions. They should carry out their responsibilities under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and avoid complicity in human rights abuses especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Myanmar government has increasingly acted to restrict access to information it does not like and punish those who bring it to light,” Lakhdhir said. “Counter-terrorism laws should never be used against journalists for their reporting. Under these circumstances the future for press freedom in Myanmar is bleak.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures during a speech on the current state of the coronavirus in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Heng Sinith
(New York) – The Cambodian government should withdraw its draft state of emergency law, which would empower Prime Minister Hun Sen to override fundamental human rights protections, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 31, 2020, the Council of Ministers approved the “Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency,” which would allow the government to restrict all civil and political liberties and target human rights, democracy, and media groups. The one-party National Assembly is expected to vote on the bill later this week or early next week. 

Hun Sen has claimed that the law is necessary to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government should submit a new draft that addresses the COVID-19 public health crisis while protecting basic rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and privacy, Human Rights Watch said.

“Even before the coronavirus, Hun Sen ran roughshod over human rights, so these sweeping, undefined, and unchecked powers should set off alarm bells among Cambodia’s friends and donors,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Instead of passing laws to protect public health, the Cambodian government is using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to assert absolute power over all aspects of civil, political, social, and economic life – all without any time limits or checks on abuses of power.”

The bill contains many overly broad and vague provisions that would violate fundamental rights without specifying why these measures are necessary and proportionate to address the public health emergency.

Under article 5, the government would have:

  • Unlimited surveillance of telecommunications: “Putting in place measures to surveil and keep track of all means [of communication] for the receipt of information via telecommunication contact systems in every form” (art. 5(10));
  • Control of media and social media: “Prohibiting or restricting the distribution or broadcast of information that could generate public alarm or fear or generate unrest, or that could bring about damage to national security, or that could bring into being confusion regarding the state of emergency” (art. 5(10) and (11));
  • Catch-all unfettered powers: “Putting in place other measures that are deemed appropriate for and necessary to responding to the state of emergency” (art. 5(12)).

Article 5 would also give the government complete authority to restrict freedom of movement and assembly.

Articles 1 and 4 of the bill would allow the law to be used even after the COVID-19 crisis ends. It says that a state of emergency can be declared when, “The people of the nation face danger” and “in order to defend national security, public order, the lives and health of citizens as well as property and the environment,” and “particularly” in cases of “an urgent public health crisis arising from the wide-spreading of contagious disease” and of “grave disruption of national security and public order” (arts. 1 and 4). Just as problematic, article 3 makes it clear that a state of emergency could be declared “for a limited or unlimited period of time,” without specifying the basis for making decisions about the length (art. 3).

The bill also would create a permanent opportunity for the government to declare martial law. Article 5(2) states that, “At times of war, or in other circumstances in which national security is confronted with grave danger, the country can be governed while under a state of emergency via a martial law regime” [emphasis added].  

Notably, the bill fails to provide any oversight for the use of these sweeping executive powers. On April 1, a Council of Ministers statement said that a state of emergency would not be declared for longer than three months – but added that the government would have discretion to extend it.

“The emergency law will allow Hun Sen, at long last, to run the country by fiat,” Adams said. “It will make his dictatorial rule legal and official.”

Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern that the law could be easily misused against critics of the government and nongovernmental organizations. The bill includes disproportionate fines and prison sentences for vague criminal offenses. For instance, article 7 creates the “crime of obstructing operations during a state of emergency,” punishable by one to five years in prison or five to ten years if the obstruction “leads to public unrest or adversely affects national security.” Article 8 would create the “crime of not respecting measures” required by the government, with punishments of up to one year in prison, or five to ten years if it “leads to public unrest.” These provisions could easily be used against critics of the government’s handling of the current COVID-19 crisis – or any other situation in which a state of emergency is declared.

Article 9 creates a serious risk for civil society organizations by stating that, “Legal entities can be deemed criminally responsible” for violations of the law. The Cambodian government has long targeted independent media as well as organizations that promote human rights and democracy. Fines up to US$250,000 would bankrupt most Cambodian organizations.

The draft law comes amid a longstanding crackdown by the Cambodian government on civil society, the media, critics, and the opposition. Independent newspapers and radio outlets have been shut or sold to owners with ties to the government. Social media networks face surveillance and intervention by the government, reinforced by the government’s adoption of the 2018 decree called, “Publication Controls of Website and Social Media Processing via Internet,” which allows for interference with online media and government censorship.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cambodia is a state party, allows countries to adopt exceptional and temporary restrictions on certain rights that would not otherwise be permitted “in times of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.” But the measures must be only those “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”

The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, clarified that states parties are required to “provide careful justification not only for their decision to proclaim a state of emergency but also for any specific measures based on such a proclamation.” The committee stressed that such measures “are of an exceptional and temporary nature and may only last as long as the life of the nation concerned is threatened.”

On March 16, a group of United Nations human rights experts declared that “Emergency declarations based on the COVID-19 outbreak … should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health [...] and should not be used simply to quash dissent.”

