Uganda yet to address civic freedom gaps ahead of UN review

Human rights organisations CIVICUS, Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), Justice Access Point (JAP) and African Institute for Investigative Journalism (AIIJ) call on UN member states to urge the Government of Uganda to protect civic freedoms as its human rights record is examined by the UN Human Rights Council on 27 January 2022 as part of the 40th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

 

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

International human rights groups raise the alarm about the state of civic rights in Timor-Leste ahead of the country's review at the United Nations Human Rights Council on 25 January 2022.

 

Venezuela failed to implement over 80% of UN recommendations on civic rights

International human rights groups raise alarm about the state of civic rights in Venezuela ahead of the country's review at the United Nations Human Rights Council on 25 January, 2022.

CIVICUS, the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (REDLAD) and Espacio Público call on UN member states to urge the government of Venezuela to protect civic freedoms as its human rights record is examined by the UN Human Rights Council on 25 January 2022 as part of the 40th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

The last time the country’s rights record was reviewed was in November 2016, when UN member states made a total of 274 recommendations, 40 of which related to civic freedoms. Venezuela subsequently accepted 23 recommendations and committed to taking concrete measures. Among these measures, to “fully guarantee freedom of expression and free access to information and protect journalists against threats and attacks” and to ensure “a proportional use of force by security forces and ensure that cases of torture are investigated and that the perpetrators are brought to justice.”

In a joint submission to the Human Rights Council this UPR cycle, our organisations assessed the implementation of these recommendations and compliance with international human rights law and standards over the last five years. The submission found that since 2016, Venezuela has persistently failed to address unwarranted restrictions on civic space, particularly those related to the rights to the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression. Of the 40 recommendations received, Venezuela only partially implemented seven and did not implement 33.

We are deeply concerned by the restrictions facing civil society organisations, particularly those working on humanitarian and human rights issues. Judicial persecution and financial restrictions against civil society, rights defenders and journalists have intensified, combined with a stigmatising discourse that seeks to justify attacks against the legitimate exercise of the freedoms of association and expression. We are also alarmed by the continuing systematic suppression of peaceful protests.

The 2017 Anti-Hate Law for Peaceful Coexistence and Tolerance uses vague wording about ‘hate’ offences to give the government ample power to censor dissent and curtail independent media. It has been used to criminalise peaceful protests and prosecute human rights defenders, civil society activists and journalists. Since the law was enacted, at least 42 people have been prosecuted under its provisions, including HRDs, journalists, protesters, healthcare workers and individuals who expressed dissatisfaction on social media.

The operation of civil society organisations is restricted through a repressive regulatory framework and a hostile environment. The 2010 Law for the Defence of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination remains in force, bans organisations working on promoting and protecting political rights from receiving foreign funding. In 2020 and 2021, authorities created additional registration and reporting requirements that create bureaucratic hurdles for organisations and restrict their operation. 

Despite commitments to freedoms of expression guaranteed in the Constitution, the government has also continued to use restrictive laws such as criminal defamation provisions under the Penal Code to criminalise criticism of the authorities. Tactics to curtail independent press such as financial strangulation, cancellation of broadcasting licences, equipment confiscation, and censorship are widespread.

‘States must take the opportunity of Venezuela’s human rights review to hold the government to account for violations. The authorities have not only failed to deliver on the human rights commitments it made but has continued to use the judicial system to silence dissent,’ said David Kode, Advocacy & Campaign Lead at CIVICUS

Between 2016 and 2020, Venezuela has experienced waves of mass demonstrations and frequent localised social protests demanding a range of rights. These were invariably met with brutal repression, including widespread and systematic excessive use of force by security agents against protesters. In 2017 alone, at least 120 people were killed and 5,000 detained in the mass protests sparked by a constitutional crisis after the government and the country’s highest court disavowed the National Assembly. In this period, the response to protests was characterised by a pattern of violations that included arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions.

‘It is time for Venezuela to take action to reverse this environment of violations. The authorities must stop creating a legal framework that suppresses the defence of human rights,’ commented Ángela Rodríguez, Research Assistant at REDLAD.

As highlighted in our joint submission, CIVICUS, REDLAD, and Espacio Público urge states to make recommendations to Venezuela, which, if implemented, would guarantee the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and the state’s duty to protect.
Key recommendations that should be made include:

  • Cease actions to suspend and close civil society organisations and remove all undue restrictions on their ability to receive international and domestic funding.
  • Provide civil society members, HRDs and journalists with a safe and secure environment to carry out their work and ensure that they can carry out their legitimate activities without fear or undue hindrance, obstruction, or legal and administrative harassment.
  • Review and amend laws to remove undue restrictions on civil society and the press, including the Law for the Defence of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination and Penal Code articles on criminal defamation
  • Repeal the Anti-Hate Law and immediately and unconditionally release all those detained under the law for exercising their fundamental rights.
  • Reinstate all media outlets that have unwarrantedly been closed and cease practices of confiscating equipment and materials and censoring media.
  • Immediately and impartially investigate all instances of extrajudicial killing and excessive force committed by security forces in the context of protests. Provide recourse to judicial review and effective remedy to victims.

The examination of Venezuela will occur during the 40th Session of the UPR. The UPR is a process, in operation since 2008, which examines the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States every four and a half years. The review is an interactive dialogue between the State delegation and members of the Council and addresses a broad range of human rights topics. 11 other countries will also have their rights record reviewed, including Haiti, Syria and Zimbabwe. Following the review, a report and recommendations are prepared, discussed and adopted at the following session of the Human Rights Council (June 2022).

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

 

13 countries downgraded in new ratings report as civic rights deteriorate globally

 

2021 global data report from the CIVICUS Monitor

  • 9 out of 10 people live in countries where civic freedoms are severely restricted 
  • Country downgrades include Poland, Singapore, Nicaragua, Jordan and South Africa

  • Detention of protesters is the top violation of civic freedoms in 2021

  • COVID-19 continues to be used as a pretext to restrict rights across the globe

The fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association continue to deteriorate year after year worldwide, according to a global report released today by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online research platform that tracks fundamental freedoms in 197 countries and territories. The new report, People Power Under Attack 2021, shows that the number of people living in countries with significant restrictions on civic rights, including the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, amount to almost 89% of the population this year.

The CIVICUS Monitor data shows that year after year, there is significantly less space for people to exercise fundamental freedoms: only 3.1% of the world’s population lives in countries rated as ‘open’.

Nearly two billion people live in countries with the worst rating, ‘closed’, where the authorities are routinely allowed to imprison, injure and kill people for attempting to exercise their fundamental freedoms. China, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and 21 other countries fall under this category - Nicaragua and Belarus joined their ranks this year. 

It is nearly two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the virus is having a dire impact on civic freedoms globally, one that will have lasting impact if remedial action is not taken. Our research shows the detention of protesters and the use of restrictive laws to muzzle dissent are becoming more prevalent, as governments use the pandemic to introduce or implement additional restrictions on civic freedoms. 

“Governments across the world are setting a very dangerous precedent by using the health emergency as a smokescreen to crack down on protests and enact or amend legislation that will further limit peoples’ rights. Specifically, disinformation legislation is being enacted and used to criminalise speech, a concerning practice that could become the new norm to crush dissent,” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, Civic Space Cluster Lead. 

This year, 13 countries have been downgraded and only one improved their rating.  The CIVICUS Monitor is particularly concerned about civic space restrictions in Europe, where four countries dropped a rating: Belarus, Belgium, Czech Republic, and Poland. Europe has the greatest number of ‘open’ countries, but year after year we continue to see signs of serious deterioration.

Also alarming is the deterioration of civic space conditions in Africa, where South Africa, Botswana, Mali and Mozambique all dropped ratings. In the Americas, Nicaragua joined Cuba in our worst category, ‘closed’. The Middle East and North Africa retained its status as the region with the worst civic rights record, with Jordan being downgraded to ‘repressed’. In Asia, Singapore also fell into the ‘repressed’ category, as a persistent clamp down on dissent and opposition voices continues. 

“What we are seeing is not a proportional reaction to a health emergency, where restrictions are meant to be extraordinary measures to deal with a crisis that is temporary. On the contrary, governments are using the pandemic as a pretext to further accelerate the crackdown on human rights that we have been documenting over the past years.” 

Although only one country - Mongolia - improved its rating in 2021, it is important to highlight the resilience of civil society. Governments have not been successful in silencing alternative voices or limiting their activism. Despite increasing restrictions, civil society has found ways to continue to speak up and claim their rights.  

Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor, providing evidence and research that help us target countries where civic freedoms are at risk. The Monitor has posted more than 550 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2021. 

Civic freedoms in 197 countries and territories are categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology that combines several data sources on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
 

SEE RATINGS & READ REPORT
 

 

Brazil: Anti-terrorism bill a tool to repress fundamental rights and freedoms

Portuguese 

  • Brazilian authorities are debating a restrictive bill which amends the Anti-terrorism law (2016)
  • If passed, the bill will severely impact on the rights of expression, assembly, association and privacy
  • Concerns raised by UN Special Rapporteurs about the impact of the bill have largely been ignored

 

Bangladesh: Drop all charges against human rights defenders from Odhikar

CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations, is seriously concerned over the ongoing judicial harassment against human rights defenders Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan. They will face their next hearing on 24 November 2021. If found guilty, both might be sentenced to up to ten years of imprisonment. 

 

El Salvador:“Foreign Agents” bill would restrict freedom of expression & association if passed into law

Global civil society alliance CIVICUS expresses serious concerns over a ‘Foreign Agents’ bill proposed by the government of El Salvador which would give the executive ample powers to stifle civil society and independent media.

 

World leaders meet at COP26 but many participants from the frontlines of climate change are left out in the cold

The stakes are higher than ever at COP26 and the lives of many of the world’s most disadvantaged communities hang in the balance, with rising sea levels, major storms, floods and droughts all increasing due to climate change. Governments must be ambitious and deliver on their commitments to de-carbonise our economies by 2030.

The negotiations at COP need accountability as there is an inherent power imbalance within the UN talks between industrialized countries and countries of the global South.

However, the possibility for participation of community representatives from areas that are directly affected around the world has been very restricted and, in some cases, individuals have been harassed or excluded by their own governments. These communities will largely be left out of the physical negotiations which are critical in holding the high polluting member states to account.

Barriers for participation have been far higher at this COP than in previous years, in part due to travel restrictions linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. The inequality of access has been massively exacerbated by the inequities of vaccine provision. Many of the communities most affected by the climate crisis are also suffering an artificial shortage of vaccines - and the lack of solidarity shown by wealthier donor countries such as the UK and Germany in blocking the sharing of vaccine technology and thereby preventing developing countries from producing their own vaccines.

Additional challenges have come in the form of a very restrictive visa regime in the UK, which has been particularly restrictive to individuals coming from outside Europe and North America and has often led to lengthy delays for travel bookings which creates a knock-on effect of prohibitively high travel costs. In some cases, there has also been direct targeting of human rights defenders who advocate for climate and social justice.

From established democracies including the United Kingdom, Australia and Austria as well as other countries like Kazakhstan, Uganda and Egypt, groups protesting for climate justice and the protection of the environment have been violently dispersed. In countries including Honduras, Philippines, Nicaragua and Columbia, human rights defenders advocating for climate justice and for the protection of indigenous rights and the rights of communities are jailed and persecuted. This direct intimidation and detaining of activists prevents the voices of essential communities from being heard in global forums.

REACTIONS FROM GLOBAL CIVIL SOCIETY

Tasneem Essop, Executive Director, Climate Action Network says:
”We know civil society participation is critical to get a strong outcome from COP26. Yet by pushing for a physical COP in the middle of a global pandemic, with all the restrictions on travel and exorbitant costs, we can see that real and meaningful participation is under threat. This is particularly true for those from vulnerable communities from the global South. The issues on the table at this COP pertaining to finance, loss and damage and keeping 1.5C in sight require those most impacted to have a seat at the table, to scrutinise outcomes from governments, hold polluters accountable and fight to secure a safe and just future.”

Lysa John, Secretary-General of CIVICUS says:
“The world is watching while leaders meet at COP26, real action is needed now but many of the people who can bring lived experience of climate change from around the world are being left out. Now more than ever, the perspectives of people who are most affected by the severe impacts of climate change should be heard and respected.”

Emeline Siale Ilolahia, Director of the Pacific Island Association of NGOs and board member of Action for Sustainable Development says:
“Many of the Pacific Islands are facing direct threats in terms of loss of land and livelihoods due to climate change but our voices are increasingly drowned out and major economies are not taking responsibility for the wider impacts of their inaction. We have been told that this is the moment to build back better, but we need to see world leaders opening space for a more inclusive vision for the future.”

STORIES OF KEY ACTIVISTS WHO ARE NOT ABLE TO ATTEND:

Disha A Ravi (India) is a 23 year old climate justice activist with Fridays For Future India and a writer. She became an activist after she saw her family impacted by the water crisis. She is best known for advocating for better policies and governance for the climate and environmental sector. She is passionate about ensuring that voices from most affected people and areas are represented in climate conversations and negotiations. Her passport has been withheld by authorities.

Suvendu Biswas (Bangladesh) is a young climate activist working on climate and youth issues in the coastal area of Bangladesh. He supports youth-led digital and climate actions to end climate injustice for his peers and their community people. He was prevented due to high cost of travel and visa

Nyombi Morris (Uganda) is a 23 year old climate activist from Uganda fighting to include climate change in the curriculum in schools and promoting tree planting. Nyombi has been advocating to Save Bugoma forest and Congo basin since 2019. He was arrested this year during his Fridays for future strikes in Kampala.

Aïman Atarouwa (Togo) is active in the fight against climate change, in particular: the promotion of renewable energies; supporting the global climate strikes; and leading arts activities on the environment. He could not attend due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Guapinol Water Defenders (Honduras) Porfirio Sorto Cedillo, José Avelino Cedillo, Orbin Naún Hernández, Kevin Alejandro Romero, Arnold Javier Aleman, Ever Alexander Cedillo, Daniel Márquez and Jeremías Martínez Díaz, Defenders of Tocoa, in the northern region of Honduras. They were protesting against the implementation of a mining project in the protected area ”Carlos Escalares” that would endanger fresh water sources in the region. They have been detained and charged with arson and unlawful deprivation of liberty.

Angela Mendes (Brazil) is the daughter of murdered environmental defender Chico Mendes. She is actively working to protect the rainforest reserves that were set up over the last 20 years in the Western Amazon which are under threat by the Bolsonaro Government. She could not travel due to COVID-19 and visa delays.

For further information contact:

Oli Henman, Action for Sustainable Development  or Tel: 07803 169074
The campaign #UNmuteCOP26 #Facesfromthefrontlines is running at COP26. Check it out here: https://twitter.com/Action4SD/status/1454098027971551233 

 

India: Human rights defender Sudha Bharadwaj spends another birthday in detention

Human rights defender and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj will be spending her 60th birthday in detention today, more than three years after she was arrested on baseless charges under a draconian anti-terror law. Global civil society alliance CIVICUS calls on the Indian government to halt the ongoing persecution against her and release Bharadwaj immediately and unconditionally. 

