Posts Tagged ‘freedom of expression’

Cambodia: Quash Convictions of ‘ADHOC 5’

June 22, 2022
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© 2018 ADHOC

The Cambodian authorities should quash the baseless criminal convictions of four members and one former member of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), Human Rights Watch said on 22 June 2022. On June 21, 2022, four of the defendants, Yi Soksan, Lim Mony, Ny Sokha, and Ny Chakrya appealed a May 23 appeals court ruling upholding their convictions to the Cambodian Supreme Court.

From the very beginning, the Cambodian authorities have sought to unjustly punish the ADHOC 5 as a way to intimidate all civil society activists from criticizing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Foreign governments, the United Nations country team, and international donor agencies should urge the authorities to drop these cases and end all repression of human rights defenders.” See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/03/11/even-landmark-un-decision-does-not-change-cambodias-treatment-of-human-rights-defenders/

In April 2016 the government’s Anti-Corruption Unit arrested ADHOC members Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda, Yi Soksan, and Lim Mony, along with the former ADHOC member Ny Chakrya, who was then deputy secretary-general of the National Election Committee, and accused them of making false statements regarding a criminal case against the then-opposition leader Kem Sokha.

The five activists spent 14 months in pretrial detention. During their criminal trial, the prosecution failed to present any of the witnesses mentioned in the case or provide any credible evidence to substantiate the charges.

On September 26, 2018, the Phnom Penh municipal court convicted Vanda, Sokha, Soksan, and Mony of “bribery of a witness” (article 548 of Cambodia’s criminal code) and Chakrya of being an accomplice (articles 28 and 548). All five received suspended five-year prison terms, minus 14 months of time served.

On October 24, 2018, the defendants appealed the guilty verdicts to the Court of Appeal. The prosecutor’s office also filed an appeal, seeking to have the defendants serve the remainder of their suspended sentence in prison. The Court of Appeal denied both appeals on May 23, 2022.

The ADHOC 5 case arose during a broader government crackdown on civil society and the political opposition, specifically on the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which the government-dominated Supreme Court later dissolved in a politically motivated ruling.

The former CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, continues to face unsubstantiated, politically motivated treason charges brought in September 2017. While he is no longer detained, his trial only recommenced in January, after being suspended for two years ostensibly because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the government deemed his case to not be a “priority”. The allegations against Sokha are based on the government’s groundless claim that the CNRP fomented a “color revolution” to overthrow the government.

Human Rights Watch has documented the situations of more than 50 current political prisoners in Cambodia, including both those in pretrial detention and those serving prison sentences following politically motivated convictions. They include political opposition members, human rights defenders, land and environmental rights activists, and journalists.

“The Cambodian authorities should recognize that every day the ADHOC 5 case persists, the greater this travesty of justice inflicts harm to the government’s reputation,” Robertson said. “The only way for justice to be served is for the prosecutor to quash the convictions and provide the defendants with an appropriate remedy for the years of hardship the case caused them.”

see also: https://www.martinennalsaward.org/hrd/the-khmer-5/

https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/06/22/cambodia-quash-convictions-adhoc-5

Emirates’ claim to improve its legal system are nonsense

June 7, 2022

Human Rights Watch on 5 June 2022 published a detailed piece showing that wide-ranging legal changes introduced by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in late 2021 fail to address the long-standing and systematic restrictions on citizens’ and residents’ civil and political rights. The new laws maintain previous provisions and include new ones that pose grave threats to fundamental human rights.

As reported by the state news agency WAM in November, the legal changes include amendments to over 40 laws including on crime and punishment, cybercrimes, and drugs, aiming “to strengthen economic, investment and commercial opportunities, in addition to maximizing social stability, security and ensuring the rights of both individuals and institutions.” While the changes allow for a moderate broadening of personal freedoms, the new legal framework retains severe restrictions on the rights to free expression, association, and assembly.

While the UAE government and its state-controlled media outlets trumpeted these new legislative changes as a massive step forward for economic and social freedoms, they will further entrench government-imposed repression,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The UAE government has chosen to squander an opportunity to improve freedoms across the board and instead has doubled down on repression.”

Human Rights Watch conducted a comprehensive legal analysis of two of the new laws, the crime and punishment law and the cybercrimes law, to identify any changes related to the rights to free expression and free assembly. Both laws went into effect in January 2022.

