protests

 

  • HONG KONG: ‘The National Security Law infringes on freedom of expression and is intensifying self-censorship’

    CIVICUS speaks with Patrick Poon, an independent human rights researcher, on the human rights situation in Hong Kong after a new National Security Law (NSL) was passed in June 2020. Patrick is a PhD researcher at the University of Lyon, France, and has previously worked as a China Researcher at Amnesty International and in various positions at China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, Independent Chinese PEN Center and China Labour Bulletin. 

    Civic space in Hong Kong is under renewed attack sincemass protests for democratic freedoms, sparked by a proposed Extradition Bill, began in June 2019. TheCIVICUS Monitor has documented excessive and lethal force by the security forces against protesters, arrests and the prosecution of pro-democracy activists as well as a crackdown on independent media.

       Patrick Poon

    Why has the NSL been imposed in Hong Kong and what have its impacts been so far?

    The NSL, imposed by the Chinese government on 20 June 2020, without any consultation or legislative oversight, empowers China to extend some of its most potent tools of social control from the mainland to Hong Kong. The law includes the creation of specialised secret security agencies, allows for the denial of the right to a fair trial, provides sweeping new powers to the police, increases restraints on civil society and the media and weakens judicial oversight.

    The new law undermines Hong Kong’s rule of law and the human rights guarantees enshrined in Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law. It contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is incorporated into Hong Kong’s legal framework via the Basic Law and expressed in its Bill of Rights Ordinance.

    The Chinese government’s intention is to use the NSL to curb advocacy and support for independence as more people, especially young people, have increasingly embraced Hong Kong’s autonomy and their identity as Hongkongers. Although Hong Kong’s Basic Law enshrines a high degree of autonomy, the Chinese government apparently regards calls for autonomy and self-governance as a ‘danger to national security’.

    The NSL has seriously infringed Hong Kong people’s freedom of expression and is intensifying self-censorship in the city. Under the NSL, people who advocate for independence, as well as politicians and prominent figures who support foreign governments’ sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials who are responsible for enacting the NSL, have been the target of the arbitrary arrests. The government is obviously attempting to scare off others not to follow these people’s calls. 

    Independent media have also been affected by the crackdown. The arrests of Jimmy Lai, media mogul and founder of popular local paper Apple Daily, and senior executives in his company, signify the government’s attempt to punish news media that are critical of it. Reports about criticism against the NSL and calls for sanctions by foreign government officials become the excuse for the crackdown on independent media. This will have long-term impact on Hong Kong media, even further intensifying self-censorship for some media outlets.

    How have civil society and the pro-democracy movement responded?

    Civil society has reacted strongly against the law because the process to enact it violated the principle of the rule of law and procedural justice in Hong Kong, and the vague and broad definitions of various provisions of the law exceed the normal understanding of law in the city. Pro-China politicians and government officials have been trying hard to justify the law, but their arguments are preposterous. 

    How have the opposition and civil society reacted to the government’s decision to postpone the legislative election due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

    The 2020 Hong Kong Legislative Council election was originally scheduled for 6 September 2020, but in July the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, cited an upsurge in COVID-19 infections and used her emergency powers to postpone it for a whole year, so now it’s expected to take place on 5 September 2021. She denied that the change was due to any political speculation, but it was in fact a blow for pro-democracy activists, who were seeking a majority on the Legislative Council. 

    In the midst of massive protests, pro-democracy candidates had already won by a landslide in the 2019 District Council election. Along with the new NSL, the postponement of the election was viewed as part of the government’s strategy to neutralise the pro-democracy movement. Just prior to the announcement that the election was being postponed, 12 opposition candidates were disqualified from running, and four young former members of a pro-independence student group were arrested under the NSL for their pro-independence posts on social media.

    The postponement of the election created some conflict among the pro-democracy camp, with some calling for keeping up the fight in the Legislative Council and others urging a boycott over the government’s decision to postpone the elections. From the government’s decision to disqualify some pro-democracy candidates for their political views, it is clear that the government doesn’t want to hear any opposition voices in the legislature.

    What can the international community and international civil society organisations do to support civil society in Hong Kong?

    Civil society in Hong Kong needs to work together to ensure that the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government will not abuse the NSL to curb all dissenting views and closely monitor if the government abides by the principle of the rule of law and international human rights standards.

    The international community should continue speaking up against the Chinese and Hong Kong government’s crackdown on  civil society and keep raising concerns about the NSL, which is being forcibly imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese government in the name of national security, but in fact is no more than an attempt to silence dissenting views in the city. The international community should send a clear message that national security should not be used as an excuse to crack down on the freedom of expression.

    Civic space in China is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. 

     

  • HONG KONG: ‘This is a leader-full movement, ran by countless small networks of talented people’

    johnson yeungCIVICUS speaks about the protests that have rocked Hong Kong since June 2019 with Johnson Ching-Yin Yeung, democracy movement organiser and chairperson of the Hong Kong Civil Hub. The Hong Kong Civil Hub works to connect Hong Kong civil society with like-minded international stakeholders willing to help promote the rule of law, democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. 

    What triggered the mass protests that have taken place for several months?

    The protests had both short and long-term causes. When Hong Kong was decolonised in 1997, China signed an international treaty promising that people in Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy. In other words, Hong Kong would have its own government, legislation, courts and jurisdiction. But, long story short, China is not fulfilling that promise and Hong Kong is slowly becoming more like China due to Chinese intervention in our government and judiciary. Following the2014 Umbrella Movement, there have been increasing restrictions on the freedom of association, and for the first time in decades the government made use of colonial-era laws and outlawed organisations that advocated for Hong Kong’s independence. We expect restrictions on association, funding and exchanges with international organisations and civil society to increase over the next few years.

    Political participation has also been under attack. In 2017, for the first time since 1997, a few lawmakers were disqualified and expelled from the legislature. In the past three elections there have been disqualifications of candidates. This is becoming a major tactic used by China, based on claims that certain candidates are not respecting the law or they will not be loyal to Beijing. This explains why at some point people decided to take their grievances to the streets, given that most institutional channels for political demands are shut down.

    People took to the streets in 2014, under the Umbrella Movement. But protest is being severely punished. In April 2019, several pro-democracy leaders weresentenced to eight to 16 months in prison. Local leaders who advocate for political independence have also been punished with up to seven years of imprisonment.

    The current protests began in June 2019. On 9 June,more than a million people mobilised against the Extradition Bill, aimed at establishing a mechanism for transfers of fugitives to mainland China,  currently excluded in the existing law. Three days later, the legislature decided to continue the legislation process regardless of the opposition seen on the streets, so people besieged the parliamentary building, to which the Hong Kong police reacted with extreme brutality, firing teargas and rubber bullets, shooting into people’s heads and eyes.

    Amnesty International made a comprehensive report on the incidents of 12 June and concluded that the police had used excessive force, even though the protest had been authorised by the Hong Kong government.

    What changed after the repression of 12 June?

    There was a huge outcry because we had never experienced this kind of repression before, and two million people – almost one quarter of the population of Hong Kong – took part in the protests that took place four days after.

    From then on, protesters had a few additional demands on top of the initial demand that the extradition agreement be withdrawn, something that happened three months after the first protest. Protesters demanded the release of the arrested demonstrators and the withdrawal of the characterisation of the protests as riots, which is cause enough to hold someone and convict them: all it takes is for a defendant to have been present at the protest scene to face up to 10 years in prison for rioting. Protesters also demanded an independent inquiry into police activity. Over the past six months we’ve documented a lot of torture during detentions. Excessive force is used all the time against peaceful protests, so people really want the police to be held accountable. A recent survey showed that 80 per cent of the population support this demand. But the government is relying solely on the police to maintain order, so they cannot risk such investigation. Last but not least, there is the demand of universal suffrage and democratic rights, without which it is difficult to foresee anything else changing for real.

    What did not change was the government reaction and the police repression.Over the next few months, around 7,000 people were arrested – 40 per cent of them students, and 10 per cent minors – and around 120 people were charged. The fact that only 120 out of the 7,000 people arrested were charged shows that there have been lots of arbitrary arrests. The police would arrest people on grounds of illegal assembly. I was arrested in July when I was just standing in front of the corner line. I complied with police instructions, but I still got arrested.

    Thousands of people were injured during the protests. The official number is around 2,600 but this is a very conservative estimate because more than half of the injured people were not brought to public hospitals and did not seek medical assistance because they were afraid they would be arrested. Some doctors and nurses organised underground settlements to treat serious injuries like infections or rubber bullet injuries. But they had to remain anonymous and there simply were not enough of them and they didn’t have enough medical supply. There have been at least 12 suicides related to the protest movement. Lots of people have gone missing. Students and activists who are arrested are often deprived of their right to a lawyer and a phone call, and no one knows where they are detained. In many cases, it’s hard to verify whether people are in fact missing or have fled the country.

    Analysts have claimed that the strength of the current protests lies in their ‘leaderless’ character, something that prevents the government stopping the movement by jailing leaders. Do you agree with this characterisation?

    Many observers have seen the way we have used technology to coordinate the protests and they have concluded that our movement has no leaders. It is true that our movement is characterised by the decentralisation of communications and mobilisation. But this does not mean it is aleaderless movement. On the contrary, the Hong Kong protest movement is a leader-full movement: it is full of leaders and is run by countless small networks of talented people capable of organising and coordinating action on their own.

    While the demography of the protests is quite diverse in terms of age, background and social class, more than the 50 per cent of protesters are female, and the major force of the protests are people aged 20 to 49. There is also a strong presence of highly educated people: more than 85 per cent of protesters have tertiary education or above.

    But a notable characteristic of this disparate protest movement has been its unity, which may have resulted from the longstanding repression of civil society. When the leaders of the 2014 protests – most of them young students – were sentenced to prison, older people showed up at the protests because they felt that they had not been doing enough. People also united against police brutality, because there was no previous history of such a serious crackdown on protesters and people felt morally responsible to show up in support.

    Can you tell us more about how the protest movement has used technology for organising and coordinating action?

    During the first few months at least, people would rely on their cellphones and the Telegram app. People would have strategic discussions and channel these discussions into a Telegram channel. These are not the safest communication tools but they can hold more than 3,000 subscribers, which means that you can speak to 3,000 people at the same time, you can share action timetables, the site of protests or the location of the police with a huge number of people. We use a live map to inform protesters where the police are and where the protests are taking place, so they can avoid being arrested. Another app shows which businesses and stores are supportive of the movement. Pro-democracy businesses appear in yellow, while pro-government ones appear in blue.

    We also use Telegram bots for international advocacy. A group of people is dedicated to disseminating information on Twitter and Interact.

    We also use social media as a recruitment tool because after an action is held, people use social media to reflect about the strategies used and assess the outcomes. But after a few months, people started using online apps less and less. They would instead form their own groups and organise their own actions. There are frontier leaders, first leaders, people working on documentation, people who organise street protests – each is doing their own thing while at the same time warning others about clashes and organising timetables. This is how we use civic tech.

    How has the movement managed to grow and thrive in adverse conditions?

    Several elements explain why people keep showing up and why the movement is so resilient against government repression. First, people deploy their actions in their own neighbourhoods. We disperse action rather than concentrate it, because when we use concentration tactics, such as holding a protest in front of a government building, we become an easy target for the police. In the face of dispersed actions, the police would try to disperse protesters but would often end up attacking passers-by or people going about their business in their own neighbourhoods. For many people not involved directly in the protests, this was also a wake-up call and functioned as a recruitment mechanism: police brutality ceased to be a far-away problem; instead, it hit home and became personal, triggering a protective reaction.

    A tactic commonly used by protesters is the Lennon Wall, in which people post messages in public spaces, which creates a sense of community and helps organise public support. Lennon Walls appear in various places and people use them to send and receive information about the protests. People also put posters in bus stops so when people are waiting for the bus they can get information about the protests. People sing in protest in shopping malls. This way, people use their lunchtime to sing a song and protest while going about their business, and they reach people who don’t read the news and don’t pay much attention to politics. That is one of the key lessons here.

    Another key lesson concerns the importance of the unity between the moderate side and the radical front of the protests. Given that even authorised protests would be dispersed with teargas for no reason, some people began resorting to more militant actions to combat the police and protect their space. Some social movement analysts claim that radical incidents diminish popular support for the movement, but this does not seem to be happening in Hong Kong. In a recent survey, more than 60 per cent of respondents said they understood the use of violence by the people. I suppose that one reason why people do not reject militant actions is that they view the government and the police as responsible for most of the violence, and view violence by protesters as a fairly understandable response. Another reason is that radical protesters have been careful not to target ordinary people but only the police and pro-government businesses.

    What else have you learned in the process?

    A big lesson that we’ve learned concerns the effectiveness of creativity and humour to offset government repression. Protesters used laser tags to disable cameras used for the surveillance of protesters, so people started to get arrested for buying laser tags. After a student was arrested for possessing a laser tag, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in a public space and used laser tags to point at a public building. Another example of an effective response took place in early October 2019. There is a law that states that people can be jailed for a year if they wear a mask or anything covering their faces, so people responded in defiance, forming a human chain in which everyone was wearing some kind of mask.

    We’ve also come to understand the importance of global solidarity and leveraging geopolitics. The Hong Kong diaspora has organised a lot of lobbying and advocacy in various cities around the world. We have also lobbied foreign governments and supported the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bill that was introduced in the US Congress following the Umbrella Movement in 2014, but that was only passed in November 2019. This law requires the US government to impose sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, and requires the US Department of State and other agencies to conduct an annual review to determine whether changes in Hong Kong's political status – namely its relationship with mainland China – justify changing the unique and favourable trade relations between the USA and Hong Kong. This is huge, and we are trying to replicate this in other countries, including Australia, Canada, Italy and New Zealand.

    We have also done advocacy at the United Nations (UN), where some resolutions about police brutality have been passed. But the UN is quite weak at the moment, and aside from the documentation of human rights violations there is not much they can do. Any resolution regarding the protests will be blocked by China at the UN Security Council. That said, a thorough UN investigation on police brutality would send a strong message anyway. We have been communicating with human rights civil society organisations to do more advocacy at the UN.

    We are also looking for alternative tactics such as working with unions in France, because water cannons are manufactured in France and we hope something can be done about it.

    What have the protests achieved so far?

    The democratic camp has made a lot of progress. In November 2019 we had elections for the District Council. True, the District Council doesn’t have any real political power because it carries out neighbourhood duties, like garbage collection and traffic management. Still, in the latest election 388 out of 452 seats went to the pro-democracy camps, whereas back in 2015 they were only 125 pro-democracy representatives, compared with 299 who were pro-Beijing.

    That said, I don’t think the pro-democracy movement should put too much of its energy into institutional politics because the District Council is not a place where the political crisis can be solved. However, the elections served as a solid foundation for organisers to organise people at the local level.

    According to the polls, almost 90 per cent of the people supported independent investigation of human rights violations, more than 70 per cent demanded the resignation of the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, and 75 per cent supported universal suffrage. That kind of popular support has remained stable for several months, which is pretty amazing.

    What are the challenges ahead?

    While there is no sign of protests calming down, there is also no sign of the government making concessions anytime soon. Violence is escalating on both sides, and the protest movement might lose public support if some demonstrators decide to go underground. The Chinese government will not let itself be challenged by protesters, so it is infiltrating organisations and tightening the grip on civil society. Organised civil society is relatively weak, and Beijing can easily interfere with academic institutions, schools and the media by appointing more allies and dismissing those who are critical of the government. The next five years will likely be tough ones for civil society and democracy in Hong Kong, and we will have to work to strengthen civil society’s resilience.

