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Reuters Journalists Free After Over 500 Days in Prison

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  • Two Reuters journalists who had been imprisoned in Myanmar were released on Tuesday after being detained for more than 500 days.
  • Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December of 2017 for allegedly possessing state secrets, though many believe their arrest was a set-up and that the two were targeted for their reporting on the Rohingya crisis.
  • The journalists were originally sentenced to seven years in prison but were pardoned by President Win Myint along with 6,520 other prisoners.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo Freed

The two Reuters journalists, who many believe were arrested in Myanmar for their reporting on the Rohingya crisis, were released from prison Tuesday after being detained for over 500 days.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were released as part of a pardon of 6,520 prisoners by President Win Myint, effectively commuting what had originally been a seven-year sentence. The two journalists were seen smiling and waving in videos and photos of them walking out of the gates of the prison before they were mobbed by journalists and photographers.

“Around the world, people wishing to release us, so I would like to say thank you very much,” Lone told reporters following his release. “I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues. I can’t wait to go to my newsroom.”

The two were then taken to see their families where they were both reunited with their wives and daughters. Lone, whose daughter was born while he was in prison, was able to hold his baby for the first time as a free man. Soe Oo was also reunited with his three-year-old daughter, who has been separated from her father for much of her life.

Background

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December 2017 for allegedly possessing secret documents.

Their arrest is widely believed to have been a set-up. Many argue that the journalists were actually being targeted for their reporting on crimes against the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in Myanmar.

For the last few years, the Rohingya have been forced to flee persecution from state security forces in what has amounted to a huge refugee crisis. Many experts have labeled the persecution of Rohingya as a genocide or ethnic cleansing, but military and civilian officials have denied this.

The police asked to meet with Lone and Soe Oo, who agreed. During their meeting, the police and handed the journalists rolled up documents as they were leaving. The officers then promptly arrested the two men for having those same documents.

Police officials and the Burmese government have maintained that they were not arrested because of their coverage of the crisis, but the conditions of their arrest and sentencing have been questionable at best.

Then in September 2018, Lone and Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison. Much like the conditions of their arrest, the testimonies against them were questionable. One police officer admitting burning his notes, and another witness read parts of testimony off notes on his hand.

The journalists’ imprisonment immediately sparked international outrage, with many world leaders arguing that the government was censoring them for their reporting. Lone and Soe Oo appealed the case to a regional high court, but lost the appeal in January.

They then appealed to the Myanmar Supreme Court, which denied their appeal on April 22. After the Supreme Court decision, it seemed like all hope was lost, until their release was reported Tuesday, in a move that surprised the international community.

International Response

Numerous leaders all around the world have celebrated the journalists’ newfound freedom, expressing hope that their release represents a trend in more democratic press practices in Myanmar.

“We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters, Wa Lone and Soe Oo,” Stephen Adler, the editor-in-chief of Reuters said in a statement. “Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return.”

Vice President Mike Pence commended their release in a tweet, writing, “Freedom of religion & freedom of the press are essential to a strong democracy!”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also praised the move, saying “Freedom of the press is a fundamental right & must be defended everywhere in the world.”

“It is inspiring to see a news organisation so committed to the protection of innocent men and the profession of journalism,” said Amal Clooney, who was part of the journalists’ legal team said. “I hope that their release signals a renewed commitment to press freedom in Myanmar.”

The move was also applauded by human rights organizations and leaders, but many also expressed concern for the future.

“Today marks an important victory for press freedom in Myanmar.” Nicholas Bequelin Amnesty International’s East and Southeast Asia Director wrote in a statement.

“While all those who campaigned for their release welcome the government’s decision, the reality is the country retains a range of repressive laws used to detain journalists, activists and any perceived critic of the authorities,” Bequelin added.

“Until these laws are repealed, journalists and activists remain under a permanent threat of detention and arrest.”

What Next?

Bequelin’s statement, which was also echoed by Amal Clooney, hits on an important note. This case has been widely covered in international media for nearly a year and a half, and now it seems to have a happy ending no one expected.

While that is certainly true for Lone and Soe Oo, their release also begs the question: does this show a new commitment to press freedom in Myanmar?

Following their sentencing, many looked to Myanmar’s new civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to fight for democracy in Myanmar. The international community hoped that Suu Kyi, whose role is comparable to that of a prime minister, would help usher in a new transition to more democratic practices following a long history of military rule.

Suu Kyi’s government was largely expected to end the imprisonment of government critics, pardon political prisoners, and continue to work towards free media. Instead, her government has cracked down on free expression and continued to use outdated laws to imprison people like Lone and Soe Oo.