The laws continue to prohibit criticism of rulers and speech that is deemed to create or encourage social unrest, imposing severe penalties for vaguely defined charges. They maintain provisions that criminalize defamation and both verbal and written insults, whether published or made in private, as prosecutable offences. New provisions criminalize “false” and “misleading” information, sharing information with foreign groups or countries, and “offending foreign states.” Protests and demonstrations would still be prohibited.

UAE authorities have also spied on international journalists, activists, and even world leaders using sophisticated Israeli and EU-produced spyware, or with the help of former US intelligence officials. Some of those whose communications and devices were targeted by the government surveillance and who are residents of the UAE, were subsequently arrested and abused in detention. Among them is the prominent Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2016/08/29/apple-tackles-iphone-one-tap-spyware-flaws-after-mea-laureate-discovers-hacking-attempt/]. A UAE court sentenced Mansoor to 10 years in prison in May 2018 following a grossly unfair trial, partly based on private email exchanges and WhatsApp conversations. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/11/05/massive-call-in-support-of-ahmed-mansoor-at-his-50th-birthday-how-can-emirates-remain-deaf/ and https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/074ACCD4-A327-4A21-B056-440C4C378A1A

The UAE authorities should take immediate steps to bring the penal code and cybercrime law into line with international and regional standards on free speech and individual freedoms, Human Rights Watch said. The UAE has not ratified the ICCPR, article 19 of which outlines the right to freedom of opinion and expression. But it is a state party to the Arab Charter on Human Rights. Article 32 of the Arab Charter ensures the right to information, freedom of opinion and freedom of expression, and article 24 guarantees the right to freedom of political activity, the right to form and join associations, and the right to freedom of assembly and association.

The UAE cannot market itself as a reformist and tolerant state while introducing new laws that increase its already alarming levels of repression and censorship,” Page said….

The piece further provides a detailed analysis of penal and Cybercrimes Law.

https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/06/05/uae-sweeping-legal-reforms-deepen-repression

Many NGOs join to demand release of human rights defenders in Algeria

May 23, 2022

38 NGOs, including HRW and AI, ask Algeria to end the repression of human rights and the “immediate” release of detainees. They have launched a campaign calling on Algeria to end the repression of Human Rights and demand the immediate release of people detained in the country for exercising their freedom of expression. “The campaign calls on all relevant individuals, organizations and parties to contribute to collectively demanding an end to the criminalization of the exercise of fundamental freedoms in Algeria using the label At least 300 people have been arrested since the beginning of 2022, and until April 17, in the country for exercising their right to free expression, peaceful assembly or association, according to human rights defender Zaki Hannache. “The arrests and sentences of peaceful activists, independent trade unionists, journalists and human rights defenders have not decreased, even after the protest movement was closed,” they said in a statement. The organizations have given the example of the hunger strike of the Algerian activist, Hadi Lassouli, to protest against his arbitrary imprisonment, as well as the case of Hakim Debazi, who died in custody on April 24 after being placed in preventive detention on April 22. February for social media posts. “Those suspected of criminal responsibility for serious human rights violations must be brought to justice in trials with due guarantees, and the authorities must provide victims with access to justice and effective reparations,” they have requested. This awareness campaign will be carried out until the anniversary of the death of Kamel Eddine Fejar, a human rights defender who died in custody on May 28, 2019 after a 50-day hunger strike. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, was “concerned” last March at the increase in fundamental restrictions in the country, including an increase in arrests and detentions of human rights defenders, as well as members of civil society and political opponents. “I call on the government to change course and take all necessary measures to guarantee the rights of its people to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” she said in a statement from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

https://www.indonewyork.com/breaking/38-ngos-including-hrw-and-ai-ask-algeria-to-end-the-repression-of-human-h30616.html

Sedition law suspended by India’s Supreme Court

May 12, 2022

Having posted before about this nefarious law [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/06/16/delhi-high-court-re-establishes-that-criticism-is-not-sedition/], it is good news that on 11 May 2022 India’s Supreme Court suspended this law which activists say is often used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to target free speech and dissent.

Mr Modi’s critics say that the law, which was once used by Britain to target independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, has been abused by his government against many journalists, activists, and students. Section 124A of the Indian penal code gives wide-ranging powers to the police to arrest people, who can even face life imprisonment, for an act or speech that “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government”.

India’s official crime data says 236 people faced sedition charges between 2018 and 2020. India sparked global outrage last year after 22-year-old climate change activist Disha Ravi was arrested for sedition for allegedly creating a “toolkit” to aid anti-government farmer protests.

