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Cambodia: Free Forcibly Returned Critic of Hun Sen

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives to attend the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) congress in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on January 19, 2018. 

© 2018 Samrang Pring / Reuters

(New York) – The Cambodian government should immediately release Sam Sokha, a Cambodian labor activist who gained notoriety after she threw a sandal at a photo of Prime Minister Hun Sen in April 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 8, 2018, Thai authorities forcibly returned Sam Sokha, who had been detained in Bangkok in January, to Cambodia.

Video of her act was circulated widely on social media. Shortly thereafter, Cambodian authorities issued a warrant for her arrest for “insult of a public official” and “incitement to discriminate” under articles 494, 496, and 502 of the Cambodia Criminal Code. As a result, she was forced to flee Cambodia and seek asylum in Thailand. In Thailand, she was interviewed and formally recognized as a refugee by UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. Forcibly returning her violates the customary international law principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the return of anyone to a place where they would face the threat of persecution, torture, or other serious human rights violations.

“Thailand was fully aware of Sam Sokha’s status as a refugee, yet still returned her to Cambodia, where she is likely to face a prison term for expressing her political views,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “It’s sad but not surprising that a military junta would do a favor for a neighboring dictator, but they should not cement their friendship at the expense of a refugee.”

Thailand was fully aware of Sam Sokha’s status as a refugee, yet still returned her to Cambodia, where she is likely to face a prison term for expressing her political views.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Sam Sokha was arrested on January 5 by Thai authorities in Bangkok. The Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Center investigation team reported to Sam Sokha’s lawyers that they received a request for cooperation from Cambodia on her case. On January 6, Sam Sokha was charged for illegal entry under section 81 of the Immigration Act.

On January 22, Sam Sokha’s lawyers sent a letter via registered mail to the Thai National Security Council, Thai police, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration Bureau informing the Thai authorities of Sam Sokha’s intention to appeal her immigration charges and putting on record her refusal to return to Cambodia. On February 2, Sam Sokha’s lawyers filed an appeal relating to unlawful entry charges.

On February 8, Thailand forcibly returned Sam Sokha to Cambodia. The Thai government forcibly sent her back knowing that western embassies and the UNHCR were involved in trying to find her a third country resettlement option.

The UN, Cambodia’s donors, and countries that support refugee rights should press Cambodia to release Sam Sokha and to allow her to be travel to a safe country.

“Thailand’s friends should formally and publicly complain about this shocking act of sending a refugee back to a country where she will face near-certain persecution,” Adams said. “This case sets a worrisome precedent for how Thailand will treat the many other refugees currently on its soil.” Source:

Bangladesh: End Crackdown on Opposition Supporters

Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia waves to activists as she arrives for a rally in Dhaka in this file picture taken January 20, 2014. A Bangladesh court issued an arrest warrant on March 30, 2016 for former prime minister and opposition leader Zia over a deadly firebombing attack last year, a prosecutor said. 

© 2017 Reuters

(New York) – Bangladesh authorities should stop the arbitrary arrests and detention of opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) supporters and others, Human Rights Watch said today. Hundreds have been arrested or placed under preventive detention ahead of a February 8, 2018 verdict on the corruption case against BNP chairperson, Begum Khaleda Zia, and five others, including her son.

The Bangladesh government should publicly order the security forces to abide by international standards on policing demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Bangladesh government is violating the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly by preventing opposition supporters from demonstrating,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “While all political party leaders should warn their supporters against engaging in violence, it’s crucial for government security forces to act with restraint at all times.”

Should Begum Zia be found guilty of embezzling over US$250,000 received in charity for an orphanage, she could be imprisoned and disqualified from running in elections due in early 2019. Anticipating protests by her supporters if she is convicted, the police have deployed additional forces, banned gatherings and protests, and arrested several senior BNP officials.

The Bangladesh government’s claims to be open and democratic ring hollow as it cracks down on political dissent.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Bangladesh security forces have previously used excessive and indiscriminate force to contain political protests. In response to opposition supporters who have caused injuries and deaths and committed arson during demonstrations, the security forces have arrested, tortured, killed, and forcibly disappeared hundreds.  

At a news conference in Dhaka on February 7, Begum Zia accused the government of false allegations to “harass me and my family,” but called on her supporters to be peaceful. “The ruling [Awami League] party has curbed the rights to protest, banned processions, in an administrative order as it is more frightened than we are over the verdict,” she said.

