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, 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

Algiers, March 15, 2019.

© 2019 Ahmed Benchemsi/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) - Algerian authorities are cracking down on the protest movement known as “the Hirak,” which opposes holding the presidential elections scheduled for December 12, 2019, arresting hundreds of activists and imprisoning scores for protests or waving flags, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since the campaign officially opened on November 17, at least eight protesters have been convicted and imprisoned and 15 others are in pretrial detention on the vague charges of “compromising the integrity of the territory,” “distributing publications harmful to the national interest” or “calling for an unauthorized gathering.”

“The crackdown on protesters casts a long shadow on whether the Algerian authorities are prepared to accept everyone’s basic rights to speak out,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “No one should be arrested simply for waving a flag or expressing their opposition to an election.”

The Hirak began holding massive street demonstrations in February to oppose President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to seek a fifth term. After successfully pressuring him to resign, large numbers of protesters continued to take to the streets to demand the departure of the entire ruling elite and an inclusive transition toward genuinely democratic elections.

More than 120 protesters arrested since June for their role in the Hirak movement have either been sentenced and sent to prison or are in pretrial detention, according to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees, created on August 26 by activists and lawyers to defend arrested protesters.

Kaci Tansaout, a spokesperson for the group, told Human Rights Watch that the committee had recorded at least 300 arrests since the beginning of the electoral campaign. Tansaout said that while most people were released the same day, eight have been imprisoned after trial.

On September 15, Abdelkader Bensalah, the speaker of the upper house of Parliament who replaced President Bouteflika upon his resignation, announced that presidential elections would take place on December 12. Those elections, originally set for April 18, had been postponed until July 4 and then postponed again. The Hirak protesters maintain that Bouteflika-era figures have no legitimacy to organize the elections on their own or call for a more inclusive process to prepare for the vote.

Five candidates have qualified for the December 12 vote.

On December 3, Interior Minister Salah Eddine Dahmoune, speaking before parliament’s upper chamber, accused election opponents of perpetuating a “colonial” mentality, and called them “traitors, mercenaries, deviants and homosexuals.”

The eight people reported sentenced to prison terms in recent weeks include Ghoumari Isehaq, Riyahi Smail, Medeledj Sid Ahmed and Ben Sahla Sid Ahmed, who were arrested in Tlemcen on November 17 while protesting outside of the hall where Ali Benflis, a presidential candidate was holding a rally. The next day, a first instance court in Tlemcen sentenced them to 18 months in prison.

Ali Slimani was arrested on November 19 in a demonstration in Algiers and sentenced to two years in prison the next day by the first instance court in Bab el Oued. Abdelkader Boumzareg, arrested on November 22, was sentenced two days later to two months in prison by the first instance court of Hadjout, Tipaza. Yacine Elouareth and Taoufik Karfa, both arrested on November 20 in Algiers during a night protest, were sentenced on November 24 to one year in prison by the first instance tribunal of Bab el Oued in Algiers.

All eight activists were sentenced for one or more of the following three charges: “compromising the integrity of the national territory,” “distributing documents harmful to the national interest,” and “calling for an unarmed gathering” under articles 79, 96 and 97, respectively, of the penal code, stemming from their participation in peaceful protests, said Abderrahmane Salah, a lawyer who has been following the cases. None was charged with any violent act.

Fifteen other activists have been sent to pre-charge detention since November 17, on the same charges by various first instance courts, Tansaout said.


Mustapha Atoui, president of the National Association against Corruption, which exposes and combats corruption in Algeria, told Human Rights Watch that plain-clothes police arrested Halim Feddal, the group’s secretary general, on November 17 as he participated in what Atoui said was a peaceful demonstration in front of the Chlef first instance court to protest the detention of other Hirak movement protesters.

The police searched Feddal’s house, seized his computer, and detained him until November 19, when a prosecutor of the Chlef first instance court charged him under penal code articles 79, 96, and 97. An investigative judge at the same court ordered his pretrial detention in the Chlef prison.

On November 22, police arrested Fouad Ouicher, interim secretary general of the association Youth Action Rally (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse, RAJ), an association active in the protest movement, and Saida Deffeur, a member of the association’s branch in Tizi Ouzou. Kamel Nemmiche, a member of group’s executive bureau, told Human Rights Watch that the two were arrested in front of its office in Algiers after they participated in the weekly Friday protest.

On November 24, a prosecutor of the Sidi M’hamed first instance court charged both Ouicher and Deffeur with “compromising the integrity of the national territory” and “distributing publications harmful to the national interest,” under articles 79 and 96 of the penal code. An investigative judge of the first instance court of Sidi M’hamed in Algiers issued a detention order against Ouicher. He releases Deffeur but placed her under judicial control, requiring her to sign in once a week at the court. Eleven members of the group are being held in El Harrach prison, including its president, Abdelwhahab Farsaoui, and one of its founders, Hakim Addad.

In November, the First Instance court of Sidi M’hamed in Algiers sentenced at least 49 protesters to up to one year in prison on the charge of “compromising the integrity of the national territory,” for possessing or waving the Amazigh flag, a symbol of the large ethnic community of the same name. Before the Hirak protest movement in 2019, Algerians had generally been free to wave the Amazigh flag in public. The 49 had been held in detention since being arrested in Algiers at various times since June.

On November 11, the court sentenced seven flag-wavers to one year in prison, suspending six of the terms. On November 12, it convicted 22 other flag-wavers and sentenced them to one year in jail, with six months suspended. On November 25, the same tribunal sentenced 20 protesters to six months in prison for waving the flag.

