[Joint statement] Tanzania: Systematic restrictions on fundamental freedoms in the run-up to national elections

2 November 2020

https://www.civicus.org/index.php/media-resources/media-releases/4700-tanzania-systematic-restrictions-on-fundamental-freedoms-in-the-run-up-to-national-elections

To: President John Magufuli

Excellency, 

We, the undersigned civil society organizations, are deeply concerned about the continued deterioration of democracy, human rights and rule of law in the United Republic of Tanzania. In the past five years, we have documented the steady decline of the country into a  state of repression, evidenced by the increased harassment, intimidation, prosecution, and persecution of political activists, human rights defenders (HRDs), journalists and media houses; the enactment of restrictive laws; and disregard for rule of law, constitutionalism, as well as regional and international human rights standards. We are deeply concerned that the situation has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic and as the country heads for general elections on 28 October 2020.[1]

Tanzania as a party to several regional and international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, has a legal obligation to respect and protect fundamental rights, particularly the right to – freedom of expression and the media, peacefully assemble, form and join associations, and to participate in public affairs, which are fundamental rights for free and fair elections in a democratic society. As a member of the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Tanzania has committed to uphold and promote democratic principles, popular participation, and good governance.

Leading up to the elections in Tanzania, we have unfortunately documented an unfavourable environment for public participation and free engagement in the political process. The role of the media in providing information and access to varying viewpoints in a true democracy is indispensable. Media houses must be allowed to provide these services without undue restrictions, yet in recent times, several independent media houses have been suspended. These have included the seven-day suspensions of The Citizen newspaper in February 2019,[2] Clouds TV and Clouds FM in August 2020, and the six-month suspension of Kwanza online TV in September 2019[3] and again in July 2020 for 11 months;[4] the online publication ban against Mwananchi news in April 2020;[5] the revocation, effective June 24, 2020, of the license of the Tanzania Daima newspaper;[6] and the fines against online stations, Watetezi TV and Ayo TV in September 2019.[7]We note, with great disappointment, that the government is yet to comply with a ruling by the East African Court of Justice requiring the amendment of the Media Services Act to address the unjustified restrictions on freedom of expression.[8]

We are further concerned about the restrictions on individuals peacefully expressing their opinions, including criticising public officials.[9] The latter are required to tolerate a greater amount of criticism than others – a necessary requirement for transparency and accountability. Tanzania’s criminal justice system has however been misused to target those who criticize the government. Tito Magoti and IT expert Theodory Giyani were arrested in December 2019 and questioned over their social media use and association with certain government critics.[10] The duo were subsequently charged with economic crimes, including “money laundering” which is a non-bailable offence. Despite their case being postponed more than 20 times since December 2019, and no evidence being presented against them, they remain in pre-trial detention.[11] Investigative journalist Erick Kabendera was similarly arrested and charged with “money laundering” where he was held in pre-trial detention for seven months with his case postponed over ten times.[12] Several United Nations (UN) mandate holders have raised concern about the misuse of the country’s anti-money laundering laws that “allow the Government to hold its critics in detention without trial and for an indefinite period.”[13]

Most recently, a prominent human rights lawyer and vocal critic of the government, Fatma Karume was disbarred from practising law in Tanzania following submissions she made in a constitutional case challenging the appointment of the Attorney General.[14] Other lawyers are also facing disciplinary proceedings for publicly raising issues on judicial independence and rule of law.  Opposition leader, Zitto Kabwe was arrested and prosecuted for statements made calling for accountability for extrajudicial killings by State security agents.[15] The above cases are clear evidence of intolerance for alternative views and public debate.

In addition, authorities should ensure respect for the right of individuals to freely form associations and for those associations to participate in public affairs, without unwarranted interference. We note the increasing misuse of laws to restrict and suspend the activities of civil society organisations.[16] On August 12, Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) was notified that its bank accounts had been frozen pending police investigations. THRDC’s coordinator was then summoned by the police to explain an alleged failure to submit to the State Treasury its contractual agreements with donors.[17]  Prior to this, in June 2020, the authorities disrupted the activities of THRDC for allegedly contravening “laws of the land.”[18] Several other non-governmental organisations working on human rights issues have been deregistered or are facing harassment for issuing public statements critical of the government. Ahead of the elections some civil society organisations have reported being informally told by authorities to cease activities. As a result of the repressive environment, civil society organisations have been forced to self-censor activities. 