The Dhaka-based group Ain O Salish Kendra said that a “total of 1,786 persons have been arrested in the last eight days.” An opposition spokesman told Human Rights Watch that thousands had been detained including members of the BNP, the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami, and others not linked to any party. Concerns have also been raised that Awami League and BNP supporters might provoke violence and target each other’s supporters.

Human Rights Watch urged the government to publicly order the security forces to abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by law enforcement officials, which state that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.”

“The Bangladesh government’s claims to be open and democratic ring hollow as it cracks down on political dissent,” Adams said. “The government has a responsibility to prevent and minimize violence, but it needs to do so in a way that respects basic rights, not flouts them.” Source:

Vietnam: End Repression Against Religious Activists

Bui Van Trung (left), Bui Van Tham (center), and Le Thi Hen (right)

© Dao Trang Ut Trung

(New York) – Vietnam should suspend charges against six Hoa Hao Buddhist followers and investigate whether police actions against them were taken for discriminatory reasons or religious persecution, Human Rights Watch said today. Criminal trials for the six on public order charges are scheduled for February 9, 2018, before the People’s Court in An Phu district, An Giang province.

The arrests stem from a public demonstration the defendants staged to protest police actions against believers in An Giang who were on their way to commemorate the death of a religious leader’s mother. Police have frequently harassed independent members of this religious minority, which has a long history of friction with the government.

“This appears to be the latest instance of official persecution of members of this religion,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government should stop harassing and arresting those who belong to unsanctioned religious groups and leave people to practice their faith as they see fit.”

The government should stop harassing and arresting those who belong to unsanctioned religious groups and leave people to practice their faith as they see fit.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

The accused include Bui Van Trung, also known as Ut Trung, 54; his wife Le Thi Hen, 56; his daughter Bui Thi Bich Tuyen, also known as Lai, 36; his son Bui Van Tham, 31; Nguyen Hoang Nam, also known as Teo, 36; and Le Hong Hanh, 41.

On the evening of April 18, 2017, traffic police and men in civilian clothes set up a checkpoint near Bui Van Trung’s house in An Phu district, An Giang province, to stop independent Hoa Hao Buddhist followers who came to attend the anniversary commemoration of Bui Van Trung’s mother’s death. The police did not cite them for traffic violations but confiscated their papers. Men in civilian clothes cursed and threatened to beat them while traffic police did not intervene. This appeared to follow a pattern of plainclothes ‘thugs’ being used by police for intimidation.

The next morning, traffic police and men in civilian clothes again set up the checkpoint. The traffic police instructed men in civilian clothes to impound the motorbikes of Mai Thi Dung, a former political prisoner, and of another Hoa Hao Buddhist follower, who were both stopped at the checkpoint, though neither were cited for any traffic violations. When Bui Van Trung’s son Bui Van Tham tried to stop the men from taking the motorbikes, they beat him.

In response, Bui Van Trung and dozens of Hoa Hao Buddhist followers then staged a public demonstration to protest government repression. Bui Van Tham was later charged with “disrupting public order” under article 245 of the criminal code and “resisting people on public duty” under article 257. The other five were charged with “disrupting public order.”

Founded in 1939 by Huynh Phu So, Hoa Hao is a Buddhist sect based in the western Mekong delta. Communist antipathy toward the Hoa Hao dates from the first Indochina war (1946-1954) when many members of the Hoa Hao community opposed the communist-led Viet Minh after the spiritual leader of the religion, Huynh Phu So, never returned from a meeting with communist representatives in 1947. During the second Indochina war (1954-1975), Hoa Hao zones in the western Mekong delta continued to resist the Viet Cong insurgency.

Hostility between the Hoa Hao community and the Communist Party continued after the end of the war in 1975. In 1999, the Vietnamese government recognized Hoa Hao Buddhism as a religion. However, many followers refused to join the state-sanctioned Hoa Hao Buddhist Church. They have been subjected to intrusive surveillance and repression. Every year, local police have used various means to prevent independent Hoa Hao Buddhist followers from gathering for important events such as the founding day of the religion or the anniversary of the death of the Hoa Hao founder Huynh Phu So. The authorities have repeatedly set up barriers to block the Quang Minh pagoda in Cho Moi district (An Giang province), which is often used by independent Hoa Hao followers for worshipping.