Human Rights Watch reviewed one of the verdicts against seven flag-waving protesters who were arrested on June 21 during a Friday demonstration. It said that the protesters were arrested separately that day for waving or possessing the flag and interrogated at various police stations in Algiers.

The court convicted them all under article 79 for “compromising the national unity” and in doing so, invoked article 75 of the Algerian Constitution, which states that it is the duty of every citizen to safeguard Algeria’s “integrity of its territory and unity of its people.” The court held that Algeria has only one national flag as defined in the Constitution and that waving others could threaten its national unity.

The government should immediately free everyone detained or imprisoned for peaceful protest, including those who waved the Amazigh flag or expressed their opposition to the December 12 election, as these are acts of peaceful expression protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Algeria ratified in 1989, Human Rights Watch said.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A screen shot from the Facebook page called “BespredelKG” (“lawlessness” in Russian), administered by Aftandil Zhorobekov, a Kyrgyzstan blogger, who posted about corruption allegations for which he faces prosecution on incitement charges.

(Berlin) – A blogger in Kyrgyzstan who wrote about corruption on social media is facing charges of inter-regional incitement, Human Rights Watch said today. The blogger, Aftandil Zhorobekov, was detained on November 24, 2019 by Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (GKNB) and held in pretrial detention until being placed under house arrest on December 5, with the charges against him still standing.

The national security agency said that Zhorobekov, the 34-year-old administrator of a Facebook page called “BespredelKG” – “lawlessness” in Russian – had posted “knowingly false and provocative information meant to discredit the current authorities,” which “resulted in the agitation of hateful feelings” among visitors to the page. Incitement carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison. The Kyrgyzstan authorities should drop the charges against him.

“The authorities in Kyrgyzstan are using bogus incitement charges as a pretext to punish Zhorobekov for his controversial posts about government figures,” said Laura Mills, a Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “His arrest sets a dangerous precedent that anyone could be held criminally liable for criticizing public figures, or for the offending speech of others.

A court-issued warrant published by media outlets said that Zhorobekov first attracted law enforcement attention for a post in which he accused the president and his allies of corruption. Separately, the national security agency sent media outlets various screenshots pertaining to the case, which included snapshots of posts about Kyrgyz politicians as well as comments posted by visitors to the page.

Law enforcement agencies’ repeated references to Zhorobekov’s writing about government figures underscore concerns that, since the claims of incitement are unsubstantiated, their real intent is to muzzle a critical voice. Politicians in Kyrgyzstan regularly target critical journalists or media outlets with damaging lawsuits, but defamation appropriately carries no criminal punishment. In this case, the authorities are holding Zhorobekov criminally liable for the actions of others – those who posted offensive comments on his Facebook page.

The charges against Zhorobekov violate Kyrgyzstan’s human rights obligations, including as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects freedom of expression. The ICCPR allows for certain restrictions on expression, including in response to “incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” But any laws restricting freedom of expression must comply with the principle of legal certainty, in that they are sufficiently clear and precise to ensure people are able to reasonably foresee the consequences of their actions and regulate their conduct in relation to the law. Restrictions can also only be imposed to the extent that they are a proportionate and necessary response to protect the interest at stake. The misuse of incitement charges against Zhorobekov to achieve an ulterior, impermissible motive – that of silencing a critic – fails to meet these criteria.  

The charges against Zhorobekov demonstrate how Kyrgyzstan’s broad definition of incitement can be used to chill freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. In March, the authorities detained a couple who held up posters condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin outside the Russian Embassy in Bishkek and charged them with inciting national hatred, though the charges were later dropped. A teacher accused of incitement for anti-Russian comments online was acquitted in May.

Zhorobekov’s family said that they were unaware of any previous expression of concern from the authorities regarding the content on his social media pages. They said his apartment was searched in the days after his arrest.

“The ability to express critical opinions is fundamental to freedom of expression,” Mills said. “The authorities in Kyrgyzstan should immediately drop the criminal charges against Zhorobekov, lift his house arrest, and ensure the statute on incitement isn’t used abusively again in the future.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Journalists and supporters, wearing black, display their messages during a protest against the recent Securities and Exchange Commission's revocation of the registration of Rappler, an online news outfit on Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, northeast of Manila, Philippines. 

© 2018 AP Photo/Bullit Marquez
President Rodrigo Duterte ramped up his attack on the Philippine media, vowing to block the renewal of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest and most influential broadcast network. “Your franchise will end next year,” the president said on Tuesday. “If you are expecting it to be renewed, I’m sorry. You’re out. I will see to it that you’re out.”

This is Duterte’s third such threat against ABS-CBN. He accused the network of unfair reporting, as well as of allegedly taking his advertising money in the 2016 elections but then failing to run his political ads. He earlier threatened to file charges against the media company for allegedly defrauding him. The company has denied the allegations of unfair or biased reporting.

Under Philippine law, broadcasters must secure congressional franchises in order to operate. ABS-CBN’s franchise, issued in 1995, will expire in March 2020. Duterte has exploited this impending renewal to threaten the network, accusing it of slanting its reporting against him and favoring politicians identified with the political opposition. The Lopez family, which controls the network, is known for its activist past, having fought against the Marcos dictatorship. It paid dearly for that opposition when Ferdinand Marcos shut the network down during martial law in 1972. Duterte has politically allied himself with the Marcos family, which has been trying to rehabilitate its long-tattered image of abuse and corruption.

