torture

 

  • CIVICUS condemns crackdown on Civil Society in Bahrain

    Johannesburg. 10 December 2010. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is deeply concerned about the deteriorating operating environment for civil society in the Kingdom of Bahrain. The past few months have been marred by growing intolerance towards dissenters, which began in the run up to the October elections and continues in the post election phase.

    Authorities in Bahrain are waging a relentless campaign against activists whose views are not in line with the official position. Currently, 24 prominent human rights defenders are facing trial under Bahrain's anti-terrorism laws. They have been charged with collaborating with foreign organisations and circulating false information. They have also been accused of forming terrorist networks, destruction of public and private property and defaming the authorities.

    The arrested activists have complained about torture and abuse meted out to them by the National Security Agency. They have so far appeared in court on four occasions and the next hearing has been scheduled for 23 December. During their first appearance in court on 27 October, detainees informed the court that while in detention they were beaten, electrocuted, verbally and physically assaulted and denied adequate sleep. Those detained were not allowed access to legal representation during interrogation and some family members did not know where they were being detained for two weeks after their arrest. It has also been reported that prior to, during and after the elections about 350 other activists have been arrested.

    "In a worrying trend, it has become commonplace in Bahrain to arrest activists for writing articles and delivering speeches which are critical of the government's discriminatory policies and official corruption,"  said Netsanet Belay, CIVICUS' Director of Policy and Research. "Persecution and torture of public-spirited individuals offering legitimate criticism against official policies and the clampdown on their organisations amounts to a repudiation of Bahrain's accession to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture."

    The Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS), a CIVICUS partner for the Civil Society Index and one of the few remaining independent groups striving for the protection of civil and political freedoms in the country, has been targeted in the recent crackdown. On 6 September, the Ministry of Social Development issued an order to dissolve the Board of the BHRS and went ahead to appoint an administrator 'an employee from the Ministry' to lead the BHRS. The BHRS has had to go to court in response to these arbitrary actions and its fate currently depends on the court's response. The first hearing of the case scheduled for 26 October has been postponed to 4 January 2011.

    According to Abdullah Aldorazi of BHRS, "The unfair order issued by the Ministry of Social Development to dissolve the Board of the BHRS is a security strategy aimed at preventing the documentation of atrocities carried out by the authorities during the crackdown and preventing families of the detainees from using the society as a safe haven."

    CIVICUS urges the authorities of the Kingdom of Bahrain to live up to their commitments under international law and guarantee civil society the space to freely express, associate and assemble.

    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global movement of civil society with members and partners in over a hundred countries. The Civil Society Watch (CSW) Project of CIVICUS tracks threats to civil society freedoms of expression, association and assembly across the world.


    For more information please contact CIVICUS:


    Jessica Hume ( , +27 82 768 0250), Communications Manager

    or

    David Kode ( , +27 73 775 8649), Policy Officer
    Office Tel: +27 11 833 5959

    CIVICUS House, 24 Gwigwi Mrwebi Street, Newtown 2001, Johannesburg, South Africa
    PO Box 933, Southdale 2135, Johannesburg, South Africa
    tel: +27-11-833-5959 | fax: +27-11-833-7997 | email:
    web: www.civicus.org

     

  • Eritrea’s membership of the Human Rights Council at odds with the dire human rights situation in the country

    Statement at the 49th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

    Interactive Dialogue on the oral update of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea

    Delivered by Helen Kidan

    CIVICUS and the EMDHR welcome the Special Rapporteur’s update.

     

  • Global civil society alliance urges Human Rights Council members to support debate on Uyghur abuses report

    China rights UN protest Gallo

    Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS is urging UN Human Rights Council member states to do the right thing by voting in support of a resolution to debate the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The vote is expected to take place this week.

     

  • NOBEL PEACE PRIZE: Congolese doctor and Iraqi survivor recognised for efforts to end wartime sexual violence

    Susannah SirkinOn the occasion of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict, CIVICUS speaks toSusannah Sirkin, director of policy and senior advisor with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Founded in 1986, PHR uses medicine and science to document and call attention to mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. PHR’s work focuses on the physical and psychological effects of torture and sexual violence, the forensic documentation of attacks on civilians, the unnecessary and excessive use of force during civil unrest, and the protection of medical institutions and health professionals working on the frontline of human rights crises.Susannahoversees PHR’s international policy engagement, including its work with the United Nations, domestic and international justice systems and human rights coalitions, and is also responsible for managing and multiplying PHR’s strategic partnerships globally.