Bui Van Trung turned his house into an informal home church (dao trang) for independent Hoa Hao Buddhist followers in 2005 and preached the religion to practitioners who gathered at his house on numerous occasions without government approval.

Since then, his family has suffered intrusive surveillance, harassment, and intimidation on a regular basis. In April 2012, the local authorities cut off their electricity, threw rocks and rotten fish at their house, and sprayed water to prevent people from gathering at Bui Van Trung’s house. Local police beat several people, Bui Van Trung told a reporter at Radio Free Asia. In May 2013, the authorities harassed, intimidated, and assaulted many of the people who tried to attend the ceremony commemorating the anniversary of his mother’s death.

His family members have also been imprisoned. In July 2012, Bui Van Tham was arrested for “resisting people on public order” under article 257 of the penal code. He was convicted and sentenced to two years and six months in prison. In October 2012, Bui Van Trung was arrested on the same charge. He was sentenced to four years in prison. In February 2014, Bui Van Trung’s son-in-law Nguyen Van Minh was arrested for a bogus traffic violation, charged with “disrupting public order” under article 245, and sentenced to two years and six months in prison. A bogus traffic violation was also used to arrest of Nguyen Van Lia, another independent Hoa Hao leader, in 2011.

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In Vietnam, more than 100 political prisoners are currently locked up simply for exercising their basic rights. Rights bloggers and activists face police harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and interrogation on a daily basis. Activists face long stints of pre-trial detention, without access to lawyers or family in a one-party police state that brooks no dissent.

In recent years, there have been numerous incidents of protest and government attacks centering on Hoa Hao believers. In August 2005, after one serious crackdown, a Hoa Hao Buddhist follower, Tran Van Ut, burned himself to death in protest. A dozen of Hoa Hao Buddhist activists were arrested and sentenced to many years in prison. In May 2017, Vinh Long police arrested Nguyen Huu Tan, an independent Hoa Hao Buddhist practitioner, on charges of conducting propaganda against the state. Police later claimed he committed suicide with a knife left in the interrogation room by a policeman. His family protested, pointing out many discrepancies between what they saw on his body and a blurry police video recording shown to them briefly.

Most recently, on January 23, 2018, the People’s Court of An Giang province convicted Hoa Hao Buddhist activists Vuong Van Tha, his son Vuong Thanh Thuan, and his twin nephews, Nguyen Nhat Truong and Nguyen Van Thuong, to between six and 12 years in prison for “conducting propaganda against the state” under article 88.

At least 129 people are currently imprisoned in Vietnam for expressing critical views of the government, taking part in peaceful protests, participating in religious groups not approved by the authorities, or joining civil or political organizations that the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam deems threatening to its monopoly on power. Vietnam should unconditionally release them and repeal all laws that criminalize peaceful expression.

“Three members of Bui Van Trung’s family served prison sentences simply because they refused to practice their religion under the control of the state,” Adams said. “And now it looks like the authorities are putting him and his family members on trial for the same reason.” Source:

BBC Correspondent Detained in Indonesia Now Freed

Indonesian soldiers along with a local resident unload food and medical aid in Ewer, Asmat District, in the remote region of Papua, Indonesia January 29, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto.

© 2018 Antara Foto/M Agung Rajasa/via Reuters

Last week, Indonesian authorities arrested a BBC correspondent for tweets she made while reporting from Papua. The journalist, Rebecca Henschke, was questioned for a total of 17 hours by immigration and military officials before being freed.

Henschke, based in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, went to Papua to report on both the measles outbreak, which has killed roughly 100 indigenous Papuan children, and on how logging and deforestation have destroyed forests where the staple food, sago palm, grows, leading Papuans to eat more instant noodles and cookies. She had a travel permit, a requirement for foreign journalists traveling to Papua.

She was arrested the day she arrived, February 1, after tweeting a photo of supplies on a river dock, writing, “aid coming in for severely malnourished children in Papua – instant noodles, super sweet soft drinks, and biscuits.” Another tweet said, “Children in hospital eating chocolate biscuits and that’s it.”

The military detained Henschke because those tweets “hurt the feelings” of the soldiers, Indonesian military spokesman Col. Muhammad Aidi said, adding that, “[The food and drink] that she took the picture of at the speedboat pier are not donations or aid. It was merchandise from merchants that was incidentally there.”