But perhaps the real reason for these threats is ABS-CBN’s critical reporting of Duterte, particularly his murderous “war on drugs.” The network has aired and published award-winning reports on the extrajudicial killings of thousands of suspected drug dealers and users by the police. Apart from ABS-CBN, the government has also targeted Rappler, the online media company that earned Duterte’s ire for its thorough documentation of the “drug war” killings and other abuses.

Duterte is misusing the government’s regulatory powers to settle a score with ABS-CBN. These actions are part of a broader crackdown on media outlets and civil society groups that dare criticize him. Philippine congress members should resist the president’s effort to shut down ABS-CBN. Appeasing a vindictive president who is hell-bent on frustrating accountability for his policies will have far-reaching implications for media freedom, human rights, and democracy in the Philippines.

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

A line of police cars are parked along a street in Times Square, in New York, December 29, 2016.

© 2016 AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Algorithmic decision-making is becoming the new norm in New York. City agencies use computerized algorithms to make important decisions about New Yorkers’ daily lives, from school assignments to public benefits evaluations and more. But serious concerns persist on how to monitor automated systems and prevent human rights abuses.

The city government recently took up this question of how to best evaluate the ways in which city agencies develop and use algorithmic decision-making systems. A city-appointed task force recommended this month that the city establish a central oversight structure to accomplish this. The Mayor’s Office announced the first piece of a new oversight function shortly thereafter.

Today, a coalition of civil society organizations released a report documenting the task force’s process and identifying automated systems currently in use by city agencies. The report proposes audits of each agency’s systems to ensure rights-respecting use, recommending oversight powers much stronger than what the city now employs.

For example, law enforcement’s investigative tools are currently exempt from the city’s oversight function, even though such tools can significantly impact New Yorkers’ rights. The NYPD deploys a sophisticated network of surveillance systems, many of which have automated components.

One such system is the NYPD’s Patternizr, a tool disclosed earlier this year that the NYPD designed to identify potential future patterns of criminal activity. NYPD analysts built Patternizr to forecast crime patterns by training a computer model on ten years of historical crime data collected during the “stop and frisk” regime of racially discriminatory policing. AI systems are only as good as the data that drives them – Patternizr could very well be replicating those biases.

Oversight of NYPD systems like Patternizr could mitigate biased policing, prevent rights-abusing surveillance, and limit intrusions into peoples’ private lives.

The risks of automated systems aren’t limited to policing. They can impose procedural barriers that limit access to public benefits. Without independent, robust, and ongoing oversight, the public will have trouble holding agencies accountable for errors or abuses linked to algorithmic decision-making.

While the city’s oversight function is an important first step, officials should work with the civil society coalition to implement their recommendations, including extending oversight to law enforcement. New Yorkers deserve to know that the city is auditing its own use of algorithms to protect our rights.

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

Yulia Tsvetkova, talking about her youth theater project “Pink and Blue”.

© Yulia Tsvetkova/VK

A Russian feminist and LGBT activist is under house arrest for allegedly distributing pornography. It’s yet another example of Russia using unfounded accusations and vague laws to intimidate certain activists.

Yulia Tsvetkova, 26, is from Russia’s far east region of Khabarovsk. Neither her mother nor lawyer know the factual basis for the criminal accusation, but if prosecuted and convicted, Yulia faces up to six years in prison.

Police have repeatedly questioned Yulia about her work as an artist and youth theater director. In March, they questioned her about a series of body-positive drawings of naked women she posted on social media, alleging they were pornographic. Police also questioned Yulia about a youth theater performance on gender stereotypes. They cited a suspected violation of Russia’s discriminatory “gay propaganda” law, which bans spreading information about LGBT issues to children, even though the play didn’t cover LGBT issues. Yulia subsequently closed the theater out of security concerns.

In October, police again questioned Yulia on pornography allegations regarding a social media group she manages that features artwork depicting vulvas and calls for an end to taboos around vaginal anatomy and menstruation.

After police questioned Yulia again on November 20, they told her she was a criminal suspect, although it was not clear regarding which project. Two days later, police arrested Yulia for violating an order to remain in her city. The following week, police reportedly tried to persuade a child who played in Yulia’s youth theater to request victim status in a criminal case against her.

The next day, police escorted Yulia to court, where she learned that she faces additional administrative charges stemming from two other social media groups she manages – about LGBT and feminist topics, respectively. Authorities claim the groups’ activities violate the “gay propaganda” law, even though their content is marked as 18+. If Yulia is found guilty, she faces a maximum 100,000 ruble fine.

Yulia is not alone in facing repercussions of this sort. Earlier this year, Russian authorities used the “gay propaganda” law to block two major LGBT online groups. And in two other cases, authorities took the more serious step of threatening criminal prosecution against people in relation to LGBT issues.

Yulia’s mother, Anna Khodyreva, told me: “This case is an example of a bright smart girl who didn’t want to live according to the rules of everyone else in this grim city.” Nonconformism, however, isn’t a crime.

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

Roman Udot at his court hearing in Moscow, May 22, 2019.

© 2019 Novaya Gazeta
(Moscow) – A court in Moscow found Roman Udot, an election rights activist, guilty on November 28, 2019 of threatening the life of two broadcast journalists in a politically motivated prosecution, Human Rights Watch said today. The court sentenced Udot to 320 hours of correctional labor.

The journalists who were allegedly threatened work for NTV, a federal broadcaster notorious for its smear campaigns against human rights activists and political opposition. NTV had repeatedly and viciously targeted Udot and stalked his family members. Udot was a board member of Golos, Russia’s largest independent election monitoring group, which NTV also targeted.