    Who are Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege, and why were they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?

    Let me start with Denis Mukwege, whom I know personally. Dr Mukwege is an incredibly skilled and experienced gynaecologic surgeon from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He is not only a clinician but also has a PhD in Medicine and has become, unfortunately due to the wars in the DRC, an expert in treating victims of mass sexual violence in the context of the decades of brutal conflict in his country. His medical specialty therefore became treating patients with traumatic fistula – women who were sexually assaulted so violently that various functions of their internal organs were damaged and destroyed, causing pain, incontinence and many other problems. In sum, Dr Mukwege’s surgical expertise is repairing fistulas and treating damage to the genital and reproductive organs in women and girls. In the course of treating hundreds of victims of mass rape in Eastern Congo, he started to speak out, as a doctor, against the atrocities and the culture of impunity that continued to be the norm in his country, and he began to analyse and denounce the use of mass rape as a weapon of war and to bring the voices of survivors to the fore in the global context.

    Dr Mukwege is eloquent, courageous, creative and imaginative. He is equally capable of speaking to heads of state and the UN Security Council as he is of talking to the people of Panzi, the small town where his hospital is located in the South Kivu province of eastern DRC. He has also mentored dozens of young professionals working to support survivors in DRC and beyond. He is a huge advocate for a holistic model of treating survivors of sexual violence: he recognises that medical care is not just about the immediate needs of survivors or rape – which are many, including the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and dealing with possible pregnancy and mental health trauma – but also about supporting access to justice and social and economic reintegration and, above all, about restoring dignity and ending the stigma and shame that has silenced so many survivors.

    Nadia Murad is a young woman who was a victim herself - but she did not remain a victim and instead became a powerful and outspoken survivor. She comes from Sinjar, in northern Iraq, and belongs to the Yazidi people, a very small ethnic and religious minority that Islamic State (ISIS) targeted for extermination because they viewed them as pagans. In 2014 ISIS overran the area, rounded up people from her village, and committed unspeakable atrocities. They killed thousands of them, including six of Nadia’s brothers, and took the women into slavery. More than 6,000 Yazidi women were kidnapped by ISIS and held as sexual slaves, and more than 3,000 are still missing. So essentially, Nadia is a survivor of what was clearly a genocide - the deliberate destruction of a people’s culture and community, their homes, the killing of men and boys, mass abductions and disappearances, the sexual slavery of women and girls. In this case, as in the cases of most survivors of sexual violence in conflict contexts, rape is just one of the many horrific atrocities inflicted on them.

    What is remarkable about Nadia is that she came out of captivity, which involved unbelievable suffering – beatings, burning, rape – as a leading voice describing and denouncing the plight that she experienced along with thousands of women, and bearing witness to the genocidal violence against her entire community. She overcame enormous trauma, transformed her brutal experience into witness, testimony and advocacy, and has become a voice for her people and against violence against women, and to demand accountability for the Yazidi genocide. Hers is also a call to look at survivors as whole persons and recognise their dignity as human beings and not just as victims of one crime or another. In fact, both she and Dr Mukwege, the survivor and the doctor, testify to this deep understanding of the whole person that demands our response. And they both call for addressing the continued global impunity for these crimes and ensuring that survivors not only have a voice, but they are respected and listened to, that they recover their dignity and eventually receive a full measure of justice – including reparation.

    Do you think the Nobel Prize will make a difference in terms of the visibility of wartime sexual violence and holding perpetrators accountable?

    This is the most visible and prestigious global prize for peace and human rights, and the eyes and ears of the world are focused on its announcement. The laureates get the opportunity to address the global community in their Nobel speeches delivered from Oslo on 10 December, International Human Rights Day. As long as the media captures these moments and focuses on these individuals, they have an extraordinary platform to speak to governments, to the international agencies doing work in conflict zones and to all of civil society. So this is a terrific opportunity for them to continue to raise the issue and to point policymakers and others in the direction of the concrete actions that are needed, because they are activists, they know their communities, and they know what needs to be done.