Police and immigration officials questioned Henschke in her hotel for five hours. The following day they transferred Henschke to the local mining town of Timika, where she was questioned for 12 hours at the immigration office. Immigration authorities found all her documents in order, and she and her team – journalist Heyder Affan and cameraman Dwiki Marta – were told they could continue their trip. Deciding they’d had enough, the team returned to Jakarta.

All this could have been avoided if Indonesia had implemented President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s 2015 policy that the government lift restrictions on foreign journalists reporting from Papua. The current system pressures journalists to limit reporting on Papua, and signals to the military and police that journalists can be interfered with.

President Jokowi should insist on the implementation of his decision to end restrictions on access to Papua. He should also prohibit the security forces from arresting journalists for doing their jobs. After all, the government could simply have responded to Henschke with a clarifying tweet or statement, as opposed to detaining and questioning her. Source:

Hong Kong: Student Leaders’ Sentences Overturned

Pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law outside the Court of Final Appeal before a verdict on their appeal in Hong Kong, February 6, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

(New York) – Hong Kong’s highest court on February 6, 2018, overturned prison sentences imposed by a lower court on three student leaders for their role in a 2014 sit-in that triggered the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, Human Rights Watch said today. The Court of Final Appeal reinstated a magistrate’s original sentences of already completed community service for Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, and a suspended prison sentence for Alex Chow.

While overturning the sentences, the Court of Final Appeal affirmed the lower court’s role in providing sentencing guidance. As a result, courts in the future will be able to impose longer sentences for the purpose of deterrence in the event of “large scale unlawful assemblies involving violence.”

“The Hong Kong court spared the three student leaders prison time, but the ruling sets the stage for sending future protesters to prison,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “In light of increasing government efforts to clamp down on those critical of Beijing, this seemingly positive ruling may be remembered as the start of an even larger crackdown.”

The sit-in occurred on September 26, 2014, in Civic Square, a space outside Hong Kong government headquarters. The area had previously been open to the public for protests, but the government sealed it off in 2014 for unspecified “security reasons,” and rejected applications from the student leaders to use it, also for unspecified “security reasons.”

In light of increasing government efforts to clamp down on those critical of Beijing, this seemingly positive ruling may be remembered as the start of an even larger crackdown.

Sophie Richardson

China Director

On September 26, protesters pushed the gates and climbed over the fence to enter the square. A number of security guards suffered minor injuries in the chaos. Sixty-one protesters, who sat down peacefully, were arrested on September 27, including Wong, Chow, and Law.

On July 21, 2016, a magistrate’s court convicted the three student leaders, finding that the protesters had “conducted themselves in a disorderly and intimidating manner.” Chow was given a three-week sentence with a one-year suspension, while Wong and Law were given community service orders of 80 hours and 120 hours, respectively. After the Hong Kong Department of Justice won an appeal of their sentences and sought harsher sentences, the Court of Appeal of the High Court on August 17, 2017, sentenced the three to between to six and eight months in prison.

In another court case related to the Umbrella Movement, Wong is currently on bail after being sentenced to three months in prison for contempt of court over his failure to comply with a court injunction to clear one of the protest sites, and thus could still be sent back to prison for his role in the protests.

Hong Kong has a long-standing tradition of tolerating peaceful demonstrations. But since the culmination of the 79-day Umbrella Movement in December 2014, over two dozen pro-democracy leaders have faced court proceedings, some for participating or leading peaceful protests. They face a range of charges, including unlawful assembly, inciting unlawful assembly, inciting public nuisance, conspiracy, obstructing the police, and assaulting a police officer. Some are charged under the Public Order Ordinance, which the United Nations Human Rights Committee has criticized for possibly “facilitat[ing] excessive restrictions” to basic rights.

During this same period, the Beijing and Hong Kong governments have increasingly restricted people’s electoral rights by targeting Hong Kong’s semi-democratic Legislative Council (LegCo). In July 2016, the Hong Kong government added a requirement that candidates running for LegCo have to declare their recognition of Hong Kong as an “inalienable part” of China. It then disqualified two candidates for their pro-independence stance.

Following the 2016 LegCo elections, which a number of outspoken pro-democracy candidates won, Beijing intervened. It issued an “interpretation” of the Basic Law that compelled the Hong Kong courts to disqualify two legislators who explicitly advocated independence for Hong Kong. That court decision later led to the disqualification of four more pro-democracy legislators in 2017.

