Weekly Report: April 27 2018

Photo: A woman wearing a mask depicting the grim reaper takes part in a protest against the lack of medicine and medical supplies in Venezuela’s hospitals in Caracas, Venezuela. Newsweek.


The upper house of Cambodia’s parliament met for the first time since the election in February, which had been highly controversial. Ruling party CPP won every seat that had been up for election after the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition party, banning lawmakers from running, and stripping 5,000 opposition councillors of their voting rights. During the session, the King of Cambodia delivered an address in which he urged senators “to protect justice and human rights,” and also made the dubious claim that “liberal multiparty democracy is going smoothly” in the country.

The head of opposition party Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLF), Sam Serey, was arrested in Thailand at an immigration center north of Bangkok. He has now flown to Denmark, thanks to the intervention of the Danish government and a human rights group. It remains unclear why the Thai government acquiesced to this move.

Prime Minister Hun Sen urged union leaders on Sunday to avoid aligning themselves with the remnants of the CNRP and to tell union members to not organize political protests. Hun Sen has been reaching out to garment workers, who make up an 800,000-strong voting bloc, by promising higher wages and health care benefits. Union leaders suggest the prime minister is trying to prevent the workers from taking to the streets in protest, and instead cooperate with the government, perhaps remembering the 2013 and 2014 protests that ended when security forces fired on the crowds, killing five. He directly warned Cambodian Labour Confederation head Ath Thorn and former unionist Rong Chhun against involvement, both of whom are frequent government critics. Former opposition leader of the CNRP Sam Rainsy said in an email that Hun Sen’s orders violate Cambodians’ protected freedoms of opinion, association, and expression.

On April 24, about 100 workers marched from First Gawon Apparel garment factory to Phnom Penh’s Meanchey District Hall. The workers say they have not been paid for four months, and that they have since been camped outside the factory to prevent managers from removing equipment that could be used to pay back wages. Some have been unable to pay rent or tuition for their children’s schooling because of the lapse in pay. District Governor Pich Keo Mony assured workers that representatives from the Ministry of Labour would be sent to speak with the factory owners. He was critical of their march en masse, however, citing the adverse consequences of protest  to “affect the public order and impact traffic,” adding that he wishes the workers would have instead sent a few chosen representatives.

The Cambodia Coordination Committee (CCOC), a nongovernmental organisation that has participated in previous national elections,  will begin registering its members to act as observers for the July national election. CCOC director Pouv Borey has said nearly 2000 individuals are set to join the process. The National Election Committee (NEC) issued a statement earlier in April to welcome national observers. After the election, participating organizations are expected to submit reports on their observations and conclusions to the NEC. As of April 23, no group had completed the paperwork to register as an observing organization. Some NGOs are waiting until the final registration of political parties in mid-May to decide.

The registration of new political parties begins next week. The Deputy President of the NEC has said that currently 37 parties are registered, but is unsure how many will put forward candidates — some plan to boycott the election entirely.

Russia has agreed to train Cambodia’s National Police in combating terrorism and cybercrime. The partnership raised red flags for political analysts and observers who worry it could lead to more oppressive tactics, considering the Kremlin’s track record for handling social media matters. The decision came the day before Cambodia dove 10 spots on the World Press Freedom Index. A report from Global Information Society Watch was released on the trend of harsher crackdowns on online activities, with Cambodia censoring online expression to the extent that human rights activist Sevan Doraisamy has described it as a “legal euthanization of dissent and political expression.”


Following the recent violent protests against a social security reform, tens of thousands of protesters marched in the capital Managua on Monday, calling for president Daniel Ortega and his government to step down. Although he had agreed to reverse the changes to the social security system the day before, the protesters are demanding the resignation of Ortega and his wife and vice-president Murillo, as well as the release of political prisoners and an investigation into the killings. Reportedly, streets are tagged with graffiti reading “Get out Ortega” and “Death to Daniel.” In addition, several journalists working for state-run media have resigned.

The anti-government protests in Nicaragua has so far resulted in the death of 63 people, according to Marcus Camona, head of the Permanent Human Rights Commission (CPDH), who went on to call it a ‘massacre by the criminal police’. Camona said 15 people are still unaccounted for and nine known to be in intensive care, with around 160 people injured by bullets.

On Tuesday, the Roman Catholic Church agreed to mediate between members of civil society and President Ortega, and the day after, reports said Nicaraguan police had released dozens of detained lecturers and students, some who say they have been tortured and beaten by police, and came out of prison with their heads shaved, barefoot and bruised. Ortega says he is willing to have a dialogue, and pro-democracy protesters are reported to now be allowed to march. A group of students who took over the Polytechnic University in Managua, as well as business leaders and Catholic clergy, are preparing to negotiate with the president.


With the fourth anniversary of the military takeover approaching next week, activists in the country plan to increase their resistance to the junta and hold a demonstration. The Supreme Commander, Thanchaiyan Srisuwan, said security authorities are preparing to deal with demonstrators. He described the military as “part and parcel of national administration” and announced the military’s intention to support the prime minister in his bid for another term.

The Karen Peace Support Network intended to present a new report on its findings on human rights abuses in Karen State by the Myanmar military, but their event at Chiang Mai University was cancelled by Thai police, apparently at the request of the Myanmar military. Initially, the event was moved to another venue, but it was ultimately cancelled when the Thai police showed up at the second location.

A public lecture at Phayao University on the role of student movements in Thailand’s development and politics was also cancelled earlier this week, the university citing orders of the Thai military. Three anti-junta student activists were expected to speak on a panel, and at first the university responded by banning them, but after some negotiating with the event organizers, it eventually cancelled the event altogether.


The Bangladesh government and local aid organizations are working to prepare refugee camps for monsoon season. A voluntary relocation option has been suggested, but it would leave those who remain in perilous accommodations.  Médecins Sans Frontières say they are readying for “mass-casualty scenarios.” A government assessment puts 133,000 refugees at critical risk— but only around 300 volunteers have been trained in first aid and search-and-rescue.

The opposition group Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has added its voice in objection of requiring Rohingya to have a National Verification Card (NVC) in order to freely move about the country. USDP spokesman Dr. Nanda Hla Myint announced that that the party will not accept this government plan, and that it will “strongly oppose it along with other party alliances and nationalist groups” and the refugees who have already expressed their indignation.

Over 160 civil society groups have signed an open letter to Myanmar’s president, urging him to immediately release the two Reuters reporters accused of holding sensitive information in a case they call “obviously unreasonable”. Last week, one of the prosecution’s witnesses, a police captain, told the court that a senior officer had ordered a “trap” for the journalists to frame them for possession of secret documents. The prosecution is now trying to claim that the captain is an unreliable witness to get his testimony tossed out. A Myanmar judge will decide next week if the captain can be considered credible. The prosecution is arguing he lied in his testimony because he is holding a personal grudge against the government. Government spokesperson Zaw Htay has not commented on either the letter or the developments in the free press trial.

The UN has urged all parties involved in the conflict in Myanmar’s northeastern Kachin State to honor their international obligations to end the violence under international humanitarian law. The Kachin Independence Army and government forces have clashed repeatedly in the area since the beginning of the year, forcing many locals to flee the violence and trapping still more in the conflict zones, posing “grave protection concerns for these communities.”


The UNHCR criticized the “forced deportation” of 82 Venezuelan asylum seekers from Trinidad and Tobago. The government of Trinidad and Tobago has since denied any “force,” saying the refugees’ return was voluntary. Trinidad and Tobago said the Venezuelans were detained at the immigration detention center (IDC) for various offenses, and then before their return at the airport, were “asked if they had any fear or objection to returning to their homeland” to which all allegedly said they had none, according to a statement from the Ministry of National Security. This procedure is not in line with international standards, which involve individual counseling with the UNHCR and a written statement from each refugee of their free consent to return to their home country.

Patients and doctors joined in protest in public hospitals across Venezuela for an increase in salaries and medicine supply. At another protest outside the the Health Ministry headquarters in Caracas, police charged the demonstrators and kept the doctors and patients from entering the ministry. The protests are part of a larger trend across the country of a rise in demonstrations, according to social conflict NGO “OVCS” which states there has been a 93% increase in protests this year.

Around 3 million children, more than a third of Venezuela’s school-aged children, are missing some or all of their classes as teacher and parents decry the low salaries and lack of school lunches. Free education was once an essential element of Chavez’s socialist plan, but has suffered with other social and welfare programs as the country’s economy plunges into crisis. Officials try to downplay the issue, but many education experts fear the combination of hunger and closed schools will lead to an uneducated and “stunted” generation.

The presidential campaigns have kicked off, starting with rallies held by both candidates where Maduro gave away trash trucks and tractors and spoke on his Plan de la Patria 2025 (Homeland Plan 2025), which includes “improving both education and public healthcare sectors, building five million new homes, as well as revolutionizing the economy.” His competitor, Henri Falcon, described plans to depoliticize state oil company PDVSA and “dollarize an ailing economy.” Rallies for both sides have been poorly attended, unlike in previous campaigns. Falcon, who split from the main opposition, was undermined by other opposition activists who were organizing rallies the same week promoting abstention from the May election.

Diplomatic ties between Panama and Venezuela were improving as of Thursday, when the former agreed to return running flights to and from Venezuela and restore its ambassadors. The relations soured earlier this month when Venezuela cut ties with various Panamanian officials and companies for alleged involvement in money laundering, but look now to be back on track.

According to a piece in the Miami Herald, Colombian President Santos has serious concerns that Maduro and his Constituent Assembly is “secretly drafting a new constitution” that would remove voting power from the people and place it in the hands of “government-controlled ‘mass organizations’” that would elect local officials to elect legislators, who would ultimately pick the country’s most powerful leaders.


