Human rights defenders face risk of 'jail, death'

Human rights defenders face risk of 'jail, death'

New report by Forum-Asia details 688 cases across Asia in 2017-18, many in Thailand.

A panel discussed the release of Forum-Asia's new report, 'Defending in Numbers: Resistance in the Face of Repression', at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok on Friday. (Photo by Dave Kendall)
A panel discussed the release of Forum-Asia's new report, 'Defending in Numbers: Resistance in the Face of Repression', at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok on Friday. (Photo by Dave Kendall)

Repression is rampant in Thailand and across Asia, and human rights defenders face harassment, jail and even death, according to a new report by the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia).

Some 164 cases in Asia involved physical violence, with 61 resulting in death, according to the report, Defending in Numbers: Resistance in the Face of Repression.

"In Asia, we are witnessing more and more human rights defenders being subjected to increasingly severe forms of violations, particularly killings, simply for defending human rights," said Sejin Kim, Forum-Asia's Programme Manager.

"Violations have become more extreme, and the safe spaces in which human rights defenders can work have increasingly shrunk."

"Judicial harassment is rampant," Benny Agus Prima, Forum-Asia's Programme Officer told a panel at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on Friday.

"It can be as simple as getting a call from authorities saying, 'If you don't stop talking about human rights, we will charge you.'" From there, he said, it can get worse quickly.

More than 100 members of The People Who Want Elections group, the report said, "were arbitrarily arrested, detained, and had charges filed against them for participating in and organising protests".

A total of 327 cases of court arm-twisting were recorded across 17 countries, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, passage of repressive laws and denial of fair trial.

Emeline Pluchon, an environmental law specialist with the UN's Environment Programme, told the panel that environmental issues account for 35% of the cases in the report. "It's difficult to verify the threats because many are geographically isolated and are not reported," she said.

Pranom Somwong of Thai NGO Protection International highlighted the case of Nittaya Muangklang, an activist found guilty of land encroachment and unsanctioned clearing of national park land by Chaiyaphum's provincial Appeal Court. "Nittaya has been in jail for four months, and she has been asked to pay compensation for climate change. The people living in the forest know how to take care of the forest. Now the poor have to pay compensation for climate change!"

Ms Pranom echoed the report's finding that many human rights defenders are women, and face an additional burden. "When you're already working 10-12 hours a day, defending human rights is another 8 hours a day. That's a huge challenge.

"Women who work on social issues are stigmatised [as] bad mothers…their children have been taken away."

Mr Prima said online attacks against women are on the rise. "If they say something on social media they will be stigmatised, sometimes by other women, saying 'you should not do this, you should be with your family and stay at home.'"

Ms Pranom said the report -- and Forum-Asia's online database of attacks on human rights defenders -- will both publicise abuses and provide support to the individuals involved. "We appreciate this report because it honours people -- what their names are, what group they belong to. Recognition is important. It might deter perpetrators and it can motivate and inform human rights defenders, especially those not well-connected and in remote areas, that they are not alone."

The full report can be downloaded from Forum-Asia's website.

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