Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, June 15, 2007

More Egyptian dissidents arrested

Abdellatif Muhammad Said is just one of the many names that has been added to the list of detained activists in Egypt in the wake of Monday’s parliamentary elections. Said was taken from his home in the middle of the night, along with documents he produced for his business, which promotes an unconventional view of Islam, and has been imprisoned for over two weeks now, The New York Times reported today.

Arrests of Egyptian activists have been on the rise of late. Amr Tharwat, Said’s cousin and an employee at Cairo’s Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, has also been arrested. Tharwat was supposed to serve as an observer for the elections that took place on Monday, but was unable to do so because he was arrested on the same night as Said. Tharwat is being held at an undisclosed location, charges have not been made public, and he has been denied legal representation. Some have alleged that the arrest is linked to Tharwat’s participation in the controversial Quranic movement. The Ibn Khaldun Center issued a statement Sunday calling for Tharwat’s release.

Government officials have refused to comment on any of the recent arrests, or the events affiliated with the elections. Some observers are claming that ballot boxes were already full when the polls opened, but the government has also denied these claims. In the end, 69 of the 71 parliamentary seats that were decided went to the governing party. The government adheres to its position that the elections were fair and open.

One member of the governing National Democratic Party, Ezzat Darag, did speak out to defend the government by saying, “the general atmosphere is freedom, freedom, freedom. You can’t open up all the way. There has to be a ceiling of respect.”

For the full article, click here.


Iraqi ambassador addresses ‘what Americans needs to know about Iraq’

“We’ve got to win, and we’ve got to win together,” were the closing words that Samir Shakir Mahmood Sumaida’ie, Iraq’s Ambassador to the U.S., left with the audience at today’s lecture, “What America Needs to Know: The Truth about the Struggle in Iraq.” The lecture was hosted by the Defense Forum Foundation with the purpose of informing the public about the situation in Iraq from the view point of the Iraqi citizens.

During the lecture, Sumaida’ie emphasized the importance of the outcome in Iraq in a global context. He referred to Iraq as the “epicenter” of the conflict, and elaborated on many of the issues at stake. Primarily, he noted that there are no easy solutions in Iraq and that this complex problem would require an equally complex solution. Simple answers, such as dividing Iraq into three regions in order to create separate Kurdish, Sunni and Shia regions, would not suffice and would ultimately be detrimental to regional stability, he said. Lastly, the Ambassador stressed the importance of focusing on the correct enemies and not placing blaming on other parties for the problems at hand. The Ambassador then said that Islamic extremists, supporters of the regime of Saddam Hussein, and al-Qaeda were the real enemies, not the U.S. and its allies.

In the Ambassador’s summation remarks, he outlined the keys for success in Iraq. Above all else, he explained that the U.S. and Iraq must stand firm. He said that they should not be half-hearted in their efforts and must remain strong. Next, the Ambassador said that the troops must fight smart, stressing that proper training to produce more reliable forces is more important than the actual number of troops present. He also said that the multinational forces must adapt their strategies in order to adequately fight the ever-changing enemy. Finally, the Ambassador argued that the conflict will not be resolved without regional support. He said that diplomatic relations and support from other nations in the region are vital if the effects of a victory in Iraq are to spread beyond the borders of the country.

As a follow-up question, one attendee asked what exactly the Ambassador meant when he referred to a “win” in Iraq. After some careful thought, he responded that in order to win, the terrorists must be denied their own state, and a new democratic state must be secured. If this is not achieved, and the terrorists succeed, the whole world and the freedoms that many enjoy will be in jeopardy, he said.


U.S. bill would cut Egypt’s aid unless human rights record improves

In efforts to encourage Egypt to improve its human rights record, the United States House of Representatives advanced legislation that would cutback Egypt’s military funding if progress isn’t made, Reuters reported Tuesday. The bill would withhold $200 million from Egypt unless it takes measures to, according to the article, “curb police abuses, reform its judicial system and stop weapons smuggling from Egypt to Gaza.”