In fact, Amnesty International has reported that in recent weeks they have “recorded a surge in politically motivated arrests – most for criticism of the military.”

Suu Kyi has also come under a lot of fire for her handling of the Reuters journalists. While she had the power to pardon them, she defended the court’s decision.

“They were not jailed because they were journalists,” Suu Kyi said following the sentencing. “The court has decided that they had broken the Official Secrets Act”

Meanwhile, the violent persecution of the Rohingya continues with no accountability from the military or Suu Kyi, who until the last few years has largely been considered a beacon of the fight for human rights and democracy globally.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Guardian) (CNN)

International

Ebola Outbreak in Congo Declared Global Health Emergency

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  • The World Health Organization declared the recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
  • Since the outbreak began in August 2018, over 1,600 people have died. 
  • WHO does not see Ebola as a current global threat, but wants to draw international attention to the outbreak to increase global engagement. 
  • This is the worst outbreak of the disease since the one between 2014-2016, which killed over 11,000 people.

Emergency Declared

The World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Wednesday.

The outbreak began in August 2018 and has killed over 1,600 people, with over 2,500 confirmed cases. It is considered the worst outbreak since the one that began in 2014 and ended in 2016, which killed over 11,000 people. 

On Monday, the outbreak escalated when the city of Goma, which sits on the border of Rwanda, saw its first confirmed case. Goma is home to nearly 2 million people and has an international airport. This put pressure on the WHO to evaluate the situation.

“It is time for the world to take notice and redouble our efforts,” WHO’s Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.

“We need to work together in solidarity with the DRC to end this outbreak and build a better health system. Extraordinary work has been done for almost a year under the most difficult circumstances. We all owe it to these responders — coming from not just WHO but also government, partners and communities — to shoulder more of the burden.”

By declaring it an emergency of international concern, the WHO is hoping to draw worldwide attention to the outbreak so that global efforts can help to stop it. 

The WHO also released recommendations for the DRC to follow during this emergency. This includes strengthening at-risk populations, conducting cross-border screenings and screenings at main internal roads, and using optimal vaccine strategies, among other practices.

They also listed recommendations for neighboring countries, which includes working urgently with partners to improve their preparedness, and mapping population movements and sociological patterns that can predict the risk of disease spread.

As of now, the WHO is not concerned about a global outbreak. 

“Risk remains very high at national and regional levels but still low at global level,” their statement continued.

Because the risk is not yet global, the organization wants to emphasize that countries should not restrict trade and other business with the DRC. In fact, they believe that if countries do so, the outbreak would only worsen.

“No country should close its borders or place any restrictions on travel and trade,” their statement encourages. “Such measures are usually implemented out of fear and have no basis in science. They push the movement of people and goods to informal border crossings that are not monitored, thus increasing the chances of the spread of disease,” WHO’s statement reads.

Setbacks in Treatment

The DRC has faced many challenges while dealing with this outbreak. Earlier this week, Dr. Tedros spoke about how attacks on Ebola responders have made things difficult. Since January there have been almost 200 attacks resulting in seven deaths. 

“We are dealing with one of the world’s most dangerous viruses in one of the world’s most dangerous areas,” he said in a statement. “Every attack sets us back. Every attack makes it more difficult to trace contacts, vaccinate and perform safe burials. Every attack gives Ebola an opportunity to spread.”

According to a New York Times report, some of this violence comes from mourners who are upset with responders after losing loved ones to the disease. One person who works in burials told the Times that mourners have threatened to throw workers into open graves. The report also said that in once instance, a mourner brandished a hand grenade, resulting in everyone scattering and a 3-year-old Ebola victim not being buried. 

Mourners are not the only ones believed to be behind the violence, however, the DRC is still looking into who else is participating in attacks and why.

The WHO has also criticized for being slow to respond to the outbreak. This was their fourth meeting discussing whether or not to declare an international emergency of this kind. Many believe they should have declared it at one of their earlier meetings. 

Still, progress has been made in treating the outbreak. Right now there is no complete cure for Ebola, however, research published earlier this month showed that two experimental treatments were found to be effective. 

Vaccines have also been effective during this outbreak. According to the WHO, over 161,000 people in the DRC have been vaccinated and over 10,000 people in three surrounding countries have been vaccinated as well. 