The first debate between the five presidential candidates took place April 22. The main themes, according to the Washington Post, were violence and public safety, corruption and impunity, and democracy and social inclusion. The candidates were “quick to abandon policy talk to attack the front-runner,” Lopez Obrador, who faced harsh criticism for his proposed amnesty plan for narcos. He responded that the criminals were not, in fact, the main issue, but that it is poverty that drives the “necessity” of crime. Anaya, PAN candidate and holding second place in voter opinion polls, pledged to create an independent attorney general’s office to target political corruption. He has been struggling to get out from under the pall of accusations of corruption and money laundering lowered against him. Meade, PRI candidate, has been dragged down by the ruling party’s affiliation with insecurity and rampant corruption under Pena Nieto’s rule. His points centered on “preventative and investigative policies” to curb corruption and therefore crime. He also mentioned creating a new agency to focus on kidnapping and trafficking.

In other news, the “migrant caravan” that has been making its way from southern Mexico to the US border finally reached Tijuana on Wednesday evening. Many like it have been organized before, but this is the first to gain mainstream US media attention. US government officials have warned that the immigrants would face harsh prosecution if any illegally entered the United States or made “a false immigration claim.”

North & South Korea

The leaders of North and South Korea have formally agreed to sign a peace treaty ending the Korean War by the end of the year, and also to remove all nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula. “The two leaders solemnly declare … that there will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula and a new era of peace has begun,” announced the meeting’s declaration. Further declarations from the leaders included the promise of quadrilateral meetings between North Korea, South Korea, the US, and China that will work toward closing the war chapter, the cessation of all hostile acts, the conversion of the demilitarization zone (DMZ) into a “peace zone”, a commitment to reunite families separated by the war, economic integration initiatives, closer diplomatic relations at all levels of government, and the participation of joint teams at international events. The event took place at the ‘Peace House’ on the DMZ, a site that could be used for future talks and negotiations, including the upcoming summit planned involving the US.

Earlier, Kim Jong-un had made history as the first North Korean leader since the Korean War to set foot in South Korea. The event was ceremonious, friendly, and full of promise for better relations to come. At the event, Kim Jong-un pledged a “new history” between the countries, and the leaders symbolically crossed the border both ways, holding hands.

Not all South Koreans were in favor of this meeting or of these developments, however, with rallies being held across the country. One such rally in Paju opposed the summit, providing a forum for those who view the North as too fundamentally despicable and volatile to be negotiated will. Overall though, the protests, just as the summit itself, were generally a topic of controversy among the South Korean population. A recent poll showed that only 58% of South Koreans view reunification as necessary. Many opponents cite politics, security, economy, social attitudes, and cultural differences as reasons that reunification might not be a good idea.

In other news, a study by China this week found that a North Korean nuclear testing site has collapsed, likely rendering it unusable and unsafe for further testing. The study also raised caution about possible radiation leaks that could result. This finding is also significant for the light it sheds on the North’s offers to end nuclear testing, adding a dose of reality to what many have tried to frame as purely goodwill.

United States

As many as 50,000 teachers in Arizona and Colorado took to the streets yesterday, in the latest and largest of teacher protests sweeping the US recently. They are demanding higher salaries that should eventually match the national average, new and up-to-date classroom materials, and smaller class sizes. More than 75% of schools in Arizona were affected by the protests, and the numbers in Colorado are expected to rise drastically as demonstrations continue through the end of the week.

Much has happened this week in the world of the cabinet of President Trump. Mike Pompeo, former CIA director and notoriously hawkish hardliner, has been confirmed as the new Secretary of State. Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, proposed changes to national policies this week that will hurt the Americans who need help the most. His proposals will triple rent for the poorest households, make it easier for the government to impose work requirements on beneficiaries, and restrict the overall safety net in place for these people.

Meanwhile, Scott Pruitt of the Environmental Protection Agency faced grilling by two congressional panels on Thursday over recent allegations of ethical transgressions and excessive spending. In the hearings, most questions and accusations were denied or deflected, to the immense dissatisfaction of lawmakers who strive to hold him accountable for his offences.

Finally, an ongoing cabinet appointment process stirred up tremendous controversy in the US, until bipartisan calls for Trump to withdraw his nominee were finally realized. The president had nominated Dr. Ronny L. Jackson, currently working as the White House physician, to head the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Recently emerging allegations released by the Democratic staff of the VA detailed serious improper conduct, including numerous drunken incidents and the abuse of prescription medications for himself and other government officials. In this release, staff members are quoted describing Dr. Jackson as “the most unethical person I have ever worked with,” “flat-out unethical,” and “incapable of not losing his temper.” Republicans were also vocal opponent to the appointment, however they were not quite as concerned as the Democrats about his transgressions. “Republican senators say they aren’t eager to spill blood defending a nominee against a barrage of allegations of unprofessional conduct when they already have serious questions about his ability to manage a vast and complicated federal bureaucracy,” explains an article by The Hill.


The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was finally able to access Eastern Ghouta this week, to collect samples that will let them test whether chemical weapon attacks were carried out by the Syrian government on April 7. That attack killed at least 40 people and is already widely understood to have involved chemical weapons, including by France, the UK, and the US, who carried out joint airstrikes recently to cripple Syria’s capacity for production and deployment of these weapons. As was reported last week, the Russian and Syrian governments had been blocking the OPCW from access to the site, and even allegedly attempting to sanitize the area before a fair analysis could be conducted. Said an expert regarding the meddling, “It is unlikely that all traces of evidence could be removed, but it could be tampered with.” Now, with the OPCW having finally collected some initial samples, they are transporting them out and will evaluate whether more are needed.


On April 23, thousands of nurses finally returned to work, ending the strike, as unions say renewed negotiations with the government are about to begin. Reportedly, no nurses have been turned down or formally dismissed, and they were all able to apply for re engagement or sign new contracts. It was the biggest mass action taken during the presidency of Mnangagwa. The nurses are still waiting for the disbursement of their $17million allowances.

Foreign affairs minister and retired general Sibusiso Moyo visited the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House in London, where he told Zimbabweans that the results of the election would be respected even if Zanu-PF and president Mnangagwa lost the elections. Zimbabwe’s largest opposition group, known as the MDC Alliance, have expressed the need for the army to and Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces General Valerio Sibanda to make an “unequivocal and unconditional undertaking to the people that the military recognises and accepts the sovereignty of the people of Zimbabwe to freely choose their government” MDC Alliance spokesman said.

Thousands of villagers around east Zimbabwe’s Marange diamond fields took to the streets on Monday protesting the looting of diamond revenue. According to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the protesters were met by armed soldiers and police who fired tear gas canisters to disperse the demonstrators. Policed claimed the protest had not been authorized under the repressive Public Order Security Act (POSA). HRW have called for constructive dialogue and for authorities to investigate the violence against the protesters. Only a few days before the protest, former president Robert Mugabe was called by a parliamentary committee to explain his 2016 statement that $15bn worth of gems had been looted from fields in eastern Zimbabwe.


On Tuesday, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s main opposition party held its first public rally in Kinshasa in two years. The rally was called by new party leader Felix Tshisekedi, who set the intention to unveil the broad outlines of his party’s electoral campaign. Late last year he called for a campaign of civil disobedience but that has been severely hampered with opposition rallies banned since September 2016.

South African Development Community (SADC) Heads of State met on their one-day summit meeting in Luanda on April 24. The main topics of discussion were regional security issues and bringing about stability in Lesotho, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar. SADC is adding support behind the electoral process and had earlier appointed former Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba as the Special Envoy to the DRC ahead of the elections. However, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who chaired the summit, stated that “Now that DRC has made so much progress, it is no longer necessary to have a special envoy because they are going to consolidate the progress”.

In other news, the DRC’s Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Mwawampanga Mwanananga, dismissed claims by Botswana that President Joseph Kabila will contest again for elections in December, claiming that he is misinformed.

South Africa

This week, thousands of protesters marched in Johannesburg demanding improved rights and a higher minimum wage. South African unions had called for a national strike in response to the government’s plan to raise the minimum wage to just over one dollar. On Wednesday, protesters called for the proposed hourly wage to be scrapped and replaced with a “living wage” of 12,500 rand ($1,000) a month, a wage three times higher than the current 20 rand an hour minimum wage. Labour ministry spokesman Teboho Thejane said they had received a memorandum from protesters and that officials hoped to finalise amendments to minimum wage legislation with lawmakers by August.

On Tuesday, hundreds of community members, civil society organizations and environmental activists marched and chanted slogans in front of Pretoria High Court, was presiding over a case brought by the Xolobeni community against the government that, if successful, could have far reaching implications for mining communities across the country. The Xolobeni community is asking that the South African Department of Mineral Resources cannot issue a mining license without the community’s consent.


Indonesia is investigating reports from Islamic State supporters that Bahrumsyah, Southeast Asian commander of the militant group was killed by U.S. airstrikes in Hajin, north of the Syrian city of Abu Kamal, last Tuesday. A senior official with Indonesia’s counter-terrorism agency said that if the reports were true, it would become a “motivation to carry out reprisal attacks” in Indonesia. According to data from Indonesia’s counter-terrorism agency, over 600 Indonesians have traveled to Syria to join IS, and 482 have been deported by foreign governments while attempting to join.

Setya Novanto, former speaker of parliament and chairman of the Golkar party, was sentenced to 15 years for corruption and his role in stealing $170m from public funds. He will be fined 500 million rupiah ($36,000) and will be barred from public office for five years after serving his sentence. According to prosecutors, Novanto was among about 80 officials who used the introduction of a $440m electronic identity card system to steal more than a third of the funds in 2011 and 2012.

