Asia

Is China Using COVID-19 as an Excuse to Silence Its Dissenters?

By: Madison Kenyon

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

BEIJING, China — On December 31, 2019, the government in Wuhan, China announced that health authorities were in the process of treating dozens of individuals who all had similar symptoms. A few days later, the Wuhan government confirmed that these individuals had all been infected with a new virus: COVID-19. Now about five months later, the spread of the virus seems to be slowing down in cities throughout China, and thus China has begun lifting its lockdown measures.

Despite the Chinese government lifting many of its lockdown measures, over 200 cities in China now require its citizens to download software that tracks citizens’ movements. Specifically, in order to freely move throughout different Chinese regions, a citizen must download either the WeChat or Alipay App which contains this software. After downloading this, the citizen is required to answer a list of personal information questions, including: name, Chinese ID number, phone number, residential address, their place of work, their travel history, and their purpose for being in the region. Next, the citizen is required to answer a list of health questions, ranging from “Do you have any symptoms? to “Have you been in contact with someone with COVID-19?” Based on the answers to these questions, each citizen is administered a different colored scanning code – either green, yellow, or red. Those who receive a green code can move around the city freely. However, those that receive a yellow code must self-quarantine for seven days, and those with a red code must self-quarantine for 14-days.

Although these cities have not technically made it a requirement for its citizens to download this software, they have implicitly done so since citizens may not travel throughout the city without a colored code. Specifically, a citizen is required to scan into every public place they enter. The government argues this is necessary to track the travel history of someone who becomes infected with COVID-19 and track who the infected person has been in contact with.

On the outside, this appears to be a creative way to track and maintain the spread of COVID-19. However, this tracking technology concerns many human rights activists. For starters, there is no end-date for the use of this technology. Many believe the Chinese government will continue to use the “health-scare” justification to track its citizens far after this global pandemic is over. Second, there has not been much transparency from the Chinese government as to how it reaches its decision in the color code it provides to each individual. Due to this, many believe that China will use this color-coded system to silence the government’s dissenters by giving them red codes and forcing them into isolation. This is especially troublesome since this pandemic broke out amid the Hong Kong protests. As Sophie Richardson, the China Director at Human Rights Watch, stated, “This is viewed as scary stuff from a human rights perspective…It is yet another way to gather information about people to potentially use it against them in ways which there’s no legal basis.”

It will surely be interesting to see if these predictions by human rights activists come true.

For further information, please see:

CNN – China is Fighting the Coronavirus with a Digital QR Code. Here’s How it Works – 16 Apr. 2020

ABC News – China Rolls Out Software Surveillance for the COVID-19 Pandemic, Alarming Human Rights Advocates – 14 Apr. 2020

N.Y. Times – A Timeline of the Coronavirus Pandemic – 14 Apr. 2020

Business Insider – As China Lifts Its Coronavirus Lockdown, Authorities are Using a Color-Coded Health System to Dictate Where Citizens Can Go. Here’s How It Works. – 7 Apr. 2020

Two Imprisoned Journalists in Myanmar Will Appeal to Supreme Court

By: Natalie Maier
Impunity Watch, Press Freedom                                                                                                                                                               

YANGON, Myanmar — Two Reuters journalists imprisoned under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act filed an appeal Friday with the Supreme Court to overturn their convictions.

Reuters journalist Wa Lone is escorted by police as he leaves court Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, outside Yangon, Myanmar. (2018 AP Photo/Thein Zaw)

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been in prison for over a year now. The pair were arrested on December 12, 2017 and charged with violating the Official Secrets Act, a colonial-era law that punishes the distribution or publication of documents that may be “useful to the enemy.”

Prosecutors claim that the two obtained important and secret state documents relating to a military campaign in Rakhine State by the Myanmar army. Since 2016, over 680,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the area amidst genocide. The United Nations has opened up an investigation into the crisis, calling it “ethnic cleansing.”

Lone and Soe Oo, reporters for the Reuters news agency, had been investigating a mass grave in the city of Inn Din. They claim that they were framed by police, who handed them documents, and then arrested them for possession.