    Another important issue is that a lot of young protesters are traumatised by the violence they have witnessed and experienced. We have support groups with social workers and psychologists, but they cannot provide support in their official capacity or they would find themselves under pressure by their employers who take money from the government. Social workers are also at risk and the police constantly harass them. To strengthen self-care and gain resilience for the battle ahead, we need to train more people and create support groups to help people cope, control their stress and share their stories.

    Another potential challenge is the limited sustainability of global solidarity. Right now Hong Kong is in the spotlight, but this will not last long. Our struggle is for the long haul, but the world will not be paying attention for much longer. So we will need to build more substantial and permanent alliances and partnerships with civil society groups around the world. We need to empower local groups and give people new skills regarding international law, advocacy and campaigning. The protest movement is not going anywhere. It’s going to be a long struggle so we will have to train more organisers. We will disseminate the knowledge gained by the protesters, so when they are sent to jail others will take over.

    Civic space in China is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with the Hong Kong Civil Hub through itswebsite and follow@hkjohnsonyeung on Twitter.

     

  • HONG KONG: ‘We may have not achieved our demands yet, but we've built solidarity’

    Millions of peopletook to the streets of Hong Kong in June 2019 to protest against a proposed Extradition Bill that would have allowed the government to send people, including foreigners, to face trial in mainland China, in courts controlled by the Communist Party. Many in Hong Kong see this proposal as eroding the special freedoms afforded to them under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model, established prior to Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997. CIVICUS speaks to Wong Yik-mo, vice convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, an umbrella body of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy groups, which has been among the organisers of the mass protests against the Extradition Bill.

    What has driven the mass protests over the past few weeks? What are your demands?

    The protests were part of a campaign to demand that the government withdraw the so-called Extradition Bill, which would amend the Fugitives Offenders Ordinance Bill to allow individuals, including foreigners, to be sent to mainland China to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party. This is clearly a direct threat to the rule of law in Hong Kong.

    The first march took place on 31 March 2019 and included only 12,000 protesters. We held five demonstrations in total, the biggest of which brought out one million people to the streets on 9 June and two million on 16 June.

    During the demonstration held on 12 June, tens of thousands of protesters assembled around the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region building and its nearby roads. The police used beanbag rounds, rubber bullets, pepper spray and batons on overwhelmingly peaceful protesters, leaving dozens injured.

    As things developed, we added new demands to the original one, which was focused basically on the withdrawal of the Extradition Bill. We are now also demanding the dropping of all charges against protesters and the retractation of the characterisation of the 12 June protest as a ‘riot’, an independent investigation into the abuses of power committed by the police during the 12 June protest, the resignation of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam and free elections.

    What were the tactics used to organise and mobilise the protests?

    The Civil Human Rights Front has organised demonstrations the ‘traditional’ way, that is, by notifying the police and advertising our plans beforehand. But many other protesters, such as those surrounding the Police Headquarters, organised and mobilised through the internet. They did it very smartly and were able to mobilise without leaders. It happens often that netizens discuss strategies online and when some good ideas come up, people echo and support them, and that is how tactics are chosen. People then know what to do, without the need for clear instructions.

    How have the government and the police responded to the protests?

    The government did not respond to our demands at all! Even after one million people took to the streets on 9 June the government announced that the second reading of the bill would continue as scheduled. On 12 June, protesters tried to stop the second reading by surrounding the Legislative Council, mostly in a peaceful way. The police however used excessive force against protesters: they fired teargas canisters at them, causing some of their clothes to be burnt. Ten canisters were fired at the protest area designated by Civil Human Rights Front, without any warning. When canisters landed in the middle of the crowds, they caused panic and nearly resulted in a stampede. Rubber bullets were also fired at the heads or faces of protesters, and bean bag rounds were also used.

    The police also targeted the press and fired teargas at first-aid stations where about 100 injured protesters had found refuge. In an effort to justify all this, the 12 June protests were subsequently referred to as ‘riots’ by the police and Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

    Do you think you have achieved anything so far and what are your next steps?

    Despite the fact that many protesters were injured, and some even decided to end their lives, the fact remains that two million people – more than a quarter of our population – took to the streets. The Chief Executive had to announce the ‘suspension’ of the bill. Although that was not the full withdrawal we demanded and we continue to fight for, that’s what we have achieved so far. And more importantly, we have built solidarity.

    From the 2014 Occupy Movement we learned that we should not blame each other, even if we tend to use different means of protest, such as peaceful demonstrations or some tactics such as storming buildings. In the course of the current campaign we have come to admit that all the protesters love Hong Kong, and that only by recognising each other’s effort can we be strong enough to fight against the government.

    What is the situation of the civic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression in Hong Kong? What is the likelihood of Hong Kong maintaining its own space distinct from China’s?

    The freedom of expression is shrinking. In schools and universities, speech is censored. Academic institutions claim to be ‘neutral’ and non-political, but apparently just criticising the government can get you in trouble. Candidates for the Legislative Council have been barred from running just for expressing their political views, even on social media posts.

    International best practice on the freedom of peaceful assembly is that notification should be provided to the police when protests are planned, for administrative reasons such as arrangements regarding traffic. In Hong Kong, however, one needs to obtain a Letter of No Objection in order to ensure that a protest is deemed ‘legal’. The police even have the right to issue a Letter of Objection, forcing protest organisers to require an authorisation rather than merely providing notification.

    What support do activists in Hong Kong need from the international community and international civil society to help build greater respect for human rights and democratic freedoms?

    We need the world to understand the special status of Hong Kong and create awareness globally, that we do not enjoy fundamental freedoms like we used to, and we don’t have democracy, unlike what most people would think.

    Many governments have criticised China’s human rights record when handling regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, and Hong Kong deserves the same level of attention. We urge the international community to put pressure on China to make sure that Hong Kong gets back its freedoms and its democracy is protected, as stipulated in its Basic Law. Foreign governments should also take into consideration Hong Kong’s special status as the bridge between the free world and China. If one day Hong Kong becomes just like China, and its rule of law is completely destroyed, then communication between the west and China would become even more difficult.

    Civic space in China is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Civil Human Rights Front through theirFacebook page.

     

  • INDIA: ‘An effective civil society is essential for advancing human rights’

    Quill FoundationCIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Aiman Khan and Agni Das of the Quill Foundation. 

    Founded in 2015, the Quill Foundation is an Indian civil society organisation (CSO) engaged in research and advocacy. Its work focuses on the human rights issues faced by underprivileged people, especially Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims, women, sexual minorities and differently abled persons.

    Why was the use of the hijab banned in Karnataka schools? 

    The hijab ban should be seen in the wider socio-political context of India. Since the beginning of 2022, Indian Muslim women have been subjected to violence and discrimination carried out by multiple offenders. It started with an app called ‘Bulli Bai’ that placed vocal Muslim women in an online auction. This violated their privacy, as it used their photos and information without their consent.

    Shortly after that, girls wearing the hijab were not allowed to enter a couple of colleges in Karnataka state in southwest India because the administration deemed the hijab a violation of the dress code for schoolgirls. This was followed by a Karnataka government order on 5 February. While this government order did not specifically ban the hijab, it did say that such ban would not violate Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees all citizens the right to freedom of conscience as well as freedoms to profess, practise and propagate religion. As the girls who were restricted from wearing the hijab filed petitions in the high court, the verdict decided against them and chose to impose what they should wear. Both the state government and the high court used the excuse of maintaining ‘uniformity’ in educational institutions to impose restrictions on Muslim women wearing the hijab.

    Following that order, several incidents of discrimination and violence against Muslim women were reported. They could not enter their educational institutions if they did not remove their hijab. Although the order did not include teachers, Muslim teachers were also asked to remove their hijab or burqa, a full body covering, at the gate of the campus. 

    How does the hijab ban relate to the overall status of minorities in India? 

    The hijab ban is arbitrary. it goes against India’s constitutional promise of secularism and fits into the trend of authorities using the law to criminalise minority communities. For instance, Karnataka’s anti-conversion law set barriers on converting to Islam or Christianity and made it more difficult for interfaith couples to marry. Following this law, the Christian community faced rising threats and violence as well as increased attacks on their places of worship.

    Generally speaking, minority communities are subjected to vilification because they are framed as ‘the other’. The Muslim minority is a specific target of persecution. At mass assemblies of the Hindu community, calls are often made for the genocide of the Muslim community and the mass rape of Muslim women. Calls for social and economic boycott of Muslims have been repeated frequently over the past few years. This has included taking mass oaths to boycott Muslims.

    Muslim business owners have suffered the full brunt of this incitement. In the states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, some Muslim-owned shops have been set on fire by rioters or demolished by the very same authorities that should protect them. The perpetrators of such communal violence enjoy impunity and face no consequences. 

    The restriction on the use of the hijab was introduced in the context of this rising culture of intolerance. Even though the court limited the restriction to within the classroom, it has been implemented far and wide, including to suspend Muslim women teachers and other working Muslim women. 

    What are the implications of the hijab ban for women’s rights?

    The high court’s verdict, which kept the ban on the basis that the hijab is not an essential part of Islam, erased Muslim women’s free will to choose for themselves and violated not only their right to education but also their freedom of practise their religion. 

    Several studies suggest that due to systematic discrimination against the Muslim community, Muslim women in India encounter extreme hurdles in accessing education, especially higher education. In this context, the hijab ban is patriarchal and regressive in nature, because it makes decisions on behalf of Muslim women regarding what to wear and how to practise their faith.

    The decision further pushes Muslim women out of educational spaces and places them under threat in any public space. More than 400 Muslim girls have already been not allowed to appear for their exams and are facing distress, and attacks on Muslim women wearing hijabs and burqas have also increased across India. But the authorities have still not acknowledged the violence that Muslim women are going through.

    How has civil society responded to the ban?

    There have been protests on two fronts. The girls who have been directly affected by this restriction are protesting outside their college gates and holding demonstrations in other public spaces. But they are facing intimidation and threats by Hindutva vigilante groups while also being warned that they will be criminally charged for protesting. 

    In bigger cities, protests are also being organised by human rights CSOs and Muslim groups, and particularly by Muslim women. 

    Following the Karnataka high court ruling, CSOs have played an important role in raising awareness about the implications of the verdict. Several CSOs rejected the court order while also producing analysis to help the public understand its intricate legal language.

    Civil society has been able to respond in a tangible and timely manner, offering unconditional solidarity and support to the schoolgirls affected by the order and experiencing trauma resulting from violence, discrimination and harassment in the aftermath of the high court order. Some CSOs have offered mental health counselling and other services.

    Other CSOs have offered litigation support, in two forms: first, by representing individual cases of religious discrimination and providing legal support to those who missed out on exams due to the ban; and second, by petitioning on larger issues before courts of law. There have been several petitions before the Supreme Court of India to challenge the Karnataka high court order.

    In short, the civil society response has been key because of its capacity to play a full range of roles to drive change, from the micro to the macro level. An effective civil society is essential for advancing human rights in India, and the international community can play a vital role in reinforcing the work of local CSOs to amplify marginalised voices.

    Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow@aimanjkhan and@AgniDas26 on Twitter.

     

  • INDIA: ‘Muslim girls are being forced to choose between education and the hijab’

    ZakiaSomanCIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Zakia Soman, a women’s rights activist and co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women's Movement, BMMA).

    Founded in 2007, BMMA is an independent, secular, rights-based civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for the rights of women and the Muslim minority in India.

    Why have girls wearing the hijab been banned from school in Karnataka state?

    Girls in hijab were denied entry into classrooms in the name of the school uniform rules, with the authorities citing a circular that states that each student must comply with the uniform requirement in school. Both the Karnataka government and the high court played the uniform card to justify preventing Muslim women wearing the hijab from entering the college campus.

    While educational institutions undeniably have the right to set their own rules, these cannot infringe the fundamental rights granted by the Indian Constitution. According to Article 25 of our constitution, all citizens are guaranteed the right to freedom of conscience as well as freedoms to profess, practise and propagate religion.

    And under no circumstance can a dress code for schoolgirls be more important than education itself. Muslim girls have the right to be in school with or without the hijab, which is why I oppose those who promote the court’s verdict as a decision that empowers women. Although I don’t believe in the hijab, I think it is wrong to discriminate against girls wearing it. Our nation will only progress when girls have access to education regardless of their religious affiliation.

    Does the hijab row indicate the rise of anti-minorities voices in India?

    Although it may sound like an internal disciplinary matter over girls wearing the hijab, the wider context of the hijab row is one of religious polarisation and politics of hate towards Muslims. The hijab row is an integral part of the politics of religious hate in India’s polarised milieu, where Muslims are the target of the growing anti-Islam propaganda aired on TV as well as on social media platforms.

    There is a spiralling nationwide campaign against the Muslim community under the garb of religious festivities. Journalists and other monitors have found deliberate, concerted violence against life, property and businesses of India’s Muslim community carried out by hooligans claiming to celebrate religious festivals in the states of Delhi, Gujrat, Karnataka and many others. But ultimately, the Indian state must be held responsible for the terrible living conditions experienced by millions of Muslims.

    How has civil society responded to the ban?

    Civil society has extended solidarity to the affected girls and has supported them. However, civil society’s response has so far failed to impress the government and the high court, which sadly ruled to uphold the hijab ban inside classrooms in Karnataka state.

    As for opposition parties, they have been unable to run a sustained campaign to challenge the climate created by hate speech and open calls for the genocide of Muslims. This is why it’s so important for the international community to stand up and support the voices of sanity in India.

    What have pro-hijab protests achieved so far?

    Peaceful protests have been held in support of Muslim women’s right to wear the hijab in educational institutions. However, I am afraid that conservative elements of the Muslim community got involved in the protests in a way that aggravated matters, making Muslim girls and their families even more vulnerable to political onslaught.

    In my understanding, neither the hijab nor the burqa, a full body covering, is mandatory in Islam; however, patriarchal elements would like to put every Muslim girl and woman behind a burqa or hijab. The matter could have been easily resolved through dialogue between college authorities and parents. Instead, it got politicised, with different religious and political outfits jumping in the fray with their radical and antagonistic positions.

    As a result, Muslim girls found themselves in a tough position, being forced to choose between education and the hijab, which is outright unfair to them. Since many Muslim parents will not allow girls to go to school without the hijab and schools will not give them entry into class with the hijab, many girls have dropped out of their studies and have not sat their exams.

    Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with BMMA through itswebsite and follow@BMMA_India on Twitter.

     

  • INDIA: ‘The hijab ban is just another tool used by right-wing politicians to remain in power’

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Syeda Hameed, co-founder and board member of the Muslim Women’s Forum (MWF).

    Founded in 2000, MWF is a civil society organisation (CSO) working for the empowerment, inclusion and education of Muslim women in India. Its primary goal is to provide Muslim women with a platform for expressing their aspirations and opinions on matters directly affecting their lives.

    Syeda Hameed

    How did the hijab row start?

    The controversy started in the town of Udupi, a small secular district of Karnataka state in southwest India, where girls wearing the hijab were not allowed to enter a college campus because the administration deemed it a violation of uniform rules. Some students protested against the ban, and protests escalated into violence.

    From this tiny part of Karnataka, the hijab row spread to other parts of the country. In response to Muslim women wearing the hijab on campuses, many Hindu students took to wearing saffron shawls, a colour seen as a Hindu symbol.

    The matter reached a Karnataka high court as some Muslim students filed petitions claiming that they have the right to wear the hijab under the guarantees provided by the Indian Constitution. But the high court’s verdict kept the ban, arguing that the hijab is not an essential part of Islam. Surprisingly, the bench in Karnataka includes one Muslim woman judge.

    What triggered the decision by Karnataka’s educational institutions?

    The decision to ban Muslim students from wearing the hijab in colleges’ premises came as a surprise. Such a ban is strange to our society. Unlike in France, where it has long been under the spotlight, the hijab had until very recently never been prohibited in India.