“This case needs to be examined in light of the stalking and smear campaign by the pro-Kremlin broadcaster,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The political motivation behind the prosecution becomes clear.”

Udot’s prosecution stems from an incident in March 2018, when an NTV reporter with a cameraman accosted him at a Moscow airport, peppering him with questions and filming him without his consent. Udot lost his temper, screamed at the reporter using aggressive language, took away her phone, and called the police. When the police arrived, Udot filed a violation of privacy complaint, while the reporter alleged that he had attempted to steal her phone. A month later, however, the authorities opened a criminal case against him on charges of threatening the life of NTV journalists.

In May 2019, a court ordered house arrest for Udot. Memorial Human Rights Center designated him a “political prisoner.” Five weeks later, an appeals court replaced Udot’s house arrest with a curfew and a ban on communicating with other people involved in the case, and using a cell phone and the internet.

In her November 25 court testimony, Udot’s mother spoke of NTV’s smear stories about her son and Golos, which insinuated that the organization sought to destabilize Russia on orders of the United States State Department, and that Udot bought her an apartment with “dirty” money. She said these programs prompted threats and hate calls, including from former family friends, and had a serious negative impact on their lives.

The NTV journalist, Alexandra Miroshnichenko, testified that she was “very frightened, worried about [her] health and life and afraid that he [Udot] could inflict physical harm” on her colleague. However, a video recorded by Udot during the incident, which his defense presented as evidence, shows Miroshnichenko standing calmly near Udot and continuing with her questions about his work, and her colleague, Eduard Zhuravlev, filming Udot and Miroshnichenko without interruption until police officers arrived.

Udot told the court that prior to the incident, he had filed three complaints with police regarding harassment by NTV, but “received no response,” except “useless” formal declarations, and that he felt “helpless to protect his mother.” While not denying his use of aggressive language, Udot contended that his “emotional” outburst was solely aimed at protecting his family and making NTV correspondents understand that what they were doing was “wrong” and they should “stop it.”

“Roman Udot’s behavior toward the journalist was inappropriate,” Williamson said. “But there is little doubt that his prosecution was meant to punish him for his work at Golos and to discourage others from involvement in election monitoring efforts.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Papuan students shout slogans during a rally in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 28, 2019. Students and activists gathered for a protest supporting West Papua, calling for independence from Indonesia, and demanding racial justice in Surabaya, East Java. 

© 2019 Andrew Gal/NurPhoto via Getty Images
(Jakarta) – Indonesian authorities should drop treason charges and release at least 22 activists detained since August 2019 for peaceful acts of free expression concerning Papua, Human Rights Watch said today. These abusive prosecutions show backtracking by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration in dealing with the human rights situation in West Papua and Papua provinces.

Ahead of Papuan nationalists’ “Independence Day” on December 1, foreign diplomats and United Nations officials should monitor demonstrations in Papua and West Papua provinces and the law enforcement response.

“Papua may be a sensitive topic in Indonesia, but that’s no excuse for rounding people up and sending them to prison for peaceful acts of expression,” said Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should drop charges and immediately free people detained for just possessing flags or organizing a protest.”

Each year Papuans attempt to raise the Papuan national Bintang Kejora (“Morning Star”) flag. That frequently results in clashes with local security forces who consider this to be a treasonous activity against the Republic of Indonesia.

Human Rights Watch takes no position on Papuan claims to self-determination, but supports everyone’s right, including for independence supporters, to express their political views peacefully without fear of arrest or other forms of reprisal. The arrest and imprisonment of people for peacefully participating in symbolic flag-raising ceremonies amounts to arbitrary arrest and detention in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Indonesia is a party.

Indonesian authorities arrested the 22 people in August and September following at times violent demonstrations in Papua and West Papua provinces during which thousands of people took part in rallies protesting racism against Papuans. The protests took place after a video circulated of Indonesian militias racially abusing indigenous Papuan students outside their dormitory in Surabaya on August 17.

Papuans demonstrated in at least 30 cities across Indonesia, including Jakarta. Rioting Papuans burned down the local parliament building in Manokwari, as well as prisons in Sorong, West Papua province, and Jayapura, Papua province.

Most of the 20 men and 2 women awaiting trial in 4 cities are charged with treason (makar) under articles 106 and 110 of Indonesia’s Criminal Code. The maximum penalty under article 106 is 20 years in prison, which can be doubled if also convicted of mobilizing others to commit treason, under article 110. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has previously criticized articles 106 and 110 for being “drafted in such general and vague terms that they can be used arbitrarily to restrict the freedoms of opinion, expression, assembly and association.”

The authorities have also accused Veronica Koman, an Indonesian human rights lawyer who has tweeted videos and photographs of the unrest, of “provoking” the demonstrations. Indonesian police asked the Australian consulate in Surabaya “to track her down” in Australia and indicated they would issue an Interpol red notice against her.

Those held at the four detention centers are listed below.

In Jakarta

Police arrested two Papuan students, Charles Kossay and Dano Tabuni, on August 30 in connection with a rally two days earlier outside the State Palace in Jakarta for protesting racism against ethnic Papuans and unfurling the Morning Star flag.

On August 31, police arrested Ambrosius Mulait and Issay Wenda, who were protesting the arrest of Kossay and Tabuni outside the Jakarta police headquarters. Later that evening, police arrested three female activists, releasing two but detaining Ariana Lokbere, a theology student at the Indonesian Christian University.