In January 2018, Hong Kong election officers once again disqualified three candidates running for LegCo, including the Umbrella Movement activist Agnes Chow, who advocated “self-determination.” These disqualifications mean that not a single member of any of the political groups that grew out of the Umbrella Movement – mostly made up of young people – has been able to run for LegCo election or represent voters once elected.

“Hong Kong authorities appear increasingly willing to let previously nonpartisan government institutions do Beijing’s bidding,” Richardson said. “Their tactics and tools may be subtler than Beijing’s, but the net result is to make it harder for those who strongly disagree with Beijing to take leadership roles in politics.” Source:

Morocco: Review Conviction of Protest Leader

(Tunis) – Moroccan authorities should urgently review the conviction of an activist sentenced to five years in prison in possible reprisal for his activism in a social protest movement, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should ensure that no confession obtained by coercion is admitted as evidence.

Elmortada Iamrachen in Casablanca, Morocco, 2017. 

© 2017 Le Desk

A first instance court convicted Elmortada Iamrachen, 31, of inciting and praising terrorism on November 30, 2017, based on Facebook posts and a confession to the police that he repudiated shortly after he signed it and said in court was false and coerced. The court summarily rejected his claim that his confession had been coerced without investigating it. His appeal is to be heard on February 7, 2018.

“Once again, a Moroccan activist is thrown in prison after his contested confession is used to convict him,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Moroccan authorities need to fully examine Iamrachen’s claim that his police statement was made under duress and exclude any evidence that appears to be the result of coercion.”

Iamrachen was one of the main spokesmen for the Hirak, a protest movement formed in October 2016 over the government’s alleged neglect of Morocco’s northern Rif region. He was arrested on June 10, 2017, during a weeks-long roundup of Hirak leaders and protesters. About 450 of them have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from a few months to 20 years, and about 50 are awaiting trial. Many of the detained protesters said police had tortured them and forced them to sign written confessions. Some of these allegations were corroborated by forensic reports reviewed by Human Rights Watch.

Police arrested Iamrachen in al-Hoceima, Rif’s main city, and transferred him to the Salé headquarters of the Central Office of Judiciary Investigations, a security service specializing in counterterrorism operations. He remained there in pretrial detention for 10 days, as permitted under Morocco’s counterterrorism laws. During his interrogation, the police asked Iamrachen mostly about the Hirak’s organization and operational details, his lawyers Naima El Gallaf and Mohamed Kotaya told Human Rights Watch. Later, the police presented Iamrachen with a written statement for his signature that barely mentioned the Hirak, and in which he “confessed” that his intention in posting certain items on Facebook was to praise acts of terrorism and incite others to commit them.

The statement focused on two of Iamrachen’s Facebook entries. In the first, he posted the news of the assassination of Russia’s ambassador in Turkey on December 19, 2016, by a Turkish policeman believed to have acted on behalf of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Iamrachen’s Facebook post, which has been reviewed by Human Rights Watch, did not comment on the news other than to report, as many news outlets had done, that, “The murderer shouted: ‘we die in Aleppo, and you die here.’” But later that day, he added, “The killing of the Russian ambassador is a terrorist crime, and the murderer is a criminal … no matter what his motivations were.”

In the second, dated June 9, 2017, Iamrachen wrote of telling a journalist that the Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, whom he had visited in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, had ordered him to import weapons into the Rif. He said in court that the post was manifestly sarcastic – among other reasons because he had never been to Afghanistan. Mohamed Sadkou, one of his lawyers, told Human Rights Watch that “in his Facebook post, Iamrachen was recounting how he had mocked a journalist who was making ludicrous accusations against him, by telling him imaginary facts and daring him to publish them.” The statement drafted by the police and signed by Iamrachen in June does not include the defendant’s explanation that it was sarcasm.

Iamrachen’s lawyers said he signed his statement to the police without reading it because the officers threatened to leak intimate photos of him and his wife that they had found in the laptop they had seized when arresting him. On June 20, 2017, Iamrachen was heard by investigating judge Abdelkader Chentouf, of the counterterrorism chamber of the Rabat Appeals Court. Sadkou, who was present at the hearing, said Iamrachen requested that Chentouf tell the police not to publish his pictures.

