civic freedoms

  • Thailand: Halt prosecution of pro-democracy activists and protesters

    His Excellency Somsak Thepsuthin
    Minister of Justice
    Ministry of Justice,
    The Government Complex,
    Chaeng Wattana Rd., Laksi Bangkok 10210

    Thailand: Halt prosecution of pro-democracy activists and protesters

    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global alliance of civil society organisations (CSOs) and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society around the world. Founded in 1993, CIVICUS has more than 10,000 members in more than 175 countries throughout the world.

    We are writing to you with regards to our concerns around civic freedoms in Thailand. Since the beginning of 2021, scores of activists and critics have been charged for lèse majesté, sedition and other violations. Cases we are particularly concerned by include:

    • On 19 January 2021, a woman was jailed for 43 years for criticising the royal family online. Anchan Preelert, a food seller and former civil servant, faced 29 counts of “insulting the monarchy”, or lèse majesté, under Article 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code and provisions of the Computer Crime Act[1]. She was arrested in January 2015 and detained for nearly four years until November 2018, when she was released on bail. Anchan was initially detained incommunicado in a military camp for five days before her transfer to a detention facility. She was repeatedly denied bail.
    • On 9 February 2021, the authorities indicted[2] pro-democracy activists Arnon Nampha, Parit Chiwarak, Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, and Patiwat Saraiyaem on lèse majesté charges for their onstage speeches during a September 2020 political rally. Each accused faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted. The activists were also charged with sedition under Article 116 of the penal code, which carries a penalty of up to seven years in prison. The four have pleaded not guilty to the charges. The Bangkok Criminal Court also denied bail requests and ordered the activists into pretrial detention. The order could condemn them to detention for years until their trial is concluded. Somyot Pruksakasemsuk and Parit Chiwarakan were granted bail on 23 April and 11 May 2021 respectively.[3]
    • On 8 March 2021, three activists - Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, Panupong “Mike” Jadnok and Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa - were charged with lèse majesté and denied bail in connection with a demonstration in Bangkok in September 2020. The activists were also charged with sedition. Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul and Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa have since been released on bail. 15 other activists were also charged for their involvement in the pro-democracy protests, including with sedition or organising illegal gatherings, and granted bail. [4]
    • On 1 April 2021, prosecutors indicted five pro-democracy activists on charges of ‘attempting to harm the queen’ during a street demonstration in October 2020, during which some protesters shouted slogans critical of the monarchy. The five – veteran activist Ekachai Hongkangwan, Mahidol University student Bunkueanun Paothong, Suranart Paenprasert and two others - pleaded not guilty in a Bangkok criminal court to violating section 110 of the criminal code, which states that whoever attempts an act of violence against the queen or the royal heir faces 16-20 years’ imprisonment. All five deny any wrongdoing and were released on bail. Queen Suthida was not in any evident danger in the incident, which occurred when a limousine carrying the queen passed through a small crowd of protesters.[5]
    • On 24 May 2021, the Central Juvenile and Family Court informed 17-year-old Thanakorn Phiraban that he had been indicted on lèse majesté under charges related to his speech at a pro-democracy rally in December 2020 in Bangkok.[6]

    In February 2021, UN human rights experts said lèse majesté laws have “no place in a democratic country.” They expressed serious concerns about the growing number of lèse majesté prosecutions and harsh prison sentences that courts in Thailand have meted out to some defendants.[7]

    We are also concerned about attempts to restrict protests which resumed in February 2021 and the use of excessive force by the security forces.

    • On 28 February 2021, authorities barricaded[8] a road facing a compound of army barracks in an attempt to block pro-democracy protesters who had marched from Victory Monument in Bangkok to military barracks on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road, housing the prime minister’s residence. Razor wire was placed to prevent pedestrians from using the bridge in front of the barracks. The Thai police shot rubber bullets and used water cannon and tear gas against the protesters; in response, protesters threw bottles and other objects at the police. At least 16 people were injured.[9]
    • On 20 March 2021, scores of people were injured and arrested in Bangkok after police used water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a rally by pro-democracy protesters calling for the release of detained activists, constitutional changes and reform of the nation’s monarchy.[10] The organisers of the rally had said they planned to have demonstrators throw paper planes with messages over the palace walls. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a watchdog organisation, reported 32 detained. Among those arrested were seven unaccompanied minors. They faced six charges, which include breaking the Emergency Decree’s ban on mass gatherings, causing public disturbance and resisting arrests. At least 33 people were reported injured, including 13 police officers and two reporters were hit by rubber bullets.

    These actions are inconsistent with Thailand’s international obligations, including those under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Thailand ratified in 1996. These include obligations to respect and protect fundamental freedoms which are also guaranteed in Thailand’s Constitution.