    Additionally, the very fact that somebody like Nadia, who went through those experiences, can have a voice sends a powerful message to other survivors. Nadia was very young, and she was not a trained organiser or activist, but she was able to overcome trauma and become a global spokesperson so that people like her could have a voice. This is very validating not just for the Yazidi people, who have suffered unspeakably, but also for women and girls anywhere who have suffered assault. She specifically calls attention to the phenomenon of slavery – which includes rape but is not limited to it. And in her case, attention also focuses on the vicious, depraved crimes committed by ISIS.

    As for Dr Mukwege, it’s worth noting that this is a time of a possible, long-awaited transition in the DRC, where there may be long-delayed elections, and where dozens of unresolved mass atrocity cases await justice. The Nobel Prize to Dr Mukwege calls attention to the very critical role played by doctors who believe that you cannot just treat the victims of mass crimes but must also use your experience and expertise to bring about change and stop these crimes from happening in the first place. In the view of PHR, this transformation of Dr Mukwege from a doctor who treats each patient individually to a doctor who creates and advocates for peace and justice on the global stage is an extremely important model for doctors everywhere, and especially for those who are witnesses of human rights violations.

    Can you tell us more about the work that PHR has done in partnership with Dr Mukwege as well as in northern Iraq, including the area where the violations against Yazidi people took place?

    Over the past seven years, PHR has worked very closely with Dr Mukwege and his staff to build capacity for the forensic documentation of sexual attacks and to bring health professionals to work more closely with law enforcement, lawyers and judges, so that survivors can gain access to justice safely and with dignity. This is fundamental because unfortunately, it is still very common for medical humanitarian workers to feel that their job is limited to providing medical care, and as a result, they set up a firewall between medical care and justice, as if the two were in competition or even incompatible with each other. In the model we promoted along with Dr Mukwege, medical support to survivors includes forensic documentation and, if the survivor so wishes, also support towards and all the way through a justice process. This requires a multidisciplinary collaboration that in far too many contexts is currently still not happening.

    In Iraq, as in the DRC, we are developing a model of multi-sectoral capacity building to support access to justice for survivors of sexual violence and torture. In Iraq, this was not restricted to the Yazidi people, as these human rights violations are taking place in the context of the various crises unfolding in Iraq. We are training doctors, nurses, psychologists, law enforcement officers, lawyers and judges on forensic documentation of sexual violence and torture, and we are working to help support greater communication and collaboration across these sectors so that survivors of these crimes have safe and dignified access to justice in the full sense of the term.

    We are very concerned that to date the prosecutions and trials to hold ISIS accountable for mass crimes in Iraq, which have definitely not met any recognised international standards for fair trials and treatment of detainees, have also not involved any criminal charges related to sexual violence or sexual slavery. All the ISIS detainees are being prosecuted under anti-terror laws, not for the crimes of rape or sexual slavery. The justice system has so far not met the needs of the Yazidi people or any other victims of slavery and sexual violence.

    In Iraq we are adapting the model used in the DRC, because there are legal as well as cultural differences between the two countries. A big difference is that DRC is a party to the Rome Statute - the International Criminal Court - and has incorporated it into domestic law, so we were able to use those standards, procedures and understandings of mass crimes within the Congolese legal system. That is not the case in Iraq, where there are no laws that recognise or allow for the prosecution of genocide or crimes against humanity. This huge legal gap makes it nearly impossible to prosecute genocide, mass rape and mass sexual slavery in Iraq.

    Across the world, what needs to be done to ensure that sexual violence is recognised and treated as a major human rights violation?

    There are things to be done at every step of the way. In too many places, everything conspires against victims coming forward. Sexual violence is often perpetrated by very powerful people who control a person’s physical, economic or social environment, their jobs and even their social standing in the community. In many parts of the world women who have been raped are considered unmarriageable. In sum, there are many factors conspiring against a victim coming forward or even seeking medical care, let alone justice.