On Friday last week, five women and three men were caned in public in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, were Shariah law is implemented. They had been sentenced to caning for ‘showing affection in public’ and for ‘prostitution’. The caning was carried out in public, even though is was recently decided that the province shall no longer allow public canings for violations of Shariah law.

Other news:

Armenia – After days of intense people power on the streets of Armenia, and in a too-rare win for democracy, Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan has resigned. He left with the words, “You have won, proud citizens of the Republic of Armenia. And no-one can seize this victory from you. I congratulate you, victorious people.” – NYTimes

Cuba – In a surprising development in the movement for equality, as of last week’s elections, three of the six vice presidents of Cuba’s ruling Council of State are black, including the first vice president, and three are also women. – NYTimes

Maldives – Abdulla Sinan, an opposition member of the party South-Machhangolhi, is currently on trial for terrorism charges for “attempting to overthrow the government” in the legislative chaos that took place earlier this year. – AVAS

Hungary – Thousands continue to resist the crackdown on NGOs pushed by recently re-elected prime minister Viktor Orbán. Currently, the government is moving to give the interior minister the right to ban NGOs that pose a “security risk” and to impose a 25% tax on those that support migration. – Euractiv

Vietnam – Following the country’s continuous attempt to crackdown on corruption, police ordered the arrest of several former officials and police officers last week linked to a tax evasion – and abuse of power case. They are suspected of revealing state secrets, violating regulations on the management of state property and land management. – Washington Post

Laos – A minimum wage increase has been announced and will come into effect on May 1, 2018. – Lexology

SOSNicaragua – Is the Ortega Murillo Dynasty Crumbling ?

Across Nicaragua, the protests raged as the people stood against proposed social security reform. The government responded with a media blackout and repression but eventually capitulated to the outrage of the people. Over 25 people died in the process.

Kidnapping and Murder of Ecuadorian Journalists Just One Facet of Declining Free Press

At the end of March, an Ecuadorian media team was kidnapped by a rebel group along the Colombia-Ecuador border. Two weeks later, their deaths were confirmed and journalists in both countries are condemning their governments for the lack of action taken to secure the lives of their colleagues. And across the world, journalists suffer yet more injustices: arbitrary detention, harassment, and threats against their lives. Social movements must not only demand the hard work of journalists but also reciprocate with protection and support.

Kidnapping and Murder of Ecuadorian Journalists Just One Facet of Declining Free Press

Photo: Colombian journalists gather in front of Ecuador’s embassy to protest against the murder of the media team, holding signs reading “We Are Missing Three” in Spanish. Reuters.

On April 13, a team of three Ecuadorian journalists was confirmed dead on the border between Ecuador and Colombia. They were reporting on the activities of rebel narco groups, who generally don’t appreciate being scrutinized, and were kidnapped on March 26 by the Oliver Sinisterra Front. The International Committee of the Red Cross retrieved the bodies, responding to a request for assistance from both Colombian and Ecuadorian authorities.

Across Ecuador, citizens held vigils and criticized the government for its handling of the situation. Journalists gathered in front of the presidential palace in Quito every day following the kidnapping, chanting “We’re missing three! We want them back alive!” and demanding the government take action to retrieve them. The day after the deaths were confirmed, the protesters changed their shouts to “You did nothing!”

Media actors such as Colombia’s Foundation for Press Liberty have denounced the passivity of the Colombian and Ecuadorian government in protecting the lives of the reporters. Major news outlets held blackouts as a sign of mourning for their colleagues and journalists of Cartagena collected at a martyrs’ monument to protest the murders. Ronald Rodriguez, spokesperson for the Bolivar Journalists Association, reminds “everyone that our profession is a neutral one that does not take sides, so we demand that we be excluded from the armed conflict, and we reiterate to the governments of Colombia and Ecuador that they are responsible for our safety in practicing our profession.” The 2017 Freedom House report on Ecuador states that the government has “increasingly cracked down on social media and other internet activity in recent years” and that officials monitor Twitter for accounts critical of the Correa administration.

The Colombian government claims Oliver Sinisterra Front is a splinter group of FARC, a former rebel group which signed an historic peace agreement and transitioned into a political party, although currently it no longer has a connection to the political party. Oliver Sinisterra Front, in turn, blames the Ecuadorian government for the deaths, saying it “did not want to save the lives of the three detained” and that the military operations nearby were the reason the captives died. Discouragingly, the Ecuadorian government received a video on April 18 from Oliver Sinisterra Front showing two more Ecuadorians have been kidnapped.


The media is often in one of two positions: acting as a pillar of support for the government/powerful interests, or as whistleblowers. Journalists not under the thumb of any government are often expected to challenge authority and the status quo. They reveal truths that those in power might prefer to be left in the dark, and hold them accountable.

The trend of violence and threats facing reporters is spread across the globe, with journalists targeted and killed in Slovakia, India, Yemen, and other Latin American countries just in 2018, according to Reporters Without Borders.

April 12, In the Russian city Yekaterinburg, a journalist fell off his balcony and died soon after in the hospital. There is some debate over the circumstances surrounding his death: some proclaim it suicide, others suspect foul play. Neither of those theories speaks to a secure environment for the reporter. Leonid Volkov, an acquaintance of the dead journalist, describes the conditions in Russia for principled journalists as so devoid of any prospects that it “forc[es] them to choose between honor and a piece of bread every day.”

A Maltese journalist who had made a habit of investigating and exposing corruption and money-laundering schemes tied to politicians was killed last fall when her car exploded outside of her home on the island of Malta. She quickly became something of a martyr, her violent death and bold, corruption-exposing journalism catching the attention of many. News organizations and private journalists around the globe have since pledged to take up and carry on her work, forming the Forbidden Stories project.


These cases of murder and violence are extremes, but journalists face various injustices and threats on a daily basis. They are subjected to harassment from governments, bloggers are put under surveillance, and some are arbitrarily barred from free movement within countries. There has been a decline in free press globally over the last 15 years, reaching its lowest point in 2016 while unprecedented levels of threats to journalists and media outlets were recorded in “major democracies,” and authoritarian states looked to control the media even beyond their borders.  One of the most common penalties imposed on journalists is imprisonment. Many countries use old or vague laws to target media, like in Myanmar where two journalists currently are being charged with violating the Official Secrets Act. Others use situations of social unrest as a pretext to exercise their power and crack down on media.

And as social movements demand more clarity, greater transparency, the knowledge has to be disseminated some way— usually through traditional media channels. When we rely on journalists to be on the front lines of disclosing information to the public, and revealing secrets that ought to be shared, we must also support the journalists when they are in danger. Demands for high-risk actions should not be the only thing we have to offer. We must take steps to ensure the safety of journalists and support their endeavors. In the words of Bratislava archbishop Stanislav Zvolensky: “An attack on a journalist is also an attack on the freedom of our country, we must not allow it.”

#SOSNicaragua – Is the Ortega Murillo Dynasty Crumbling ?

Photo: Nicaraguans protest against reforms to social security. EFE.

The last five day’s protests have led to the death of at least 26 people, according to human rights groups. 46 people have been reported missing, and hundreds have been injured, shot by snipers, by police with rubber bullets, or beaten by pro-Sandinista protesters. The protests may have started in response to president Ortega’s recent changes to the social security system, which will increase income and payroll taxes and reform the pension system, but the uprisings are likely to continue as a means of expressing the population’s discontent with the government and their repressive politics.

As the government ordered the shutdown of five independent TV channels covering the situation, the protests spread to León, Estelí, Masaya and other cities throughout the country on Thursday. Reports and footage have shown several reporters being beaten, robbed, verbally threatened, and having their expensive camera equipment stolen by violent pro-government protesters. Among those killed was Ángel Gahona, a journalist who was shot dead while broadcasting live via Facebook in Bluefields. Amnesty International called the attacks on peaceful protesters and journalists a “disturbing attempt to curtail their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.”

President Ortega was first elected president in 1984 and is currently serving his third consecutive term of presidency. He’s a former left-wing guerilla officer and therefore keeps close control of the country’s military and national police. On its path to the presidency, and as a method of retaining power, the Ortega Murillo government also relies heavily on support from the Catholic church, another of their main pillars of support. The ever-increasing political power given to Murillo, who was made vice president last year, is seen to be a part of the couple’s efforts to cling to power and their plan to create a new family dynasty.

Not all representatives of the Catholic church are supportive of President Ortega’s politics. The government’s violent response to the protests, attacking the media and freedom of expression, show their true face and some of their repressive tactics.This is an excellent example of when oppression backfires, as human rights groups have condemned the violence, and even Pope Francis has called for “an end to every form of violence” and for differences to be “resolved peacefully and with a sense of responsibility” during his Sunday address.

Following the Pope’s address, president Daniel Ortega said in an official announcement that the social security system changes had been cancelled. He spoke of chaos and the need to re-establish order, seemingly acknowledging that the protests and the past day’s social unrest seriously challenge his authority, for the first time since he was elected in 2007. The people protests last week have marked the most popular uprising since the end of the civil war, 30 years ago. Ortega said he will negotiate the proposed social security changes together with business leaders, who contrarily have backed the peaceful protests, saying that no talks will take place unless freedom of expression is restored, peaceful protest detainees are released, and police repression comes to an end. Although the statements of COSEP, Nicaragua’s most powerful business association with close ties to Ortega, are mainly playing to the gallery, they did call for some action, a ‘private sector’ march on Monday, which several activists have said they will not take part in.