Police also separately arrested Surya Anta Ginting, the coordinator of the Front of the Indonesian People for West Papua. Ginting, who in 2016 had publicly apologized for Indonesian repression against indigenous Papuans, is the first non-Papuan Indonesian to be charged with treason for supporting a referendum in West Papua. All of them are now detained at the Salemba and the Pondok Bambu detention centers in Jakarta.

In Balikpapan, East Kalimantan

Police arrested eight Papuan activists in Jayapura including two student leaders Alexander Gobay and Ferry Gombo, as well as six activists associated with the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), a political organization that seeks a referendum on West Papua's future. They are Buchtar Tabuni, Steven Itlay, Assa Asso, Agus Kossay, Hengki Hilapok, and Irwanus Uropmobin.

Tabuni and Itlay are former political prisoners. Human Rights Watch profiled Tabuni in 2010, when he was jailed in the Abepura prison, also for “treason.” Kossay is the chairman of the West Papua National Committee.

The eight were arrested between September 9 and September 17, and were moved to Balikpapan on October 4. The police have sought their trial in Balikpapan rather than Papua’s provincial capital, Jayapura, for “security reasons.”

In Manokwari, West Papua

Police arrested four activists who are now detained in the Manokwari police station, including Sayang Mandabayan, a former Sorong city council member. She was arrested on September 2 for bringing 1,500 small Morning Star flags through Manokwari airport. Three student activists were also arrested on September 19: Erik Aliknoe, Pende Mirin, and Yunus Aliknoe. The three students are charged with treason for making Morning Star flags.

In Sorong, West Papua

Police detained four student activists – Herman Sabo Yosep Laurensius Syufi, Manase Baho, Eteus Paulus, and Miwak Karet – at the Sorong police station for making and distributing Morning Star flags.

These prosecutions appear to reflect a fundamental shift by President Jokowi’s government regarding free expression and Papua, Human Rights Watch said. Jokowi promised in May 2015 to release political prisoners throughout Indonesia. The Ministry of Law and Human Rights, in charge of prison management in Indonesia, gradually released many of the country’s political prisoners. The most high-profile West Papuan political prisoner, Filep Karma, was released in November 2015. The authorities also freed political prisoners from the Moluccas Islands and moved eight from a remote prison island to an ordinary prison in Ambon, the Moluccas Islands capital, to be closer to their families.

By August 2017, Human Rights Watch estimated that only between 1 and 5 Papuan political prisoners remained behind bars, compared to more than 110 in May 2015.

A coalition of human rights groups and lawyers in Papua has listed 73 people arrested in Papua, West Papua, and Jakarta, including the 22 detainees. Human Rights Watch has not corroborated the information regarding the legal status of the other 51 people.

“The Indonesian government made significant progress in recent years by releasing nearly all political prisoners, yet recent arrests are threatening those fragile gains,” Pearson said. “As the December 1 anniversary approaches, Indonesian authorities should stop arresting and detaining people simply for waving flags or peacefully urging independence.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Protestors in Mafraq governorate on 22 November calling for the release of political activists

© 2019 Private

(Amman) – Jordanian authorities are seeking to limit protests over austerity policies throughout 2019 by targeting protest leaders, participants, and other critics for harassment and arrest, Human Rights Watch said today. At least seven activists have been detained since September.

Most of those detained face charges related to social media posts that show them participating in protests or criticizing the country’s leadership. Jordan’s Penal Code prohibits insulting the king, queen, crown prince, and other “guardians of the throne,” a prohibition often described with the French phrase lese majeste. The authorities accuse other activists of “undermining the political regime,” a terrorism offense under the jurisdiction of the State Security Court. Jordanian authorities should stop using vague criminal provisions to limit freedom of expression and release anyone held for peaceful expression of their views.

“Jordan faces significant economic and political problems that are adding to citizens’ frustrations, but jailing activists and violating protesters’ rights may only hide popular discontent,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Allowing free expression is essential for giving citizens confidence that their concerns are being heard and taken into account.”

On October 13 2019, the authorities detained Moayyad al-Majali, 47, an employee at the Ministry of Justice and an independent researcher who had been looking into state property registered under the king’s name. In July, al-Majali submitted a request for information to the prime minister’s office, which rejected the request.

A family member told Human Rights Watch that on October 13, officers of the Jordanian police Criminal Investigation Unit searched his house, confiscated his electronic devices, and detained him. The next day authorities transferred him to the public prosecutor, who accused him of insulting the king, slandering the king, and “inciting strife” stemming from an article published on a local news website about his inquiry and research.

On November 3, authorities took him before the public prosecutor again, where he was accused of insulting the queen and defamation for a January Facebook post concerning the alleged use of state land. Al-Majali’s lawyers submitted 10 bail requests, which were rejected. The Justice Ministry suspended him on October 15, and he is currently on trial while held in Amman’s Marka prison.

On October 31, a group of unemployed Jordanians in the southern town of Karak began a sit-in in front of the governorate building. On November 15, the authorities arrested a participant in the protest, Khaled al-Sarayrah, 23, and other activists for not carrying their IDs. A family member told Human Rights Watch that family members went to the local police station to present Sarayrah’s identification but that the police refused to release him. Family members said that the public prosecutor ordered his detention for a week on the suspicion of criticizing the king, then released him on November 21.

