Human Rights Flashpoints – August 4, 2009

MYANMAR - Tensions rise in anticipition of verdict

The situation in Myanmar (Burma) is getting more tense this week in anticipation of a verdict against Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday, August 11.  She is currently held in Myanmar’s notorious Insein prison, awaiting her verdict in a trial that has gathered worldwide attention.  Given the fact that the “Four Eights” anniversary is to take place only 3 days prior to the release of Aung San Suu Kyi’s verdict, these two highly politically charged events can prove to be a galvanizing force for major protests.  Looking at the regime’s track record of violent suppression of any dissent, recent developments justify major concern of what will happen in the country in the next few days.  Last week, authorities detained 30 members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), in an apparent attempt to block them from organizing protests on July 31, the day the verdict was originally expected.  All those arrested are at risk of torture.  While some of the opposition members were released, further arrests can be expected in the run up to the announcement of the verdict.  If there are outbreaks of demonstrations in spite of government attempts to forestall them, there is the added concern that we will see violent tactics by the police and armed forces to suppress them like the ones we saw in the uprisings of August and September of 2007.  Reports are indicating that the regime has heightened its alert and has deployed security forces in strategic areas of the country, something that is very characteristic of the government preparations to prevent suspected dissent.

Call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi

Must Reads 

Overheard

“(…) we have consistently had a very consistent public message that we believe that she should be immediately and unconditionally released, along with the 2,100 other political prisoners in Burma.  I know Secretary Clinton has been very engaged with her colleagues, with some of her foreign minister colleagues.  It was a topic at the ASEAN meeting, and she took every opportunity to urge her colleagues to make a similar message on the need for Aung San Suu Kyi to be released conditionally.” – Ian Kelly, Department of State, July 30, 2009.

“Suu Kyi’s continued detention, isolation, and show trial based on spurious charges cast serious doubt on the Burmese regime’s willingness to be a responsible member of the international community.”  President Obama, May 26, 2009.

SRI LANKA - Local elections without independent monitors

There are growing concerns over the upcoming August 8 local elections due to the prohibition of media and independent monitors of the first elections since the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers.  This Saturday’s elections in the cities of Vavuniya and Jaffna are being hyped up by the government as the first democratic elections in this war-torn region.

The two cities fall just on the other side of the former de facto state of the Tamil Tigers in the north.  Tamils remain the majority in the area.  The cities in which the elections are held are surrounded by checkpoints, only accessible with permission from the Defense Ministry.  Lakshman Hulugalle, the head of the government’s security information center, stated that reporters will not be allowed into the cities to report on the elections, relying solely on handouts from the government. The Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa originally stated to let civilians who lived in the Tamil Tigers’ self-declared state to vote in an election. However, close to 300,000 civilians are currently held in military run de-facto internment camps.

Must Reads

Coming This Week

  • August 3: Secretary Clinton arrived in Africa for an 11 day tour
  • August 4: Former president Bill Clinton arrived in North Korea to discuss the release of two American journalists
  • August 8: Sri Lankan local elections
  • August 11: Verdict against Aung San Suu Kyi expected

Jacki Mowery, Anil Raj and Jim Roberts contributed to this post.

Human Rights Flashpoints is a weekly column about countries at risk of escalating human rights violations and is brought to you by AIUSA’s Crisis Prevention and Response team.

China Blocks YouTube, Google Plays Dumb

In case you haven’t heard, Google announced a few days ago that YouTube had been completely censored in China. According to the New York Times, “Google said it did not know why the site had been blocked…”

“We don’t know the reason for the block,” a Google spokesman, Scott Rubin, said. “Our government relations people are trying to resolve it.”

Give us a break, Scott.

It’s widely speculated that the Chinese government was less than happy about footage of Chinese soldiers beating Tibetans appearing on the site.

But this is old news. Really old news. China has been censoring the internet since it was introduced back in 1994. Web sites promoting democracy, human rights (including Amnesty International’s), and banned religions, such as Falung Gong, are restricted in China. Actually, pretty much any web site critical of the Chinese government is banned. 

Experts believe China operates the most extensive, technologically sophisticated and broad-reaching system of internet filtering in the world – “The Great Firewall of China.”

And the big web players, specifically Yahoo! and Google, have been acting as accomplices. Early in 2006, Google launched a self-censoring Chinese search engine, google.cn, that blocks search results for banned topics.

The freedom to information and expression is a human right. But apparently, profits come before people at Google.

Don’t play dumb, Google. Don’t be evil.

Internet Co's: How about one day without censorship?

Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) yesterday called on U.S. Internet companies Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! to give the world a day of censorship-free Internet search and blogging, in recognition of World Day Against Cyber Censorship, March 12.

In other words, we’re seeing if Internet companies are willing to give the world a free trial of freedom of expression. 

Like free trials of software downloads, the hope is that if these Internet mammoths can find it within themselves to stand up to censorship requests for just one day, they, we, the world, might like it enough to buy into the full version.

RWB and AI participated for months in an initiative, now known as the Global Network Initiative (GNI), with the companies to try to develop voluntary standards for the Internet and telecommunications industry on the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. 