    In almost any country, the biggest initial obstacle is the lack of confidence that survivors have in the law enforcement and justice system. So first, there needs to be safe access to reporting. Opportunities need to be provided for reporting to a person who is well trained to respect the survivor’s physical and emotional needs, understand the trauma that that person has been exposed to and master all the technical aspects to ensure that the case is properly documented, both clinically and forensically, to facilitate access to justice. This also requires a support network to provide assurances of safety and confidentiality, as well as a context where the survivor is not judged or stigmatised, or has their integrity questioned. More often than not, it is the victim who ends being interrogated instead of the perpetrator.

    Second, there are failures of the justice system to address, including delays, lack of proper procedures to allow survivors to tell their stories safely and confidentially, and an inadequate understanding of the ways trauma affects memory or even the ways in which someone presents in front of a court of law. A lot of our training seeks to address these issues. Third, there is the limited supply of the economic and psychosocial support that survivors need. And last but not least, at the highest international level, there is the failure to prosecute the worst perpetrators, which makes it much more difficult for survivors to deal with the day to day crimes of rape and sexual assault.

    What further support does civil society need to combat wartime sexual violence, including from international civil society and the international community?

    One of the biggest problems that we have is the insufficient communication and coordination among all the entities working on these issues. When there is a crisis – the Rohingya people in Bangladesh, Iraq, Syria – many organisations come in to do their very well-intentioned work, but they do so in a far too uncoordinated way. We hear constantly from the legal side that gathering testimonies without the proper training can actually harm the case, and we see that some survivors are interviewed way too many times by too many people without a clear purpose. In other words, two things that are critically needed are training and coordination.

    The third thing we need is for the international community to be more intentional about referring cases to international justice mechanisms, and not just drop them if, say, the Security Council fails to refer some case to the International Criminal Court. We now have investigation mechanisms – for Iraq, for Myanmar, for Syria – but they don’t have any judicial authority. We need to address the fact that the system is broken: we are giving people hope, we tell them that if they report they might get justice - but that is in fact not happening.

    Get in touch with PHR through theirwebsite orFacebook page, or follow@P4HR and@susannahsirkin on Twitter

     

  • Nobody has made any attempt to shield Yemeni civil society organisations from impact of armed conflict

    CIVICUS speaks to Radhya Almutawakel, chairperson of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, an independent Yemeni human rights organisation. Mwatanais engaged with a number of issues, including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, women’s rights and the criminalisation of human rights defenders. It uses a variety of tools, including data collection through field visits and monitoring compliance with domestic legislation and international standards; advocacy and lobbying with domestic institutions and in international forums; legal support for victims; training of human rights activists; research and dissemination; and campaigning for public awareness.

    1. What have been the main recent impacts of the conflict on Yemen and Yemeni civil society?

    Since the Ansar Allah armed group (Houthis) and their ally, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, took control of the capital, Sana'a, on 21 September 2014, Yemen has entered a new phase of armed conflicts that escalated rapidly. On 26 March 2015, a Saudi Arabia-led Arab Coalition of nine countries launched a military campaign against Houthis and Saleh forces, to support the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, with the United States providing intelligence and logistical support.

    Mwatana Organization has documented grave rights violations by the Saudi and Emirates-led coalition resulting in the killing of thousands of civilians, mostly women and children. This coalition has struck residential compounds, public markets, cultural and heritage sites, hospitals, schools, bridges and factories.

    We have also documented extensive violations by the Ansar Allah armed group (Houthis) and their ally Saleh, especially in Taiz, including the use of landmines in different areas of the country. Furthermore, we have documented violations including extrajudicial executions by the forces of president Hadi and allied parties and armed groups.

    Both parties share responsibility in the indiscriminate shelling of civilians and civilian facilities, child recruitment and denial of humanitarian access, in addition to arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, tortures, violations against the freedom of speech and the disappearance of a free press, harassment of minorities and other grave violations. Civil society had only recently started to develop in Yemen, and all the progress that had been achieved was set back in the current inhospitable environment, characterised by high political instability and a lot of violence.

    Before 2011, civil society in Yemen had become fairly strong in the face of a number of violations committed by the Saleh regime. At that point the Saleh regime was the main violator of human rights, and organisations of different affiliations were able to unify against the abuses. But after the 2011 revolution and the ascent of the opposition, which became a partner in government, and because of the multiplicity of violators as well as the increasing political polarisation, the voice of these organisations was significantly diminished and they were not able to form any more alliances or even initiate any kind of joint work. It was clear that human rights organisations lacked minimal independence.