“From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hun Sen has denied or downplayed the risks posed to Cambodia by the coronavirus in Cambodia, but evidently he’s more than willing to join the bandwagon of autocratic leaders using the crisis to justify giving themselves vastly expanded powers,” Adams said. “The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should remind Hun Sen that if he wants to suspend certain rights, he has to notify the UN Human Rights Committee. But pandemic or not, many rights cannot be suspended, and Cambodia will remain bound by its international legal commitments.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Police members wear protective equipment as they patrol the streets during the nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the Coronavirus outbreak, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 2, 2020. 

© 2020 Photo by Zabed Hasnain Chowdhury/Sipa USA via AP Images

(New York) – The Bangladesh government appears to be cracking down on free speech as COVID-19 hits the country, silencing those who express concern over the government’s handling of the epidemic, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should stop targeting academics and arresting people for speaking out about the coronavirus epidemic, and ensure that accurate and timely information about the virus is accessible and available to all

.

Since mid-March 2020, the authorities have apparently arrested at least a dozen people, including a doctor, opposition activists, and students, for their comments about coronavirus, most of them under the draconian Digital Security Act. The Information Ministry announced that it has formed a unit to monitor social media and various television outlets for “rumors” about COVID-19 cases.

“While the government has a responsibility to prevent the spread of misinformation about COVID-19, this doesn’t mean silencing those with genuine concerns or criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop abusing free speech and start building trust by ensuring that people are properly informed about plans for prevention, containment, and cure as it battles the virus.”

On March 25, the government issued a circular assigning 15 officials to monitor each television channel for “rumors” and “propaganda” regarding Covid-19. The next day, the order was withdrawn, with Md Mizan Ul Alam, additional secretary of the Information Ministry, explaining that the circular was being expanded: “In fact, the officials will not only monitor the private television channels, but also all other media, including the social media.”

Even academic work is risky. Two government college teachers were allegedly suspended for posting on social media about the virus. One researcher is reportedly under investigation for publishing a paper projecting the impact of COVID-19 based on epidemiological modeling first presented in an Imperial College report that helped to spur governments to enact policies to contain the spread of COVID-19. The Bangladesh paper predicted that by May 28, over 89 million people in Bangladesh could get symptomatic infections and 507,442 could die. Netra News, the agency that broke the news about the report and investigation into its author, has been blocked in Bangladesh since December 29, 2019.

Meanwhile, a leaked interagency United Nations memo on Bangladesh’s Country Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19 estimates that up to two million people could die from the disease in Bangladesh if immediate steps are not taken to contain the spread of the virus.

On March 25, 2020, the Education Ministry put two government college teachers on temporary suspension for posting “provocative” statements and pictures on Facebook “inconsistent with the government’s ongoing integrated activities [to control the coronavirus pandemic].” The government order says the teachers are being suspended for misconduct under the Government Servants (Discipline and Appeal) Rules, 2018 for engaging in activities “against government management, indiscipline and against public interest.”

A number of people have been detained for social media posts. On March 24, the police reportedly arrested two men, Shahidul Islam Russel and Abdul Ahad, and filed a case against a third in Feni all under the Digital Security Act, apparently for spreading rumors on Facebook that a police officer had contracted COVID-19. On March 22, the Detective Branch reportedly arrested two students, Sohel Sheikh Hridoy and Anam Sheikh, in Pirojpur for “spreading rumors” about the Coronavirus on Facebook. On March 19, the Rapid Action Battalion reportedly arrested Meraz al-Sadi in Khulna for “spreading rumors through Facebook posts containing offensive propaganda and various quotes on coronavirus.”

On March 20, police reportedly arrested Saddam Hossain Ovi in Manikganj, under the Digital Security Act, for “spreading rumors” of COVID-19 infections in Manikganj. “It is a rumor – there is no coronavirus-affected patient in the district,” the additional superintendent of police in Manikganj said.

Members of the political opposition are also being targeted. On March 21, the police reportedly arrested Dr. Iftekhar Adnan for “spreading rumors,” after a 35-second audio clip went viral in which Adnan warns his friend over the phone that the death toll from coronavirus in Chattogram is rising and alleges that the government is withholding information. Notably, the police said Adnan is a supporter of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Adnan was apparently arrested under the Digital Security Act, a law that has been repeatedly criticized for being prone to abuse.

On March 22, the police reportedly arrested another BNP supporter, Sumon Sawdagar, in Jamalpur, after he criticized government officials on Facebook for their “irresponsible” remarks about COVID-19. A local ruling Awami League leader allegedly filed the case under the Digital Security Act.

Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds, regardless of frontiers. Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health may not put the right itself in jeopardy.

Governments are responsible for providing information necessary to protect and promote rights, including the right to health. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights regards as a “core obligation” providing “education and access to information concerning the main health problems in the community, including methods of preventing and controlling them.” A rights-respecting response to COVID-19 needs to ensure that accurate and up-to-date information about the virus, access to services, service disruptions, and other aspects of the response to the outbreak is readily available and accessible to all.

“Instead of combing Facebook and television and arresting people for posting about COVID-19, Bangladesh authorities should focus energy on actually stopping the spread of the virus,” Adams said. “This includes upholding academic freedom and the right to free speech, and ensuring that everyone has access to accurate information about the spread and impact of the virus.”