On January 11, 2019, an appellate judge upheld the original conviction of 7 years in prison for hard labor. This appeal claims that lower court rulings involved errors in judicial procedure. Khin Maung Zaw, counsel for the journalists, said the lower courts did not properly evaluate witness testimony. Observers at the trial described testimony of the prosecution as vague and contradictory. However, one police officer who testified for the prosecution admitted that the two journalists were indeed the target of a sting operation.

The case has caught the attention of human rights and free speech advocacy groups around the world. Concerns about the status of press freedom in Myanmar are growing, with 43 journalists arrested wince 2015.

For more information, please see:

1 February 2019 – AP/The Diplomat –  Landmark Myanmar Press Freedom Case Set for Supreme Court Appeal 

2018 – PEN America – Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

After Landmark Ruling, Gay Sex Legalized in India

By: Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch News Reporter, Asia

NEW DELHI, India – A landmark ruling legalizing gay sex was passed down from India’s highest court on September 6th, putting an end to more than a century’s worth of anti-LGBT legislation.

Celebrations erupted after the landmark decision. Photo courtesy of Piyal Adhikary.

Introduced in the 1860s, the colonial-era law in question, Section 377 of the Indian penal code, criminalized gay sex. Violators could face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Prior to Section 377’s repeal, Indian courts had been reluctant to rule on the issue. In 2009, the Delhi High Court found the law unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court overturned its decision four years later.

Lawyers questioned the constitutional basis of the 2013 ruling. In that ruling, the court stated that because it believed only “a miniscule fraction of the country’s population constitute lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders” that the law was “legally unsustainable” to repeal.

Lawyers in the latest hearings questioned that stance and its constitutional basis.

Colin Gonsalves, one of the attorneys representing the dozen-plus litigants in the case, called the decision “a wrong judgment. It was not legal and it was based wrongly on the tenets of the constitution.”

Celebrations spread throughout the country with news of the repeal. Crowds outside the supreme court erupted in cheers and tears of relief as the decision was announced. Marches and parades took place across the country.

“I was turning into a cynical human being with very little belief in the system, but honestly that has really shown once again that we are a functional democracy where freedom of choice, speech and rights still exist” said Ritu Dalmia, one of the campaigners.

Another campaigner, Bismaya Kumar Raula, said, “I can’t even explain how I am feeling right now. The long battle has been won. Finally we have been recognized by this country.”

Although some religious and conservative groups oppose the ruling, public opinion throughout India is largely supportive of the repeal.

Chief Justice Dipak Misra announced the decision of the court, saying “social exclusion, identity seclusion and isolation from the social mainstream are still the stark realities faced by individuals today, and it is only when each and every individual is liberated from the shackles of such bondage…that we can call ourselves a truly free society.”

For more information, please see:

BBC News – India court legalises gay sex in landmark ruling – 6 September 2018

CNN – India’s top court decriminalizes gay sex in landmark ruling – 6 September 2018

The Guardian – Campaigners celebrate as India decriminalises homosexuality – 6 September 2018

Los Angeles Times – India’s gay sex ban was a relic of the British Empire — but it’s still in place in dozens of ex-colonies – 7 September 2018

 

 

India’s Supreme Court Upholds Biometric Identification System

By: Charlotte Volpe
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

NEW DELHI, India – On September 26, 2018, a five-justice panel of the Supreme Court of India upheld the constitutionality of the national biometric identification system, Aadhaar. While noting its constitutionality in a 4-1 ruling, the court also placed strict limitations on Aadhaar’s scope and reach.

Woman in Amritsar, India scans her fingerprints during Aadhaar registration process. Photo courtesy of Narinder Nanu.

The ruling maintained that Aadhaar could be required for accessing public benefits and filing income taxes. However, the court struck down on private companies’ ability to require Aadhaar identification from their customers for access to their services.