Egypt isn’t the only country whose funding has been tied to an improved rights record. Similar steps were taken against Indonesia, as $2 million of its $8 million in military aid will be cut if the country doesn’t prosecute and punish its own military for their rights violations. Pakistan, which currently stands to receive $300 million in military aid, was also considered for funding reductions.

The bill must be debated by the full House and Senate before it can be passed and take effect for fiscal year 2008. Additionally, some fear that Bush may veto the bill because it would allow for contraceptives to be sent abroad to various family planning organizations and, as the article notes, “the Bush administration has advocated education programs on abstinence until marriage.”

For the full article, click here.


House committee addresses possible double standards in global human rights promotion

In a hearing of the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight on Thursday, witnesses discussed the apparent contradictions in U.S. policies towards Iran, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. Witnesses included Dr. Amr Hamzawy and Dr. Martha Brill Olcott from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Thomas Lippman of the Middle East Institute; and Thomas Malinowski of Human Rights Watch.

The witnesses all agreed that a double standard exists, and has historically existed, with respect to the three countries. Malinowski emphasized the fact that there has always been a tension in U.S. foreign policy between the belief that promoting human rights is vital to advancing long term interests around the world, and the tendency to forget that belief when short-term interests get in the way. He added, “I don’t believe that the United States should treat every human rights violator in the world in exactly the same way. The strategies the U.S. government chooses to promote human rights should vary from country to country.”

Although the countries of focus were different for each witness, the attitude towards a consistent U.S. policy – in theory – and country-by-country implementation was unanimous. There is no reason why the United States can’t speak honestly, clearly, and publicly about human rights to every government in the world, whether it is friend or foe, the witnesses argued. They also said that not doing so is profoundly harmful to the overall protection of global human rights, as noted in a recent Amnesty International report. The witnesses said that the most effective strategy to promote liberty and human rights is when people around the world believe the U.S. is rising above narrow self interests to defend universal ideals.

According to Malinowski, the Bush administration’s strong public focus on human rights in Iran is entirely appropriate. However, while the American human rights message resonates with ordinary Iranians, he said it is undermined by extensive military exercises in the Persian Gulf and the threat of military force over the nuclear issue. Such threats unite the Iranian people with their leaders and undermine the attainment of human rights protection, Malinowski said.

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Extreme dioxin levels remain in Viet Nam

New reports have surfaced concerning high levels of dioxin, the poison found in Agent Orange, at the former U.S. air base in Danang, The Associated Press reported yesterday. According to independent soil testing this spring, the levels of dioxin are, the article says, “300 to 400 times higher than internationally accepted limits.”

Thomas Boivin, the independent scientist conducting the tests remarked, “They’re the highest levels I’ve ever seen in my life. If this site were in the U.S. or Canada, it would require significant studies and immediate cleanup.” Although the most highly contaminated areas are contained in the air base, blood tests of locals in the area have yielded high dioxin levels, especially those who fish or harvest lotus flowers from a nearby lake.

During the war in Viet Nam, the U.S. stored Agent Orange in containers that often leaked when preparing for operations. While the chemical is not absorbed by rice, it remains in animals, especially fish, and soil.

The U.S. Congress has recently set aside $3 million to aid in dioxin cleanup, however, such a package does little to address a full solution, which would cost an estimated $40 million.

For the full article, click here.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Cultural dialogue needed to create bridges of understanding in Middle East

The intersection of Islam and globalization provoked a number of hopeful recommendations at The Brookings Institution Wednesday, where the book “Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization” was released. Written by Professor Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam,” according to the BBC, the book highlights the most prominent trends that arose from formal questionnaires of people of various occupations and backgrounds from eight different countries throughout the Muslim world.

As a result of globalization, the gap between rich and poor, urban and rural is exploding in the Muslim world. Additionally, 80 percent of the world’s refugee population comes from the region. However, there exists a pervasive feeling that the Muslim world is under attack. Many Muslims “feel like the train of globalization is moving out of the station and they’re not on it,” Ahmed said. The number one concern facing the Muslims interviewed, Ahmed noted, is the deliberate distortion of Islam in the West, particularly in the media.