See also:

The rigours of Section 124A (are) not in tune with the current social milieu, and was intended for a time when this country was under the colonial regime,” India’s chief justice N V Ramana, part of a three-judge bench hearing a petition against the law, said. Mr Ramana asked the government not to file any new sedition cases and pause ongoing sedition investigations.

All pending trials, appeals and proceedings” under sedition, the court said, “be kept in abeyance” until the “re-examination of the provision is complete“.

The government had said Monday that it had decided to “re-examine and reconsider” the law but it remained in force. The top court also urged people jailed for sedition to approach local courts for bail.

Amnesty International welcomed the Supreme Court’s order “For far too long, authorities have misused the sedition law to harass, intimidate, and persecute human rights defenders, activists, journalists, students, filmmakers, singers, actors, and writers for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression,” Aakar Patel, Chair of Amnesty International India’s Board, said. “Sedition has been used as a tool of political repression by successive governmens”i

Nagpur-based lawyer Nihalsingh Rathod, who represents many accused in the Elgar Parishad case said the legislature should have re-examined the relevance of sedition a long time ago. The Supreme Court’s interim order was an important step in rights jurisprudence, he said.

“It won’t bring complete respite as no state invokes an isolated provision. In present cases too they invoke many provisions, including UAPA. But still, it brings hope that the process of looking at sedition and jurisprudence around it is being re-examined. It offers some hope that sedition law will undergo some churn that has never happened,” he said…

https://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/indias-top-court-suspends-use-of-controversial-sedition-law/wy0racqs4
https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/india/sedition-law-lawyers-and-free-speech-activists-welcome-sc-order/articleshow/91500777.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst

Facebook’s ‘supreme court’ is not a court

April 21, 2022
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Abe Chauhan (a BCL candidate at the University of Oxford) wrote an interesting opinion about Facebook’s Oversight Board.

The Oversight Board is an independent institution created by Meta which reviews – in light of human rights law – the decisions of its platforms, Facebook and Instagram, on whether posts violate their policies and should be removed. The Board represents a novel, decentralised approach to protecting freedom of expression and other rights, calling into question whether private entities should perform judicial human rights functions.See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/03/17/facebook-launches-a-human-rights-policy-and-fund-aimed-for-human-rights-defenders/

Following calls for more robust, transparent and accountable regulation of Facebook, and after a year of consultations, interviews and research, in October 2020 the Facebook (now Meta) Oversight Board became operational. It is an independent institution, funded indirectly by Meta through a $130 million trust arrangement, which makes binding determinations on content decisions appealed by users. Board members include law professors, human rights practitioners and civil society actors from around the world. Under Article 2, Section 2 of the Board’s Charter, it applies Meta’s Community Standards “in light of human rights norms protecting free expression”. At the time of writing, the Board has released 23 decisions on posts concerning various issues ranging from unmarked graves at former residential schools in Canada to the promotion of ayahuasca. The most widely publicised of these concerned an appeal against Facebook’s decision to block then-President Donald Trump from the platform following his posts in relation to the attack on the US Capitol. The Board decided to uphold the decision, but criticised Facebook’s use of the penalty of indefinite suspension, requiring it to determine a proportionate response. In that case, the Board engaged in extensive discussion on freedom of expression under the ICCPR, deriving a requirement for proportionate limitation from international jurisprudence and developing a number of factors influencing how this assessment should operate.

What, then, is the legal character of the Board? Although it applies human rights law in representative appeals from around the world, like an international human rights court, the Board is a private body and its determinations cannot preclude individual petitions. In this light, the Board is just an additional stage to Meta’s internal review procedure. What cannot be understated, however, is the reach of the Board’s decisions – it makes binding determinations on content decisions about the posts of Facebook’s 3 billion and Instagram’s 1.5 billion active users. Not only are its decisions wide-reaching, but they may have norm-shaping effect as a subsidiary means for interpreting human rights law. Many of the Board’s members are highly qualified human rights scholars and the unanimous decision-making system it applies increases the normative weight of decisions. While in a formal sense the Board is little more than an arbitral tribunal binding only Meta, its decisions have material effects on the rights enjoyment of many individuals around the world. This suggests that rather than merely an internal review procedure, the Board is a private human rights court. Viewed in this light, the Board fills a gap. The effectiveness of the human rights regime depends on the ability of States to protect rights. However, it is large multinational social media corporations which have factual control over many forums of expression. States can only indirectly regulate these, with potentially limited actual impact on the enjoyment of freedom of expression by users. The Board fills this ability gap by implementing rights adjudication internally within Meta.

