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Rights defenders under attack in Asia – UN experts

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A man walks on a giant sea wall along the coast of Jakarta, Indonesia.

Reprisals against human rights defenders were in the spotlight on Wednesday as UN independent experts documented instances of abuse in Indonesia and Pakistan.  

Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor said Indonesia must immediately stop threatening and intimidating human rights defender Veronica Koman and her family. 

Living in self-imposed exile in Australia, Ms. Koman, a lawyer specializing in human and minority rights, faces charges of incitement, displaying race-based hatred, spreading fake news and disseminating information aimed at inflicting ethnic-hatred. 

The allegations were believed to have been brought against her in retaliation for providing reports to UN human rights mechanisms and attending UN meetings – for which she was questioned by security forces – on West Papua and Papua provinces. 

Ms. Koman was one of six human rights defenders mentioned in the UN Secretary-General’s 2021 annual report on cooperation with the UN.  

“This case highlights how human rights defenders are often targeted for their cooperation with the United Nations, which is fundamental to their peaceful and legitimate work in the protection and promotion of human rights”, said the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. 

‘Chilling effect’ on society  

Acts of intimidation and threats against Ms. Koman’s family have also been reported, most recently on 7 November, when unidentified individuals threw two small explosive boxes inside the garage of her parents’ home in West Jakarta.  

The boxes reportedly contained threatening messages, including one stating “we will scorch the earth of wherever you hide and of your protectors”.  

Another delivered to a family member’s home contained a dead chicken and a message saying that anyone hiding her “will end up like this”. 

 “I am extremely concerned at the use of threats, intimidation and acts of reprisal against Veronica Koman and her family, which seek to undermine the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the legitimate work of human rights lawyers”, said Ms. Lawlor. 

She urged the Indonesian Government to drop the charges against her and investigate the threats and acts of intimidation and bring the perpetrators to justice. 

Impunity for violations against human rights defenders has a chilling effect on civil society as a whole”, she added. 

Mary Lawlor’s call was endorsed by Special Rapporteurs Fernand de Varennes on minority issues and Diego García-Sayán on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers. 

Pakistan rights defender unfairly condemned 

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, 12 UN independent experts on Wednesday condemned the reported conviction of minority civil society activist Idris Khattak, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison following what the UN rights office OHCHR, described as “an apparent unfair trial”, in a military courtroom.  

“Mr. Khattak’s reported sentencing is an attack against the human rights community in Pakistan and sends a chilling message to civil society activists monitoring and reporting on alleged violations, committed by the military and security forces or with their consent or acquiescence, such as systematic or widespread enforced disappearances”, the UN human rights experts said in a statement. 

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The Special Rapporteurs upheld that Mr. Khattak and other rights defenders and civil society leaders – including those belonging to the Pashtun minority – who have been arrested or disappeared for their human rights work, must be immediately released.  

Reparations 

“Their families should be provided with reparations, truth and justice”, they added, while stressing that those responsible for these abuses must also be held accountable. 

Mr. Khattak, who has worked to defend the rights of the Pashtun minority in north-west Pakistan, including by documenting enforced disappearances, was tried by a military court under the Pakistan Army Act and charged with espionage and other conduct “prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State” for allegedly revealing regional military operations information in 2009.  

He was reportedly sentenced in secret by the Field General Court Martial, and neither his family nor his lawyer have been informed about the judgement. 

“As a civilian, he should have been tried by a civilian court. It is the State’s obligation to ensure Mr. Khattak’s rights to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law”, the experts underscored.  

Calls for release 

Abducted by security agents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in November 2019, Mr. Khattak was subjected to seven months of enforced disappearance, exposing him to a high risk of torture.  

In June 2020, authorities acknowledged he was being detained, without revealing where, and ever since he has been held incommunicado.  

“Mr. Khattak’s rights have been systematically violated during his detention and trial. Khattak’s detention and sentencing is part of an alarming pattern of silencing human rights defenders and outspoken civil society leaders through systematic abuse of counterterrorism and security legislation, intimidation, secret detention, torture and enforced disappearance”, said the independent experts. 

They called on authorities to disclose all details of Mr. Khattak’s case and immediately allow his family and lawyer unobstructed and regular access.  

“Further, in addition to releasing him, we reiterate our call on Pakistan to ensure a prompt and impartial investigation…and to hold those responsible to account for any violations of his human rights”, they concluded. 

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not paid for their work.

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