In order to effectively formulate foreign policy, we need to know what is actually going on in the Muslim world, he continued. This can be accomplished through a commitment to cultural dialogue on the part of both Muslims and Americans. Compassion, hope and friendship, all of which are normally left out of policy reports, are important to consider. These elements will help people “reach out and create bridges of understanding that will make a difference,” Ahmed said. Aziz Mekouar, ambassador of Morocco to the U.S., countered that “those bridges already exist; they just need to be crossed.”

Expanding upon Ahmed’s comments, Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) discussed the critical importance of America reaching out to the rest of the world. Now more than ever, Ellison said, “winning hearts and minds” is important, “just not through warfare.” A sense of cultural humility when dealing with the rest of the world is, therefore, imminent, according to Ellison.

In his concluding remarks, Ahmed encouraged the audience to “join us on this journey towards compassion.”

Censorship continues in Iran

With the fourth Iranian-American arrested on charges of spying, a growing trend of censorship seems to be taking hold in Iran, BBC News reported today. Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian Nobel peace laureate, claims that the Iranian government is seeking to control the publicizing of internal events on the international stage.

“Censorship has got much worse recently... Iran's government doesn't like its domestic affairs and events inside the country to be reflected in the outside world,” Ebadi said. “Usually when governments are threatened by foreign forces, they suppress freedom-loving figures by pretending to defend national sovereignty.”

Ebadi had attempted to represent Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American scholar charged with spying against Iran, but she been denied the chance to meet with her. According to Iranian law, one cannot be accused of a crime before appearing in court; however, the Ministry of Intelligence continues to illegally describe Esfandiari as a spy, in addition to placing her in solitary confinement without legal representation.

The other detainees are Kian Tajbakhsh and Ali Shakeri; they have also been charged with spying. Parnaz Azima, a journalist, has been released from prison but banned from exiting the country.

For the full article, click here.


European Commission plans 160 million development package for Viet Nam

A pledge of 160 million Euro has been designated to aid in the implementation of the Socio-Economic Development Plan for Viet Nam, Vietnam Economic Times reported Wednesday.

Tuesday marked the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Vo Hong Phuc, the Minister of Planning and Investment, and Ambassador Markus Cornaro, Head of the European Commission Delegation in Viet Nam.

Part of a larger 304 million Euro plan, the funds seek to aid in the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals by 2010, with a key aspect being the continued development of health services for the poorest and most rural regions of Viet Nam.

For the full article, click here.

For more information on the European Commission Delegation in Viet Nam, click here.

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State Department briefs NGOs on human trafficking report

As State Department officials held a briefing Wednesday on a just-released annual report on global human trafficking that, compared to past editions, contains less evidence of perpetrators being punished for their crimes, they said that government complicity abroad is undermining efforts to document and combat this modern-day form of slavery.

Ambassador Mark P. Logan, the State Department’s senior advisor on trafficking in persons, and his colleague Mark Taylor spoke with representatives of nongovernmental organizations, outlining this year’s Trafficking in Persons Report – a document Logan described as a “diplomatic tool to incentivize other countries to work with [the U.S.]” to eradicate sexual servitude and forced labor. Sixteen countries were given “Tier 3”
status this year as egregious violators, a designation that brings the threat of sanctions. Among them were several Middle Eastern nations such as Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, that Logan said have the economic capacity to stem trafficking, but lack the political will to do so.

