Johns Hopkins University Press
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Iran

Shaparak Shajarizadeh, a women’s rights activist, received UN Watch’s Morris B. Abram award on November 2. She was arrested three times and imprisoned twice for refusing to wear the hijab as a part of the White Wednesdays movement. Her acceptance speech is excerpted below:

Since the 1979 Revolution, Iranian women haven’t had the right to choose who they want to be. For 41 years, the Islamic government has used the compulsory hijab law, which forces women to wear a headscarf in public, as a repressive tool to abuse, violate, and subjugate women and prevent them from having any important role in society.

But things changed in May 2017, when women’s rights activist and journalist Masih Alinejad launched the White Wednesdays movement to protest compulsory hijab. This campaign encourages followers to wear either a white [headscarf] or no headscarf, and then post pictures on social media in a collective act of defiance against the regime.

I had always admired the tenacity of women’s rights activists in Iran even though I had never felt compelled to speak up. But I felt different after seeing a beautiful image of a woman remove her white headscarf, attach it to a stick, and stand before the public on a utility box, waving it as a white flag of peace. This woman’s name is Vida Movahedi. Soon after, I joined Vida and other courageous women by proudly removing my headscarf. But my public protest had consequences. In February 2018, I was arrested and taken to Qarchak prison where I was beaten and thrown into solitary confinement.

It was the most frightening experience of my life. As an activist, I was paralyzed with fear. As a mother, I was crushed having been separated from my nine-year-old son with no idea of when I would see him again. After a hunger strike, I was released on bail.

Months later, while on vacation with my son, I was arrested for a final time. The authorities handcuffed me and interrogated me in front [End Page 168] of my child as he cried, screamed, and begged them to let us go home. In the courthouse that evening, he cried himself to sleep on my lap. At that moment, I told myself that I wouldn’t let this happen to my family ever again.

All of this pain—for the crime of peacefully waving a white flag of peace in the street.

When Nasrin Sotudeh—the leading human rights lawyer who represented me in the court—bailed me out, I immediately fled the country with my son, and my trial proceeded without me. Nasrin told me that throughout the trial, the judge refused to hear my side and, like so many other women who stood trial before me, my fate was predetermined.

However, unlike those women—and thanks to Nasrin—I was safely outside the country with my son. On the day of my release, I looked into his eyes and said that our suffering wouldn’t be for nothing, that one day he’d be proud of me.

Today, accepting this award, I have my freedom while my lawyer Nasrin still languishes behind bars, having been falsely accused of “propaganda against the state” and “encouraging prostitution.” She is serving a prison sentence of 38 years, with 148 lashes.

And there are thousands of others in her same position: imprisoned on fake charges, refused legal representations, and awaiting a fixed trial without any hope for justice.

I often think: how many of these dissidents are mothers—like I was—separated from their children? My heart breaks to think of the months they have endured without hugging or kissing their families.

The truth of what happens inside these courtrooms and prisons would shock anyone with a conscience. But still, the international community is silent.

Every year, the UN makes statements about human rights abuses in Iran. Yet too often, they also send the opposite message by refusing to take meaningful action against the regime. And last year, the UN actually appointed the Islamic Republic of Iran to a position on its women’s rights commission. . . .

Enough is enough. The UN must stop rewarding abusers. Instead, the UN needs to condemn Iran, punish the Rouhani regime, and expose its transgressions to the world.

China

The World Uyghur Congress (WUC) is an international voice of the Uyghur people of Central Asia, more than a million of whom have been detained in reeducation camps as part of a larger effort by the Chinese Communist Party to stamp out their identity and culture. Excerpts of the WUC’s statement issued on October 24, the UN’s 75th [End Page 169]

On the occasion of the UN’s 75th anniversary, the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) reiterates its calls on the UN and its member states to meaningfully address the Uyghur crisis and hold the Chinese government accountable for its crimes. . . .

Since 2017, millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims have been arbitrarily detained in internment camps in East Turkistan,1 where they are exposed to torture, sexual abuse, and forced labor, amongst other atrocities. This mass detention is part of the Chinese government’s targeted attack on every expression of a distinct Uyghur ethnic identity, including the destruction of mosques, shrines and graveyards, bans on the Uyghur language, and separation of Uyghur children from their families. Furthermore, the Chinese authorities have implemented a scheme to suppress Uyghur birthrates in East Turkistan, subjecting Uyghur women to forced abortions, mass sterilizations, and other anticonceptive measures. Taken together, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) targeted campaign against the Uyghurs fits the criteria of a genocide under the UN genocide convention.

