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The state of human rights in Asia

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*Clampdown on freedom of expression and attacks on human rights defenders.

2011 witnessed a serious clampdown on the freedom of expression in many Asian countries. Restrictive laws were adopted and widely used to suppress dissent or political opposition. In Thailand, the government continued to use Article 112 of the Criminal Code dealing with the crime of lese majesty as well as the 2007 Computer Crimes Act to prosecute independent voices and actors in society, such as seen in the case of Ms. Chiranuch Premchaiporn. This has posed serious threats to the freedom of expression and the right to access to information. In Indonesia, the parliament adopted a new intelligence law on October 11, 2011, that allows the intelligence agency to intervene in cases where State secrets have been published, without providing any definition of the terms of the process used to classify information as such. This provides the agency with wide powers of discretion and is expected to result in arbitrary arrests and violations of the freedom of expression. In Malaysia, on November 29, 2011, the House of Representative passed the Peaceful Assembly Bill, which prohibits street protests. In South Korea, the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) newly sets up an organ to restrict freedom of expression over the internet.

In many Asian countries, public assemblies and demonstrations often faced violent repression by the police. In Malaysia, the police brutally cracked down on tens of thousands of protesters who were calling for electoral reforms on July 9, 2011. Many protesters were injured and over 1,600 were arrested. On October 19, 2011, the Indonesian army and police forces opened fire on participants in the third Papuan People's Congress. At least three persons were killed and many more were injured.
There were also many cases of violence against journalists. In Pakistan, 16 journalists were killed in 2011, including the prominent international journalist Saleem Shahzad of the Asia Times, and many attacks were also carried out against journalists with 47 injured. In Indonesia, more than 60 cases of violence and several defamation lawsuits against journalists were reported in 2011.
Human rights defenders (HRD) have been repeatedly threatened by state agents and non-state actors. Many of them face criminal prosecution by the authorities. Often, fabricated charges are framed against them. Some were severely tortured, disappeared or even killed. In Thailand, there is a rising concern about the increase of prosecutions or threats of prosecution against human rights defenders, under criminal charges such as trespassing or lese majesty. For instance, in October 2011, Ms. Jintana Kaewkhao, an HRD in Prachuab Khiri Khan, was sentenced to four months in prison by the Supreme Court on charges of trespassing, under Article 362 of the Criminal Code. In South Korea, two human rights defenders Mr. Park Lae-gun and Mr. Lee Jong-hoi were given a three-year and one month jail sentence suspended for four years and a two-year jail sentence suspended for three years respectively, by the district court. According to the judgment, they were found guilty of organising assemblies and demonstrations that clearly pose a direct threat to public peace and order, organising banned assemblies and demonstrations, organising outdoor demonstrations after sunset and obstructing general traffic.

In Pakistan, there was an increase in the extrajudicial killing of activists in Balochistan province. It is reported in many cases that the Frontier Corps (FC) and plain clothed persons abducted activists, whose whereabouts remained unknown until, several months later, their bullet-riddled and tortured bodies were found. This also happened in other parts of Pakistan. Since July 2010 to date AHRC documented the cases of 215 persons whose bullet riddled bodies were found.

In Bangladesh, human rights defenders are working in a very intimidating environment, under constant surveillance and threats by the intelligence agencies, the notorious Rapid Action Battalions and the military. The brutal attack on FMA Razzak on April 29, 2011, in which he was severely beaten, including an attempt to gouge out his eyes, before being left for dead, shows the risks faced by human rights defenders in Bangladesh. Following the attack, the role played by the country's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), has been of added concern. Despite repeated requests by the AHRC, as well as by other persons and groups inside Bangladesh and internationally, the NHRC has failed to act on this case.

*Religious intolerance and violence

The increase of religious violence in some Asian countries deserves more attention, especially in Indonesia and Pakistan. In Indonesia, the increase of religious violence is exemplified by the killing of three Ahmadiyah followers in February 2011. Violations of the freedom of religion, the right to life, and the right to remedy of members of religious minorities, have increased in recent years in Muslim-dominated areas of Indonesia, such as West Java, Banten and DKI Jakarta. Violence against minority groups and terror bombings in places of worship illustrate the decline of religious tolerance and freedom in the country. Christian churches have been bombed and burned, while local administrations have banned such religious communities from worshiping on their land in many cities and towns, allegedly to avoid conflict with mainstream Muslim groups. Attacks on religious minorities in Java and other parts of Indonesia in recent years have also shown that the police and courts are unwilling to protect individuals or groups from attacks and other abuses by the religious majority. In several cases the police have failed to conduct investigations and perpetrators are not being brought to justice. Attempts by hard-line religious groups to obstruct religious minorities from worshipping have taken place with the acquiescence of the police. In the few cases that were brought to court, the perpetrators received only lenient punishments. As a result, the credibility and functioning of the justice institutions have been seriously undermined.