Bharadwaj has been in pre-trial detention since August 2018, when she was arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and accused of having links with Maoist terrorist organisations. She and 15 other human rights defenders were further accused of conspiring to incite members of the marginalised Dalit community in relation to violence which erupted in Bhima Koregaon village in the Pune district of Maharashtra in January 2018.  

Bharadwaj was initially held under house arrest until October 2018, when she was moved to Byculla Women’s Prison in Mumbai. This is her fourth birthday in prison. 

“Instead of celebrating her birthday with family and friends, Sudha will be alone in Byculla prison because she chose to speak up for the rights of Indigenous people and workers. Her detention highlights the systematic misuse of security laws by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to clamp down on dissent and silence human rights defenders”, said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia Pacific researcher. 

Her multiple pleas for bail including for underlying health issues have been opposed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), despite calls by the UN to decongest prisons and release political prisoners during the pandemic. There are  serious concerns about the validity of evidence against her. A report in March 2021 by a U.S. digital forensics firm has raised questions about incriminating letters presented as evidence to implicate Bharadwaj and the other activists. The letters were found on an activist’s laptop which is thought to have been hacked. 

UN experts have expressed concerns about the terrorism charges laid against Bharadwaj and about the UAPA in general, particularly with regards to its vague definition of ‘unlawful activities’ and ‘membership of terrorist organisations’ which have been routinely used by the government to stifle dissent. 

“The Indian government must stop using restrictive national security and counter-terrorism laws against human rights defenders and dissenters. The laws are incompatible with India’s international human rights obligations and become tools for judicial harassment” added Benedict 

Sudha Bharadwaj is one of a group of leading human rights defenders who feature in CIVICUS’ global campaign #StandAsMyWitness. The campaign urges people to call for an end to the imprisonment and harassment of human rights defenders across the world. CIVICUS encourages people to share the defenders’ individual stories on social media using the hashtag #StandAsMyWitness. 

India’s rating was downgraded by the CIVICUS Monitor from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ in December 2019.  

 

Sudan: Civilian and political leaders must be immediately released

Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS calls on the Sudanese military to stop using violence against peaceful protesters and respect the transitional government. On 25 October 2021, the Sudanese military dissolved the civilian government and proceeded to arrest and detain political leaders including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. These actions by the military contravene the Constitutional Declaration (Charter) and the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people gained following nation wide protests in 2019. These developments pose major setbacks to the democratic commitments of the transitional leadership in Sudan and threaten to reverse any gains made over the last three years. More than seven protesters have been killed and 140 wounded as the military have used violence to quell peaceful protests calling for the transitional administration to be respected.

The Sudanese military has arrested and detained many members of the Sovereign Council – the body tasked with managing the political transition ahead of planned elections, government officials, politicians, civilians, and the director of a public broadcaster. The military has also disrupted telecommunications and internet connectivity, restricting access to information. The disruption of the internet now limits freedom of expression and there are serious concerns that the military will resort to increased violence as protesters demonstrate against the military take over. Connectivity to the internet, the right to freedom of assembly and expression are crucial to the success of the democratic transition ahead of planned elections and the consolidation of democracy. These restrictions imposed by the military will derail the transition process and threaten stability ahead of elections.

We call for the immediate release of detained civilians and politicians, who have been unlawfully arrested. All parties must exercise restraint, resume dialogue and engage in good faith within the framework of the Political Declaration and the Constitutional Decree to restore peace and constitutional order, said Paul Mulindwa, Advocacy and Campaigns Africa Lead for CIVICUS. To this end, it is critical that telecommunication and internet connectivity are immediately restored.

On 16 October 2021, Prime Minister Hamdok, cautioned that Sudan was experiencing the “worst crisis” of its transition to civilian rule following the removal of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir. His remarks pointed to the tensions between those who believe in a transition towards democracy and civilian leadership and those who want a return to military rule following a thwarted coup attempt on 21 September 2021.

Background

Sudan’s Sovereign Council is charged with leading the country through the current transitional process that would lead to elections in November 2022. Military and civilian leaders have been at odds since the establishment of the transition government in 2019. On Saturday, 23 October 2021, thousands of military-aligned protesters gathered in front of the presidential palace in the capital, Khartoum, calling for the resignation of the Sovereign Council. This protest was called by a military-aligned faction of the Forces of Freedom and Change alliance (FFC), that participated in the 2019 civil protests, which removed the former president al-Bashir. Amidst the current crisis, Sudan remains in a deep economic crisis and sharp division. The dissolution of transition government and military takeover exacerbate the situation.

The CIVICUS Monitor an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates civic space – the space for civil society – in Sudan as repressed.

 

Disinformation research reveals how governments hijack & weaponize narratives to serve their political agenda

HijackingWeaponizingTheNarrative

Disinformation campaigns are on the rise in East Asia as states use false information to shape self-serving narratives.

The newly launched DisinformationCounter.com sets out to contribute to public knowledge and understanding of disinformation, especially how governments use it in ways that negatively impact civic space and democracy in East Asia. The platform launches with a research project to map the regional disinformation landscape. Case studies focused on the Philippines, Mindanao, Indonesia, West Papua, Hong Kong, and Cambodia, but are indicative of a larger, systemic issue across the region. This research is, therefore, to be seen as part of the rising call from East Asian civil society for greater transparency and freedom of information.

Accompanying the research, the ARTSvsDISINFORMATION project brought seven artists together to explore creative, accessible, and public ways of responding to and resisting disinformation. It is also hoped that the research and artistic responses will inspire and empower civic, academic, and creative responses towards disinformation.

Both projects are hosted on the newly launched DisinformationCounter.com.

"Disinformation erodes democracy. It undermines fundamental freedoms. It stokes hate and violence while polarizing societies along the lines of race, religion, ideology, class, and gender. It destroys lives. In a crisis that is on a scale we’ve never seen before, disinformation kills. East Asia has been witness to this and more, much like the rest of the world.”

– Tess Bacalla, Editor

HIJACKING & WEAPONIZING THE NARRATIVE: Disinformation Amid Rising Repression in East Asia examines the specific ways by which states have become a major player in the spread of disinformation and how these narratives influence state policies and the use of state resources. Written and edited by well-known journalists and writers on disinformation in the region, this research project maps the disinformation landscape in the Philippines, Mindanao, Indonesia, West Papua, Hong Kong, and Cambodia.

Why we should be concerned

CIVICUS Asia Pacific Researcher Josef Benedict says, “Across the Asian region we are seeing governments deploy disinformation tactics to spread pro-government narratives, mount smear campaigns against their political opposition and civil society, and to divert conversations away from critical issues facing people’s lives. This critical report exposes these manipulation campaigns and empowers civil society to challenge both states and non-state actors to not only refrain from conducting and sponsoring disinformation, but to address it in a manner that respects human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.”

Narrative is power

Creating and pushing narratives that distort otherwise meaningful public conversations has become an integral, albeit destructive, component of the strategies that have been used by governments for ages. Today’s technologies have ramped up these efforts, ushering in a new world disorder that has governments hijacking and weaponizing narratives. Talk about the ‘new normal’ in the digital age!

“Narrative, after all, is power, especially when used – calibrated and weaponized – to manipulate people to advance specific agendas, especially of those in power,” writes Tess Bacalla in her introduction to the research.

Muting counternarratives

These reports lift the veil on how repressive governments in the region are increasingly using disinformation to rein in dissent while perpetuating power. These on the whole are reeling under the burden of aggressive campaigns against the dissemination of truthful accounts of public governance issues and events that impact people’s lives while muting counter voices, often with the use of brute force, draconian legislation, and other forms of repression.

Why this research matters

When asked why this research project is important to the region, Tess responded with this remark, “To say that there is extreme urgency to train the spotlight on the unrelenting scourge of disinformation – this, as states and other political actors wantonly manipulate information to suit their political agendas while harming the public interest – is to belabor the obvious.

“This series of reports is a step in that direction – and a plea for action.”

-End-

To view the collection of seven artworks, click here.

To read the series of disinformation reports, click here

About CIVICUS

CIVICUS is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world.

We were established in 1993 and since 2002 have been proudly headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, with additional hubs across the globe. We are a membership alliance with more than 10,000 members in more than 175 countries.

Our definition of civil society is broad and covers non-governmental organisations, activists, civil society coalitions and networks, protest and social movements, voluntary bodies, campaigning organisations, charities, faith-based groups, trade unions and philanthropic foundations. Our membership is diverse, spanning a wide range of issues, sizes and organisation types.

For further information or to request interviews with CIVICUS staff and contributors to this project, please contact Josef Benedict: 

 

Pakistan: UN Working Group concludes Muhammad Ismail was targeted because of his human rights work

Prof Ismail Oct

CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, welcomes the conclusions adopted by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that found the arrest and detention of Muhammad Ismail arbitrary and calls on the Pakistan authorities to immediately and unconditionally put an end to all acts of harassment against Muhammad Ismail and his family.

The UN Working Group, in its opinion adopted in September 2021, concluded that Muhammad Ismail was targeted for his human rights work and that his detention was in contravention of international human rights standards, particularly the Universal Human Rights Declaration (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which Pakistan is a state party.

Among the key findings of the UN Working Group was that:

  • The arrest and detention of Muhammad Ismail was arbitrary falling within categories I (without sufficient legal basis), II (for exercising his rights guaranteed under the ICCPR), III (being denied of his right to fair trial), and V (for his work as human rights defender and his relation to his daughter, Gulalai Ismail).
  • He was subjected to enforced disappearance in the period between his abduction on 24 October 2019 and his appearance in court on 25 October 2019. The abduction of Muhammad Ismail on 24 October took place completely outside of established legal processes and with no judicial oversight, in violation of the requirement under article 9(1) of the ICCPR.
  • His right to challenge the legality of his detention under article 9(3) and (4) of the ICCPR, as well as his right to an effective remedy under article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 2(3) of the Covenant, were violated.
  • His pre-trial detention for over two months (2 February to 15 April 2021) was not properly constituted and thus had no legal basis. 
  • His conduct falls within the right to freedom of opinion and expression protected under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 of the ICCPR. 
  • He was detained in relation to both proceedings against him because of the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of opinion and expression and to participate in the conduct of public affairs, and in violation of article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 26 of the ICCPR.
  • He has been denied his right to a fair trial without undue delay in both proceedings.
  • He was detained on discriminatory grounds, that is, on the basis of his status as a human rights defender, his political or other opinion, and his birth and family ties, contrary to articles 2 and 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 2(1) and 26 of the ICCPR.

“The conclusion by the UN Working Group echoes concerns raised by CIVICUS around the arbitrary detention of Muhammad Ismail and the ongoing persecution against him. Human rights defenders in Pakistan should not be harassed and intimidated for doing their work and exercising their fundamental freedoms. Ismail’s treatment highlights the repressive environment for activists in the country,” said Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific researcher for CIVICUS.

Muhammad Ismail, a Pakistani human rights defender and the father of women’s rights activist Gulalai Ismail, has been subject to judicial harassment since 2019. He is facing allegations of cybercrime for speaking against government institutions. He has also been accused of trumped-up charges related to sedition and conspiracy, as well as under the Anti-Terrorism Act for allegedly financing terrorism, publishing and disseminating anti-State material and aiding and abetting terrorist offences.

In the report, the UN Working Group also noted with concern the charges reportedly brought against Muhammad Ismail’s spouse, as well as actions taken against Gulalai Ismail, his daughter, for her advocacy in support of the Pashtun community. It recommended that the government of Pakistan conduct a full and independent investigation on the arbitrary detention of Muhammad Ismail and to take appropriate measures against those responsible for the violation of his rights. The Working Group also called on the government to provide a remedy without delay. While the Working Group has sent a communication to the government of Pakistan concerning the circumstance, it has received no reply.

“We urge the Pakistani authorities to comply with the recommendations from the UN Working Group, in particular by immediately ending all acts of harassment against him and his family and ensuring an independent investigation into the abuses against him,” said Benedict.

“The decision by the UN Working Group shows clearly that my father was arrested for speaking up and supporting my activism. He has suffered tremendously over the last two years for this. I urge the authorities to drop all charges against my parents unconditionally. Speaking out for human rights is not a crime” said Gulalai Ismail.

Muhammad Ismail is one of the faces of CIVICUS’s international #StandAsMyWitness campaign, calling for the release of imprisoned human rights defenders across the world.

The CIVICUS Monitor rates civic space in Pakistan as “repressed

 

Russia: Stop smear campaigns, persecution of civil society

The ongoing violations of the right to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and particularly the labelling of civil society groups as “foreign agents,” is intended to force associations to close operations or self-censor, said CIVICUS, global alliance of civil society organisations. Russia is experiencing the most severe restrictions on civic space in decades as the authorities use legislation on “foreign agents” or “undesirable organisations” to restrict the activities of civil society organisations and subject their leaders and members to judicial persecution.

On 29 September 2021, the Ministry of Justice listed the Media Human Rights Project OVD-Info as one of the organisations designated as a “foreign agent.” The inclusion of OVD-Info on the list of organisations accused of functioning as a foreign agent is a direct response to OVD-Info’s civil society campaign against legislation used by the authorities to smear and stigmatise civil society groups. More than 229 organisations and over 154,000 people across Russia joined the campaign. OVD-Info is an independent media project focusing on human rights and political persecutions, which also tracks and monitors persecution of protesters in Russia. It depends on volunteers and donations to do its work and calls on the Russian authorities to respect the Constitution and other European Conventions on human rights.

Russia has often been known for targeting civil society organisations, opposition figures and human rights defenders. However, human rights violations have reached unprecedented levels as the authorities routinely use legislation to stigmatise civil society organisations and prosecute their leaders and members. The international community must intervene now to prevent a total dismantling of civil society, said Sylvia Mbataru, civic space researcher at CIVICUS.

Those included on the list on 29 September are members of the civil society group Golos that monitors elections and journalists from the media rights body Mediazoma. Organisations listed as foreign agents are required to undergo cumbersome administrative procedures and indicate their status as “foreign agents” in all official correspondence and materials. Media organisations designated as foreign face challenges collaborating with advertisers and partners and are hindered from doing interviews as few people would want to be associated with “foreign agents.” Several associations have been forced to close down while many more now self-censor as representatives of civil society are also subjected to judicial persecution.


Background

Over the last several months, the Russian authorities have increased restrictions on civic space and targeted human rights defenders and protesters. Several civil society organisations and media groups have been added to a list of organisations accused of performing the functions of a foreign agent. The implications have been the closure of civil society and media groups, loss of income of many others, and the judicial persecution of leaders of these groups. Early in 2021, OVD-Info reported that more than 17600 were detained in response to large-scale protests calling for an end to the judicial persecution of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Due to the spiraling decline in fundamental rights and freedoms in the country, in February 2021, Russia was added to a watchlist of countries that have seen a rapid deterioration of fundamental democratic freedoms.

Civic space in Russia is rated 'repressed' by the CIVICUS Monitor. 

 

Philippines: International community must support independent investigative mechanism to end attacks on civil society

New research on the state of civic freedoms in the Philippines

CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, continues to call on the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent investigative mechanism to address human rights violations and abuses in the Philippines to further accountability and justice. A new brief published today, shows that one year on from the adoption of a profoundly weak resolution at the Council, serious civic freedoms violations continue to occur, creating a chilling effect within civil society.

