By Jan Servaes
BRUSSELS, Jan 30 2023 (IPS)
Parliamentarians worldwide face increasing human rights violations and a greater risk of reprisal simply for exercising their mandate or expressing their ideas and opinions.
Asia follows the same trend according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). It is the second most dangerous region for MPs, with the number of cases recorded by the IPU increasing every year.
While instances of physical attacks remain rare in Southeast Asia, governments often resort to politically motivated charges against parliamentarians and opposition leaders in what has come to be known as ‘lawfare”.
Since the military takeover and the suspension of parliament in February 2021, the IPU has received specific reports of human rights violations against 56 MPs elected in the November 2020 vote.
Two new MPs, Wai Lin Aung and Pyae Phyo, were arrested in December 2021. This brings the total number of detained MPs to 30. Many of the detainees are reportedly held incommunicado in overcrowded prisons. where they are mistreated and possibly tortured, with little access to medical care or legal advice.
According to Amnesty International, torture and ill-treatment are institutionalized in Myanmar. Women have been tortured, sexually harassed and threatened with rape in custody,
ASEAN member states must immediately stop using judicial harassment and politically motivated charges against critics and political opponents, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) stated at a January 27 press conference in Manila under the banner: “Stop Lawfare! No to the weaponization of the law and state-sponsored violence.”
The press conference explained the continued use of lawfare and its effect on freedom of expression. It was a show of solidarity with parliamentarians and others facing this kind of repression.
The Philippines is ranked 147th out of 180 countries in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, and the Committee to Protect Journalists ranks the Philippines seventh in its 2021 Impunity Index, which tracks the deaths of media workers whose killers go unpunished .
In the Philippines, “lawfare” has been used systematically by the previous administration of President Rodrigo Duterte and also by the current administration of Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. to suppress opposition voices. A notable case is that of APHR’s board member and former member of parliament in the Philippines: Walden Bello.
On August 8, 2022, Walden Bello was arrested on a cyber libel charge. Bello is facing politically motivated allegations filed by a former Davao City information officer who now works as Chief of the Media and Public Relations Department in the office of the Vice President, Sara Duterte.
The indictment against Walden Bello is a clear example of political intimidation and revenge designed to terrify opponents of the current Philippine government. It is a violation of freedom of expression, which is essential for a democracy.
In addition to Walden Bello, many other political leaders and activists, including Senator Leila De Lima, Senator Risa Hontiveros and Senator Antonio Trillanes, have fallen victim to dubious justice. Senator Leila de Lima, was arrested in February 2017 on trumped-up drug charges, shortly after she launched a Senate investigation into extrajudicial killings under the Duterte administration. She has been in detention ever since, still awaiting trial, despite several key witnesses retracting their testimony.
Many local and regional leaders are also suffering arbitrary detention following questionable arrests in the wake of government “red-tagging” campaigns against local activists and journalists, including human rights and environmental defenders.
Maria Ressa, who, as editor-in-chief of Rappler, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 together with a Russian journalist, has repeatedly been a victim of lawfare. They were recently acquitted of tax evasion. Ressa said it was one of several lawsuits former President Duterte used to muzzle critical reporting.
However, Ressa and Rappler face three more lawsuits: a separate tax suit filed by prosecutors in another court, her appeal to the Supreme Court against an online libel conviction, and Rappler’s appeal against the closing of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Ressa still faces up to six years in prison if she loses the libel conviction appeal.
The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) therefore call on all “Southeast Asian authorities to stop abusing the justice system to quell dissent and urge ASEAN to reprimand member states that use laws to attack the political opposition.
The Philippine government can take the first step by dropping all charges against Walden Bello and immediately releasing Senator Leila De Lima and all others unjustly detained on politically motivated charges,” said Mercy Barends, president of APHR and member of the Indonesian House of Representatives.
“Lawfare is happening all over Southeast Asia and beyond. Governments in the region use ambiguous laws to prosecute political opponents, government critics and activists. This weaponization of the justice system is alarming and incredibly damaging to freedom of expression.
It creates an atmosphere of fear that not only silences those targeted by such lawfare, but also makes anyone who wants to criticize those in power think twice,” said Charles Santiago, APHR co-chair and former Malaysian MP.
Myanmar and Cambodia
In Myanmar and Cambodia, for example, treason and terrorism laws have been used to crack down on opposition. The most tragic example occurred last July, with the execution of four prominent Myanmar activists on charges of bogus terrorism by the Myanmar junta. These were the first judicial executions in decades and are an extreme example of how the law can be perverted by authoritarian regimes to bolster their power.
In Cambodia, members of the opposition are sentenced to long prison terms on trumped-up charges simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Journalists are increasingly subjected to various forms of intimidation, pressure and violence, according to a new report published by the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR).
Meanwhile, libel laws are among the most commonly used laws in Thailand where, unlike many other countries, it can be considered a criminal offense rather than just a civil crime. Sections 326-328 of Thailand’s Penal Code establish various defamation offenses with penalties of up to two years in prison and fines of up to 200,000 Thai Baht (approximately USD 6,400).
“I think we as parliamentarians in our respective countries should do our utmost to repeal or at least amend these kinds of laws. Our democracies depend on it. But I also think we can’t do it alone. We need to work together across borders, share experiences with parliamentarians from other countries and stand in solidarity with those who fall victim to it, because at the end of the day we are all in this together,” said Rangsiman Rome, member of the Thai parliament and APHR member.
Jan Servaes was UNESCO-Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He taught ‘international communication’ in Australia, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, the US, Netherlands and Thailand, in addition to short-term projects at about 120 universities in 55 countries. He is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change.
IPS UN Bureau