Taylor said that the burdensome debts assumed by trafficking victims are, together with cultural indifference and insufficient government efforts, helping to sustain this global problem. In many countries, poor individuals pay exorbitant fees to purported labor recruiters as part of contracts that are radically altered once the unwitting victims arrive in their place of employment. Taylor said that women, children, and ethnic minorities are often the most vulnerable to entanglement in such schemes. He also noted that the citizens of Burma and India are at particular risk. In Burma, which is under Tier 3 status, a military regime oversees state-sanctioned forced labor. India, which is afforded less-harsh Tier 2 watch list status, has more trafficking victims than any other country, but, according to Logan, has “no national anti-trafficking in persons law enforcement whatsoever.” Corruption also seems to be a large exacerbating factor in the subcontinent. Taylor noted that 68 percent of Indian traffickers polled in a recent study claimed to rely upon police for protection, while 58 percent said they could depend on politicians for help.

Logan said U.S. businesses operating in India can play a role in fighting trafficking. He also called on the U.S. to go farther with the leverage inherent in transnational alliances predicated on counterterrorism, and said that expanded initiatives are needed to address the impact of the practice on victims’ health. Taylor, meanwhile, cited the importance of putting the onus on source countries and highlighted the need for parity in punishment of traffickers.

After addressing the report, Logan fielded questions on other areas of concern. One inquiry concerned allegations of forced labor by government contractors in Iraq, and Logan, while contending that the U.S. Department of Defense established guidelines last year to address the issue, acknowledged the importance of investigating claims that a Kuwaiti construction company has used trafficked labor to build the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Logan also addressed the case of Sigma Huda, a trafficking expert whom the Bangladeshi government has kept from traveling to a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Logan said the State Department was pressing Bangladesh for an explanation.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Allies added to U.S. human trafficking blacklist

With an estimated 800,000 persons trafficked each year, 80 percent of whom are women and children, the U.S. State Department has given 16 nations to “Tier 3” status in an effort to combat modern slavery, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Among the list of countries of concern in the 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar – states that are classified as U.S. allies. There is no indication of reactions in countries such as Bahrain, the home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. According to the report, “Bahrain made no discernible progress in preventing trafficking this year.”

“We hope this report encourages responsible nations across the globe to stand together, to speak with one voice and to say that freedom and security are nonnegotiable demands of human dignity, and to say ... No one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza told reporters.

The complete list of “Tier 3” countries cited by the State Department is: Algeria, Bahrain, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Kuwait, Malaysia, Myanmar, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.

For the full article, click here.

For access to the State Department’s 2006 Trafficking in Persons Report, click here.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

U.S. pushing for poppy eradication by spraying despite potential health problems

As violence continues to escalate in Afghanistan, the United States is pushing for a plan to use an aerial chemical spray on country’s opium-producing poppy fields, IRIN reported last week. President Hamid Karzai is being asked to carry out plans that were previously rejected by his office in 2006.

In 2006, the U.S. posited a plan to spray poppy fields with chemicals. However, the plan was set aside by Karzai due to the likelihood that the chemicals would likely contaminate the water supply. “In rural areas people use stream water for drinking, washing and other purposes. The use of chemicals against poppy fields will contaminate water and that can cause grave consequences for many rural residents,” the Ministry of Public Health argued. “There are also risks of other useful plants being poisoned by the chemicals or farm animals being affected by them.”

Following the reinstitution of the strategy, the U.S. intends to submit new plans which include the use of a ‘safe spray’ that has no side effects. British diplomats are quite skeptical of the aerial spray plans, adding that the U.K. does not support the U.S. proposal.

According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crimes, Afghanistan produced $3.1 billion in opium in 2006, although very little of that money finds its way back to Afghanistan. Previous projects aimed at stemming the production of opium have included a counter narcotics trust fund to encourage farmers to plant alternative crops.

For the full article, click here.

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Child labor in Iraq rising along with poverty

Rising death tolls and increased poverty are being accompanied by an increase in child labor in Iraq, IRIN reported today.

“I have no choice. Life in Iraq has turned into hell,” said 12-year-old Abdel-Salim, who left school six months ago to help support his family.

According to the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF), 11 percent of Iraqi children under the age of 14 are now working. Iraq’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs has partnered with UNICEF to create a psychological support program for street children. “Already, 150 children have retuned to their families,” said Claire Hajaj, UNICEF’s communications officer at the organizations’ Iraq Support Centre in Amman. “But this is a small project which needs much more funding.”