The CIVICUS Monitor has documented the arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights defenders and activists on fabricated charges. In a number of instances, the activists have been vilified and red-tagged – labelled as communists or terrorists – in relation to their work prior to their arrest. There have also been reports of evidence planted by the police and military forces to justify arrests or violence against activists.

Activists have been killed over the last year, both by the security forces and by unknown individuals. In many instances, activists were killed after being red-tagged. In virtually none of the cases has anyone been held accountable for the killings. In one incident, nine community-based activists were killed in coordinated raids, known as the ‘Bloody Sunday’ killings, which took place across four provinces in the Calabarzon region on 7 March 2021 by members of the Philippine security forces. The killing of journalists as well as judicial harassment against them has also persisted.

AdvocacyBrief Philippines Cover

In July 2021, the Philippine government and the UN formalised a human rights programme which includes strengthening domestic investigation and accountability mechanisms; improved data gathering on alleged police violations; civic space and engagement with civil society and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to be implemented.

“The current actions by the UN Human Rights Council have failed to deter the criminalisation and attacks against activists and journalists, which has continued over the year, with impunity. The new joint programme seems to be just more window dressing by the Duterte regime to evade accountability. It is time for the international community to listen to civil society voices and establish an independent investigation to hold the perpetrators to account”, said Lisa Majumdar, CIVICUS UN advocacy officer.

Human rights groups have also documented an assault on the judiciary. An investigative report by the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) found that at least 61 lawyers, judges and prosecutors have been killed under the Duterte administration since 2016. There have been no convictions so far in any of the deadly attacks recorded. 

The new brief outlines other tactics used to silence civil society that have ranged from freezing their accounts to launching  smear campaigns against them. In June 2021, the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) froze the bank accounts of Amihan, an organisation of peasant women, which the authorities alleged were linked to communist rebels. Bank accounts of eight other nongovernmental organisations and civil society groups based in Mindanao were also covered by the order.

Human rights alliance Karapatan has been subject to  a spate of cyberattacks since July 2021 against its website, amid an online solidarity campaign #StopTheKillingsPH, which calls on the government to stop attacks against human rights defenders. Earlier attacks against Karapatan and alternative media outlets were traced by Qurium - Sweden-based media foundation - to the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence of the Philippine Army as well as the Department of Science and Technology.

“Civil society groups have been at the forefront of monitoring violations perpetrated by authorities around the deadly war on drugs, and their assaults on activists. Despite the threats and litany of attacks against them, they have refused to be silenced. The international community owes them support and protection,” said Majumdar.

Following tireless research and advocacy efforts by civil society, in June 2021, the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda requested judicial authorisation to proceed with an investigation into crimes committed in the Philippines from 1 November 2011 - the date the Philippines became an ICC member - until 16 March 2019. On 15 September 2021, Pre-Trial Chamber I of the International Criminal Court granted the Prosecutor’s request to commence the investigation in a landmark development.

In December 2020, the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration that rates and tracks respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries, downgraded the Philippines from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ in its People Power Under Attack report 2020. 


More information

Download the Philippines research brief here.


Interviews

To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher and

 

 

India: Government must halt its harassment of human rights activist Harsh Mander

CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, condemns the recent raid carried out on facilities associated with human rights defender Harsh Mander who serves as Director of the Centre for Equity Studies and calls on the government of India to stop targeting and intimidating human rights defenders. The raid adds to the long list of restrictions imposed on human rights defenders in the country. 

On 16 September 2021, the Enforcement Directorate under the Ministry of Finance of India conducted the raid on Harsh Mander’s residence, the Centre for Equity Studies’ office, and a children’s home run by the organisation under the pretext of investigating money laundering allegations against him. The raid happened several hours after Harsh Mander departed to Germany to attend a fellowship programme.

Harsh Mander is a prominent human rights defender and social activist who has been critical of the Narendra Modi government. He has raised concerns about how the government  handled the COVID-19 pandemic, the increasing attacks on press freedom, and the discriminatory citizenship law passed in 2019 which human rights groups have called ‘unconstitutional and divisive’.

Following the raid, more than 500 activists in India issued a joint statement in solidarity with Harsh Mander and condemned the intimidation tactics.

“The authorities must halt its harassment of human rights activist Harsh Mander. These actions conducted by the Enforcement Directorate is a clear tactic to intimidate and criminalise the defender. It also creates a chilling effect on government critics and is a strategy to force many to self-censorship.”, said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Civic Space Researcher for the Asia Pacific.

Similar raids were conducted by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in October 2020 on two children’s homes associated with him based on accusations of financial irregularities and illicit activities.

These raids highlight an ongoing pattern of baseless and politically-motivated criminal charges brought by the authorities against activists across India that has been documented by the CIVICUS Monitor.  This includes the use of a variety of restrictive laws - including national security and counter-terrorism legislation - to imprison human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and critics.  Some have been in pre-trial detention for years.

“It is appalling that activists in India are facing harassment just for speaking up for human rights. The government must drop all charges against them and immediately and unconditionally release all those detained. It must also take steps to ensure that human rights defenders are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance or fear of reprisals,” added Benedict.

India’s rating was downgraded by the CIVICUS Monitor from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ in December 2019. 

 

Both protests & restrictions surge during the pandemic

The CIVICUS Monitor has produced a fourth installment of research on the state of civil liberties during the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest research brief provides a snapshot of trends and case studies related to the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

Despite bans & restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly, protests have been staged in all regions of the world.

  • People continue to mobilise to demand their rights during the pandemic
  • Anti-confinement measures a common driver of covid-related protests
  • Violations of protest rights widely documented: protesters are being detained, and excessive force is being used by both authoritarian governments and mature democracies

MonitorCovidBrief 092021

In the early days of the pandemic, restrictions on public gatherings temporarily brought many mass protests movements to a halt. However, people quickly returned to the streets and for a wide range of causes. A new research brief released today by the CIVICUS Monitor documents where protests took place during the first year of the pandemic, the drivers of those protests, and how governments responded to mass mobilisations.

Protests over state responses to the pandemic and economic hardships have been recorded across the world. Data compiled by the CIVICUS Monitor finds that covid-related protests were staged in at least 86 countries from February 2020 to January 2021. Other protests were also staged including on racial justice, women’s rights, and anti-corruption.

Anti confinement measures have been the biggest driver of covid-related demonstrations. From Argentina to Iraq, people have protested against lockdowns and its impact on livelihoods. In over a quarter of the world’s countries, these protests have often highlighted stark inequalities and called on governments to ease the economic burdens of confinement. In some instances, people have also protested against COVID-19 measures, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, including in Australia, Germany, and the USA.

The global research brief also documents three other categories of covid-related protests, with a snapshot of country case studies, including labour rights protests, sector-led protests, and mass demonstrations to reopen schools.

In addition, and at the heart of the CIVICUS Monitor’s research mandate, the brief also documents where there have been violations on the right to peaceful assembly. Protesters have been detained in at least 100 countries, on the grounds of failure to adhere to COVID-19 measures or other laws related to peaceful assemblies. Although restrictions on protests can take on many forms, some of the most troubling responses by authorities and security forces have been the prevalent use of excessive force to disperse protests. This has included lethal force, leading to the killing of protesters in at least 28 countries.

“The COVID-19 crisis should not be used as a pretext to suppress the right to peaceful assembly. The use of excessive force by the authorities to disperse protests is contrary to international law, even during a state of emergency,” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, CIVICUS Monitor Lead.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association has stated that laws limiting public gatherings must be necessary and proportionate in light of the circumstances. The UN expert has raised concerns that In many cases, it appears the measures adopted are geared more at cementing control and cracking down on oppositional figures than at ensuring public health.

As both authoritarian governments and mature democracies have responded to the pandemic with repressive measures, the research brief closes with recommendations on how governments can respond to health crises while maintaining respect for peaceful assembly and other civil liberties.

Read the full report here.


INTERVIEWS

For more details, or to arrange an interview, please contact: media [@] civicus.org

 

Afghanistan: UN and Member States must take urgent steps to protect civil society

CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance is deeply concerned about the safety of human rights defenders, journalists and staff of civil society organisations in Afghanistan following the collapse of President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the takeover by the Taliban.

As called for by UN experts, we urge UN member states to take immediate steps to protect them as well as urgently call for a Special Session at the Human Rights Council on Afghanistan which will include a discussion on the speedy establishment of a fact-finding mission to be deployed to assess the situation on the ground and report back.

The Taliban have a track record of abusing human rights, coordinating reprisals against their critics and attacking civilians with impunity. Following the takeover of Kabul, human rights defenders have reported that lists of names of representatives of civil society have been revealed by the Taliban and raids have been carried out in their homes. Human rights defenders trying to leave the country have also been prevented from boarding planes as foreign missions have prioritised evacuating their own nationals and staff. Others have gone into hiding and fear for their lives.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights has also expressed concerns about early indications that the Taliban are imposing severe restrictions on human rights in the areas under their control, particularly targeting women.

“The crisis unfolding in Afghanistan requires an urgent and resolute response from the UN and member states. Proactive steps must be taken to ensure the security and protection of human rights defenders especially women. Many are at risk of being targeted by the Taliban because of their work and there must be efforts taken to evacuate and resettle them and their families,” said CIVICUS’s Civic Space Researcher, Josef Benedict.

CIVICUS has documented attacks on civil society by the Taliban in recent years. Human rights defenders particularly women have been facing threats for undertaking their work and some have been abducted and killed. Many have had to relocate due to safety concerns even as perpetrators have not been held accountable. Recent peace negotiations failed to adequately and effectively include civil society, especially women human rights defenders.

According to information compiled by the Afghan Human Rights Defenders’ Committee (AHRDC) 17 human rights defenders were killed between September 2020 and May 2021 alone. Over 200 human rights defenders and media representatives reported receiving serious threats. In light of the present conflict conditions and political instability, these threats have magnified.

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ on 16 August urged the international community to speak in one voice to uphold human rights in Afghanistan is a step in the right direction.

“The UN Security Council must seize the current opportunity to quickly restart the stalled intra-Afghan peace talks and ensure effective representation of civil society especially women. It must also call on the Taliban to respect international human rights law, protect civilians, and end reprisal attacks”, said Josef Benedict.

The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates civic space – the space for civil society – in Afghanistan as Repressed.

 

Zambia: Guarantee human rights for all during elections period

Ahead of the highly anticipated elections in Zambia tomorrow, global civil society alliance CIVICUS calls on the government of President Edgar Lungu to guarantee the rights of all Zambians and refrain from shutting down the internet during and after the elections. 

 

Nicaragua: One month later, Medardo Mairena Sequeira still behind bars

Global civil society alliance CIVICUS is seriously concerned about the prolonged detention of Nicaraguan human rights defender, Medardo Mairena Sequeira. Medardo was detained a month ago as part of a wave of arrests targeting activists and people who expressed their desire to stand for the Presidency ahead of Presidential elections scheduled for November 2021.

For far too long, President Daniel Ortega has used state apparatuses to target human rights defenders, journalists and members of the political opposition to stifle freedom of expression and extend his grip on power. Now, a few months before the November 2021 elections, this intensified crackdown aims to silence political opponents to guarantee him victory when Nicaraguans vote. The international community must act now to prevent a further deterioration of human rights,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.

In addition to Medardo, those detained include labour leaders Freddy Navas Lopes, Pablo Morales and Pedro Joaquin Mena. Most of the people arrested are accused of complicity in the kidnapping and killing of police officers in 2018 during large scale protests that swept through Nicaragua that year. The authorities state that they are investigating those arrested for inciting foreign interference and violating national sovereignty.

Police also raided the home of feminist leaders Dora Maria Tellez and Ana Margarita Vijil, and arrested them. They are both members of the opposition party Unamos. For several months, leaders and members of Unamos have been subjected to arbitrary arrests and detentions. The authorities have also imposed travel bans on other members of the political opposition and civil society, and froze their bank accounts.

Background

Since 2018, President Ortega’s administration has precipitated a socio-political and human rights crisis in Nicaragua. Human rights defenders, journalists and members of the political opposition have been subjected to acts of intimidation, arrests and detentions by security agents. In March 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a Resolution in response to human rights violations which renews and strengthens scrutiny on Nicaragua. In March 2021, Nicaragua was also placed on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, due to concerns about the country’s rapidly declining civic space. A few months before the November elections, the authorities have increased their attacks against members of the political opposition, human rights defenders and journalists.

Nicaragua is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, our online platform that measures the state of civic freedoms in all countries.

*Photo Credit: Jorge Mejía peralta

 

Fiji: Stop attempts to silence the political opposition

The police harassment of opposition politicians for their criticism of the land law amendments highlights the restrictive space for civic freedoms in Fiji, said global civil society alliance CIVICUS today. The authorities must halt such actions immediately and respect the right to freedom of expression.

According to reports, nine prominent opposition politicians were arrested and questioned in Fiji for voicing concerns about a contentious land bill. Six members of parliament and three other high-profile politicians were taken into custody by the criminal investigations department on 25 and 26 July in relation to comments they had made regarding proposed amendments to a land bill. They were subsequently released.

The nine are Viliame Gavoka, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Liberal party (Sodelpa) party; the opposition whip Lynda Tabuya; the MPs Adi Litia Qionibaravi and Ro Filipe Tuisawau; Biman Prasad, the leader of the National Federation party; the NFP president, Pio Tikoduadua; the former prime ministers Sitiveni Rabuka and Mahendra Chaudhry; and the Unity Fiji leader, Savenaca Narube.

“This intimidation of opposition lawmakers and politicians just for their criticism of the land bill amendments must end. It is a blatant attack on their rights to peaceful expression and association. Everyone, including the political opposition, have a legitimate right to take part in public affairs and should not be silenced just because the authorities don’t like it,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS’s Asia Pacific researcher.

We are also concerned about reports that a volunteer for National Federation Party was arrested on 28 July after a raid on his home, linked to his opposition to the law, and detained at Totogo Police Station. He must be released immediately.

Civic space in Fiji is currently rated as ‘Obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. The harassment of the pollical opposition takes place in the context of restrictions on freedom of expression and other human rights violations in Fiji. Sedition provisions in the Crimes Act and the Public Order (Amendment) Act have been used to target journalists, activists and government critics. Further, the right to peaceful assembly has been arbitrarily restricted with the use of the Public Order (Amendment) Act 2014.

Background

There has been widespread protest from politicians, public figures and many in the community over the government’s intention to amend the iTaukei Land Trust Act. At the moment, any individual leasing land or wishing to make changes to a lease must do so through the iTaukei Land Trust Board, which was established to protect indigenous landowners’ rights – but the amendment reduces the Board’s powers to regulate those changes.

The NGO Coalition on Human Rights (NGOCHR) has demanded greater consultation and collaboration with all relevant stakeholders regarding any proposed changes to the law.

 

Tunisia: Exercise restraint and respect human rights as political tensions intensify

French | Arabic

Tunisian authorities must refrain from the use of excessive force amid political tensions. 
 
On 25 July people took to the streets in several cities in Tunisia expressing concerns over the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the roll out of vaccinations and the dire economic situation that Tunisians are facing.

CIVICUS, a global alliance for civil society, is concerned about the violent attacks against protesters in Tunisia and calls on Tunisian authorities to exercise restraint amidst political tensions and to respect human rights.  