. . . . Despite mounting evidence of what is happening to the Uyghurs in East Turkistan, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has never publicly spoken out on the Uyghur crisis. Moreover, a separate item or discussion on the Uyghur crisis has been notably absent during UN Human Rights Council (HRC) sessions over the past three years. Even though the CCP’s atrocities against the Uyghur people clearly violate the spirit of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN has continuously failed to meaningfully address the issue and take proportional action. It is unjustifiable that Chinese authorities have never been held accountable for their crimes by the international community.

Furthermore, China’s position and influence within the UN and its human-rights mechanisms threaten to erode the principles and values which are at the core of the UN. On 13 October, China was reelected to the HRC, despite opposition from many civil-society organizations and UN member states. As a country which has continuously used its position in the HRC to silence any debate on its horrific human-rights record, China’s threat to the UN human-rights system became immediately clear when the country announced its reelection, stating that “there is no universally applicable model” to human rights. This built on earlier efforts to remodel the conception of human rights through a “win-win” resolution, which China recently withdrew because of lacking support. Next to abusing its position within the UN and HRC, China has also used tactics such as the harassment, threatening, and intimidation of UN diplomats and other officials who voiced criticism or other forms of concern over China’s poor human-rights record. . . . [End Page 170]

Ultimately, the international community cannot continue to stand idly by while the Chinese government continues its genocide against the Uyghurs. The CCP has been able to systematically violate fundamental human rights and freedoms of the Uyghur people in East Turkistan with impunity while actively manipulating and undermining the UN human-rights system. This presents one of the most serious threats to the UN as an organization founded on the principles of dignity and equality. On its 75th anniversary, the UN can look back on its history with pride, but must not forget its ongoing responsibilities; if no appropriate measures are taken to stop the Uyghur crisis now, this will be remembered as an indelible stain on its record.

Egypt

On 23 November 2019, Ramy Kamel, a human-rights advocate for Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, was abducted and imprisoned on fraudulent national-security charges. His arrest is part of the government’s accelerating campaign to repress Egyptian civil society and media. On 29 November 2020, five Middle-Eastern and one international NGO issued a renewed call for his release, excerpted below:

This week marks an entire year spent by Coptic activist Ramy Kamel behind bars. The undersigned human rights organizations denounce Ramy’s continued arbitrary detention, in retaliation for his human rights work, locally and internationally . . . The organizations consider the Egyptian government’s refusal to release Ramy as obstinacy that is putting his life perilously at risk. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic’s proliferation in Egypt’s dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary prisons; Ramy, who suffers from asthma, is acutely vulnerable to the virus. . . .

Ramy Kamel was arrested on 23 November 2019 from his home in El-Warraq district, after police raided it and confiscated his cell phone, camera, and personal computer. During his disappearance of several hours, Ramy disclosed that he was abused verbally and physically. He later appeared at the headquarters of the Supreme State Security Prosecution in the Fifth Settlement district, where he was interrogated for the first time, without his lawyer. The prosecution charged him with “joining and financing a terrorist group” and “spreading false news,” and remanded him in custody pending investigation. . . .

During the interrogation phase, Ramy faced more violations of his fundamental rights. The interrogation sessions were postponed for over two months, and his detention renewed several times in absentia with neither an investigation nor his lawyer present. Ramy was finally brought up for investigation at a session on 2 November 2019 at the Police Academy headquarters. But the prosecution decided to detain him in a cell, without allowing him to attend the session. His detention was extended . . . 45 days. . . . [End Page 171]

Many local and international human rights organizations and governing bodies. . . have denounced Ramy’s imprisonment and called for his immediate release, while urging the Egyptian government to end its practices of intimidation, harassment and retaliation against human-rights defenders in the country for the conduct of their legitimate and lawful human rights activities. Ramy’s arrest and continued arbitrary detention comes as part of a broader security campaign targeting many human-rights activists and professionals. Human rights lawyers Mohamed El-Baqer and Ibrahim Metwally and human rights defender Gasser Abdel Razek are just several of many law-abiding citizens arrested and prosecuted for their engagement with the UN [and] the international community. . . .

The signatory organizations renew their call for the immediate release of Ramy Kamel and all detained human rights defenders in Egypt and urge the government. . . to end its reprisal campaign against the country’s human-rights community. Egyptian rights defenders face prosecution, defamation and smear campaigns including incitement to murder, travel bans, confiscation of funds and assets, inclusion on terrorist lists, and other arbitrary practices that seek to silence and intimidate them, and to obstruct their legitimate work, locally and internationally. . .