Some might welcome this novel approach as it signals the greater horizontalisation of human rights. However, while it may be correct that these organisations ought to bear obligations to respect, protect and promote human rights violations, the role the Board is playing goes much further than this. In making final determinations on human rights limitations by Meta, it subsumes – de facto rather than de jure – part of the exclusively State function of human rights adjudication. This is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, it is unacceptable for private institutions to make rights determinations with wide-ranging effects, absent a delegation of this power by the State. Secondly, alongside this absence of legitimacy, the Board may slowly diminish rights protection. Even if it acts in the public interest, the Board is free to develop its own jurisprudence. As Benesch suggests, over time it will have to depart from international human rights law because this field was not designed for application by private companies and its norms and principles need to be adapted accordingly.

While the Board may well be an effective institution – its initial decisions apply close analysis to human rights issues and frequently overturn Meta’s content decisions – it is highly questionable that a private institution should perform the exclusive State function of human rights adjudication.

https://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/the-facebook-supreme-court-and-private-human-rights-adjudication/

IFEX at Canadian parliament: do more to protect human rights defenders

April 4, 2022

IFEX Deputy Executive Director Rachael Kay delivered a presentation on the situation of human rights defenders, journalists, and media organisations to the Canadian House of Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights.

…Like everyone, we see the expansion of authoritarianism in all its forms. Information is being weaponized in ways that has a profound impact on people and is creating a kind of information chaos. In our network alone, we’ve seen how misuse of access to information legislation, internet shutdowns, misinformation, attacks on media and of course the murder of journalists is becoming routine. When those targeted directly with online disinformation and smear campaigns are women, the form the attacks take is usually gendered and often results in self-censorship.

The aim is to silence these voices, and it is doing just that.

We can see this played out in the current context. Immediate action is required in the most urgent situations, Ukraine/Russia, Afghanistan, Belarus, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Nicaragua and Sudan, just to name a few. It is imperative that coordinated systems of emergency support for journalists at risk and their families are created, something where we see Canada is already moving in the right direction. But we must continue to increase our effectiveness.

And to be effective, these systems should include providing emergency visas that have simple and secure methods of submission and, in the absence of such, they must expedite the processing of visas for journalists and their families, as well as ensure safe passage. Key to the success of any intervention is effective coordination with local and international civil society organisations working to protect and evacuate journalists.

We see that media freedom has never been more crucial. Democracies cannot survive and flourish without free, independent and pluralistic media. We need to reverse engineer the current branding of the media as fake news and the enemy of the people as normal. It has been the lexicon adopted around the world – language mimicked and acted upon that includes continued verbal and physical attacks on the media with total impunity. This has had a profound impact on press freedom and journalists in particular. And be sure, no country, including Canada, is exempt from this trend.

The narrative needs to be countered forcefully with words and actions. Outside of intervening in urgent situations, the government must play a significant, ongoing role in reinforcing the need for press freedom and respect for journalists in its own national context.

There is also the need for accountability. The criminalisation of journalism and abuse of law by state actors has to end and we call on multilateral relationships and institutions to ensure that those who attack the media face real consequences for their actions – otherwise attacks against the press will continue to escalate and any standards championed by Canada will remain empty.

…..

At IFEX our network of over 100 member organisations in more than 70 countries actively advocate for freedom of expression and information as a fundamental human right – many do so in very dangerous circumstances. The targeted repression of press freedom advocates and journalists, and attacks on communities and institutions, see accepted norms being increasingly undermined and weakened.

We have been called on to do more direct support for our members, across all regions, who find themselves increasingly under attack by authoritarian states focused on shutting down the voices of civil society and threatening dissent at any price.

Organisations whose offices and staff are targeted and harassed with no other aim but closure and erasure need to be supported, funded and engaged with – because these are the voices that call for accountability and if these voices are shuttered it will leave a vacuum for democracy.

We know these issues are complex. IFEX’s members and allies around the world have been working on them, doing grassroots advocacy, publishing reports, indexes and offering solutions and campaigning for years. They are a rich pool of knowledge that could inform Canada’s policies and discussions with nuance and a national and global perspective. As part of your efforts in focusing on press freedom we would welcome being a conduit to these sources.

Governments and civil society groups need to continue to find ways to collaborate, to be at the table together.