    In September 2014, when they forcefully seized the capital, Sana’a, and expanded into the neighbouring provinces, Houthi armed groups and their ally, former president Saleh, tightened their grip on President Hadi and his government. President Hadi then escaped to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and in March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition including other neighbouring countries launched a military operation in Yemen, and established armed groups to support President Hadi in the fight against the Houthis. All these political developments weakened Yemeni civil society to unprecedented levels. Rights violations against organisations and their staff increased exponentially and the scope of the work they were allowed to do dramatically decreased. Many human rights, humanitarian and development organisations were forced to reduce their activities and staff or close down altogether.

    1. How have the various forces involved in the conflict impacted on civil society?

    The first weapon wielded by conflicting parties against independent civil society organisations, and especially against human rights organisations, has been the orchestration of extensive incitement and smear campaigns through social media as well as their own private networks. By defaming independent human rights organisations, all conflicting parties have prejudiced the public against the work of such organisations and their employees. Mwatana Organization and its staff have been the victims of many of these campaigns launched by either Houthi- Saleh armed groups or by Saudi Arabia and the Hadi Government and their allies in Yemen.

    Many activists, including members of the Mwatana team, have been threatened and detained by all conflicting parties, because of their work. Countless restrictions have been placed on human rights, humanitarian and development-related activities in the field, to the extent that long procedures and several official permits are now required to carry out a single training activity – with a good chance that even after going through all the hassle the activity might end up not being authorised at all. The same is the case with a wide variety of studies and research. Many restrictions have also been imposed by all parties on traveling to and from Yemen.

    In addition, there are a number of dangers that stem from the armed conflict itself. Yemen is now ruled by a number of armed groups – the Houthi-Saleh armed groups, on one hand, and the Hadi government and the armed groups loyal to it, on the other. Armed conflict is taking place on many fronts, with an intensive airstrike campaign by the US-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Nobody has made any attempt whatsoever to shield civil society organisations or their staff from the impact of the armed conflict; in fact, many of them have been endangered while carrying out their duties.

    Violations of the freedom of expression are commonplace, and media diversity is lacking. In fact, civil society organisations lost an independent media outlet that had previously helped make their voice heard. As a result, social media have become the key outlet for many human rights and humanitarian organisations. However, conflicting parties are now trying to disable this platform as well, by using an army of trolls to defame any independent civil society work.

    As for human rights work more specifically, all parties are seeking to corrupt civil society by establishing their own biased organisations and deploying funds to deform civil society work and justify various human rights violations. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has made considerable efforts to prevent the United Nations’ Human Rights Council from passing a resolution to establish an international mechanism to investigate violations by all warring parties in Yemen. After three years of sustained efforts by international and local human rights organisations and allied governments, however, the process came to a successful conclusion in September 2017, when a resolution was passed and an independent international group of experts was mandated to investigate abuses.

    1. What role is being played by outside forces, and what motivates these forces to be involved in the conflict?

    Unfortunately, outside forces have played a destructive role in Yemen, either through direct military intervention, as in the case of Saudi Arabia and its allies, or by supporting one of the warring forces, as has been the case of the United States, the United Kingdom and France, which have supported Saudi Arabia, and of Iran, which has backed the Houthis. The declared goal of the military operation launched by Saudi Arabia was “to reinstate President Hadi” but it has destroyed the country in the process. They have indiscriminately bombarded people, homes, schools, hospitals and monuments. Although it managed to expel Houthis from the southern governorates, the state is not yet functionally back in charge of these governorates. No state institutions, including a judiciary, have been activated, and no national army has been established. In comparison, the promotion of armed groups has not ceased, and worryingly, some of these are extremist and fundamentalist religious groups.

    Instead of promoting peace in Yemen, powerful nations like the United States, the United Kingdom and France have aligned to support Saudi Arabia either through considerable arms deals or through multi-faceted political support. One of the worst results of this was their lobbying against the establishment of an international mechanism for investigating violations committed by warring parties in Yemen.