Unfortunately, child assistance programs have received threats from gangs and militias that profit from the use of illicit child labor.

For the full article, click here.


Iraqi civilian death toll on rise despite bolstered U.S. military presence

A 15-page report released on Monday by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon stated that even with the increased U.S. military presence, progress in Iraq has been “slower than had been hoped for” and civilian deaths continue to rise, The Washington Post reported today.

The higher death toll is the result of an increase in insurgent activity. The United Nations has been forced to move its operations deeper within the U.S. Green Zone in order to ensure staff safety. The push to remove insurgents from Baghdad has been somewhat successful, but insurgent activity is on the rise in other parts or Iraq.

“Despite the initial success of stepped-up security measures in recent months, the situation in Iraq remains precarious. Insurgent attacks persist and civilian casualties continue to mount,” Ban wrote. He also expressed concern over the growing number of detainees that are being held as a result of the new security measures. Iraq has granted the U.N. permission to visit the detention centers this month.

For the full article, click here.

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Afghan dam workers unable to gain security clearance

With repairs still needed at Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan, some 2 million people still have no electricity, RFE/RL reported today. As instability lingers, U.S.-led forces have not been able to secure the area to a level suitable for repair operations. In addition to continued fighting, a recent U.S. aid package limits the distribution of money to only those who show no empathy towards the Taliban.

The Sangin district of Helmand province has been designated to receive a large aid package, however, elders have recently been made aware that the workers will not be allowed to build hospitals and roads, or repair the dam, until locals condemn the objectives of the Taliban.

“In light of the military activities there, we have adjusted our schedules and we have moved forward with the project,” said Abdou Rahmaan, USAID mission director in Afghanistan. “We have identified those aspects of the project where we could begin and continue work, and we are moving forward with them. The schedule that we are working with now does not impact negatively on the overall schedule because we will be moving forward with putting in place routine capabilities to deliver materials and supplies to the campsite. We will be moving forward with the road construction. And the plan is to move forward with the transmission line.”

The goal was to have the dam repaired and producing electricity by early 2008, but with persistent fighting and conditional U.S. aid, such a timeline is not likely. To meet the projected deadline, the workers would have to start in the next two months. The dam is crucial, not only for electricity in Helmand, but also for irrigation and job creation.

For the full article, click here.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Egyptian elections marred by violence, accusations of interference

About 100 members of Egypt’s opposition Muslim Brotherhood party were arrested today as polls opened for parliamentary elections, The Associated Press reported. The Brotherhood pointed to the arrests, as well as the fact that many Egyptians were barred from voting, as evidence that the government is fixing the elections – claims the government has denied.

The Brotherhood is an Islamist opposition party that has technically been banned since 1954, but its members continue to run as independents. In 2005, the party won one-fifth of the seats in the lower house of parliament, in spite of mass arrests of its members. Prior to this week’s elections, President Hosni Mubarak tried to disqualify 17 Brotherhood members from the election, but the request was denied by the Supreme Administrative Court.

“They (election officials) are trying to force us to vote for the NDP candidate, and we don't want that,” said one protestor who identified himself only as Ayman, referring to members of the ruling National Democratic Party. With heavy security, attempts to bar voters, protests, and even one death, the elections were marred by low voter turnout.

For the full article, click here.


U.N. envoy condemns assassination attempt on Afghan President

As President Hamid Karzai faced yet another assassination attempt Sunday, the United Nations special envoy in Afghanistan called for an end to attempts at increasing instability in the nation, UN News Service reported today.

“Those who are responsible clearly do not respect the views of the millions of Afghans who elected President Karzai and who work patiently day-by-day for the rebuilding of this country and its values – values of honour, peace, and mutual respect,” Tom Koenigs, head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said today.