    Karnataka state is known for its diverse society and pluralistic culture, with the two major religious groups, Hindus and Muslims, historically coexisting, along with a wide spectrum of other religious groups.

    However, the roots of the Karnataka hijab controversy are quite deep, and are linked to growing Islamophobia. Those in power have ignited a sectarian fuse all over India in every possible way. Right now, Karnataka state also has a right-wing government, which has created fertile ground for strain in Hindu-Muslim relationships.

    To them, the hijab ban is just another tool to remain in power. It is tied to current political events, notably the upcoming December election. Right-wing politicians fabricate issues that target Muslims, who are depicted as the ‘disruptive other’, to divert people’s attention from dire economic conditions. The hijab ban did the job well, as it captured media attention. Sensational media coverage only added fuel to the fire.

    How do you view the hijab ban from a gendered perspective?

    The hijab ban is a complete violation of women’s rights to express their own identities. It should be my choice alone whether to wear the hijab or not. I am a believing and practising Muslim and I don’t wear the hijab. Muslim women of my generation usually did not wear the hijab, but younger generations of Muslim women across the globe do. I see it as a search for an identity in the face of the charged atmosphere created by Islamophobia. Indian Muslim women have worn the hijab for about a quarter of a century.

    We don’t oppose school uniforms because there is good reason for them, especially in a country such as India and all other South Asian countries, where both religious diversity and social inequality lead to differences in dress. But the use of the hijab in educational institutions had never been put to debate before the current Karnataka right-wing government suddenly considered it a violation of the school uniform rules.

    As I said, in my generation very few girls wore the hijab, and therefore my uniform was skirt and blouse, which was acceptable at the time. Later, when girls started wearing the hijab, the situation escalated from establishing that their hijab should match the school uniform colours to starting to throw them out of schools.

    What is the overall status of Indian Muslims as a minority?

    As a former member of government, I observed the status of minorities change over time. From 2004 to 2014 I was a member of a now-extinct Planning Commission that was entrusted, among other responsibilities, with bringing minorities up to mark with society in every way possible. For ten years, we devised all kinds of schemes in the areas of education, employment and health, and tried to ensure minorities made the most of them. Our main tasks were to make these plans and ensure their implementation across the country by persuading the governments of India’s states to embrace them.

    Change was slow because we did not have the power to force implementation. A key moment was when the government commissioned a report on the status of Muslims that provided a very candid conclusion by a retired Supreme Court judge. It stated that India’s 200 million Muslims, the second largest Muslim population in the world, had the lowest status on all social and economic parameters when compared to other religious groups. It should have been a wake-up call for the Indian government.

    But since then, it has only got worse. Recent so-called ‘Hindu religious gatherings’ include a call for the genocide of Muslims. Some have suggested that the saffron flag should replace India’s national flag. Many decisions have been made in violation of the constitution. This is an extremely difficult moment for Muslims in India. 

    And the hijab ban is very much part of Muslim marginalisation. Muslims are being driven to a corner and targeted by a right-wing government that demonises them to boost their support and remain in power.

    How has civil society responded to the ban controversy?

    Many CSOs have raised the issue and protested against the ban. Voices have also raised internationally, both from civil society and from influential individuals, as was the case of US congressional representative Ilhan Omar. Maybe if they became louder, these voices could drive positive change in the lives of India’s Muslims, which are becoming exceedingly difficult.

    Frankly, at times I feel it is a losing game. 

    All international attention that was paid to the ban has damaged the image of India without really making a dent on those in power, who only care about the upcoming general elections.

    Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Muslim Women’s Forum through itswebsite and follow@syedaIndia on Twitter.

     

  • ITALY: ‘The Sardines movement is all about building self-confidence in the progressive side of politics’

    CIVICUS speaks to Andrea Garreffa, one of the founders of the Sardines movement (Movimento delle Sardine), a grassroots political movement that began in November 2019 in Bologna, Italy, in protest against the hateful rhetoric of right-wing populist leader Matteo Salvini.

    Andrea Garreffa

    What inspired you to begin this movement?

    Regional elections were scheduled for 26 January 2020 in Emilia-Romagna, our home region – and when I say our, I refer to me and the other co-founders of the movement, Mattia Santori, Roberto Morotti and Giulia Trappoloni. On that moment there was a big wave towards the far right, represented by the League party and its leader, Matteo Salvini. There were very scary signs about the general political situation in Italy, one of which was the lack of respect shown to Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre, who was deported to Auschwitz and was the only survivor in her family. From the 1990s she started to speak to the public about her experience and in 2018 she was named senator for life. Segre received so many insults and threats on social media that in November 2019 she was assigned police protection. The situation was very scary; I am not ashamed to admit that I would often cry when I read the newspaper reporting such episodes.

    How was the first Sardines demonstration organised?

    As the election approached, my friends and I started thinking of a way to speak up and warn the League that the game was not over yet. We wanted to make this extremely clear, both to the far-right parties and to all citizens looking for a stimulus to empowerment. The League party had just won in Umbria and was announcing itself as the winner in Emilia-Romagna as well; they counted on this victory to destabilise the coalition government and return to power. We wanted to do something to stop that narrative. We started to think about this on 6 or 7 November 2019, just a week before Matteo Salvini, along with Lucia Borgonzoni, the League’s candidate to lead the regional government, kicked off their campaign with a rally at Bologna’s sports arena. We had in mind that the last time Salvini had come to Bologna he said that Piazza Maggiore, the main town square, could host up to 100,000 people, in an attempt to claim that was the number of people who attended his rally – something that is physically impossible, as only up to 30,000 very tightly packed people could actually fit into the square. In a way, we also wanted to draw attention to the information on the news and make sure he wouldn’t be able to cheat.

    In short, our idea was to organise a flash mob-style demonstration on Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, on the same day as Salvini’s rally, and we named it ‘6,000 sardines against Salvini’ because our aim was to gather around 6,000 people and our tactic was to show we were many – so we used the image of crowds of people squeezed together like sardines in a shoal. In the few days we had to organise it, we set the main narrative and prepared some templates that could be customised so each person was free to express themselves and be creative. Ours was a message that anybody could understand, and the actions required were something that anybody could do. We wanted to get rid of all the negative feelings linked to existing political parties, so the initiative was inclusive from the very beginning. It wasn’t linked to any party but rather open to anybody who shared its core values of anti-fascism and anti-racism.

    We sent out an invitation, not just through Facebook, which of course we did, but more importantly, we went out to the streets to distribute flyers and talk to people, so people could understand that the event was real and it was actually going to happen. It was surprising that just two days after we had launched the Facebook campaign, we were handing out flyers and people would say that they already knew about the event. Word of mouth worked incredibly well; in my opinion, this reflected a very strong need among people to do something to ensure Matteo Salvini did not win in Bologna and in Emilia-Romagna. People understood and felt the importance of this election. During the summer Salvini had destabilised the national government by ‘showing off’ in Milano Marittima, claiming pieni poteri – ‘full powers’, an expression used by Mussolini back in the day. Citizens could not stand the risk of such a poor show taking place again and really felt the call to action when the far-right propaganda started spreading messages such as ‘Liberiamo l’Emilia-Romagna’ (Let’s free Emilia-Romagna), as if people had forgotten their history lessons: the region had no need to be freed because that had already happened, at the end of the Second World War. People felt disrespected in their intelligence, and we stood up to make that visible and tangible. People are less stupid than what people in power tend to think.

    How did you know people would come?

    We had no clue. On the night of 14 November we found ourselves surrounded by this incredible crowd – the media reported there were 15,000 people – and we couldn’t quite believe it.

    We had expected a number of people to attend; we started to believe in the success of the initiative when we saw that from day one we were achieving every goal we set for ourselves. For example, we set up the Facebook page with the initial goal of reaching a thousand people, and the next day we were already more than three or four thousand. That was mostly for two reasons: firstly timing, as people were ready for an initiative like this, and secondly, the fact that we live in Bologna, so we know a lot of people and could easily spread the message.

    But on 14 November nobody knew what was going to happen. We told people there would be a surprise and managed to keep it secret until everybody had gathered, and at 8:30 pm we played a song by Lucio Dalla, Com'è profondo il mare, which translates as ‘how deep is the sea’. In one part of the song, the lyrics say that we are many, and we all descend from fish, and you cannot stop fish because you cannot block the ocean, you cannot fence it. This built up a lot of emotion, and people even cried because it was very powerful and could not believe it was happening for real. Older people felt young again, living emotions they thought lost forever in the 1970s. Young kids had the opportunity to participate in a massive and joyful party, which made them question the fact that politics is all boring and unemotional. I think the whole wave that came afterwards was born that first night. It built up from that initial emotion. We were not 6,000 but many more, and we sent out the message that the game was far from over and Salvini could not yet claim victory. This was key: whatever sport you play, if you enter the field thinking you are going to lose, you’ll lose. This was the general mood among left-wing parties and progressive citizens. We did what we could to make ‘our team’ believe in itself and its chances of victory. We may say that the Sardines movement is all about building self-confidence in the progressive side of politics.

    Who organised all the demonstrations that followed?

    The emotion of the first demonstration spread thanks to an impressive picture taken from the municipality building, which shows a red minivan surrounded by thousands of people. The picture spread all over the internet and social media. It helped focus a lot of attention on the regional election. All the international media was there so we offered them the image and that was the start of everything. The picture reflected the fact that something big was going on, so when people from other cities and even from other countries started trying to contact us, we set up an email address so anybody could reach out to us.

    We shared our experience and explained to anyone who contacted us how we set everything up in just six days: how we requested the permits for the gathering and for playing the music, how we took care of people, those things. We then organised all the information to share with whoever wanted to do something similar somewhere else. We also registered the name of the initiative, not because we wanted to own it, but to prevent its misuse and protect its underlying values. We spent hours and days on the phone with people from all around Emilia-Romagna, and then from other regions, until the movement was so big that we were able to announce a massive demonstration to be held in Rome in December.

    For the Rome event we didn’t even have to do much, because there were people in Rome organising the demonstration by themselves, and we were invited to attend as guest speakers. That was actually a strength, because this wasn’t people from Bologna organising an event for Rome, but people from Rome organising themselves, mobilising their friends and neighbours and inviting people to join.

    Right before the elections, on 19 January, we organised a big concert in Bologna, aimed at encouraging electoral participation. We didn’t want to pressure people to vote for this or that party, but rather encourage participation. Indifference had prevailed in the previous regional elections, and only 37 per cent of potential voters made use of their right. The higher turnout we achieved this time around, when 69 per cent of people voted, was by itself a victory of democracy.

    You mentioned that the movement spread both nationally and internationally. Did it also establish connections with other justice movements around the world?

    The movement reached an international scale in the very beginning, thanks to Italians living abroad who were reading the news, understood what was going on and got in touch with us. We reached out to people in dozens of major cities in countries around the world, including Australia, The Netherlands and the USA.

    That was the first step towards reaching international scale, and also the reason why the four of us were then invited to participate in the Forum on European Culture, held in Amsterdam in September 2020. We attended the festival and had the opportunity to meet representatives from Extinction Rebellion in the UK, the French Yellow Vests, Million Moments for Democracy, a protest organisation in the Czech Republic, Hong Kong’s Demosisto and Black Queer & Trans Resistance, an LGBTQI+ organisation in The Netherlands. We connected with other realities and learned about other movements. We started talking and dreaming about an event to bring together a wide variety of protest movements in the coming months or years, after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. We are now open and curious to find out what others are doing, but we remain independent. We do our thing, they do their own, and we collaborate when we get the chance.

    The 6000 Sardine Facebook page displays various expressions of solidarity with movements such as the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, #EndSARS in Nigeria and Black Lives Matter in the USA. Do you organise in solidarity with them?

    What we have done is get in touch with those movements, if possible, and let them know that we are going to send out a communication of solidarity, but that’s about it. We are busy enough trying to set up an organisation of our own to invest energy in trying to follow and understand what others are doing to build their own.

    We also have a common agreement that the movement is not the Facebook page, but a lot more. To us, Facebook is a communication channel and a useful way to spread messages, but it’s not the core of the movement. Sometimes it functions rather as a billboard where people share and exchange things, and not everything there is the result of a joint, organisation-level decision. To be honest, sometimes I open our Facebook page and I do not necessarily agree with everything that I see there. And this happens because of delegation of tasks and openness to participation.

    What are the goals of the movement now, and how have they evolved?

    We have given this a lot of thought because it all started as a spontaneous thing that was specifically related to the elections but then continued to grow. So we felt responsible for handling all this energy. We did our best to spread the right messages while not feeding illusion. We are still the same people we were last year, regardless of the experiences we went through, but we were not prepared for all of this. Day after day we learned how to deal with the attention, the media and everything that came with it. We focused on the need to set goals and a vision.

    We were at it when then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. On one hand it was very negative for us, as we couldn’t keep mobilising, but on the other hand it turned out to be a strange kind of positive, because it forced us to slow down. We took advantage of the lockdown to do the only thing that we could do: sit down and think. We managed to put together our manifesto, which was the result of multiple debates within our inner circle.

    The manifesto was a milestone, and our next steps were to try and make each of its articles visible and tangible in real life, which is what we are focusing on now. Following the metaphor of the sea, after the high tide came the low tide, which is more manageable, and we are trying to nurture the movement so it grows from the roots, more slowly but less chaotic and unstable. We try to be a point of reference to anyone who is looking for progressive ideas, without being a party but pointing out the direction.

    I would like to stress the fact that we started this movement with the idea that we should not point fingers at politicians or parties but ask ourselves what we are doing to bring into the world the change that we want. This means we don’t exclude approaches focused on little things such as taking care of your own neighbourhood. We include this kind of approach as well as more ambitious ones such us setting up the direction for progressive left-wing parties. We consider both approaches to be valid.

    We don’t exclude any discourse that converges with ours and upholds our core values. For instance, right now there is a lot of talk about how progressive the Pope is, so we are inviting people to talk about that, not because we are a religious movement but to spread the kind of positive messaging that is currently quite difficult to find in the political arena.

    A few months ago, we organised our first School of Politics, Justice and Peace. We held it in a small town, Supino, because it better fitted the model of local self-organisation that we want to promote. We invited people who are involved in the political arena to interact with activists in their 20s. The idea was to merge those worlds to create the kind of communication that social media platforms lack. We want to create opportunities for progressive people to meet with others and talk, not necessarily to find the solution to a specific problem but to make sure that there is a connection between people with decision-making power and people who are interested in participating and changing things, but don’t really know how.

    How did you keep the movement alive while in COVID-19 lockdown?

    We invited people all over Italy to focus on the local level because it was the only thing they could do. And we set the example to be credible to others. Many people in Bologna put their energy at the service of others, for instance by going grocery shopping for those who couldn’t leave their homes and getting involved in countless local initiatives, movements and associations. We encouraged this, because it was never our goal to replace existing organisations, but rather to revitalise activism and involvement in public affairs.

    But we did ask people to stay in touch, so we would have calls and organise specific events. For example, for 25 April, Liberation Day, we launched an initiative in which we shared clips from movies showing resistance to fascism and Nazism during the Second World War and invited people to project them out of their windows and onto neighbouring buildings, and film the event. We collected the recordings and put them together into a video that we disseminated on social media. Our core message was that we could all be present even if we could not physically get out. 

    In early May we also organised a symbolic flash mob in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore: instead of people we lined up around 6,000 plants, which we went on to sell online. Our volunteers delivered them by bike, and all the funds we collected went to the local municipality, which had committed to invest the full amount, matched one to one with their own funds, to support cultural events over the summer. Before delivering the plants, we staged an artistic performance on the square; then we moved the plants around to draw the shape of a bicycle on the floor. As a result of this initiative, we not only marked our presence in a public space but also channelled about €60,000 (approx. US$69,800) towards cultural events. Later on, people from all over Italy either replicated the initiative or told us they were interested in doing so; however, some couldn’t because it involved some complex logistics.