We also note the enactment of further restrictive laws.[19] For example, the Written Laws Miscellaneous Amendments Act (The Amendment Act)[20] which has introduced amendments to 13 laws.[21] The Amendment Act requires anyone making a claim for violation of rights to have been personally affected.[22] This limits the ability of civil society organisations to carry out legal aid and law-based activities where they are not personally harmed. It violates Article 26(2) of the country’s Constitution, which provides for the right of every person “to take legal action to ensure the protection of this Constitution and the laws of the land.” Furthermore, it is an internationally recognized best practice that all persons, whether individually or in association with others, have the right to seek an effective remedy before a judicial body or other authority in response to a violation of human rights.[23] The Amendment Act further provides that lawsuits against the President, Vice-President, Prime Minister, Speaker, Deputy Speaker, or Chief Justice cannot be brought against them directly but must be brought against the Attorney General.[24] This provision undermines government accountability for human rights violations. We remind the authorities that international bodies have raised concerns about Tanzania’s repressive laws.[25]

We are especially concerned over the continued cases of verbal threats and physical attacks against members of opposition political parties.[26] We note with concern that to date, no one has been held accountable for the 2017 attack against the CHADEMA party leader, Tundu Lissu, who is a presidential candidate in the upcoming elections. Most recently, opposition leader Freeman Mbowe was brutally attacked and his assailants are still at large. Failure to thoroughly and impartially investigate such cases breeds a culture of violence and impunity, which in turn threatens the peace and security of the country. The government must take steps to bring perpetrators of such violence to account and to guarantee the safety of all other opposition party members and supporters.

Earlier, in November 2019, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) issued a press statement on the “deteriorating human rights situation in Tanzania.”[27] The Commission specifically voiced concern over “the unprecedented number of journalists and opposition politicians jailed for their activities.” The ongoing crackdown on civic space in Tanzania also led the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to issue a strong warning ahead of the 28 October 2020 General Elections. At the opening of the UN Human Rights Council’s 45th session, she “[drew] the Council’s attention to increasing repression of the democratic and civic space, in what is becoming a deeply deteriorated environment for human rights” and stressed that “[with] elections approaching later this month, we are receiving increasing reports of arbitrary arrests and detention of civil society actors, activists, journalists and members of opposition parties.” She added: “Further erosion of human rights could risk grave consequences, and I encourage immediate and sustained preventive action.”[28]

While we acknowledge measures taken by your government to halt the spread of the COVID-19 virus and protect the citizens of Tanzania, we are deeply concerned that the pandemic has been used to unduly restrict fundamental freedoms. Examples are the arrest and sentencing of two Kenyan journalists for interviewing members of the public in Tanzania on the status of the pandemic in the country[29] as well as, the suspension of  Kwanza Online TV for reposting an alert by the U.S. embassy in Tanzania regarding the pandemic in the country.[30]  The rights to peacefully express one’s opinion, receive information, peaceful assembly and association, and to participate in public affairs are not only essential in the context of the upcoming elections, but also in relation to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Freedom of expression in particular, ensures “the communication of information to the public, enabling individuals to … develop opinions about the public health threat so that they can take appropriate steps to protect themselves and their communities.”[31]  The UN has repeatedly emphasized that Government responses to COVID-19 must not be used as a pretext to suppress individual human rights or to repress the free flow of information.[32] 

The need for Tanzania to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law is now more than ever important as a matter of national security, following recent reports of insurgent attacks along Tanzania’s border with Mozambique.[33] Studies have shown that experiences of injustice, marginalization and a breakdown in rule of law, are root causes of disaffection and violence. A peaceful and prosperous nation requires good governance and respect for rule of law, with a society that protects fundamental freedoms and ensures justice for all.

As civil society organisations deeply concerned about constitutionalism, justice, and democracy in the United Republic of Tanzania, we strongly urge your Excellency to adhere to your undertaking to ensure a free and fair election in Tanzania. The government has an obligation to create an enabling environment for everyone, including political opposition, non-governmental organisations, journalists, and other online users, HRDs, and other real or perceived government opponents to exercise their human rights without fear of reprisals. As such, we call on the relevant authorities to immediately drop criminal charges and release defenders such as Tito Magoti and Theodory Giyani and any others being prosecuted for peacefully exercising their rights. Suspensions and the freezing of assets of non-governmental organisations such as THRDC, independent media houses such as Kwanza Online TV, and members of the legal profession- particularly Fatma Karume, must be reversed.  Opposition parties must be allowed to freely and peacefully campaign and engage with their supporters without undue restrictions such as arbitrary arrests, physical attacks, forceful dispersal and intimidation of supporters, and harassment by security forces. The legitimacy of Tanzania’s elections is at stake.

We call on Tanzania to heed the messages delivered by national, African, and international actors and to change course before the country enters a full-fledged human rights crisis, with potentially grave domestic and regional consequences.