Aadhaar – “foundation” in Hindi – is an expansive biometric information database administered by the Indian government that includes the fingerprints and iris scans of 1.2 billion people – 9 out of 10 Indians. The program was originally founded in 2009 as a foolproof digital identification system for all Indians, particularly for those who have traditionally struggled to produce formal proof of identity.

The biometric information in Aadhaar’s database is matched to a unique 12-digit number, which serves as an ID and ensures that government services are received by intended parties. Welfare recipients use this number to verify their identity upon collecting benefits or joining government work programs.

With Narendra Modi’s election in 2014, Aadhaar’s use expanded past its original intent of streamlining public services delivery. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party granted private companies access to Aadhaar biometric data for customer verification purposes, placing Indian citizens’ fingerprints at corporations’ fingertips. Everything from opening a bank account or setting up a cell phone line required an Aadhaar number.

The court’s ruling on Aadhaar’s constitutionality invited pushback from critics and supporters alike.

Privacy-advocates lamented that upholding Aadhaar violates data security protections and facilitates the potential for a surveillance state. Activists worry that mandating Aadhaar registration for receipt of government benefits may preclude some of India’s most vulnerable populations from access to public services and subsidies.

Private companies were disappointed by the court’s ruling, which places severe limitations on their ability to utilize Aadhaar in their customer sign-up processes. Using Aadhaar’s biometric data verification was significantly more cost-effective than traditional paper-based means of identity proof.

The court’s decision to uphold Aadhaar with severe restrictions sets an example for future data privacy and security inquiries. National governments will continue to grapple with the balance act between enhanced security and ease, and privacy protection. India’s Supreme Court ruling sets a precedent for future questions on this issue that are certain to arise.

For further information, please see:

The Economist – A court upholds but curbs India’s giant biometric ID system – 27 September 2018

Human Rights Watch – India: Top Court OK’s Biometric ID Program – 27 September 2018

The New York Times – India’s Top Court Limits Sweep of Biometric ID Program – 25 September 2018

Pakistan High Court Releases Ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

By: Charlotte Volpe                                                                                                             Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – On September 19th, the Islamabad High Court announced the release on bail of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz, and his son-in-law. The three were convicted in July by an anti-corruption court due to inquiries related to their ownership of high-value properties in London, drawing scrutiny on how government officials could afford such luxury real estate abroad.

Supporters of former PM Nawaz Sharif celebrating the Islamabad High Court’s decision. Photo courtesy of Anjum Naveed.

Sharif was ousted from office last year by the Supreme Court for alleged acts of corruption related to the properties the family owned in London.

The ruling to release the Sharifs has been praised by observers as the court’s declaration of its authority and assertion of proper judicial process, independent of external influences. Back in July, independent lawyers and analysts viewed the court’s sentencing of the Sharifs as unsubstantiated by enough evidence linking the family to the London properties. The court too has now come to that conclusion.

Sharif’s political supporters and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N), are in high spirits. They contend that his conviction was an attempt by Imran Kahn and his rival party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), to discredit Sharif as a political candidate for the general elections in July and harm his chance for re-election.

Kahn, the favored candidate of the Pakistani military, swept the elections and is now prime minister. 

PLM-N supporters feel that this is clear indication of PTI involvement leading to Sharif’s original conviction in July. PTI supporters, however, retort that Sharif would never have been released if there was a PTI conspiracy to undermine him.

In any case, the Islamabad High Court’s overturning of their sentence will allow the Sharifs to resume rallying support for PLM-N. Seen by many as her father’s chosen political successor, Maryam in particular has added personal grievance towards Kahn and will likely begin mobilizing support against him and the ruling PTI party.

For more information, please see:

The Economist – Pakistan’s former prime minister is freed from prison – 20 September 2018

The New York Times – Pakistan Court Releases Nawaz Sharif, Ex-Prime Minister, From Prison – 19 September 2018

Al Jazeera – Pakistan court releases ex-PM Nawaz Sharif and daughter – 19 September 2018

The Telegraph – Pakistan court orders release of former prime minister Sharif and daughter – 19 September 2018