    And then one day the municipality told us that they had some unused plots of land that could potentially be turned into garden blocks and offered them to us. We organised volunteers who wanted to work on them so now these have become garden blocks in which vegetables are grown. People who invest their time and effort to work in these gardens keep half the produce for themselves and give the other half to communal kitchens that help people who cannot afford to buy food.

    Even under lockdown, we thought of Bologna as a lab where we could implement and test our ideas and encourage other people to do the same, by either replicating our initiatives or trying something different to see what happens. If you try things that are potentially replicable and easy for others to implement, and many people follow through, then you can achieve change on a considerable scale.

    Civic space in Italy is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Sardines movement through itswebsite orFacebook page.

     

     

  • KAZAKHSTAN: ‘No economic or social reform will bring real change unless there is also serious political reform’

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent protests in Kazakhstan and the state’s repressive response with Yevgeniy Zhovtis, a prominent human rights lawyer and director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR).

    Founded in 1993, KIBHR is a human rights civil society organisation aimed at promoting civil and political rights, democratic freedoms, the rule of law and the development of civil society through education, data collection, analysis and dissemination of information, and advocacy to harmonise domestic legislation with international standards. Yevgeniy is also a member of Panel of Experts on Freedom of Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute Council.

    Yevgeniy Zhovtis

    What caused the recent protests in Kazakhstan?

    The demands expressed in the recent protests have deep roots in processes that go back to the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when former Soviet republics started to transition towards a capitalist system based on private property. The problem in Kazakhstan was that members of the nomenklatura, the ruling class in Soviet times, and especially those in positions of authority in state-owned companies, became the owners of a big portion of the economy. These elites then started to incorporate elements of authoritarian political control to match their economic power, and gained control of the political space, independent media and public life in general.

    As a result, Kazakhstan turned into an authoritarian and oligarchic state, with much of the economy concentrated in the hands of a small group of people close to First President Nursultan Nazarbayev, his clan and his family, and ridden with social inequality.

    Unsurprisingly, over the years dissatisfaction grew. People were unhappy about illegal practices that bypassed institutions, corruption, social injustice and inequality, among other things. A protest movement grew in 2011 but ended in massacre. Residents of Zhanaozen, a city in southwest Kazakhstan, went on a hunger strike and set up a protest camp in the city’s main square for months, demanding higher salaries and better working conditions. In December 2011, the police opened fire on them and, according to official data, killed 17 and injured more than a hundred people.

    This became to some extent a moment of great symbolic power.

    As protests erupted in 2022, what were their demands?

    Ten years later, at the very start of 2022, the Ministry of the Economy freed the market for liquefied gas, which is the most important fuel for local cars. Prices went up by 100 per cent. 

    But the trigger for the 2022 protests was strikingly similar to that of the 2011 protest. People were angry not only because of rising gas and oil prices, but also because of economic mismanagement and corruption. It started with several thousand protesters in Zhanaozen on 2 January and within two or three days it spread to more than 60 cities all around the country. When anger reached a tipping point, many thousands took to the streets.

    Initially, protests in many places were driven by groups of political opposition, civic activists who were joined by workers and marginalised groups. It was not a situation in which the mass of the people mobilised against the government. Generally speaking, having lived under an authoritarian state for the past 17 years, people in Kazakhstan have no real political culture or a political voice. Public protests are illegal: people are not allowed to gather in central squares or in any place near a government building, so anyone who protests in the streets is committing an administrative offence.

    But people don’t seem to be so afraid anymore. By mid-January 2022, the protests that started in the west had spread out to other regions, and masses of diverse people joined, including not only big crowds of young people but also criminals, militants close to local elites and even some Islamic radicals.

    President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev tried to control the situation, replaced some security authorities and put himself at the head of the security council, replacing the First President, who was supposed to occupy this position for life. The government also shut down internet access for several days.

    Most protests were spontaneous, and Kazakhstan is a very diverse country, so there was no consolidated leadership. People kept protesting and adding more social and economic demands, which in turn ended up giving way to political demands, including the resignation of the government and removal of the First President and his clan from all positions in politics and the economy. There are no real opposition political parties but those that are close to having that role called out their supporters to protest.

    Protests were also mostly peaceful, but some aggressive young people, militant groups close to local elites and Islamic groups clashed with the police. They tried to seize government buildings and, in some cities, they ran out of control.

    How did the government respond?

    The government reacted with deadly violence, to the point that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had to urge it to end the violence towards protesters.

    As well as having control of the national security forces, President Tokayev resorted to Russian Security Forces as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization forces. He brought in more than 2,000 Russian troops, joined by Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan units. These also had a political purpose: to show that Russian president Vladimir Putin had his back.

    More than 220 people were killed and more than 10,000 were arrested during the protests. Between 8,000 and 9,000 of them were later released, but some continue in detention. Among them are some people who were violent and committed looting but many others who did not. For almost a week they didn’t have access to basic rights such as communicating with their families or a lawyer, and there have been many cases of torture and cruel treatment in detention. Only by 14 or 15 January, when they regained control, did the authorities start to provide information regarding places of detention and people detained. But judicial procedures continue and the outcome of the trials is uncertain.

    Once President Tokayev regained control, Russian security forces left Kazakhstan. The president then moved to consolidate his power. On 11 January he addressed a statement to parliament in which he promised to introduce economic and social reforms aimed at bringing a measure of social justice, reducing inequalities, combatting corruption and improving the economy. He also promised that in September he will announce a set of political reforms. 

    Did anything change as a result of the protests?

    The number of people who took the streets was incredibly high, and that in and by itself was an important positive change. In the medium term we might see an impact in terms of economic and social changes. But we need institutional changes regarding the prison system and the security forces, the police and prosecutor’s office and judiciary. All these institutions must be radically reformed.

    And Kazakhstan also needs political reform. I do not expect the government to hold democratic elections anytime soon, but I am concerned about the space for independent media and journalists, for the growth of a democratic opposition and for the development of civil society. At some point there will be a need for political pluralism, party competition and citizen participation.

    I think these protests gave the government some food for thought. No economic or social reform will bring real change unless it there is also serious political reform. Otherwise, the story will repeat itself following the same pattern.

    What can the international community do to improve civic space in Kazakhstan?

    I participated in a meeting with the European Union External Action Service people and have close communications with western embassies regarding civic space and human rights issues. But unfortunately, Kazakhstan is not relevant in the international agenda, and the international community is currently absorbed with the pandemic. Additionally, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is also keeping the world busy. There are some foreign journalists who are being allowed to work in Kazakhstan who will hopefully publish their coverage in popular newspapers, but that’s about it.

    At this point, the only way to help is to look at the situation as a systemic problem that has existed for many years, concerning the nature of the political regimes that have been established in the region, lacking in democratic freedoms. High-level advocacy is needed to slowly move the government towards an understanding of the need to open up the space for civic freedoms. Another, more immediate way to help is to work on a case-by-case basis on the situation of human rights activists, journalists and civil society staff who are being prosecuted. International assistance in investigations on human rights violations would also be very valuable.

    Civic space in Kazakhstan is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with KIBHR through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@bureau_kz on Twitter.

     

  • KAZAKHSTAN: ‘The quarantine became a sort of cover for the government to persecute civil society’

    CIVICUS speaks to Asya Tulesova, anenvironmental and civic rights defender from Kazakhstan. On 8 June 2020, Asya was arrested and detained after taking part in apeaceful rally in thecity of Almaty. She was released on 12 August 2020, but with restrictions on her freedom. Asya was profiled in CIVICUS’s#StandAsMyWitness campaign, launched on Nelson Mandela Day, 18 July, to call for the release of human rights defenders who areimprisoned, persecuted, or harassed for standing up for freedom, rights and democracy and calling out corrupt governments and multinational companies.

    Asya Tulesova

    Would you tell us about your background and your environmental activism?

    For the past few years, I have worked for a civil society organisation, the Common Sense Civic Foundation, that focuses on community development. We work on environmental and educational projects aimed at improving the quality of life of local communities. In 2015 we launched our air quality monitoring project in Almaty with the aim of giving give people access to free, up-to-date air quality information in the city. The project had a considerable effect on people's understanding of the importance of the issue.

    As I realised that air quality is a political issue, I tried running for the local council. However, my candidature was withdrawn due to minor discrepancies in my tax income declaration. This same reasoning was used to take down hundreds of independent self-nominated candidates all over Kazakhstan. We sued the central election commission but were unable to persuade the court to restore my candidacy regardless of the fact that we had all the evidence to support my case. My case is now being considered by the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

    We continued our environmental activism by publishing articles, doing research on air pollution, participating in public events and organising public talks on the issue. In April 2019 my companion, activist Beibarys Tolymbekov, and I were arrested for holding a banner at the annual Almaty marathon; our friends Aidos Nurbolatov, Aigul Nurbolatova and Suinbike Suleimenova were fined for filming us holding the banner. As a part of a young activist movement, we wanted to draw people’s attention to the unfairness of the upcoming presidential elections and the lack of independent candidates. Beibarys and I received 15 days of administrative arrest; while under arrest I went on a hunger strike to protest against the court’s decision, and at some point I was punched in the stomach by my cellmate for refusing to comply with her demands to end my hunger strike. Our detention resulted in a series of protests around the country and a rise of youth political engagement. We continue our work in the hope that our efforts will bring more independent candidates to the elections. 

    Being an activist in Kazakhstan is associated with a certain degree of constant pressure from the government and so-called law enforcement authorities. Many activists and human rights defenders, as well as journalists, live under intense scrutiny and are under constant surveillance and intimidation by or on behalf of law enforcement agencies.

    What happened during the protest in June 2020 that led to your arrest? 

    During the protest on 6 June 2020 I witnessed police brutality towards peaceful protesters. This wasn’t the first time; every ‘unauthorised’ peaceful rally we have had so far has been accompanied by the excessive use of force by the police. But this time, I decided to stand in front of one of the police vans filled with people unlawfully detained by the police in an attempt to prevent the van from leaving. I was attacked by several officers, who dragged me away from the van and, after I attempted to return, pushed me down to the ground. In such emotional state, I then knocked off a police officer’s cap in protest against the unlawful police actions and detention of peaceful protesters. It’s hard to articulate what was going through my head at that moment. I was definitely in a state of shock.

    This was captured on video, and I was charged with “publicly insulting a representative of the authorities” under Article 378, part 2 of the Criminal Code, and with “non-dangerous infliction of harm to a representative of the authorities” under Article 380, part 1.

    What was it like to be imprisoned? Were you afraid of contracting COVID-19?

    I was in prison for more than two months. The detention facility I was placed in was located on the northern edge of Almaty. I was brought in at night and first placed in a quarantine cell for newly arrived detainees, where I spent over 10 days getting acquainted with the internal rules of the facility. After that I was relocated to a different cell.

    Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, visits from family members and friends were forbidden. I was only able to speak to my mother twice a week for 10 minutes through a video call and receive visits from my lawyers every other week. The conditions in the facility were much better than those in the temporary detention facility at the police department where I spent two days prior to that. The cell was relatively clean and had two bunk beds for four people, a washbasin and a toilet. We would take turns cleaning the cell. Two of my cellmates smoked, in the toilet. We were fed three times a day, mostly porridge and soup. We were taken for ‘strolls’ five times a week in a specially designed facility, a cell with no windows and no roof. Our strolls would usually last 15 to 20 minutes so I had to write a complaint to the facility authorities so they would comply with their own internal regulations and allow a full hour for our strolls. We took showers once a week, 15 minutes per person.

    A few times a week I would receive care packages from family and friends. Their support was very helpful in keeping my spirits up. I received a radio from Marat Turymbetov, also an activist, whose friend, activist Alnur Ilyashev, had been detained in the same facility for his criticism of the ruling party, Nur Otan. We would spend a lot of time listening to the radio waiting for news, but most news was about COVID-19. We would also hear occasional rumours about COVID-19 cases in the facility but nothing certain, so I wasn’t particularly afraid of contracting the virus. My mother, however, was very concerned about it and would send medicine to me every now and then. The pandemic has been very tough on our country, taking the lives of many.

    This time around I personally haven’t experienced any major violations while in detention, apart from the non-observance of some internal rules by staff. I know other detainees spent months in the facility with no visits from their investigator, lawyer, or family members. I was suspicious at first when in the temporary detention facility, I was placed in a cell with the same woman who was with me in the special detention facility for administrative detainees a year earlier.

    I can’t say that I feel I have been detained for a long time, but it was long enough for me to grow appreciation and compassion for activists and other people who have spent months and years in prison. For instance, human rights defender Max Bokayev has been in prison for over four years for supporting a peaceful rally against an illegal land sale to Chinese companies. During the quarantine, many activists and politicians were subjected to searches and detention, so the quarantine became a sort of cover for the government to persecute civil society. Among the detained activists were Sanavar Zakirova, who has been persecuted for her attempts to register a political party, and activists Abay Begimbetov, Askar Ibraev, Serik Idyryshev, Askhat Jeksebaev, Kairat Klyshev and many others.

    What is your reaction to the outcome of your case?

    I do not agree with the sentence I received, which is why we are going to appeal. The court should take into account the degree of danger to society that the acts I committed pose, which hardly constitute a criminal offence. I am, however, sorry for the lack of self-control and rudeness I showed. I am a firm believer in non-violent protest and my case is a great opportunity for us and the government to condemn violence on both sides.

    What sort of support do activists like yourself need from the international community?

    I am very grateful that my case has received international attention and support. It was an honour to be represented in the CIVICUS #StandAsMyWitness campaign. I am also very grateful to my mother, my lawyers, my family, friends and supporters from Kazakhstan and around the world, who came up with a lot of creative ideas to raise public awareness and bring much-needed attention to my case and the issue of police brutality in Kazakhstan. I personally was very inspired by one of the initiatives launched by my good friends Kuat Abeshev, Aisha Jandosova, Irina Mednikova and Jeffrey Warren, Protest Körpe, a simple and visually beautiful way of showing one’s demand for justice and human rights in a very gentle, caring and loving way. It is easy to join. Most of Protest Körpe messages are universal and relevant to many countries. So let’s make our messages heard! I feel that we can learn new creative tactics from Protest Körpe and other initiatives and adapt them to our local context. Wouldn’t it be great if such campaigns and movements could establish a network to share and build on each other’s experience?

    Civic space inKazakhstan is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Asya throughFacebook.

     

     

  • Keep moving until the departure of the corrupt

    By Ziad Abdul Samad, Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND)

    Ziad ANND blogThe popular protests in Lebanon began after the government announced its intention to impose new taxes on citizens and in an atmosphere of tension and mounting fears of continued economic collapse. The spontaneous movement was not surprising because it was an accumulation of anger and humiliation. However, it surprised everyone with its decentralization and rapid spread to all areas in Lebanon and abroad. The diversity of the parties involved in it was also surprising as it targeted all parties involved in governance without exception. The number of participants exceeded hundreds of thousands and in spite of this diversity, the unity has been maintained: the unity of slogans and positions, and unity reflected raising one single flag, the Lebanese flag alone.

    In Lebanon, we are witnessing an economic crisis but political in nature as well. Indeed, the chants of the protesters show us that economic and financial reform cannot be achieved without addressing the structural imbalance in the political system based on sectarian quotas.

    Since the Taif Agreement, it became clear that the cost of this quota system in Lebanon has been high for society and the state and came at the expense of citizens.