    As such, we urge Thai authorities to take the following steps as a matter of priority:

    • Immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against the pro-democracy protesters and lift all restrictions on the exercise of their human rights;
    • Pending their release, ensure that they are protected from torture and other ill-treatment and have regular access to lawyers of their choice, their family members and to medical care;
    • Revoke emergency measures imposing restrictions on the rights to freedom of assembly and expression
    • Create a safe and enabling environment for activists, human rights defenders and other members of Thailand’s civil society to peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly without intimidation, harassment, arrest or prosecution

    We express our sincere hope that you will take these steps to address the human rights violations highlighted above.

    Yours sincerely,

    David Kode
    Advocacy & Campaigns Lead.
    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation

    Mr. Wongsakul Kittipromwong
    The Attorney General of the Kingdom of Thailand

    His Excellency Don Pramudwina,
    Foreign Minister of the Kingdom of Thailand

    His Excellency Sek Wannamethee, Ambassador and Permanent Representative
    Permanent Mission of Thailand to the United Nations


    [1] ‘Thai woman jailed for record 43 years for criticising monarchy’, BBC News, 19 January 2021 

    [2] ‘Four Thai Activists Denied Bail Ahead of Next Month's Trial’, VOA News, 9 February 2021 

    [3] ‘Thai Court Grants Bail to Pro-Democracy Activist on Hunger Strike’, Benar News, 11 May 2021

    [4] ‘3 More Thai Pro-Democracy Protest Leaders Jailed on Royal Defamation Charges’, Benar News, 8 March 2021

    [5] ‘Thailand pro-democracy activists charged over protest near queen's motorcade’, The Guardian, 1 April 2021

    [6] ‘Thailand: Child Prosecuted for Insulting Monarchy’, Human Rights Watch, 27 May 2021

    [7] ‘Thailand: UN experts alarmed by rise in use of lèse-majesté laws’, OHCHR, 8 February 2021

    [8] ‘Police clash with protesters, rubber bullets, tear-gas fired’, Thai PBS, 28 February 2021

    [9] ‘Thai protesters, police clash near PM’s residence’, Al Jazeera, 28 February 2021

    [10]‘Thailand protests: scores injured as police clash with pro-democracy activists’, The Guardian , 21 March 2021

    Civic Space in Thailand is rates as Repressed by the CIVICUS Moitor 

  • Timor-Leste: States must call on the government to protect civic freedoms

    International human rights groups raise the alarm about the state of civic rights in Timor-Leste ahead of the country's review at the United Nations Human Rights Council on 27 January 2022.

  • UGANDA: ‘No candidate can possibly win the election without young people’s votes’

    CIVICUS speaks with Mohammed Ndifuna, Executive Director of Justice Access Point-Uganda (JAP). Established in 2018, JAP aims to kickstart, reignite and invigorate justice efforts in the context of Uganda’s stalled transitional justice process, its challenges implementing recommendations from its first and second United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Reviews and the backlash by African states against the International Criminal Court.

    Mohammed is an experienced and impassioned human rights defender and peacebuilder with over 15 years of activism in human rights and atrocity prevention at the grassroots, national and international levels. He was awarded the 2014 European Union Human Rights Award for Uganda, has served on the Steering Committee of The Coalition for the Criminal Court (2007-2018) and the Advisory Board of the Human Rights House Network in Oslo (2007-2012), and currently serves on the Management Committee of The Uganda National Committee of Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities.

     Mohammed Ndifuna

    What is the state of civic space in Uganda ahead of the much-anticipated 2021 elections?

    Civic space in Uganda may be characterised as harassed, stifled and starved. It would seem like civil society has been on a slippery slope of sorts, with things turning from bad to worse. For instance, civil society organisations (CSOs) have witnessed a wave of brazen attacks against their physical space in the form of office break-ins and broad-daylight workplace raids. In the meantime, there seems to be no let-up in the waves of attacks against CSOs, and especially against those involved in human rights and accountability advocacy. Over the past few years, an array of legislation and administrative measures has been unleashed against CSOs and others, including the Public Order Management Act (2012) and the NGO Act (2016).

    Ahead of the general and presidential elections, which will be held on 14 January 2021, the Minister of Internal Affairs has ordered all CSOs to go through a mandatory validation and verification process before they are allowed to operate. Many CSOs have not been able to go through it: by 19 October 2020, only 2,257 CSOs had successfully completed the verification and validation exercise, including just a few that do mainstream advocacy work on governance.

    Ugandan CSOs are largely donor-dependent and had already been struggling with shrinking financial resources, severely affecting the scope of their work. This situation became compounded by the COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdown that was imposed in response, all of which impaired CSO efforts to mobilise resources. Therefore, these three forces – harassment, restrictions and limited access to funding – have combined to weaken CSOs, pushing most of them into self-preservation mode.