 
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A man on his mobile phone in Srinagar, Kashmir, January 30, 2020. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Dar Yasin

UPDATE: Ethiopia announced that it would restore phone and internet service to western Oromia after a three-month shutdown.

(New York) – Intentionally shutting down or restricting access to the internet violates multiple rights and can be deadly during a health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today. Governments that are currently imposing an internet shutdown, such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, and Myanmar, should lift them immediately to save lives.

During a health crisis, access to timely and accurate information is crucial. People use the internet for updates on health measures, movement restrictions, and relevant news to protect themselves and others.

“Internet shutdowns block people from getting essential information and services,” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher and advocate. “During this global health crisis, shutdowns directly harm people’s health and lives, and undermine efforts to bring the pandemic under control.”

For people around the world staying at home, either willingly or because of government restrictions, the internet is critical to communicate with doctors, family, and friends. For many children and others seeking an education, it is needed to continue learning as schools shutter around the world.

Internet shutdowns can have a greater impact on women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, people with disabilities, and older people who may rely on the internet for online support services. These groups are most likely to rely on the internet to protect their physical safety, access sexual and reproductive health information and care, and participate in social, professional, and economic life, particularly when women are disproportionately taking on more child care and education responsibilities, and when isolation can lead to or exacerbate psychological distress.

The economic cost of internet disruptions is significant. As restrictions on movement expand, many individuals and businesses are relying on the internet more than usual for their work.

Internet shutdowns have become increasingly common in recent years, usually during tense periods, such as elections, anti-government protests, or armed conflicts. Thirty-three countries enforced 213 internet shutdowns in 2019, according to Access Now. Government justifications ranged from a need to combat fake news to public safety and national security.

India had the most internet shutdowns with at least 385 ordered since 2012. In Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian government imposed a complete communications blackout in August 2019, which stopped families from communicating and disrupted the local economy. Phone services were gradually restored, but it was only after the Supreme Court found the internet shutdown illegal in January 2020 that service was partially restored, and only at 2G speed.

Since COVID-19 spread to India, people have reported not being able to access websites that provide information about the pandemic due to highly restricted speeds that make accessing anything beyond text messages nearly impossible. The New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation has called on the government to “make all tools including high speed internet available to doctors and patients to save lives.”

In Ethiopia, millions of people in western Oromia may be missing key information about COVID-19 because of a months-long government-imposed shutdown of internet and phone services. The shutdown has prevented families from communicating, disrupted lifesaving services, and contributed to an information blackout during government counterinsurgency operations in the area.

In Myanmar, the government is blocking the internet for more than one million people in Rakhine and Chin States. It first restricted access in eight townships in Rakhine State and one in Chin State last June, with an impact on civilians in conflict areas, the delivery of humanitarian aid, and the work of human rights monitors. The government lifted restrictions in five townships in Rakhine and Chin States in September but reinstated them on February 3, 2020.

In Bangladesh, an internet blackout and phone restrictions at Rohingya refugee camps are hindering humanitarian groups from addressing the COVID-19 threat. The shutdown jeopardizes the health and lives of nearly 900,000 refugees in Cox’s Bazar and the Bangladeshi host community.

Nearly four years ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council first condemned measures to prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online and called on countries to refrain from such measures. Last week, leading international free speech experts said that internet shutdowns “cannot be justified” during the COVID-19 outbreak.

On March 27, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged all governments to end any and all internet and telecommunication shutdowns. “Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, fact-based and relevant information on the disease and its spread and response must reach all people, without exception,” a statement said.

Under international law, governments have an obligation to ensure that any restrictions to information online are provided by law, are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific threat, and are in the public interest.

Officials should never use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to stop the flow of information or to harm people’s ability to express political views, and doing so during a health crisis can cost lives, Human Rights Watch said.

Governments order internet shutdowns but internet service providers are responsible for carrying them out. Internet service providers should do everything in their power to push back against unjustified internet shutdowns, including by demanding a legal basis for any shutdown order and interpreting requests to cause the least intrusive restrictions. They should prioritize their responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and avoid complicity in human rights abuses, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Providers should give customers advance notice of shutdowns and disclose the government’s role and legal basis for restricting networks and services.

Human rights organizations can join and participate in the #KeepItOn campaign coordinated by Access Now to fight internet shutdowns with documentation, advocacy, policy maker engagement, technical support, and legal interventions.

“During a global pandemic, when people around the world are isolated and access to information can mean life or death, it’s time to impose a moratorium on internet shutdowns,” Brown said. “Governments should ensure immediate access to the fastest and broadest possible service for all.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

In this Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, photo, Veby Mega Indah, an injured Indonesian video journalist, bites her lips during an interview with The Associated Press in the Wan Chai area of Hong Kong.

© 2019 AP Photo/Vincent Thian
(New York) – Hong Kong authorities’ arrest of a pro-democracy figure for “seditious intent” heightens concerns of a renewed crackdown on the 2019 protest movement, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 26, 2020, police arrested district councilor Cheng Lai-king, 60, at her home two days after she reposted a message on Facebook that revealed a police officer’s identity.