Police preventive security officers detained another activist, Alaa Malkawi, 34, on October 25 while he was on his way to a planned protest at Amman’s fourth circle, next to the prime minister’s office. The officers transferred him to the police electronic crimes unit, where authorities accused him of insulting the king and taking part in an illegal gathering. The authorities extended his detention administratively on November 25. His lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the accusation is based on a video posted online in 2018 showing him at a protest asking Jordanian authorities, “What did you do in the past 20 years?”

The authorities also detained four activists affiliated with the hirak Bani Hassan, a coalition organized by one of the largest tribal groups in the country demanding political reforms. In recent months, hirak Bani Hassan has held protests in various governorates but also joined in the weekly protests in front of the prime minister’s office in Amman.

One hirak member, Hisham al-Saraheen, 50, was detained on October 25 when about 50 uniformed police and plainclothes officers blocked the road to stop the car he was travelling in, a witness told Human Rights Watch. The police took al-Saraheen to the police preventive security department in Amman for interrogation and then transferred him to the state security public prosecutor. The prosecutor ordered his detention for “undermining the political regime” based on a video posted online in which he was chanting at a protest, his lawyer told Human Rights Watch.

A group of about 25 masked men detained a second hirak member, Abdullah al-Khalayleh, 42, on October 27 at the gym where he was exercising, an activist and family member told Human Rights Watch. His lawyer said he is charged with “undermining the political regime” and criticizing the king and queen based on videos posted on his Facebook profile. He is in Marka prison. The arrests of al-Saraheen and al-Khalayleh led to violent street protests by residents of Zarqa’s Awajan district, where both activists live.

Authorities detained another hirak member, Khaled al-Khalayleh, 53, on November 3 after he arranged a peaceful protest in front of Zarqa’s governorate building demanding the two men’s release, an activist told Human Rights Watch. The public prosecutor ordered his detention for two weeks for insulting the king and queen. He remains in detention under investigation.

The authorities detained a fourth hirak member, Abd al-Rahman Shdeifat, 30, on November 10 after a he finished a job interview in Mafraq, a family member told Human Rights Watch. Al-Rahman Shdeifat’s whereabouts remained unknown until November 15, when his family was able to visit him in Bab al-Hawa prison in Irbid.

A family member who spoke to Shdeifat said that at least seven masked men surrounded him as he left the interview and detained him without providing an arrest warrant. They took him to the preventive security department in Amman where he was interrogated for four hours about his activism. On November 11, authorities transferred him to the state security public prosecutor, who ordered his detention for undermining the political regime, insulting the king and queen, and inciting civil strife.

Abd al-Karim al-Shraydeh, 52, a lawyer and a head of a local nongovernmental organization, is currently on trial for criticizing the king. He told Human Rights Watch that the electronic crimes unit of the Jordanian police summoned him on September 2 and detained him. He was released after two weeks pending the trial. The evidence against al-Shraydeh is a video he posted to his Facebook page about high levels of poverty in the country and perceived corruption. In it, he addresses the king, stating “Fear God in what you’re doing to people.”

Since mid-November, Jordanians began tweeting the hashtag #stop_arrestjo to call attention to arrests and pressure authorities to release all those detained on charges tied to their peaceful statements and criticisms of authorities.

Freedom of expression is guaranteed under article 15 of Jordan’s constitution. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Jordan is a state party, protects the right to freedom of expression, including “freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice” (article 19).

International law allows only narrowly defined restrictions on these rights that conform with the law and are necessary in a democratic society for national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. Such restrictions should rarely, if ever, limit public and peaceful criticism of state leaders and institutions.

“Telling Jordanian activists to shut their mouths and go home or risk arrest will not ameliorate legitimate concerns about the economic situation or perceived government corruption,” Page said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Two men check their phones in Kaduna, Nigeria, Saturday Feb. 23, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Jerome Delay

Nigerian campaigners are speaking out against a bill that would regulate engagement on social media with the campaign #SayNoToSocialMediaBill. The Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019 was presented in the Senate for a second reading last week before being passed on for further consideration. Activists have called for a rally at the National Assembly this Wednesday to protest the bill.

The bill prohibits statements on social media deemed “likely to be prejudicial to national security” and “those which may diminish public confidence” in Nigeria’s government. It proposes these offenses be punishable by a fine, a prison sentence of three years, or both. The bill also seeks to allow law enforcement agencies to order internet service providers to disable internet access. 

Lawmakers championing the bill claim it is necessary in the interests of security, peace, and unity, but the language of the bill would appear to create vague criminal offenses that would allow the authorities to prosecute peaceful criticism of the government. This would violate international law protecting freedom of speech. With about 29.3 million users across Nigeria, social media is a critical tool for shaping public discourse.

A bill to regulate social media was first considered in 2015 but failed to pass into law after similar public outcry. In the same year, however, the Cybercrimes law was enacted, criminalizing a broad range of online interactions. Authorities have charged activist Omoleye Sowore and at least five bloggers under this law. Several other recent arrests and detentions of journalists and activists, raids, and shutdowns of media outlets suggest a disturbing trend toward repression of freedom of expression in Nigeria.

In another worrying move, the Nigerian Senate reintroduced a hate speech bill on November 12 that would have made the death penalty a possible punishment for hate speech. The death penalty provision was later removed from the bill following immense public pressure. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty.

Nigeria’s constitution, like international and African human rights law, protects the right to freedom of expression and provides that any restriction to this right must be justifiable in a democratic society. Nigerian lawmakers need to ensure the rights of everyone to peaceful criticism of the government without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanctions.

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

A screenshot of Mada Masr's homepage on November 26, 2019. 

© Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Egyptian security forces raided the headquarters of the Cairo-based independent news website Mada Masr on November 24, 2019, as part of the government’s suppression of media freedom in Egypt, Human Rights Watch said today.

Plainclothes security forces held journalists and media workers in Mada Masr’s headquarters for several hours and confiscated staff property. The security forces briefly detained the website’s chief editor, Lina Atallah, as well as two Egyptian and two foreign journalists, according to tweets posted by Mada Masr. The raid followed Mada Masr’s reporting on November 20 that Mahmoud al-Sisi, the son of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, had been removed from his position as a senior officer in the General Intelligence Service.

“The security forces’ raid on Mada Masr, one of Egypt’s last news outlets that is not a government mouthpiece, is part and parcel of President al-Sisi’s attacks on media freedom,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “President al-Sisi seems intent on eliminating all independent journalism in the country.”

On November 23, the day before the raid, Egyptian authorities arrested Mada Masr journalist Shady Zalat at his home in Cairo and held him incommunicado for more than 30 hours. Security forces dumped him on the side of Cairo’s Ring Road later the next day, about the time the raid on Mada Masr’s office ended.

Mada Masr said that nine security force personnel in civilian clothes broke into the office at about 1:30 p.m. on November 24 and confiscated the staff's laptops and mobile phones. The security forces refused to tell the staff the agency who they were with and did not present a search warrant.

Security forces detained all those in the office for several hours and refused to let lawyers in until they later escorted Attalah and her colleagues Mohamed Hamama and Rana Mamdouh to Cairo’s al-Dokki police station. The three were then taken in a police van, apparently heading to State Security Prosecution. However, the van abruptly changed course and returned them to the police station, where the three were released around 6:15 p.m.

Mada Masr tweeted that security forces escorted two foreign journalists working with Mada Masr – Ian Louie, a US citizen, and Emma Scolding, a British citizen – to their apartments, where security forces photographed the journalists’ passports. Police also briefly detained a France 24 crew that was in the Mada Masr office at the time of the raid to interview Attalah. Mada Masr tweeted that French embassy representatives attempted for an hour and a half to gain entry to Mada Masr’s office before being permitted to escort out the France 24 crew.

Late on the night of November 25, the State Security Prosecution said in a statement that the security raid occurred under a prosecutor’s direction after it received a “National Security Agency’s memo that the Muslim Brotherhood has established a website to disseminate false news and rumors to disrupt general security.” Human Rights Watch and several other organizations have documented that the National Security Agency memos consist of mere allegations by security officers without any supporting evidence. Often, these allegations constitute no recognizable offense under international law and violate basic rights.

Al-Sisi’s government has detained or imprisoned scores of journalists. About 30 journalists remain incarcerated, making Egypt among the countries with the highest number of incarcerated journalists, according to Reporters without Borders, which ranked Egypt 163 out of 180 countries for press freedom in 2019. In recent years, al-Sisi has approved several laws that further curtail freedom of expression and provide for censorship without judicial review.

The authorities have blocked the Mada Masr website as well as several hundred other news and human rights websites over the past two years without judicial orders. The authorities routinely block alternative links to access Mada Masr articles in Egypt as well.

Mada Masr is a well-regarded Arabic and English website founded in 2013 by Egyptian journalists after the weekly Egypt Independent, where they had worked, was shut down. Almost all mainstream media outlets in Egypt are either owned by companies linked to Egyptian intelligence services or by businessmen with close ties to the government. It has become routine to see major private and government newspapers print the same headlines praising the government in a style that is reminiscent of the late 1960s.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Bangkok) – Vietnamese authorities should drop all charges against the blogger Pham Van Diep and immediately release him, Human Rights Watch said today.

Pham Van Diep 

© 2018 private

Pham Van Diep will face trial on November 26, 2019 in Thanh Hoa Province on charges of posting, liking, and sharing information on Facebook in violation of article 117 of Vietnam’s penal code, which criminalizes publication or distribution of information “that aims to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”

“Article 117 of Vietnam’s penal code is designed to muffle dissenting voices, and this is the fourteenth Facebook member prosecuted in 2019 for violating it,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “Concerned governments and social media companies need to speak out against this abusive law.”

Pham Van Diep, 51, is a longtime human rights advocate and critic of the Vietnamese government. He has repeatedly used blogs, and later his Facebook account, to address human rights abuses. He has also repeatedly attempted to use the country’s legal system to challenge the government and remarked on the futility of using these legal means.

A state media article, “[Police] detain Mr. Pham Van Diep for using social media to oppose the Party and the State,” said that:

“Mr. Diep often writes, shares, posts, distributes articles, photos, documents, and livestreams video clips with bad content that aim to distort the policies and guidelines of the Party, the policies and law of the State; calling for pluralism and a multi-party system; slander great men; smear the honor of the leaders of the Party and the state; defames and vilifies the government at different levels; urges the people to protest and oppose, causing disruption of security and order.”

Originally from Thanh Hoa, he traveled to Russia to study in December 1992 and stayed until June 2016. He began to write and publish online opinion pieces critical of the government in 2002. In 2006, he joined the Democracy Party 21, founded by the late dissident Hoang Minh Chinh. In 2009, Pham Van Diep wrote an article defending Tran Anh Kim, a democracy campaigner, and in 2010, he wrote to support Cu Huy Ha Vu, a rights defender.

