repression

 

  • RUSSIA: ‘The shutdown of media sources threatens to create information vacuum for Russians’

    Natalia MalyshevaCIVICUS speaks about anti-war protests in Russia and the government’s violations of digital rights with Natalia Malysheva, co-founder and press secretary of Roskomsvoboda.

    Roskomsvoboda is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works to defend people’s digital rights. Established in 2012, it promotes the freedom of information and advocates against censorship. It is currently working to ensure people receive accurate information about the war and offering assistance to those who have been detained.

    How significant are the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia?

    The protests are small. In the first days of the so-called ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, many people came out to take part in spontaneous rallies for peace in all major cities of Russia. Human rights CSOs have reported that more than 15,000 people have been detained so far for speaking out against the war. But now protests typically consist of small groups of people in multiple locations across the country.

    The new law that prohibits and criminalises the dissemination of ‘fake news’ about the Russian military action and the expression of support for ‘anti-Russian sanctions’ has had a strong impact on how people organise, and on whether they go out to protest, because it has installed fear throughout society.

    People have been arrested merely for using the words ‘war’ and ‘peace’ in the context of protests, and even for using asterisks instead of letters on their signs – because the government knows that if you protest with a blank sign or a sign full of asterisks, what you are trying to say is ‘no to war’. People who advocate against the war on social media are also often at risk of being arrested.

    There are fewer and fewer people who are willing to take part in an uncoordinated rally and get arrested for several days, because most of them have families and jobs they wish to protect. Many people who fear for their lives are leaving the country for their safety. Others simply do not see any prospects in a continuing struggle. Moving forward, we shouldn’t expect mass protests to arise in Russia.

    Do you think protests can make any difference?

    Right now it is clear that the Russian government does not intend to have a dialogue with the part of society that does not support its so-called ‘military operation’ in Ukraine. This is unfortunately a relatively small segment of society and its demands are overlooked.

    Although people continue to go out to protests and some get arrested in the process, in my opinion this will not change the course of the events that are currently taking place. The authorities won’t listen to protesters. Protesting will perhaps start making more sense when – or if – most Russians begin to understand what is really happening.

    What is Roskomsvoboda focusing on?

    Roskomsvoboda is a CSO that supports open self-regulatory networks and the protection of digital rights of internet users. It seeks to counter online censorship and expand the opportunities brought by digital technologies.

    For 10 years, Roskomsvoboda has constantly monitored the activities of government agencies. We publish a register of blocked sites and raise awareness of online abuse, leakages of personal data and the persecution of citizens for their social media statements. We conduct extensive public campaigns and events aimed at informing citizens about the violation of their digital rights, initiating public discussion and bringing people together so they can fight for their rights. Our lawyers defend those who are prosecuted for their online statements or activities, represent the interests of users and site owners in court and participate in the development of proposals for changing legislation.

    In the past few days, against the backdrop of an information war and a growing social crisis, we have focused more on helping people get reliable information about what is happening. We have published pieces about new laws that have been adopted to introduce censorship and analysed how they will affect people and their right to speak up. Our lawyers continue to provide targeted legal assistance to those who are being prosecuted for speaking out online, defending people in courts.

    The closure of some news outlets and social media platforms is affecting the kind of information people receive. State media outlets provide information that only reflects events from the government’s perspective and disseminate a lot of propaganda. The shutdown of leading media sources threatens to create an information vacuum for Russians, which won’t contribute to the goal of achieving peace.

    Restrictions on access to information and censorship have already significantly reduced people’s ability to protest. Even publishing an online call for a peace rally can result in criminal punishment.

    We recently issued a statement calling on the world’s leading internet and IT companies and initiatives not to indiscriminately impose mass sanctions and not to punish ordinary people in Russia, many of whom are already in a vulnerable position. We have translated our appeal into several languages and are asking everyone to help disseminate it.

    What are the dangers of disinformation in the context of the current crisis?

    The biggest risk of disinformation is that of disconnecting Russia from the global information space.

    Russian authorities have blocked the world’s largest media outlets and social media. Many western companies have stopped operating in Russia, making it even more closed for international viewers. This prevents people from getting the truth about what is happening; it also destroys the businesses and careers of many people who have worked in partnership with Western countries for many years.

    The current closure of businesses has left many people without vital resources. People are not only affected by oppression from the Russian government but must also deal with the potential loss of their jobs and sources of income. With such actions, western countries only risk Russia shutting down completely from the outside world, paving the way for the rise of a ‘sovereign internet’ – an internet thoroughly controlled by the government.

    How can the international community best support Russian civil society?

    The international community can help by bringing our message to the widest possible audience. On behalf of Russian internet users, Roskomsvoboda urges technology companies located in the jurisdictions of the USA, the European Union and other countries not to massively disable the accounts of Russian users. They should not restrict their access to information and means of communication.

    Digital discrimination based on nationality would reduce the ability of Russians to gain access to reliable information, as well as to conduct honest work, study and research activities. So we ask you to please distribute our statement far and wide.

    We also started a petition asking the world’s virtual private network (VPN) services to help ensure that Russian users have free access to their services during these difficult times. This is necessary to protect users’ basic rights to privacy, the secrecy of communication and their ability to receive and disseminate information freely. Access to information is a basic human right enshrined in various international agreements. In critical situations, it is more important than ever.

    Civic space in Russiais rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. Russia is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
    Get in touch with Roskomsvoboda through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@RuBlackListNET on Twitter.

     

  • RUSSIA: ‘These protests are key to the preservation of Russian civil society’

    Maria KuznetsovaCIVICUS speaks about the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia and the repressive government response with OVD-Info’s spokesperson Maria Kuznetsova.

    OVD-Info is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) that aims to promote and protect human rights – and specifically the freedom of peaceful assembly – in Russia. It monitors protests and their repression and assists detained protesters through legal aid, online consultations, and bringing them food and water while in detention.

    How big are the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia?

    The protests were massive in the first two weeks of the war – we recorded protest-related arrests in at least 159 cities. Of course, the biggest protests were those taking place in major developed cities, basically Moscow and St. Petersburg.

    People came out against the war for moral reasons, because they could not look at the horror of what was happening in Ukraine and not react: mass bombings, killings of civilians, violence.

    Protesters are mostly people under 40 years old – because they are the ones who, thanks to the internet, get an accurate picture of what is happening, in contrast to the narrative that is pushed by censored state TV. Their demands to end the war are simultaneously, of course, demands to overthrow Putin. Because one is impossible without the other.

    My opinion is that due to the deteriorating economic situation, another – quite different – wave of protests may be expected soon. This may start among the poorer sections of the population who have lost income and jobs, and among doctors and patients, who are already experiencing the consequences of shortages of life-saving medicines due to sanctions.

    Do you think repression has dissuaded people from protesting in bigger numbers?

    At the height of the protests, on 5 March, more than 5,500 people were detained in one day. Since the beginning of the war, nearly 15,000 people have been detained at anti-war protests. The police are very harshly suppressing the protests – for example, on Sunday 20 March in Moscow, virtually all protesters were detained, and many of them were arrested for five to 30 days.

    In addition, 39 criminal cases have already been opened due to statements and protests against the war; some of the defendants are already in jail. All of this scares away potential protesters. They understand that they can get a prison sentence even for participating in a peaceful rally, and it is obvious that fewer people are coming out now. However, protest continues under different forms: people sign open letters, write on social media, quit their jobs. We have even seen several high-profile dismissals of journalists and editors from federal media channels.

    Those who still venture out to protest are being assisted by several human rights organisations, including OVD-Info. We send our lawyers to police stations where protesters are held. When there are not enough lawyers or we do not have a lawyer in a given city, we provide online consultations. We accompany the defendants to court. In addition, there is an extensive network of volunteers who also come to police stations to bring detainees water and food so that they do not go hungry all night after they are detained.

    Do you think the protests will lead to meaningful change?

    I don’t think there is a chance that these protests will influence the politics of the current regime, and as a human rights project, rather than a political one, OVD-Info is not in a position to assess the prospects for regime change. What we know for sure is that the only possible path to peace in Europe is having a free Russia that protects human rights. We do not know when our country will turn that way.

    Still, these protests are key to the preservation and future development of Russian civil society. By taking part in them, those who oppose the war will gain invaluable self-organisation skills and acquire the moral right to play a prominent role when the time comes to build a new Russia.

    How have media restrictions imposed by the government affected the protests, and civil society work more generally?

    In my opinion, what we are witnessing in Russia is the establishment of military censorship. Even calling the events in Ukraine a war is prohibited – this is punishable by an administrative fine, and in case of repeated violations it becomes a criminal case, which can result in up to five years in prison. A new crime has been included in the Criminal Code: that of public disseminating knowingly false information about the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. You can get up to 15 years in prison if you’re accused of doing that.

    The websites of almost all independent organisations have been blocked in Russia since the beginning of the war. Due to anti-war remarks, its founders were forced to shut down Echo of Moscow, a radio station. The online media Znak.com also closed due to pressures. Independent TV channel Dozhd left Russia and temporarily interrupted its broadcasts, which were viewed by millions. Almost all independent media outlets were forced to leave Russia. In addition, the government blocked Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, because they realised they were unable to effectively impose censorship on social media.

    At the moment, military censorship makes it tough to continue any anti-war and independent civilian activity, because any statement or protest can result in a prison term. But people continue to protest regardless, and many celebrities are speaking out publicly. We have seen employees of propaganda channels getting fired, which suggests that people are so enraged by what is happening that they are willing to fight back despite the risks.

    How have the sanctions affected your work?

    I don’t have a clear answer just yet. It seems to me that so far sanctions have not affected our work so much, but the situation can always quickly deteriorate. In fact, OVD-Info has closed down all Russian donations, while international donations continue to be safe. 

    For the time being, it is the shutdown of many social media platforms that has made our work much more complex: it is increasingly difficult for us to convey information to people, educate them on legal issues and provide them with legal assistance. It will be especially difficult for us if Telegram is blocked in Russia, because it is now our primary platform for communicating with detainees.

    How can the international community help independent CSOs and human rights activists in Russia?

    I think the international community should be more careful with sanctions, which should be targeted. I think that the idea of collective responsibility is wrong – in Russia, it is a concept reminiscent of Stalin’s mass deportations of whole peoples, such as the Crimean Tatars, to pay for some individuals’ cooperation with the Third Reich.