On November 30, during his trial before the counterterrorism court in Salé, Iamrachen told the trial judge he had been coerced to sign the police statement because they had threatened to publish private pictures of his wife, Sadkou said. He filed a motion to dismiss the police statement on the grounds that the defendant had signed it “under coercion and threat.”

The court rejected the motion, saying that “after reviewing the police statement, the court noticed that the defendant not only applied his signature to it, but also wrote his name; which prompted the court to reject the (defense’s) motion due to its lack of seriousness.” The judgment did not give any indication that the court had considered, let alone examined the claim that the confession was coerced, including why or how writing his name in addition to his signature proved that the defendant had signed voluntarily.

Article 293 of Morocco’s Code of Penal Procedure provides that no statement prepared by the police may be admitted into evidence if it is obtained through coercion or violence. Moroccan and international law also require the judge to reject a coerced statement. The African Principles on the right to a fair trial, drafted by the African human rights commission, state that, “Any confession or other evidence obtained by any form of coercion or force may not be admitted as evidence or considered as probative of any fact at trial or in sentencing.” Morocco joined the African Union in 2017, and is bound to implement these human rights standards.

Morocco’s criminal laws on incitement have been repeatedly criticized as too vague and broad, risking criminalizing free expression, and of being so arbitrary that a person cannot reasonably predict what acts will be considered crimes. Reforms should eliminate references to such vague terms as “praising” terrorism and specify that criminal incitement requires the presence of an actual risk that the act will be committed, Human Rights Watch said. They also should expressly refer to two elements of intent – the intent to communicate a message, and the intent that this message incites the commission of a criminal act.

“The court chose to say nothing about Iamrachen’s explanations for his Facebook posts nor to investigate his claims of a coerced confession, and to rely solely on that confession before sentencing him to five years in prison,” Whitson said. “This may well not be a terrorism case at all, but rather a twisted effort to punish yet another leader of a protest movement that the Moroccan government seems determined to crush.” Source:

Pakistani Professor’s Endless Blasphemy Trial

On January 2, Pakistan’s judiciary transferred the blasphemy case against university professor Junaid Hafeez from one judge to another, the sixth time it has changed hands since his trial began. The delay in the case – it has been five years since Hafeez was first charged – is only the latest miscarriage of justice stemming from Pakistan’s abusive blasphemy law.

Junaid Hafeez. 

© Junaid Hafeez/Twitter

Hafeez, 33,was arrested on March 13, 2013 in Punjab province after a criminal case was registered accusing him of blasphemy. The charge is based on alleged comments posted on Facebook, which Hafeez denies. He has been in solitary confinement since his arrest.

Section 295-C of Pakistan’s penal code, known as the blasphemy law, carries what is effectively a mandatory death sentence. Although there have been no executions to date, at least 18 people are currently on death row, while another 20 are serving life sentences for related offences. Hundreds have been charged under the law. The law is increasingly used to jail and prosecute people for comments made on social media.

The delay in Hafeez’s case is just one example of the denial of a fair trial to those facing blasphemy charges. Asia Bibi, a Christian from Punjab province who became the first woman in the country’s history to be sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010, continues to languish in prison.

Blasphemy suspects often find it extremely difficult to find legal representation because of threats and violence against legal counsel. In May 2014, Rashid Rehman, a prominent human rights activist and the defense lawyer for Hafeez, was killed in his office in Multan. Rehman had earlier been threatened with “dire consequences” for defending Hafeez.

The government’s indifference to the abuses under the blasphemy law and the violence it provokes is discriminatory and violates rights to freedom of religion, belief, and expression. Hafeez’s case presents the government not only an opportunity to address the injustices of his trial by dropping the charges against him, but the blasphemy law more generally, by moving toward repealing it and sparing the many people whose lives the law has adversely and unfairly affected. Source:

Azerbaijan’s Disgraceful Five-Year Anniversary

Ilgar Mammadov detained during a protest rally in Baku, 2013.

© 2013 Turkhan Kerimov (RFE/RL)

It’s unfathomable that Ilgar Mammadov, a prominent political analyst and one of Azerbaijan’s few alternative political voices, has been in prison for five years now. Ilgar was arrested shortly after he announced plans to challenge President Ilham Aliyev in the October 2013 presidential election. I have known Ilgar for nearly 15 years, and it’s hard to imagine a more law-abiding and peaceful person. Yet, the authorities convicted him of inciting violence and sentenced him to seven years in prison, following a flawed trial.