Thailand

In February 2020, the Constitutional Court dissolved a political party popular with young voters in the 2019 elections. Since then, nationwide youth-led protests have demanded democratic reforms from the monarchy and the military-led government. On November 17, police prevented demonstrations in front of parliament, leaving many injured. Several NGOs issued a statement, excerpts of which follow:

We the undersigned organizations condemn the Thai police’s unnecessary and excessive use of force against peaceful protesters marching to the national parliament in Bangkok on November 17, 2020. . .

On November 17, police set out barriers and barbed wire to prevent a peaceful march organized by pro-democracy movements from reaching the parliament. Protesters planned to protest outside the parliament as members of parliament and senators debated seven different proposals for constitutional amendments, including an amendment proposed by the lawyers’ [NGO] iLaw (Internet Law Reform Dialogue) [and] which was supported by the [prodemocracy demonstrators]. Police refused to let protesters through the barriers, and when the demonstrators acted to breach those barriers, police crowd control units used water cannons laced with purple dye and an apparent teargas chemical, as well as tear-gas grenades and pepper spray grenades, to forcibly disperse thousands of demonstrators, including students, some of whom are children. . . [End Page 172]

Police also failed to prevent violence between pro-democracy protesters and royalist “yellow shirts” near the Kiak Kai intersection, near the parliament. Initially, riot police separated the two groups. However, video posted on social media later showed police officers informing the royalist protesters that they would withdraw and seconds later they vacated their position between the two groups. During the ensuing skirmishes, both sides were filmed throwing rocks and wielding clubs. Live broadcasts included sounds that appeared to be gunfire.

The Erawan Medical Centre reported that there were at least 55 protesters injured, mostly from inhaling tear gas. It also reported that there were six protesters who suffered gunshot wounds. The injured included children: a kindergartener and elementary school students.

Although some pro-democracy protesters engaged in violent conduct in responding to royalist protesters, we emphasize that the overwhelming number of protesters were entirely peaceful. Furthermore, we wish to emphasize that while specific participants of an assembly who engage in violence are subject to a response that is lawful, strictly necessary and proportionate, they also retain all other human rights including the right to life, to security of person and to freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

International human rights law . . . protects the rights to freedom of expression . . . and peaceful assembly . . . But Thai authorities have routinely enforced censorship and stifled public assemblies, meetings, and discussions about human rights, political reforms, and the monarchy’s role in society. . . .

On November 18, the spokesperson for UN Secretary-General António Guterres “expressed concern about the [human rights] situation in Thailand. . . it’s disturbing to see the repeated use of less lethal weapons against peaceful protesters, including water cannons. . . it’s very important that the government of Thailand refrain from the use of force and ensures the full protection of all people in Thailand who are exercising a fundamental peaceful right to protest.”

We call on the Thai government to respect, protect and fulfill the right of demonstrators to peacefully protest . . . Specifically, Thailand should:

  • • Protect the rights of protesters, including those who are children . . .

  • • Facilitate the exercise of the right to peacefully assemble and refrain from dispersing assemblies by using weapons, including less-lethal weapons, against protesters . . .

  • • Protect protesters, including those who are children, from violence and interference by non-State actors, while also protecting the rights of counter-demonstrators. [End Page 173]

  • • Take steps to ensure accountability for rights violations associated with the government’s crackdown on the protest movement and to ensure that those whose rights have been violated enjoy the right to an effective remedy . . .

Poland

In June 2020, Polish authorities put three female human-rights activists on trial for depicting the Madonna with a rainbow halo, symbolizing the LGBTI community. Two days before the November 4 proceedings, a coalition of six NGOs issued a statement, garnering 140,000 online signatures of support. Excerpts follow:

The three human rights defenders, Elżbieta, Anna and Joanna— whose surnames are not being used to protect their privacy—are facing trial for “offending religious beliefs” under article 196 of the Criminal Code (C.C.) in relation to the use of posters depicting the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo symbolic of the LGBTI flag around her head and shoulders. The authorities are alleging that the three activists pasted the posters on 29 April 2019 . . . in public areas in the city of Plock and have “publicly insulted an object of religious worship in the form of this image which offended the religious feelings of others.” They now face up to two years in prison if found guilty for their peaceful activism.

The authorities arrested and detained Elżbieta in 2019 after she took a trip abroad with Amnesty International. The authorities opened an initial investigation against her in May 2019 and in July 2020, they officially charged the three activists. . . .

Having, created or distributing posters such as the ones depicting the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo should not be a criminal offense and is protected under the right to freedom of expression.

In its current formulation, article 196 of the C.C. imposes undue restrictions on the right to freedom of expression by providing overly broad discretion to the authorities to prosecute and criminalize individuals for expression that must be protected. This is incompatible with Poland’s international and regional human rights obligations.

Poland is bound by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). . .