Signed:

  1. Access Now, Global
  2. Acción Solidaria on HIV/aids, Venezuela
  3. Africa Freedom of Information Centre 
  4. Africa Judges and Jurists Forum
  5. AfroLeadership
  6. ARTICLE 19, Global
  7. Asia Dalit Rights Forum (ADRF), New Delhi and Kathmandu
  8. Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE)
  9. Association of Freelance Journalists
  10. BudgIT Foundation, Nigeria
  11. CEALDES, Colombia
  12. Center for Civil Liberties, Ukraine
  13. Centre for Human Rights & Development (CHRD), Mongolia
  14. Centre for Law and Democracy, Canada
  15. Center for National and International Studies, Azerbaijan
  16. Child Watch, Tanzania
  17. CIVICUS, Global
  18. Civic Initiatives, Serbia
  19. CIVILIS Human Rights, Venezuela
  20. Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)
  21. Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
  22. Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), South Sudan
  23. Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)
  24. Corporación Comuna Nueva, Santiago de Chile
  25. DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
  26. Democracy Monitor PU, Azerbaijan
  27. Eastern Africa Journalists Network (EAJN)
  28. Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO)
  29. Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Coalition (EHRDC)
  30. Espacio Público, Venezuela
  31. Front Line Defenders, Global
  32. Gestos (HIV and AIDS, communication, gender), Brazil
  33. Greenpeace Africa
  34. Groupe d’Action pour le Progrès et la Paix (GAPP-Afrique), Canada
  35. Groupe d’Action pour le Progrès et la Paix (GAPP-BENIN)
  36. Groupe d’Action pour le Progrès et la Paix (GAPP Mali)
  37. HAKI Africa, Kenya
  38. Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRCE)
  39. Human Rights Defenders Network, Sierra Leone
  40. Humanium, Switzerland
  41. HuMENA for Human Rights and Civic Engagement (HuMENA Regional)
  42. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) – Belgium
  43. Jade Propuestas Sociales y Alternativas al Desarrollo, A.C. (JADESOCIALES)- México
  44. Ligue Burundaise des droits de l’homme Iteka-Burundi
  45. Maison de la Société Civile (MdSC), Bénin
  46. MARUAH, Singapore
  47. Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Nigeria
  48. Nigeria Network of NGOs, Nigeria 
  49. Nouvelle Dynamique de la Société Civile de la RD Congo (NDSCI)
  50. Odhikar, Bangladesh
  51. ONG Convergence des Actions Solidaires et les Objectifs de Développement Durable (CAS-ODD ONG) – Bénin
  52. ONG Nouvelle Vision (NOVI), Bénin
  53. Open School of Sustainable Development (Openshkola), Russia
  54. Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA)
  55. Partnership for Peace and Development, Sierra Leone
  56. RESOSIDE, Burkina Faso
  57. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Global
  58. Sisters of Charity Federation, United States
  59. Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS), Somalia
  60. Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)
  61. Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA), Sudan
  62. The Human Rights Centre Uganda (HRCU), Uganda
  63. Tournons La Page (TLP)
  64. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Network, Sierra Leone
  65. Women in Democracy And Governance, Kenya (WIDAG)
  66. Zambia Council for Social Development, Zambia

[1] United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner, UN Experts call on Tanzania to end the crackdown on civic space, July 22, 2020, available at https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26117&LangID=E.

[2] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzania imposes 7-day publication ban on The Citizen, March 01, 2019, available at https://cpj.org/2019/03/tanzania-citizen-7-day-publication-ban/

[3] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzanian authorities ban online TV station, fine 2 others, January 8, 2020, available at https://cpj.org/2020/01/tanzanian-authorities-ban-online-tv-station-fine-2/

[4] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzania bans Kwanza Online TV for 11 months citing ‘misleading’ Instagram post on COVID-19, July 09, 2020, available at https://cpj.org/2020/07/tanzania-bans-kwanza-online-tv-for-11-months-citing-misleading-instagram-post-on-covid-19/

[5] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzanian newspaper banned from publishing online for 6 months over COVID-19 report, May 11, 2020, available at https://cpj.org/2020/01/tanzanian-authorities-ban-online-tv-station-fine-2/

[6] Committee to Protect Journalist, Tanzanian government revokes license of Tanzania Daima newspaper, June 26, 2020, available at https://cpj.org/2020/06/tanzanian-government-revokes-license-of-tanzania-daima-newspaper/

[7] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzanian authorities ban online TV station, fine 2 others, January 8, 2020 available at https://cpj.org/2020/01/tanzanian-authorities-ban-online-tv-station-fine-2/

[8]Committee to Protect Journalists, East Africa court rules that Tanzania’s Media Services Act violates press freedom, March 28, 2019, available at https://www.mediadefence.org/news/important-media-freedom-judgment-east-african-court-justice

[9] We refer to cases such as the arrest of prominent comedian, Idris Sultan, in May 2020 (https://thrdc.or.tz/tanzanian-comedian-and-actor-mr-idris-sultan-charged-for-failure-to-register-a-sim-card/), and the disbarment from practicing law of prominent lawyer and human rights advocate, Fatma Karume (https://www.icj.org/tanzania-icj-calls-for-reinstatement-of-lawyer-fatma-karumes-right-to-practice-law/). 

[10] Committee to protect journalists, Mwanachi, The Citizen, last seen in Tanzania, November 21, 2017, available at https://cpj.org/data/people/azory-gwanda/.

[11] American Bar Association, Center for Human Rights, Tanzania: Preliminary Analysis of the criminal case against Tito Magoti and Theodory Giyani, July 28, 2020, available at https://www.americanbar.org/groups/human_rights/reports/tanzania–preliminary-analysis-of-the-criminal-case-against-tito/.