“Arresting a pro-democracy politician for seeking police accountability is political persecution, not legitimate policing,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Hong Kong authorities should immediately drop the case against councilor Cheng Lai-king.”

The case concerns an incident involving Veby Mega Indah, a journalist for Indonesian-language Suara Hong Kong News, who was shot and blinded in one eye by a riot police officer while covering a protest in Wanchai in September.

Indah has been trying to pursue a private prosecution against the officer but has been unable to do so because he was masked and not displaying his police unique identification (UI) number at the time. The police have not released the officer’s information despite Indah’s requests and a lawsuit she filed in December pressing for such information.

Upon learning that Indah might soon miss the deadline for the private prosecution, netizens mobilized and on March 24 posted the alleged officer’s information on a Telegram group. On March 24, Cheng reposted some of that information, which included pictures of the officer taken while he was on duty in a public place, the officer’s name, and his UI number. Cheng’s post called on the officer to, “Please turn himself in! An eye for an eye!”

Following Cheng’s arrest, a Hong Kong police spokesperson said that Cheng had “illegally shared personal information,” including the officer’s address and phone number, on social media, and that she is suspected of “inciting violence and hatred.” The spokesperson said that she may also have violated an October court injunction banning “doxing” of police officers – the disclosure of personal data on the internet – and the Privacy Ordinance. Cheng was released on bail the day of her arrest.

“Seditious intent” is a crime that has not been invoked since 1952, when the British colonial government used it against the pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao.

During the 2019 protests, both police and protesters wore masks to prevent identification. In October, the Hong Kong government imposed an anti-mask law, which makes it unlawful to wear masks during public gatherings. The ban exempts those who need to wear masks for “employment” and other reasons, and police officers continued to wear masks. Many officers did not display UI numbers on their uniform.

Over the course of the protests, numerous police officers, protesters, and journalists complained about unauthorized release of their personal information, but the police have not arrested anyone for doxing protesters or journalists. After two officers placed the Hong Kong Identification Cards of journalists – whom the police consider to be pro-protesters – in front of live TV cameras, the Hong Kong police commissioner said the officers had been “reprimanded.”

Hong Kong authorities and pro-Beijing figures have stepped up actions against the pro-democracy movement and other critical voices since December. In mid-December police froze HK$70 million (US$10 million) from Spark Alliance, a major donation fund to help pro-democracy protesters, and arrested its four members for alleged money laundering. On February 28, police arrested pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai and political activists Yeung Sum and Lee Cheuk-yan for taking part in an alleged unlawful assembly in August. Since June, the authorities have arrested over 7,500 demonstrators for their participation in the protests.

On March 20, lawyers for a pro-Beijing television station, TVB, sent a letter to pro-democracy district councilor Ho Kai-ming, accusing him of defamation after he criticized the station for “participating in political persecution.” TVB had applied to terminate its airing of programs produced by Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), a Hong Kong public broadcaster, which released a satirical episode about the Hong Kong police in late February. The Hong Kong Communications Authority granted TVB’s request on March 4. The police have repeatedly complained about the RTHK episode, while pro-Beijing figures are pressuring the broadcaster’s chief to drop political programs.

“Hong Kong police and other authorities don’t help their credibility by cracking down on peaceful criticism,” Richardson said. “Instead of pursuing dubious prosecutions, they should allow an independent investigation of their own conduct during the protest movement.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-Ocha delivers a televised speech in Bangkok, Thailand, March 24, 2020. 

© 2020 Royal Thai Government

(Bangkok) – Thai authorities should immediately stop using “anti-fake news” laws to prosecute people critical of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today. A state of emergency, slated to go into effect on March 26, 2020, heightens concerns of greater repression of free speech.

“Thai authorities seem intent on shutting down critical opinions from the media and general public about their response to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Emergency Decree provides the government a free hand to censor free speech.”

On March 23, police arrested Danai Ussama at his art gallery in Phuket, and brought him to the Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok. He was charged with violating section 14(2) of the Computer-Related Crime Act for “putting into a computer system false computer data in a manner that is likely to cause panic in the public.” If found guilty, he faces up to five years in prison and a fine up to THB100,000 (US$3,050).

The charge is based on a complaint that Airports of Thailand PCL, the national airport operator, filed against Danai for a March 16 post on Facebook. Using the alias “Zen Wide,” Danai wrote that upon return from Barcelona, he and other passengers on his flight did not encounter any COVID-19 screening at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. The Airports of Thailand PCL alleged his post is not factual and caused public panic, and misled people into thinking that Suvarnabhumi Airport had failed to effectively employ COVID-19 screening.

In the report “Human Rights Dimensions of the COVID-19 Response,” Human Rights Watch expressed concerns that Thailand was clamping down on free speech amid the COVID-19 crisis. Whistleblowers in the public health sector and online journalists have faced retaliatory lawsuits and intimidation from authorities after they criticized government response to the outbreak and reported alleged corruption related to hoarding of surgical masks and other supplies and black-market profiteering. Thai authorities also threatened some medical staff with disciplinary action, including termination of employment contracts and revocation of their licenses, for speaking out about the severe shortage of essential supplies in hospitals across the country.