In two separate judgements, the European Court of Human Rights found Mammadov’s detention illegal, that the case against him was in retaliation for his criticism of the authorities, and his conviction a violation of fair trial norms. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has called for Mammadov’s immediate release at least a dozen times. In addition, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe initiated a rare inquiry into Mammadov’s continued detention, and in an unprecedented move, the Committee of Ministers decided to trigger legal proceedings against Azerbaijan, referring the case back to the court.

Yet, Azerbaijan has defied the court, heaped scorn on the Council of Europe and its Secretary General, and kept Mammadov in jail, trying to break his spirit. He’s not alone. In a vicious crackdown against critics, Azerbaijani authorities have jailed dozens of human rights defenders, political activists, and journalists. The government adopted a range of draconian laws and regulations, impeding independent groups’ work and their ability to secure funding.

Mammadov’s continued imprisonment is wrong on so many levels. His daughter, Aysel, was 10 when Ilgar was arrested. She has spent a third of her life waiting for her father, seeing him only once or twice a month.

One thing is clear: there should be a “price tag” for Azerbaijan’s blatant refusal to implement a binding judgement of the European Court, and for the unrelenting crackdown on government critics. “Business as usual” for Azerbaijan’s international partners is no longer an option. While Mammadov languishes in prison and many European Union member states pushed for legal proceedings against Azerbaijan in the Council of Europe, Brussels is currently negotiating a closer partnership with Baku. What it should be doing is making clear that continued disregard for the European Court will have serious consequences. At bare minimum, the EU should freeze any further steps on the negotiations until Mammadov is at home with his family. Source:

Azerbaijan: Human rights concerns over EIB loan to TANAP and TAP

Dr. Werner Hoyer


European Investment Bank


Azerbaijan: Human rights concerns over EIB loan to TANAP and TAP


Dear President Hoyer,

We are writing to urge the European Investment Bank (EIB) to take into account the Azerbaijan government’s sustained and vicious crackdown against the country’s civil society, and link the bank’s further investment in Azerbaijan to concrete rights improvements, in compliance with the principles of EU External Action as set out in Article 21 of the EU treaty, and to ensure the EIB respects its obligations under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

We understand that at the February 6 board meeting, the EIB is likely to move further in its deliberations on whether to provide 1.5 billion euro in financing for the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). We also understand that at a subsequent session the Board may discuss financing for the Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP). Both pipelines form part of the Southern Gas Corridor, and would bring Caspian Sea natural gas to Europe. The government of Azerbaijan and its state-owned oil company SOCAR own 20 percent of TAP and 58 percent of TANAP.

For nearly five years, the government of Azerbaijan has sustained a sweeping campaign to intimidate, punish, and silence its critics. In our November 2016 letter to you, attached here, we described the government’s efforts to paralyze civil society through jailing critics on bogus, politically motivated criminal charges; imposing regulatory restrictions on nongovernmental organizations that make it impossible to attract and use independent funding; retaliating against critics by harassing their family members; and driving independent lawyers away from the courts through false accusation, leading to disbarments.

Some of these government actions led the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative to suspend Azerbaijan’s membership in March 2017, after two years of EITI warnings to the government that it needed to comply with initiative’s standards. After the suspension, the government of Azerbaijan left the initiative, claiming it would uphold revenue transparency on its own initiative.

In the year since our last letter to you, the government’s patterns of repressing civil society have regrettably not changed. We describe these patterns in our new World Report, published last week. We are attaching the report’s Azerbaijan chapter. Dozens of journalists and activists convicted in politically motivated trials remain in prison. Among them is Ilgar Mammadov, leader of the pro-democracy opposition movement Republican Alternative (REAL), and a former member of the Advisory Board of the Natural Resource Governance Institute, which is an EITI member. The government continues to defy two European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgments that found his 2013 imprisonment illegal, and failed to comply with repeated demands by the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers to immediately release him. In December 2017, the Council of Europe initiated legal proceedings against Azerbaijan for this blunt refusal to implement the ECtHR judgement.