[12] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzanian journalist Erick Kabendera freed but faces hefty fines, February 24, 2020, available at https://cpj.org/2020/02/tanzanian-freelancer-erick-kabendera-freed-but-fac/

[13] Mandates of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Letter to President of Tanzania, Reference AL TZA 1/2020, January 31, 2020, available at https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile?gId=25049.

[14] International Commission of Jurists, Tanzania: ICJ Calls for the reinstatement of lawyer Fatma Karume’s right to practice law, October 8, 2020, available at https://www.icj.org/tanzania-icj-calls-for-reinstatement-of-lawyer-fatma-karumes-right-to-practice-law/

[15]The Citizen, Zitto Kabwe sentenced to serve one year ban not writing seditious statements, May 29, 2020, available at https://www.thecitizen.co.tz/news/Zitto-Kabwe-found-guilty-of-sedition/1840340-5567040-m7pifrz/index.htm

[16] The cancellation of a training organised by Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC), the subsequent arrest of THRDC’s Director, Onesmo Olengurumwa, and suspension of the activities of the organisation, as well as freezing of their accounts, exemplifies the misuse of these laws against civil society (See: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/africa/tanzania-human-rights-group-suspends-operations/1945400)

[17] DefendDefenders, Tanzania: Respect the right to freedom of association, August 24, 2020, available at https://defenddefenders.org/tanzania-respect-the-right-to-freedom-of-association/.

[18] Two employees of one of THRDC were arrested in Dar es Salaam and thereafter authorities proceed to arbitrarily cancel the hosting of a three-day security training for 30 human rights defenders. The police claimed that the training was in contravention of the “laws of the land” but did not give a specific provision

[19] These include the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations; Media Services Act; Cybercrimes Act; and Political Parties Amendment Act.

[20] Written Laws (Miscellaneous Amendments Act (No. 3) of 2020)

[21] Southern Africa Litigation Center, Joint letter, The Written Laws Miscellaneous Amendments Act no.3 ( 2020), available at https://www.southernafricalitigationcentre.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Honourable-Minister-of-Justice-for-the-Republic-of-Tanzania.pdf-August-2020.pdf

[22] Section 7(b) of the Written Laws Amendments Act

[23] The African Commission’s Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa provide that States must ensure through the adoption of national legislation that any individual, group of individuals or nongovernmental organization is entitled to bring a human rights claim before a judicial body for determination because such claims are matters of public concern.

[24] Amendments to Chapter 310 of the Law Reform (Fatal accidents and miscellaneous provisions) Act and to the Chapter 3 of the Basic Rights and Duties Enforcement Act

[25]   See for example communication of the Mandates of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association to the government of the United Republic of Tanzania, AL TZA 3/2020, 17 July 2020, https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile?gId=25442 

[26] These include the verbal abuse and threats of execution against Zitto Kabwe, leader of Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT) Wazalendo opposition party (see: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-51355148), his conviction for sedition for statements he made at a press conference in relation to alleged extra judicial killings by state security forces (https://www.thecitizen.co.tz/news/Zitto-Kabwe-found-guilty-of-sedition/1840340-5567040-m7pifrz/index.html), and his re-arrested together with several party members while they participated in an internal meeting (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/24/tanzanian-opposition-leader-zitto-kabwe-released-on-bail/); as well as the conviction of nine Members of Parliament belonging to the opposition Chama Cha Demokrasia(CHADEMA) party and their sentencing in March 2020 to five months in prison or an alternative fine, for allegedly making seditious statements (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tanzania-politics/tanzanian-opposition-lawmakers-found-guilty-of-making-seditious-statements-idUSKBN20X2O8); and the attack against the party leader, Freeman Mbowe, by unknown assailants leaving him with a broken leg (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tanzania-politics/tanzanian-opposition-lawmakers-found-guilty-of-making-seditious-statements-idUSKBN20X2O8).

[27] African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Press statement of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the deteriorating human rights situation in Tanzania, available at https://www.achpr.org/pressrelease/detail?id=459.

[28] Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “In her global human rights update, Bachelet calls for urgent action to heighten resilience and protect people’s rights,” 14 September 2020, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26226&LangID=E

[29] Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, Two Kenyan Journalists convicted and fined in Tanzania, repatriated back to Kenya, May 21, 2020, available at https://thrdc.or.tz/blog/.

[30]American Bar Association, Center for Human Rights, Report on the arbitrary suspension of Kwanza Online TV for sharing information related to the COVID-19 pandemic, October 22, 2020. See also Kwanza TV Instagram, available athttps://www.instagram.com/p/CCGT_5ECT_n/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

[31] Disease pandemics and the freedom of opinion and expression, A/HRC/44/49, para. 30

[32] The Guardian, Coronavirus pandemic is becoming a human rights crisis, UN warns, 23 April 2020, available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/coronavirus-pandemic-is-becoming-a-human-rights-crisis-un-warns. See also UNHRC,, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, States responses to Covid 19 threat should not halt freedoms of assembly and association, April 14, 2020, available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25788&LangID=E.