In Pakistan, 2011 has been marked by the killing of hundreds of persons by extremist religious groups, including by those operating within the security forces. Killings have even targeted high-profile personalities, such as Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, the governor of Punjab province, and Mr. Salman Taseer, the federal minister of minority affairs. The government's inability to halt religious and sectarian intolerance has strengthened banned militant religious groups in their efforts to organize, collect funds and hold large rallies. The lack of credible action by the government has enabled the forced conversion to Islam of girls from religious minority groups by different methods, particularly though abduction and rape. Around 2000 girls from minority groups were forced to convert to Islam according to Christian and Hindu organizations. Some 161 persons faced blasphemy charges in the Pakistan in 2011. Nine of them have been killed.

In conclusion, it is clear from the ten reports that the AHRC is releasing to coincide with International Human Rights Day 2011, that the road towards the full enjoyment and protection of human rights remains fraught with obstacles in the Asian region. Alongside detailing the many forms of grave rights violations witnessed in different countries during the year, the AHRC's reports aim to provide insight into the institutional shortcomings that must be addressed in order for real change to occur. The AHRC hopes that these reports will encourage all actors concerned with human rights, as well as the governments that have the obligation to protect and ensure these rights, to engage in effecting much needed reforms to enable positive developments across the region in the months and years to come.

*PHILIPPINES: Inability to protect has created a 'parallel system'

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) today published its 25-page report containing its analyses on what it has observed as the irreparable 'social and systemic impact' of the ongoing violations of human rights in the country. The government remains incapable of providing the most rudimentary forms of protection to its people despite the growing intolerance of the public towards human rights violations. On the other hand the improvements in the legal framework to protect rights, has created the situation where despite the laws being in place to protect the citizens they resort to an emerging 'parallel system' from which they now seek remedies and redress.

*The full report is available for download at http://www.humanrights.asia/resources/hrreport/2011/AHRC-SPR-009-2011/view.

The ongoing phenomenon of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, with the government admitting to the poor record of convictions, raises a serious question as to whether the country's justice system is capable of ensuring the protection of rights. While there remains the shared perception in the notion of justice and democratic space victims are rapidly losing confidence in the institutions of justice. They no long see the importance of registering complaints.
For the possibility of a remedy to be obtained, 'complainants' and their 'complaints' are two indispensable elements in order that the process of seeking justice, remedies and redress could take its course. However, due to the government's failure to, for example, ensure those responsible for killings and disappearance are held to account, the importance of investigations, prosecution and the adjudication of cases in court, has been severely questioned by victims and their families in recent times.
Here, police investigations, because of its flaws, themselves becomes the obstacle in seeking possibilities of remedies and redress; the prosecution, because of its apparent vulnerability to political control and public pressure, becomes a political tool rather than a method of pursuing the violations of victims' rights; and the court, because of its failure to ensure cases are resolved promptly, has become complicit in the deprivation of the possibilities of remedies.

As a result, when the complainants file their complaints they do so without the expectation that it will result in to something. This increasing absence of confidence in the system of justice: the police, the prosecutors and the courts, has resulted in victims resorting to a 'parallel system'. Here, the report observes the phenomenon of 'remedy by publicity'.

By way of remedy by publicity, possibilities of remedies or redress are there depending on how the victims or their families apply pressure to influence public opinion for the government to take action in their favour. Witnesses or complainants at risk now prefer to expose their risk to journalists, rather than to the police for them to investigate and to provide protection; torture victims who are illegally detained, tortured and falsely charged would rather employ public pressure for their release than legal action.

In some parts of the country, particularly in conflict areas such as Mindanao, the military has virtually assumed civilian police powers and these go unchallenged. In these areas, the notion of civilian policing, civilian power above the military and due process hardly operates because of the military's complete disregard to due process and legality. This practice has since become commonplace to the point where it obscures what is legal and what is illegal. Also, the military establishment has been intruding into the civilian's way of life unchallenged, on the pretext of terrorism and insurgency.

It explains the practice of soldiers inspecting people before they board public buses, in entering commercial establishments and conducting operations, not in conflict areas, but in the urban areas heavily populated by civilians. However, the tolerance, by way of agreement and memorandums, by local elected officials, has justified the ongoing intrusion of the military establishment into the people's civilian life.
Thus, this practice has also obscured who are the police and not the police. The military establishment, by the day, has obtained a certain legal or a de facto legitimacy in their practice of routinely arresting, detaining, torturing and investigating persons under duress, with complete disregard to rules of criminal procedures. The courts tolerance of their practice has also cemented the military's authority and control over, not only of the police, but also in ordinary way of life of the Filipinos.
The AHRC has observed this is probably because; firstly, this practice has become heavily embedded as a social norm--meaning, there is nothing new in it. Also the widespread arbitrariness and disregard to elementary due process and legality that protects the rights is lacking if not completely absent. There must be a substantive discourse on the irreparable impact of how the flawed country's system of justice operates to this day.
The AHRC therefore urges a discourse on the protection of rights by examining how the country's system of justice actually functions when compared to how it should function. The discussion should be more than a mere description of the violations but rather raise questions as to why these violations are taking place.

*The full report is available for download at http://www.humanrights.asia/resources/hrreport/2011/AHRC-SPR-009-2011/view.

(The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.)




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