    As for Iranian support of the Houthis, their intervention resembles a situation in which there is a mouse running around a residential building, and the building gets destroyed when searching for the mouse, and in the end neither is the building saved nor is the mouse ever found.

    After two years of war in Yemen, I can confidentially say that none of the internal or external warring parties have a clear vision of what to do next. The only undisputable fact of this war is that Yemen has become a humanitarian man-made catastrophe.

    1. What activities is Yemeni civil society still able to carry out? Does this vary by region?

    Despite all the obstacles facing civil society in Yemen, there are a number of human rights and humanitarian organisations that still struggle on the ground to play a variety of roles. A number of humanitarian organisations are working to deliver humanitarian aid and services to affected populations; human rights organisations keep working to document human rights violations; and development organisations are carrying on their educational and training programmes in territories ruled both by Saleh and Houthi armed groups and by Hadi and the armed groups that are loyal to him.

    1. What would it take to build peace in Yemen, and what roles could civil society play in this?

    To achieve peace in Yemen, all the warring parties would need to take steps to reduce pressure on civilians and build confidence. This includes ceasing human rights violations, releasing detainees, giving more space to humanitarian, human rights and media organisations to do their work, agreeing on a mechanism to pay salaries, re-activating the Hodeidah seaport, re-opening Sana’a airport, and fulfilling a variety of urgent humanitarian requirements.

    At the international level, arms deals with the warring parties must be stopped, and the priority of human rights issues must be established. Yemen also needs a new peace process with the international community playing an independent and stable role. Dialogue must bring in all parties on the ground, with no exclusions.

    1. What support does Yemeni civil society need, including from international civil society and the intergovernmental system, now that a UN resolution establishing a commission of inquiry has been passed?

    Civil society needs to build capacities in every aspect of their competence; it needs to ‘professionalise’ and reinforce its resource base with long-term projects. There is need of support for the construction of Yemen’s institutions, and capacity needs to be built so that institutions are able to respond to the deteriorating situation.

    • As a result of increasing restrictions on civil society, Yemen’s civic space rating was recently downgraded to the lowest category, closed, by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    • Get in touch with Mwatana Organization for Human Rights through theirwebsite or Facebook page, or follow @mwatanaen and@RAlmutawakel on Twitter.

     

  • Open Letter to President of Kazakshtan about 30 Uzbek refugees

    8 September 2010

    To
    H.E. President Nursultan Nazarbayev
    President of Kazakhstan
    Ak-Korda, President Residence
    Astana
    Kazakhstan

    Your Excellency,

    I write as the Secretary General of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, an international alliance of civil society with members and partners in over a hundred countries. Together with the undersigned partners, we are deeply concerned about the imminent decision of the Kazakhstan government on whether to extradite 30 Uzbek refugees to their country of origin. In their country, these individuals have been accused of involvement in terrorist activities, and will be at a serious risk of torture and inhumane treatment upon extradition.

     

  • VIETNAM: ‘Failure to address torture of political prisoners should trigger a review of trade deals’

    88ProjectCIVICUS speaks with Kaylee Uland and Jessica Nguyen, co-director and advocacy officer with The 88 Project, about the criminalisation and repression of human rights activism in Vietnam.

    The 88 Project is a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for and shares the stories of Vietnamese political activists who are persecuted because of their peaceful activism for human rights.

    What does The 88 Project do?

    The 88 Project is a research and advocacy organisation that maintains the most comprehensive and up-to-date database on the situation of political prisoners and human rights activists in Vietnam. Our database informs media coverage and policy debates on Vietnam and is used by journalists, diplomats and policymakers. According to our database, as of 24 June 2022, there are at least 208 known political prisoners behind bars in Vietnam, the highest number of any country in Southeast Asia.

    What is the current situation of civic freedoms in Vietnam?

    The 88 Project has tracked very negative trends regarding the Vietnamese government’s crackdown on political dissent. These include an increase in arrests of those in formal and informal media professions over a period of four years from 2018 to 2021. The arrests of media workers as a percentage of total activist arrests went up from less than three per cent in 2018 to 18 per cent in 2020 and 34 per cent in 2021.