Grim times for human rights defenders and real journalists in Russia

April 1, 2022
Svetlana Gannushkina and Oleg Orlov in court. @MemorialMoscow / Twitter.com

While understandably most attention goes to the real war in Ukraine, we should keep an eye on the worsening situation in Russia itself. See also my earlier post: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2022/03/05/ngos-express-great-worries-about-human-rights-situation-in-russia-at-un-human-rights-council/

Michael Mainville for AFP on 31 March 2022 is writing about this very intelligently:

For many years, veteran Russian human rights defender Oleg Orlov thought his country’s darkest days were behind it. Not anymore. “I don’t think I have ever seen a darker period,” says Orlov, 68, who began a lifetime of activism in the early 1980s handing out leaflets against the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

What is happening now cannot be compared with anything that happened before in Russia, maybe anywhere in the world… when a country that left totalitarianism behind went back.”

For Orlov and other activists of his generation, the conflict in Ukraine has marked the definite end of a hopeful time that started with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the 1980s. Nearly 40 years later, Russian troops are again fighting and dying abroad, Kremlin opponents are in jail, independent media have been shut down and thousands of Russians have decided to flee the country.

“The hopes we had did not come true, there have been terrible disappointments,” says Svetlana Gannushkina, 80, one of Russia’s most prominent post-Soviet rights activists. “Today we have a country that can no longer be called authoritarian, this is already a totalitarian regime.

Orlov and Gannushkina are two of the last few critical voices still at work in Russia, and in interviews with AFP in Moscow this week both said they had no plans to quit or to leave. Orlov was in the offices of Memorial, which was shut down last year after decades as Russia’s most prominent rights group, where bookcases sat empty, desks had been cleared and packing boxes were piled on the floor. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/12/29/russias-supreme-court-orders-closure-emblematic-memorial/]

“I don’t see myself outside Russia. I… have always wanted to live and die in this country,” says Orlov.

A biologist by training, Orlov joined Memorial in the late 1980s when the group was set up to document Soviet-era crimes. He went on to record rights abuses in a series of post-Soviet conflicts, especially in Russia’s two wars in Chechnya in the 1990s.  In 1995 he was part of a group who swapped themselves for hostages taken by Chechen fighters and were eventually released, and in 2007 he was abducted, beaten and threatened with execution by a group of masked gunmen in Ingushetia next to Chechnya. After serving two years in the mid-2000s on Russia’s presidential human rights council, Orlov has since been active in opposing President Vladimir Putin. He was arrested at a March 6 protest against the military action in Ukraine, and returned home one day this week to find his front door painted over with the letter “Z” — a symbol used to show support for Russia in the conflict — and a sign reading “collaborator.”

The harsh new political climate and impact of severe sanctions have prompted thousands of Russians to leave in recent weeks, including many of the country’s young, opposition-minded liberals. Gannushkina has seen it at her Civic Assistance Committee, the group she founded in 1990 to help refugees and migrants in an often-hostile environment. “Unfortunately, our wonderful young people, who followed their hearts to our organization, are leaving,” she says…These young people, who we had so much hope for, feel in danger and helpless, so they leave. And we are left here with this insanity...”

The former mathematics professor set up the Civic Assistance Committee to help the thousands displaced by conflicts as the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. From its modest Moscow offices, it provides legal assistance and help with finding jobs and housing, as well as campaigning for the rights of marginalized groups. Gannushkina also worked with Memorial and like Orlov served on the presidential human rights council before resigning in 2012. A letter of thanks for her service signed by Putin still hangs on her office wall. She remains very active, taking the time to meet individually with people seeking help.  [see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/215E5731-7786-434A-9C20-923168E65F44]

“No, I don’t think about leaving,” Gannushkina says, though she admits she is glad her children and grandchildren live abroad. I am happy they are not here, because it gives me the chance to say what I think, to everyone and everywhere.”

We had a chance to create a normal federation, which would be governed in the way other federations are governed in democratic regimes. We missed that chance,” she says. All she can do now, Gannushkina says, is “hope that time will pass and we will get another chance. “But most likely I won’t be here to see it.”