Throughout the weekend, looting and fires have been reported, although protesters are accusing the riot police and government supporters of initiating violence and staging any such scenes in attempts to delegitimize the protests. Protesters have however taken down several of the enormous illuminated metal structures named “Trees of Life” (Arbóles de la Vida), both officially and unofficially referred to as symbols of the Ortega Murillo regime, in acts of celebration. The immense metal trees, first installed in 2013 on several grand ‘avenues of power’, measure 14 meters high and 6 meters wide with an estimated cost of $25,000 per unit, and have been largely critiqued for their aesthetics, symbolism, and the high electricity consumption required. In the capital Managua alone, 140 trees have been installed during the past five years. The brightly coloured trees are thought to serve as first lady Rosario Murillo’s amulet of protection, as she has a passion for Catholic mysticism, biblical sculptures, and ornaments.  

The destruction of the trees clearly carries symbolic value for the people of Nicaragua, and as they fall, with the right leadership, perhaps too will the pillars of power that the government’s authority relies so heavily on start to face the power of the peaceful peoples of Nicaragua.

One of the protesters, Mauri Hernandez, said to the media:

“We are in the streets asking for Ortega and his wife to go. This has already gone beyond the social security issue. Here there have been dead, wounded, and he does not even apologize for his killings or the savage repression against the people.”

The protests may have started in response to a social security system reform. What follows, however, will be determined by the population, fueled by repression, discontent, and poverty. A people that hasn’t been this fearless for 30 years. And as fake metal trees are falling to the ground, a population armed with social media is on the rise.

Weekly Report: April 20 2018

Photo: Pro-government Nicaraguans during the protests against pension reform. Semanario Universidad.


The Castro Era has come to an end. Raúl Castro stepped down from the presidency yesterday, transitioning the position to hand-picked successor Miguel Díaz-Canel. The choice is significant not only because he falls outside the dynasty, but because Díaz-Canel was born after the nation’s 1960 communist revolution. As such, he has “spent his entire life in the service of a revolution he did not fight.” Many see this as the true test of the nation’s viability, as its implemented policies become more independent from the original revolutionary spirit that brought them about.

Despite this apparent ideological shift, there are no serious changes expected for the government anytime soon. In his acceptance speech, Díaz-Canel declared that he intends to continue the work and trajectory of his predecessor. As such, his commitment to the nation’s communist ideals and Castro’s continued presence as an influencer made him a comfortable replacement choice. He was elected almost unanimously by the Cuban National Assembly after serving five years as vice president to the country.


In retaliation for the recent attacks with chemical weapons on civilian populations in Eastern Ghouta, the UK, France, and the US have carried out airstrikes on strategic points to target chemical weapon development. The Pentagon reported that more than 100 missiles were launched, with specific targets including a scientific research center in Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs, and another storage site and command post nearby. In the seven years since the Syrian civil war began, this is the biggest intervention by Western powers against Assad. Russia’s response to the attack was angry but measured. An initial response from Moscow warned that “such actions will not be left without consequences,” however Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov later pulled back, clarifying that the strike did not actually breach Russian lines. “They were notified about where our ‘red lines’ are located, including ‘red lines’ ‘on the ground’, The results [of the U.S. airstrikes] show that they did not cross these lines.”

Reports released since the attack reveal that they may have only ‘had limited impact’ on the capabilities of the Assad government to develop and launch chemical weapons. There appear to still be stockpiles and materials in many more locations than those that were targeted, according to assessments conducted in the wake of the airstrike.

In further news regarding the chemical weapons attack, Russia’s involvement has proven incredibly problematic. Most critically, the US State Department recently announced that it has credible evidence that Russia and Syria are trying to “sanitize” the site of the attack in Eastern Ghouta. This came after reports broke that Russia was blocking access to the site from international investigators. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been attempting to reach and examine the area since April 7, recently releasing a statement on the challenge. “Russian officials have worked with the Syrian regime, we believe, to sanitize the locations of the suspected attacks and remove incriminating evidence of chemical weapons use,” said the organization’s spokeswoman in explanation for the block.

North Korea / South Korea

The promise of progress with North Korea, in both diplomacy and security, has grown over the past week. The South Korean government has reported discussions are underway for an official end to the Korean War, which began in 1950 but has primarily endured over a 65-year ceasefire hiatus. This could mean huge changes approaching for the DMZ and other still-militarized aspects of life and policy on the Korean peninsula. Moreover, the topic of denuclearization has also been brought to the table. South Korea reported this week that “North Korea wants complete denuclearization,” a huge departure from the typically hawkish demeanor of North leader Kim Jong-un.

Even more surprising to the international community, the leader dropped the call for US troop removal from the South as a prerequisite for nuclear disarmament. This had been one of the most complicated conditions of a possible deal, so its removal bodes well for the prospect of cooperation. There are currently 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea and 50,000 in Japan. The new decision could be related to recently disclosed talks between CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Kim Jong-un. This top-secret meeting reportedly took place last month, in preparation for a larger summit with Donald Trump. Regarding that upcoming meeting, and sending a huge mix of signals, the US President said this week, “We’ll either have a very good meeting or we won’t have a good meeting. And maybe we won’t even have a meeting at all depending on what’s going in. But I think that there’s a great chance to solve a world problem.”


National lawmakers fear that the president is preparing to try to fire US Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is currently leading the inquiry into Russian involvement in the country’s 2016 elections. A bipartisan bill was consequently introduced in the Senate this week to increase the protections of the position. Although the bill is unlikely to go into effect – to do so would require passage also though the House and approval from the president himself – its introduction is a critical indicator of the seriousness of the investigation. Even without party leader Mitch McConnell’s backing, republican support for the bill is active. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told reporters, “If the goal — and I think it should be — is to convince the president not to take this action, I think the message needs to be that we take this very seriously.”

Continuing the push for educational improvements and reforms in the US, Arizona teachers have voted in favor of a statewide walkout on April 26. This would be the first statewide strike to happen in the US, but it builds directly on the other similar movements that have spread widely across other parts of the country in recent weeks. Although the Arizona government has already offered the concession of a 20% pay increase, the teachers will press on until funding for classrooms, support staff, and other educational programs is included as well.


The National Assembly, opposition-controlled and essentially powerless, has voted in support of the “Supreme Court in Exile” that is currently holding a symbolic trial in which Maduro is charged with corruption. The congress was split, some lawmakers objecting to the process as it is performed outside of legal jurisdiction, in Colombia, and Maduro has not had the opportunity to defend himself. More, however, hope the trial will raise awareness of Maduro’s alleged crimes, and a webcast showed some representatives chanting “liberty” as vote results were announced. Juan Guaido, one of the congressmen who voted to hold the trial, said it is necessary for the proceedings to take place outside of the country as Venezuela is governed by “a dictatorship” and Maduro’s “corruption is drowning us.”

In other news, two Chevron workers were arrested in Venezuela as part of the crackdown on the industry’s alleged corruption. Chevron is one of the few major companies still involved in the suffering oil sector, including through several projects with the state-run Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA). The crackdown has largely targeted domestic ministers, leaving foreign employees of firms safe for the most part.

Venezuelan workers at PDVSA are leaving their jobs voluntarily despite low employment prospects, fleeing the slave-like low wages and the new leadership of PDVSA, headed by Major General Manuel Quevedo. Some offices have lines outside with dozens of workers waiting to quit. Many of those leaving are high level engineers, lawyers, and managers whose talents are difficult to replace in the middle of the economic meltdown.


With no clear indication of when the repatriation process will begin for the more than 650,000 Rohingya who  fled Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign, monsoon season is approaching in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Aid agencies warn that the refugees’ shelters, constructed primarily of bamboo and tarpaulin, will not survive the season.

Myanmar lifted travel restrictions on Rohingya Muslims who possess National Verification Cards (NVCs). These cards will also allegedly allow a path to full citizenship within five months. The government is urging Rohingya refugees to apply for the cards, but the refugees argue that they shouldn’t need to, as many of their parents were already citizens.

Approximately 2000 civilians are stranded in the jungle, having fled their homes during the recent resurgence in violence between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar army. The group is in urgent need of medical attention, community leaders say. It includes several pregnant women, almost 100 elderly people, and many who have been wounded by mortar shelling.

On Tuesday, Myanmar began releasing more than 8,000 prisoners under a presidential pardon. Granted by newly elected President Win Myint, the pardon coincides with traditional new year celebrations and is intended “to bring peace and pleasure to people’s heart, and for the sake of humanitarian support,” according to the Presidential Office. Around 6,000 of those to be released had been imprisoned for drug-related offences. Nearly 2,000 were military and police officers, jailed under the Military Act or Police Disciplinary Act, and 36 had been designated as political prisoners, according to a list by human rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The amnesty did not extend to the two Reuters journalists involved in ongoing legal proceedings.


It was reported this week that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has opened an office in DRC with the aim to support free and fair elections planned for December 23. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) held a meeting on 17-18 April in Luanda, Angola to discuss security in the region. International observers say the SADC has worked to keep president Kabila in power, and that they must now take the reins on creating political change in the country, a call to action echoed by Amnesty International. President Kabila has dismissed 256 judges for corruption allegations and holding law degrees not fulfilling requirements to function as magistrates.

The collective Habari RDC, aiming to bear witness to violence, poverty, suppression of free speech, and corruption in the DRC, won the Index on Censorship’s digital activism award at a ceremony in London on Thursday. Habari RDC has succeeded in engaging the population in the country’s politics, encouraging voter registration in Walikale Territory, as well as bringing young people’s voices to the forefront.

The United Nations says the donor conference held in Geneva last week resulted in donors pledging $528 million, a third of the estimated $1.7 billion needed to provide emergency aid to the DRC.