Following a day of anti-government protests, President Kais Saied proceeded to invoke emergency powers, most of which are against Tunisia’s constitution suspending Parliament for 30 days and dismissing Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi. The ministers of Justice and Defence were also dismissed. A month-long curfew was imposed together with additional restrictions which prevent people from moving between cities outside of the curfew except for urgent health reasons. The authorities have also imposed restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly prohibiting gatherings of more than three people in public places.

On 26 July, 20 heavily armed police officers  raided the offices of international media outlet, Al-Jazeera, confiscated equipment and expelled staff from its premises. This raises serious concerns for press freedoms in the country.

“President Saied should not use the current crisis and emergency powers to stifle democracy including, freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly in Tunisia. The consistent use of violence against peaceful protesters is  a worrying trend and the use of emergency measures to limit fundamental rights, under the guise of the COVID19 pandemic are an affront to democracy and a serious threat to gains made during pro-democracy protests ten years ago,” said Aarti Narsee, civic space researcher. 

The imposition of current emergency measures in response to anti-government protests is reminiscent of an ongoing trend where demonstrations highlighting concerns on social and economic issues affecting Tunisians are violently repressed by the authorities. In January 2021,  security forces used excessive force, which included tear gas, water cannon and physical violence, against protesters, with one protester being killed as a result and thousands were arrested, including minors. Authorities also targeted human rights defenders and those who spoke out about the dire economic situation in Tunisia.

Background:
Civic space restrictions continue in Tunisia ten years after protests forced a political transition and human rights defenders, journalists and activists who raise concerns over human rights violations are targeted by the authorities. Freedom of assembly has been significantly curtailed under Covid-19-related emergency measures which have banned gatherings at different times.  In October 2020 security forces violently repressed peaceful protesters who demonstrated against legislation that would grant immunity to security personnel in front of Parliament in Tunis. Most of the protests are driven by the impact of a deteriorating economy, increases in the prices of basic communities and high levels of impunity enjoyed by security forces. After Sunday’s protests the President has assumed executive authority with the help of a new Prime Minister which he is going to select. In principle, the Prime Minister should be elected by Parliament, which is controlled by the Ennahda party, with which the President has a long standing feud.


Civic space in Tunisia is rated as Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

 

Tajikistan: release human rights lawyer ahead of 50th birthday behind bars

Russian

On 9 July 2021, Buzurgmehr Yorov, a Tajikistani human rights lawyer and outspoken critic of the government, will mark his 50th birthday behind bars.  Yorov was wrongfully imprisoned in September 2015 and sentenced to 22 years on trumped-up charges. Ahead of this milestone birthday,  human rights organisations CIVICUS and the International Partnership of Human Rights (IPHR) call for his immediate and unconditional release.

In 2015, Buzurgmehr was arrested after representing members and leaders of the banned opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRTP). Following his arrest, he was interrogated for ten hours and allegedly beaten. He was then detained for eight months before his trial began - during this time he was physically abused and held in solitary confinement on many occasions.  

In a series of closed and unfair trials held between October 2016 and August 2017, the human rights lawyer was convicted on various charges, including overthrowing the government, inciting unrest, and insulting the President and government officials. Although his sentence was reduced by six years in November 2019 to mark the 25th anniversary of Tajikistan’s constitution, he is currently being held in the Strict Regime Prison Colony No.1 in Dushanbe.

In May 2019, the UN Human Rights Council concluded that Buzurgmehr’s arbitrary detention is against international law, and it called on the Tajikistan authorities to release him immediately. 

“The Tajikistani authorities use intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest, threats and criminal prosecution to pressure independent lawyers to drop or refrain from taking up cases and issues considered to be politically sensitive. Burzurgmehr Yorov was brave enough to try to do his job despite this pressure. The international community should urge the Tajikistani authorities to implement UN recommendations and release him immediately,” said Brigitte Dufour, Director of IPHR. 

Buzurgmehr has repeatedly been subjected to torture and ill-treatment in detention, including severe beatings and periods in solitary confinement. His family are particularly concerned about his health during the COVID-19 pandemic, as several fellow prisoners have contracted the virus and died.  

Buzurgmehr Yorov has been a vocal critic of government abuse and has been awarded numerous international prizes in recognition of his contribution to democratic and civil rights in Tajikistan. After founding Sipar law firm in 2007, he frequently represented government critics and provided legal assistance to victims of human rights violations. 

Buzurgmehr’s family recalls one occasion before his detention - when the police demanded he accompanies them to the station, Buzurgmehr replied, "Here, in the office of the bar, there are people who came from afar, from different parts of the country to see me. I will never make them wait just because I am urgently called to talk to the head of the Interior Ministry’s Department for Combating Organized Crime. Even if President Emomali Rahmon invites me to talk - until I fulfill my duties to clients, I'm not going anywhere."

Buzurgmehr Yorov SAMW

Buzurgmehr’s detention marks a concerning trend in Tajikistan, where independent lawyers are increasingly facing intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest, threats, and criminal prosecution, in an attempt to stop them from taking on politically sensitive cases.  

“It is outrageous that Buzurgmehr Yorov and other lawyers in Tajikistan are being unfairly targeted and intimidated simply for doing their job - they play a vital role in protecting the fundamental freedoms of Tajik people. The authorities in Tajikistan must release him immediately and ensure that all lawyers are able to perform their professional duties without fear of reprisal,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.  

Buzurgmehr Yorov is one of the faces of CIVICUS’s international #StandAsMyWitness campaign, calling for the release of imprisoned human rights defenders across the world. Ahead of Buzurgmehr Yorov’s 50th birthday, CIVICUS and IPHR join calls for his immediate and unconditional release. The international community must continue to put pressure on the Tajikistani authorities to improve the situation of lawyers in the country and to respect fundamental rights.

Tajikistan is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, CIVICUS’s online platform that measures civic freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, in every country across the world.


INTERVIEWS

For more information or to arrange an interview with Buzurgmehr Yorov’s brother, or CIVICUS and IPHR, please contact:

and Mobile/Whatsapp: +27 (0)78 501 3500

+ 33 7 50803812  and/or  +33698744161

ABOUT CIVICUS

CIVICUS is a global alliance of over 10,000 civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world.

ABOUT IPHR

International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) is an independent, non-governmental organization founded in 2008 and based in Brussels, which works in partnership with civil society organizations in the former Soviet Union to raise human rights concerns at the international level and promote respect for the rights of vulnerable communities. 

 

Hong Kong: A year on, the National Security Law has crushed civic freedoms

New research on the state of civic freedoms in Hong Kong - a look at restrictions over the past year

CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, is extremely concerned about the alarming regression of civic freedoms in Hong Kong. One year one from the passage of the draconian National Security Law, our research shows it has been weaponised to target dozens of pro-democracy activists and has created a chilling effect within civil society.

The National Security Law (NSL) punishes four types of activities: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with “foreign forces”, all carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison. These offences are vaguely defined and can easily become catch-all offences to prosecute activists and critics with potentially heavy penalties.

The NSL establishes new national security bodies which are partially or fully controlled by People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials, in violation of the Basic Law. It gives Hong Kong police sweeping new powers including to conduct warrantless searches and covert surveillance, and to seize travel documents of those suspected of violating the security law. The law also contravenes the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary and undermines the right to a fair trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal, guaranteed under Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

"The national security law has become the most dangerous threat to civic freedoms in Hong Kong and has allowed for any form of dissent to be criminalised. The law has increased the climate of fear in Hong Kong and has been weaponised to target government critics, including people who are merely expressing their views or protesting peacefully”, said David Kode, Head of Advocacy at CIVICUS

More than a hundred people have been arrested under the National Security Law including pro-democracy activists, former lawmakers, lawyers, journalists and students. Activists have been accused of inciting or abetting secession or subversion just for showing leaflets and banners with reference to Hong Kong Independence or for their social media posts. 

In January 2021, 55 people, including pro-democracy activists, opposition candidates, former lawmakers and lawyers, were arrested and detained under law for ‘subversion’ for holding and participating in primary elections held by Hong Kong’s pro-democratic party in July 2020. 47 of the activists have been charged.

The NSL has also dramatically changed the environment for civil society in Hong Kong, greatly impeding the ability of civil society to carry out their work. Some have quit on the eve of the law’s introduction while others have exercised greater caution in their activities. The chilling effect of the crackdown on the entire sector cannot be overstated.

The law has also been deployed against the media. Media owner Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, a major pro-democracy newspaper, has been detained since December 2020. He is facing multiple charges, including ‘colluding with foreign forces’. In May 2021, authorities announced they had frozen assets belonging to Lai under the national security law marking the first time a company has been targeted by the controversial legislation.  On 17 June, six of the newspaper’s staff and executives were arrested for their role in the publication of more than 30 articles that called on foreign countries to impose sanctions. All were charged under the NSL. Apple Daily ceased operations on 26 June.

The use of the national security law to silence activism is a violation of international law. The repression against pro-democracy activists and other critics has led to the dismantling of civil society in Hong Kong, forcing many to flee the territory. The international community must not remain silent in the face of such abuses but must stand up and stand in solidarity with those defending human rights” said David Kode.

Since 2019, the Hong Kong authorities have also deployed other laws to criminalise peaceful protests in particular the Public Order Ordinance which has been used to charge activists holding and participating in an ‘unauthorised assembly’, It carries a maximum five-year sentence.  The UN Human Rights Committee has criticised the law, saying that “it may facilitate excessive restriction” to basic rights. 

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong was sentenced to 13 and a half months in December 2020 for a mass protest outside a police station in June 2019. Wong’s long-time fellow activists Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were also sentenced to 10 and seven months in prison for ‘incitement,’ referring to their use of a megaphone to shout slogans during the protest. 

In April 2021, the courts sentenced ten pro-democracy activists to between eight and 18 months in prison for gatherings that were part of a series of mass protests triggered by the proposed Extradition Bill. In May 2021, eight activists were sentenced for organising a protest in October 2019. More recently, On 4 June 2021, the authorities banned the annual Tiananmen massacre vigil for a second straight year and arrested barrister and activist Chow Hang Tung for breaching section 17A(1D) of the Public Order Ordinance by ‘promoting an unauthorised assembly’. 


More information

Download the Hong Kong research brief here.


Interviews

To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher  and 

 

 

Protests prove the power of collective action as states fail pandemic test, says new report

As COVID-19 swept the globe, deepening existing fault-lines in societies and generating fear and uncertainty, many governments used the pandemic as a pretext to clamp down on civic freedoms, sparking protests in many countries. The annual State of Civil Society Report 2021, by global civil society alliance CIVICUS, shows that despite the odds, millions of people around the world mobilised to demand more just, equal and sustainable societies during the pandemic.

 

Benin downgraded as civic freedoms deteriorate

  • Judicial persecution of journalists and activists
  • Recent legislative and presidential elections marred by protests, violence and human rights violations.
  • A number of opposition members either arrested or in exile
  • 5th country in West Africa to be downgraded over the past 6 months

Benin has been downgraded from Obstructed to Repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks violations to civic freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, association and assembly, in every country across the world.  A ‘Repressed’ rating means that in Benin there are serious restrictions to fundamental freedoms.

“Activists, journalists and members of the opposition have been threatened and persecuted,” said human rights activist John Gbenagnon. “Harassment through arbitrary arrest, detention, targeted use of legal and regulatory measures and restrictions on finances has become a common experience for many human rights activists and opposition members in Benin.”

Democratic  freedoms  in Benin have deteriorated under President Patrice Talon’s administration, who was recently re-elected in April 2021 after a controversial election characterised by the absence of main opposition candidates.

Many opposition candidates were excluded from the presidential ballot after a new electoral law, adopted in the absence of opposition parties in the National Assembly, required presidential candidates to be ‘sponsored’ by at least 10 percent of parliament members and/ or mayors. Several opposition members have been arrested in the past few months, while others remain in exile or were disqualified from participating. The exclusion of opposition parties from elections sparked protests and violence a few days before the vote, killing at least two people in Savè.

The CIVICUS Monitor is concerned that the deterioration of rights around elections has become a common theme in Benin. Previous legislative elections, in April 2019, were marred by civic space violations, including an internet shutdown and the use of excessive and lethal force  against protesters; protests were banned in many localities and demonstrators were arbitrarily arrested and detained. Among those arrested and prosecuted was trade unionist Joseph Aïmasse, from Confédération Syndicale des Travailleurs du Bénin, who was sentenced on 1 April 2019 to two months in prison and a 360 USD fine for having called for an ‘unauthorised protest’.

Arrests and targeting of those with views contrary to the state have become more common in Benin. The vaguely-worded 2018 Digital Code, recently criticised by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, is being used as a tool to arrest and prosecute bloggers, journalists and opposition members. Under this law, prominent investigative journalist Ignace Sossou was arrested and sentenced in December 2019  to an initial prison sentence of 18 months and a fine; Sossou was charged with ‘harassment via electronic means‘ after quoting the public prosecutor on Twitter during a media workshop.

Media freedoms are increasingly under threat in Benin. The country’s national media regulator, Haute Autorité de l’Audovisuel et de la Communication (HAAC), has arbitrarily sanctioned media outlets and journalists. For example, in December 2019 Radio Soleil, owned by an opposition leader, was ordered to ‘suspend broadcasts’ until further notice after the HAAC rejected the station’s application to renew its license.

In a particularly regressive step for justice, in April 2020 Benin withdrew from a specific article of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Protocol, that prevents individuals and CSOs from submitting complaints directly to the Court.

Benin’s civic space downgrade  mirrors a decline in democratic freedoms across West Africa:  Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Niger and Togo were downgraded from Obstructed to Repressed in December 2020, indicating a worrying trend in the region. 

All five countries had presidential elections in 2020 and 2021, mostly fraught by controversy, civic space violations and increased political tension. In 2019, Nigeria had its rating changed to Repressed, a year after Senegal also saw its rating deteriorate from ‘Narrowed’ to Obstructed.


CIVICUS MONITOR CIVIC SPACE RATINGS:

 OPEN NARROWED OBSTRUCTED  REPRESSED CLOSED

 

 

 

Malaysia: Muhyiddin government escalating efforts to silence dissent

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Freedom Day: more needs to be done to stop killings of LGBTQI+ people in South Africa

SouthAfrica LGBTQI FreedomDay 2021

Photo by Brenton Geach/Gallo Images via Getty Images

It has been almost thirty years since Freedom Day was first introduced in South Africa but still the fundamental freedoms of many people are being curtailed - particularly the rights and freedoms of people within the LGBTQI+ community. On Freedom Day, global civil society alliance CIVICUS would like to draw attention to these brutal murders by calling on the South African government to guarantee the safety and protection of all LGBTQI+ members in the country, as enshrined in the constitution.

There has been a recent spate of violent attacks against LGBTQI+ people and at least 6 known murders in the last few months. Gay man Lonwabo Jack was sexually assaulted and stabbed on his 22nd birthday in mid-April. A few weeks before this attack, 34-year old Sphamandla Khoza was brutally stabbed to death in his hometown of Ntuzuma, KwaZulu-Natal, while 40-year-old Andile “Lulu” Ntuthela was butchered and dumped in a shallow grave in Uitenhage, the Eastern Cape.

South Africa has been lauded as a champion for LGBTQI+ rights in the continent because of its progressive legal framework that recognises same sex marriage and full equality for everybody. However, in reality the situation of LGBTQI+ rights has been deteriorating, with LGBTQI+ rights campaigners and individuals living and operating in a hostile environment characterised by hate speech, death threats and killings. 