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Also on 31 March 2022 The Washington Post had an editorial: A generation of independent Russian journalists meets its grim end:

In his lecture accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10, the editor of the Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, declared that “journalism in Russia is going through a dark valley.” He said more than 100 journalists, media outlets, human rights defenders and nongovernmental organizations have been branded “foreign agents,” a label equivalent to “enemies of the people.” Many journalists lost their jobs and fled the country. [see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/bdbb2312-8b7a-4e44-bb4c-1864474daec7]

Now Novaya Gazeta itself has suspended publication, threatened by the government for failing to label a group as a “foreign agent” and because of an onerous new law that makes it a crime with penalties up to 15 years in prison to “discredit” the armed forces — including use of the words “war,” “invasion” or “attack” to describe President Vladimir Putin’s onslaught against Ukraine. A day after the invasion, Novaya Gazeta expressed outrage with a front-page three-word banner headline against a black background: “Russia. Bombs. Ukraine.” The paper continued to report, including from a correspondent in Ukraine, until it could no longer. The decision to suspend was portrayed by Mr. Muratov as temporary, but the future for all independent media in Russia appears grim.

This is a tombstone moment for a generation of independent journalists. In the final years of Soviet glasnost and in the unbridled and exuberant first years of Russia’s democracy, they threw off the straitjacket of censors and state-dominated media outlets to create newspapers, magazines, radio stations, television broadcasts and digital and social media that drew large and information-hungry audiences. To be sure, the audiences often were liberal, elite and urban, but at the very least, Russians benefited from information sources outside state control. Even in the authoritarian years of Mr. Putin’s rise, some were permitted to function. Novaya Gazeta distinguished itself with hard-hitting investigations, as Mr. Muratov noted in his lecture, fearlessly exposing money-laundering and the exploitation of Siberian forests, among other topics. Six of the paper’s reporters have been killed over the years.

But now it seems that Russia is moving from authoritarianism to totalitarianism, where the state can no longer tolerate any independent outlets. Echo Moskvy, a bastion of open discussion on radio and online, has been silenced and closed. TV Dozhd, founded in 2010, has suspended operations, and some of its journalists have fled. The popular news website Znak.com has also closed. A similar trend has swept independent media in Russia’s regions.

Mr. Putin completely missed the ferment and exhilaration of the late-1980s glasnost years — he was serving in the KGB in East Germany — and in his two decades in power, he has shown little patience for free speech. Lately, dozens of people have been arrested for expressing anti-war sentiments. Vera Bashmakova, the editor of a popular science magazine, was detained for several hours when she showed up at preschool to pick up her daughter with a “No to war!” sign in her car window. She was charged with “discrediting the army.” This is indeed a “dark valley” for Russia, and it is growing darker by the day.

https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/03/31/shattered-hopes-and-dark-days-for-longtime-russian-rights-activists-a77158

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/03/31/generation-independent-russian-journalists-meets-its-grim-end/

Naty Castro freed by Philippine court order

March 31, 2022
Philippine court frees human rights doctor

Photo: Rappler.com

On 30 March, 2022, the good news arrived: A human rights activist and doctor arrested in the Philippines last month on rebellion and kidnapping charges has been freed from detention after a court dismissed the case against her and condemned the manner of her arrest. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2022/03/10/naty-castro-human-rights-defender-in-the-philippines-arbitrarily-detained/]

Dr. Maria Natividad (“Naty”) Castro, 53, walked free from detention on March 30 after the Bayugan City Regional Trial Court ordered her release on March 25. The judge called the arrest ‘repugnant to her right to liberty’

She had been held since her arrest in Manila on Feb. 18 for allegedly being a fundraiser for the Communist Party’s armed wing, the New People’s Army. She was also accused of being involved in the kidnapping of a government-backed militia member in 2018 while helping indigenous communities in Mindanao.

https://www.ucanews.com/news/philippine-court-frees-human-rights-doctor/96721

http://davaotoday.com/main/human-rights/agusan-sur-court-dismisses-charges-vs-red-tagged-community-doctor/

Greek court fails human rights defenders on antisemitism

February 18, 2022
greek orthodox bishop seraphim hate speech
Greek Orthodox Bishop Seraphim of Piraeus. Two activists were found to have falsely accused him of hate speech by a Greek court on Tuesday. Credit: Ewiki/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

Several newspapers (here Anna Wichmann for GreekReporter of 16 February 2022) commented on the rather surprising ruling by a Greek court that two human rights activists falsely accused a Greek Orthodox bishop of hate speech and sentenced them to year-long prison sentences that were suspended for three years.

Bishop Seraphim, who is the Metropolitan of Piraeus, was acquitted on charges of hate speech. The bishop has made what many believe are both coded and explicit references to antisemitic tropes many times. For example when Greece introduced new legislation to expand rights for gay and lesbian couples in 2015, he claimed that an “international Zionist monster” was behind the bill.