The Lower House of Congress voted on Thursday to pass changes to the constitution, stripping immunity from prosecution privileges from public officials, including themselves and the president. This move is intended to help address the rampant corruption in the country. These changes must still be approved by the Senate and ratified by a majority of state legislatures before they can take effect.

A poll by the newspaper Reforma shows López Obrador still in the lead of the presidential race with 48% of voter intention, a full 22 points ahead of Anaya of the left-right coalition. Meade remains in third with 18%. The poll further showed an expectation that the MORENA party would win the most seats in Congress. Another poll by the firm Mitofsky showed López Obrador at 31% points, 11 points ahead of Anaya.

This election cycle has been the bloodiest in Mexican history, according to Reuters research and a tally by security consultancy Etellekt, with more than 80 office-holder and candidate deaths since September.

In other news, the Mexican government has banned federal and state agencies from doing business with the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht, which for the past few years has been at the center of the largest corruption scandals in Latin America.


Protests over social security changes led to clashes between opponents and government backers in Managua and León on Wednesday. The law will increase income and payroll taxes and a reform of pension system. Protests spread to other cities during Thursday, as the government ordered the shutdown of five independent TV channels covering the protests. In spite of this, images and video footage has spread on social media. On Thursday, protesters took over National University of Engineering, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails as the riot police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. So far, a policeman has been shot dead, as well as a male student and a young male protester have been killed. The police has not given any official figures on arrests. Amnesty International called the attacks on peaceful protesters and journalists a “disturbing attempt to curtail their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.”


The government has announced plans to deploy 80,000-100,000 security personnel and “village guards” to polling stations across the country. The troops are to “provide security protection services,” according to the secretary general of the National Election Committee. Observers have raised concerns, particularly that a show of force like this would serve only to intimidate voters at the polling stations. Furthermore, the “village guards” appear to be volunteers from the villages. They are not trained in election code of conduct or ethics: a spokesperson for local electoral watchdog Committee on Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia contends this may worry voters. He also points out that the large numbers are unnecessary, as the election laws provide only for one armed and two unarmed guards at polling stations. A political analyst suspects the ruling government may fear an “unexpected event” after opposition leaders called for a boycott, triggering this move.

Two journalists were denied bail on Thursday. They have been charged with espionage for filing news reports to US-funded radio station, a charge that, if they were found guilty, could earn them 15 years in prison. Previously the two has worked for Radio Free Asia, because it shut down its Phnom Penh office in September because of a “relentless crackdown on independent voices.” They have been held in pre-trial detention since November, when they were arrested just days before the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the opposition. Their case serves to compound the concerns over the country’s crackdown on dissent.


This week, 16,000 nurses have gone on strike against low salaries, and poor and dangerous working conditions, resulting in a shut-down of major public hospitals, and understaffed wards. The strike is following a month long strike by junior doctors that ended on April 2. On Tuesday, Vice President Constantino Chiwenga issued a directive firing more than 16,000 striking staff, accusing them of “politically motivated” actions. However, on Wednesday Zimbabwe Nurses Association (ZiNA) said they had still not received any formal dismissal from the Health Services Board (HSB). According to vice president, Constantino Chiwenga, government has transferred $17,114,446 to the health ministry’s account, compensation he states was turned down by the striking nurses, and instead the funds will serve to unemployed and retired nurses during the strike.

Zimbabwe celebrated the country’s 38th anniversary of Independence at the National Sports Stadium in Harare, Wednesday, April 18. It was the first time since 1980 that the event took place without Robert Mugabe as a leader. Thousands of people gathered for the event. In his speech, President Emmerson Mnangagwa again pledged to hold “free, fair and credible” elections and that he will tackle the country’s deep economic problems. “Let us shun hate speech,” he said, referring to ex-president Mugabe’s often harsh rhetorics. “As leaders, let us embrace the spirit of dialogue.”

South Africa

20 officials had their assets seized following allegations of money laundering, fraud and theft related to a dairy farm project in Vrede, after $21 million of public funding originally earmarked to support struggling black farmers in the area disappeared in the government-backed project, managed by a business associate of the Gupta family. According to corruption inspector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, two high-ranking African National Congress politicians linked to the case are also to be investigated. It is the first high-profile case of public corruption from the Zuma presidency to lead to arrests and charges.

Large protests erupting in the North West Province this week, with people demonstrating for better jobs and housing, improved hospitals and roads and an end to corruption, led to President Cyril Ramaphosa cutting short his attendance at the Commonwealth summit in London. Clashes with police, blocking of roads, looting and violence has erupted during the so called “service delivery protests”. Demonstrators are demanding the resignation of provincial Premier Supra Mahumapelo, a member of Ramaphosa’s governing ANC. The president is meeting with provincial ANC leaders in an attempt to restore calm today.

Other News:

Hungary – Protests ran through Hungary this week, in Budapest as well as in smaller cities, as tens of thousands came out to oppose the reelection of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The demonstration also came in response to the publication of a list of 200 Orbán critics’ names in a pro-government magazine. – Reuters

Turkey – President Erdogan has called for elections to be held in June, more than a year earlier than scheduled, in an apparent move to ensure and consolidate his continued power. – NYTimes

Kenya – Half of Kenya’s electoral board has now resigned with immediate effect due to lack of faith in the organization’s leadership, saying that the institution is dysfunctional, with practices such as leaking of internal documents and decisions guided by personal interests. During the last year’s general election the commission was accused by the opposition of tampering with the vote. – Al Jazeera

Kyrgyzstan – In a surprise no-confidence vote, President Sooronbai Jeenbekov outed his entire cabinet in parliament. This is the latest move in the country’s lasting power struggle, with the former cabinet members having been appointed by the opposing party. Jeenbekov’s new, aligned cabinet will help to solidify his authority and close avenues of democracy that had previously existed in Kyrgyzstan. – USNews

Senegal – A protest against the government’s efforts to raise the bar for presidential candidates elections next year was met with riot police. Around 100 demonstrators had barricaded a street near parliament and were dispersed by tear gas. Two opposition figures were among those arrested. – Times LIVE

Vietnam – Following the country’s continuous attempt to crackdown on corruption, police has ordered the arrest of several former officials and police officers linked to a tax evasion – and abuse of power case. They are suspected of revealing state secrets, violating regulations on the management of state property and land management. – The Washington Post

People Power Rages in Armenia as Opposition Declares Revolution

Fueled by fear, hope, and anger, more than ten thousand Armenians have come out in protest to oppose the appointment of Serzh Sarkisian as prime minister. The leader of the demonstration has called for nonviolence, but past instances of excessive force by police against peaceful protesters bode poorly for those out on the streets. As the situation rapidly develops, and democracy slips from the people’s hands, their measured responses will be critical for charting the course of this conflict.

People Power Rages in Armenia as Opposition Declares Revolution

Photo: Opposition protesters demonstrate in Yerevan on April 17. RFE/RL.

Fueled by fear, hope, and anger, more than ten thousand Armenians have come out in protest to oppose the appointment of Serzh Sarkisian as prime minister. The leader of the demonstration has called for nonviolence, but past instances of excessive force by police against peaceful protesters bode poorly for those out on the streets. As the situation rapidly develops, and democracy slips from the people’s hands, their measured responses will be critical for charting the course of this conflict.

Sarkisian has been in power for the past decade in Armenia, serving two terms as president, the maximum limit, and having finally stepped down on April 9 at the inauguration of his successor. At the time he was elected, and throughout his terms, the presidency was the most powerful single position of leadership in Armenia. In 2015, however, a change to the structure of the government was approved. This made the president into more of a national figurehead, transferring most of his legislative authority to the parliament and prime minister. In 2014, with the campaign for these policy changes underway, Sarkisian had announced that he would “not aspire” to become prime minister if they took effect. Now, this comment is infuriating and driving many members of the opposition who accuse him of breaking that pledge.

Protest leader Nikol Pashinian has been rallying protesters since April 13. A few days before, opposition lawmakers set of smoke bombs in parliament to call for demonstrations. So now for days, people have gathered in Yerevan, blocking government buildings, bringing transportation to a standstill, confronting significant government-linked individuals, and resisting attempts to be contained. Moreover, similar demonstrations are being held in almost every city in the country while the parliament moves to formally appoint Sarkisian as prime minister. With the movement escalating and the shows of solidarity at their height, Pashinian has just declared the start of a nonviolent people’s revolution in Armenia.

The government and police are working actively to disperse the protesters and quell the movement. They have fought paths through the blocked streets, often shoving people to the ground on the sidewalk to make way. The Armenian police in fact have a history of using excessive force against peaceful demonstrations, firing stun grenades and aggressively beating both protesters and journalists. In light of this current wave of demonstrations, Human Rights Watch has again called on the police to respect peaceful assembly.

The movement is, however, predominantly the responsibility of the people: the individuals on the ground, the source of the people power. Pashinian has called for nonviolence, but it is their responsibility to maintain that discipline as the movement accelerates. Strategies are critical. Civil resistance works. If this revolution is going to not only happen, but be successful and endure, these principles will be paramount.

Srdja Popovic Installed as St Andrews’ 53rd Rector

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On Friday, April 13, Srdja Popovic officially became the 53rd Rector of the Scotland’s first university. (via St Andrews)

Since 1858, the Rector has been elected by the students. Srdja follows in the footsteps of a long list of illustrious former Rectors, including authors J M Barrie and Rudyard Kipling, Monty Python founding member John Cleese and Catherine Stihler MEP. In addition to being President of the University Court, the highest governing body of the University, the Rector also plays an informal, pastoral role for students.