[33] BBC, Tanzania border village attack “leaves 20 dead”, October 16, 2020, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/live/world-africa-47639452?ns_mchannel=social&ns_source=twitter&ns_campaign=bbc_live&ns_linkname=5f896f00c4548e02bf3cb441%26Tanzania%20border%20village%20attack%20%27leaves%2020%20dead%27%262020-10-16T10%3A29%3A29.229Z&ns_fee=0&pinned_post_locator=urn:asset:2f81fc88-030c-49d4-9d25-b8268a2dbf55&pinned_post_asset_id=5f896f00c4548e02bf3cb441&pinned_post_type=share


[Repost] Amnesty launches human rights learning app to equip next generation of activists

2 November 2020

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/10/amnesty-launches-human-rights-learning-app-to-equip-next-generation-of-activists/

Amnesty International has launched Amnesty Academy, a free human rights learning app which aims to educate the next generation of human rights defenders on a host of topics including freedom of expression, digital security, and Indigenous Peoples’ rights.

Learners around the world will be able to access courses ranging from 15 minutes to 15 hours in over 20 languages, including Urdu, Bangla, Hungarian, Korean, Russian, Thai, Czech and Turkish. All courses can be downloaded within the app, which is available on iOS and Android devices, allowing for offline learning.

“This app has been designed to empower and encourage everyone everywhere to learn about human rights. Sharing knowledge is a vital way to help us stand up for our own and for each other’s rights, and to struggle for justice and equality all over the world,”

said Julie Verhaar, Amnesty International’s Acting Secretary General.

Among Amnesty Academy’s key features is a flexible self-paced approach to learning, allowing users to start courses as and when it suits them. Learners who complete some of the longer courses will be awarded an official certificate signed by Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

The courses available on Amnesty Academy have been developed and fine-tuned over the past three years as part of Amnesty International’s human rights learning website. They have now been optimized for mobile use, making human rights learning more accessible than ever.

“Human rights education is the foundation of Amnesty’s work. Our overall goal is to ensure that people worldwide know and can claim their human rights. The Amnesty Academy app brings us closer to this goal by providing a simple and accessible platform for millions of people to access quality human rights education,” said Krittika Vishwanath, Head of Human Rights Education at Amnesty International.

Amnesty Academy will be regularly updated to accommodate learning in many more languages and with new course offerings in the months and years to come.

iOS link

Android link


Statement on death row cases and the harassment of lawyers

26 October 2020

We, the undersigned, call for a comprehensive review of the death penalty and death row inmates’ rights in Singapore, made more urgent by the following points that have surfaced in relation to recent death penalty cases.

An overly high threshold for review applications 

On 19 October 2020, the Court of Appeal set aside 32-year-old Malaysian Gobi Avedian’s death sentence, reinstating the original sentence of 15 years’ imprisonment and 10 strokes of the cane given to him by the High Court in 2017. 

The Court of Appeal reviewed Gobi Avedian’s case after the application filed by his counsel cleared the threshold as set out in Section 394J of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC). However, we are nevertheless concerned that the threshold to review cases that have already been through the appeals process is extremely high, and would preclude the possibility of many other death row cases being reviewed, even if there are still outstanding questions and doubts.

For example, under s394J of the CPC, a case can only be reviewed if there is material that could not have been adduced earlier. Furthermore, in the latest Court of Appeal judgment for Gobi Avedian, it was made clear that it is not enough for there to be a “real possibility” that the court’s earlier decision was wrong — there has to be a “powerful probability”. 

It is very alarming, in the context of the death penalty, that it is insufficient for there to be a real possibility that the court was wrong. Our position is that this is a matter of life and death, so any possibility that a mistake has been made should be closely scrutinised and reviewed.

Given that the death penalty is an irreversible punishment, it is important that every opportunity is given to the inmate to seek legal counsel and bring up matters before the court, regardless of what stage their case is at. Inmates might also be represented by different lawyers at different stages of their case, who might have advised them differently. They should not be prevented from submitting material for a review simply because their counsel had failed to present it to the court at an earlier stage.

A need for automatic review of death row cases following changes in law

Gobi Avedian’s death sentence was able to be set aside because of, among other things, developments in case law from a Court of Appeal ruling in 2019. It is unknown how many other death row inmates’ cases could be impacted by such developments.

In Gobi’s case, he was fortunate to have had a lawyer take another look at his case at a very late stage, and identify how developments in the law have made his case worth reviewing. This is very unusual: after their initial appeals have been exhausted, it is difficult for death row inmates to find lawyers to represent them or review their case.

If there are changes or developments in the law, it should not be left to a death row inmate’s fortune in finding legal counsel before their case is reviewed.

The need for accountability for breaches in lawyer-client privilege

In dismissing Syed Suhail’s criminal motion, the Court of Appeal said that M Ravi had failed to show any evidence that there had been any prejudice against his client even after it was revealed that the prison had forwarded letters that Syed had written to his then-defence counsel and his uncle, to the prosecution. 