    It is no longer possible to continue it without moving to the civil state. Political and economic reform is not possible in the presence of officials involved in the quota system because they will hold onto their privileges and interests and will not easily abandon them. Nevertheless, the protection of the corrupt sectarian system and guarantees through quota system came at the expense of enhancing citizenship, achieving development and activating participation. It is behind the weakening of the public administration, which is burdened with patronage and clientelism. This system has become a burden on the national economy and society, rather than being the catalyst in supporting and providing all its rights and serving to the people.

    Therefore, the right approach in the long term can only be to abolish the system of sectarian quotas and the establishment of the civil state, the rule of law and the separation of powers, to strengthen the independence of the judiciary and rely on efficiency and enhance transparency and mechanisms of control, accountability and accountability. This requires the formation of a transitional technocrat government and the establishment of participatory mechanisms with civil society, independent experts and independent trade and professional unions. These mechanisms are supposed to reflect the movement and its space and those who abstained from participating in the elections.

    The transitional government should work on two parallel tracks. The first is moving towards the adoption of a just democratic electoral law that achieves transparency and validity of representation. The second track begins by discussing the reform steps that allow the approval of the general budget, to eliminate wasteful public spending based on quotas, patronage and clientelism, and boosting the income.

    Further austerity measures should not be proposed; but rather focus should be on a review of the social protection system and a fair distribution of the burden of reform to society. The next government should abolish monopolies, which are protected in the confessional system, especially in the basic sectors of oil, medicine, wheat and other markets and strengthen customs levies, especially on some consumer goods that are considered luxury. It should work on restructuring the public debt through negotiations with creditor banks to reduce interest rates.

    It must achieve a fair and progressive tax system that addresses evasion and reconsider exemptions. New types of taxes should be imposed aiming at achieving justice and balance in revenues such as tax on land ownership and tax on the investment of marine and river properties. Customs exemptions and customs evasion (based on the control of land, sea and air crossings) should be reexamined as well.

    Public sector should be restructured, starting with the abolition of public institutions and funds that are distributed among the sects. Restructuring of the wage mass in the public sector (in which 7% of senior officials are heads of departments and general managers account for 50% of wages in addition to additional compensation exceeding 50 times the wages in some cases) is equally important.

    Only as such, Lebanon can send positive signals to the people and to the international community and restore the lost confidence of people in Lebanon to Lebanon as a sovereign and independent state.

    To achieve all these, the street should keep on moving. The movement must coordinate to develop a new model of shared governance. A dialogue among its constituents on the requirements for continuation until the demands are fulfilled is critical. It is utmost importance that the movement should not give up, particularly with regard to any attempt to eliminate the power of mobilization. It must be aware of the traditional methods resorted by some of the forces of power who aim at wreaking havoc and abuse and create the justification for the security forces to use force. We have seen this since the second day in the streets of Beirut, where the security forces used tear gas and arrested hundreds of demonstrators in violation of the right to peaceful assembly, demonstrate and express opinion. The protection of the right to demonstrate and assembly is the responsibility of the security forces and the task entrusted to them.

    --

    This piece is an edited version of the article written by ANND Executive Director for Annahar on 19 October 2019.

     

  • Kenya: Stop restrictions on civic freedoms ahead of national elections, says new report

    • Excessive force used against protesters
    • Twitter accounts shut down over calls to lower prices of food & basic commodities
    • Attacks on freedom of speech & political interference with media and judiciary

    As Kenyans head to the polls on 9 August to elect a new president, a new report by global civil society alliance, CIVICUS and the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) highlights the decline in civic rights in the country and urges the authorities to respect fundamental freedoms during this crucial period. Protest restrictions, attacks on journalists and the misuse of laws are of particular concern. 

    According to the new research brief, Kenyan authorities have used excessive force to clamp down on protests and suppress dissent in the run-up to the election. Recent demonstrations to protest the rising cost of food under the hashtag #Njaa-Revolution (‘Hunger Revolution’) have been met with unlawful arrests, detention and brutal force; in April, human rights defender Julius Kamau was violently assaulted outside the National Treasury after protesting rising food prices.  Lethal and crowd control weapons such as live ammunition, teargas and rubber bullets are commonly used by police to disperse gatherings. 

    CIVICUS and the KHRC are also concerned about the misuse of laws to undermine peaceful protest. The Public Order Act, a law from the British colonial period, requires activists to notify authorities of protests at least 3 days in advance. However, there have been cases of authorities tearing up notification letters and refusing to receive them. 

    Also, police have mistakenly understood the provision as a requirement for protests to be approved or denied, using it as an excuse to deem protests ‘unpermitted’, as was seen on 28 June 2022 when a letter notifying police about an intended protest by the Social Justice Centre, a Nairobi-based grassroots group, was rejected without explanation. Although the right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed in Kenya’s constitution, it is continually undermined.
     
    “The right to peacefully protest is fundamental in any functioning democracy. Authorities and law enforcement bodies must respect and ensure citizens can exercise their civic rights, this is critical in ensuring inclusive participation in the electoral process,” said Sylvia Mbataru, East Africa Researcher, CIVICUS.
     
    As the space for street protests becomes more closed and restricted, activists have turned to social media to air their grievances. The #NjaaRevolution attracted a huge online following with its calls to control soaring prices and other basic commodities. In May, the movement was silenced by Twitter with over 20 accounts being suspended for ‘violating Twitter Rules’ and acting ‘suspiciously’ - no further justification was given. Suspending the online accounts of major activists in the run-up to elections is tantamount to censorship.
     
    Attacks on freedom of speech extend to journalists. Incidents and violations against the press are on the rise ahead of elections, including the assault of two journalists covering an event at Raila Odinga’s party headquarters in March 2022. In a separate incident a Citizen TV journalist, Martin Kosgey, was threatened via text after airing a story implicating a governor's bodyguard in a murder case. Kosgey also reported that he had received intelligence that there was a plan to harm him over the story.  
     
    The apparent political capture of the country’s media regulatory body has also contributed to a decline in press freedom. In November 2021, President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed a new head of the Communications Authority, seemingly consolidating the ruling party's power over a strategically important body that is supposed to be non-partisan.  
     
    The possibility of political interference undermines the body's mandate to serve as a watchdog for public media and to monitor the operations of the state news agency. In theory, the authority is responsible for ensuring fair and impartial reporting for the upcoming elections, but there is a risk that it will be used to limit the space for independent media.
     
    Political interference in Kenya’s democratic institutions also extends to the judiciary. Most notably, in 2021 when the president defied the constitution by refusing to swear in six judges nominated by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). Judicial Officers have also been subjected to numerous attacks from the political elite and the executive.
     
    Kenya was placed on the CIVICUS Monitor’s human rights ‘Watchlist’ in June 2022. The Watchlisthighlights countries where there has been a recent and steady decline in civic freedoms, including the rights of free speech and peaceful assembly.

    Kenya is currently rated Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are 42 countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where power holders heavily contest civic space and impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights (see the full description of ratings).

    More information

    Download the Kenya research brief here


    Interviews

    CIVICUS:

     

  • KYRGYZSTAN: ‘The citizens' choice in the referendum will be decisive for our future’

    Ulugbek AzimovCIVICUS and the International Partnership for Human Rights speak to Ulugbek Azimov, legal expert at the Legal Prosperity Foundation, about the protests that took place in Kyrgyzstan in October 2020 and subsequent political developments. The Legal Prosperity Foundation (previously the Youth Human Rights Group) is an independent civil society organisation that has worked to promote human rights and democratic principles in Kyrgyzstan since 1995. The organisation carries out educational programmes, conducts human rights monitoring, interacts with international human rights mechanisms and promotes respect for human rights in the context of legal reforms.

    Kyrgyzstan is often referred to as Central Asia’s only democracy. How close to truth is this depiction?

    It is true that in the early 1990s, that is, in the first years of independence, democracy sprouted and began developing in Kyrgyzstan. Compared to other countries in the region, Kyrgyzstan was characterised by a higher level of citizen participation, a more developed civil society and more favourable conditions for the functioning and participation of political parties in the political process. For this reason, Kyrgyzstan was called an ‘island of democracy’ in Central Asia.

    However, during the 30 years since independence, Kyrgyzstan has faced serious challenges. Attempts by former presidents to preserve and strengthen their hold on power by putting pressure on the opposition, persecuting independent media and journalists, restricting the freedom of expression, using public resources in their favour, bribing voters and falsifying the results of elections have resulted in major political upheavals on several occasions. In the past 15 years, the government has been overthrown three times during the so-called Tulip, April and October revolutions, in 2005, 2010 and 2020, respectively, with two former presidents being forced to flee the country, and the third forced to resign ahead of time.

    Each upheaval has, unfortunately, been followed by developments undermining previous democratic gains. It is therefore not surprising that Freedom House has consistently rated Kyrgyzstan as only ‘partially free’ in its annual Freedom in the World survey. Moreover, in the most recent survey published this year, Kyrgyzstan’s rating deteriorated to that of ‘not free’ because of the fall-out of the October 2020 parliamentary elections, which were marred by serious violations. Thus, Kyrgyzstan is now in the same category in which other Central Asian countries have been for many years. 

    Were pandemic-related restrictions imposed in the run-up to the 2020 elections?

    In response to the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in the spring of 2020, the Kyrgyzstani authorities adopted emergency measures and introduced a lockdown in the capital, Bishkek, and in several other regions of the country, which led to restrictions on the right to the freedom of movement and other, related rights. All public events, including rallies, were banned.

    Measures taken in the context of the pandemic also gave rise to concerns about restrictions on the freedom of expression and access to information. The authorities seriously tightened the screws on critical voices in response to widespread criticism of those in power, including then-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, for their failure to fight the pandemic effectively. Law enforcement authorities tracked down inconvenient bloggers and social media commentators, visited them in their homes and held ‘prophylactic’ discussions with them. In some cases, social media users were detained for allegedly posting false information about the pandemic and forced to apologise publicly under threat of prosecution.

    The law on ‘manipulation of information’, which parliament passed in June 2020, is of particular concern. Although the initiators of the law claimed that it was solely intended to address the problem of fake online accounts, it was clear from the start that this was an attempt by the authorities to introduce internet censorship and close down objectionable sites on the eve of the elections. Following an avalanche of criticism from the media community and human rights defenders, then-President Jeenbekov declined to sign the law and returned it to parliament for revision in August 2020. Since then, the law has remained with parliament. 

    What triggered the post-election demonstrations in October 2020? Who protested, and why?

    The main reason for the October 2020 protests, which again led to a change in power, was people’s dissatisfaction with the official results of the parliamentary elections held on 4 October. 

    Out of the 16 parties running for seats in parliament, only five passed the seven per cent electoral threshold required to get into parliament. Although then-President Jeenbekov publicly stated that he did not support any party, the one that received most votes – Birimdik (Unity) – was associated with him since his brother and other people from the ruling elite were running on its ticket. The party that ended up second, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (Motherland Kyrgyzstan), was also viewed as pro-government and was associated with the family of former high-ranking customs service official Raiymbek Matraimov, who was implicated in a high-profile media investigation into corruption published in November 2019. Jeenbekov’s government ignored the findings of this investigation and failed to initiate a criminal case against Matraimov, despite public calls to this end.

    It was predictable that Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan would fare well in the elections given the use of public resources and reported vote-buying in favour of their candidates. These two parties, which took part in parliamentary elections for the first time, received almost half of the votes and therefore an absolute majority of the seats in parliament. The methods used by the two winning parties to secure control over parliament caused indignation among other political parties that participated in the elections, their voters and even apolitical people.

    The elections took place against the backdrop of growing discontent with the social and economic difficulties caused by the pandemic, as well as growing anti-government sentiments among the population.

    The ‘dirty’ elections, characterised by an unprecedented scale of violations, became a catalyst for subsequent events. Protests began immediately after the announcement of the preliminary results on the evening of election day, 4 October, and continued throughout the next day. Young people played a decisive role in them: most of those who took to the streets to protest and gathered in the central square of the capital were young people. Unfortunately, most of those who were injured, as well as the protester who died during the October events, were young people too.

    What was the government’s reaction to the protests?

    The authorities had the opportunity to take control of the situation and resolve it peacefully, but they did not take it. Only in the evening of 5 October did then-President Jeenbekov announce that he would meet with the leaders of the different parties that competed in the elections. He set up a meeting for the morning of 6 October, but this turned out to be too late, as in the night of 5 October the peaceful protests devolved into clashes between protesters and law enforcement officials in Bishkek, ending with the seizure of the White House (the seat of the president and parliament) and other public buildings by protesters. During the clashes, law enforcement authorities used rubber bullets, stun grenades and teargas against the protesters. As a result of the clashes, a 19-year-old young man was killed and more than 1,000 people needed medical attention, including protesters and law enforcement officials, with over 600 police officers injured. During the unrest, police cars, ambulances, surveillance cameras and other property were also damaged, to an estimated value of over 17 million Som (approx. US$200,000).

    Did the snap presidential elections held in January 2021 solve the problems raised by the protests?

    The main demand of the protesters was to cancel the results of the October 2020 parliamentary elections and hold new, fair elections. This demand was partly satisfied on 6 October 2020, when the Central Election Commission (CEC) declared the election results invalid. However, up to now, no date has been fixed for the new parliamentary elections. The CEC initially scheduled them for 20 December 2020 but parliament responded by promptly adopting a law that suspended the elections pending a revision of the constitution and extended the terms in office of the members of the outgoing parliament until 1 June 2021.

    In its assessment of this law, the Venice Commission – an advisory body of the Council of Europe, composed of independent constitutional law experts – concluded that during the current transitional period parliament should exercise limited functions and refrain from approving extraordinary measures, such as constitutional reforms. However, the outgoing parliament has continued its work as usual and approved the holding of a constitutional referendum in April 2021. Newly elected President Sadyr Japarov has suggested holding new parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2021, which would mean that members of the outgoing parliament would continue in their positions even after 1 June 2021.

    In accordance with other demands of the protesters, the country’s electoral legislation was amended in October 2020 to reduce the electoral threshold from seven to three percentage points for parties to gain representation in parliament and to reduce the electoral fee from 5 to 1 million Som (approx. US$12,000). These amendments were made to facilitate the participation of a larger number of parties, including newer ones, and to promote pluralism and competition.

    The protesters also expressed resentment about the inadequate measures taken to fight corruption. They demanded that the authorities bring to justice corrupt officials, particularly Matraimov, and return stolen property to the state. Speaking in front of the protesters before he became president, Japarov promised that Matraimov would be arrested and punished.

    To be fair, Japarov kept his word. After Japarov rose to power in October 2020, Matraimov was arrested in connection with an investigation into corruption schemes within the customs service, pleaded guilty and agreed to compensate the damage by paying back more than 2 billion Som (approx. US$24 million). A local court subsequently convicted him, but handed him a mitigated sentence in the form of a fine of 260,000 Som (approx. US$3,000) and lifted freezing orders on his property, since he had cooperated with the investigation. This extremely lenient sentence caused public outrage. On 18 February 2021, Matraimov was arrested again on new charges of money laundering, but after a few days he was transferred from the pre-trial detention facility where he was being held to a private clinic to undergo treatment for health problems. After that, many labelled the anti-corruption measures of the current authorities as ‘populist’.

    In January 2021 Kyrgyz citizens also voted in a constitutional referendum. What were its results, and what consequences will they have for the quality of democracy?

    According to the results of the referendum, which took place on the same day as the presidential election in January 2021, 84 per cent of voters supported a transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government.

    Based on comparative experience, many lawyers and civil society activists do not view this change as negative per se, provided that a well-functioning system of checks and balances is put in place. However, they are seriously concerned that the authorities are attempting to push through the transition at an unjustifiably quick pace using questionable approaches and methods that do not correspond to generally accepted principles and established legal rules and procedures.