The official installation ceremony followed the traditional student ‘drag’ (Wednesday 11 April), which saw students lead the new Rector on an epic six-hour tour of student halls and local hostelries in a day of celebration, which included a procession through the town.

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“I am proud and honoured to serve as a Rector – a voice and empowerment of students of St Andrews. I am ready to commit my term to listening to the students and turning their initiatives into concrete action. The position of the Rector belongs to the students, and it will be my goal to empower students to use it in their best interest!”

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Lewis Wood, President of the St Andrews Students’ Association said: “The Rector’s Installation is a day of celebration to welcome Srdja to the University community. Srdja’s campaign and vision for St Andrews inspired a lot of students last October and we look forward to inducting him into our traditions and culture. Both myself and the student body wish him all the best for the three years ahead, and look forward to working closely with him.”

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Weekly Report: April 13 2018

Photo: Women at the memorial of Winnie Madikizela Mandela. The Guardian.


Russia reports that Syrian forces have retaken Eastern Ghouta, the heavily besieged suburb of Damascus. This means that now, Assad’s power is the most secure it has been since the start of the Syrian civil war. Furthermore, while this is a victory against extreme rebel groups that have held the territory for years, it comes at an immensely high cost. The UN refugee agency reported this week that more than 133,000 have fled Eastern Ghouta since the escalation of this siege. Moreover, the Assad government is again accused of using chemical weapons in its attempts to retake this area. While the use is thus far unconfirmed officially, it is strongly substantiated. 500 people in Eastern Ghouta have demonstrated symptoms consistent with chemical attacks; residents reported hearing things falling from the sky, leaving strange smells; videos coming out show people sprawled on the floors of their homes, killed by apparent suffocation; of 70 killed while taking shelter in basements, 43 showed signs of “highly toxic chemicals” according to the World Health Organization. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international watchdog, is on its way to Syria to investigate and uncover whether chemical weapons were used, and if so, to find out what was the nature of the attack.

Many governments in the West have expressed abhorrence over the chemical attacks, generally agreeing on the need for action, and in some cases threatening a military response. Assad has, however, both denied the use of chemical weapons and warned these governments against intervention of any kind. “Any possible action will only cause more instability in the region and threaten international security and peace.” Russia has warned also of the risks of escalation, calling them a grave threat to the growing prospect of an end to the Syrian conflict and to peace between itself and the United States.


The “anti-fake news” bill has officially been passed, and as of Wednesday April 11 is now enforceable. It was fast-tracked through Parliament and includes provisions of harsh punishments of up to six years in prison and a maximum fine of $170,000. Activists, opposition groups, and rights advocates worry this bill will be used to restrict freedoms of speech and expression, despite government reassurances that it is purely to limit fake news.

Prime Minister Najib Razak is seeking a third term, despite accusations of corruption and embezzlement marring him and his administration, and recently the government engaged in gerrymandering just before announcing the elections.

Malaysians were surprised when the Election Commission declared May 9 would be polling day for the 14th general election, making this year the first time voting will take place on a weekday since 1999 and creating a shorter campaign period than in the past. Low voter turnout is expected to stifle the opposition support. Malaysian citizens are organizing massively across the country and internationally. A petition to make the day of the election, May 9, a national holiday was posted on Change.org by a university student and has gained over 100,000 signatures. Connecting over social media, many citizens are working together to help each other return home to vote. Over Twitter and Facebook they made plans for carpools and arranging free rides, some individuals even offering financial aid to their fellow countrymen. Private companies have joined the effort as well, some promising paid leave or offering to cover travel expenses. Political parties have made arrangements to ferry Malaysians home from Singapore for the election, while others in Singapore have chartered buses to bring them home. The hashtag “PulangMengundi” (“Go home to vote,” in English) trended on Twitter. These efforts yielded results when PM Najib’s office said May 9 will be a public holiday so that “Malaysians can fulfil their duties as voters.”


Speaker of the House Paul Ryan announced this week that he will not run for re-election in November. He plans instead to step down in January, at the end of this cycle. This news has shaken the US Capitol and upended the Republican party, who already fear a significant victory for the Democrats in the upcoming elections. Many feel that his intent is to leave of his own accord, before being eventually forced out by the nation’s shifting political tides. At only 48, however, the prospect of an eventual political re-entry remains great.

President Donald Trump has expressed a desire to re-enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This comes in response to complaints from his constituents that when Trump withdrew from the agreement just days after taking office, their businesses and industries were hurt. The TPP did and would again facilitate international trade with some of the world’s largest economies, especially China, if enacted. Trump’s announcement nevertheless shocked his cabinet and advisers, as he has previously called the TPP a “rape of our country” and made his pledge to leave it and NAFTA “bedrock promises of his populist campaign.” Members of the TPP have welcomed the rejoining, but warn that the terms of the agreement will not change from what was presented to Obama. In a wider reaction, stock markets saw growth after news broke of the prospect. This has the potential also to affect US foreign policy, especially in regard to the complicated state of present affairs between the nation and China.

The US news was filled with developments of Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony regarding both the privacy and security of users after more than 87 million had data taken and utilized by the firm Cambridge Analytica, and also the platform’s involvement in the scandalous fake news and foreign involvement in the 2016 US election. Before the testimony began, Creative protesters assembled a small army of cardboard figures to greet Zuckerberg at the Capitol. The activist organization Avaaz set up these Zuckerbergs, wearing shirts reading “fix fakebook”, in an awareness campaign about the danger of fake news and Facebook’s role in propagating it.


The head of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, Tibisay Lucena, has warned that “encouraging people not to vote is prohibited by law.” This warning was issued after the Democratic Unity Roundtable, the main opposition coalition, called for a boycott of the upcoming election to avoid legitimizing what it has deemed to be a sham election. The UN has continued to refuse to send election observers, despite pleas from both Maduro and the opposition to do so. Former Prime Minister of Spain, Zapatero, who mediated talks between Maduro and the opposition for the past two years, has agreed to participate as an observer.

Henri Falco?n, running against Maduro, has been hitting the streets to drum up support and encourage citizens to participate in the election, in contrast with the main opposition’s stance. Recent polls show Falco?n as leading Maduro by 10 points, but also show many of his supporters do not plan to vote and that overall turnout is expected to be lower than in any other presidential vote since Chávez’s election two decades ago. While campaigning at a market, shaking hands with citizens, he was quoted saying “Let’s get the dirty men out of power. Please, if we vote, we win!” and that “Abstaining neutralizes people. Participating mobilizes them.”

Venezuelans abroad in Peru are using the Summit of the Americas as a platform to protest against the Maduro. Many opposition members, having fled the crisis, settled in Peru. Now, they are demanding the opportunity to return to a Venezuela free of the the “tyrant” Maduro, asking Latin America to take a harder stance against the regime. Some are handing out CD’s titled “Rock Against Dictatorship,” produced by Venezuelan rock bands, which are filled with songs that criticize human rights abuses and corruption within the Socialist Party.


On Wednesday, April 11, a Myanmar official visited a of Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, the first visit made since the military crackdown last year. There, he told around 50 refugees that beginning the repatriation process was a top priority for the government. He also reportedly told them that upon their return, they must accept national verification cards and announce they are migrants from Bangladesh, angering the refugees who say that they belong to Myanmar. The Rohingya have issued a list of 13 demands that must be met before they will return, including the official recognition of their citizenship, of Rohingya as an ethnicity, and the release of all Rohingya who have been unjustly imprisoned. The UNHCR maintains that conditions in Myanmar are not yet acceptable for the voluntary “safe, dignified and sustainable return of refugees” and that the responsibility for making these conditions a reality is with the Myanmar government. Additionally, the UNHCR again requests full and unfettered access to Rakhine state, to assess and monitor the situation and the return of the Rohingya, if and when they voluntarily return.

The same day, a Myanmar court refused to dismiss the case against the two Reuters journalists. They had been arrested in December for violating the Official Secrets Act during their investigation of the massacre of 10 Rohingya in Rakhine state. The government is prosecuting them over documents, handed over by police at the time, that it now insists contain secret and sensitive government information. The judge decided there was enough evidence for a trial, despite the arguments made by the journalists’ lawyers, and the next hearing is set for April 20. The journalists will face up to 14 years in prison if convicted. The court decision came just hours after an announcement from the military saying that four army officers and three soldiers had been sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for their roles in a massacre — the very same one the journalists were investigating.

Civil rights advocates lauded Mark Zuckerberg’s commitment to increase efforts to block hate speech on Facebook. They maintained, however, that more efforts would be necessary to block hate speech. Activists said they had found examples of Facebook “being used to incite real harm” and violence against Rohingya.


President Joko Widodo’s chief of staff Moeldoko said regional elections this year, followed by a presidential and parliamentary vote in 2019, should not deter foreign investment in the country. According to Moeldoko, the government is focusing on ensuring political and economic stability through the election period, which he called a “festival of democracy.”

Former special forces commander Prabowo Subianto has accepted his party’s, the Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement Party), nomination to run for president in next year’s elections. The controversial Prabowo has been connected to several alleged human rights abuses during bloody military operations in Timor-Leste, formerly known as East Timor, and Papua as well as in Jakarta in 1998, although he has denied all allegations. Prabowo ran as a presidential candidate in the 2014 elections, but lost to Joko Widodo. The Gerinda party and Prabowo are both closely affiliated with conservative religious groups, gaining increasing influence in the country.