Both groups, to date, have refused to endorse the GNI, pointing to loopholes that could allow for continued abuses of privacy and free expression rights, such as what occurred with Chinese journalist Shi Tao. (Yahoo! handed over account information to Chinese authorities who used it to sentence Shi to a 10 year prison term for sending an email to a U.S.-based pro-democracy website.) 

If any of the companies take up the RWB-AIUSA challenge, much could be discovered about the true nature of the online censorship beast. The power of the symbolism, let alone bringing transparency to the problem could be just enough to change the lives of millions. It would be a sad state if none of the three can find a way to respect freedom of expression for one day.

Azerbaijan: Popular Website “Temporarily” Closed

First they came after dissenting newspapers such as Realni Azerbaijan. Then they came after foreign broadcasts such as BBC and Radio Free Europe. Now, just weeks before the March 18, 2009 constitutional referendum that would institute unlimited presidency, the government of Azerbaijan is allegedly censoring the content of a popular and semi-independent website, www.day.az. In the words of Global Voices Online:

“[…] the content of a leading news site considered more independent than most in Azerbaijan was replaced on Thursday with a message informing readers that the “project is closed.

A day later, after the authorities denied allegations that they were behind the disappearance of day.az, a new message instead explained that the site was down for technical reasons and would reappear after 25 February.

Blogs by media specialists and analysts in Azerbaijan, however, were not convinced.”

Given that the “temporary” closure of Day.az was done without a court order – unlike in the case of other media restrictions in Azerbaijan – it has been assumed that the website will reopen with censored content.

The mainly Russian-language Day.az has been a valuable source of information about Azerbaijan and the region. In addition to original reporting, the website has been republishing information from a variety of regional sources, even posting full PanArmenian.net articles from neighboring Armenia. Azerbaijan and Armenia are technically at war, although the 1994 ceasefire blocked full-scale clashes, over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In addition to the news section, the website has been offering a popular forum. One of the most popular online portals in the entire former Soviet Union, the Russian-language forum at Day.az has had thousands of active users. One of the hottest sections of the forum has been “Armenia and Azerbaijan.”

In November 2004, as a Russian-language Armenian forum user reported at the time, the administration of the Day.az forum promoted its first Armenian moderator, Arthur, giving him the privilege to delete/edit offensive and/or unrelated content from discussions.

The appointment was indeed unprecedented, as the Russian-language announcement from the Day.az forum administrator explained:

“For the first time in the virtual world, a user of Armenian nationality – the respected Arthur – has become the Moderator of an Azerbaijani forum.

We should note that we came to [this decision] after a long year… of surveys, nominees, consultations with other Moderators… and taking into account the opinions of well-respected users. […] It shows also high level of the Armenian users, and atmosphere of tolerance which has developed at this forum.

[…]

P.S. And now you can throw stones at me.”

Another, more recent, controversial move at the forum has been the creation of a private section where users with over 500 posts could discuss and post adult content.

What will be different on Day.az if it reopens on February 25, 2009?

By: Simon Maghakyan, Eurasia Country Specialist

Human rights advocate faces trial in China on eve of UN review

The New York Times reported yesterday that human rights activist Huang Qi was charged with illegal possession of state secrets. Huang was detained by plainclothes police last June after assisting the families of five primary school students who died in the earthquake in Sichuan, China last May. (The families believe local authorities are responsible for the poor construction of public buildings that collapsed and Huang was going to help them to bring a lawsuit.)

Huang Qi is considered the first webmaster in China to be sent to prison. In 1998, he set up the website www.64tianwang.com to help family members locate missing relatives who disappeared after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest. The website later included content about the plights of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang and the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Huang was detained, charged with “incitement of subversion”, tried in secret in August 2001 and imprisoned until June 2005. According to the court verdict, the prosecution’s evidence included reference to Huang’s posting of the Amnesty International report, The People’s Republic of China: Tiananmen – Eleven Years on (May 2000).

Huang Qi was not deterred by his time in prison – he returned to human rights advocacy after his release in 2005. But, this time around, his freedom was taken away before he could bring justice to the families who lost their children in the earthquake.

Internet censorship has become an all-too-common tool for government authorities to stop dissent and punish dissenters. China is about to face its first Universal Periodic Review by the United Nations Human Rights Council next Monday. The Council should be diligent in clearly documenting cases of suppression of dissent, like that of Huang Qi, in assessing China’s record on freedom of expression.

China's e-blockade a blow to human rights victims of the world

It’s not surprising that with the Olympics come and gone, reports are surfacing of China’s cracking down of the Internet, again, and with the help, of course, of Chinese and US companies, including Microsoft and Google.

Unfortunately, Amnesty’s website is again one of the victims.

But when widespread censorship occurs, the “victims” are even more widespread — it’s much more than the author of a site or the person who can’t access it which is harmed. According to media reports, Chinese authorities have clamped down on child pornography and vulgur content. (And, who wants to argue the pro-child pornography point?) But, such categories are also said to include “content depicting violence and depravity”.

Content depicting violence and depravity? Iraq? Gaza? Darfur? All off limits? It’s unfair enough to deprive Chinese nationals of access to the world, but what about those suffering egregious abuses around the world, whose only hope could depend on the awareness and actions of others (citizens of the world/human rights activists/humanists) outside of their borders? What right does any state have to take away not only from its own people, but from people far beyond its jurisdiction? And, how can companies that enable this taking sleep at night?