    The first draft constitution providing for a presidential system of governance, put forward in November 2020, was dubbed a ‘khanstitution’ in reference to the historic autocratic rulers of Central Asia. Critics accused Japarov, who has advocated for this change since taking office in October 2020, of trying to usurp power.

    The draft constitution granted the president practically unlimited powers, while reducing the status and powers of parliament to a minimum, thereby jeopardising checks and balances and creating the risk of presidential abuse of power. It also provided for a complicated impeachment procedure that would be impossible to implement in practice. Moreover, while it did not mention the principle of the rule of law even once, the text repeatedly referred to moral values and principles. Many provisions of the current constitution that guarantee human rights and freedoms were excluded.

    Because of harsh criticism, the authorities were forced to abandon their initial plans to submit the draft constitution to referendum on the same day as the presidential election in January 2021 and agreed to organise a broader discussion. To this end, a so-called constitutional conference was convened and its members worked for two and a half months, in spite of facing accusations that their activities were illegitimate. At the beginning of February 2021, the constitutional conference submitted its suggestions to parliament.

    It should be acknowledged that as a result of the discussion and proposals submitted by the constitutional conference, parts of the draft constitution were improved. For example, the reference to the principle of the rule of law was restored, and significant amendments were made to the sections on human rights and freedoms, including with respect to protecting the freedom of expression, the role of independent media and the right to access information. But it remained practically unchanged with respect to the provisions that set out unlimited powers for the president.

    In March 2021, parliament adopted a law on holding a referendum on the revised draft constitution, setting the date for 11 April 2021. This sparked a new wave of indignation among politicians, lawyers and civil society activists, who pointed out that this was against the established procedure for constitutional change and warned again that the concentration of power in the hands of the president might result in authoritarian rule. Their concerns were echoed in a joint opinion of the Venice Commission and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, issued in March 2021 at the request of the Ombudsman of Kyrgyzstan.

    The draft constitution has two other problematic provisions. One allows for restrictions to be imposed on any events that contradict ‘moral and ethical values’ or ‘the public consciousness of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic’. These concepts are not defined or regulated, so they might be interpreted differently in different cases, creating the risk of overly broad and subjective interpretation and arbitrary application. This, in turn, might lead to excessive restrictions on human rights and freedoms, including the rights to the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression.

    The other provision requires political parties, trade unions and other public associations to ensure the transparency of their financial and economic activities. Against the background of recent attempts to step up control over civil society organisations (CSOs), there are concerns that it might be used to put pressure on them. On the same day that parliament voted in favour of holding a referendum on the draft constitution, some legislators accused CSOs of allegedly undermining ‘traditional values’ and posing a threat to the state. 

    Civil society activists continue to call on the current parliament, which in their eyes has lost its legitimacy, to dissolve and on the president to call new elections promptly. Activists are holding an ongoing rally to this end and, if their demands are not met, they plan to turn to the courts on the grounds of the usurpation of power.

    The president, however, has rejected all concerns voiced about the constitutional reform. He has assured that Kyrgyzstan will remain a democratic country, that the freedom of expression and the personal safety of journalists will be respected, and that there will be no further political persecution. 

    The citizens of Kyrgyzstan must make their choice. The upcoming referendum on the current draft constitution may become another turning point in the history of Kyrgyzstan, and the choice made by citizens will be decisive for the future development towards stability and prosperity.

    Civic space in Kyrgyzstan is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Legal Prosperity Foundation through itsFacebook page and followlpf_kg on Instagram.

     

  • Law enforcement agencies and decision makers must respect the right to protest in the US 

    • ​​​​​​CIVICUS expresses solidarity with US protesters in their struggle for justice
    • We defend the right to peaceful assembly and condemn violent police force
    • National and global protests highlight the need to address institutionalized racism, and police impunity and militarisation

    Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, condemns violence against protesters by law enforcement officials over the past few days, and stands in solidarity with those protesting against deep-rooted racism and injustice.

    Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets across the United States (US) to protest the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on 25 May. Their demands for justice for George Floyd and other Black people unlawfully killed at the hands of police have been met with force. Law enforcement agencies have responded to protests using rubber bullets, concussion grenades and tear gas.  

    CIVICUS reaffirms that the right to protest, as enshrined in international law, must be protected. We call for an end to police violence against Black communities.

    Earlier this week, as law enforcement agencies suppressed protests in Washington DC, President Trump threatened to deploy the National Guard to crush demonstrations:

    “President Donald Trump is stoking violence by threatening to forcibly deploy military units in states and cities to crush the demonstrations and restore order in a constitutionally questionable manner,” said Mandeep Tiwana, Chief of Programmes at CIVICUS. 

    There are reports that over 10,000 protesters have been arrested since protests began. CIVICUS is concerned by the arbitrary arrests of thousands of protesters, including 20 members of the press. There are numerous cases of journalists being deliberately targeted by law enforcement agencies and at least 125 press freedom violations have been reported since the start of the protests.

    Demonstrations have broken out across the world in solidarity with the US protesters and their demands for justice and accountability. Our recently released State of Civil Society Report 2020 highlights the importance of people’s movements in demanding change. CIVICUS supports the right of protesters around the globe to peacefully and safely assemble during lockdown:

    “These protests are a call to action to address systemic racism and unprovoked violence experienced by the Black community in the US and beyond. A systemic reckoning with unaddressed notions of white supremacy is needed,” Tiwana continued.  

    As a matter of urgency, CIVICUS calls on authorities to respect the rights of freedom of assembly and expression. We urge systemic reforms to address police impunity, militarisation and institutional racism. The deliberate targeting of journalists must also end, as must the incendiary language used by President Trump and other politicians. 

    We also call on law enforcement agencies to stop using violent methods to disperse protesters and call for an investigation into the unwarranted use of force.

    About CIVICUS

    CIVICUS is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. We have over 9000 members across the globe. The CIVICUS Monitor is our online platform that tracks threats to the freedoms of assembly, association and expression across 196 countries. Civic space in the United States is currently rated as narrowed by the research and ratings platform.

     

  • LEBANON: ‘Increased popular awareness is irreversible, it will remain despite any setbacks’

    CIVICUS speaks with Ziad Abdel Samad, Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND), and Zahra Bazzi, ANND ProgrammesManager, about the protests that began in Lebanon in October 2019, the changes achieved and the challenges encountered.ANND is a regional network that brings together nine national networks (encompassing 250 organisations) and 23 civil society organisations (CSOs) in 12 countries. It was established in 1997 and since 2000 has had its headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon. It promotes the role of civil society and the values of democracy, human rights and sustainable development in the region, and advocates for socio-economic reforms aimed at sustainable development and gender justice, with a rights-based approach.

    Ziad Abdel Samad Zahra Bazzi

    What triggered the protests that began in October 2019?

    The protests were motivated by the direct repercussions of the economic and monetary crisis on the Lebanese population, but had deep roots in a structurally flawed economic system and wicked political practices and corruption embraced by successive governments for decades. The few months before the eruption of the revolution saw a looming economic crisis with an increase in government debt and questionable monetary and financial engineering coupled with a decrease in GDP growth, as well as a rise in unemployment, reaching approximately 16 per cent among the general population, and more than 45 per cent among young people, along with growing poverty and increases in the prices of essential commodities. One week before the protests, direct signs of a financial crisis had started to show, including strikes at petrol stations and the inability of the government to access new credit to import wheat and other basic goods, in addition to the eruption of roughly 100 nationwide wildfires and forest fires that destroyed massive green areas and some houses.

    Following the late adoption of the 2019 budget in July, the negotiations over the 2020 budget were being finalised in October with a clear aim of increasing state revenue at any cost and reducing the enormous deficit of 11 per cent to escape the crisis. The cabinet meeting held on 17 October suggested a new set of austerity measures, including additional indirect taxation, without envisioning the anger of the Lebanese people and the massive protests that would spread through the country that same day.

    Protesters have shared a clear vision with clear demands of the political and economic systems they want to achieve: the resignation of the government – which happened on 29 October 2019; the formation of a new government comprising people independent from the ruling parties – indeed a new government was formed on 22 January 2020, although it does it not conform to the key demands of the revolution; and the holding of democratic parliamentary elections based on a new democratic electoral law. In addition, there were demands to pass laws on the independence of the judiciary, take action to recover assets and other socio-economic demands.

    How did the government react to the protests?

    Since the first days of the uprisings, political parties and various elements of the regime felt threatened by the imminent change protesters were calling for, which would jeopardise the power they have held for decades. They reacted to this by using excessive force, teargas, rubber bullets, arbitrary detention and arrests, especially after December 2019.

    Since the beginning of the protests, several human rights violations were committed against protesters. On 23 November, five young people – including two minors – were arrested and detained by the security forces for taking down a banner belonging to a political party. On the same day, supporters of the Amal and Hezbollah movements violently clashed with peaceful protesters in Beirut and other regions to denounce the closure of roads. Violence increased, a fact that was firmly condemned by United Nations’ experts and special rapporteurs, who called on the Lebanese government to respect the right to the freedom of expression and protect protesters.

    The postponement of parliamentary consultations from 9 to 16 December, and then again to 19 December, was accompanied by increasing violence and clashes among protesters, supporters of political leaders and the security forces and army. The most violent clashes were recorded between 10 and 16 December: on 10 December, protesters toured in their cars outside the houses of the previous ministers of public works and transportation, denouncing the poor infrastructure that had caused enormous floods on main roads and highways, locking citizens for hours in their cars. Protesters were attacked ferociously by men in uniforms of the Internal Security Forces, but who were affiliated with some political parties. Cars were vandalised, and protesters and journalists were dragged out and beaten indiscriminately.

    On the nights of 14 and 15 December, security forces clashed with supporters of political parties who provoked and attacked them in different ways. Security forces also arbitrarily attacked protesters gathered in Beirut, and fired teargas and rubber bullets at them, in retaliation against the acts of some. These two days of violence ended with the arrest of 23 people, some of whom showed signs of torture after their release. More than 76 protesters reported experiencing some form of attack, either by security officials or as a result of the rubber bullets fired against them. More severely, a few reported being dragged inside the parliament building and beaten by the security forces inside. A few reported the theft of money, legal documentation, or phones.

    Violence continued until the night of 16 December, with supporters of political parties attacking the people gathered in squares in Beirut and in the south, and burning down tents and cars. This came in response to a video, probably intentionally spread on social media, of a young man from Tripoli cursing the Shia faith.

    Clashes between protesters and security forces and riot police were especially intense during the attacks protesters made against banks, and during protests and attempts to remove the massive walls and blocks unlawfully put in front of parliament, and more recently in front of the Government Palace.

    Following the arbitrary arrest of protesters, on 15 January 2020 hundreds gathered outside the detention facility to call for their release, and were subjected to excessive force by the riot police, including the indiscriminate firing of teargas. Journalists and TV reporters were directly attacked by riot police. Footage was leaked showing the security forces beating detainees while transporting them to a detention facility. Some released detainees shared stories of torture and abuse inside detention facilities.

    Recent statistics released by the Lawyers’ Committee to Defend Protesters in Lebanon show that between 17 October 2019 and 31 January 2020, around 906 protesters were arrested and detained, including 49 minors and 17 women. Roughly 546 protesters were subjected to violence at the protests or in detention facilities.

    When and how did the protests become a ‘revolution’?

    The protests are widespread across the country. They are decentralised and remain non-sectarian. As Lebanese people overcame their religious and political divergences and joined forces in an attempt to achieve real change, they made the biggest post-war civil movement in Lebanon. This change had been long-awaited, particularly by civil society, which has tried to promote partnerships and engage in policy-making at various levels for years, despite the lack of serious and effective channels for doing so. Although the term ‘revolution’ has been contested by many, protesters and activists, among others, have insisted on calling the process a revolution, particularly after the increased violence and the death of two martyrs, Hussein Al-Attar and Alaa Abou Fakher.

    Although key demands have not changed since the beginning of the protests, more demands were added as the process evolved, especially relating to the socio-economic and financial situation. More importantly, demands started off and remained socio-economic, but were always directly linked to political change.

    What role have CSOs played during the process?

    CSOs have played an important role in the revolution, which has benefited from their accumulated knowledge, communication skills and organisational capacities. Most of those organisations participated in the protests since day one, but their role went beyond protesting. CSOs are leading in coordinating the protests and organising daily discussions at various squares in Beirut and other regions. These meetings address politics, law, socio-economic policies and human rights. They address people’s concerns and ensure the availability of solutions and alternatives. Participation in discussions has steadily increased and has involved a variety of sectors of society, including young people, women, the private sector, academics, and students. However, protest camps have faced challenges following the destruction and burning of their tents in Beirut and across other areas.

    It seems that women and young people are playing increasingly prominent roles in protest movements worldwide. Has this been the case in Lebanon?

    While women in Lebanon have been at the forefront of every important political moment in our country, they have been particularly active during the revolution. Slogans and demands related to women’s rights have been very clear and evident, including the right to pass their citizenship to their families, a civil personal status law and protection from violence, Women have organised in groups, or participated individually, to form human shields at the forefront of protests to prevent violence, lead the marches and host discussions on women’s issues.

    Feminist and women’s marches were held outside Beirut, in north and south Lebanon particularly. These were bold actions that were not very common prior to the revolution. Feminists were also able to engage critically with the slogans of the revolution and to place their discourse on the table. They were able to draw attention to many patriarchal connotations in slogans, even in the national anthem. In addition to being active alongside men, and sometimes alone, closing roads and occupying squares and public facilities, women cooked meals and offered them to protesters and sitters to support them, and initiated cleaning and recycling campaigns on a regular basis. More importantly, on many occasions, they formed a shield on the front rows between protesters and security forces to minimise the clashes.

    The revolution also witnessed very active participation by young people and youth groups. These formed the backbone of the protests, as for years young people have been eager to take part in decision-making and political life. In Lebanon, people below the age of 21 are not eligible to vote in parliamentary and municipal elections, and yet they found a space in this revolution to participate and make their voices heard. As such, young voices and concerns were loud during the protests. Young people were particularly concerned with unemployment, immigration, and the brain drain and suggested bold demands, including calling for the downfall of the regime and all its political leaders without exception and the establishment of a secular system promoting social justice and gender equality.

    The revolution has been an opportunity to revive the student movement in Lebanon. Despite all the efforts made prior to the revolution to form a nationwide student movement, in the absence of a national student union the student movement was fragmented and weak. However, after 17 October, student clubs in private universities such as the American University of Beirut, Notre-Dame University and Université Saint-Joseph participated heavily in the protests in and off-campus, forming marches from universities to the main protest squares, and even setting up their own tents in downtown Beirut. Other private universities such as the Lebanese American University and the Lebanese International University held protests on and around campus. The Lebanese University (LU), Lebanon’s national university, saw the biggest student protests. The LU Student Coalition was particularly active in the revolution, from setting up a tent for protesters in Riad Al-Solh square, in downtown Beirut, to hosting various discussions, joining efforts with other student clubs and leftist groups.

    Younger school students also had a role in the revolution. Along with university student groups, they took a big part in civil disobedience actions and general strikes. Students closed their schools and universities and protested in front of the Ministry of Education and other public administration offices for many days. As 6 November marked Students’ Day, students all across Lebanon were revolting for a better future. A banner raised by one of the students says it all: “On this day I won’t be learning history, I will be writing it.”

    What have protests achieved so far, and what remains to be done?

    Within 100 days, the revolution has had an impact on the authorities and also at a popular level.

    First, it overthrew the so-called presidential settlement – an agreement among regional and internal forces and other actors – that led Michel Aoun to become president and produced a parliament based on an unconstitutional electoral law. This led to the rise of a new political majority and the formation of a coalition government including seven major political parties. This came at a high price, including the conciliation of regional and local powers, frequent disruption of the work of parliament and government, and very intense pressures especially on the political and security levels.