We are deeply concerned that the Singapore Prison Service breached lawyer-client privilege in such a way. Even though inmates are under the prison’s custody, it is highly unethical to copy and forward their privileged and personal communications on to a third party, much less the prosecution. Prisoners also have an expectation of privacy, and this right should be respected.

Although the deputy prosecutor had declared to the court that he had not read the letters, there has been no independent investigation into the matter. 

We hope that there will be a clear accounting to the public of how something like this could have happened, and why the Attorney-General’s Chambers did not recognise that this was a breach right away, instead waiting two years to bring this matter to light. 

Threats against lawyers representing death row inmates at a late stage

In dismissing a criminal motion filed by death row inmate Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin, the Court of Appeal warned against invoking the review process too “lightly”, adding that defence counsels could be sanctioned for abusing the court process if they do so. The Attorney-General’s Chambers is also applying for a cost order against Syed’s lawyer, who is also M Ravi.

Following Gobi Avedian’s acquittal from his capital charge, the AGC has also taken issue with M Ravi expressing his opinions on the prosecution’s conduct in his client’s case, demanding that he apologise and retract his comments. They have since lodged a complaint against him to the Law Society. 

We strongly condemn harassment and threats against lawyers who represent death row inmates, particularly M Ravi, who has taken on multiple death row inmates at a late stage. Death row inmates already face great barriers in looking for lawyers who will review their case and advise them at a late stage. Imposing the threat of penalties, or actual penalties, against lawyers who are merely doing their best to lobby for their clients raises those barriers further by deterring lawyers from wanting to take on late-stage capital cases. 

We are relieved that a man has been saved, but are alarmed by how close we have come to a wrongful execution. We note that Gobi Avedian had already exhausted his legal appeal as well as the clemency process, and was at risk of imminent execution. If not for M Ravi’s intervention at a late stage, Gobi could have been executed without anyone realising that a miscarriage of justice had occurred. 

In the case of Ilechukwu Uchechukwu Chukwudi as well, his team of pro bono lawyers fought for him to be acquitted of a capital drug trafficking charge, which he was convicted of by the Court of Appeal in 2015. Ilechukwu is now able to return home to Nigeria after living on death row in Singapore for years, only because his lawyers didn’t give up even at a late stage. 

This highlights a serious problem with capital punishment. It is a harsh and irreversible punishment, and a life, once taken, cannot be returned. One innocent life taken by the state is one too many — this is why the death penalty should be abolished as soon as possible.

Our recommendations:

  • Repeal Section 394J of the Criminal Procedure Code that sets a high threshold for cases to be reviewed
  • When there are changes to laws or case law that will affect death row inmates, their cases should be automatically reviewed
  • Launch an independent investigation to look into how often the prison might have forwarded inmate correspondence, including privileged communication, to the AGC
  • Put an end to the harassment and threats against lawyers who represent death row inmates
  • An immediate moratorium of the death penalty, with a view to abolish capital punishment
Signatories

Transformative Justice Collective
Community Action Network
Function 8
Post-Museum
No Readgrets Book Club
Crit Talk
Penawar
Beyond the Hijab
SG Climate Rally
We Who Witness
MARUAH
The Bi+ Collective
soft/WALL/studs
Tow Ying Xiang
Rachel Lim


[Repost] Unpacking the AICHR Five-Year Work Plan: A Conversation with AICHR Members – Fri, 23 Oct 2pm

19 October 2020

Please click on poster above to access the livestream on YouTube on Fri, 23 Oct at 2pm (SG time).

Thank you.


Statement against International Monetary Fund’s promotion of austerity around the world

14 October 2020

MARUAH is one of 504 organizations which have jointly signed a statement calling on the International Monetary Fund to immediately stop promoting austerity around the world, and instead advocate policies that advance gender justice, reduce inequality, and decisively put people and planet first.

Please click on this link to read the statement in its entirety.

Thank you.


MARUAH’s Statement of Deep Concern on Actions Taken Against New Naratif’s Dr Thum Ping Tjin

12 October 2020

MARUAH expresses its concerns over the statement issued by the Elections Department (ELD) of the Singapore Prime Minister’s Office alleging that New Naratif (NN) had breached the Parliamentary Elections Act during the course of the General Elections 2020, the actions taken by the Singapore Police Force, the takedown order given by Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to Facebook, and Facebook’s censorship of New Naratif through compliance on IMDA’s takedown order.