Concerns about government restrictions on free speech significantly increased when Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha declared a state of emergency on March 24. During a news conference, he said, “After a state of emergency is announced everyone must be careful about social media misinformation … the media and all of those who use social media to distort information will be scrutinized.”

On March 25, Prime Minister Prayut issued a list of prohibitions under the state of emergency, including vague and overbroad restrictions on freedom of expression and media freedom:

“Reporting or spreading of information regarding COVID-19 which is untrue and may cause public fear, as well as deliberate distortion of information which causes misunderstanding and hence affects peace and order, or good moral of people, are prohibited. In that case, officials will suspend or edit such piece of news. If the case lead to severe impacts, the Computer-Related Crime Act or Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation will be enforced for prosecution.”  

Thailand’s Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation gives the authorities broad powers to violate human rights, including censorship of news, information, and personal correspondence. Since the law was introduced in 2005, the authorities have used it to violate basic rights and suppress fundamental freedoms with impunity. 

Access to information and freedom of expression are among the integral components of the right to health, especially in the context of a global pandemic. Access to information includes the right to seek, receive, and share information, which is especially relevant in the COVID-19 outbreak to ensure that everyone is informed about the disease as well as the government’s response, Human Rights Watch said.

On March 16, a group of United Nations human rights experts said that “emergency declarations based on the COVID-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health ... and should not be used simply to quash dissent.”

“While the Thai government has a responsibility to adopt measures that would protect the Thai people from the outbreak, the Emergency Decree announced is a dangerous warning to the press and social media users to self-censor criticism or face prosecution,” Adams said. “Prime Minister Prayut’s military and civilian governments have long records of repressing contrary views, arresting critics, and persecuting whistleblowers. The government has granted itself virtually unlimited powers under the guise of the COVID-19 crisis that should be immediately repealed.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Policemen bringing the opposition leader Tofig Yagublu to Nizami District Court of Baku, March 23, 2020.

© 2020 Azadliq Radiosu/RFERL

(Berlin) – Azerbaijani authorities have arrested a prominent opposition leader and ardent government critic, Tofig Yagublu, on spurious hooliganism charges, Human Rights Watch said today. Yagublu’s arrest comes days after President Ilham Aliyev made comments suggesting he would use measures supposedly designed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic to crackdown on opposition, another disturbing example of the government’s contempt for free speech and political critics.

“The Azerbaijani government has a longstanding pattern of pursuing trumped-up charges against government critics in order to silence them,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The case against Yagublu falls squarely in that pattern.”

Yagublu, a former political prisoner, is a member of the opposition Musavat Party, and a senior politician in the National Council of Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties and activists in Azerbaijan. A former journalist, Yagublu often raises human rights concerns in Azerbaijan.

Yagublu’s arrest comes days after Aliyev addressed the nation about the challenges posed by coronavirus. In his speech, Aliyev called the opposition traitors, enemies, and a fifth column that might try to destabilize the country. He strongly implied that he would use the fight against the virus to crack down on the country’s political opposition.

On March 23, the Nizami District Court of Baku ordered Yagublu be held for three months in pretrial custody, pending investigation on charges of “hooliganism committed with a weapon or an object used as a weapon.”

According to the Interior Ministry’s press statement, Yagublu is also accused of inflicting bodily harm, using a wrench. If convicted, he could face up to seven years in prison.

Yagublu vehemently denies the charges. At the pretrial detention hearing, he said that on March 22, at about 3:30 p.m., he was sitting in his parked car when another vehicle approached from behind and side-swiped his car. The driver and a passenger from the other car got out and tried to attack him. Yagublu’s daughter told Human Rights Watch that her father realized the accident was a set-up, immediately called the police, and remained in his car waiting for them to arrive.

After filing the police report, police officers took Yagublu into custody and charged him with criminal hooliganism. The car accident appears to have been staged to provide grounds for a bogus case against Yagublu, Human Rights Watch said.

Police denied Yagublu access to a lawyer of his choosing and he was only allowed to see one at his pretrial hearing the next day. Yagublu rejected the services of a state-appointed lawyer and refused to speak to police before the court hearing.

The prosecutor requested that the court remand Yagublu to pretrial custody, claiming he would interfere with the investigation and pressure the alleged victims, without producing any information to substantiate this claim.

The court’s decision to accept such abstract and unsubstantiated reasons for Yagublu’s pretrial detention violates the guarantee against arbitrary detention in the European Convention of Human Rights. By contrast, courts are required to ensure that detention is a measure of the last resort, justified by specific facts and personal circumstances relevant to the accused.

The authorities placed Yagublu in Pretrial Detention Facility No.3 in Shuvelan, which is notorious for its cells being severely overcrowded, dilapidated, dirty, and poorly lit and ventilated. In 2017, following a visit to the country, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), the Council of Europe’s torture prevention body, recommended closing the facility “as soon as possible.”

Placing Yagubly in Shuvelan pretrial facility also goes against the CPT’s recent announcement, made in the context of the coronavirus disease, urging all relevant authorities to make concerted efforts “to resort to alternatives to deprivation of liberty,” particularly in cases of overcrowding.

