Rights Officials See Flaws in Terror Pledge

Local and regional human rights officials have strongly criticized the anti-terrorist declarations that came out of last week’s Asean Summit, saying they could allow governments to crack down on legitimate dissident voices.

The statement by Asean leaders, released on Nov 3, said that all Asean countries will agree to step up efforts in the fight against terrorism and agreed to share information with each other on suspected terrorist activity.

“When you have a policy to try to prevent something like terrorism, you always have a double-edged policy,” said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development. “[Anti-terrorism pacts and laws] have the possibility of cutting down on the amount of personal freedoms and rights, and the issue of terrorism is used to limit freedoms of people.”

The government in the past has used terrorism accusations to arrest and detain opposition activists and others who have no concrete ties to alleged terrorist groups, Chea Vannath said.

For example, she said, one week after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks in the US, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the government would crack down harder on suspected members of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, a US-based anti-government group bent on overthrowing the current government.

A group of about 50 alleged CFF members led an armed attack against the government in November 2000.

In the first few months after that failed coup, the government arrested more than 60 alleged CFF members. However, after the Sept 11 attacks in the US, it stepped up its efforts to arrest and detain CFF members and arrested 62 alleged CFF members throughout the country.

While government sweeps may have indeed snared some involved in the failed coup attempt, included in that group were Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party commune candidates who party officials said have no links to the CFF.

One Ministry of Interior official, speaking on condition of anonymity on Tuesday, denied that the government has ever arrested dissidents under the guise of stopping a terrorist threat.

“The government has not done anything crazy like this,” the official said. “[Previously], the government had a lot of evidence against the CFF members or anyone else we arrest. We do not arrest people without evidence.”

Human rights workers from throughout the region, however, say that people labeled as terrorists are often detained without much evidence.

“Most of our governments are not democratic and there are few effective checks and balances from the judiciary or the parliament,” said Irene Xavier, chairperson of the Committee for Asian Women and president of Women Selanger, based in Malaysia .

“Anti-terrorism will be used as an excuse for the governments to crack down on dissident voices and entrench their power more effectively.”

Malaysian authorities have used the anti-terrorist measures to arrest “peripheral” members of the opposition group Parti Islam SeMalaysia, or PAS, an Islamic political group. Xavier said she expects those arrests will soon include an increasing number of PAS members.

“We expect that they will soon get the bigger leaders—we expect an election next year,” Xavier said. “There is also the likelihood that they will cast the net wider to get other human rights activists. This has been done many times in our history.”

Judy Pasimio, an activist with the Asia Pacific Forum on Wom­en, Law and Development, also denounced the regional government’s attempt to increase security as a tactic to erode human rights and personal freedoms in Asean countries.

“These organizations are brand­ed as terrorists,” Pasimio said, mentioning Jose Maria Sison, the founder of the National Demo­cratic Front, the communist party of the Philippines. In August, immediately after the US State Department labeled the National Democratic Front a terrorist group, the Dutch authorities had Sison’s assets frozen.

The measure that is most worrisome to human rights officials is the sharing of information be­tween the countries. Many activists said information sharing looks like a good security measure on the surface, but is one of the easiest anti-dissident weapons in any government’s arsenal.

The Cambodian government in August deported to China two Falun Gong practitioners who were under UN protection after local police, acting on requests and information from China, arrested the pair. The Falun Gong is considered an outlaw sect in China.

Similarly, a Vietnamese religious dissident with UN refugee status disappeared from Cambo­dia in July and is thought to have been forcibly returned to Vietnam, rights officials say.

“The sharing of information is not new—already there is some sharing of information between some countries in Asean,” Xavier said.

Malaysia and Singapore worked together to stem the threat of communism in the region, she said, citing a 1987 crackdown on activists in both countries. The activists, according to Xavier, were ac­cused of being members of communist organizations and detained in Singapore before being extradited to Malaysia.

“If the Asean [agreement] extends [information of alleged terrorists] to all countries in the region it will certainly make the situation more dangerous for activists in the region,” she said.

 

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