On Freedom Day, to make freedom and equality a reality for the LGBTQI+ community across the country, CIVICUS is calling on the South African government to:

  • Guarantee the safety and protection of all LGBTQI+ members in the country as enshrined in the constitution;
  • Conduct independent investigations into all cases of those killed and bring the perpetrators to justice;
  • Fast track the implementation of the Hate Speech and Hate Crimes Bill;
  • Invest in gender sensitisation workshops for rural communities to foster harmony and understanding of the LGBTQI+ community;
  • Appoint an LGBTQI+ rights expert to monitor the situation of LGBTQI+ rights defenders in South Africa, and ensure an enabling environment for LGBTQI+ rights organisations and human rights defenders to operate.

South Africa is rated as 'narrowed' on the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic freedoms, including the freedoms of speech, association and assembly, in countries across the world.

INTERVIEWS

To arrange an interview with Mawethu Nkosana, CIVICUS LGBTQI+ Lead, please contact:
  Mobile/Whatsapp: +27(0)78 501 3500

ABOUT CIVICUS

CIVICUS is a global civil alliance of over 10,000 civil society organisations and activists, dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society across the world. CIVICUS Headquarters is in Johannesburg.

 

Bahraini human rights defender Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja turns 60 on his 10th anniversary in prison

Arabic

  • On April 5 Bahraini human rights defender Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja turns 60
  • 2021 marks 10 years since Bahraini pro-democracy protests
  • Abdul-Hadi’s family concerned about his fragile health in prison during pandemic

On 5 April 2021 prominent Bahraini human rights defender Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja turns 60. A few days after his birthday, 9 April, marks ten years since he was first arrested for organising protests calling for political reforms in 2011. On his birthday, 10 human rights organisations from across the globe call for the unconditional and immediate release of Abdul- Hadi.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of pro-democracy protests which began in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, in February 2011. The demonstrations were brutally suppressed by the authorities resulting in the deaths of nearly 100 people and the arrest of thousands. Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja was part of the “Bahrain 13”, a group of well-known opposition leaders arrested in March and April 2011 after calling for civil and political rights during the February uprising. A Bahraini military court sentenced them to life imprisonment in what is widely regarded as a series of unfair trials. 

"In Bahrain, Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja is turning 60. After 10 years of unjustified incarceration, mistreatment, and abuse, it will hardly be a happy occasion. But it is a moment to raise our voices, yet again, to call for an end to this inhumanity, to this injustice, and to demand his immediate release.” Annie Game, Executive Director, IFEX.

While in prison, Abdul-Hadi has been systematically tortured, physically and sexually abused and subjected to lengthy solitary confinement. Security personnel have also made sexual threats against his wife and daughter. A recent report by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) shows those responsible for torturing and injuring the Bahraini human rights defender and other activists have never been held to account. 

Abdul Hadi al Khawaja Bahrain

“Bahrain continues to act in complete impunity, holding Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja in detention for his peaceful work. While authorities continue to paint themselves as progressive through sports-washing and standing for council at the UNHRC, the true marker of their commitment to human rights is the immediate and unconditional release of all detained defenders, including al-Khawaja.” David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead, CIVICUS.

Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja has repeatedly gone on hunger strikes to protest his detention and his health has significantly deteriorated during the last ten years. Abdul- Hadi’s family are increasingly concerned about his well-being while in prison, where the cramped and unsanitary conditions put him at risk of contracting COVID-19:

“My colleague Abdul-Hadi is one of the few MENA defenders who sacrificed everything they possessed for their peaceful and legitimate human rights work. His achievements must be celebrated. Prison is not the place for him - he needs a free space in which he will be able to offer his rich experience in building our societies on the basis of social justice and respect for the civil and human rights of citizens.” Khalid Ibrahim, Executive Director, GCHR.

"Throughout the past decade we have missed him greatly, and have feared for his life. But today it has become worse, we have not seen him for more than a year as all visits have been cancelled, and fear his imprisonment could be a death sentence at a time when the pandemic is spreading inside Jau prison. Is a brutal arrest, severe torture and a 10 years imprisonment not enough punishment for a person whose only crime is peacefully calling for democracy and human rights? Is it not time for him to come home?" al-Khawaja family.

Abdul-Hadi is former President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Co-Founder of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights and in 2005 was named activist of the year by the Arab Program for Human Rights Activists. He should never have been arrested for organising peaceful protests and for campaigning for freedom and democracy. 

To mark the 60th birthday of Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja, CIVICUS and other human rights organisations calls on the Bahraini authorities to drop Abdul- Hadi Al-Khawaja’s life sentence and to unconditionally release him and other human right defenders. Reflecting on the need for urgent intervention, Nedal Al-Salman from the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights said, “now is the time to join forces and work in collective action. We cannot afford to fail in our calls to have al-Khawaja released, especially as 10 years have passed.”

Abdul-Hadi will also be added as one of the ‘faces’ of CIVICUS’s #StandAsMyWitness campaign, which calls for the release of imprisoned human rights defenders across the globe.

INTERVIEWS

Interviews available:

  • Maryam al-Khawaja, daughter of Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja
  • Brian Dooley, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders
  • Bahrain Center for Human Rights; Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain
  • Lars Aslan Rasmussen, Human Rights Activist & Member of The Social Democratic Party

To arrange an interview or for more information please contact:  

ABOUT CIVICUS

CIVICUS is a global alliance of more than 10,000 civil society organisations dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society across the world.

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Rights organisations call for release of activist Teresita Naul on her first anniversary in detention

  • 15 March marks one year in detention for rights activist Teresita Naul
  • Philippines Human Rights Commission says Teresita was wrongfully ‘red-tagged’
  • Teresita’s daughter fears for her mother’s life in prison

 

Tunisia: release LGBTQI+ activist Rania Amdouni and stop violence against peaceful protesters

Arabic

The sentencing of human rights defender and LGBTQI+ activist Rania Amdouni to six months in prison by a court in Tunis on 4 March 2021 for participating in peaceful protests calling for social and economic justice is an attack on the rights to freedom of expression and assembly in Tunisia. Rania is a member of Damj,

the Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality, and was sentenced on charges of “insulting police and abuse of morals,” after participating in ongoing protests. 

A decade after the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East, Tunisia is still suppressing fundamental democratic freedoms.  Ongoing protests that have swept Tunisia since 15 January 2021, calling for an end to corruption and policy brutality, and urging the government to implement social and economic reforms. More than 1600 protesters have been arrested so far with major concerns that security forces are specifically targeting members of the LGBTQI+ community.  

Rania had been monitored and targeted by security forces after she became a visible part of the protests, before finally being arrested on 27 February 2021.

“Ten years after the Arab Spring that led to major changes in the political dynamics in Tunisia, the Tunisian authorities are still trampling on the same rights protesters demonstrated.  The arrests of protesters and unlawful sentencing of activists like Rania Amdouni is an indication that not much has changed in terms of human rights over the last ten years,” said Masana Ndinga-Kanga, CIVICUS Advocacy Lead for the Middle East and North Africa, “Rania Amdouni and all those arrested in relation to the protests should be released immediately.”

Many of those arrested for their role in the protests have been subjected to physical abuse, threats and intimidation during the protests or in detention centers.  Those in detention centers are kept in crowded and unsanitary conditions, exposing them to COVID-19. Many others have fled the country or have been forced to self-censor to avoid violent repercussions.

Global civil society alliance CIVICUS calls on the Tunisian authorities to release Rania Amdouni and other activists immediately, and to stop violently suppressing protests.

Background

Demonstrations in Tunisia started on 15 January 2021 as protesters raised concerns over increasing levels of corruption and inequality and called for social and economic reforms.  The protests spread in response to the violent attacks against demonstrators by security forces.  Some activists have resorted to self-censorship due to an increase in online harassment and civil society groups are calling on the Tunisian authorities to investigate all allegations of violence against protesters.

For more information on civic space violations, visit the Tunisian country page on the CIVICUS Monitor

Photo: Flickr/Amine GHRABI

 

Bangladesh: International community must respond to crackdown on freedom of expression

The Bangladeshi authorities must end their escalating crackdown on human rights, and respect and protect people’s rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Bangladesh to curb protesters demanding justice for writer Mushtaq Ahmed’s death in prison on 25 February, the nine undersigned human rights organizations said in a joint statement today.

Ahmed, 53, was a Bangladeshi writer held in pre-trial arbitrary detention for nine months under the draconian Digital Security Act of 2018 (“DSA”), following his arrest in May 2020 for Facebook posts and social media communications that were deemed critical of the government. The death in prison of Mushtaq Ahmed raises serious concerns about the protection of fundamental freedoms, including the rights to life, privacy, and the right to liberty.

Ahmed Kabir Kishore, 45, a prominent Bangladeshi cartoonist was also arrested in the same case as Mushtaq. After ten months in prison, on March 3 he was granted bail and was released on March 4 but the charges against him have not been dropped. Further, there are strong reasons to believe that Ahmed Kabir Kishore has been tortured while in custody of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a Bangladesh paramilitary force, which has been accused of serious human rights violations in the past. In addition to no longer being able to hear on his right ear, he also has difficulty walking due to pain in his left knee and ankle. Furthermore, Ahmed Kabir Kishore is diabetic and has been suffering from severely high levels of blood sugar during his detention. Without urgent and proper medical attention, he is at risk of visual impairment due to his deteriorating health.

In light of these developments, the organizations call on Bangladeshi authorities to conduct prompt, thorough, impartial, and transparent investigations into the death in prison of writer Mushtaq Ahmed and the allegations of torture against cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore. Perpetrators must be identified and brought to justice.

Authorities must also unconditionally and permanently release Ahmed Kabir Kishore, end the practice of arbitrary, pre-trial detention of people solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression. 

Mushtaq Ahmed and Ahmed Kabir Kishore are among hundreds of victims whom the Bangladeshi authorities have held in detention under the DSA. Nine others have been accused in the same case for publishing “false information” and “propaganda against the liberation war, the spirit of liberation war, father of the nation”, which could “deteriorate law and order” by “supporting or organizing crime” under sections 21, 25, 31 and 35 respectively of the DSA. If convicted, they could face up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to 10 million Bangladeshi takas (equivalent to USD 115,891). These vaguely defined provisions of the law are incompatible with international human rights law and are being used to criminalize freedom of expression. The organization urge the Bangladeshi government to repeal the DSA - under which both Ahmed and Kishore were charged. All digital and cybersecurity laws must conform to international human rights law including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The undersigned organizations also expressed concern over reports of police violence on peaceful protestors, including activists of opposition political parties, who took to the streets to demand justice for Mushtaq Ahmed’s death in prison. The violent crackdown by police has left hundreds of protesters injured, dozens detained, and several others accused of charges, including attempted murder. Bangladeshi authorities must respect and protect the people’s rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and liberty. Authorities must drop all charges against the peaceful protesters, and immediately and unconditionally release those detained.

To protect and respect the human rights, individual states should urge the Bangladeshi authorities to address the allegations of grave human rights violations being committed in Bangladesh. The international community should impose targeted sanctions on those responsible for grave human rights violations in Bangladesh. Given the concerning record of human rights abuses committed by Bangladesh’s security forces and law-enforcement agencies, the UN should review their participation in UN Peacekeeping Operations.

This statement is endorsed by the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Asian Network for Free Election (ANFREL), CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Eleos Justice - Monash University, FIDH: International Federation for Human Rights (within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders), OMCT: World Organisation Against Torture, (within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders), Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.

For more information, please contact:

For the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), Nilda L. Sevilla;  Email:  

For Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), in Bangkok, Melissa Ananthraj, Communication and Media Programme, .

For Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), in Hong Kong, Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman (Bangla & English): +852 6073 2807 (Mobile);

Asian Network for Free Election (ANFREL), Chandanie Watawala, Email:  

For CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific Researcher (English): Email:

For Eleos Justice - Monash University, Mai Sato (English): Email:  
FIDH: International Federation for Human Rights, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

OMCT: World Organisation Against Torture), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders,  Iolanda Jaquemet Email:

For Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, in Washington, DC, Minhee Cho, Media Relations Associate (English):


The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates civic space – the space for civil society – in Bangladesh as Repressed

 

Malaysia: New report on the state of fundamental freedoms under the Perikatan Nasional government

Joint research report on the state of civic freedoms in Malaysia

The Perikatan Nasional government has undermined and obstructed the exercise of fundamental freedoms during its first twelve months in power, said ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS in a new report published today. The government has not only failed to reform or repeal laws that restrict the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association but has initiated baseless criminal proceedings against government critics, human rights defenders, journalists, and individuals expressing critical opinions.

The report, “Rights in Reverse: One year under the Perikatan Nasional government in Malaysia”, highlights the Perikatan Nasional government’s record during its first year in power against its obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. The report highlights the government’s sustained use of repressive laws and provisions to silence dissent amid a global pandemic, when press freedom and civil society is needed more than ever to ensure reliable information and to hold the state accountable.

“The Perikatan Nasional government has been extremely secretive about its legislative agenda but has been crystal clear about its intention to continue using repressive laws to target critics and dissenters,” said Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19’s Malaysia Programme Officer. “A healthy environment for public discourse cannot be achieved until dissenting and unpopular opinions are respected and protected instead of silenced.”

Over the past year, authorities have aggressively applied the Sedition Act 1948 and Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) to investigate, arrest, charge, and convict individuals who have criticized government officials or Malaysian royalty, or who have shared opinions about sensitive issues such as race and religion. Between March 2020 and February 2021, ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS recorded 66 cases involving 77 individuals who have been investigated or charged under the two laws because of their exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Over this period, at least 12 people were convicted under the CMA.

Press freedom has also declined sharply during the Perikatan Nasional government’s first year in power. This trend was highlighted by Malaysiakini’s conviction on contempt of court charges in relation to third-party comments made on its website, the unprecedented witch-hunt against Al Jazeera journalists investigating the treatment of migrants workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the targeting of journalists reporting on the actions and statements of government officials. The harassment and intimidation of journalists further demonstrates the shrinking space for free and independent media in Malaysia.

In addition to journalists, the authorities have harassed, investigated, and arbitrarily detained human rights defenders, peaceful protesters, women’s rights activists, and union leaders in an effort to silence civil society voices.

The legal framework governing the exercise of freedom of assembly and association remains highly restrictive and excessively burdensome.

The Peaceful Assembly Act falls shorts of international law and standards and denies the right to protest to children and non-citizens. It also fails to allow for spontaneous assemblies. The last year saw peaceful protesters being investigated and arrested, including health workers protesting their lack of access to adequate personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Societies Act has continued to stand in the way of enjoyment of the right to freedom of association, which is critical in a democracy. The Registrar of Societies has excessive powers and has erected barriers to registration for new opposition political parties such as Muda and Pejuang and civil society groups while simultaneously fast-tracking the registration of the Perikatan Nasional.

“The Perikatan government has attempted to silence peaceful protesters and impede the formation of political parties to keep itself in power,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Researcher. “Its attempt to join the Human Rights Council cannot be taken seriously unless it takes immediate steps to remove undue restrictions on assembly and association,” Benedict added.

ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS urge the Malaysian government to undertake a comprehensive and inclusive process of legislative and institutional reform in order to promote and protect fundamental rights and freedoms. To this end, authorities must ensure that all processes are fully transparent and facilitate full and effective participation of all concerned stakeholders, including civil society.

Malaysia’s reform process must be informed by relevant international human rights standards. The Perikatan National government should take concrete steps towards the ratification of core human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

For further information:

  • Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19 Malaysia Program Officer,
  • Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Civic Space Researcher,

More information

The space for civil society in Malaysia is rated as ‘Obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic space in every country. An Obstructed rating for civic space means that democratic freedoms – such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association – face a combination of legal and practical constraints in Malaysia.

 

Pakistan: Rights group calls for release of activist Professor Muhammad Ismail ahead of bail hearing

  • Rights groups call for release of Professor Ismail ahead of bail hearing on 5 March
  • March 2 marks one month in detention for human rights defender Professor Ismail
  • Police evidence questioned by Pakistan National Assembly's Human Rights Committee

 

Pakistan: Rights group calls for release of activist Professor Muhammad Ismail following bail rejection

  • Anti-terrorism court refuses bail to Professor Muhammad Ismail despite his fragile post-COVID health 
  • Professor Ismail and family persecuted due to human rights work in Pakistan
  • Ismail added to #StandAsMyWitness campaign calling for release of imprisoned activists 

 

Indian activist Sudha Bharadwaj spends 900 days in detention

  • 13 February 2021 marks Sudha Bharadwaj’s 900th day in pre-trial detention
  • Questions raised about validity of letters used to incriminate Sudha
  • Indian authorities have limited the number of books she can receive

February 13 marks 900 days since Indian activist Sudha Bharadwaj was arrested and imprisoned. On this day, global civil society organisation CIVICUS calls on the Indian government to immediately release Bharadwaj and drop all charges against her. 

Since 2018, Sudha and 15 other activists, writers and lawyers have been arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and accused of having links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). It is alleged that she and the other human rights defenders conspired to incite Dalits at a public meeting which led to violence in Bhima Koregaon village in the Pune district of Maharashtra in January 2018. 

Sudha Bharadwaj was initially placed under house arrest in August 2018 but in October 2018 was moved to Byculla Women’s Prison in Mumbai. There are serious concerns about the validity of evidence against her. This week a U.S. digital forensics firm raised questions about incriminating letters used to implicate Sudha and the other activists. The letters were found on an activist’s laptop which is thought to have been hacked. 

Sudha’s health continues to deteriorate in prison. The 59 year old suffers from diabetes, hypertension and Ischemic heart disease, making her susceptible to COVID-19 in the cramped prison. Despite underlying health issues, Bharadwaj’s pleas for bail have been quashed by the courts as the National Investigation Agency claims her condition is not serious. 

Sudha, a lawyer and rights defender, has also been denied books and newspapers in prison. A special  National Investigation Agency court finally ruled last month that Sudha can receive five books a month from outside prison. However, the judge has ordered the Superintendent of Byculla prison to “carefully examine” the books for “objectionable content” before handing them over.

“The fact that my mother, a lawyer, has been denied access to books and newspapers shows the absolute determination of the Modi government to restrict the liberties of human rights defenders. My mother has been unjustly detained for over two years without trial. We are increasingly worried about her health and demand that she be released immediately to rest at home until her case comes to court,” said Maaysha, Sudha Bharadwaj’s daughter.

Sudha 900 days in detention

The treatment of Sudha highlights the increasingly repressive measures used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to clamp down on dissent and silence human rights defenders.

In January,  the UN Human Rights office expressed serious concern about the detention of human rights defenders including those in the Bhima Koregaon case. It urged the Indian authorities to immediately release the detainees, at the very least on bail before their court hearing. While in October last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, expressed concern over the use of “vaguely defined laws” to silent activists and government critics. 

“The Modi regime is abusing the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and using it to round-up activists and human rights defenders on trumped-up charges and keep them for long periods in detention. Sudha is a lawyer and activist who has spent her life defending Indigenous people in India and protecting workers’ rights. She should never have been arrested but unfortunately her human rights work has put her directly in the firing line of the government,” said Josef Benedict, Asia-Pacific civic space researcher for CIVICUS.

Sudha Bharadwaj is one of a group of leading human rights defenders who feature in CIVICUS’s global campaign #StandAsMyWitness. The campaign urges people to call for an end to the imprisonment and harassment of human rights defenders across the world. People are also encouraged to share the defenders’ individual stories on social media using the hashtag #StandAsMyWitness.

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Saudi rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul spends 1000th day in prison

Loujain1000 days in detention

Today,  as Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul spends her 1000th day in prison, global civil society alliance CIVICUS and the Free Saudi Activists coalition call for her immediate and unconditional release. 

 

Pakistan: Human rights activist Muhammad Ismail detained and ill-treated

CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, is extremely concerned about the detention and ill-treatment of Mohammed Ismail, a human rights defender and CIVICUS partner, and calls for his immediate release. His detention by Pakistan’s anti-terrorism police is a serious escalation of the ongoing judicial harassment and intimidation of Ismail and his family that has persisted since July 2019.

Both Muhammed Ismail and his wife, Uzlifat Ismail, are currently facing baseless charges in relation to terrorism, sedition and criminal conspiracy. On 2 February 2021, human rights defender Muhammad Ismail was arrested at the Anti-Terrorism Court-III in Peshawar, following the cancellation of his interim pre-arrest bail in a case lodged by the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD). He was held briefly incommunicado and is now is in the custody of the Counter Terrorism Department Police Station in Peshawar

Two days after his arrest, he was taken, bound in chains to his family home in Marghuz village, Swabi District by the Counter-Terrorism police who searched his family home, confiscating mobile phones. According to credible sources the police brought with them documents that were planted during the raid. The police also raided the homes of Muhammed Ismail’s relatives.

CIVICUS believe all cases brought against him are in retaliation against his criticism of human rights violations in the country and for the human rights work of his daughter, Gulalai Ismail, and connected with the state harassment against her. She has faced persecution from authorities for her peaceful advocacy for the rights of women and girls, and her efforts to end human rights violations against the ethnic Pashtun people in Pakistan. She was forced to flee the country due to concerns for her safety.

“This is another example of state machinery being used in Pakistan to intimidate and silence human rights defenders like Muhammed Ismail and Gulalai Ismail, including by allegedly fabricating evidence to support baseless accusations. The Pakistan authorities must immediately release Muhammad Ismail from detention and drop all charges against him and his wife,” said David Kode, head of advocacy and campaigns at CIVICUS.

Mohammed Ismail is a prominent member of Pakistani civil society and the focal person for the Pakistan NGO Forum (PNF), an umbrella body composed of five networks of civil society organizations (CSOs) in Pakistan. He is a long-standing member of the Affinity Group of National Associations (AGNA), a network of national associations and regional platforms from around the world.

Prior to his detention, Mohammed Ismail and his family had faced systematic harassment and intimidation from the security forces.  In October 2019, Muhammed Ismail was forcibly abducted from outside the Peshawar High Court by unidentified men, and later found in the custody of Federal Investigation Agency’s Cyber Crimes Unit.  He was granted conditional bail after spending a month in detention. Muhammad Ismail and his wife have been placed on the Exit Control List, barring them from leaving the country.

During the pandemic, Muhammed Ismail, 66, has been forced to attend numerous court hearings, many of which has been routinely postponed on the day. During the course of this, Muhammed Ismail contracted COVID-19. It may be the case that numerous court hearings in relation to these charges exposed him to the virus and his detention could put him again at risk.

“The authorities have been using the judicial system to harass Muhammad Ismail since 2019. Given the pandemic, his age and poor health, we are particularly concerned that his detention could prove fatal” said David Kode.

CIVICUS has documented systematic harassment and threats against human rights defenders and political activists, many who have been charged for exercising their freedom of expression. Journalists have also been targeted and media coverage critical of the state have been suppressed. 

These violations are inconsistent with Pakistan’s international obligations, including those under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which it ratified in 2008. These include obligations to respect and protect civil society’s fundamental rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. These fundamental freedoms are also guaranteed in Pakistan’s Constitution. 


The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates civic space – the space for civil society – in Pakistan as Repressed

 

11 countries downgraded in new global report on civic freedoms

  • A growing number of people are living in ‘closed’, ‘repressed’ and ‘obstructed’ countries
  • Downgraded countries include the USA, Philippines, Guinea, Slovenia, and Iraq
  • Top violations include: detention of protesters, censorship and attacks on journalists
  • Freedoms of speech, association and peaceful assembly  deteriorated during COVID-19 

The fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression continue to deteriorate across the world, according to a new report released today by the CIVICUS Monitor, a research collaboration that tracks fundamental freedoms in 196 countries. The new report, People Power Under Attack 2020, shows the number of people living in countries with significant civic space restrictions continues to increase year on year. 

87 per cent of the world's population now live in countries rated as ‘closed’, ‘repressed’ or ‘obstructed' - an increase of over 4% from last year. Over a quarter of people live in countries with the worst rating, closed, where state and non-state actors are routinely allowed to imprison, injure, and kill people for attempting to exercise their fundamental freedoms. China, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and 20 other countries fall under this category. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dire impact on civic freedoms globally. In times of crisis, space for open and constructive dialogue between governments and civil society, as well as access to prompt and reliable information, are fundamental. However, our research shows that governments have taken a different path and are using the pandemic as an opportunity to introduce or implement additional restrictions on civic freedoms. 

Our data shows that the detention of protesters and the excessive use of force against them are the most common tactics being used by governing authorities to restrict the right to peaceful assembly. Although this was a common violation last year, authorities have been using the pandemic as an excuse to further restrict this right. Censorship, attacks on journalists, and the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders were also common tactics documented during the year. 

“The use of detention as the main tactic to restrict protests only shows the hypocrisy of governments using COVID-19 as a pretence to crack down on protests - the virus is more likely to spread in confined spaces like prisons,” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, Civic Space Research Lead at CIVICUS. “Our research reflects a deepening civic space crisis across the globe and highlights how governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to further curtail rights, including by passing legislation to criminalise speech.” 

This year, eleven countries have been downgraded and only two improved their rating.  The CIVICUS Monitor is particularly concerned about civic space restrictions in the Americas, where four countries dropped a rating: Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, and the USA. Also alarming is the deterioration of civic space in West Africa, with four countries – Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Niger and Togo – moving from obstructed to repressed

There is growing concern about the decline of democratic and civic rights in Europe, with Slovenia also being downgraded. The decline in civic space conditions in Asia remains a cause of concern with the Philippines moving down from obstructed to repressed. MENA, the region with the most countries in the closed category, adds one more to the list, with Iraq moving from repressed to closed

With limited but welcome improvements, DRC and Sudan improved their ratings, both moving from closed to repressed

“In most regions this year the story around civic freedoms looks bleak. At a time when civic rights are needed more than ever to hold governments accountable, the space for this is further being restricted. It is crucial that progressive governments work closely with human rights defenders and civil society moving forward to halt this downward spiral and push back against the authoritarian forces at work,” said Belalba Barreto 

Undeterred by restrictions, human rights defenders and civil society continue to operate, adapt and resist. Massive protests were often the key factor that led to positive changes. In Chile, mass protests forced the government to hold a referendum to change the constitution. In the USA, some states pledged to dismantle or undertake structural reform of their police forces following Black Lives Matter protests. While in  Malawi, months of protests led to a historic rerun of the presidential elections and a transition of power.  

Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor to provide an evidence base for action to improve civic space on all continents. The Monitor has posted more than 500 civic space updates over the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2020. Civic space in 196 countries is categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology which combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.


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16 Days of Activism - Women in Solidarity during COVID-19

16 Days of Activism, running annually from 25 November to 10 December, comes at the end of a year that saw a global pandemic affect families, economies, and every aspect of society worldwide. All around the globe, women stepped up when governments and businesses failed to act. After a tough year, this 16 Days global civil society alliance CIVICUS is celebrating the inspiring stories of women: activists involved in protest, women human rights defenders behind bars, and women’s organisations across the globe working to mitigate rising levels of gender based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Polish authorities must stop persecuting and intimidating protesters

Read the statement in Polish

  • Civil society organisations express serious concerns over civic space restrictions in Poland
  • Detention and intimidation of protesters by authorities a huge concern
  • Protests sparked by decision to impose a near-total ban on abortion

 

States must partner with civil society as second wave of COVID-19 hits countries

 

Arabic | Portuguese

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, civil society organisations responded nimbly and effectively, providing frontline help and defending the rights of people across the world. A report released today by global civil society alliance CIVICUS, ‘Solidarity in the Time of COVID-19’, highlights the irreplaceable role of activists, NGOs and grassroots organisations during the pandemic and calls on states to work with civil society to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and create a better post-pandemic world. 

 

Polish government must stop violent crackdowns on protesters

 

Przeczytaj oświadczenie w języku polskim

Polish law enforcement and military, deployed today across the country, must refrain from using excessive force against protesters who have taken to the streets to express their discontent with the Polish government under the ruling PiS (Law and Justice) party.  

 

Burundi: four journalists still in jail one year after they were arrested

  • Burundian authorities should release four journalists and drop charges against them
  • Journalists added to #StandAsMyWitness campaign calling for release of all human rights defenders
  • Media freedoms and civic rights declining in Burundi

 

Tanzania: Systematic restrictions on fundamental freedoms in the run-up to national elections

READ IN SWAHILI (KISWAHILI)

Civil society letter endorsed by over 65 organisations to President of Tanzania ahead of 28 October National Elections 


To: President John Magufuli

Excellency, 

We, the undersigned civil society organizations, are deeply concerned about the continued deterioration of democracy, human rights and rule of law in the United Republic of Tanzania. In the past five years, we have documented the steady decline of the country into a  state of repression, evidenced by the increased harassment, intimidation, prosecution, and persecution of political activists, human rights defenders (HRDs), journalists and media houses; the enactment of restrictive laws; and disregard for rule of law, constitutionalism, as well as regional and international human rights standards. We are deeply concerned that the situation has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic and as the country heads for general elections on 28 October 2020.[1]

Tanzania as a party to several regional and international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, has a legal obligation to respect and protect fundamental rights, particularly the right to - freedom of expression and the media, peacefully assemble, form and join associations, and to participate in public affairs, which are fundamental rights for free and fair elections in a democratic society. As a member of the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Tanzania has committed to uphold and promote democratic principles, popular participation, and good governance.