This is not Yagublu’s first arrest. Azerbaijani authorities have periodically arrested Yagublu, subjected him to ill-treatment, and warned him to stop his political activism and criticism against the government.

In October 2019, Yagublu was arrested and sentenced to one month in prison when police violently broke up an unsanctioned, peaceful protest in central Baku. Yagublu alleged that three or four policemen beat him repeatedly and ordered him to make a public statement “repenting” his actions and pledging to stop his political activity. No effective investigations followed the ill-treatment allegations.

In March 2014, Yagublu, was sentenced to five years in prison, on bogus charges of instigating violence. In November 2015, the European Court found Yagublu’s detention illegal and ordered Azerbaijan to pay hefty compensation for non-pecuniary damage. He was released in March 2016, following a presidential pardon.

Azerbaijan has a long record of persecuting its political opposition and government critics on a range of spurious criminal and misdemeanor charges, including hooliganism. Currently, there are at least eight members of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party in prison on bogus charges, and they include: Orkhan Bakhishli, Saleh Rustamov, Agil Maharramov, Babek Hasanov, Fuad Ahmadli, Elchin Ismayilli, Ziya Asadli, and Pasha Umudov.

“Instead of providing essential information and addressing public concerns on COVID-19, the government is shamefully trying to usurp this pandemic to continue its relentless crackdown against its critics,” Gogia said. “Authorities should immediately free Yagublu, end the crackdown on political opposition, focus on protecting the health of all in Azerbaijan, and allow the media to do their job freely and safely.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A policeman (center) and others wear face masks as a preventive measure against COVID-19, at a market in Phnom Penh on March 17, 2020.

 

© 2020 TANG CHHIN Sothy/AFP via Getty Images
(Bangkok) – Cambodian authorities should stop arresting people for expressing concerns about COVID-19’s impact in Cambodia and claiming they are spreading so-called “fake news,” Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch has documented the arrests of 17 people since late January 2020 for sharing information about the coronavirus in Cambodia. These include four members or supporters of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), all of whom remain in pretrial detention. The authorities also arrested and questioned a 14-year-old girl who expressed fears on social media about rumors of positive COVID-19 cases at her school and in her province. Twelve were released from detention after signing pledges to not spread “fake news” in the future and to apologize.

“The Cambodian government is misusing the COVID-19 outbreak to lock up opposition activists and others expressing concern about the virus and the government’s response,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government should stop abusing people’s free speech rights and instead focus on providing the public with accurate and timely information about COVID-19.”

As of March 22, 86 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in the country. Prime Minister Hun Sen initially downplayed the risk of the virus spreading in Cambodia and on January 30 threatened to eject reporters or officials wearing face masks from a news conference. On March 17, he changed course and imposed a 30-day ban on arrivals from Italy, Germany, Spain, France, the United States, and Iran. However, joint military drills involving hundreds of Chinese soldiers proceeded as scheduled.

Hun Sen has so far failed to implement a public health campaign based on a strong disease surveillance system, develop the infrastructure for testing to detect cases and contain the outbreak, or even acknowledge the serious risk the virus carries for his population. The relatively low number of cases reported raises the question of whether sufficient tests are being conducted or necessary information is being shared with the people.

The 17 people arrested, among whom are 5 women, came from 7 provinces: Siem Reap, Pursat, Koh Kong, Phnom Penh, Takeo, Kampot, and Prey Veng. Those charged face penal code violations including incitement, conspiracy, and spreading false information.

In a March 9 speech, Hun Sen directly threatened to arrest Long Phary, a CNRP member in Prey Veng province. Phnom Penh police arrested him on March 18 and told him the arrest stemmed from a phone conversation in which Long Phary discussed rumors about the spread of the coronavirus in the country. The government did not say how it learned about the contents of a private phone call, but in the past, the government has engaged in unauthorized phone tapping of civil society activists and political opposition members. 

On March 17, Phnom Penh police arrested Ngin Khean, a 29-year-old CNRP youth member from Prey Veng province. The authorities alleged that he spread “fake news” on his Facebook page about the coronavirus. Ngin Khean is in pretrial detention at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison and has been charged with plotting and incitement to commit a felony.

On March 11, Siem Reap police arrested Phut Thona Lorn (also known as “Lorn Ly”), a local CNRP supporter. Prior to the arrest, Lorn Ly had shared two videos on his Facebook profile page in which the speaker said that the Cambodian government needed Vietnamese government assistance to learn about a foreign arrival to Cambodia who tested positive for the coronavirus. After the authorities accused Lorn Ly of spreading “fake news,” the Siem Reap provincial court charged him with spreading false information. The police said they had “monitored” Lorn Ly’s Facebook account for a week prior to the arrest but did not explain the legal basis for that surveillance. He is being held in pretrial detention at Siem Reap’s provincial prison.

On March 18, the Information Ministry claimed that 47 Facebook users and pages had spread misinformation regarding the virus, with the intention of causing fear in the country and damaging the government’s reputation. On March 20, Interior Minister Sar Kheng warned that anyone who spread misinformation about COVID-19 “to stir chaos” would face legal action.