According to the press release of 18 September, the ELD alleges that NN’s boosting of five Facebook posts during the recent General Election, “amounted to the illegal conduct of election activity under S83(2) of the Parliamentary Elections Act.” The ELD further stated that NN did not have written authority to conduct election activity, that ELD’s previous press release of 3 July on NN’s activities was carried by various news outlets and yet despite this publicity and even after Facebook took down NN’s boosted post, NN continued to boost other Facebook posts. ELD also quoted, in its statement (Ref: https://www.eld.gov.sg/press/2020/Press_Release_-_Police_reports_filed_against_New_Naratif_for_breach_of_Parliamentary_Elections_Act.pdf), the definition of election activity under the Parliamentary Elections Act, which includes “any activity which is done for the purpose of promoting or procuring the electoral success at any election for one or more identifiable political parties, candidates or groups of candidates; or prejudicing the electoral prospects of other political parties, candidates or groups of candidates at the election”.

MARUAH still remains unclear over what constitutes internet election advertisements as qualified by ELD in its press statement. We note that there are studies, codes, and in some instances, legislation that frame criteria in this regard. The onus is on ELD to state how the advertisements breached the criteria that it observes, as well as justify how these criteria are also interpreted and thus applicable to satirical content, which was the nature of one of NN’s boosted posts.

MARUAH asks if a discussion with NN to seek clarifications from NN would not have sufficed? We wonder why ELD preferred to make a police report. We also ask how many other police reports ELD has filed on other breaches as were also reported to ELD, in the course of GE 2020? Is this then the process of governance that ELD uses, that is, to make police reports? Is there a better approach as we build up trust in election climates, which inevitably will get more complex as new social media forms develop and are used more often and offer many more possibilities to users and readers? Would not a system of transparently sharing the criteria on ‘promoting’, ‘prejudicing’, ‘procuring’ help all parties to become more self-evaluative?

We are also deeply concerned over the ethical principles with which Facebook is governing its platform. Facebook has been criticised severely for allowing its communication platform to be used by political parties to influence voters. We ask if Facebook operates with greater consistency, now, on material that is deemed to be prejudicial in elections, and what its principles are. MARUAH will also be raising these concerns to Facebook. Under such circumstances, what then would be the ELD’s and IMDA’s expectations of such operators like Facebook when we do see inconsistencies in its application in leaving up or taking down news items. More importantly, how does ELD also ensure consistency in making its judgements so that IMDA can be consistent in asking Facebook to take down news items — in this case, posts from other news organisations which were boosted during the election period?

Lastly, we are troubled at the actions taken by the Singapore Police Force, in its response to the police report made on NN. Besides an interrogation for more than four hours, there was also a confiscation of personal items such as the mobile phone and laptop and entering the home of Dr Thum Ping Tjin to remove his belongings for investigations. The evidence is entirely digital and available online, and New Naratif has not denied that the boosted posts in question belonged to them. There is thus no need for the seizure of Dr Thum’s belongings. Such unnecessary seizures have happened previously to Ms Teo Soh Lung and Mr Terry Xu. We ask if investigations have to be carried out in this intimidating and intrusive manner without a thought for the individual’s civil rights.

ELD and the Ministry of Home Affairs demonstrate a high-handedness in handling the allegations. It is akin to affirming that an allegation made as a police report, leads automatically to an interrogation and seizures of materials. If the criteria are clearly spelt out, an allegation made in the form of a police report, can then be assessed on such defined terms, and where deemed fit, further action is taken. MARUAH believes that the first step is to publicise the codes that can ascertain ‘prejudicial’ content in elections. It is also equally important to situate any assessment in an environment of multimedia technology, with many media organisations delivering news and a more critical and aware public. It is important that ELD finds a balance in this governance, without crippling a journalism that offers critical perspectives and satire as an expression. It would be naïve to think of the Singapore audience as being innocently and easily influenced by the media.

MARUAH states that such continued actions including these by ELD will only instill deeper fear into people. If restrictions continue in this way, people will still be driven to take risks in expressing themselves as there is just too little legitimate space given for expression. MARUAH states that it is always preferable for a country like Singapore to host a discussion and build up better understanding through dialogue so that people’s right to express themselves is not reduced to silence. 
——————————————————————————————————————

Should you require clarification, please email MARUAH Secretariat at maruahsg@gmail.com

Thank you.

MARUAH Secretariat
maruahsg@gmail.com


World Day Against the Death Penalty 2020

10 October 2020

Today is World Day Against the Death Penalty.

Sobering. Singapore hangs an average of 2 persons per month.

Mainly drug traffickers.

Of course, criminals need to be punished.

Longer prison terms and rehabilitation.

Killing them off –  No; Not Again; Never Again.

Abolish the Death Penalty.


MARUAH shares this video message in solidarity with lawyers who work hard to defend clients facing the Death Penalty, all activists who are lobbying against the death penalty, especially those in Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign and for each of them who was hanged to death. 

 
MARUAH Secretariat, 10th October 2010.


[Repost] CALL FOR ENTRIES | #JusticeForWageTheft Poster Competition

5 October 2020

Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA), together with the Cross-Regional Center for Migrants and Refugees (CCRM) and the Civil Society Action Committee (AC), is organizing the #JusticeForWageTheft Poster Competition as part of the Justice for Wage Theft Campaign. The competition aims to raise awareness and visibility on the issue of wage theft experienced by migrant workers who have been forced out of their jobs, forced to go on unpaid leave without being given their earned wages, salaries, and benefits, and forced to return home into situations of debt bondage.