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (The Atlantic) (USA Today)

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Amnesty International Condemns LGBTI Discrimination in South Korea Military

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  • A report by Amnesty International outlines the discrimination and abuse that gay men serving in South Korea’s military experience. 
  • Article 92-6 in South Korea’s Military Criminal Act criminalizes sex between two men in the military. 
  • Amnesty International says that this law opens the door for gay soldiers to be mistreated, which has included verbal taunting and sexual assault. 
  • Soldiers who spoke to Amnesty International said their experiences have been humiliating, have taken a toll on their mental health, and have even led to some attempting suicide. 

Amnesty International Releases Report

Amnesty International is calling on South Korea to appeal its law that bans same-sex relationships between men in the military after their report shows that soldiers experience abuse, assault, and humiliation as a result of it. 

In a report published Thursday titled “Serving in Silence: LGBTI People in South Korea’s Military,” Amnesty International speaks to several soldiers from South Korea’s military who detail personal experiences with discrimination. 

According to Article 92-6 of the South Korea Military Criminal Act, sexual relations between two men in the military, either on or off duty, fall under the “indecent acts” clause. This can be punishable by up to two years in prison.  

While it is still illegal for same-sex couples to marry and adopt in South Korea, homosexuality is not criminalized for all citizens. This article only applies to those serving in the military. 

Amnesty International says that by having this law, South Korea is opening the door to discrimination.

“Criminalization creates an environment where discrimination is tolerated, and even encouraged,” the report says.

“Homophobic and transphobic individuals can view this law as tacit permission to target LGBTI people inside and outside the military,” it continues. 

The report also said that the first step to ending this discrimination is removing the article.

Decriminalization does not solve the entire issue, but it is a crucial first step towards respecting, protecting and fulfilling the human rights of LGBTI people,” the report states. 

Charges Made Under Article 92-6

People have been charged under this article in the past. In 2017, authorities actively looked to identify soldiers who they believed were engaging in sexual acts with other men. They ended up charging over 20 soldiers as a result. 

One man who was charged in this, who the report identifies as “Yeo-jun Kim” told Amnesty International that investigators asked him personal questions throughout the process. 

“The investigators barraged me with outrageous questions, questions about what sex positions I used and where did I ejaculate,” he said. 

He also said that they looked through his phone and asked him to identify other LGBTI people. 

“The authorities came to me like peeping Toms,” he added. “They should have maintained confidentiality. I have lost faith and trust in people.”

Soldiers Face Abuse

In addition charges, gay soldiers are often subject to physical and verbal abuse.

The report outlines the story of one soldier they identify as “U” who served around a decade ago. 

“One night, I saw a soldier being sexually abused,” U told Amnesty International. “When he got angry, the person abusing him who was his senior started to beat him fiercely and forced him to drink from the toilet bowl. A few days later, the abused soldier made up his mind to report the incident and approached me for my help.”

When the superior learned about the possible report, he threatened to beat U. 

“I was then subjected to physical violence and humiliation for three hours,” U continued. “Which included being forced to have oral and anal sex with the original victim while the senior soldier made taunting remarks, such as: ‘Don’t you want to have sex with a woman-like man?’”

U added that this assault and humiliation drove him, and three others who experienced similar situations, to attempt suicide, which resulted in them being taken to a psychiatric hospital. Three of them were dishonorably discharged, while U was taken back to his squad and labeled as a “soldier of interest.”

Toll on Mental Health

Many soldiers say that the harassment and assault they are subject to takes a mental toll on them, resulting in many going to military health facilities. The report says that the facilities often have poor conditions, cramped spaces, and soldiers often question the qualifications of those working there. 

One soldier, identified as “Jeram” was regularly groped and assaulted. He was labeled as a soldier of interest when his unit learned he was gay. He told Amnesty International that he ended up in one of these facilities.  

The hospital deemed him “rebellious” after he did not comply with some of their requests, resulting in him losing the right to make phone calls or walk out in fresh air once a week. 

“The hospital tried to diagnose me as ‘unfit for service’ with staff members even instructing me how to act mentally incompetent so that I could get discharged,” Jeram said. “I refused to be labelled in this way. I felt I had lived my life well prior to the military and knew that I was not the source of the problem. This whole experience led me to attempt suicide because I lost the will to live.”

He then said that one panelist, who he did not think was a licensed medical professional, told him during one of his reviews, “You are so disobedient. Even if I shoot you here, it will simply get covered up as a suspicious death and that will be it. Then, the compensation your family would receive will be even lower than for a military dog.”

Amnesty International’s report is the latest in international organizations fighting for rights for gay soldiers in South Korea. In March, Human Rights Watch submitted an amicus brief urging the country to repeal Article 92-6.