    From a pragmatic rather than an ethical point of view, it must be noted that many sanctions that have been imposed are having negative side effects – they are harming the most progressive part of society that opposes the war, preventing it from receiving information and obstructing the work of the last independent media. For example, Mailchimp – a USA-based platform and email marketing service that is used to create and distribute email marketing campaigns – has blocked all its clients from Russia.

    It is also essential to understand that the Russians and Belarusians that are now leaving their countries and arriving in Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and other parts of Europe are mostly opposition activists and independent journalists who face jail time in their homeland. But because they are Russians and Belarusians, they are facing massive discrimination. However, these activists and journalists are not responsible for their government’s actions – they are in fact the only hope that their countries will change, so it is essential to help them instead of discriminating against them as if they were the aggressors’. It is necessary to understand that not all Russians and Belarusians support the war in Ukraine.

    Civic space in Russiais rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. Russia is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
    Get in touch with OVD-Info through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@ovdinfo on Twitter.

     

     

  • SERBIA: ‘We are not just fighting locally; we are sending a message to the world’

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent protests against the exploration and licensing of lithium mining – for use in batteries, including electric vehicle batteries – in Serbia with Miroslav Mijatović, activist and president of the Podrinje Anti-Corruption Team (PAKT). Founded in 2014, PAKT is a civil society organisation (CSO) working on anti-corruption and the promotion and protection of human rights and freedoms.

    Miroslav Mijatovic

    What is the ongoing civil society campaign against lithium mining in Serbia?

    There are currently 172 mining exploration permits in Serbia, and lithium is being explored at 10 locations. The project that has progressed the most so far is the one in the Jadar river valley. The company in charge, Rio Tinto, certified the balance reserves of lithium and boron in late 2020, accounting for 158,647,256 tonnes – 1.7 per cent lithium and almost 14 per cent boron.

    Initial investigations are also taking place in other places across Serbia, so people all over have joined our fight in fear of what awaits them.

    The Law on Mining and Geological Explorations (2011-2015) declared lithium and boron to be strategic minerals, and therefore in the public interest, allowing land expropriation to be carried out for those mining projects. As a result, people are afraid that the state will confiscate their property at a very low price.

    Rio Tinto has spread the rumour that it pays a much better price and this has played very well on the field, but it is simply not true. The company has so far managed to buy about 150 of the 350 hectares required to obtain a building permit and approval for exploitation, but I think it won’t be able to get much more. Now everyone expects a move by the state. It is not easy for the government to move on with expropriations before an election, but after these take place in April, the situation will get worse.

    For now, the fight against Rio Tinto is taking place in the justice system. We have not yet entered the field of environmental protection because it is not yet clear which technological process will be used to separate lithium and boron. We have been told Jadar Valley is going to be experimental project, but we don’t want to be treated as lab rats. According to reputable experts and academics we have consulted with, it is almost impossible to extract lithium and boron without a severe environmental impact. Available data shows that over the estimated 60 years of the mine’s lifetime about 90 million tonnes of tailings – mining waste – will be deposited in the Jadar Valley.

    Our efforts are currently focused on the multiple proven violations of Serbian legislation and regulations involved in the state’s dealings with Rio Tinto. As well as violations of national legislation, including of the Environmental Protection Law, the Law on Planning and Construction, the Law on Agricultural Land, the Forest Law and the Law on Environmental Impact Assessment, among several others, there have been repeated violations of the Aarhus Convention, which guarantees the right of people to access timely and accurate environmental information held by the authorities.

    All Rio Tinto contracts are labelled as ‘trade secrets’. The local community knew almost nothing about the project until a special-purpose area spatial plan for Jadar came to light. There are no real controls on what the company is doing because, believe it or not, Serbia only has three mining inspectors.

    What has PAKT done to try to stop the project?

    We helped the local community register their association, ‘We won’t give up Jadar’, and soon decided to start an online petition. We were aware of the fact that a petition does not have any legal power but seized the opportunity to create wider awareness of the issue.

    We requested the help of experts and academics and activated as many public figures, including athletes and actors, as possible.

    We also cooperated with an opposition member of parliament who was able to secure a meeting with the prime minister. We showed her the 300,000 electronic signatures we had collected and explained to her why we were against the mine, but her response was that we were against progress and that was the end of the dialogue.

    However, the media began had started to pay attention, and when foreign television channels began to arrive in the Jadar Valley, we knew that we were no longer alone.

    As for legal action, there are already three complaints filed against the company. The main one is related to large-scale environmental pollution.

    For months we toured the Rio Tinto wells in the Jadar Valley and found out that nothing grew around them, not even weeds. Inspection bodies did not react to our evidence, and then someone approached us with a compensation agreement drawn on behalf of Rio Tinto, in which the company recognised pollution from exploratory wells and offered to pay damages to the plot’s owner. We investigated and found five more such contracts, all classified as secret. There may be many more, because there are over 580 exploration wells in the Jadar Valley.

    We filed a complaint against the company with the Prosecutor’s Office in Loznica, attached the contracts, and requested an independent expert investigation to find out how many wells are leaking and what kind of pollution they produce.

    What did the campaign achieve?

    The campaign connected with the public, and in the second week of protests against the scandalous Expropriation Bill, which the government tried to push through the National Assembly by urgent procedure, there were over 120,000 people on the streets.

    In the face of many displeased people mobilised in an election year, the government reacted. It first withdrew the Expropriation Bill. Then it revoked the decree greenlighting Rio Tinto’s project and backtracked on the spatial plan for the special-purpose area designed for the project’s implementation, which had been illegally introduced.

    Since the beginning of the protests, PAKT has emphasised that these were citizen protests that did not involve the political opposition. This civil revolt achieved something that the weak opposition never achieved under nine years of rule – first as prime minister and now as president – by Aleksandar Vučić: the protests attracted a part of his electorate and gave him a signal to give in.

    It really was the fact that people mobilised in an election year that did the trick. In our last meeting, we asked the prime minister if she had withdrawn the decree on the spatial plan because of growing awareness of the environmental danger, and she replied that she did not yet have all the information on lithium exploitation. It became clear to us that they are afraid of people taking massively to the streets in an election year.

    This raises concerns that the government made what they view as a small temporary compromise to make demonstrators protesters happy but everything will return to normal after the April election.

    How has Rio Tinto reacted?

    We have not been in contact with Rio Tinto for over two years. We believe dialogue only benefits them because afterwards they claim they have engaged with civil society and have listened to our concerns. When we managed to convince other CSOs that this was the right approach, the company went on to found its own fake CSOs to go through the motions of civil society consultation.

    So far, we haven’t received any threats from the company. Threats typically come from domestic extremists who mostly support the Vučić government. We are annoying for many right-wing movements and associations, so they threaten and attack us. While so far we haven’t received serious threats, we have noticed an increased interest of security agencies in our work. But as we have been dealing with corruption for more than 10 years, we are used to this.

    What do you think will happen after the elections?

    It seems that President Vučić has emerged quite strongly from the protests. He seems to have galvanised his electorate, because the public appears to have been sold on his concessions, and now they wonder, what more do environmentalists want?

    In addition, some members of the opposition joined the protests in an attempt to score some political points, which only served to drive many people off the streets. As the opposition is divided, the majority will likely stick with Vučić for another term, and I am genuinely afraid that after the election we will see the real repressive face of this regime.

    Our main goal will be to achieve the adoption of a law banning lithium and boron research, the only thing that could reduce tensions to some extent. We have submitted a bill to that effect and even proposed to set up a working group with experts from government and civil society. We urged for this to happen before the election campaign is underway, because we do not believe the government’s intentions are sincere. It is highly unlikely it will agree to pass this law by urgent procedure before the elections, so protests will likely continue.

    What support could international civil society and the international community provide?

    Any help and support from international civil society will be welcome, particularly in terms of amplifying and internationalising environmental issues. We are not just fighting here locally to protect our environment; we are sending a message to the world about the dangers of extracting lithium from solid sediments, which are simply not acceptable anywhere in the world. We all need to be vigilant.

    As an organisation whose mission is to trace the flow of public resources and money, we have also made the connection between environmental and anti-corruption issues. This government is turning Serbia into a European landfill, and there are obvious reasons why it gives tacit approval for corporations to violate environmental standards to reduce production costs.

    European Union (EU) companies and civil society should deal with this issue, because the situation in Serbia will eventually affect the business of EU companies and distort competition, ultimately affecting the quality of life in the EU.

    Civic space in Serbia is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with PAKT through itswebsite or itsFacebook page. 

     

  • SRI LANKA: ‘By peacefully protesting, we hope to protect our democracy’

    Bhavani FonsekaCIVICUS speaks about protests in Sri Lanka in response to the country’s deepening economic crisis and civil society’s role in supporting protesters with human rights lawyer Bhavani Fonseka of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).

    CPA is a Sri Lankan civil society organisation (CSO) and leading public policy research think tank. It advocates for policy alternatives of non-violent conflict resolution and democratic governance to facilitate post-war recovery in Sri Lanka. 

    How significant are the current economic protests in Sri Lanka? What are the main demands?

    The protests are spontaneous and come as a direct result of the current economic crisis, which is imposing a heavy burden on the people. They have been suffering from severe hardships due to a lack of essential items, including medicines, long power cuts and skyrocketing prices. Such a catastrophic situation manifested in several citizens dying while waiting in fuel queues. In response, people have taken to the streets in peaceful protests across the country for more than a month.

    It is important to state that the widespread protests are not linked to any political party. The opposition held their own protests weeks ago and continue to protest currently. But the ongoing protests that are catching global media attention are largely driven by angry citizens who oppose the involvement of politicians and members of parliament in their peaceful protests. The reason behind this is that there is frustration with existing political parties, including the opposition; people denounce them for not doing enough as representatives of the people.

    In line with that, the thousands of people who have continued to protest in recent weeks demand a radical change. They call for the President and government to step down, a peaceful transition of power, and for structural reforms including the abolishing of the executive presidency. There is also a loud call to address immediate needs such as shortages of essential items, livelihoods and rising cost of living, among the many other calls from the protesters.

    The impact of the peaceful protests was evident when there were mass-scale resignations from the cabinet on 3 April. But the call for the resignation of the President and Prime Minister has yet to materialise. As the protests expanded and became extremely vocal, people sent a clear message to the regime that a real change is needed. Protesters insist on the resignation of the president and the prime minister. They chant on the streets ‘Go Home Rajapaksas’ and ‘Go Home Gota’ – referring to the president – and post on social media under the hashtag #GoHomeGota2022.