Under international human rights law, the Cambodian government has an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds. Governments are responsible for providing information necessary for protecting and promoting rights, including the right to health. Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health may not put in jeopardy the right itself. A rights-respecting response to COVID-19 needs to ensure that accurate and up-to-date information about the virus, access to services, notice of service disruptions, and other aspects of the response to the outbreak is readily available and accessible to all.

The Cambodian government’s harassment of political opposition members and supporters in the context of COVID-19 is part of a broader campaign against civil society activists, independent journalists, and ordinary people who express their views both online and offline, Human Rights Watch said. The government has repeatedly said it would adopt a “fake news” law, a cybercrime law, and amendments to the media law – all of which are likely to curtail the right to freedom of expression and to facilitate arbitrary and unfettered surveillance of those deemed dissidents.

The latest repression builds on the government’s campaign of harassment and arrest of CNRP members and supporters since the Supreme Court dissolved the party on political grounds in November 2017. Between August and November 2019, the authorities arbitrarily arrested or detained more than 60 CNRP members on various charges. Many were charged with incitement and plotting a coup because they organized to receive exiled CNRP leaders on their planned return to Cambodia on November 9. While authorities released many of the CNRP members on bail, all criminal charges against them remain pending.

“It’s truly frightening that during a national crisis, the Cambodian government seems more interested in silencing online critics than undertaking a massive COVID-19 public information campaign,” Robertson said. “Foreign governments and donors promoting human rights should press the Cambodian government to adopt a rights-respecting approach in its response to the COVID-19 crisis, starting with upholding freedom of expression.”

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Kong Mas, January 16, 2019. 

© Private
(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should ask the Court of Appeal to quash the conviction and order the release of Kong Mas, Human Rights Watch said today.

On March 23, 2020, the Court of Appeal will rule on the appeal of Kong Mas, a former member of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for “insult” and “incitement to commit a felony.” Kong Mas has been in custody since January 2019.

“The Cambodian authorities should realize that the bogus case against Kong Mas does nothing but show how repressive the Cambodian government continues to be,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Although the EU gave the government a partial reprieve by only withdrawing some of Cambodia’s trade privileges, Prime Minister Hun Sen continues to target peaceful political expression.”

Police arrested Kong Mas on January 16, 2019, after he posted criticism of the government on his Facebook page, including a claim that the European Union was planning to take action under the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade treaty and impose an import tariff on Cambodian rice. His lawyer said that the police took Kong Mas into custody without a court summons in violation of his due process rights.

On January 19, 2019, the investigating judge sent Kong Mas to pretrial detention after charging him with insult and incitement to commit a felony (under articles 502 and 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code). The Cambodian authorities frequently use these two vague legal provisions to prosecute and silence critics of the government. Kong Mas repeatedly sought bail during his pretrial detention but was denied bail by the Phnom Penh court, the Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court, all of which are politically controlled by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). On October 18, the trial court convicted Kong Mas on both charges and sentenced him to 18 months in prison.

On February 12, 2020, the European Commission decided to partially suspend Cambodia’s preferential trade preferences under the EBA treaty because of the government’s egregious violations of civil and political rights and failure to resolve human rights concerns identified by the Commission. The EU’s confidential preliminary conclusion, sent to the Cambodian government on November 12, 2019, stated that Cambodia seriously and systematically violated the right to freedom of expression and other civil and political rights. The partial suspension of Cambodia’s preferential access to the EU market comes into force in August 2020.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s persecution of opposition activists is risking an even wider suspension of trade benefits under the Everything But Arms program,” Robertson said. “The EU, EU member states, and the European Parliament should use the time before the treaty’s partial suspension to press the government to free all political prisoners and stop harassing government critics.”
 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Screenshot of a live stream video from the protest showing Ahdaf Soueif, right, Laila Soueif, left, and Rabab al-Mahdi in between before they were arrested at the protest in downtown Cairo on March 18.

© Facebook

(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities arrested 4 prominent women on March 18, 2020 as they protested to seek the release of unjustly detained prisoners over fears of COVID-19 virus, Human Rights Watch said today. The women were apparently demonstrating peacefully in downtown Cairo.

They are Laila Soueif, a Cairo University professor and mother of jailed activist Alaa Abdel Fattah; her sister, Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist; her daughter, Mona Seif Abdel Fattah; and Rabab al-Mahdi, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. Prosecutors ordered them released on bail of EGP 5,000 each (US$318), accusing them of protesting without government permission and “spreading false news.” On March 19, instead of releasing her, the authorities sent Laila Soueif to State Security Prosecution, where she was interrogated again for hours before being released on a second financial bail of 3,000 ($190) in another case. The other 3 were released earlier on March 19, approximately 30 hours after their arrest.

“Instead of releasing people unjustly detained, the Egyptian authorities are silencing activists and relatives who speak up,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Families are right to be concerned over COVID-19 risks, and the authorities should listen.”

In a Facebook live stream, Mona Seif recorded the four women’s small protest before the cabinet building in downtown Cairo. “We are standing in front of the cabinet, demanding the state to take serious measures regarding coronavirus in prisons,” Seif said in the video. “Egypt's prisons, even in normal situations, are a disease-inviting environment.”