He also claimed that Jews themselves funded and planned the Holocaust and charged that they were the reason for Greece’s financial troubles on Greek television five years ago. After his statement about the Holocaust began to garner controversy, the Greek Orthodox Bishop clarified that it was his own opinion and not that of the Greek Orthodox Church.

These comments were seen as extremely troubling in a country whose once vibrant Jewish community was nearly wiped out during the Holocaust, and antisemitic rhetoric and attacks, usually in the form of vandalism, are still a major problem.

The accused brought a formal complaint against the Bishop in 2017 in which they claimed he fueled hatred and incited violence against Greece’ Jewish minority with his inflammatory statements about Jews and the Holocaust. They also claimed that he had abused his office.

The prosecutor dismissed the activists’ complaint in 2019, but the Bishop decided to file his own motion against the activists for falsely accusing him of hate speech, and the prosecutor subsequently formally charged the accused in November.

Greece passed Law No. 4285/2014 in 2014, which criminalized hate speech — particularly speech which incites violence — and genocide denial. The law reads “Anyone, who publicly incites, provokes, or stirs, either orally or through the press, the Internet, or any other means, acts of violence or hatred against a person or group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, color, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, in a manner that endangers the public order and exposes the life, physical integrity, and freedom of persons defined above to danger, will be punished by imprisonment of from three months to three years and a fine of €5,000 to €20,000.”

Human rights groups around the world paid careful attention to the case; many believed that bringing the activists to trial alone was a sign of an alarming shift of the judicial system’s role in the country as a force against activists.

Amnesty International stated on social media that “The ruling poses a direct threat to the right to freedom of expression and has a chilling effect on human rights defenders advocating against racism and hate speech.”

Andrea Gilbert, one of the accused, who works for the Greek Helsinki Monitor rights group, expressed her outrage at the verdict to The Guardian: “Today’s outrageous verdict is representative of the institutionalized antisemitism that exists in Greece…We have immediately appealed and will fight it all the way.”

Activists and people who work for NGOs argue that the trial epitomizes how difficult it is for them to work in Greece.

“Human rights defenders (in Greece) are consistently targeted for their legitimate work…(They) face different types of attacks, including surveillance, judicial harassment, arbitrary arrests, detentions, ill-treatment, entry bans and expulsions,” the international secretariat of the World Organization Against Torture stated to The Guardian.

Although not included in the activists’ initial complaint of hate speech against Greek Orthodox Bishop Seraphim, he is also known to express what many believe are homophobic sentiments.

He has claimed that homosexuality brings about disease and can be “carcinogenic.” He has also called homosexuality an issue of “psychopathology” rather than sexuality.

In 2021, when Greece was hit with catastrophic wildfires that destroyed vast swaths of land and thousands of houses, Seraphim released a statement in which he hinted that the fires were a punishment for Greece adopting legislation that expanded the rights of gay people, writing:

“With love I would say to our leaders that when they show off the subversion of human ontology and human nature and institutionalize it as a “human right,” despite the fact that it doesn’t have any relationship with human nature, and they view it as a plus on their CV for advancement in their position of authority, they don’t understand that this is hubris, and each instance of hubris requires purification and ‘just repayment.’”

https://greekreporter.com/2022/02/16/greek-bishop-hate-speech-seraphim/embed/#?secret=PjaG4AEUTf#?secret=1rJoahvQnx

https://www.dw.com/en/dangerous-orthodoxy-greek-human-rights-activists-sentenced-for-challenging-clerical-antisemitism/av-60818537

Online human rights defenders need to be supported and protected – not criminalized

January 27, 2022

Laurel E. Fletcher (professor at Berkeley Law School) & Khalid Ibrahim (executive director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights) published “When did it become illegal to defend human rights?” on January 19, 2022 in International InstitutionsTechnologyGlobalConflict & Justice Middle East.

Their key point is worth noting: The problem for human rights defenders in the Gulf region and neighbouring countries is that states have exploited the opportunity to align their cybercrime laws with European standards to double-down on laws restricting legitimate online expression BUT without any of the judicial safeguards that exist in that region.


Several women take part in a protest, using a hashtag, against Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s visit to the country in Tunis, Tunisia, in November 2018.  EFE / Stringer


Governments in every region of the world are criminalizing human rights activism. They do it by prosecuting protest organizers, journalists, internet activists, and leaders of civil society organizations under laws that make it a crime to insult public figures, disseminate information that damages “public order,” “national security,” and “fake news.” 

In the Gulf region and neighbouring countries, oppressive governments have further weaponized their legal arsenal by adopting anti-cybercrime laws that apply these overly broad and ill-defined offline restrictions to online communications. 