In the summer of 2011, during a trip home to Vietnam, he participated in two anti-China protests in Hanoi. In 2012, he wrote an open letter to the Communist Party of Vietnam, criticizing article 4 of the Vietnam Constitution, which declares that the Communist Party is the leading force of the state and the society. He also urged the Vietnamese government to abolish former article 258 (now article 331) of the penal code and immediately release anyone imprisoned under this article.

Pham Van Diep has previously faced numerous problems traveling to and from Vietnam and has filed court cases challenging restrictions imposed on his travel – always without success.

In 2007, during a trip to Vietnam to visit family, he was summoned for questioning and was only allowed to leave the country four months later.

In April 2013, Pham Van Diep flew back to Vietnam and was denied entry. He returned to Russia, filed a complaint at the Vietnamese embassy, and remotely filed an administrative lawsuit in Hanoi. He received no response to either. He tried again, twice in December 2013, again complained to the embassy, and again received no response.

He tried twice again in June 2016 and was denied entry, then tried again from Laos, where his passport was confiscated. He then staged a protest against Vietnam’s Communist Party at the Victory Monument in Vientiane, was arrested, and charged with “using the territory of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to oppose neighboring countries.” A Laos court put him on trial in February 2018, convicted him, and sentenced him to 21 months in prison.

He was released in March 2018 and taken by Laos police to the Cau Treo border crossing. Vietnamese authorities, for reasons that are not clear, allowed him to enter the country.

In June 2018, he participated in a protest in Hanoi against a draft bill on special economic zones. The police detained him for several hours, during which they struck him three times in the head, he said. He filed a lawsuit against the police citing their excessive force, which a court dismissed, then petitioned the government to protest the decision.

Pham Van Diep opened a Facebook account in October 2018. Until his arrest in June 2019, he posted and shared news on social and political issues such as land confiscation, police brutality, corruption, and the protests in Hong Kong. He criticized the cyber security law and urged the government to abolish the-Party-elects-the-People voting system to move toward a free election.

On May 26, he wrote that “The Vietnamese people must be allowed to enjoy the rights enshrined in the International Covenant [on Civil and Political Rights] and in Vietnam’s constitution and law. It is a legitimate demand. Men who abuse power will not be able to crush us.”

In April, Pham Van Diep attempted to leave Vietnam for Russia but was stopped at the airport and told he was on a list of people not allowed to leave the country. He filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the police for keeping him in Vietnam.

“All Pham Van Diep has done in the last 17 years is voice his opinions about important social and political issues and protest his persecution for speaking out,” Sifton said. “There is no good reason for Vietnam to treat him as a criminal.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Activists hold blue shirts that read: "Condemning on charge by military [is] oppressing freedom of expression," during the trial of members of the Student Union and leaders of Peacock Generation "Thangyat" performance group in Yangon, Myanmar. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Thein Zaw
(Bangkok) – A Yangon court handed down more convictions against members of a satirical theater troupe for allegedly mocking Myanmar’s armed forces, Human Rights Watch said today.

On November 18, 2019, a court in Botataung township sentenced six members of the Peacock Generation Thangyat troupe to one year in prison. Seven troupe members had been arrested earlier in the year for performing satirical slam poetry known as thangyat, a traditional vehicle for humorous criticism of topics from politics to social behavior.

“Court rulings that performance artists are a threat to the military make a mockery of free expression rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The Myanmar military’s ridiculous efforts to intimidate these actors for satirizing the military show how low they will stoop to silence critics.”

The Myanmar authorities should immediately quash all the verdicts and drop pending charges against members of the troupe that violate the right to freedom of expression.

The troupe members were convicted of violating section 505(a) of the criminal code, which makes it a crime to make any statement with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, any member of the armed forces “to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty as such.” Five of the troupe members were sentenced under the same charges by another court in Yangon’s Mayangone township in October and will serve a minimum of two years in prison.

They are Kay Khine Tun, Zayar Lwin, Paing Ye Thu, Paing Phyo Min, and Zaw Lin Htut. They have been held without bail in Myanmar’s Insein Prison since being charged in April. Su Yadanar Myint, who was arrested in May, will serve one year.

Zayar Lwin, Paing Ye Thu, and Paing Phyo Min still face charges under 505(a) in three other township courts in the Ayerwaddy region.

“This shouldn’t be happening,” Paing Ye Thu told Human Rights Watch immediately after the trial on November 18. “Thangyat is our traditional custom and the military is just abusing its power by charging us so many times in different courts.”

The seventh defendant, Nyein Chan Soe, was acquitted of 505(a) charges by the Botataung court on November 18. However, he will be released on bail as he still faces charges under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law at the same court.

All seven defendants are facing additional charges under section 66(d) for “defaming” the military, which brings a maximum prison sentence of two years. The authorities have repeatedly used section 66(d) against those criticizing the government or the military online.

In an open letter published on the Civicus website on November 15, the seven members stated: “We will keep criticizing and pointing out the flawed system in different ways because it is important for us to amend the constitution and to get the military out of politics so that we can pursue genuine democracy in Myanmar.”

Speech critical of the government is increasingly subject to prosecution in Myanmar by members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) as well as by the military. More than 250 people have faced criminal lawsuits in 2019 under various laws restricting freedom of expression.

Section 354 of Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution states that all citizens should be at liberty “to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, in its general comment on the right to freedom of expression, stated that the “mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties.” Thus, “all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.”

“Myanmar’s friends and donors have good reason to be wondering why the military is persecuting a theater troupe,” Robertson said. “Unless such trials stop, it’s hard to have hope for free expression in Myanmar.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am