    Second, it overthrew the government, that is, the executive power. This was the settlement’s weakest component, as the prime minister was the weakest among power holders such as Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, and the Free Patriotic Movement.

    Third, the revolution interrupted two parliamentary sessions and blocked the adoption of equivocal draft laws listed on the agenda. Mobilised citizens had never been able to cancel a parliamentary session before.

    Fourth, it caused disruption within the ruling coalition and among the authorities, as seen in the resignation of the government and the confusion that prevailed in the process of forming a new government, especially when two candidates for the role of prime minister had to be let go for failing to meet the minimum requirements demanded by the revolution, along with other reasons. During this lengthy process, acute differences and contradictions were revealed between allied parties, despite the fact that they belonged to the same block.

    Above all, the revolution has increased popular awareness, which has been reflected in thousands of initiatives and discussions. Decentralised protests have taken place across all cities and villages from the far south to the far north and east, and have included all social and age groups. This diverse and inclusive revolution has contributed to breaking the rigid sectarian and regional political discourse, disrupting traditional loyalties and breaking down barriers between social groups and regions. Some people think that this positive shift cannot be considered complete, but there is indeed a consensus that it is a very important and irreversible change, which will remain despite any setbacks. We must be confident that significant progress has been made regarding popular awareness and the ability of social movements to carry out direct political action in the streets.

    The revolution has achieved certain gains during the first round and is preparing for the next round, in which new laws and policies need to be adopted as soon as possible to overcome the ongoing financial and economic crises and set a base for a new and fairer economic paradigm.

    How connected is Lebanese civil society with its counterparts around the world, and what support does it need from international civil society in order to continue its struggle?

    Lebanese civil society is very rich and diverse, and it is connected to its counterparts around the world through different channels. It is indeed very active on the advocacy front and takes part in numerous international advocacy platforms.

    In these critical times, the country is going through, civil society is avoiding seeking any support from foreign counterparts, in order to refute all conspiracy theories and accusations that politicians and their affiliates have made against protesters and the revolution. In order to lessen all the claims fabricated against our genuine and national revolution, Lebanese civil society is very reluctant to receive any support that could amount to or be interpreted as intervention by any foreign actor. However, it would welcome solidarity actions and statements, especially those that denounce human rights violations committed against protesters.

    Civic space in Lebanon is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with the Arab NGO Network for Development through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@ArabNGONetwork on Twitter.

     

  • LEBANON: ‘This crisis should be handled with a feminist vision’

    CIVICUS speaks to Lina Abou Habib, a feminist activist based in Beirut, Lebanon, about the civil society response to the emergency caused by the explosion on 4 August 2020. Lina teaches Global Feminisms at the American University of Beirut, where she is affiliated with the Asfari Institute, and chairs the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action, a regional feminist organisation working in the Middle East and North Africa. She also serves on the board of Gender at Work and as a strategic Middle East and North Africa advisor for the Global Fund for Women.

    Lina Abou Habib

    Would you tell us about the moment of the explosion?

    The Beirut explosion happened on 4 August 2020, at around 18:10 Beirut time. I was at home and I had known for an hour that there was a huge fire at the Beirut port. When the fire started getting bigger the sky was blackened by fumes. I was looking out, and the first thing I felt was a very scary earthquake-like feeling, after which it took a split second for a huge explosion to happen. Glass shattered all around me. It took me a couple of minutes to understand what had just happened. The first thing everyone was call our family and close friends just to make sure that they were okay. Everybody was in a state of disbelief. The explosion was so powerful that each one of us felt like it had happened right next to us.

    What was civil society’s immediate response?

    It is important to note that alongside the civil society response there was also an individual response. Individuals took to the streets in an attempt to help others. Nobody trusted that the state would help in any way. The state was responsible for what had happened. People took the responsibility for helping each other, which meant addressing immediate problems such as clearing rubble from the streets and talking to people to find out what they needed, including shelter and food. About 300,000 people had become homeless and lost everything in a split second. There was an extraordinary reaction by ordinary people to help: people with brooms and shovels started clearing rubble and distributing food and water. Anger turned into solidarity.

    This was an amazingly empowering moment that still continues. As we speak, there are volunteers and civil society organisations (CSOs) who are basically holding the fort and not only engaging in immediate relief but also providing all sorts of support to distressed populations.

    However, these acts of solidarity and care have also been criticised. The main criticism has been that such acts are unhelpful because they relieve the state from fulfilling its obligations and performing its duties. I understand this critique, but I don’t agree with it. To me, the acts of solidarity performed by civil society and ordinary people were our main success stories: stories of power and resistance that we should talk about. We need to highlight the immediate response provided individually by people who themselves had been hurt or had lost a lot. Migrant worker communities, who live in dire conditions of exploitation, racism and abuse, went out there to clear the rubble and help others. I don’t think we should ignore the significance of these acts of solidarity.

    Lebanon was already undergoing deep economic crisis, which was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the explosion. Which groups were impacted upon the most?

    The worst effects were felt by those who were already in the most vulnerable situations. A clear example of multiple forms of discrimination overlapping and reinforcing one another is the situation of female migrant workers in Lebanon. This is not new; this situation is decades old. First, migrant women work in the private sphere, which makes them even more invisible and vulnerable. Second, there are absolutely no rules that need to be followed to hire them, so they are basically at the mercy of their employers. They are kept in quasi-slavery conditions based on so-called ‘sponsorship contracts’. The air that they breathe is dependent on the will of their employers and they are completely bound to them. In sum, this is a population of women from poor countries of the global south who work as domestic workers and caregivers, positions that make them incredibly vulnerable to abuse. There are no laws that protect them and that has always been the case. Therefore, they are the ones left behind when there is a security issue or a political crisis.

    Three consecutive events have affected their situation. The first is the revolution that started on 17 October 2019, an incredibly important moment that was the culmination of years of activism, including by women migrant workers, who were supported, nurtured and mentored by young Lebanese feminists. As a result, in the midst of the revolution there were migrant workers who revolted against the sponsorship system, which deprives them of their humanity and exposes them to working conditions that amount to slavery, and demanded dignified work and a dignified life.

    And then there were the economic breakdown and the COVID-19 pandemic, both of which hit as the protests were still ongoing. As a result of the economic crunch, some people choose to not pay their migrant and domestic workers’ salaries, or even worst, simply disposed of them on the streets during the pandemic.

    And then the Beirut port explosion happened, which again affected migrant workers in particular. It was a succession of crises that hit migrant workers first and foremost, and particularly women, because they were already in precarious conditions in which they were abused, their labour taken for granted and then thrown away on the streets, forgotten by their embassies and ignored by the Lebanese government. 

    As an activist and a feminist, how do you view the government response to the explosion?

    There hasn’t been any responsible government response. I would not even call what we have a government, but rather a regime. It is a corrupt dictatorship, an authoritarian regime that continues to pretend to be democratic and even progressive. The regime says it embodies reforms, but it never follows through. For instance, 10 days into the revolution, in October 2019, the president addressed the nation and promised an egalitarian civil family law, which feminist activists have been demanding for decades. This came as a surprise, but it turned out that it wasn’t serious, as nothing has been done about it. The authorities just say whatever they think people want to hear, and they seem to be convinced that the public is too ignorant to notice.

    So we need to position the response to the explosion against the background of the recent uprising. The government’s response to the revolution has been to not acknowledge the problems that people were pointing at: that it had emptied the public coffers, that it continued to exercise nepotism and corruption and, worst of all, that it was dismantling public institutions. The only government response has been to close the space for civil society and attack the freedoms of association and expression and the right to protest. I’ve lived in this country for most of my life, including through the civil war, and I think there hasn’t been a crackdown on freedoms of the magnitude we are seeing right now under this regime. We have never witnessed people being summoned by the police or general security because of something they said or posted on social media. This is exactly what the regime is doing and continues to do. The president is acting as if there was a lèse-majesté law and is not accepting any criticism; people who criticise him are paying with their freedom. It is the first time we hear about activists being detained for this reason.

    In short, the regime hasn’t done anything significant in response to the explosion. Sending the army to distribute food aid packets is in no way significant. They are even refusing to give food aid items to non-Lebanese people who were affected. This exposes the various layers of corruption, bigotry and mismanagement that are at interplay here.

    Following the explosion, people took to the streets again to protest. Do you think protests have made an impact?

    On the Saturday following the explosion there were people protesting on the streets. I was there and I was scared because of the deployment of violence by the security forces.

    In the face of so many calamities, the only reason why people are not massively on the streets is because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been a gift for the regime. It has imposed curfews, broke up the tents set up by the revolutionaries at Martyrs’ Square and arrested and detained people, all under the guise of wanting to protect people from the virus. But of course, nobody is duped. The levels of contagion are increasing rather than decreasing. It doesn’t help that the regime is so corrupt that we basically don’t have any functioning health services.

    The constraints created by the pandemic and the fears for one’s health are seriously limiting people’s actions against the regime, but I don’t think this is going to stop the revolution. People have had enough. People have lost everything. And when you push people’s backs to the wall, there is nowhere else to go but forward. The regime will continue to use brutal force, it will continue to lie and mismanage funds and resources, but this is becoming totally unacceptable to an increasingly larger proportion of the population.

    I believe that street mobilisation has been successful on several levels. One can disagree and point out that the regime is still in power, and this may be true; it will take a long time for it to fall. But one immediate success of the protests is that they shattered a taboo. There was a kind of halo or sanctity around certain leaders who were believed to be untouchable. Now it's obvious that they don’t enjoy that protection any longer. Although the regime is not ready to concede, they are just buying themselves some time.

    The way I see it, a major gain has been the leadership role played by feminist groups in shaping the country that we want, the rights and entitlements we are claiming and the form of government that we want. Alongside 40 feminist organisations we have released a charter of demands. We put our heads together and have stated what humanitarian reconstruction needs to look like from a feminist perspective and are using this as an advocacy tool for the international community. The way we are intervening indicates that this crisis should be handled with a feminist vision.

    Additionally, for the first time the LGBTQI+ community has been part and parcel in shaping the reform process, the transition process and again shaping the country we want, regarding both the form of state and human relations. And the voice of the migrant community has been amplified as well. To me, these gains are irreversible.

    What support does civil society in Beirut and Lebanon need from the international community?

    There are a number of things that need to be done. First, we need tangible forms of solidarity in terms of communications to amplify our voice. Second, we need to lobby the international community on behalf of the Lebanese feminist movement so that the Lebanese regime is held accountable for every cent it receives. To give an example, we received about 1,700 kilograms of tea from Sri Lanka, and the tea has disappeared; it appears that the president distributed it among the presidential guards. We need influence and pressure from the international community to hold this regime accountable. Third, we need to bring these voices to the attention of international mainstream media.

    I want to emphasise the point that international aid should not be without conditions, as the ruling regime lacks transparency and accountability. Of course it is not up to civil society to rebuild, or to reconstruct the infrastructure. But if any cent has to go to the regime, then it must be given with conditionalities of transparency, accountability and due diligence. Civil society must be empowered to play a watchdog role. This means that CSOs must have the voice and the tools for monitoring. Otherwise nothing is going to change. International aid will vanish; it will only help the regime prolong its rule while the city remains in ruins.

    Civic space in Lebanon is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action through itswebpage, and follow@LinaAH1 on Twitter.

     

  • Letter from Jail: Nicaraguan Farm Leader, Medardo Mairena

    Incarcerated farm leader Medardo Mairena writes a letter to media from jail

    SOSNicaragua6Medardo Mairena Sequeira,  is the Coordinator of the National Council in Defense of Land, Lake and Sovereignty and member of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy. Medardo is one of the leaders of the movement against the construction of the Canal in Nicaragua. Medardo was detained on July 13 along with campesino leader Pedro Joaquín Mena Amador when they were planning to board a plane to the United States to participate in a solidarity event with Nicaragua. Medardo and two other farm leaders, face false charges ranging from terrorism, murder, kidnappings, aggravated robbery and obstruction of public services.


    I am grateful to God and my family, to the Nicaraguan people, to independent media, to national and international human rights commissions, to the Organization of American States, to the UN Security Council for not letting the Nicaraguan people alone.

    To all my friends, to all the people, I ask you to remain united praying in these difficult times for everyone, especially for us political prisoners. We are imprisoned only because we think differently. The Ortega regime is a coward. They have imprisoned us just for raising our voices and speaking up for those who can’t and for those who are no longer with us. In the penitentiary system, we are in maximum security jails where the cells are in bad conditions, there is no electricity, restrooms are damaged. Windows that are supposed to allow air to enter are closed. It is like being baked in an oven and we are isolated from everyone else. Us campesino leaders are in the Modelo gallery 300, in the place known as “little hell”. We are 20 prisoners in the same conditions, we are sick, and they don’t allow a doctor to visit us. Thanks to god, I’m feeling better but it is only because of god. Here we have mosquitoes, cockroaches, scorpions. They don’t allow us to get out of the cells even for taking sun. They took my friend Pedro Mena’s Medication, he suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure and he always carries his treatment in his bag because he needs to take a daily pill. They treat us inhumanely.

    I invite the people to keep doing peaceful demonstrations,  as we have always done it. Even if you don’t see me, my heart is always with you because we need to demand our freedom, because we are innocent from the accusations. The day the facts happened in Morito, we were in Managua demanding for dialogue be resumed with the government, because we want justice, democratization and a peaceful exit to the crisis. We cannot forget those whose lives have been taken by the regime. At least my family still has hope of seeing me alive, but the mothers that lost their children do not and we cannot forget their injustice.

    Sincerely,

    Medardo.

    Translated originally from Spanish. Read original letter


    CIVICUS has called on the authorities in Nicaragua to drop all charges against Medardo Mairena, Pedro Joaquín Mena, and Victor Manuel Diaz, and release them safely. CIVICUS also calls for the release of all the rural leaders, students and activists currently detained for exercising their right to protest.

    Nicaragua has been added to a watchlist of countries which are experiencing an alarming escalation in threats to fundamental freedoms. The watchlist is compiled by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe.   

     

     

  • Malaysia: Muhyiddin government escalating efforts to silence dissent

     

    Global civil society alliance CIVICUS is extremely concerned by the escalation of repression of critical voices by the Malaysian authorities in recent weeks. These cases highlight an increasing intolerance for dissent by the government as they seek to hold on to power and is creating a chilling effect on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

    On 23 April 2021, the police arrested activist and artist Fahmi Reza under Section 4(1) of the draconian Sedition Act and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) in relation to a satirical Spotify playlist about the Queen. He was released the day after, but the investigation is ongoing. Previously, in March 2021, he was questioned by the police about two caricatures of the Health Minister, that he posted on multiple social media platforms.

    On 28 April, it was reported that another cartoonist, Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque - who goes by the pen name Zunar -  is also being investigated by the police over a satirical drawing in January 2021 that mocked the Kedah state Chief Minister for his decision to cancel a holiday to mark a Hindu festival. Officials had defended cancelling the holiday, blaming the coronavirus pandemic. He is being investigated under Section 505c of the Penal Code for ‘incitement’ and Section 233 of the CMA.

    “The Malaysian authorities have become so fearful of dissent that anyone who dares to speak out including artists and cartoonists face judicial harassment. The government must end this absurd probe of Fahmi Reza and Zunar, halt its use of restrictive laws and respect the right to freedom of expression that is guaranteed in the constitution”, said Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific researcher for CIVICUS.

    The authorities have also sought to harass peaceful protesters for exercising their fundamental freedoms. On 29 March, police summoned 11 individuals to give a statement for a peaceful protest held outside parliament to protest the Election Commission’s (EC) delay in implementing the 18-year voting age. Those hauled up include the organisers and opposition politicians. According to reports they are being investigated under Section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, for gathering without notification.

    On 1 May, it was reported that police want to question eight people for attending a solidarity gathering for activist Fahmi Reza. The gathering was held on 14 April outside the Dang Wangi district police headquarters after police detained Fahmi overnight. The eight include one parliamentarian, two politicians, and five civil society members. Those from civil society include SUARAM executive director Sevan Doraisamy, youth activist Wong Yan Ke, ARTICLE 19 Malaysia programme officer E. Nalini, EDICT executive director Khalid Mohd Ismath, and activist Numan Afifi Saadan.

    On the same day, the police said it will be calling up around 90 participants of a physically distanced sit-in protest in front of the Parliament on 30 April, where participants broke their fast together for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The rally was held to call for the reopening of Parliament, which had been suspended following the January 2021 declaration of a State of Emergency, purportedly to deal with the pandemic. This emergency has been questioned by civil society who have accused the Prime Minister of using the pandemic to cling to power by preventing the parliament from convening and determining if he still has the majority to form a government.

    “The harassment of peaceful protesters highlights the shrinking space for fundamental freedoms under the Perikatan Nasional government. The questioning of these individuals is aimed at creating a climate of fear and stifling criticism of the government and must end. As a country that is seeking membership of the Human Rights Council, these actions clearly run contrary of international human rights law and standards that such as body is supposed to protect,” said Benedict.

    In a joint report with Article 19, released in March 2021, our organisations found that the Perikatan Nasional government has undermined and obstructed the exercise of fundamental freedoms. It has initiated baseless criminal proceedings against government critics, human rights defenders, journalists, and individuals expressing critical opinions. It has also attempted to silence peaceful protesters and also impede the formation of political parties to keep itself in power.

    Civic space in Malaysia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • MYANMAR: “If this coup is not overturned, there will be many more political prisoners”

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent military coup in Myanmar with Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and co-founder of theAssistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP). Founded in 2000 by former political prisoners living in exile on the Thai-Myanmar border, AAPP has its headquarters in Mae Sot, Thailand and two offices in Myanmar that opened in 2012. AAPP advocates for the release of political prisoners and the improvement of their lives after their release, with programmes aimed at ensuring access to education, vocational training, mental health counselling and healthcare.

     

  • MYANMAR: “Nearly everyone detained tells us they were beaten”

    CIVICUS speaks to Manny Maung, Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), about the human rights situation in Myanmar. Manny was previously a journalist and spent many years living and working in Myanmar,

    Myanmar remains on the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist as a country that has seen a recent and rapid decline in civic freedoms. The Myanmar military seized power in a coup on 1 February 2021, arrested the civilian leaders of the national and state governments and launched a brutal crackdown against the protest movement. More than six months on, the assault on civic space persists. Thousands have been arbitrarily arrested and detained. Many face baseless charges and there have been reports of torture and ill-treatment during interrogation, and of deaths in custody.

    Manny Maung

    What is the situation of civic freedoms in Myanmar more than five months after the coup?

    Since the military coup on 1 February, we’ve seen a rapid deterioration of the situation. Thousands have been arbitrarily detained and hundreds have been killed, while many more are in hiding and trying to evade arrest. HRW has determined that the military has committed abuses that amount to crimes against humanity against its population, so quite clearly the situation for civil society is extremely dangerous as civic freedoms have become non-existent.

    Is the civil disobedience movement (CDM) still active despite the repression?

    Protests are still being held daily, although they are smaller and more ad hoc. Flash strikes are popping up all over Myanmar, not just in major cities. But these demonstrations are now slightly muted, not just due to the violent crackdowns by the security forces, but also because of the devastating third wave of COVID-19 infections. Hundreds of arrest warrants have been issued for protest leaders, including against almost 600 medical doctors who participated in or led the CDM earlier on. Journalists, lawyers and civil society leaders have all been targeted and so has anyone who is deemed to be a protest or strike leader. In some cases, if the authorities can’t find the individual who they are targeting for arrest, they arrest their family members as a form of collective punishment.

    What is the situation of protesters that have been arrested and detained?

    Nearly everyone we speak to who was detained or rounded up during widespread crackdowns on protests tells us they were beaten when they were arrested or being held in military interrogation centres. One teenager described to me how he was beaten so hard with a rifle butt that he passed out in between beatings. He also described how he was forced into a pit and buried up to his neck while blindfolded, all because the authorities suspected him of being a protest leader. Others have described severe beatings while being handcuffed to a chair, being denied food and water and deprived of sleep, and experiencing sexual violence or the threat of rape.

    Many protesters who are still detained have not had serious trials. Some have been charged and convicted, but that’s a small number compared to the thousands who are waiting to have their cases move forward. Many detainees who have since been released from prison tell us they had minimal contact, if any, with their lawyers. But the lawyers who represent them also face risks. At least six lawyers defending political prisoners have been arrested, three of them while representing a client in a trial proceeding.

    How has the disruption of internet and television services affected the CDM?

    Bans on satellite television have added to the restrictions on access to information. The junta claimed that ‘illegal organisations and news organisations’ were broadcasting programmes via satellite that threatened state security. But the bans appear primarily targeted at foreign news channels that broadcast via satellite into Myanmar, including two independent Myanmar-language broadcasters, Democratic Voice of Burma and Mizzima, both of which had their media licences revoked by the junta in March. Internet shutdowns have also made it difficult for people to access information and communicate with each other in real time.

    Blanket internet shutdowns are a form of collective punishment. They hinder access to information and communications that’s needed for daily life but especially during crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. The restrictions also provide cover for human rights abuses and complicate efforts to document violations.

    Why has violence in the ethnic areas increased, and who is being targeted?

    The coup sparked renewed fighting in some parts of the country between ethnic armed groups and the military. Rakhine State appears to be the exception, as the Arakan Army has negotiated a ceasefire there, and protests against the military have not been as vocal or widespread. Other ethnic armed groups such as the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) have welcomed resistance to the military and are providing safe haven to those fleeing from the military in the territories they control. Renewed clashes between the military and the KNLA have resulted in a number of human rights violations on civilians and have displaced thousands on the Thai-Myanmar border.

    What do you think of the response by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the situation in Myanmar so far?

    ASEAN has attempted to follow diplomatic channels, but this is not a situation where it’s business as usual. The military has seized power and has been committing crimes against its own people – a civilian population that has already voted for its preferred government. After months of futile negotiations, ASEAN should be prepared to impose penalties on Myanmar. As independent nations, ASEAN member states should act together and impose targeted sanctions on Myanmar to ensure the military no longer acts with total impunity.

    The reaction by General Min Aung Hlaing, who has made himself the Prime Minister, to the five-point consensus plan proposed by ASEAN shows his utter disdain for regional diplomacy and makes it apparent that he will only respond to tough acts – such as cutting off his and the military’s access to foreign revenue through smart sanctions.

    What can the international community do to support civil society and push for a return to democratic rule?

    HRW recommends that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) refers the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court. The UNSC and influential countries such as the USA, the UK, Australia, Japan, India, Thailand and the European Union should apply coordinated sanctions to pressure the junta. The UNSC should also pass a resolution to ban the sales of weapons to Myanmar.

    As for international civil society organisations, they should continue to advocate on behalf of civil society members who are currently in hiding or being held in arbitrary detention. This means continuing to push for recognition of the severity of the political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar and pushing for governments to act in favour of the people of Myanmar.

    Civic space in Myanmar is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    Follow @mannymaung on Twitter.

     

  • MYANMAR: “The military turned medical workers from heroes to criminals overnight”

    Nay Lin Tun May

    CIVICUS speaks to Nay Lin Tun, a medical doctor who regularly volunteers with rescue teams in emergency areas in the city of Yangon, Myanmar. Since the military seized power through a coup on 1 February 2021, the army has launched abrutal crackdown against the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), a protest movement that spread across the country.Medical workers have played a key role in the movement.

    Ever since the coup, Nay Lin Tun has been on the frontline treating protesters injured by the security forces. He previously worked in Rakhine State providing mobile community-based medical care to Rohingya people and other internally displaced populations in conflict-affected areas. He was also involved in theGoalkeepers Youth Action Accelerator campaign dedicated to accelerating progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

    What has the situation been since the coup? How has the medical system been affected?

    Since the military coup occurred on 1 February, our lives entered darkness: internet access, the freedom of expression, the freedom of speech and all our basic human rights have been denied. I cannot believe that such a military coup can still happen in the 21st century. We live in a cycle of fear every day and are afraid of getting arrested or killed for no reason.

    People were already in a stage of desperation before the coup, due to the social and economic hardships associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. They were hoping that their business would recover and grow when COVID-19 infection figures fell in Myanmar. Now, all these plans are gone. People have said they would rather die fighting for a democratic future than live under a military junta.

    Almost all government departments and ministries are shut down because the CDM is boycotting all services linked to the military and promoting labour strikes and walkouts by civil servants and other workers. Health systems have all collapsed.

    Worryingly, COVID-19 prevention and control mechanisms have also stopped since the coup, as has the vaccination campaign. The authorities bought 30 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from the Indian government, which were shipped in January and April 2021. But there are lots of data discrepancies between those who have received the first dose and those who have received the second: 1.54 million people have received the COVID-19 vaccine once but only 0.34 million have been vaccinated for a second time. This shows the failure of the vaccination programme. In addition, the COVID-19 surveillance system has been slow and has low testing capacities. This puts many people at risk in case a third or fourth wave of COVID-19 hits Myanmar.

    How are medical workers responding to the pandemic and the coup?

    Myanmar healthcare professionals have shown their strength and commitment, and have been hailed as COVID-19 heroes, since the beginning of the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. At that time, there were not enough resources to treat those infected and cases began rising; deaths reached a total of 3,209 (according to the Ministry of Health and Sports (MOHS) website, COVID-19 Dashboard data updated on 4 May 2021). But, due to our admirable health heroes and good leadership, the slope of COVID-19 infections declined in late 2020 and people in Myanmar began to receive vaccines in the last week of January 2021. Myanmar was the third country to have a COVID-19 vaccination programme in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region, right after more developed countries such as Indonesia and Singapore.

    But all these positive developments have been destroyed overnight. On 1 February, all elected government officials, including State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, were detained. People have not been willing to accept this takeover by an abusive military junta and are showing their anger on the streets. The military forces have brutally cracked down on the protests with lethal weapons and real bullets. This has led to 769 people being killed as of 4 May, according to data from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). Due to the military coup, government workers left their jobs to join the CDM. It was medical workers from the MOHS who initiated this movement, and they were followed by those in other departments and ministries.

    Therefore, the military has targeted government staff involved in the CDM protest movement and those who support them. They have tried to arrest them using a new provision in the Penal Code, Section 505A, that can be used to punish comments regarding the illegitimacy of the coup or the military government, among other violations. These are punishable with up to three years in prison.

    By doing so, the military turned medical workers from heroes to criminals overnight. The military spokesperson for the Tatmadaw Information Team, Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun, has even accused government doctors who withdrew their services after joining the CDM of murdering people in cold blood.

    In reality, CDM doctors are helping the public in various ways, including by providing free treatment at private hospitals and charity clinics, making home visits and providing telephone counselling. Due to the military coup, people have faced numerous challenges and insecurity both day and night. Curfews are in place from 8 pm to 6 am in all states and regions except Rakhine State. In addition, the internet is blocked for those accessing it via SIM cards and Wi-Fi services; as a result, most people lack internet access and the flow of information is restricted. All these conditions have had a major impact on people’s ability to reach out to healthcare services on time.

    What risks do medical workers face for speaking out?

    Currently, all the medical doctors who help anti-coup protesters risk arrest and those who joined the CDM are on an arrest list. Up to now, according to AAPP data, more than 4,700 people, including elected leaders, election commissioners, anti-regime protesters, teachers, doctors, journalists, writers, artists and civilians, have been arrested since the coup. Therefore, if we speak out, we face a high risk of arrest anytime, any day in any place.

    According to the latest information, not even free charity clinics are now allowed to accept CDM doctors or admit wounded patients for treatment. The military is also acting against private hospitals, which are forced to shut down, and have their doctors arrested if they accept CDM doctors’ consultations.

    Have you witnessed military violence against civilians?

    On the evening of 9 April, reports began emerging that security forces had killed scores of people in the city of Bago, about 80 kilometres north-east of Yangon, after unleashing heavy weapons and grenades to disperse protesters occupying barricades. Before launching the operation in Bago, the armed forces had blocked the roads, preventing ambulances from picking up the wounded, many of whom were eventually dumped in a monastery compound.

    At least 80 people were killed in Bago that day, but the final death toll will probably never be known. Something else we will likely never know is how many of the wounded died because they did not receive treatment. I arrived in Bago three days later to help treat the wounded. It was a difficult task. Many injured protesters were in hiding, for fear they would be arrested if they sought treatment. We were also told that volunteer medical workers had been detained by the security forces.

    As a frontline medical volunteer, I have regularly witnessed the brutality of the junta’s operations to disperse protesters. The first time was during a protest near Thanlyin Technological University in the outer south-eastern Yangon Region on 9 March. Troops had occupied the campus, and students were protesting peacefully to demand that they leave. The security forces suddenly opened fire with live rounds, leaving several people injured. We began treating some of the injured in a safe house not far from the site of the protest, but then soldiers arrived nearby, and we had to quickly evacuate the patients to another safe house. Thankfully, we managed to get them to a safe location and continued treating them.

    How can the international community support medical workers?

    Attacks on health facilities and personnel must be documented by national and international bodies. We are lucky that the World Health Organization has a surveillance system on attacks on healthcare facilities and personnel, which are recorded daily. From 1 February to 30 April, there were at least 158 attacks on healthcare facilities, vehicles, staff and supplies, as well as against patients, resulting in 11 deaths and 51 injuries. These facts help people understand the scope of the problem and can guide the design of interventions to prevent and respond to the attacks. But in Myanmar, there isn’t a leading organisation that can take action to prevent attacks and violence against healthcare personnel. Therefore, we need international pressure on Myanmar authorities and need international humanitarian organisations to address this issue seriously. 

    The international community should stand together with us in condemning the attacks on healthcare facilities and workers and unite with Myanmar healthcare workers in speaking out forcefully against all acts of discrimination, intimidation and violence against healthcare workers and facilities. Support to frontline medical workers in the form of medicines and other emergency aid would also be welcome.

    What is your hope for Myanmar?

    I wish for a day when all our healthcare workers receive full respect in accordance with our professional role. In other countries, medical professionals also held protests against their government, but their governments engaged with them and worked out agreements to end the protests because medical workers deal with millions of patients and in a democracy, their protests could have an impact on elected officials. Therefore, doctors’ strikes in other countries did not last long.

    It is the opposite in Myanmar. The military has unleashed a brutal crackdown on striking doctors and has arrested health workers. Doctors who are involved in the CDM can be sentenced to up to three years of imprisonment. CDM doctors have also been arrested at their homes and even in their clinics while providing treatment to patients. Therefore, it will be a very meaningful day for all our medical workers in Myanmar when we get full respect for our work.

    We also aspire to have a professional body that can protect all healthcare workers from attacks. The Myanmar Medical Association and Medical Council have silently witnessed the arrest of our brothers and sisters in the medical sector. We should receive full protection from a strong medical association.

    Last but not least, according to medical ethics reflected in the Hippocratic Oath, we have a full duty of care for the safety of patients that require treatment. Treatment of needy patients in an emergency should not be seen as a crime. But our medical teams are targeted for arrest for providing medical assistance. We wish one day all our medical workers will have freedom of care with no limitation.

    Civic space inMyanmaris rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.