Independent candidate Jaime Rodriguez Calderon has been added back onto the presidential ballot following a review by the National Electoral Institute (INE). He had been excluded from the race for failing to gain sufficient signatures in order to run as an independent when over half of his signatures were declared invalid. However, Mexico’s electoral tribunal ordered the INE to reinstate Rodriguez on the ballot because of a failure to double-check the invalidated signatures: a failure they contend constitutes a violation of Rodriguez’s due process rights. This has worried Margarita Zavala, the other independent candidate.

An electoral court ruled this week that the attorney-general’s office illegally used public funds to influence the election when they released a surveillance video depicting opposition Ricardo Anaya swearing. If Anaya were to lose popularity, it could allow ruling party PRI candidate Meade to replace him in second place during the elections, leaving Meade to directly contend with Lopez Obrador.

Mexico’s Green Candidate Maribel Barajas Cortes was reportedly found dead yards from her car. The cause of the homicide is yet unknown. This murder is the latest in a series of over 25 killings committed ahead of the elections. Most of the victims are local candidates, but have ranged across political alignments and movements. Many of the murders remain unsolved, despite police promises to fully investigate the crimes.


A draft law on minimum wage has been produced and is now being sent to the relevant ministries, including the Labour Ministry, for review. After it has been reviewed, it will be sent to the National Assembly for approval. The law was written by unions, employers, and the government, and applies only to the garment and footwear sectors. The garment sector will serve as an experiment and an example. The law is intended to benefit all workers and the state across sectors, since it will “promote a decent living, create job opportunities, increase worker productivity, and push for increased investment opportunities.” Labour Minister Samheng says he hopes to have the law approved by the end of June.

Sam Rainsy, former head of the dissolved opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), has called for a boycott of the general election in July if the CNRP is not allowed to take part. It is unclear if he was speaking on behalf of the party. In response, a spokesperson for the ruling CPP proclaimed that the Cambodian people have lost faith in Rainsy and will be participating in the elections regardless of his plea. Cambodian expats added their voices to the boycott call during the World Khmer Conference in Australia. CNRP Vice President Mu Sochua, who attended the conference, stated that an opposition party presence is necessary, but did not clarify the CNRP’s position. The National Election Committee warned that anyone who urged for a boycott, or otherwise interfered with the election, could be subject to fines and criminal charges  

The CPP also announced that it is considering a “fake news” bill, adding to a concerning trend of tightening spaces for media and civil society. Media and activists worry the law will be used to limit critical speech rather than target the spread of false information, particularly since the exact scope of “fake news” has not been detailed and is often used as a scapegoat to silence dissenting opinions.

In a statement to the Cambodian people, to wish them a happy new years, Prime Minister Hun Sen took the opportunity to congratulate the government for its prevention of a “color revolution.” He also accused the opposition of colluding with foreign powers to orchestrate the color revolution in an attempt to topple the government. Ou Chanrath, a former opposition lawmaker, said the attempt to associate the opposition with color revolution was intended to plant “confusion.” “The CNRP stands on principles of nonviolence . . . We have never thought of competing for power by using the colour revolution,” he said.


U.S. Senators Christopher Coons and Jeff Flake from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met with president Mnangagwa over the weekend in an effort to strengthen the bilateral relationships between the countries, and to discuss the conditions for U.S. financial sanctions imposed in 2001 to be lifted, namely the holding of free and fair elections. Coons stated that the gradual lifting of the sanctions will depend on progress made during the next following months, such as non-interference in elections by the military, transparency, and the following of guidelines. Mnangagwa has stated that he is committed to holding free elections, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has released a statement explaining their intention to invite 46 countries, 15 organizations, and 2 eminent persons to observe the forthcoming elections. All former African Liberation Movements are also proposed to be invited. Foreign Affairs and International Trade Secretary Ambassador Joey Bimha said that the government has decided to “re-engage with the West and the rest of the international community.”

The National Patriotic Front (NPF) linked to ex-president Mugabe and his wife, Grace, has said it will defeat the ruling party if polls are free and fair in the forthcoming elections.  According to NPF acting chairperson Eunice Sandi Moyo, Zanu FB commissars have already started collecting BVR (Biometric Voter Registration) slips in villages, an action that has been deemed illegal by Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the government.

In line with president Mnangagwa’s efforts to open up the country to foreign investors, the government is planning to set up a one-stop investment promotion agency, which will be a replica of the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) model. Visits from the chief executive and CEO of RDB took place this week together with Mnangagwa.


A donor conference seeking to raise $1.7 billion to support humanitarian activities in DRC is being held in Geneva today, but without the presence of representatives from the country. Léonard She Okitundu, the DRC’s foreign minister had already said that they will not participate in the conference, denying there is a humanitarian crisis in the country.
The Electoral Commission Ceni has begun to test voting machines as part of a new system during the elections expected on December 23. The system was used during elections in Namibia 2014, although country has 1.2 million voters compared to DRC’s 46 million. Spokesperson of Civil-society group Agir pour les Elections Transparentes Gerard Bisambu said at a conference in Johannesburg that the system will allow for fraud, although the Electoral Commission has argued for the opposite. Civil society groups, as well as the Congo Research Group also expressed its concerns, “The way in which the Ceni introduced voting machines has undermined public trust in an already controversial electoral process,” saying that “The use of voting machines could foment chaos on election day.”

Five rangers and a driver were killed in an ambush in Virunga national park, and a sixth ranger was injured. The park, sometimes referred to as one of the most dangerous conservation projects in the world, has seen more than 170 rangers die over the last 20 years. The area, important to ecological diversity and natural resources, is also home to armed rebel groups, and “Mai Mai” militia, local bandits and poachers. A catholic priest was shot dead on Sunday, reportedly by Mai Mai Nyatura fighters.

Uganda and the DRC have agreed to remove non-tariff trade barriers in a bid to boost trade between the two African countries. The meeting took place on Wednesday.


On April 5th, six human rights activists were sentenced to lengthy imprisonment following accusations of advocating a multiparty democracy and attempting to overthrow the government. Among the activists were Human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison and five years under house arrest whereas his fellow activists were sentenced to seven to 12 years. The activists were also charged for affiliation with the outlawed group ‘Brotherhood for Democracy’, advocating for a multiparty system.

On Tuesday activist Nguyen Van Tuc was convicted to a 13-year prison sentence on the same charges. A third trial for activists Nguyen Viet Dung and Tran Th? Xuan on April 12th resulted in both being jailed and given nine- and seven-year sentences respectively, convicted of spreading anti-state propaganda and attempting to overthrow the government. Dung, accused of and confessing to distorting government policies and defaming leaders of the country in blog posts and on his Facebook page, was also sentenced to five years of house arrest upon completing his seven-year prison sentence. Xuan was sentenced to nine years in prison and five years of house arrest for instigating protests to pollution, affiliating with the Brotherhood of Democracy, and for attempting to overthrow the government. International organizations Amnesty International and Human rights Watch have called for Dung’s release. According to new research by Amnesty, there are at least 97 prisoners of conscience in the country, facing deploring conditions and torture.

Papua New Guinea

On April 7, an aftershock 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck the highlands of Papua New Guinea, killing 132 people and injuring 500. The region is still struggling to recover from a 7.5 quake only two months ago, leading to the death of 125 people and leaving hundreds of people homeless, as well as damaging mining and power infrastructure in the region. The United Nations had estimated that around 270,000 people were in need of immediate assistance and 43,116 people had been displaced in 44 locations and care centers, but nevertheless decided to withdraw its aid workers just two days before the last quake due to outbreaks of violence from residents. On Thursday, the UN aid was still blocked as the relief has been stalled due to landslides and the remoteness of affected areas, and ongoing violence. A military officer working to coordinate relief has said that mediators from the authorities are establishing dialogues for peace between warring tribes in the Hela Province.

Other news:

Maldives – The hearings of Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and top-court judge Ali Hameed, both arrested during the recent state of emergency, are proceeding discreetly in Malé. A reason for such strong secrecy around the trials has not been given, but bodes poorly for both facing very serious anti-constitutional and terrorism charges. – AVAS

Cuba – A travel ban was applied recently to two more outspoken opponents to the regime. Ileana Alvarez, director of the feminist magazine Alas Tensas, and Pedro Manuel Gonzalez Reinoso of CubaNet, which is censored on the island, were forbidden from leaving the country. They join recently banned activists Adonis Milian, Gorki Avila, and Berta Soler. – Havana Times

Hungary – Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has won another term in office after sweeping the election with his right-wing, populist party Fidesz. International observers have expressed concern that the election and campaigning were not fair, heavily manipulating voters and in some ways abusing the electoral system. – NYTimes  

Russia – The city of Yekaterinburg has canceled its mayoral elections after the current mayor, a vocal social activist, expressed opposition to the re-election of Vladimir Putin. An appointee system will replace the direct elections in this fourth-largest Russian city. – The Guardian

South Africa – The memorial service for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was attended by thousands of mourners. – Al Jazeera

Uganda – Uganda plans to introduce a new tax on social media users from July, which human rights activists have denounced as another attempt by President Yoweri Museveni to limit freedom of expression and quash dissent to his 32-year-rule. The proposal, which will charge each mobile phone subscriber using platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook with a tax of 200 Ugandan shillings ($0.027) per day, has been sent to parliament for approval. – Reuters

Thailand – A group called the Future Forward Party is in the process of applying to be a political party. It was created by a billionaire and former student activist named Thanathorn Juangroong-ruangkit who aims to install a stable civilian government and “send the military back to the barracks” and has been seen as a champion for the advancement of women’s and LGBTQ issues. It is one of only 15 parties that have been approved out of the 98 parties that requested to be registered as a political party. It dropped its campaign to reform the lese majeste law, which prohibits critical speech against the royal family, in an attempt to gain a political foothold and perhaps earning it a spot among the 15. – Khao Sod | Nation

Thousands of Pashtuns Rally for the Right to Live Without Fear

Approximately 60,000 Pashtun and Pakistani activists rallied recently in the city of Peshawar, demanding an end to decades of political mistreatment, the removal of military checkpoints in tribal areas, and the release of their friends and relatives who have been taken as political prisoners by the Pakistani government.