THEME OF THE COMPETITION:  Wage theft against migrant workers and all related issues such as non-payment of wages and end of service benefits, forced unpaid leave or reduced wages, and lack of efficient and just redress mechanisms.

The competition is open internationally. All artists aged 18 and above are qualified to apply and submit an entry. A regional winner will be determined for all six regions across the globe while a global winner will be chosen from the regional winners and will be determined through a panel of judges and via online voting. The selected entries for both the regional and global level will win a cash prize.

You may access the full mechanics of the competition via this link: https://bit.ly/2EHgdbT

To join the competition, please submit your entry via our entry submission form: https://bit.ly/3mQ3Ye3

All entries must be submitted on or before 28 October 2020. Winners will be announced on 11 November 2020.

Please feel free to widely circulate information on the competition among your network, along with the mechanics and flyer of the competition.

Thank you and should you have further questions, please do not hesitate to contact MFA.

Change is upon us, let us dare to make it a transformation towards justice and peace.


MARUAH’s Statement: Abolish the Death Penalty

1 October 2020

1 October 2020

MARUAH is relieved that an interim stay of execution had been granted to Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin, and he was spared from being hanged to death on Friday, 18th September 2020. We are pleased that the Court of Appeal has ordered a subsequent hearing fixed on 6th October 2020 to hear further arguments on his case. MARUAH appreciates the appeal and the work of the pro bono team of lawyers and volunteers led by lawyer M Ravi which has led to this stay order, till the verdict at the hearing. Syed Suhail was sentenced to death on 2016 for drug trafficking.

Syed Suhail’s case has also brought to light that his personal correspondence including letters to his lawyer, had been sent by the Singapore Prison Service to the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC). There has been no statement from the AGC. But Ministry of Home Affairs had stated that, in 2018, there was “no legal prohibition’ to sharing correspondences. Numerous troubling questions have surfaced on what had happened in the past and the current legal prohibition that is available. Pertinently, MARUAH is concerned over the past practices as even if there was no legal provision, there is an inherent ethical code that correspondence on cases ought not be shared without approval of the inmate or the lawyer. We note that in a recent case in April this year, the Court of Appeal ruled that the prison service cannot pass to AGC the prisoners’ correspondences to lawyers or family members, without their consent or a court order. This chain of shared correspondences, inadvertently, raises questions related to the integrity of prosecutorial processes and prejudice. In the light of what Syed Suhail’s case is highlighting, MARUAH asks that an independent inquiry be held to ascertain breaches that have taken place in the past and to assess impact on the outcome against defendants in the court cases.

Singapore reviewed the Death Penalty in 2012 to review the charges that carried a mandatory death sentence for a person guilty of drug trafficking offence. It offered certificates of substantive assistance for drug traffickers who give assistance that enable broader investigations into the case for prosecution. The certificate offers an eligibility to be reprieved from capital punishment. MARUAH notes that Syed Suhail has not been given such a certificate. We ask what are the conditions that the accused persons have to fulfil in the process of offering assistance so that the prosecution will offer such certificates. There is a lack of transparency on the scoping of ‘assistance’, risking clarity on the certification.

MARUAH believes that death penalty is inconsistent with prevailing customary international law. Involved in a research with National University of Singapore, MARUAH has to accept that most Singaporeans still see the death penalty as a deterrent, keeping Singapore safe. To validate this belief, MARUAH asks that data on all forms of drug-related offences and number of executions be made public so that we can assess the co-relation between the death penalty and keeping Singapore drug-free. We agree that Singapore needs more debates and education on the death penalty so that citizens understand that this is an inhuman punishment as the death penalty constitutes a violation to the right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Singapore and Singaporeans can do better and work on alternative punishments, such as longer prison terms, instead of executions. MARUAH reiterates its call along with many committed stakeholders, that Singapore ought to look at the practices in many countries,[1] and so Abolish the Death Penalty.

MARUAH


[1] As of 2017, 106 countries had abolished the death penalty and 142 were abolitionist in law or practice, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Capital punishment is meted out for drug-related crimes in 15 countries, but according to rights group Amnesty International only four countries recorded executions for drug offences in recent years – Singapore, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China.


Public Consultation by MARUAH – Singapore Universal Periodic Review 2021 [Fri 2 Oct, 8pm (SG time)]

27 September 2020

Please register at https://forms.gle/KL9dMieoWzu7P3Yb7 before 11.59pm on Thursday, 1 October 2020. We will be sending the video conference link via email to all those who have registered.

Read more about:

MARUAH’s UPR submissions to the UN Human Rights Council: https://maruah.org/upr/

Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs on UPR: https://www.mfa.gov.sg/SINGAPORES-FOREIGN-POLICY/Key-Issues/Singapore-Universal-Periodic-Review

UN Human Rights Council’s UPR process: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/UPR/Pages/BasicFacts.aspx

Thank you.