Furthermore, in 2013, the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights noted that “Restrictions on artistic freedoms based on insulting religious feelings. . . are incompatible with [ICCPR].”. . .

The case against [these three activists] is not unique but an example of the repeated harassment activists and human rights defenders face simply for carrying out peaceful activism in Poland, which Polish and international human rights organizations have documented and denounced [End Page 174] at length in the last several years.

Elżbieta, Anna and Joanna stood against hate and discrimination and for years they have been fighting for a just and equal Poland. They deserve to be praised and not taken to court for their activism. . . .

Cambodia

The Cambodian government, using the covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to accelerate its attacks on free expression, has forced the closure of independent media outlets, harassed journalists, and pushed harsh security laws. Fifty-seven NGOs issued a statement in protest, which is excerpted below:

We, the 57 undersigned nongovernmental organizations express our deep concern about the Cambodian government’s harassment of independent media outlets and their journalists. . . .

The Cambodian government is currently holding two journalists in pre-trial detention on politically motivated incitement or defamation charges: Sok Oudom and Ros Sokhet. A third journalist, Rath Rott Mony, is presently serving a two-year prison sentence on a similarly fabricated charge.

  1. 1. On June 25, 2020 the Phnom Penh municipal police’s Cybercrime Bureau arrested Ros Sokhet, the publisher of the Cheat Khmer (“Khmer Nation”) newspaper, based on two posts made on his Facebook page, addressing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s succession plans and Cambodia’s microloan debt crisis. . .

  2. 2. On May 13, 2020, police arrested Sok Oudom, owner of the Rithysen radio station and news website in Kampong Chhnang province, charging him with incitement to commit a felony for reporting on [a] land dispute at Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary. . . Oudom is currently held in pretrial detention at Kampong Chnnang provincial prison. . . .

  3. 3. On December 7, 2018, Thai authorities arrested Rath Rott Mony, a fixer for Russian state-media outlet Russia Today (RT), upon the request of the Cambodian government that alleged Mony had committed incitement when working with RT on a documentary that featured accounts of poverty-stricken families sending their daughters to engage in child sex trafficking. On December 12, he was deported to Cambodia and sent to pre-trial detention. In June 2019, a Phnom Penh court convicted him of incitement to discriminate. . . and sentenced him to two years in prison. In June 2020, the Supreme Court ordered Mony’s retrial. . . . [End Page 175]

According to NGO reports, between January and May 2020, Cambodian police and judicial authorities summoned and questioned at least a dozen journalists for their reporting.

Independent journalists have long been harassed by the authorities, especially when reporting critically about the government. Two former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists, Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, still face fabricated espionage charges based on unsubstantiated allegations that they had conspired with a foreign government; two former Cambodia Daily journalists, Zsombor Peter and Aun Pheap, face a trial in absentia based on baseless incitement charges; and a reporter for TV3, Phal Dam, faces baseless incitement charges for reporting on land related issues. . . .

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the government has revoked four licenses of independent media outlets: online news site CKV TV Online, Rithysen radio station and online news site, and TVFB news site. In April, the Ministry of Information revoked CKV TV Online’s license, alleging it was in “severe violation of journalism that affects public order.” Similarly, the Ministry of Information revoked Rithysen radio station’s license alongside its separate news website’s licenses based on unsubstantiated allegations that the radio station was “publishing information which is exaggerated information, contains incitement to violence, provocation to commit discrimination, and provocation to cause social insecurity and chaos.” Further, the Ministry of Information revoked TVFB’s broadcasting license on grounds that owner Sovann Rithy published information which “was to generate an adverse effect on the security, public order and safety of society.”. . .

During the Covid-19 crisis, the Cambodian government adopted a highly repressive Law on the Management of the Nation in State of Emergency that provides Prime Minister Hun Sen with unfettered, undefined, and overbroad powers to monitor private communications and an unlimited restriction of reporting by all media outlets. We also understand the Cambodian government has drafted a National Internet Gateway Sub-Decree, yet to be adopted, which would severely impact freedom of expression and information online, facilitate blanket surveillance of all online communications, and allow the blocking of certain types of content by the authorities if deemed to “affect safety, national revenue, social order, dignity, culture, traditions and customs.”. . .

We call on the Cambodian government to drop the charges and unconditionally release all journalists jailed for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, end harassment of journalists and media outlets, repeal or significantly amend repressive laws so as to allow for a vibrant and free media landscape in line with its international human rights obligations, and reverse revocations of media licenses to facilitate media freedom and the right to freedom of expression and information. [End Page 176]

Footnotes

For fuller versions of the documents in this section, visit www.journalofdemocracy.org.

1. East Turkistan is the Uyghur name for the northwestern region of China which the Chinese government calls Xinjiang.

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