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Australia's 'abusive refugee policies' criticised in damning international report

The Guardian (Australia) - January 27, 2016

Helen Davidson and Ben Doherty – Australia's failure to meet international standards for protecting asylum seekers had had a devastating human toll and damaged the country's international reputation, according to the Human Rights Watch 2016 World Report.

The report also found governments across south-east Asia and the Pacific have stifled free speech, imprisoned dissenters and suppressed social media over the past year, as human rights abuses remain a major issues in the region Even where some governments, such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, had pledged to address abuses, they had largely failed to act on the rhetoric, the report found.

Released in Istanbul on Wednesday, the HRW report argued the global spread of terrorist attacks and large flows of refugees across borders led many governments "to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect... security".

"These backward steps threaten the rights of all without any demonstrated effectiveness in protecting ordinary people," HRW executive director, Kenneth Roth, wrote.

At the same time, Roth said, authoritarian governments, fearful of peaceful dissent fanned and magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

HRW found Australia had a "solid" record of protecting civil and political rights, robust institutions and a free press, but the government's sustained failure to meet international standards for protecting asylum seekers had had a devastating human toll and damaged Australia's international reputation.

Australia's policies of mandatory detention, offshore processing and regional resettlement were criticised in 2015 by United Nations experts, foreign governments, Australian government-funded inquiries and the federal parliament.

An independent review of conditions in the Australian-run detention centre in Nauru found evidence that children and adults were sexually and physically assaulted. Thirty-three asylum seekers allege they have been raped or sexually assaulted there, and a parliamentary inquiry found conditions on the island were "not adequate, appropriate or safe".

"Despite the international outcry over its refugee policies, Australia did little to redeem its reputation in 2015," said Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director. "Australia needs to seriously rethink its abusive refugee policies and take steps to restore its international standing as a rights-respecting country."

HRW also highlighted the secrecy around Australia's immigration detention regime. Nauru and Manus Island detention centres are both off-limits to journalists and rights groups, and under the Border Force Act, whistleblowers who expose abuse or criminal behaviour face jail terms of up to two years.

The UN special rapporteur on human rights of migrants cancelled a visit to Australia in September out of fear that the people he spoke to could face imprisonment.
Papua New Guinea

Australia's immigration policies were also linked to human rights abuses in Papua New Guinea.

In January 2015, police detained a large group of asylum seekers from the Manus Island detention centre following a hunger strike in January, holding them for several weeks in crowded local police cells.

HRW said the "protracted and indefinite nature" of detention on the island was causing significant mental health problems.

Forty years after gaining independence, Papua New Guinea was found to have made some efforts in addressing human rights abuses, but had stalled when it came to following through, HRW found.

Papua New Guinea remained one of the most dangerous places in the world for women and girls, and efforts by the prime minister to undermine anti-corruption bodies continued.

Domestic violence was specifically outlawed in the 2013 Family Protection Act but the government is yet to implement it and few perpetrators of violence against women face the justice system.

Similarly, sorcery-related violence continued despite the belief that someone was a witch was no longer legally considered a defence for murder. There also remained a "severe" lack of services for victims seeking treatment, assistance or protection.

Police routinely sought to resolve family violence incidents through mediation or compensation, and often demanded money for "fuel" from victims in return for investigating. The report also found little accountability for police brutality.

Indonesia faced similar criticisms for its lack of follow-through on human rights pledges. HRW said the country had a mixed record in 2015, and accused the government of producing "more rhetoric than reality" as president Joko "Jokowi" Widodo missed opportunities to adopt human rights measures.

From January to November there were 194 violent attacks on religious minorities, including the demolition of religious sites, according to NGO Setara Institute.

While some West Papuan political prisoners were released by the Indonesian government in May and November, 45 West Papuans and 29 Ambonese independence activists remained in prison for political crimes, the report said.

On Indonesian statute books, there were now more than 320 local discriminatory regulations which target women, after another 31 were passed by national and local governments in 2015.

Among them was a regulation issued by the ministry of defence allowing male employees to take a second wife if their first wife was unable to have children.

And while some Indonesian officials criticised the "abusive, discriminatory and unscientific 'virginity tests'" which the armed forces requires female applicants to undergo, the tests remained in place.

"We need to examine the mentality of these [female] applicants. If they are no longer virgins, if they are naughty, it means their mentality is not good," Indonesian military spokesman Maj Gen Fuad Basya said.