    Sri Lanka has not seen this scale of protests in recent years – none that I can remember. Even the older generations are saying that they have not seen a similar movement. As most of these protests are peaceful, they are making a difference by raising the profile of our domestic issues across the region and internationally. As a result, there is a recognition that the situation is quite bad in Sir Lanka.

    What do you think the resignation of the cabinet means for the prospect of political change? What role is the army playing?

    The country is also seeing a political crisis with the mass resignation of the cabinet, which is extremely significant. It shows there is an unstable government ruling the country under mounting pressure from both protesters and the economic crisis.

    A few weeks ago, the country was ruled by a powerful family, the Rajapaksas, but now there are only two members of this family who remain in power, the president and the prime minister. We are going through a very unprecedented time that raises many questions about the future of Sri Lanka, including the question of whether this government can continue in the way of ruling it has been doing it so far.

    Regarding the possible drift towards militarisation, the military institution is a powerful force, and its influence has increased sharply in recent post-war years with former military officials holding various positions in government with an active role in governance. In that sense, the drift toward militarisation is a great concern for the Sri Lankan people as the political vacuum may be an opportunity for military rule.

    What is the scale of arrests among protesters?How have CSOs, including your organisation respond?

    The authorities responded to the protests with arrests even though most of these protests were peaceful. For instance, security forces arrested around 50 people near the president’s residence when a protest became violent. But according to reports most of those arrested weren’t involved in that incident; we found out later that the violence was orchestrated by certain groups. There were random arrests of people who are now before the court.

    Also, when the state of emergency was declared, there were several arrests of people for breaking the curfew.

    From our side, CPA and other CSOs have issued several public statements commenting on the situation and reminding of the rights guaranteed in our constitution. Personally, I have been protesting for a month now and my colleagues have joined the peaceful protests. We are protesting because it is a democratic right. In this regard, civil society and citizens have taken a stand on the need to uphold constitutional democracy because we are now confronted by an unprecedented political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka. By peacefully protesting, we hope to protect our democratic rights and our democracy.

    Overall, the mobilisation of lawyers and of civil society to offer solidarity and support are quite high. Over 500 lawyers turned up to support those who were arrested on 31 March, and many other instances have seen lawyers appearing to protect the rights of citizens. 

    How have protests mobilised despite the arrests and social media shut down?

    I do not think that arrests of the protesters prevented others from joining protests. Not at all. In fact, I think the violence unleashed on peaceful protests coupled with the economic crisis prompted more to join the protests. Despite the curfew on the first weekend of April, there were thousands who came to the streets that Sunday to protest peacefully. This was a large-scale civil disobedience from the citizens, unprecedented in Sri Lanka because it is the first time, we have seen such large numbers of people coming to peacefully protest during a curfew. 

    Regarding the social media shutdown, it is now being challenged in court, and we will see how it goes. Sri Lanka’s people are highly creative and resilient, and many used virtual private networks (VPNs) to continue to use social media to communicate and protest against the government. Every attempt used by this government to stop people from protesting, from speaking out, has failed.

    Generally, I believe that it is amazing how people are stepping out, creating ways of protesting despite the challenges and hardships.

    Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) through itswebsite orFacebook page and follow@CPASL on Twitter. 

     

  • SRI LANKA: ‘The ongoing protests have put the government on the defensive’

    RukiFernandoCIVICUS speaks about protests in response to deepening economic crisis in Sri Lanka with Ruki Fernando, a human rights activist, writer and consultant to the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in Colombo.

    How significant are the current protests in Sri Lanka?

    This protest movement is the biggest and most diverse one I have ever experienced in Sri Lanka. The protests are largely driven by angry, frustrated, disappointed citizens. Mainly the protests have been triggered by the ramification of the economic crisis that reached its peak with shortages of fuel, electricity, gas and medicines among many essential items that either disappeared from the market or had their prices hiked.

    Most protests have taken place around Colombo, the capital, and its suburbs. Still, there have been protests all over the county. A large continuous day and night protest has been happening at the Galle Face Green in Colombo adjoining the Presidential Secretariat and similar initiatives have appeared in other districts. In addition to the streets, social media has been an important battleground. 

    Protesters are also now demanding the truth about people who disappeared during Sri Lanka’s civil war and even before. Their demands have expanded beyond the severe financial crisis to call for those in power to be held accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, disappearances and killings, disappearances and assaults on journalists.

    The protesters are demanding long-term legal and institutional changes to the current governance system that must start with the resignation of the Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa family, the ruling family. Others call for the abolition of the 20th amendment to the constitution, which expanded the president’s executive powers.

    Protest slogans calling on the president to ‘Go Home’ are now evolving into ‘Go to Jail’ and ‘Return Stolen Money’.

    Do you think the protests will make a difference?

    These protests have put the government on the defensive. As a result, the cabinet resigned and the government lost its majority in parliament when more than 40 lawmakers abandoned the ruling coalition to become independent members of parliament. These mass resignations are quite significant, as it proves that small groups can influence the political system. However, I believe we are still long way from any real change and meeting all people’s aspirations, especially for poor people and marginalised groups, including ethnic and religious minorities.

    Repressive measures did not last in the face of the ongoing protests. The authorities had to release arrested protesters and revoke the declaration of emergency, the curfew was not extended, and the social media shutdown was withdrawn.

    I believe that when President Rajapaksa revoked the declaration of a state of emergency on 5 April, it was because he realised, he was not able to sustain the necessary parliamentary majority that was needed for its continuation.

    Most importantly, these protests, which are largely being led by young and students, represent a political awakening of various groups of our nation. Many women, older people, LGBTQI+ people, lawyers, religious clergy, artists and well-known people such as former cricketers have been part of the protests. They have enriched the spirit of defiance, resistance, courage and creativity unleashed by youth, on an unprecedented scale.

    How has civil society responded to the arrest of protesters?

    More than 50 people, including journalists and bystanders were arrested after the protest had marched on the evening of 31 March to the president’s residence. Other arrests since have led not only to fear, but also outrage. As a result, the protesters have received much public sympathy and support from lawyers, journalists and the public. Some civil society groups support and stand with the protesters, but most significant roles in the protest movement is by ordinary people, especially young people.

    Do you think repression will dissuade people from protesting in bigger numbers?

    We cannot deny that the proclamation of a state of emergency, curfew and the shutdown imposed on some social media platforms led to fears. At the same time, the curfew was challenged by tens of thousands of protesters who came to the streets to protest despite the curfew. Overall, these repressive measures galvanised more people to join, organise and support protests.

    Aside from that, there is fear and uncertainty about what the future may hold for our country. There are many concerns about a potential military–police crackdown, especially after the shooting at protesters in Rambukkana that had led to at least one death and several others injured. There have been other incidents of concern, such as the presence of police trucks at the key protest site, special training for the military at army camp in Ganemulla and police reporting about the main protest site to courts. There are also worries about sustaining the protests and a lack of clear political alternatives. But it has been an inspiring, heartening moment to see so many people, especially young people, standing up, creatively and courageously. As I said earlier, this is a moment of political awakening for many.

    How can the international community best support Sri Lankan civil society?

    They must show solidarity for our struggles for justice, including economic justice, ethnic justice, gender justice and environmental justice. In that sense, the international community must defend and protect protesters and those criticising, questioning and challenging the government.

    On the economic level, international financial institutions, foreign governments and multinational corporations must not engage in exploitative and opportunistic practices in Sri Lanka. They should refrain from going ahead with investments that will negatively affect economic justice, economic democratisation and labour rights.

    Civic space in Sir Lanka is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Ruki Fernando through hiswebsite and follow@rukitweets on Twitter. 

     

  • SUDAN: ‘We are back to the situation that preceded the revolution’

    Nazik KabaloCIVICUS speaks about Sudan’s situation under military rule with Nazik Kabalo, a woman human rights defender (HRD) from Sudan. Nazik has worked in human rights advocacy, research and monitoring, with a focus on women’s rights, for the past 15 years.

    What happened to Sudan’s transition to democracy?

    Sudan is now facing the consequences of the major problems of the deal made by the military and civilian leaders in August 2019. Following the revolution, this deal initiated a transitional government in Sudan, a partnership between civilians and the military council. But this partnership was never equal: the military and former regime forces – including paramilitaries, militias, tribal militias and the security apparatus – had more economic and political power. They had controlled the country for 30 years, after all.

    On the other hand, for 30 years political parties and civil society had been under so much pressure that they only managed to stay together with the momentum of the revolution, to defeat the former regime. But the Sudanese democracy movement has too many internal divisions.

    Ours is an unfinished political transition that is missing transitional justice and mechanisms to limit the power of military and other armed groups. All armed groups had been involved in very severe human rights violations and remained partners with civilians in the new government. To be honest, I think the military coup was bound to happen. The political deal achieved in 2019 gave the presidency to the military for almost one and a half years. The coup happened on 25 October 2021, only few weeks before the date the military was expected to hand over the Supreme Council presidency to civilian leaders. But we always knew civilians didn’t really have a chance to lead the country.

    How has the situation evolved after the coup?

    Following the coup, the amount of violence and human rights violations was quite overwhelming. Violence is to be expected from the Sudanese military; it has led civil wars for 50 years and killing people is basically all it knows.

    Seven months after the coup, at least 102 people have been killed in peaceful protests, more than 4,000 have been injured, and over 5,000 have been detained. There have been attacks on the freedoms of association and expression. Journalists are being attacked: at least three female journalists have been prosecuted or arrested in the past couple of days. The military coup has completely destroyed the civic space and freedoms created after the revolution. Our military is learning from our neighbour, Egypt, to effectively crush the civic movement.

    For the past seven months we have lived under a state of emergency that was only lifted three weeks ago. But the lifting of the state of emergency made no difference to military practices on the ground. The international community has put some pressure on the government and the military but has not been able to stop the violence and civic space and human rights violations.

    An aspect to consider is that Sudan has three conflict areas: Blue Nile, Darfur and Nuba Mountains. As well as western and southern Sudan, there’s also inter-communal violence in eastern Sudan. The coup hasn’t been able to provide security, although this is always the main excuse for the military to take power. Violence in urban areas, including the capital, has increased, especially for women. Members of the security forces, including the Central Reserve Police (CRP), have perpetrated gang rapes and sexual assaults against women; for this reason, the CRP has been recently sanctioned by the USA. A peace agreement was signed in October 2020 with several armed groups but hasn’t been effectively implemented. 