Since taking office, Karzai has survived two previous assassination attempts. The most recent incident comes on the heels of the murders of two female Afghan journalists. The head of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) condemned the killings as undermining not only “the basic human right of freedom of expression, but also the right of women to exercise a profession that is vital for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.”

Koenigs also addressed rumors regarding the murder of an Afghan Ministry of Health employee. “Deliberately harming civilians, including Government employees, NGO workers, and UN contractors or staff, is a clear violation of international humanitarian law, as well as a crime under national laws. Those who engage in such acts will be held to account,” he said.

Rising civilian death tolls, as a result of both Taliban and U.S.-led operations, have increased tensions in this already unstable country.

For the full article, click here.

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U.N. Human Rights Council begins crucial session

As the United Nations Human Rights Council continues to monitor the status of human rights in the world, crucial discussions are underway as member country representatives meet for the body’s fifth session this week, AFP reported Sunday.

To more actively advocate for global human rights, the 47-member Council has until the end of June to determine the apparatus by which to remain impartial yet effective. One of the most important discussions will concern the implementation of a new systematic review process of the human rights record for each U.N. member state each four years. This new mechanism will be known as universal periodic review and seeks to highlight violations as well as progress made by member states as a means of leveling the playing field between political rhetoric and actual implementation concerning human rights compliance.

Still, tensions have surfaced as the West and Latin American countries have envisioned different approaches than those put forward by African and Arab countries. Many have criticized the African group’s suggestions for the creation of a code of conduct for U.N. experts and special rapporteurs. The proposal has been classified by some rights groups as a “straitjacket.”

For the full article, click here.

For more information on the Human Rights Council, click here.

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Number of internally displaced Iraqis continues to rise

The latest United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimate of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq is over two million, according to IRIN. The figure for refugees now stands at 2.2 million. Some Iraqi officials are blaming a lack of unity among politicians for the worsening displacement problem.

“Individual governorates inside Iraq are becoming overwhelmed by the needs of the displaced. At least 10 out of the 18 governorates have closed their borders or are restricting access to new arrivals,” said UNHCR spokeswoman, Jennifer Pagonis. The growing number of IDPs has led to shortages of adequate food, water, housing and other basic necessities.

For the full article, click here


Banned rallies yield arrests in Iran

Iranian judges have sentenced two journalists for their coverage of banned protests in 2005, Reuters reported on Sunday.

In Sanandaj, Jalal Ghavami and Saeed Saedi were sentenced to three years and two and a half years, respectively, for their attendance at two illegal rallies in 2005. The court ruled that the two journalists were “acting against the system and national security by participating in illegal gatherings… (and) propaganda activity against the system,” according to Iran’s ISNA news agency.

The lawyer for the two journalists reaffirmed that their attendance was due to their profession rather than their political affiliation. “My clients attended the gatherings as reporters and just for reporting,” he said.

In May, the same court sentenced a woman activist to six years in prison for attending the same protests. The rally was organized for the purpose of protesting the killing of a Kurdish man, an incident that increased tensions in Iranian Kurdistan.

Amnesty International last year called for Ghavami and Saedi’s release. “If imprisoned, Amnesty International believes both men would be prisoners of conscience, imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and movement,” the group said.

For the full article, click here.

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Dissident released by Viet Nam prior to president’s U.S. visit

A well known pro-democracy advocate and critic of the Vietnamese government has been released from Nam Ha prison and granted presidential amnesty, The Associated Press reported today. Nguyen Vu Binh, a prominent “cyber dissident” charged with spying, was in 2003 sentenced to seven years in prison for his online democracy activism.

The Bush administration has recently expressed displeasure over the ongoing crackdown on dissidents in Viet Nam and pushed for dialogue as President Nguyen Minh Triet plans for his June 22 U.S. visit. In Viet Nam, it is illegal to even advocate for the establishment of a multiparty system. Gordon D. Johndroe, a National Security Council spokesman, characterized the government crackdown as “out of keeping with Vietnam’s desire to prosper, modernize and take a more prominent role in world affairs.”

For the full article, click here.

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