    The use of harsh sentences of at least five years in prison to stifle critical voices has also increased: while such sentences were 23 per cent of total sentences of activists in 2018, the rate rose rapidly to 44 per cent in 2019, 48 per cent in 2020 and 72 per cent in 2021.

    The practice of holding activists and political prisoners incommunicado for extended periods of time – of eight months or more – has become increasingly common: it was applied to 12 per cent of all activists arrested in 2018 and to 21 per cent in 2019, surging to 49 per cent in 2020, before slightly decreasing to 42 per cent in 2021.

    The crackdown on dissent has also expanded to include new issues and groups, as seen in the recent arrest and imprisonment of four CSO leaders working on climate change and environmental issues. They were charged with ‘tax evasion’, a tactic used by the government to silence critics who cannot be tried under the national security provisions of the criminal code. This sent tremors of fear through the environmental movement in Vietnam.

    Efforts to censor social media have intensified, as has compliance with government censorship requests by US-based tech companies. With a population of 98 million, Vietnam is one of Facebook’s top 10 markets by user numbers, with 60 to 70 million people on the platform. Facebook provides one of the few spaces where Vietnamese people can communicate relatively freely. This space is, however, rapidly closing as Facebook increasingly complies with censorship requests from the government and allows bad actors to exploit content moderation rules to have accounts locked and posts deleted. Exacerbating the situation, Vietnam is now planning to impose new rules that require social media firms to take down content it deems illegal within 24 hours.

    Further, the deliberately complex law regulating the ability of CSOs to receive and spend domestic or foreign funding gives the government control over organisations and individuals. CSOs find it hard to comply fully with these laws, which makes them vulnerable to government scrutiny. Punishment for tax violations may include heavy fines, closure and criminal charges that lead to the imprisonment of CSO managers.

    What is the situation of political prisoners?

    The authorities commonly use torture and other inhumane treatment against political prisoners, particularly those in pretrial detention. The most common perpetrators of these violations are public security officers at the provincial level, followed by those at the district and city levels, and then those at the national level. Occasionally, activists who are at risk but not imprisoned are assaulted or otherwise harassed by people suspected to have ties to the government, such as plainclothes police.

    The government insists that there is no incommunicado detention in Vietnam, while acknowledging that for national security cases, a ‘very special measure’ applies, under which detainees are not allowed to see their defence counsel until after the investigation has concluded. Activists are often subjected to unobservable interrogation and to conditions that begin to break down their emotional and physical health. Isolation also removes their plight from the public eye, as information about their condition is sporadic and incomplete at best. Thirty-five activists arrested in 2020 and 2021 were held in incommunicado pretrial detention for eight months or longer.

    Eight people who were arrested in 2020 have not yet been brought to trial. Journalist Le Anh Hung, arrested in July 2018, has not only not yet been brought to trial but has also been repeatedly transferred to mental health facilities for forced psychiatric treatment. 

    Political prisoners are often denied legal representation during the investigation period and at trial. The 88 Project has documented the cases of at least 14 political prisoners who were denied legal representation in 2020 and 2021. When political prisoners are denied legal representation, they are often less aware of their rights and lack a critical communication channel to their families and the outside world. Often, families do not know about trial dates well in advance; sometimes, they learn nothing until after activists have been sentenced. An emblematic case of denial of legal representation is that of two activists from the Hmong minority, Lau A Lenh and Sung A Sinh, who were charged with overthrowing the state and attempting to establish a separate state in north-western Vietnam and sentenced to life in prison.

    Prisoners are often denied medical treatment and family members are prevented from providing medication to them. Many with pre-existing conditions or those who experience health problems while imprisoned have claimed that inadequate medical treatment resulted in greater long-term health complications. Some, including Huynh Huu Dat, have died in prison due to lack of proper healthcare. 

    The government claims that prison conditions have improved, but political prisoners and their families continue to report unclean food, overcrowding, lack of access to clean water, poor sanitation and lack of lighting. Virtually all prisoners suffer from harsh prison conditions, and they are often disciplined and retaliated against if they try to petition for improved prison conditions for themselves or others.