In an age when online communications are ubiquitous, and in societies where free press is crippled, laws that criminalize the promotion of human rights on social media networks and other online platforms undermine the ability to publicize and discuss human rights violations and threaten the foundation of any human rights movement.

In May of 2018, for example, the Saudi government carried out mass arrests of women advocating online for women’s right to drive. Charged under the country’s cybercrime law including article six which prohibits online communication “impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy,” these human rights activists were detained, tortured, and received multi-year sentences for the “crime” of promoting women’s rights. 

There is certainly a necessity to address the prevalence and impact of cybercrimes but without criminalizing people who speak out for human rights.

European countries and the United Nations (UN) have encouraged states to adopt a standard approach to addressing crimes committed with online technologies ranging from wire fraud to financing terrorist groups. The Council of Europe issued a 2001 regional convention on cybercrime, to which any state may accede, and the UN is promoting a cybercrime treaty

Common standards can prevent the abuse of online technologies by enabling  the sharing of online evidence and promoting accountability since the evidence of online crimes often resides on servers outside the country where the harm occurred or where the wrongdoers reside. 

The problem for human rights defenders in the Gulf region and neighbouring countries is that states have exploited the opportunity to align their cybercrime laws with European standards to double-down on laws restricting legitimate online expression. 

European countries have robust human rights oversight from the European Court of Human Rights, which ensures that limitations on freedom of expression online meet stringent international standards. There is no comparable human rights oversight for the Gulf region. Without adequate international judicial review, governments can successfully exploit international processes to strengthen their ability to stifle online expression. 

The regional model cybercrime law drafted by the United Arab Emirates and adopted by the Arab League in 2004, follows international guidance. However, it incorporates a regional twist and includes provisions that criminalize online dissemination of content that is “contrary to the public order and morals,” facilitates assistance to terrorist groups, along with disclosure of confidential government information related to national security or the economy. 

UN experts reviewed the UAE law and gave it a seal of approval, noting it complied with the European convention, ignoring the fact that  UN human rights experts have documented repeatedly that governments use such restrictions to crack down on dissent. A UN-sponsored global cybercrime study, published in 2013, similarly soft-pedaled the threat of criminalizing online dissent by noting that governments had leeway to protect local values. Such protection does not extend to speaking up for universal rights like equality and democracy.

Actually, the universal right to freedom of expression protects online content, and limitations must meet international standards of legality, legitimacy, necessity, and proportionality. In our recent report on the use of anti-cybercrime legislation throughout the Gulf region and neighbouring countries, we found that over an 18-month period (May 2018-October 2020), there were 225 credible incidents of online freedom of expression violations against activists and journalist in ten countries: Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the UAE. Each country has adopted  anti-cybercrime laws except Iraq, where lawmakers’ drafts of proposed legislation have been met with stiff opposition from domestic and international human rights groups.

The international community needs to increase pressure on the Gulf region and neighboring countries to comply with their international obligations to protect freedom of expression off and online. Turning away from the clear evidence that oppressive governments are expanding the reach of criminal law to stifle online human rights activism undermines legitimate international efforts to address cybercrime. 

How can we trust the UN to safeguard the voices advocating online for human rights and democracy in a region that so desperately needs both, if it fails to insist human rights safeguards be written into the regional and national cybercrime laws it champions? 

In the age of the internet, online human rights activism needs to be supported—and protected—as a vital part of the cybercommunications ecosystem. In the Gulf region, defenders of human rights pay an untenable price for their work, risking arrest, torture, and even death. It is time to reverse the trend while there are still defenders left. 

One of the women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia said before she was imprisoned, “If the repressive authorities here put behind bars every peaceful voice calling for respect for public freedoms and the achievement of social justice in the Gulf region and neighboring countries, only terrorists will remain out.” History has proven the truth of her words, as most of the individuals who led terrorist groups with a global reach have come from this region and have caused, and still cause, chronic problems for the whole world.

The important lesson that we must learn here is that repressive governments foster a destructive dynamic of expansion and intensification of human rights violations. Repressive governments cooperate with and look to one another for strategies and tactics. Further troubling is that what we see in the Gulf region is enabled by the essentially unconditional support provided by some Western governments, especially the US and UK. This toxic template of Western support to governments that oppress their own people constitutes a threat to world peace and prosperity and must be addressed.


https://www.openglobalrights.org/when-did-it-become-illegal-to-defend-human-rights/index.cfm