In December, a court in Azerbaijan sentenced journalist Afgan Mukhtarli to six years in prison on bogus smuggling and other charges, after he had been kidnapped in neighboring Georgia, where he had been living in exile out of fears for his safety. Other journalists convicted in recent months include Mehman Huseynov, one of the country’s most popular bloggers, and Afgan Sadigov, editor-in-chief of a news website who had often reported on allegations of embezzlement of social benefits by local authorities. At least seven other journalists convicted in previous years remain behind bars.

In January 2017, under pressure from EITI, the government adopted minor changes to certain regulations on international donor funding and grant agreement registration or the entrenched legal barriers to NGOs’ operations. The revisions did not eliminate the authorities’ discretion to arbitrarily deny obligatory grant registration: regulations continue to require a positive assessment from the Finance Ministry for each grant from a foreign donor, and require foreign donors to get permission from the government to make a grant.  EITI’s decision in March to suspend Azerbaijan’s membership indicates how superficial the changes were.

The EIB’s obligations under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights mean it should not finance projects that would encourage or support human rights violations.

Supporting the TAP and TANAP project despite the ongoing repressive climate in Azerbaijan, and the government’s repeated violation of its own human rights obligations, would contravene the EIB’s commitments to respect human rights, to maximize social well-being through the projects it finances, and its emphasis on the importance of civil society in development decisions and holding governments to account. The Azerbaijani government’s actions against civil society are a serious impediment to these principles and thus to inclusive, sustainable development.

For these reasons, we urge the EIB to abstain from providing additional financing for TAP and TANAP and suspend their consideration until the government of Azerbaijan has:

  1. Dropped regulations that require nongovernmental organizations to obtain government approval for grants, and until it has demonstrated that it will allow civil society to play the robust role in development that the EIB embraces.
  2. Released the journalists and civil society activists it has wrongly imprisoned on politically motivated charges in retaliation for their work.

We also ask the EIB, through its diplomatic engagement with the Azerbaijani government and in public statements, to raise concerns about the continued crackdown on independent civil society, emphasizing how the crackdown undermines inclusive, sustainable development.

Thank you for your consideration of this important matter.


Hugh Williamson 

Director, Europe and Central Asia Division

Human Rights Watch


Kate Watters

Executive Director

Crude Accountability


Brigitte Dufour


International Partnership for Human Rights


CC:     Members of the Board of Directors of the European Investment Bank Source:

‘You’ve Been Warned’ – Protesting in Russia

Police presence at the peaceful “Voter’s Strike” rally in Tula, Russia on January 28, 2018. At time of photo, approximately 25 people were participating, although the rally had not been given official permission from authorities.

© 2018 Alexander Hotz

When Russian authorities barred opposition figure Alexei Navalny from running for president, his supporters organized nationwide “Voter’s Strike” rallies in protest. Many Russian municipalities rejected requests to hold the January 28 rallies, and police raided several Navalny campaign officesa pattern we have seen emerge over the past year.

In Tula, a city about 200 kilometers south of Moscow, police took their quest to block protests an extra, frightening step further – by making door-to-door visits to people who said they planned to attend on social media.

Kirill, 34, told me that as his wife was leaving their apartment with their child, police approached her and tried to get her to sign a statement on Kirill’s behalf, which said he had been informed that the upcoming protest was “unauthorized.” The officer later warned Kirill by phone that he would face sanctions for participating in the protest. Kirill ignored the warning.

Dmitry, 25, said that police came looking for him at his mother’s home. He then contacted the police, and they said they were visiting young people who planned to attend the “unapproved” protest. “You have been warned,” the officer said. Dmitry did not make it to the protest.

Yelena, 29, said that police showed up at the home of her 63-year-old mother, Ludmila, demanding she sign a statement that her daughter would not attend the protest. According to Ludmila, the visit was “frightening” and brought back memories, “from the [Soviet] past.” Yelena did not attend the protest.

Twenty-year-old Evgeniya said police came to her parent’s home asking for her, then told her that she would face “problems” if she attended the protest. Evgeniya was also warned by an official at her college that she could be expelled for attending the protest. She learned that other classmates received similar messages. Evgeniya stayed home from the protest.

According to the online portal OVD-Info, police detained 16 people at Sunday’s protest in Tula. Some were released without charge. Others have their court hearings pending or have been already sentenced to 15 days of detention and 40 hours of community service for violating regulations on public gatherings.

Freedom of assembly is enshrined in Russian law and international human rights law. Russians should be able to protest peacefully and not fear harassment from the police at their homes. Source: