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Chinese dissidents barred from meeting with President Obama; calls for Aung San Suu Kyi's release

President Obama in Asia this week.
President Obama in Asia this week.

Stephen Crowley via The New York Times

During U.S. President Barack Obama's first visit to Asia as president this month, Human Rights Watch urged him to call on the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to resolve issues of impunity and major restraints on freedom of expression throughout the region. As well, IFEX members called on the President to press for the release of imprisoned Chinese journalists and writers on his first official visit to the People's Republic of China.

Obama met with ASEAN leaders on 15 November, the day after the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Singapore.

Human Rights Watch asked the President to communicate the importance to ASEAN leaders of joining forces to challenge Burma and call for the release of all political prisoners, including the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as for an inclusive political process ahead of the 2010 elections.

The President personally asked Burmese Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein to free Suu Kyi and other political prisoners while in Singapore, says Mizzima News. But a post-summit statement by ASEAN did not call for the Burmese democracy leader's release, allegedly as a result of pressure from the Burmese junta.

Human Rights Watch also called on Obama to encourage Vietnam to improve its human rights policies and to begin by releasing the hundreds of peaceful government critics, independent church activists, bloggers and democracy advocates currently imprisoned on baseless national security charges simply for expressing dissent.

As well, Human Rights Watch appealed to Obama to directly challenge Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's authoritarian rule, as he and other ruling party officials use violence, threats, and the country's notoriously corrupt judiciary to eliminate dissent by imprisoning opposition party members, journalists, land rights activists and other government critics.

Elsewhere in the region, Malaysia also takes advantage of overbroad national security laws. Cambodia, Indonesia, and Singapore use criminal defamation laws to control free speech and Thailand makes arbitrary use of the "lese majeste" law and the Computer Crimes Act.

In China, IFEX members asked that human rights not be ignored in the midst of discussions on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and trade tariffs. Chinese authorities counted on Obama not to raise human rights, while society activists, lawyers, and peaceful critics - the people Obama normally allies himself with - hoped he would, said Human Rights Watch. Obama himself is a writer and constitutional lawyer.

Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) reports that police clamped down on dissidents across the country, with arbitrary detention and intimidation tactics, so that critics would not be able to attempt to meet Obama or foreign journalists. Others were strictly warned not to travel to Shanghai and Beijing during the President's visit.

Obama tried to have a candid discussion with Chinese students in Shanghai at a meeting of about 500 students. According to the International Press Institute (IPI), Obama did respond to a question related to Internet censorship. "I've always been a strong supporter of open Internet use. I'm a big supporter of non-censorship," Obama said. However, he also added, "I recognise that different countries have different traditions."

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) reports that Chinese authorities forbade questions to Obama on the Internet, and ordered media outlets to delete news about questions raised at the student forum. Despite the ban, Obama responded to a question about Twitter that he got through the Internet: "I should be honest, as President of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn't flow so freely because then I wouldn't have to listen to people criticising me all the time." According to news reports, he added, "Because in the United States, information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear."

In a letter to Obama, the PEN American Center called on the President to intervene on behalf of more than 40 detained Chinese writers. IFEX members highlighted several cases. Hu Jia, a freelance reporter and blogger and a civil rights, environmental and AIDS activist, is serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence for "inciting subversion." Liu Xiaobo, a renowned writer, intellectual and literary critic, who has been detained since December 2008, is facing 15 years in prison. Other detained writers mentioned: Shi Tao, imprisoned for allegedly "leaking state secrets;" and Du Daobin, Yang Tongyan and Zhang Jianhong, all serving long prison sentences.

PEN said: "Finding writers in prison is a warning sign not only of the state of fundamental liberties in a country but also of the health, character, and vitality of the ideas in play and of the ability of citizens to act on these ideas."

IPI called on Obama to focus on the link between press freedom and elements of sustainability, poverty and governance, citing the Chinese famine of 1958-1961 in which 23 to 30 million people died. The absence of a free and independent press meant the central government believed its economic policies were working; in reality, millions were starving.

Similarly, the tragic outcome of the 2008 earthquake that struck China's Sichuan province, killing more than 80,000 and rendering five million homeless, was made worse because of poor infrastructure which investigative journalism might have exposed, reports IPI.

Activists Tan Zuoren and Huang Qi are facing charges of subversion for investigating the deaths of schoolchildren in the 2008 earthquake and posting the information they had gathered online, report IFEX members. Huang Qi remains in prison, along with at least 50 bloggers and 30 journalists throughout China.

PEN American Center concluded: "We do not write to suggest how or when you should raise these cases or what you should say. We only ask that you not be persuaded by those who would argue that pressing for the release of writers is somehow counterproductive or inappropriate to the occasion."

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