    Cutting prisoners off from family and support networks is yet another way to mistreat them without using force. The authorities often limit family visitation rights or detain political prisoners in places far from their homes, making it extremely difficult for families to visit. Under the pandemic, ‘COVID restrictions’ were also used as an excuse to deny family visits. The 88 Project identified at least 21 political prisoners subjected to this treatment in 2020 and 2021.

    We have also documented many cases of physical and psychological pain, which often amount to torture as defined under international law, inflicted to coerce confessions, obtain information, or punish political dissidents for their opinions. A frequent form of psychological abuse consists in sending political prisoners to mental health institutions against their will, even if they have no history of mental illness. Examples of political prisoners subjected to forced mental health treatment include Le Anh Hung, Nguyen Thuy Hanh and Pham Chi Thanh. Another harsh aspect of prison treatment is the use of solitary confinement to isolate political prisoners and punish them for asserting their rights.

    Is there any accountability for cases of torture and ill-treatment?

    Unfortunately, there is very little accountability. Regarding COVID-19-related restrictions, the government argued that the right to health of the community took priority over prisoners’ right to see family members. The authorities also justify forced mental health treatment tactics on ‘humanitarian aid’ grounds. They say they are respecting and protecting political prisoners’ right to health by sending them to mental health institutions for medical treatment. However, to the best of our knowledge, most cases are of forced treatment, used to isolate political prisoners from their support networks and to discredit them.

    The Vietnamese government has been repeatedly warned about its failure to meet its international obligations against torture. The United Nations (UN) Committee Against Torture (CAT) has stressed the importance of proper criminalisation of torture, fundamental legal safeguards, direct applicability of the Convention against Torture by domestic courts and independent investigation concerning allegations of excessive use of force or deaths under custody.

    During Vietnam’s 2019 UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a number of states raised concerns about allegations of torture and the Vietnamese government voluntarily agreed to several important recommendations, such as making sure that evidence obtained through torture is inadmissible at trial and taking steps to prohibit harassment and torture during the investigation process and detention.

    Despite these international warnings, in its responses to CAT’s comments and recommendations from the 2018 Concluding Observations, issued in September 2020, Vietnam continued to maintain that ‘allegations of the widespread use of torture and ill-treatment, particular in police stations, and in certain places where persons are deprived of their liberty [...] are all unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims’. This contradicts the findings of our report.

    How have domestic and international CSOs raised these issues?

    Many international groups report on allegations of torture and inhumane treatment in Vietnam as part of their ongoing human rights research. However, torture is a difficult topic to research and report on, as information flowing out of Vietnamese prisons is minimal and often censored, and prisoners and family members may fear further retaliation for raising their concerns. Prisoners are often better able to report on prison conditions upon their release, as was recently the case of Tran Thi Thuy.

    Thuy was imprisoned for eight years and was denied communication with her family and adequate medical treatment despite having severe tumours. The authorities demanded a confession in exchange for treatment. Thuy was also forced to work under extreme labour conditions; by the end of her sentence, she could barely walk. The international community should question the treatment prisoners face, and whether it may be even worse than what is reported in the news that reach international outlets.

    Regardless of the obstacles they face, activists, their families and CSOs continue to raise the issue of ill-treatment of political prisoners via research and direct advocacy. For example, in April, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the International Federation on Human Rights jointly issued an urgent appeal for international intervention in the case of land rights activist Trinh Ba Phuong. Groups also petition the UN, and especially its Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, to investigate cases where inhumane treatment is suspected. Further, abuse by Vietnam’s police force more broadly is well-documented.

    What can the international community do to address the issue of torture in Vietnam?

    Given the absolute nature of the right to freedom from torture, failure on the part of the Vietnamese government to address issues of torture and inhumane treatment of political prisoners should trigger a review of its trade deals and other relationships with international actors. We urge human rights advocates and representatives of the USA, the European Union, and others to demand that Vietnam implement the concrete actions that are clearly stated in CAT’s Concluding Observations in the Initial Report of Viet Nam of 208 and to follow up on the UPR recommendations that Vietnam accepted in 2019.

    We also urge the authorities to accept visits by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as visits by states’ consular representatives to conduct investigations of prison conditions in multiple locations.

    Civic space in Vietnam is rated ‘closedby theCIVICUS Monitor.
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