    Sudan’s economy has been in a freefall since the coup. We expected to have our debt cancelled by this year, but because of the coup, the Paris Club, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank decided not to move forward. Instead, the IMF, the World Bank and international donors have frozen over two billion dollars in economic aid, which is directly affecting the general humanitarian situation. Recent reports from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimate at least half of Sudanese people will need humanitarian aid this year.

    Another impact of the coup was the internet shutdown. For at least seven weeks, HRDs lived under a complete communications shutdown. This has now been partially lifted, but internet and phone communications continue to be cut off on every day of protest – which means it has happened every single day for several weeks. Internet access is under very harsh surveillance, so no Sudanese activist feels safe to use the phone for work. Sudan has one of the worst cybercrime laws in the world: you can be prosecuted, tried and sentenced to five years in jail just for posting something on Facebook. A couple of months ago, a female HRD who reported the sexual violence that took place during protests was sent to jail, accused of posting ‘fake news’. She may be punished with up to 20 years in prison. The military have used this law to threaten activists both inside and outside Sudan.

    We are back to the situation that preceded the revolution. We feel that the old regime is back; in fact, the military has started appointing people from the former regime everywhere, from national television to the Humanitarian Commission, which is responsible for managing the work of civil society organisations (CSOs) inside Sudan. So CSOs are back to needing to request authorisation to hold meetings at venues outside our offices and are under constant surveillance. Activists, journalists and lawyers are being silenced because power went back to the military.

    What are protesters’ demands?

    Following the revolution, the deal reached between the military and civilians never satisfied the protest movement, which includes a high proportion of young people and women. They have never stopped protesting, not even during the transitional period, from August 2019 to October 2021. There have been at least 20 killings of HRDs since the transition began, but this hasn’t stopped them. So when the coup happened, people were instantly in the streets, even before an official announcement of the coup was made.

    Since 2018, protesters have demanded real democracy and civilian rule. We have had military governments 90 per cent of the time since we became independent: 59 years out of 64. After the regime fell on 11 April 2019, people started a sit-in in front of the military’s headquarters. This continued for two months and ended with the Khartoum Massacre on 3 June 2019, with attacks perpetrated by militias and security forces. Two hundred people were killed and at least 60 women were gang-raped. In August a deal was reached with the military, despite the massacre that literally happened outside their headquarters! This was a stab in the heart for many democracy groups.

    Right now, the protest movement wants to make sure civilians are the ones ruling the country. Military leaders should go back to guarding the borders and shouldn’t have anything to do with running the government anymore. The 2019 deal didn’t work, which means our only option is demanding radical change that puts power in people’s hands. Resistance committees have a slogan of ‘three nos’: no partnership, no negotiation or compromise, and no legitimacy. A process of dialogue and negotiations led by some political parties is currently taking place, but resistance committees refuse to engage. Unfortunately, this has not been welcomed by some international actors, but it comes as a direct result of recent Sudanese experience.

    Who are the people on the streets?

    Protesters have built an amazing grassroots movement; resistance committees have formed in every neighbourhood, even every block. Those who participate in them are ordinary people who have nothing to lose, so unlike the civilian elites, they are willing to continue the struggle until the end. They organise street protests every single day and are creating new ways of protesting, such as strikes, stand-ups, music, movies and poems. They use every tool available, including recreating Sudanese traditions and bringing our cultural heritage to the streets.

    Women and feminist movements are doing an amazing job, breaking so many norms. During the revolution, many young women were on the frontlines. The Angry, a protest group that stays on the frontlines of every protest, protecting other people and leading clashes with the police, includes lots of young women.

    Women are also working to provide medical care and trauma support. After 50 years of civil war, you will definitely be a traumatised country, but this has intensified following the past five years of revolt. Before, one was able to distinguish between people from war zones and people from cities. Right now, the whole country is a war zone. There are machine guns everywhere, firing bullets into neighbourhoods, and children are dying inside their own homes because bullets go through their roofs.

    Diaspora activism has also been key. Activists from the diaspora have been super effective in spreading the word, and during the internet shutdown they were online 24/7 to get information out to the world, not only sharing it on social media but also connecting people inside Sudan, who could receive international calls but not domestic ones.

     What kind of work are pro-democracy groups doing?

    The pro-democracy camp is very diverse. There are longstanding CSOs that have always promoted and advocated for human rights and continue to document violations, advocate, engage and build capacity inside the democracy movements. There are also new grassroots groups, the resistance committees, thar right now are the key movement leaders: other CSOs will follow their lead since they express the majority view. Professional organisations and trade unions are also a major group; they are key in organising mobilisations in urban areas. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and similar roles play an important role in putting pressure through strikes and civil disobedience. 

    Unfortunately, for the time being there’s not a single unified network or body that can represent the democracy movement in Sudan. This is the movement’s main weakness. Resistance committees are trying to produce a unified political declaration and how to unify this movement while including all of Sudan, even conflict areas, is being discussed.

    What international support do Sudanese HRDs need?

    Our country must not be forgotten. The international community must take action and support the democracy movement’s demands for fundamental change. International human rights bodies must put make Sudan a priority. Sudanese civil society is fighting to get Sudan on top of their agenda, especially since the war started in Ukraine and most attention is going that way.

    Neglecting building democracy in Sudan and leaving power in the hands of the military would be a big mistake. What’s going on here isn’t disconnected from what’s going on in Ukraine. Reports indicate the involvement of the Sudanese military and militias in smuggling gold that supports the Russian economy during this conflict. Moreover, many reports have exposed the strong relations of Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF) leaders with Russian leadership; they were in Russia the week the war started to ensure the flow of gold. RSF militias have relations with other African countries like Chad and the Central Africa Republic, which are sources of blood gold and blood diamonds entering Russia through Sudan. 

    Sanctions would be an important tool. A couple of days ago, the International Bar Association called on the UK to apply Magnitsky sanctions in Sudan. International CSOs should move ahead with similar actions.

    It’s understandably hard for the international community to deal with the people in the absence of an actual government or elite they could deal with. But young university students are the democracy movement’s leaders, and they represent us. Protests have continued for eight months now and will probably continue for many more, and activists need a lot of help.

    Because of persecution and violence, many CSOs and local groups have had to move their operations outside Sudan, and activists have had to relocate. Those working inside Sudan are having a very low-profile and using all the digital and physical security strategies available. Access to funding has also been increasingly challenging. The military wants to find out where funding for the democracy movement is coming from and has therefore increased surveillance, which makes it very risky to receive funds inside Sudan. Organisations working at grassroots levels and in conflict areas are suffering the most.

    Civic space in Sudan is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow@nazik_kabalo on Twitter. 

     

  • Sudan: woman at risk of death by stoning

    Mariam Tirab, 20 years old woman from Sudan was sentenced to death by stoning on June 27th, 2022. She was found guilty By a judge in Kosty in White Nile state of violating article 146(2) (Adultery). The young woman was arrested in 2021, when a police officer interrogated her without informing her that her confession will be used against her in court. She has been tried without access to legal representation and was not informed about the charges and the penalty of the crime of adultery (Zina) in Sudanese laws. She was denied her constitutional and legal rights under the Sudanese laws.

    Article 146 of the Sudanese criminal law is built on the Sharia laws, where married women charged with adultery are sentenced to death by stoning, while unmarried women are punished by 100 lashes. Despite the legal reforms of 2020, wherein the transitional government banned corporal punishments, the Sharia laws related to adultery remained unchanged.

    Mariam Tirab was sentenced even though she was not granted access to proper legal aid or provided with basic information about her rights. Her confession was obtained by police through illegal procedures. The legal procedures and the justice system is failing women in Sudan, denying many access to their basic right of having fair trial. A group of lawyers and women’s rights organizations have started an appeal of the case at the higher court. In the last 10 years, Sudan witnessed several cases similar to Mariam’s where the sentences were overturned when they were appealed.. Under the current military regime, the justice system in Sudan is at its worst, , as unfair and politicized trials are the norm. The lack of a civilian government in the country for almost a year is increasing challenges for local WHRDs and human rights groups are exerting pressure on the military regime to reform the justice system.

    Since the military coup on October 25th, 2021, systemic violence against women increased across the country. The return of fundamental Islamic leaders to the political scene in support of the military led to an increase in oppression of women’s rights. The police force under the Public Order Laws was recreated under a new name - "social police", which is considered a major set back for women’s rights in Sudan.. Women and girls’ are constantly being scrutinized for what they wear and how they appear in public. University officials have imposed dress codes and prevented some female students from entering the gates without a scarf. The former regime imposed hijab in Sudan for three decades prior to the revolution in 2018. Within one year of the military coup, women in Sudan are living under the same oppressive system once again. The military leaders are closing the public spaces, using repressive laws to crush the resistance movement led by women.

    A visit to Mariam Tirab in prison was prevented by a judge recently. She is detained in Kosty city of white Nile state under inhumane prison conditions. Women’s rights and human rights groups started a campaign and organized protests calling for her release and for legal reforms that respect women rights. We the undersigned groups and Individuals call on the Sudanese authorities to:

    - Overturn the sentence against Mariam Tirab and grant her the right to fair trial and access to lawyers and visits. - Abide by and respect their obligations to international laws as state parties of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Right and the UN Convention against the Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT). - We call on relevant UN Special Procedures mandate holders and OHCHR to take action to urge Sudanese authorities to overturn this sentence and end violations of the international human rights law and respect the state obligations to protect women and human rights.

     

    1. AWID ( Association of Women in Development)
    2. CIVICUS
    3. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
    4. Global Fund for Women
    5. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
    6. Women Living Under Muslim Laws WHRDMENA Coalition
    7. Canadian Federation of University
    8. Women Collectif genevois de la Grève féministe
    9. CONCERNED NIGERIANS
    10. Sisters Trust Nora organization for compacting violence against women's and girls
    11. Alharisat organization
    12. Sudanese Women Rights Action
    13. İnsan Hakları Derneği (İHD)/Human Rights Association
    14. Hafidha Chekir. FIDH/Tunis
    15. Taha Metwally/ANKHAssociation
    16. Arefe Elyasi /Open Stadiums
    17. Nedal Alsalman /BCHR
    18. Razan Nour/ Innovation for Change Middle East and North Africa
    19. Sawsan Salim/ KMEWO
    20. Rajaa ahlafi /Adala association for the right to a fair trial
    21. Onaheed Ahmed /Sudanese Front For Change
    22. Nizam Assaf/Amman Center for Human Rights Studies
    23. Ahmed Mefreh/Committee for Justice
    24. Cecilie Olivia Buchhave/KVINFO
    25. Connie Carøe Christiansen/KVINFO
    26. Vanessa Mendoza cortés/ Associación Stop violències
    27. Andorra Sama Aweidah/Women's Studies Centre
    28. Meriam Mastour/Les FoulardsViolets
    29. Zohra Triki/Doustourna
    30. Sofie Birk/KVINFO
    31. Marieme helie lucas/ Secularism Is A Women's issue (siawi.org)
    32. Mémoire et citoyenneté
    33. Equality Now
    34. Hagir Omer, Madania
    35. Mashair Saeed/WHRD
    36. Mamoun Elgizouli Sara Abdelgalil/WHRD
    37. Jihad Mashamoun/Researcher
    38. Sally Armstrong/ Journalist
    39. Ibrahim Bella Ammar Abbas
    40. Sara López/WLUML
    41. Anniesa Hussain/WLUML
    42. Yussef Robinson/ SDfHR
    43. Elie Losleben Abramovich Fabienne/Collectif féministe
    44. Stéphanie Friedli/Collectif genevois de la Grève féministe
    45. Aude Spang/Collectif genevois de la Grève féministe / Syndicat Unia

     Civic space in Sudan is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor

     

     

  • Tanzania’s Illiberal Tilt

    By Teldah Mawarire 

    Immediately after his 2015 election, Tanzanian President John Magufuli appeared poised to lead one of Africa’s most stable democracies to a bright future. Instead, he has launched an intensifying campaign of repression against journalists, human rights activists, and civil-society organisations.

    Read on: Project Syndicate 

     

     

  • THAILAND: ‘Spyware was used to monitor protesters’ online activity’

    Sutawan ChanprasertCIVICUS speaks about the use of surveillance technology against civil society activists in Thailand with Sutawan Chanprasert, founder and executive director of DigitalReach, a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes digital rights, human rights and democracy in Southeast Asia.

    What is DigitalReach working on?

    DigitalReach is a digital rights organisation working in southeast Asia. We are looking at the impact of technology on human rights and democracy in the region. We initiated this project with a focus on the use of Pegasus spyware in Thailand and reached out to The Citizen Lab and iLaw for collaboration. This is because iLaw is a well-known organisation based in Thailand with a great connection with local activists, and The Citizen Lab is well-known for its expertise in spyware investigation.

    What were the main findings of this research?

    Pegasus spyware, which is produced by NSO group and sold only to state agencies, can infect devices (both iOS and Android) through a technology called ‘zero click’, which means that it needs no action on the part of the targeted user. Once the spyware is installed, it can gain access to everything on the device, including photos and text messages, and can turn the camera and microphone on and off.

    In Thailand, this spyware has been used against at least 35 iPhone users: 24 activists, three CSO workers, three academics and five opposition politicians. These infections happened between October 2020 and November 2021, which was peak time for the democracy movement.

    There were three reasons why the spyware was used against dissidents: to monitor protesters’ online activity, to monitor the protests and to find out more about the movement’s funding. On the basis of forensic evidence, The Citizen Lab confirmed that zero-click technology was used, exploiting vulnerabilities in the system to gain access to the devices.

    This was likely not the first time spyware was used against activists in Thailand, but we have no evidence to confirm this suspicion. Other digital surveillance tools have also been used: as detailed in our report, GPS devices were found attached to some dissidents’ vehicles during democracy mobilisations.

    How did the government react to your findings?

    On 22 July the Prime Minister said in parliament that he does not know anything about this spyware, and he added that such spyware would be unnecessary as we all knew what was going on from social media. The Deputy Minister of Defence also declared in parliament that it is not the government’s policy to use spyware against people or ‘generally’ violate their rights. Meanwhile, the Minister of Digital Economy and Society stated in parliament that spyware technology had been purchased but not by a department or agency under his authority. However, he referred to it generically as ‘spyware technology’, without ever confirming that he was referring to Pegasus.

    Is there anything CSOs and activists can do to counter spyware?

    Spyware is considered a dual-use item, which means it can also be useful in criminal investigations. However, we all know this is not always the case. In Thailand and many other countries, spyware has been used against dissidents and members of the opposition, which means that the technology needs to be strictly regulated so it’s not abused. However, it’s hard to see that happening under the current administration, as the government itself is the likely perpetrator. Only policymakers who care about human rights will be able to make progress on this.

    As for individual activists, there is no total solution to prevent a device from being infected by this kind of spyware. However, exposure to this threat can be reduced in several ways, such as by using two-factor authentication, using a security key or an authenticator app rather than an SMS, using a messaging platform with the disappearing message feature and by enrolling in Google’s Advanced Protection Program.

    What can the international community do to support Thai activists facing surveillance?

    This is a tricky question. Thailand doesn’t currently have an active local digital rights organisation, so working on this would be a good first step to increase digital security protection. The global community that works on digital security can play an important role. However, training activities offered in Thailand must be conducted in the local language and customised to fit the Thai context.

    There’s also a need for digital security work in Thailand that goes beyond training, including monitoring to watch for emerging digital threats against dissidents, more research and work with local activists and organisations to ensure their long-term digital safety with a sustainable approach. Funding is also needed because local activists and organisations must buy tools to support their digital security.

    Civic space in Thailand is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow DigitalReach via itswebsite and follow@DigitalReachSEA on Twitter.

     

  • TURKMENISTAN: ‘There is nothing resembling real civil society – and no conditions for it to emerge’

    Farid TukhbatullinCIVICUS speaks with Farid Tukhbatullin, founder and director of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), about the upcoming election and the environment for civil society in Turkmenistan.

    TIHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) based in Austria, where Farid lives in exile, that collects information from sources inside Turkmenistan to report internationally on human rights and civic space violations and advocate for democratic change.

    What is the state of the space for civil society in Turkmenistan?

    In the early 1990s, several independent CSOs appeared in Turkmenistan. The fingers of one hand were enough to count them. These included our organisation, Dashoguz Ecological Club.

    But by the late 1990s, the first president of the country, Turkmenbashi, viewed them as a danger to the system he was building. Independent CSOs were liquidated and only a few quasi-CSOs remained - the Union of Women, the Union of Veterans and the Union of Youth, all of which were remnants of the Soviet era.

    Turkmenistan not only lacks anything resembling real civil society – it also does not meet the minimal preconditions for its emergence.

    There are no independent media outlets in Turkmenistan. Not surprising, in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, the country constantly ranks second-to-last or last, next to North Korea.

    People who dare express opinions critical of the government publicly, through YouTube or on social media, end up in prison. Recent examples include Murat Dushemov and Nurgeldy Khalykov, both sentenced to four years in prison, and Pygamberdy Allaberdiyev, who received a six-year sentence.

    Special services also harass relatives of activists who are working or studying abroad and run opposition blogs from outside the country. They try to silence them by threatening their families back home.

    What have been the implications of Turkmenistan’s policy of insisting it has no COVID-19 cases?

    Unfortunately, there is no reliable information regarding the real impact of the pandemic in Turkmenistan, and of course no assistance for those who have been badly hit. According to our sources, the number of people hospitalised is now decreasing. But before this there was a large number of deaths. Small towns were holding several funerals a day. According to local traditions, a large part of the local population takes part in funeral rites, so the whole town knows who died and when.

    Why has President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov called an early election, and what is its likely outcome?

    President Berdimuhamedov started promoting his son Serdar as his heir quite a long time ago. We became aware of the planning of an extraordinary meeting of the People’s Council, the upper house of parliament, in November 2021. The idea of holding early presidential elections was voiced at this meeting; that’s when preparations for the next step for a formal change of power began.

    But there is no reason to believe this process will trigger real political change in Turkmenistan. No one doubts that on 12 March the younger Berdimuhamedov will become the country’s next president. But his father is not going to give up the reins. In violation of the constitution, he is now both president and leader of the People’s Council. After the election, he will retain his second position.

    Moreover, it has already been announced that changes will be made to the constitution. We have no details yet, but changes will surely create further opportunities for father and son to lead the country in tandem.

    Even leaving the presidency to his son frightens President Berdimuhamedov. The younger Berdimuhamedov will certainly want to make changes in the cabinet of ministers, replacing some with proxies of a younger age, and this may create some turbulence in the highest spheres of power. So Gurbanguly will most likely remain the real ruler at the beginning, with Serdar’s leadership a formality.

    How is civil society, and TIHR specifically, working to defend human rights and monitor violations in Turkmenistan?

    A CSO, the Helsinki Group of Turkmenistan (HGT), was founded in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in July 2002 to monitor the human rights situation on the ground. HGT was the predecessor organisation to TIHR. It operated underground and its members were systematically persecuted and repressed. I was detained on 23 December 2002 and sentenced to three years in prison for my peaceful activism. Fortunately, the campaign ran by international CSOs and pressure from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) paid off and I was pardoned and released on 2 April 2003. I left the country in June and received refugee status in Austria in November 2003. I led the establishment and registration of TIRH in Austria in November 2004.

    TIHR has the vision of a democratic Turkmenistan based on the rule of law, respect for human rights and cooperation with civil society. We work to create the conditions that would allow for the emergence and evolution of a so far non-existent civil society and to raise citizens’ legal awareness, particularly regarding human rights. 

    We collect, analyse and publish information on various human rights issues, including prison conditions, the treatment of ethnic minorities, child labour, the education system and restrictions on the freedom of association. Our reporting is based on information from sources inside Turkmenistan whose identities we must keep confidential to protect them and their families.

    In 2006 we established a website, Chronicle of Turkmenistan, which provides first-hand information in English, Russian and Turkmen and has become one of the most widely cited sources on Turkmenistan. And in 2007 we started making YouTube videos. We have so far published 244, which have overall reached almost 50 million views.

    This format has allowed us to use humour effectively as a political tool. For instance, in August 2017 we published one of our many satirical videos about President Berdimuhamedov, based on official state TV footage of his meetings with military personnel Rambo-style. The video instantly became a meme on social media and was republished by leading global media outlets. The president with the ‘hard-to-pronounce last name’ became a YouTube star and we gained millions of viewers.

    The popularity snowball effect reached the USA with Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show, which in February 2018 awarded President Berdimuhamedov the prize for ‘best performance by a dictator in a propaganda video’. And in August 2019, it further snowballed when John Oliver reused our content in a Last Week Tonight episode about the Turkmen president, amassing 10 million clicks. Finally, in December 2019 Netflix released the action movie ‘6 Underground’, about the overthrow of the dictator of the fictional state of Turgistan, which very much resembled Turkmenistan.

    We do all this to shed light on the human rights violations that continue to happen in this very isolated country. We have submitted several shadow reports – 16 since 2008 – to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council and to nearly all UN treaty bodies, often together with other human rights organisations. We have also submitted dozens of analytical reports and briefing papers to intergovernmental organisations, and have published countless statements and open letters, often in cooperation with other CSOs. In 2020 alone, we published 10 analytical reports, four briefing papers, two press statements and six open letters.

    Our analytical reports include a series focusing on civic space, which since 2017 we have published quarterly together with CIVICUS and the International Partnership for Human Rights. We cooperate with all major international human rights CSOs, all of which rely – at least partly – on our work when it comes to Turkmenistan.

    What can the international community, including international civil society, do to support civic space and human rights in Turkmenistan?

    What helps the most is targeted advocacy at the international level and reporting to inform, shape and guide the policies of outside actors – international institutions such as the European Union, OSCE and UN, but also individual governments and others that have political or economic interests in the country – with respect to human rights issues in Turkmenistan.

    Civic space in Turkmenistan is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with TIHR through the Chronicles of Turkmenistanwebsite orFacebook page. 

     

  • UAE: ‘Many leaders remain silent in the face of systematic human rights abuses’

    Kristina StockwoodCIVICUS speaks with Kristina Stockwood of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) about the current state of civic space in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the government’s efforts to improve its international reputation by holding theExpo 2020 event in Dubai.

    GCHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) that provides support and protection to human rights defenders in order to promote human rights, including the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

    What is the current state of civic freedoms in the UAE?

    A dominant thread throughout GCHR’s coverage of the UAE is the stark difference between the progressive and forward-thinking image the UAE projects on the international stage and its despicable treatment of human rights defenders (HRDs) and others in civil society. Every single HRD active in the UAE has been imprisoned or driven into exile in violation of their right to the freedom of expression. The UAE cracks downs systematically on critical and independent voices who advocate for human rights in the country, both online and offline.

    As GCHR shows in a recent report, the UAE authorities rely on torture to consolidate this oppressive climate. Key emerging patterns are the use of enforced disappearances following arbitrary arrest, detention to perpetrate torture with impunity, the punishment and further torture of those who dare to speak out about their conditions of detention, and the complicity of companies and the international community in the systematic perpetration of torture in the UAE. 

    The UAE also continues to persecute HRDs in exile. In 2021, the UAE cabinet issued ministerial resolution 83, which added 38 people – including several HRDs and a researcher – and 13 entities to the government’s terror list. Also in 2021, it was revealed that one of the targets of surveillance under the Pegasus Project was Alaa Al-Siddiq, an Emirati activist and the executive director of ALQST for Human Rights, who was killed in a traffic accident in the UK in June 2021, where she had relocated to flee persecution.

    Al-Siddiq’s father is one of the UAE94 – a group of prominent HRDs, judges, academics and students convicted and imprisoned following a trial that lacked the most basic international standards of fair trial and due process. They are due for release after 10 years in prison in 2022, but human rights groups fear that high-profile prisoners won’t recover their freedom, as the UAE uses so-called ‘Munasaha (rehabilitation) centres’ to keep prisoners locked up past the end of their sentences.

    How is GCHR working to expose these human rights violations?

    Exposing these human rights violations has been at the heart of GCHR’s work. We monitor the situation on the ground, produce reports, advocate internationally and campaign for the release of HRDs.

    In January 2022, together with Human Rights Watch, we issued an urgent appeal to help Ahmed Mansoor, who is on GCHR’s Advisory Board. Mansoor was detained in March 2017 and for years has been held incommunicado, isolated from other prisoners, denied even a bed and mattress. After he wrote a prison letter that was published by regional media in July 2021, in which he detailed his flagrantly unfair trial and mistreatment in detention, the authorities retaliated against him by moving him to a smaller and more isolated cell, denying him access to critical medical care and confiscating his reading glasses.

    In January 2022, along with several other CSOs led by MENA Rights Group we issued a joint appeal protesting against the UAE’s new Law on Combating Rumours and Cybercrime, which restricts civic space and free speech and criminalises acts that are protected under international law. We called on the UAE to immediately repeal or amend the law.

    How is the UAE using Expo 2020 to divert attention and improve its international reputation?

    Throughout the Expo, which started in October 2021 and ends on 31 March 2022, the UAE has made an effort to whitewash its image, projecting a country of tolerance that even promotes women’s rights. To that effect, a women’s pavilion was included at the Expo and Forbes held a big event for women.

    The Women’s Pavilion at the Expo is designed to ‘reaffirm Expo’s commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment’. But women in the UAE have no rights and no power, and have been imprisoned for their online activities. The head of the Expo himself is a prominent perpetrator of violence against women. In 2020, a British woman who was organising the Hay Festival in the UAE, Caitlin May McNamara, was assaulted by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, commissioner-general of the Expo and Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence, after being lured to this residence on the false pretences that they would talk about the situation of Ahmed Mansoor.

    Needless to say, not a single UAE HRD was invited to the Expo, an event whose organisers claim has the purpose of creating ‘a better tomorrow’ because that is what happens ‘when the world comes together’, as its slogan goes.

    To what extent has the exposure of violations of the rights Expo 2020’s migrant workers challenged the UAE’s public relations machine?

    The work of human rights groups to expose violations of the human rights of migrant workers building venues has been key regarding large events in the Gulf countries, such as the Dubai Expo and the World Cup 2022, which will be held in Qatar.

    Migrant workers in the Gulf are subjected to massive human rights violations through the notorious kafala (sponsorship) system that strips them of their basic rights. Under this system, they have no right to move, travel or change work. They have little access to healthcare and no right to union representation or to form organisations. They are also denied the right to citizenship, even if they spend their whole lives working in these countries.

    However, the plight of migrant workers has received more attention in Qatar than in the UAE, as the UAE uses its large PR machine to gloss over human rights violations.

    The COVID-19 pandemic complicated things, as many low-wage migrant workers remained acutely vulnerable to infection. To make things worse, in late March 2020, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation issued an arbitrary and discriminatory decree allowing private companies to amend the contracts of migrant workers, put them on unpaid leave or force them to accept permanent or temporary salary reductions due to the spread of COVID-19. In April 2020, a letter sent by a coalition of 16 CSOs and trade unions called on the authorities to provide migrant workers with adequate protection during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    How is civil society taking advantage of global media attention around Expo 2020 to advocate for human rights?

    In October 2021, GCHR and over two dozen partners, including two Emirati CSOs which operate in exile – the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE) and the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Centre – organised the online Alternative Human Rights Expo to counter the narrative of tolerance promoted by Emirati authorities. The three themes of the Dubai Expo are mobility, sustainability and opportunity – none of which is freely available to HRDs in the region. We argued that ‘coming together to hear diverse voices’ and ‘create a better world’ is not something attainable in a place where people are locked up for speaking their minds.

    At the Alternative Human Rights Expo’s main event, held online on 14 October 2021, over 25 human rights groups paid tribute to human rights defenders from the UAE and called for their release during the Dubai Expo. The event, hosted by GCHR’s Women HRDs Programme Manager, Weaam Yousef, and prominent activist Iyad El-Baghdadi, featured HRDs, poets, artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers from a dozen countries in the Middle East and North Africa and beyond. The aim of the event was to highlight the work of creative talents from the region, as well as that of imprisoned activists, whose work was read during the event. These included Ahmed Mansoor in the UAE as well as Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja in Bahrain, Alaa Abd El-Fattah and Sanaa Seif in Egypt and Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee in Iran. Of those, Sanaa Seif was freed in December. Over 900 people participated or watched the event.

    As part of that campaign, GCHR and 80 international CSOs delivered a letter to the UAE embassies in Geneva and London calling for activists imprisoned in the UAE to be freed, and for justice for women who have been abused in prison or at the hands of Emirati authorities. The letter, which highlights the case of Ahmed Mansoor, was delivered on Ahmed’s 52nd birthday. Those present at the embassy also filmed a birthday video for him.

    Additionally, on 8 March 2022, International Women’s Day, GCHR co-sponsored an event with the European Centre for Democracy & Human Rights, ICFUAE and ALQST titled ‘Women’s Solidarity in Human Rights Activism: Storytelling from the Arab Peninsula’, where Emirati HRD Jenan Al-Marzooqi spoke of the persecution of herself and her family that forced her to flee the country. Other prominent WHRDs from Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen also told their stories.

    On 8 March, GCHR also published a press release in the context of our campaign calling on governments in the region, including the UAE, to ‘take serious measures to end the use of sexual and gender-based violence, curb online harassment of women, stop the use of surveillance to persecute women HRDs, stop reprisals against them and their families, and remove travel bans among other restrictions’.

    ICFUAE and GCHR also created a petition calling on the UAE government to release Emirati HRDs who are arbitrarily detained and serving lengthy sentences simply for their human rights activities. We will deliver the signatures to the UAE authorities at the end of the Expo, and this will be a powerful message that Emirati defenders matter to people around the world.

    What should international civil society do to help bring these issues into the global agenda?

    Many CSOs have reported on the human rights violations happening in the UAE, yet many global leaders remain silent, at least in public, sometimes suggesting that they raise human rights violations behind the scenes. This includes government allies of the UAE and companies that hold events in the UAE. 

    Following successful civil society advocacy, in September 2021 the European Parliament adopted a wide-ranging resolution calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Ahmed Mansoor and others in the same situation, including Mohammed Al-Roken and Nasser bin Ghaith, and all other HRDs, political activists and peaceful dissidents, and urging all European Union member states to suspend the sale and export of surveillance technology to the UAE.

    On 15 March, 27 CSOs led by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy wrote a joint letter to Formula 1 (F1) CEO Stefano Domenicali to raise human rights concerns ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix, held on 20 March. They praised F1’s cancellation of its race in Russia but condemned the company for creating a ‘clear double standard’ over the participation of three race venues – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – in the war in Yemen. They called on F1 to use its platform to secure redress for victims whose abuse was connected to their races and review their policy on racing in Gulf states considering their participation in the war in Yemen, among other recommendations.

    It is important for international civil society to continue to raise concerns about the UAE’s human rights record, both inside the country and in relation to the war in Yemen.

    Civic space in the UAE is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. The UAE is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
    Get in touch with the Gulf Centre for Human Rights through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@GulfCentre4HR on Twitter.

     

  • Uganda: End Repression of civil society

    Joint statement on Uganda’s NGO Bureau suspension of 54 NGOs in the country

    Uganda’s NGO Bureau, the country’s regulatory authority for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), should immediately rescind the decision to suspend 54 organizations that they have classified as NGOs, which comes in the context of intensifying intimidation and harassment of civil society organizations. The suspension is intended to restrict the rights to freedom of expression and association and stop the activities of independent civil society organizations that are perceived as critical of the authorities.

    On 20 August 2021, the National Bureau for NGOs (NGO Bureau) ordered the immediate suspension of these organizations claiming that they had failed to comply with NGO legislation, including by operating with expired permits, failing to file accounts, or failing to register with the Bureau.

    According to the Uganda National NGO Forum, most of the organizations were not informed of the Uganda NGO Bureau’s decision or given an opportunity to respond in advance.

    Uganda’s 2016 NGO Act imposes burdensome requirements for application for permits for NGOs with multiple layers of registration with periodic renewal applications, and organisations are required to have memorandums of understanding with the district they operate in. There is also lack of clarity over which organizations fall under this regulatory regime.

    The suspension of the organizations is arbitrary, as it goes against Section 33 (2) of the NGO Act, which requires the Bureau to give 30 days’ notice in writing to permit holders to enable them to show cause why the permit should not be revoked. Suspension of independent civil society organizations simply for carrying out their work is an attack on human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and association. Suspending civil society organizations also exposes those organizations to additional legal risks if they are unable to pay staff or suppliers.

    Many of the organizations affected work in critical areas such as legal practices to help poor or marginalized people. Others work on accountability and transparency in the oil sector, and some monitored human rights in the context of the elections. To shut down organizations working so closely with Ugandans abruptly will hurt people who rely on their services or advocacy.

    The rights to freedom of expression and association are guaranteed under Articles 9 and 10 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to which Uganda is a state party. Accordingly, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued guidelines on freedom of association and assembly as provided for in the African Charter, that among other things prohibits states from compelling associations to register to be allowed to exist and to operate freely. Further, informal organisations shall not be punished or criminalized under the law or in practice based on their lack of formal status. This decision by the NGO Bureau is a clear demonstration of the repressive nature in which Ugandan authorities have continued to clamp down on civic space and human rights.

    The NGO Bureau is mandated to play a regulatory and facilitative role in creating an enabling environment for non-profit organizations in Uganda, but this has not been the case in the recent past.

    We acknowledge the positive discussions held between the Minister of Internal Affairs and Civil Society Leaders on 24 August and implore the minister to expeditiously follow through the commitments made to redress the anomalies in the suspension of some of the affected NGOs and establish an Adjudication Committee as required by the law. We further call on authorities in Uganda to ensure that civil society actors involved in promoting fundamental rights can freely exercise their rights consistent with Ugandan Constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

    Signed off by the following civil society organizations:

    1. ActionAid International Africa
    2. Advocacy Network for Africa (AdNA)
    3. AfricanDefenders (the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network)
    4. Amnesty International
    5. Asylum Seeker, Refugee & Migrant Coalition (ASRM Coalition)
    6. Campaign for Good Governance (CGG – Sierra Leone)
    7. Campaign for Human Rights and Development International (CHRDI)
    8. Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD – Ethiopia)
    9. Center for Constitutional Governance
    10. Center for International Governance, Peace and Justice (CIGPJ – South Sudan)
    11. Center for Youth Advocacy and Development (CEYAD)
    12. Centre for Democracy and Development (CCD)
    13. Change Tanzania
    14. Chapter One Foundation Zambia
    15. CIVICUS
    16. Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia
    17. Civil Society Reference Group - Kenya
    18. Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organizations (CEHRO)
    19. Crown The Woman – South Sudan
    20. Digital Society of Africa
    21. DITSHWANELO - The Botswana Centre for Human Rights
    22. Echoes of Women in Africa Initiative (ECOWA – Nigeria)
    23. Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Center (EHRDC)
    24. FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights)
    25. Foundation for Democratic and Accountable Governance (FODAG – South Sudan)
    26. Haki Africa
    27. Haki Kenya Organisation
    28. Human Rights Defenders Network (HRDN – Sierra Leone)
    29. Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA)
    30. Independent Human Rights Investigators (IHRI – Liberia)
    31. Initiative for Equality and Non-discrimination (INEND)
    32. Inuka Kenya Ni Sisi!
    33. Institute for Democracy and Leadership – Swaziland
    34. Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC)
    35. Khulumani Support Group
    36. Kongamano La Mapinduzi Movement
    37. Mozambique Human Rights Defenders Network
    38. Network of the Independent Commission for Human Rights in North Africa
    39. Nigerian Human Rights Defenders Network
    40. Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA)
    41. Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU)
    42. Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf)
    43. Partnership for Justice (PJ)
    44. Protection International Kenya
    45. Resource Rights Africa (RRA)
    46. South Sudan Human Rights Defenders Network (SSHRDN)
    47. Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)
    48. Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC)
    49. World March of Women - Kenya
    50. Yiaga Africa
    51. Youth and Society (YAS - Malawi)
    52. Youth Forum for Social Justice
    53. Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum
    54. Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR)

    Civic space in Uganda is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    *Photo credit: Chaper Four Uganda

     

  • UN must address crises in Afghanistan and Cambodia, and commit to strengthening equal participation

    Statement at the 48th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

    Delivered by Lisa Majumdar

    Thank you, Madame President.

    We welcome that the High Commissioner raised the appalling situation for environmental human rights defenders and we call on the Council to address violations against all human rights defenders across the globe. Participation of civil society without fear of reprisal is vital to working collaboratively towards solutions to all human rights concerns.

    We further call on the Council this Session to strengthen equal participation by addressing repression of civic space and the rollback of democratic freedoms in response to the COVID pandemic. This includes particularly violations of access to information and freedoms of expression and assembly through internet shutdowns, and in the context of elections.

    We welcome the High Commissioner’s update on Afghanistan and reiterate a call for the Council to create a gender-sensitive, independent investigative mechanism. The courage of those calling for justice on the ground, at grave personal risk, cannot be overstated and it is vital that their efforts be supported by the international community.

    In Nicaragua, we call for the immediate release of arbitrarily detained political opposition leaders, human rights defenders and journalists, and for overdue electoral reforms. We welcome the High Commissioner’s update on Sri Lanka; ongoing shrinking civic space in the country undermines claims of reconciliation and accountability efforts.

    On Cambodia, in the midst of a dramatically worsening human rights situation including persisting restrictions on civic space and the repression of dissent, and ahead of elections scheduled for 2022 and 2023, it is imperative that the Council this session takes action to adequately address violations through mandating monitoring and reporting by the High Commissioner.

    We thank you.


    Civic space in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Nicaragua is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • VIETNAM: ‘Failure to address torture of political prisoners should trigger a review of trade deals’

    88ProjectCIVICUS speaks with Kaylee Uland and Jessica Nguyen, co-director and advocacy officer with The 88 Project, about the criminalisation and repression of human rights activism in Vietnam.

    The 88 Project is a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for and shares the stories of Vietnamese political activists who are persecuted because of their peaceful activism for human rights.

    What does The 88 Project do?

    The 88 Project is a research and advocacy organisation that maintains the most comprehensive and up-to-date database on the situation of political prisoners and human rights activists in Vietnam. Our database informs media coverage and policy debates on Vietnam and is used by journalists, diplomats and policymakers. According to our database, as of 24 June 2022, there are at least 208 known political prisoners behind bars in Vietnam, the highest number of any country in Southeast Asia.

    What is the current situation of civic freedoms in Vietnam?

    The 88 Project has tracked very negative trends regarding the Vietnamese government’s crackdown on political dissent. These include an increase in arrests of those in formal and informal media professions over a period of four years from 2018 to 2021. The arrests of media workers as a percentage of total activist arrests went up from less than three per cent in 2018 to 18 per cent in 2020 and 34 per cent in 2021.

    The use of harsh sentences of at least five years in prison to stifle critical voices has also increased: while such sentences were 23 per cent of total sentences of activists in 2018, the rate rose rapidly to 44 per cent in 2019, 48 per cent in 2020 and 72 per cent in 2021.

    The practice of holding activists and political prisoners incommunicado for extended periods of time – of eight months or more – has become increasingly common: it was applied to 12 per cent of all activists arrested in 2018 and to 21 per cent in 2019, surging to 49 per cent in 2020, before slightly decreasing to 42 per cent in 2021.

    The crackdown on dissent has also expanded to include new issues and groups, as seen in the recent arrest and imprisonment of four CSO leaders working on climate change and environmental issues. They were charged with ‘tax evasion’, a tactic used by the government to silence critics who cannot be tried under the national security provisions of the criminal code. This sent tremors of fear through the environmental movement in Vietnam.

    Efforts to censor social media have intensified, as has compliance with government censorship requests by US-based tech companies. With a population of 98 million, Vietnam is one of Facebook’s top 10 markets by user numbers, with 60 to 70 million people on the platform. Facebook provides one of the few spaces where Vietnamese people can communicate relatively freely. This space is, however, rapidly closing as Facebook increasingly complies with censorship requests from the government and allows bad actors to exploit content moderation rules to have accounts locked and posts deleted. Exacerbating the situation, Vietnam is now planning to impose new rules that require social media firms to take down content it deems illegal within 24 hours.

    Further, the deliberately complex law regulating the ability of CSOs to receive and spend domestic or foreign funding gives the government control over organisations and individuals. CSOs find it hard to comply fully with these laws, which makes them vulnerable to government scrutiny. Punishment for tax violations may include heavy fines, closure and criminal charges that lead to the imprisonment of CSO managers.

    What is the situation of political prisoners?

    The authorities commonly use torture and other inhumane treatment against political prisoners, particularly those in pretrial detention. The most common perpetrators of these violations are public security officers at the provincial level, followed by those at the district and city levels, and then those at the national level. Occasionally, activists who are at risk but not imprisoned are assaulted or otherwise harassed by people suspected to have ties to the government, such as plainclothes police.

    The government insists that there is no incommunicado detention in Vietnam, while acknowledging that for national security cases, a ‘very special measure’ applies, under which detainees are not allowed to see their defence counsel until after the investigation has concluded. Activists are often subjected to unobservable interrogation and to conditions that begin to break down their emotional and physical health. Isolation also removes their plight from the public eye, as information about their condition is sporadic and incomplete at best. Thirty-five activists arrested in 2020 and 2021 were held in incommunicado pretrial detention for eight months or longer.