Also noted was Jokowi's embrace of Indonesia's death penalty. Jokowi had run for election on a platform of being tough on crime, particularly drug smugglers. Fourteen people were executed in Indonesia in 2015, after only five since 2009. A moratorium has since been observed, reportedly out of concern for the economic impact of the international condemnation.

"The Jokowi government's approach to human rights has been more rhetoric than reality, while serious rights abuses go unpunished," said Phelim Kine, deputy director in HRW's Asia division. "Jokowi can and should take strong actions to advance justice and curtail abuses in 2016."

In Singapore, the People's Action party won its 14th straight election in 2015, maintaining its record of having never been out of power since 1959, and for all of the country's independent history. Despite its dominance, the PAP continues to fiercely restrict freedom of assembly and speech.

In March, the government arrested 16-year-old blogger Amos Yee Pang Sang for posting online a video about the death of former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, and a cartoon showing Lee having sex with former British PM Margaret Thatcher. He was imprisoned for 53 days. Other online bloggers have faced civil and criminal defamation for criticising government policies.

The pro-LGBT Pink Dot festival was held for the seventh consecutive year in Singapore in 2015, however a cinema advertising campaign for the festival was banned by the government, which ruled it was "not in the public interest to allow cinema halls to carry advertising on LGBT issues".

A song by Jolin Tsai, We're All Different, Yet The Same was banned from TV and radio because of its lyrics about homosexuality.

HRW wrote that human rights in Malaysia "plummeted" in 2015, "with increased harassment and persecution of human rights defenders, activists, political opposition figures, and journalists".

The Sedition Act, which is used to prosecute people who criticise the government and judiciary, was strengthened in 2015 to include jail terms of up to 20 years. At least 30 people, including seven opposition parliamentarians, have been charged with sedition since 2013.

A series of major demonstrations against government corruption were allowed to take place in Malaysia in 2015, but prominent protestors were arrested after the events. HRW also criticised Malaysia for its continued prosecution of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim over sodomy charges – a trial widely seen as politically motivated.

"The Malaysian government responded to public criticism of a major corruption scandal and its persecution of former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim with a wave of repression," HRW's Phil Robertson said. "Prime Minister Najib Razak is trampling on fundamental rights to hush up corruption allegations and maintain his grip on power."

Similar crackdowns on citizens occurred in neighbouring Thailand, where the military junta, which has governed with "deepening authoritarianism" since May 2014, repressed human rights "with total impunity" in 2015, HRW said.

The ruling regime – the National Council for Peace and Order led by prime minister general Prayut Chan-ocha – took power in a coup d'etat and promised to restore democracy within a year, but instead "exercised increasingly dictatorial power and continued to systematically repress fundamental rights and freedoms".

Legislation introduced in 2015 extended the NCPO rule, granted further powers to Prayut and absolved anyone who acts on behalf of the NCPO of legal liability, HRW found.

Under the new powers the military can also secretly detain people and interrogate them without charges, trial or access to lawyers. Allegations of abuse and mistreatment were summarily dismissed by the NCPO.

TV stations were suspended or shut down, and HRW's webpage remains blocked because it is seen as a threat to national security. More than 60 political events were cancelled and the former deputy prime minister's passport was revoked to punish him for criticising military rule.

There were no prosecutions or apparent investigations into extrajudicial killings, nor any progress on the 64 enforced disappearances reported on by HRW.

However the NCPO did prosecute 56 people for the crime of criticising the monarch, with one man sentenced to 60 years – which was later halved – for Facebook posts. Fourteen activists were charged with sedition for criticising the NCPO in June.

The junta also defied international pleas to respect non-refoulement laws and policies, returning to China two Chinese activists and 109 ethnic Uighurs whose whereabouts are now unknown.

The May 2015 discovery of more than 30 bodies at a human trafficking camp near the Malaysian border led to the arrest of a dozens of gangsters, businessmen, community leaders and local politicians, as well as army Lieutenant General Manas Kongpan for trafficking.

"Respect for human rights in Thailand is going down the drain," said Adams. "The international community urgently needs to press the junta to reverse course, end repression, respect fundamental rights and fulfil its pledges to return to democratic civilian rule."

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/law/2016/jan/27/australias-abusive-refugee-policies-criticised-in-damning-international-report.

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