Bead Portrait Raises Awareness of Violence Against Indigenous Women

A Native American artist/activist is creating a large-scale portrait out of 4,000 beads. Each bead is to represent an indigenous woman who has gone missing or been murdered, and was hand-rolled by community members across the US. The portrait will honor the sister of a victim, and promote awareness of this issue through socially engaged art.

Bead Portrait Raises Awareness of Violence Against Indigenous Women

Photo: Community bead-making workshop for the portrait project. Luger’s Instagram.

Communities across the US are hand-rolling beads and sending them to Native American artist Cannupa Hanska Luger. He will assemble these beads into a large scale portrait, titled ‘Every One’. This portrait project aims to raise awareness of the disproportionately high violence against indigenous women, girls, and LGTBQ community. Luger was born on the Standing Rock reservation, and his work focuses on critical analysis of culture to inspire diverse communities to “engage with Indigenous peoples and values apart from the lens of colonial social structuring.” The artist explores this topic through the mediums of ceramics, fiber, steel, video and sound, and social collaboration. Among his notable works are the Mirror Shields used in the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which also invited the public to participate in the project by creating their own mirror shields.

After a Canadian minister suggested that around 4,000 women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada alone, an estimate more than 3 times that of the police, Luger latched onto that number. The portrait will be made out of 4,000 beads, each one meant to represent a victim.

These 4,000 cases are part of a greater pattern of violence towards indigenous women. A study from 2016 showed that greater than four out of five American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, and the results showed that over 730,000 American Indian and Alaska Native women experienced violence in that year. Still other activists, those working for the ‘Walk 4 Justice’ initiative, collected the names of indigenous women who are missing or murdered but stopped once they reached 4,232 in 2011. All too often, authorities award little attention and effort into investigating the crimes.

Luger’s project began as an individual undertaking but soon developed into an opportunity for social engagement. To make it more accessible for communities and non-artists in other parts of the country, he simplified the bead-making process, and in December uploaded a tutorial video. In more than twenty communities ranging from California, to Oklahoma, to New York, groups rolled two-inch beads for his project. Luger, in an Instagram post, celebrated that he had received 3,921 beads for his project, proving this involvement is more than just ‘clicktivism,’ and provides real tangible action to support the cause.

Luger is not alone in his call to attention and action on this issue. Women in Washington state have lobbied politicians to introduce bills to address missing indigenous women. To get a grasp on the scale of the problem, the first step these advocates urged for is a full investigation into precisely how many women are missing or murdered. Numbers are hazy since there is a pattern of police either ignoring reports or filing them as accidental deaths. Next, they suggest that policy for law enforcement should be addressed, with the hope of creating requirements of full reports and investigations into the murders, disappearances, and violence against indigenous women.

The portrait will come together during this month. The inspiration for the portrait is a photograph by queer indigenous Canadian photographer Kali Spitzer, depicting an unnamed woman whose own sister is one of the over 4,000 missing or murdered indigenous women. The portrait will premiere at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs Galleries of Contemporary Art at the end of April, and then tour the US. Luger’s project, he says, humanizes numbers and policy. “The data is numbers, but the numbers represent lives. These are human lives.” The bead-making workshops reached wider audiences, bringing in non-indigenous community members, an example of how art is used to draw attention to the issues of marginalized communities, and lift up their voices in memory of loved ones and in protest of a society that allows this to fall by the wayside. The portrait will continue, as it travels the country, to tell the story of many through the story of one.


Thousands of Pashtuns Rally for the Right to Live Without Fear

Photo: Pashtun women from a tribal region of Pakistan hold pictures of missing family members at a rally in Peshawar. AP.

Tens of thousands of Pashtun and Pakistani activists rallied recently in the city of Peshawar, demanding an end to decades of political mistreatment, the removal of military checkpoints in tribal areas, and the release of their friends and relatives who they assert have been taken as political prisoners by the Pakistani government. Radio Mashaal, a branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported approximately 60,000 in attendance, despite a near-complete blackout of reporting by most Pakistani media.

The movement’s leader, Manzoor Pashteen, has affirmed that the demonstrations are both nonviolent and constitutional. “Pashtuns who have raised their voices against atrocities are being labelled as foreign agents … But we are simple people talking about peace and harmony. Our agenda is peace, and if their agenda is that atrocities should continue, this is wrong.”

In February, the movement staged its first mass demonstration as a response to the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring Pashtun model, in an allegedly staged encounter. The government stated that Mehsud was a member of the Pakistani Taliban, but this remains entirely unsubstantiated. What the killing did prove, however, was that this young generation of ethnic Pashtuns would continue to be assaulted by the government, as in this extrajudicial killing, but that they were not prepared to so easily accept this systematic abuse. Although education rates remain lowest in Pashtun territories, this generation of the ethnic group is more politically aware than ever.

Mistreatment by the Pakistani government is extreme, long-enduring, and thoroughly systematic. Critically, the Pashtun tribal lands fall outside the jurisdiction of the normal Pakistani judicial system. They are governed rather by the Frontier Crimes Regulations, an outdated system left over from the colonial era. This creates an unjust, inhumane structure and a sharply reduced set of rights for Pashtun citizens. What’s more, Pashtun regions have the lowest literacy rate in the country, there are few employment opportunities, health infrastructure is poor, and communication systems are completely insufficient.

Beyond the systematic oppression, the Pashtun region underwent further tragedy during the height of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda’s clash with Pakistani security forces. Sandwiched between these warring groups, the tribal peoples’ houses were destroyed and businesses devastated in the name of anti-Taliban operations, their mosques were bombed, and their elders were brutally targeted with bombs and beheadings. The Pashtun people were uprooted from their historic villages and for years they were forced to live in tents through both brutal winters and scorching summers.

The protests in Pashtun have brought some victories, but in the fight for equal rights, there is a long road ahead. Earlier this week, the government conceded to escalate its de-mining efforts, with the goal of eventually eradicating the land mines that still plague the Pashtun region. They additionally agreed to remove some, but not all, of the military checkpoints instated there after the rise of terrorism. At the same time, however, police are formally targeting Pashteen and using harsh intimidation tactics on other Pashtun leaders. In spite of this, Pashteen affirmed in an interview with NPR that the movement is underway, with him or not. “No longer will Pashtuns be like tissues that the Pakistani state uses – and then throws away.”

India’s Dalit Protest Dilution of Act Protecting Them Against Class Crimes

Photo: The Supreme Court’s ruling sparked country-wide protests this week. (BBC)

Thousands took to the streets this week after a Supreme Court ruling weakened the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989, which had afforded protections to Dalit against the abuses of power by authorities. The Dalit are in the lowest caste in India, marginalized by society and frequent victims of attacks. The protests had been intended to be peaceful, branded as “bandh” or shutdown, and much of the protest was nonviolent, consisting of sit-ins and gatherings. Some were not, however, and many politicians have called for peace in the streets. Leaders of political parties have expressed solidarity with the Dalit and their grievances, but condemn the violence of the protests.

The act was instituted nearly two decades ago, as a new and improved version of the Protection of Civil Rights Act of 1955 that had fallen short of successfully protecting the Dalit from atrocities. Parliament therefore passed the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in order to emphasize a commitment to the safety of the Dalit. It distinguishes that the perpetrator must be a non-member of the Dalit, and the victim must be of this caste. Importantly, it introduced punishments for neglect from officials who are obligated to respond to reports of violence. This was in response to a trend of low arrests, low criminal charges, and often inaction by police departments.

The Supreme Court ruling said the act was “rampantly misused,” claiming that over 16% of claims were false, merely citizens using the laws as a forum to “settle personal scores and harass adversaries.” The courts’ revisions would stop requiring immediate arrests of those accused of anti-Dalit violence. Furthermore, any arrests made must be approved by a senior police official, and if a public official is be arrested, it must be with the written permission of that official’s own department.

These changes, the Dalit fear, will allow officials in the castes that so often commit the atrocities to turn a blind eye to the crimes of others in their social group. The protests across the country have led to the deaths of approximately 10 protesters. The crowds in various locations threatened shopkeepers, burned tires, confronted police, and blocked trains and traffic in the cities. In Punjab state the army and paramilitary forces were placed on standby, a curfew was imposed in locations around the country, and hundreds of protesters were detained.

A review petition has been introduced to the Supreme Court, to be advocated by government counsel. Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the government was not involved in the court’s decision, and that the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment disagrees with the court’s reasoning, having filed every comprehensive review and determined that fewer than 10% of cases filed were for personal gripes.

Civil society organizations are expected to function as watchdogs and monitor individual cases and regional situations.  Citizens are also empowered to informally audit the performance of the state institutions, but encouraged to consider interfering in cases only when civil society is strong enough to protect the victims from any backlash. CSOs produce fact sheets and “report cards,” and track cases that arise. They publicize cases and track areas prone to high rates of caste violence. Online resources provide a calendar for monitoring the mandatory provisions of the Act, applicable to every year and including a panel to be held every three years. It is expectations like this that demand continuous vigilance, to lend longevity to the protections.

The advancement of human rights doesn’t have an endpoint. It must be monitored and improved upon, strengthened every time rights are endangered. The rapid response of the Dalit, mobilizing across the country in unity, goes to show that a staggering amount of people come together to stand up for their safety and rights.