    Eight people who were arrested in 2020 have not yet been brought to trial. Journalist Le Anh Hung, arrested in July 2018, has not only not yet been brought to trial but has also been repeatedly transferred to mental health facilities for forced psychiatric treatment. 

    Political prisoners are often denied legal representation during the investigation period and at trial. The 88 Project has documented the cases of at least 14 political prisoners who were denied legal representation in 2020 and 2021. When political prisoners are denied legal representation, they are often less aware of their rights and lack a critical communication channel to their families and the outside world. Often, families do not know about trial dates well in advance; sometimes, they learn nothing until after activists have been sentenced. An emblematic case of denial of legal representation is that of two activists from the Hmong minority, Lau A Lenh and Sung A Sinh, who were charged with overthrowing the state and attempting to establish a separate state in north-western Vietnam and sentenced to life in prison.

    Prisoners are often denied medical treatment and family members are prevented from providing medication to them. Many with pre-existing conditions or those who experience health problems while imprisoned have claimed that inadequate medical treatment resulted in greater long-term health complications. Some, including Huynh Huu Dat, have died in prison due to lack of proper healthcare. 

    The government claims that prison conditions have improved, but political prisoners and their families continue to report unclean food, overcrowding, lack of access to clean water, poor sanitation and lack of lighting. Virtually all prisoners suffer from harsh prison conditions, and they are often disciplined and retaliated against if they try to petition for improved prison conditions for themselves or others.

    Cutting prisoners off from family and support networks is yet another way to mistreat them without using force. The authorities often limit family visitation rights or detain political prisoners in places far from their homes, making it extremely difficult for families to visit. Under the pandemic, ‘COVID restrictions’ were also used as an excuse to deny family visits. The 88 Project identified at least 21 political prisoners subjected to this treatment in 2020 and 2021.

    We have also documented many cases of physical and psychological pain, which often amount to torture as defined under international law, inflicted to coerce confessions, obtain information, or punish political dissidents for their opinions. A frequent form of psychological abuse consists in sending political prisoners to mental health institutions against their will, even if they have no history of mental illness. Examples of political prisoners subjected to forced mental health treatment include Le Anh Hung, Nguyen Thuy Hanh and Pham Chi Thanh. Another harsh aspect of prison treatment is the use of solitary confinement to isolate political prisoners and punish them for asserting their rights.

    Is there any accountability for cases of torture and ill-treatment?

    Unfortunately, there is very little accountability. Regarding COVID-19-related restrictions, the government argued that the right to health of the community took priority over prisoners’ right to see family members. The authorities also justify forced mental health treatment tactics on ‘humanitarian aid’ grounds. They say they are respecting and protecting political prisoners’ right to health by sending them to mental health institutions for medical treatment. However, to the best of our knowledge, most cases are of forced treatment, used to isolate political prisoners from their support networks and to discredit them.

    The Vietnamese government has been repeatedly warned about its failure to meet its international obligations against torture. The United Nations (UN) Committee Against Torture (CAT) has stressed the importance of proper criminalisation of torture, fundamental legal safeguards, direct applicability of the Convention against Torture by domestic courts and independent investigation concerning allegations of excessive use of force or deaths under custody.

    During Vietnam’s 2019 UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a number of states raised concerns about allegations of torture and the Vietnamese government voluntarily agreed to several important recommendations, such as making sure that evidence obtained through torture is inadmissible at trial and taking steps to prohibit harassment and torture during the investigation process and detention.

    Despite these international warnings, in its responses to CAT’s comments and recommendations from the 2018 Concluding Observations, issued in September 2020, Vietnam continued to maintain that ‘allegations of the widespread use of torture and ill-treatment, particular in police stations, and in certain places where persons are deprived of their liberty [...] are all unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims’. This contradicts the findings of our report.

    How have domestic and international CSOs raised these issues?

    Many international groups report on allegations of torture and inhumane treatment in Vietnam as part of their ongoing human rights research. However, torture is a difficult topic to research and report on, as information flowing out of Vietnamese prisons is minimal and often censored, and prisoners and family members may fear further retaliation for raising their concerns. Prisoners are often better able to report on prison conditions upon their release, as was recently the case of Tran Thi Thuy.

    Thuy was imprisoned for eight years and was denied communication with her family and adequate medical treatment despite having severe tumours. The authorities demanded a confession in exchange for treatment. Thuy was also forced to work under extreme labour conditions; by the end of her sentence, she could barely walk. The international community should question the treatment prisoners face, and whether it may be even worse than what is reported in the news that reach international outlets.

    Regardless of the obstacles they face, activists, their families and CSOs continue to raise the issue of ill-treatment of political prisoners via research and direct advocacy. For example, in April, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the International Federation on Human Rights jointly issued an urgent appeal for international intervention in the case of land rights activist Trinh Ba Phuong. Groups also petition the UN, and especially its Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, to investigate cases where inhumane treatment is suspected. Further, abuse by Vietnam’s police force more broadly is well-documented.

    What can the international community do to address the issue of torture in Vietnam?

    Given the absolute nature of the right to freedom from torture, failure on the part of the Vietnamese government to address issues of torture and inhumane treatment of political prisoners should trigger a review of its trade deals and other relationships with international actors. We urge human rights advocates and representatives of the USA, the European Union, and others to demand that Vietnam implement the concrete actions that are clearly stated in CAT’s Concluding Observations in the Initial Report of Viet Nam of 208 and to follow up on the UPR recommendations that Vietnam accepted in 2019.

    We also urge the authorities to accept visits by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as visits by states’ consular representatives to conduct investigations of prison conditions in multiple locations.

    Civic space in Vietnam is rated ‘closedby theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with The 88 Project through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@The88Project on Twitter.

     

  • WOMEN’S RIGHTS: ‘Violence against women is a global crisis that needs urgent attention’

    Lina AbiRafeh

    CIVICUS speaks about civil society’s role in the fight against gender-based violence with Lina AbiRafeh, a feminist activist, women’s rights expert and Senior Advisor for Global Women’s Rights at the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University, where she served as Executive Director for seven years.

    How big a problem is violence against women(VAW)at the global level? 

    VAW is a muchbigger global problem than we tend to imagine:statistics showone in everythree women and girls will experience violence in their lifetime. The fact so many women and girls are denied the right tolivefreely without facing restrictions and danger makes this a global crisis that needs urgent attention. I personally do not know a woman who has not been affected by some form of this insidious violence. Women have the right to feel free and safe in their own bodies, at home, in the streets and in any public spaces, but unfortunately that is notand has never been – theirreality.

    VAWis a human rights violation thatis embedded in our culture andwomenare often silenced when they try to speakup.Women-led organisationsand women’s rights groups and movementsmust be supported because they are the voice of these women and girls who are silenced. They are the voice ofallwomen and girls.

    Having worked to endVAW around the worldfor 25 years, I knowthis is a very hard problem to crack. VAW stems from a global context of gender inequality where women and girls are viewed as less than men, as second-class citizens. There is lack of awarenessin our societies and lack of political willamong our leaders.Existing laws don’t enable women to access justice, security, services, orsupport.Nothing works the way itshouldto put an end to this violence.

    Women and girls remain unequal across every aspect of their lives – politics, economy, health, education and the law. Women and girls are the majority of the world’s poor.They are the majority of those who are illiterate. But they are a minority, an exception, and treated like an anomaly in every aspect of leadership and decision-making. Wage gaps are wide, and women are too often relegatedto the informal sector. And they continue to bear the burden of unpaid care. In too many countries, womenface discriminatory laws that refuse to recognisethem as equals with men.

    How much progress has been achievedso far?

    Women and girlsaround the worldstill do not have the opportunity to participate fully inevery aspect ofsocial, economic and political life, despite their right to do so.Wehave made progress, butnot enough.

    Although advances have been made in trying to reduceVAW, cases continue, and are often perpetrated with impunity.

    In many countries, women are being stripped of theirsexual and reproductive rights, compromising their health and denying theirright to decide about their own bodies and lives. In addition,the problem of girl-child marriagecontinues, and increased as a result of COVID-19, with12 million girlsunder 18 being married offevery year.Forthis and other forms ofVAW, rhetoric doesn’t match reality. There is more talk than action.

    Women-led organisationsmustbe involved in policydecisions and be given full leadership.There is a lot of talk about localisation,but this seems to just be a buzzwordas most women’s rights and feminist organisations aremarginalised andunderfunded.This only sets them up for failure because it limits the scope of their work, keeping the support they offer out of reach for the majority of women and girls. We need to fund these organisations fully, andnot with thetypicalshort-term quick-fix project funding but with long-term, unrestricted, open-ended funding thatcan allow them to function and flourish. Local groupsshoulddictate the agenda, not the donors who are holding the strings.

    What work do you do to contribute topositive change? 

    I am committed to building a better world for women. I am a global women’s rights activist, author and speaker with decades of experience worldwide. 

    I worked for over 20 years as a humanitarian aid worker in contexts such as Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Haiti and Papua New Guinea.I now work independently, advising organisations and companies to enhance their engagement with women’s rights and gender equality. I also serve as the Senior Advisor for Global Women’s Rights at theArab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University, where I was Executive Director until 2022.I am also the founder ofYalla, Feminists!, an online space and open platform dedicated to amplifying women’s voices worldwide.

    I was honoured to be able to share my passion and experience in ending VAW on global stages including aTEDx talk, a Women DeliverPowerTalk and akeynote address for Swedish International Development Agency annual meeting, among others.

    I’ve written two books:Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan andFreedom on the Frontlines. My next book outlines 50 years of Arab feminism and will be published in early 2023. I will keep using my voice in whatever ways I can to fight for women’s rights and remedy inequalities. That’s why I speak andpublish everywhere I can and I serve on the board of numerous global women’s rights organisations.

    What good practicesshould be implemented to prevent VAW?

    We need to start believing survivors so that perpetrators can be brought to justice.When women see the law is on their side, more willbe encouragedto speakup. Wealsoneed to make sure that survivorshave access to the full range of services and support, and security systems handle their cases with care.

    There is also a need to reform education so that more people are taught aboutVAW, consent, human rights and women’s rights – from a very young age.Education canbring us a step closer to defeating thisscourge. We need men to step up to support women and speak up against perpetrators.And yes, we need data, but not at the expense of action. Anyway, data will always underestimate the reality. And what we know is that no country is immune. This affects women and girls everywhere, in every culture and context and community.

    Get in touch with Lina AbiRafeh through herwebsite or herMedium blog, and follow@LinaAbiRafeh on Twitter.

     

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