Leading up to the elections in Tanzania, we have unfortunately documented an unfavourable environment for public participation and free engagement in the political process. The role of the media in providing information and access to varying viewpoints in a true democracy is indispensable. Media houses must be allowed to provide these services without undue restrictions, yet in recent times, several independent media houses have been suspended. These have included the seven-day suspensions of The Citizen newspaper in February 2019,[2] Clouds TV and Clouds FM in August 2020, and the six-month suspension of Kwanza online TV in September 2019[3] and again in July 2020 for 11 months;[4] the online publication ban against Mwananchi news in April 2020;[5] the revocation, effective June 24, 2020, of the license of the Tanzania Daima newspaper;[6] and the fines against online stations, Watetezi TV and Ayo TV in September 2019.[7]We note, with great disappointment, that the government is yet to comply with a ruling by the East African Court of Justice requiring the amendment of the Media Services Act to address the unjustified restrictions on freedom of expression.[8]

We are further concerned about the restrictions on individuals peacefully expressing their opinions, including criticising public officials.[9] The latter are required to tolerate a greater amount of criticism than others - a necessary requirement for transparency and accountability. Tanzania’s criminal justice system has however been misused to target those who criticize the government. Tito Magoti and IT expert Theodory Giyani were arrested in December 2019 and questioned over their social media use and association with certain government critics.[10] The duo were subsequently charged with economic crimes, including “money laundering” which is a non-bailable offence. Despite their case being postponed more than 20 times since December 2019, and no evidence being presented against them, they remain in pre-trial detention.[11] Investigative journalist Erick Kabendera was similarly arrested and charged with “money laundering” where he was held in pre-trial detention for seven months with his case postponed over ten times.[12] Several United Nations (UN) mandate holders have raised concern about the misuse of the country’s anti-money laundering laws that “allow the Government to hold its critics in detention without trial and for an indefinite period.”[13]

Most recently, a prominent human rights lawyer and vocal critic of the government, Fatma Karume was disbarred from practising law in Tanzania following submissions she made in a constitutional case challenging the appointment of the Attorney General.[14] Other lawyers are also facing disciplinary proceedings for publicly raising issues on judicial independence and rule of law.  Opposition leader, Zitto Kabwe was arrested and prosecuted for statements made calling for accountability for extrajudicial killings by State security agents.[15] The above cases are clear evidence of intolerance for alternative views and public debate.

In addition, authorities should ensure respect for the right of individuals to freely form associations and for those associations to participate in public affairs, without unwarranted interference. We note the increasing misuse of laws to restrict and suspend the activities of civil society organisations.[16] On August 12, Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) was notified that its bank accounts had been frozen pending police investigations. THRDC’s coordinator was then summoned by the police to explain an alleged failure to submit to the State Treasury its contractual agreements with donors.[17]  Prior to this, in June 2020, the authorities disrupted the activities of THRDC for allegedly contravening “laws of the land.”[18] Several other non-governmental organisations working on human rights issues have been deregistered or are facing harassment for issuing public statements critical of the government. Ahead of the elections some civil society organisations have reported being informally told by authorities to cease activities. As a result of the repressive environment, civil society organisations have been forced to self-censor activities. 

We also note the enactment of further restrictive laws.[19] For example, the Written Laws Miscellaneous Amendments Act (The Amendment Act)[20] which has introduced amendments to 13 laws.[21] The Amendment Act requires anyone making a claim for violation of rights to have been personally affected.[22] This limits the ability of civil society organisations to carry out legal aid and law-based activities where they are not personally harmed. It violates Article 26(2) of the country’s Constitution, which provides for the right of every person “to take legal action to ensure the protection of this Constitution and the laws of the land.” Furthermore, it is an internationally recognized best practice that all persons, whether individually or in association with others, have the right to seek an effective remedy before a judicial body or other authority in response to a violation of human rights.[23] The Amendment Act further provides that lawsuits against the President, Vice-President, Prime Minister, Speaker, Deputy Speaker, or Chief Justice cannot be brought against them directly but must be brought against the Attorney General.[24] This provision undermines government accountability for human rights violations. We remind the authorities that international bodies have raised concerns about Tanzania’s repressive laws.[25]

We are especially concerned over the continued cases of verbal threats and physical attacks against members of opposition political parties.[26] We note with concern that to date, no one has been held accountable for the 2017 attack against the CHADEMA party leader, Tundu Lissu, who is a presidential candidate in the upcoming elections. Most recently, opposition leader Freeman Mbowe was brutally attacked and his assailants are still at large. Failure to thoroughly and impartially investigate such cases breeds a culture of violence and impunity, which in turn threatens the peace and security of the country. The government must take steps to bring perpetrators of such violence to account and to guarantee the safety of all other opposition party members and supporters.

Earlier, in November 2019, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) issued a press statement on the “deteriorating human rights situation in Tanzania.”[27] The Commission specifically voiced concern over “the unprecedented number of journalists and opposition politicians jailed for their activities.” The ongoing crackdown on civic space in Tanzania also led the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to issue a strong warning ahead of the 28 October 2020 General Elections. At the opening of the UN Human Rights Council’s 45th session, she “[drew] the Council's attention to increasing repression of the democratic and civic space, in what is becoming a deeply deteriorated environment for human rights” and stressed that “[with] elections approaching later this month, we are receiving increasing reports of arbitrary arrests and detention of civil society actors, activists, journalists and members of opposition parties.” She added: “Further erosion of human rights could risk grave consequences, and I encourage immediate and sustained preventive action.”[28]

While we acknowledge measures taken by your government to halt the spread of the COVID-19 virus and protect the citizens of Tanzania, we are deeply concerned that the pandemic has been used to unduly restrict fundamental freedoms. Examples are the arrest and sentencing of two Kenyan journalists for interviewing members of the public in Tanzania on the status of the pandemic in the country[29] as well as, the suspension of  Kwanza Online TV for reposting an alert by the U.S. embassy in Tanzania regarding the pandemic in the country.[30]  The rights to peacefully express one’s opinion, receive information, peaceful assembly and association, and to participate in public affairs are not only essential in the context of the upcoming elections, but also in relation to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Freedom of expression in particular, ensures “the communication of information to the public, enabling individuals to … develop opinions about the public health threat so that they can take appropriate steps to protect themselves and their communities.”[31]  The UN has repeatedly emphasized that Government responses to COVID-19 must not be used as a pretext to suppress individual human rights or to repress the free flow of information.[32] 

The need for Tanzania to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law is now more than ever important as a matter of national security, following recent reports of insurgent attacks along Tanzania’s border with Mozambique.[33] Studies have shown that experiences of injustice, marginalization and a breakdown in rule of law, are root causes of disaffection and violence. A peaceful and prosperous nation requires good governance and respect for rule of law, with a society that protects fundamental freedoms and ensures justice for all.

As civil society organisations deeply concerned about constitutionalism, justice, and democracy in the United Republic of Tanzania, we strongly urge your Excellency to adhere to your undertaking to ensure a free and fair election in Tanzania. The government has an obligation to create an enabling environment for everyone, including political opposition, non-governmental organisations, journalists, and other online users, HRDs, and other real or perceived government opponents to exercise their human rights without fear of reprisals. As such, we call on the relevant authorities to immediately drop criminal charges and release defenders such as Tito Magoti and Theodory Giyani and any others being prosecuted for peacefully exercising their rights. Suspensions and the freezing of assets of non-governmental organisations such as THRDC, independent media houses such as Kwanza Online TV, and members of the legal profession- particularly Fatma Karume, must be reversed.  Opposition parties must be allowed to freely and peacefully campaign and engage with their supporters without undue restrictions such as arbitrary arrests, physical attacks, forceful dispersal and intimidation of supporters, and harassment by security forces. The legitimacy of Tanzania’s elections is at stake.

We call on Tanzania to heed the messages delivered by national, African, and international actors and to change course before the country enters a full-fledged human rights crisis, with potentially grave domestic and regional consequences.

Signed:

  1. Access Now, Global
  2. Acción Solidaria on HIV/aids, Venezuela
  3. Africa Freedom of Information Centre 
  4. Africa Judges and Jurists Forum
  5. AfroLeadership
  6. ARTICLE 19, Global
  7. Asia Dalit Rights Forum (ADRF), New Delhi and Kathmandu
  8. Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE)
  9. Association of Freelance Journalists
  10. BudgIT Foundation, Nigeria
  11. CEALDES, Colombia
  12. Center for Civil Liberties, Ukraine
  13. Centre for Human Rights & Development (CHRD), Mongolia
  14. Centre for Law and Democracy, Canada
  15. Center for National and International Studies, Azerbaijan
  16. Child Watch, Tanzania
  17. CIVICUS, Global
  18. Civic Initiatives, Serbia
  19. CIVILIS Human Rights, Venezuela
  20. Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)
  21. Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
  22. Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), South Sudan
  23. Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)
  24. Corporación Comuna Nueva, Santiago de Chile
  25. DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
  26. Democracy Monitor PU, Azerbaijan
  27. Eastern Africa Journalists Network (EAJN)
  28. Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO)
  29. Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Coalition (EHRDC)
  30. Espacio Público, Venezuela
  31. Front Line Defenders, Global
  32. Gestos (HIV and AIDS, communication, gender), Brazil
  33. Greenpeace Africa
  34. Groupe d’Action pour le Progrès et la Paix (GAPP-Afrique), Canada
  35. Groupe d’Action pour le Progrès et la Paix (GAPP-BENIN)
  36. Groupe d’Action pour le Progrès et la Paix (GAPP Mali)
  37. HAKI Africa, Kenya
  38. Human Rights Concern - Eritrea (HRCE)
  39. Human Rights Defenders Network, Sierra Leone
  40. Humanium, Switzerland
  41. HuMENA for Human Rights and Civic Engagement (HuMENA Regional)
  42. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) - Belgium
  43. Jade Propuestas Sociales y Alternativas al Desarrollo, A.C. (JADESOCIALES)- México
  44. Ligue Burundaise des droits de l’homme Iteka-Burundi
  45. Maison de la Société Civile (MdSC), Bénin
  46. MARUAH, Singapore
  47. Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Nigeria
  48. Nigeria Network of NGOs, Nigeria 
  49. Nouvelle Dynamique de la Société Civile de la RD Congo (NDSCI)
  50. Odhikar, Bangladesh
  51. ONG Convergence des Actions Solidaires et les Objectifs de Développement Durable (CAS-ODD ONG) - Bénin
  52. ONG Nouvelle Vision (NOVI), Bénin
  53. Open School of Sustainable Development (Openshkola), Russia
  54. Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA)
  55. Partnership for Peace and Development, Sierra Leone
  56. RESOSIDE, Burkina Faso
  57. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Global
  58. Sisters of Charity Federation, United States
  59. Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS), Somalia
  60. Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)
  61. Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA), Sudan
  62. The Human Rights Centre Uganda (HRCU), Uganda
  63. Tournons La Page (TLP)
  64. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Network, Sierra Leone
  65. Women in Democracy And Governance, Kenya (WIDAG)
  66. Zambia Council for Social Development, Zambia

[1] United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner, UN Experts call on Tanzania to end the crackdown on civic space, July 22, 2020, available at https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26117&LangID=E.

[2] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzania imposes 7-day publication ban on The Citizen, March 01, 2019, available at https://cpj.org/2019/03/tanzania-citizen-7-day-publication-ban/

[3] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzanian authorities ban online TV station, fine 2 others, January 8, 2020, available at https://cpj.org/2020/01/tanzanian-authorities-ban-online-tv-station-fine-2/

[4] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzania bans Kwanza Online TV for 11 months citing ‘misleading’ Instagram post on COVID-19, July 09, 2020, available at https://cpj.org/2020/07/tanzania-bans-kwanza-online-tv-for-11-months-citing-misleading-instagram-post-on-covid-19/

[5] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzanian newspaper banned from publishing online for 6 months over COVID-19 report, May 11, 2020, available at https://cpj.org/2020/01/tanzanian-authorities-ban-online-tv-station-fine-2/

[6] Committee to Protect Journalist, Tanzanian government revokes license of Tanzania Daima newspaper, June 26, 2020, available at https://cpj.org/2020/06/tanzanian-government-revokes-license-of-tanzania-daima-newspaper/

[7] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzanian authorities ban online TV station, fine 2 others, January 8, 2020 available at https://cpj.org/2020/01/tanzanian-authorities-ban-online-tv-station-fine-2/

[8]Committee to Protect Journalists, East Africa court rules that Tanzania’s Media Services Act violates press freedom, March 28, 2019, available at https://www.mediadefence.org/news/important-media-freedom-judgment-east-african-court-justice

[9] We refer to cases such as the arrest of prominent comedian, Idris Sultan, in May 2020 (https://thrdc.or.tz/tanzanian-comedian-and-actor-mr-idris-sultan-charged-for-failure-to-register-a-sim-card/), and the disbarment from practicing law of prominent lawyer and human rights advocate, Fatma Karume (https://www.icj.org/tanzania-icj-calls-for-reinstatement-of-lawyer-fatma-karumes-right-to-practice-law/). 

[10] Committee to protect journalists, Mwanachi, The Citizen, last seen in Tanzania, November 21, 2017, available at https://cpj.org/data/people/azory-gwanda/.

[11] American Bar Association, Center for Human Rights, Tanzania: Preliminary Analysis of the criminal case against Tito Magoti and Theodory Giyani, July 28, 2020, available at https://www.americanbar.org/groups/human_rights/reports/tanzania--preliminary-analysis-of-the-criminal-case-against-tito/.

[12] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzanian journalist Erick Kabendera freed but faces hefty fines, February 24, 2020, available at https://cpj.org/2020/02/tanzanian-freelancer-erick-kabendera-freed-but-fac/

[13] Mandates of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Letter to President of Tanzania, Reference AL TZA 1/2020, January 31, 2020, available at https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile?gId=25049.

[14] International Commission of Jurists, Tanzania: ICJ Calls for the reinstatement of lawyer Fatma Karume’s right to practice law, October 8, 2020, available at https://www.icj.org/tanzania-icj-calls-for-reinstatement-of-lawyer-fatma-karumes-right-to-practice-law/

[15]The Citizen, Zitto Kabwe sentenced to serve one year ban not writing seditious statements, May 29, 2020, available at https://www.thecitizen.co.tz/news/Zitto-Kabwe-found-guilty-of-sedition/1840340-5567040-m7pifrz/index.htm

[16] The cancellation of a training organised by Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC), the subsequent arrest of THRDC’s Director, Onesmo Olengurumwa, and suspension of the activities of the organisation, as well as freezing of their accounts, exemplifies the misuse of these laws against civil society (See: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/africa/tanzania-human-rights-group-suspends-operations/1945400)

[17] DefendDefenders, Tanzania: Respect the right to freedom of association, August 24, 2020, available at https://defenddefenders.org/tanzania-respect-the-right-to-freedom-of-association/.

[18] Two employees of one of THRDC were arrested in Dar es Salaam and thereafter authorities proceed to arbitrarily cancel the hosting of a three-day security training for 30 human rights defenders. The police claimed that the training was in contravention of the “laws of the land” but did not give a specific provision

[19] These include the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations; Media Services Act; Cybercrimes Act; and Political Parties Amendment Act.

[20] Written Laws (Miscellaneous Amendments Act (No. 3) of 2020)

[21] Southern Africa Litigation Center, Joint letter, The Written Laws Miscellaneous Amendments Act no.3 ( 2020), available at https://www.southernafricalitigationcentre.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Honourable-Minister-of-Justice-for-the-Republic-of-Tanzania.pdf-August-2020.pdf

[22] Section 7(b) of the Written Laws Amendments Act

[23] The African Commission’s Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa provide that States must ensure through the adoption of national legislation that any individual, group of individuals or nongovernmental organization is entitled to bring a human rights claim before a judicial body for determination because such claims are matters of public concern.