    The stakes for the 2021 elections seem to be higher than in previous years. What has changed?

    The situation started to change in July 2019, when Robert Kyagulanyi, better known by his stage name, Bobi Wine, announced his bid to run for president as the candidate of the opposition National Unity Platform. Bobi Wine is a singer and actor who is also an activist and a politician. As a leader of the People Power, Our Power movement, he was elected to parliament in 2017.

    Bobi’s appeal among young people is enormous, and let’s keep in mind that more than 75 per cent of Uganda’s population is below the age of 30. This makes young people a significant group to be wowed. No candidate can possibly win the Ugandan election without having the biggest chunk of young people’s votes. In the upcoming presidential race, it is Bobi Wine who appears most able to galvanise young people behind his candidature. Although not an experienced politician, Bobi is a charismatic firebrand who has been able to attract not just young people but also many politicians from traditional political parties into his mass movement.

    Bobi Wine, long known as the ‘Ghetto President’, has taken advantage of his appeal as a popular music star to belt out political songs to mobilise people, and his roots in the ghetto also guarantee him an appeal in urban areas. It is believed that he has motivated many young people to register to vote, so voter apathy among young people may turn out to be lower in comparison to past elections.

    Given the ongoing cut-throat fight for young people’s votes, it is no surprise that the security apparatus has been unleashed against young people in an apparent attempt to stem the pressure they are exerting. Political activists linked to People Power have been harassed and, in some instances, killed. People Power’s political leaders have been intermittently arrested and arraigned in courts or allegedly kidnapped and tortured in safe houses. In an apparent attempt to make in-roads into the ranks of urban young people, President Yoweri Museveni has appointed three senior presidential advisors from the ghetto. This raises the spectre of ghetto gangster groups and violence playing a role in the upcoming presidential elections.

    Restrictions on the freedom of expression and internet use have been reported in previous elections. Are we likely to see a similar trend now?

    We are already seeing it. Restrictions on the freedoms of expression and information are a valid concern not just because of hindsight, but also given recent developments. For instance, on 7 September 2020 the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) issued a public notice stating that anyone wishing to publish information online needs to apply for and obtain a licence from the UCC before 5 October 2020. This will mostly affect online users, such as bloggers, who are paid for published content. Obviously, this is meant to stifle young people’s political activities online. And it is also particularly concerning because, as public gatherings are restricted due to COVID-19 prevention measures, online media will be the only method of campaigning that is allowed ahead of the 2021 elections.

    There is also increasing electronic surveillance, and the possibility of a shutdown of social media platforms on the eve of the elections may not be too remote.

    How has the COVID-pandemic affected civil society and its ability to respond to civic space restrictions?

    The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken in response have exacerbated the already precarious state in which the CSOs find themselves. For instance, civil society capacity to organise public assemblies and peaceful demonstrations in support of fundamental rights and freedoms or to protest against their violation has been restricted by the manner in which COVID-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs) have been enforced. This has resulted in the commission of blatant violations and onslaughts against civic space. For instance, on 17 October 2020, the Uganda Police Force and the Local Defense Units jointly raided thanksgiving prayers being held in Mityana district and wantonly tear gassed the congregation, which included children, women, men, older people and religious leaders, for allegedly flouting COVID-19 SOPs.

    As the enforcement of COVID-19 SOPs gets intertwined with election pressure, it is feared that the clampdown on the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association will be aggravated. Regrettably, CSOs already find themselves restricted.

    How can international civil society help Ugandan civil society?

    The situation in which Ugandan civil society finds itself is such that it requires the urgent support and response of the international community. There is a need to turn the eyes towards what is happening in Uganda and to speak up to amplify the voices of a local civil society that is increasingly being stifled. More specifically, Ugandan CSOs could be supported so they can better respond to blatant violations of freedoms, mitigate the risks that their work entails and enhance their resilience in the current context.

    Civic space inUganda is rated repressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Justice Access Point through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@JusticessP on Twitter.

  • Upcoming UN review critical moment for Maldives to address civic freedom gaps

    CIVICUS and the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) call on UN member states to urge the Government of the Maldives to protect civic freedoms as its human rights record is examined by the UN on 4 November 2020 as part of the 36th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

  • Why we need a digital Geneva Convention

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    As Western governments look for ways to punish Russia for its brazen attacks abroad, one idea that has been getting a lot of media attention is the possibility of state-sponsored cyberattacks on Russia. Cyber operations may well be one of the most effective tools left in a depleted foreign policy toolbox but we cannot afford for rights and freedoms to become collateral damage in the new cyber arms race. We urgently need new norms and conventions that will protect civilian interests: a Geneva Convention for the digital world.

    Read on: Diplomatic Courier 

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