In the video, Seif said that they were calling for the release of her brother, Alaa Abdel Fattah, who has been in pretrial detention since September, and all other unjustly detained prisoners. Abdel Fattah had just finished serving five years in prison for earlier street protests when the authorities re-arrested him.

Concerns have increased over the spread of the COVID-19 virus after prison authorities banned all visits on March 10. Abdel Fattah’s family said they have not had any information from or about him since March 4.

A few minutes into the protest, Seif’s video shows police in uniforms and civilian clothes confronting them and asking them to end their protest. A high-ranking police officer appears in the video asking the women to “discuss the matter” at his nearby office. The video also showed the officer talking on the phone to an unknown person while loudly reading the signs the four held. After 15 minutes, the police took Seif’s phone and the recording ended abruptly.

Shortly afterward, Sanaa Seif, Mona’s sister, wrote on Facebook that the four were not at the protest site anymore and were not reachable on their phones. Sanaa Seif later said that she believed her family was being held in the nearby Qasr al-Nil police station and that she had been “dragged out” of the station without being allowed to see them.

Prosecutors at the Qasr al-Nil station interrogated the women and accused them of spreading false news regarding the government’s response to COVID-19 and calling for protests without permission, according to Facebook posts by their lawyer, Khaled Ali. Prosecutors then ordered them conditionally released, on payment of bail money.

“We have paid the bail and been waiting for the approval of the National Security [for their release],” Sanaa Seif posted on Facebook early on the morning of March 19.   

Sanaa Seif told Human Rights Watch that her family members were not mistreated in Qasr al-Nil. The authorities removed her mother from Qasr al-Nil in the afternoon of March 19. The family learned later that she was taken to the State Security Prosecution office in an East Cairo suburb. Sanaa Seif said that her mother refused to answer prosecutors’ questions. Following hours of interrogation, prosecutors ordered her released on 3,000 bail ($190) in another case.

Ahdaf Soueif wrote in Facebook posts following her release that during their brief detention in Qasr al-Nil station, the 4 women were kept in a 2 by 2 meter room with 6 other women prisoners and that those prisoners had to order disinfectants to clean their cell with their own money. She said there were no precautions or regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the detainees.

On March 19, in a separate decision, the State Security Prosecution ordered the release of 15 detainees who have been in pretrial detention for months over charges related to their exercise of their right to free speech or association. Those released include a Cairo University professor, Hassan Nafaa, and a political activist, Hazem Abdel Azim.

Egyptian prisoners have long complained about inhuman and degrading conditions, saying that guards confiscate personal hygiene items such as soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and toilet paper. Proper ventilation and daylight are scarce. Human Rights Watch has said that the government should release all those unjustly detained for peaceful dissent and end the abusive use of pretrial detention. 

“Instead of providing essential information and addressing the concerns of the public as well as prisoners and their families about prison conditions in the COVID-19 pandemic, Egypt’s government is squelching free speech and stifling basic rights.” Stork said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Afgan Mukhtarli, a prominent investigative journalist and a political activist, was freed yesterday – a rare bit of good news from Azerbaijan.

Journalist Afgan Mukhtarli rejoins his daughter in a Berlin airport following his release from prison in Azerbaijan, March 17, 2020.

© 2020 Azadliq Radiosu/RFERL

Mukhtarli had been serving a 6-year prison sentence handed down in 2017 on bogus, politically motivated charges. On March 17, a Baku court unexpectedly ordered his early release and allowed him to fly to Germany, where he reunited with his wife and daughter.

In May 2017, Mukhtarli was abducted in Georgia, where he was living in exile, fearing political persecution against government critics in his homeland of Azerbaijan. Less than 24 hours after his abduction, Mukhtarli resurfaced in Azerbaijani border police custody, facing fabricated charges of illegal border crossing, smuggling, and violently resisting arrest. In January 2018, following a trial that fell far short of international standards, a court sentenced him to six years in prison.

Georgian authorities promptly opened an investigation into the abduction and suspended a number of counterintelligence and border police officials in 2017. But the investigation remains inconclusive.

Mukhtarli developed serious health complications in prison and did not receive adequate medical care. Fearing for their safety in Georgia, his wife, also a journalist, and their young daughter fled the country in October 2017 and received asylum in Germany.

The international community condemned Mukhtarli’s abduction and wrongful conviction. In June 2017, the European Parliament adopted an urgent resolution strongly condemning Mukhtarli’s prosecution in Azerbaijan, calling for his release, and urging Georgia to investigate his disappearance and “bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Mukhtarli is free, but at least five other journalists and bloggers continue to languish in Azerbaijani jails. They include Polad Aslanov, Fuad Ahmadli, Ziya Asadli, Araz Guliyev, and Elchin Ismayilli, who publicly criticized the authorities and were imprisoned on politically motivated charges. Others continue to face arbitrary and disproportionate travel bans, like investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was jailed from December 2014 to May 2016 in retaliation for her work as a journalist. In March 2018, the authorities even barred her from traveling to Turkey to say goodbye to her dying mother.  

Azerbaijan should release the remaining journalists from jail and allow them to report freely and without undue interference. Those involved in Mukhtarli’s abduction from Georgia and unlawful imprisonment in Azerbaijan should be held accountable.

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