[24] Amendments to Chapter 310 of the Law Reform (Fatal accidents and miscellaneous provisions) Act and to the Chapter 3 of the Basic Rights and Duties Enforcement Act

[25]   See for example communication of the Mandates of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association to the government of the United Republic of Tanzania, AL TZA 3/2020, 17 July 2020, https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile?gId=25442 

[26] These include the verbal abuse and threats of execution against Zitto Kabwe, leader of Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT) Wazalendo opposition party (see: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-51355148), his conviction for sedition for statements he made at a press conference in relation to alleged extra judicial killings by state security forces (https://www.thecitizen.co.tz/news/Zitto-Kabwe-found-guilty-of-sedition/1840340-5567040-m7pifrz/index.html), and his re-arrested together with several party members while they participated in an internal meeting (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/24/tanzanian-opposition-leader-zitto-kabwe-released-on-bail/); as well as the conviction of nine Members of Parliament belonging to the opposition Chama Cha Demokrasia(CHADEMA) party and their sentencing in March 2020 to five months in prison or an alternative fine, for allegedly making seditious statements (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tanzania-politics/tanzanian-opposition-lawmakers-found-guilty-of-making-seditious-statements-idUSKBN20X2O8); and the attack against the party leader, Freeman Mbowe, by unknown assailants leaving him with a broken leg (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tanzania-politics/tanzanian-opposition-lawmakers-found-guilty-of-making-seditious-statements-idUSKBN20X2O8).

[27] African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Press statement of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the deteriorating human rights situation in Tanzania, available at https://www.achpr.org/pressrelease/detail?id=459.

[28] Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “In her global human rights update, Bachelet calls for urgent action to heighten resilience and protect people's rights,” 14 September 2020, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26226&LangID=E

[29] Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, Two Kenyan Journalists convicted and fined in Tanzania, repatriated back to Kenya, May 21, 2020, available at https://thrdc.or.tz/blog/.

[30]American Bar Association, Center for Human Rights, Report on the arbitrary suspension of Kwanza Online TV for sharing information related to the COVID-19 pandemic, October 22, 2020. See also Kwanza TV Instagram, available athttps://www.instagram.com/p/CCGT_5ECT_n/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

[31] Disease pandemics and the freedom of opinion and expression, A/HRC/44/49, para. 30

[32] The Guardian, Coronavirus pandemic is becoming a human rights crisis, UN warns, 23 April 2020, available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/coronavirus-pandemic-is-becoming-a-human-rights-crisis-un-warns. See also UNHRC,, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, States responses to Covid 19 threat should not halt freedoms of assembly and association, April 14, 2020, available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25788&LangID=E.

[33] BBC, Tanzania border village attack “leaves 20 dead”, October 16, 2020, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/live/world-africa-47639452?ns_mchannel=social&ns_source=twitter&ns_campaign=bbc_live&ns_linkname=5f896f00c4548e02bf3cb441%26Tanzania%20border%20village%20attack%20%27leaves%2020%20dead%27%262020-10-16T10%3A29%3A29.229Z&ns_fee=0&pinned_post_locator=urn:asset:2f81fc88-030c-49d4-9d25-b8268a2dbf55&pinned_post_asset_id=5f896f00c4548e02bf3cb441&pinned_post_type=share

 

Nigeria: Urgent call to end violence against #EndSARS protesters

The brutal shooting of peaceful protesters in Lagos by Nigerian security forces is a gross violation of protesters’ rights and those responsible should be held accountable by the authorities, global civil society alliance CIVICUS said today.

 

Thailand: Drop charges against peaceful protesters and end restrictions on civic freedoms

Read the Thai version of the letter

Letter to the Prime Minister of Thailand as the government cracks down on peaceful protests calling for democracy, human rights and reform.


Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha
Office of the Prime Minister
Pitsanulok road
Bangkok 10300
Thailand

Thailand: Drop charges against peaceful protesters and end restrictions on civic freedoms

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

We are writing to you to highlight our serious concerns about the escalating crackdown on peaceful protests in Thailand. According to reports by civil society groups, at least 80 individuals have been arbitrarily arrested since 13 October 2020. [1]

  • On 13 October, police forcibly dispersed a pro-democracy protest organised by the People’s Group at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument. Police allegedly kicked, punched, and threw some protesters to the ground. At least 23 protesters including protest leader Jatuphat “Pai Dao Din” Boonpattararaksa were arrested.[2]
  • On 14 and 15 October, another 34 people were reportedly arrested including protest leaders.[3] Five of the protest leaders - Arnon Nampa, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, Prasit Khrutharot, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul and Nathchanon Pairoj were charged with “sedition” (Article 116 of the Thai Criminal Code).[4] The rest were charged under the newly promulgated Emergency Decree. We are seriously concerned about reports that the police had prevented their lawyers from meeting with the arrested activists. Some have also been denied bail.
  • Activists Ekachai Hongkangwan and Boonkueanoon Paothong were also arrested on 16 October. They had reportedly shouted and held up the defiant three-finger salute when the Queen’s motorcade drove past protesters on 14 October. They have been charged under Section 110 of the Criminal Code and could face life imprisonment.[5]
  • On 16 October, police closed roads and established barricades with multiple rows of barbed wire in order to prevent people from peacefully gathering peacefully. Subsequently, police repeatedly used water cannons with chemical irritants and dye in attempts to disperse the crowd, estimated to be in the thousands.[6] Police also charged in with batons and shields to disperse the protesters.[7] 12 protesters were reportedly arrested.[8] Among those arrested include Kitti Pantapak, a journalist with Prachathai news outlet. His equipment was also confiscated.[9]
  • On 17 October, despite peaceful protests at least seven activists were reportedly arrested including student leader Panupong Chadnok.[10] On the same day, Chatchai Kaewkhampod a protest leader from Ubon Ratchathani province was also arrested.

We are also concerned about the introduction of a new emergency decree that severely restricts peaceful assembly and expression. The decree bans gatherings of five persons or more, and broadly prohibits the publication of news and information “which may instigate fear amongst the people” or that “affect national security or peace and order”.

Under the decree, authorities can arrest and detain people without charge for up to 30 days on grounds as vague as “supporting” or “concealing information” about the protests. The decree also allows those arrested to be detain them in informal places of detention and does not require access to legal counsel or visits by family members. Officials carrying out the duties under the decree enjoy legal immunity.

During the announcement of the measure, the authorities cited the need to “maintain peace and order” and that protesters had “instigated chaos and public unrest”.[11] We believe this to be a clear misrepresentation of the actions of the protesters.

The latest crackdown follows months of acts to suppress dissent, including the widespread use of judicial harassment against activists and human rights defenders. Authorities have arbitrarily arrested activists and filed charges against them under an array of repressive laws.

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

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

  • Immediately and unconditionally release all pro-democracy protesters detained, drop all charges against them and lift all restrictions on the exercise of their human rights;
  • Pending their release, ensure that they are protected from torture and other ill-treatment and have regular access to lawyers of their choice, their family members and to medical care;
  • Revoke emergency measures imposing restrictions on the rights to freedom of assembly and expression
  • Investigate all allegations of excessive force or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the police while dispersing protests and halt the use of water cannons water cannon unless there are situations of serious public disorder as provided by the 2020 United Nations guidance on less-lethal weapons in law enforcement
  • Create a safe and enabling environment for activists, human rights defenders and other members of Thailand’s civil society to peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly without intimidation, harassment, arrest or prosecution

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

Yours sincerely,

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


Civic space in Thailand is rated Repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor

1 ‘Arrest Statistics’, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, 18 October 2020, https://www.tlhr2014.com/?p=22156

2 Thailand: Over 20 Democracy Activists Arrested, Human Rights Watch, 13 October 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/10/13/thailand-over-20-democracy-activists-arrested

 3 Two more rally leaders arrested, Bangkok Post, 15 October 2020, https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/2002671/two-more-rally-leaders-arrested and Thailand bans mass gatherings under emergency decree, Al Jazeera, 15 October, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/15/thailand-imposes-emergency-amid-protests-leaders-detained 

4 ‘Thailand: End crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy activists, lift emergency decree ‘ FIDH, 16 October, https://www.fidh.org/en/region/asia/thailand/thailand-end-crackdown-on-peaceful-pro-democracy-activists-lift 5 Article 110 of the Criminal Code bans any act of violence against the Queen or Her Majesty’s liberty. See ‘Two arrested on motorcade charges’, Bangkok Post, 16 October 2020, https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/politics/2003267/two-arrested-on-motorcade-charges

5 Article 110 of the Criminal Code bans any act of violence against the Queen or Her Majesty’s liberty. See ‘Two arrested on motorcade charges’, Bangkok Post, 16 October 2020,  https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/politics/2003267/two-arrested-on-motorcade-charges 

6 ‘Thailand: Water cannons mark deeply alarming escalation in policing’, Amnesty protests’, 17 October 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/10/thailand-water-cannons-deeply-alarming-escalation/ 

7 Thailand: Water Cannon Used Against Peaceful Activists Human Rights Watch, 17 October 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/10/17/thailand-water-cannon-used-against-peaceful-activists 

8 Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, 17 October 2020, https://twitter.com/TLHR2014/status/1317170040169377792 

9 Prachatai's reporter, 24, arrested while covering police crackdown, Prachatai, 16 October 2020 https://prachatai.com/english/node/8848 

10 Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, 17 October 2020,  https://twitter.com/TLHR2014/status/1317482849772077061 

11 Thailand’s emergency decree ‘an excuse’ to end pro-democracy protests, MPs say’, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, 15 October 2020, http://aseanmp.org/2020/10/15/thailand-emergency-decree-excuse/ 

 

Pakistani authorities must prevent further attacks on transgender people

The shooting of a transgender activist one month ago, and a recent wave of attacks against the transgender community in Pakistan, are extremely concerning, according to global civil society alliance CIVICUS. We urge the authorities in Pakistan to organise prompt and impartial investigations into the attacks, and make sure the perpetrators are brought to justice without delay. 

 

Niger: CIVICUS welcomes release of human rights defenders

Global civil society alliance CIVICUS welcomes the decision by Nigerien authorities to release three human rights defenders after six months in detention. We now call on the Nigerien authorities to drop all charges against them. Moudi Moussa, Halidou Mounkaila and Maïkoul Zodi were among civil society members who gathered peacefully in Niamey, on 15 March 2020, to protest about corruption in the Ministry of Defence.

 

India: Report highlights ongoing misuse of restrictive laws during pandemic to keep activists behind bars

  • Report highlights judicial harassment of activists, targeting of journalists and crackdown on protesters 
  • Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of activists and critics during COVID-19 pandemic 
  • CIVICUS calls for the immediate release of arbitrarily detained human rights defenders

The Indian government is using a variety of restrictive laws - including national security and counter-terrorism legislation - to arrest and imprison human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and critics, the global civil society alliance CIVICUS said today in a new report.

More than a year into  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term in office, the CIVICUS report, Punished for speaking up: The ongoing use of restrictive laws to silence dissent in India,” shows an increasingly repressive environment for civic freedoms, such as the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.  The report highlights the arrest, detention and prosecution of activists, the targeting of journalists, and the unprecedented and brutal crackdown on protests against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act. CIVICUS is also concerned about increasing violations in Indian-administered Jammu Kashmir.

Further, India’s slide towards authoritarianism has led to the conflation of dissent with anti-nationalism, often with disastrous results for human rights defenders and activists who have been subjected to damaging smear campaigns.

The activists profiled in the report represent a small fraction of the arbitrary arrests, prosecutions and imprisonments taking place across India, providing a snapshot of the challenges facing the country’s human rights defenders.

The report also highlights a series of vaguely worded and overly broad laws being used by the Indian authorities to deprive activists of bail and keep them in ongoing detention. These include the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA), which is India’s primary counter-terrorism law; section 124A on ‘sedition’ of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era relic; and administrative detention laws such as the National Security Act (NSA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA), which applies only in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir

“The Indian government must stop using restrictive national security and counter-terrorism laws against human rights defenders and critics. The authorities must also drop the baseless and politically-motivated criminal charges against activists and release them immediately and unconditionally,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher.

“The laws are incompatible with India’s international human rights obligations as well as India’s Constitution. Not only are the laws themselves inherently flawed, but their implementation makes it clear that they have become tools for judicial harassment, rather than for preventing or addressing criminality.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of human rights defenders and critics, many of whom have underlying medical conditions or are at risk of contracting COVID-19 in overcrowded and unsanitary prisons. CIVICUS is also concerned about the judicial harassment of individuals and journalists who criticise the authorities’ handling of the pandemic. 

“It is appalling that human rights defenders are locked up in overcrowded prisons and continuously denied bail despite calls by the UN to decongest prisons and release political prisoners during the pandemic. Holding them at this time puts them at serious risk of contracting COVID-19 and adds another layer of punishment for these activists, who have been detained just for speaking up for human rights,” said Benedict.

Despite the hostile environment, human rights defenders and civil society organisations in  India are pushing back against oppression. The benefits of a vibrant civil society, and of human rights defenders who are free to do their work, are tangible. This has been evident in civil society’s crucial response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, in providing vital help to communities in need, defending rights, and holding governments accountable.

“As India’s political and economic influence increases, developments in the country are being closely followed by the global community. India’s quest to play a critical role on the international stage would be better served by committing to upholding democratic values and recognising the validity of people’s struggles,” said Benedict.

In the report, CIVICUS makes a number of recommendations to the Indian authorities, including:

  • Drop all charges against human rights defenders, activists and protesters, and immediately and unconditionally release all those detained;
  • Review and amend India’s criminal laws to conform to international standards for the protection of fundamental freedoms;
  • Take steps to ensure that all human rights defenders in India are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance or fear of reprisals.

More information

The space for civil society in India was downgraded in December 2019 from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic space in every country. A repressed rating for civic space means that democratic freedoms – such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association – are significantly constrained in India.


Interviews

To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher  and 

 

CIVICUS calls on the Cameroonian authorities to show restraint ahead of planned protests

Global civil society alliance CIVICUS calls on the Cameroonian authorities to avoid using violence to curb anti-government protests planned by members of the political opposition for 22 September 2020.  The protests have been called by the political opposition led by the Movement pour la Renaissance du Cameron (MRC) and some civil society groups.  In anticipation of the protests the authorities have deployed the military in the capital city Yaoundé and are searching vehicles at major entry points.  

On 17 September 2020, security forces surrounded the premises of the civil society group ‘Stand Up for Cameroon’ in the economic capital Douala and arrested four members.  The authorities have threatened protesters with more arrests and indicated they will be charged with attempting to destabilise Cameroon.  The authorities have warned protesters they will face lengthy jail terms and charges of insurrection if they join the demonstrations.

“The Cameroonian authorities have closed most of the formal channels through which the political opposition and civil society can engage with the government on issues considered sensitive by the state. The right to participate in public assemblies is guaranteed in the constitution but the current response by the authorities to planned protests demonstrates that even this right is being taken away,” said Paul Mulindwa, CIVICUS Advocacy and Campaigns Officer


Background

Opposition leaders are demanding that long-serving President Paul Biya step down, and are protesting plans by the authorities to hold regional elections in December, saying the government must first  resolve conflict in the anglophone regions.  The MRC denounced the 2018 ballot and its leader Maurice Kamto and several supporters were arrested in January 2019 after calling for a re-organisation of the elections.  Kamto was charged with rebellion and insurrection and was jailed for nine months before he was released.  At the time, the authorities violently repressed anti-government protests and imposed bans on rallies.  

For more information on civic space violations, visit the Cameroon country page on the CIVICUS Monitor.

 

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