“Article 92-6 violates the rights of LGBT persons in two distinct ways,” the brief said. “First, it violates the substance of fundamental rights. Second, it discriminates against service members based on their sexual orientation. The criminalization per se of consensual adult same-sex conduct is a violation of the right to privacy under international law.”

See what others are saying: (Reuters) (CNN) (New York Times)

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Sudan Military and Opposition Reach Power-Sharing Deal

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  • Sudanese opposition and military leaders agreed Friday to set up a joint military-civilian council that will rotate power between the two groups until elections are held in three years.
  • The agreement comes after weeks of stalled negotiations between a coalition of opposition groups and the Transitional Military Council that came to power after President Omar al-Bashir was overthrown by a military coup in April.
  • Mediators stepped up negotiation efforts earlier this week after tens of thousands of demonstrators staged the largest protest since the violence on June 3.
  • Thousands of people took to the streets to celebrate the agreement as leaders on both sides expressed optimism, but others called for continued protests over concerns that the military will not hold up its end of the deal.

Agreement Reached

Sudan’s military and opposition leaders reached an agreement to share power until elections can be held, mediators announced Friday.

The deal comes after weeks of stalled negotiations between civilian opposition leaders and the ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC), which took power after Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was ousted in a military coup in April.

Al-Bashir’s removal followed months of protests dating back to December 2018. Those protests continued after the TMC installed itself, with demonstrators demanding that the military rulers hand over power to a civilian-led government.

The new power-sharing deal will establish a joint military-civilian sovereign council that will govern Sudan until elections are held in three years. 

Military and civilian leaders will rotate control of the council, with the military leading the council for the first 21 months, and the civilians leading the council for the remaining 18 months.

The council will be composed of five members of the military, five civilians, and an 11th seat that will be agreed on by both sides. The agreement also stipulates the appointment of a cabinet of ministers and the formation of a legislative council.

Leaders on both sides expressed optimism about the agreement. 

“This agreement opens the way for the formation of the institutions of the transitional authority,” said Omar al-Degair, a leader of the opposition coalition who negotiated with the military. “And we hope that this is the beginning of a new era.”

“This agreement is comprehensive and does not exclude anyone,” said General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, deputy head of the TMC.

Protests

Opposition leaders and the TMC also agreed to launch an independent investigation into the violence that began in early June, after a military crackdown on protesters left mass casualties.

On June 3, paramilitary forces attacked a long-standing protest camp outside military headquarters that had been the site of ongoing demonstrations against military rule since al-Bashir was toppled. 

Opposition medics said that more than 100 people were killed in the violence, while the government has said the death toll was 62.

General Dagalo, known as Hemeti, leads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces that protest leaders have accused of perpetrating the crackdown.

Following the attack, the TMC said they would no longer negotiate with the protestors, and called for snap elections. They later went back on that decision and said they wanted negotiations, but were rebuked by the protest leaders, who refused to negotiate with them after the attack.

They later went back on that decision and said they wanted negotiations, but were rebuked by the protest leaders, who refused to negotiate with them after the attack.

However, the African Union and leaders in neighboring Ethiopia stepped in to lead mediation between the two. 

Those efforts ramped up earlier this week, after tens of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets of Sudanese cities, marking the biggest protests since the June 3 crackdown. Seven more were killed in Sunday’s protests, and more than 100 were injured.

Skeptical Hope for the Future

Thousands of people took to the streets of the Sudanese capital Khartoum to celebrate the agreement. 

However, many protestors called for continued demonstrations to put pressure on the military to follow through with the deal. 

“We would like to see many more guarantees from the TMC because they’ve made many promises on handing over power only to backtrack later on,” a protester named Mohamed Ismail told Al Jazeera.

Another protester named Lena al-Sheikh told BBC that the demonstrators “definitely wanted much more” from the deal, and added that many are a “little bit” skeptical regarding the details.

“The military council has shown that […] there was brutality against protesters,” she said. “People died, people were hurt and we were thinking maybe this is never going to happen, maybe we are never going to reach an agreement.”

Other experts say the deal falls short of opposition demands for a fully-civilian led council. Sudan-based journalist Yousra Elbagir pointed out in a tweet that many people in Sudan do not know the details of the deal, because of the ongoing internet blackout in the country. 

The internet has been shut off for a month now in Sudan, as military leaders have attempted to suppress communications and public gatherings.

Others, however, expressed excitement and optimism for the future.

“We have won a victory against injustice,” a protestor named Shihab Salah told Reuters. “Our goal is to achieve freedom and justice and to find jobs for young people. Civilian rule and democracy are the future of Sudan.”

See what others are saying: (Al Jazeera) (The New York Times) (BBC)

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