Human rights in East Asia suffered a severe blow this past year as China tightened Internet controls and stepped up a crackdown on anti-corruption protesters; Vietnam used vague national security laws to curb freedom of expression; and North Korea was blamed for rampant disappearances, detention, and torture, an annual U.S. human rights report said Thursday.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in launching the report in Washington, singled out jailed prominent Chinese legal activist Xu Zhiyong for his courage in "fighting [for] the government transparency that he desires to see in China."
Xu was ordered jailed for four years last month on charges that stemmed from his role in organizing the grass-roots New Citizens Movement, which sought to fight official corruption and uphold social injustice.
Nongovernmental organizations reported that at least 29 people associated with the New Citizens Movement have been arrested on charges linked to activities aimed at promoting good governance.
"The truth is that some of the greatest accomplishments in expanding the cause of human rights have come not because of legislative decree or judicial fiat, but they came through the awesomely courageous acts of individuals," Kerry said, citing Xu as among examples.
"Every single one of these people are demonstrating a brand of moral courage that we need now more than ever," he said.
The report said that even though Beijing has announced the abolition of "Reeducation Through Labor" camps and a change in its birth-limitation policy that will permit more couples to have two children, the authorities continued to tighten restrictions on basic freedoms.
It cited a continued crackdown on human rights activists, increased repression in ethnic Tibetan and Uyghur areas, and severe restrictions on the freedoms of expression, religion, association, and assembly in the world's most populous nation.
Some 127 Tibetans have self-immolated against Chinese rule in Tibetan-populated areas since 2009.
In China's remote Xinjiang region, home of the minority Uyghurs, the report said at least 100 Uyghurs were killed over the year in clashes with security forces amid reports of increasing economic discrimination and tightened restrictions on religious and cultural practices.
Beijing was also slammed for introducing new measures to control and censor the Internet, particularly targeting bloggers with large numbers of followers, leading some to close their online accounts.
North Korea was listed in the report as among countries where 2013 may well be known for some of the "most egregious atrocities" in recent memory.
It said that the government of young leader Kim Jong Un was responsible for extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary detention, arrests of political prisoners, and torture.
A vast network of political prison camps indefinitely held approximately 100,000 people, including family members of the accused, in harsh and life-threatening conditions, the report said.
Rampant disappearances, detention, and torture were so deplorable in North Korea that just last week, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry on rights abuses in the reclusive nation compared the Kim Jong Un regime’s actions to those of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Gulags.
In Vietnam, the human rights situation "remained poor," the report said.
The authorities in Hanoi restricted Internet and press freedoms and the freedoms of association and assembly and persecuted unregistered religious groups, it said.
"There were government restrictions on citizens' liberties, particularly their right to change the government, and corruption in the judicial system and police remained a significant problem."
Kerry said he was "truly inspired" by the civil society activists that he had met with in Hanoi — "people who are standing up for their fundamental rights to speak out and to associate freely."
"Well, I would underscore that we continue to call on the government of Vietnam at the highest levels to make progress to comply with its international human rights obligations and commitments," Uzra Zeya, the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, told a media briefing.
In Cambodia, the report said, a "flawed and poorly managed" electoral process disenfranchised a significant number of eligible voters during the July 28 national elections. The opposition says it was robbed of victory in the polls by Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling party, citing fraud and other irregularities.
"The national election committee failed to address specific weaknesses raised by civil society and international organizations despite ample notice," the report said. "As a result, key aspects of the electoral process before, during, and after election day lacked transparency and independence."
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has boycotted parliament and is demanding fresh elections.
The report also said that although the law in Cambodia prohibits pre-publication censorship or imprisonment for the expression of opinions, the threat of being charged with defamation, disinformation, or incitement under the penal code prevented citizens from freely expressing their views.
The government, military forces, and the ruling political party continued to dominate the broadcast media and influence the content of broadcasts, it said.
In Myanmar, while the central government made overall progress on reforms and released political prisoners, the military and security forces "continued to act with impunity," the report said, citing particularly abuses in western Rakhine state where minority Rohingya Muslims have borne the brunt of sectarian violence.
"There were credible reports of extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual violence, arbitrary detentions, torture and mistreatment in detention, deaths in custody, and systematic denial of due process and fair trial rights, overwhelmingly perpetrated against the Rohingya ethnic minority in Rakhine State."
"There were also reports of local and state government and security officials, acting in conjunction with Rakhine and Rohingya criminal elements, smuggling and trafficking thousands of Rohingya out of the country, often for profit," it said.
Kerry said the report makes clear that Myanmar "still faces the normal challenges—from reforming an undemocratic constitution to ending discrimination and violence against religious and ethnic minorities—but we must continue to encourage progress even as we speak honestly about the problems that persist."
Other rights problems in Myanmar cited in the report were "conflict-related abuses in ethnic minority border states, politically motivated arrests, widespread societal discrimination and violence against Muslim populations, and a general lack of rule of law, resulting in corruption and widespread land confiscation without adequate compensation or due process."
In addition, the report said, the government has released more than 1,100 political prisoners but "continued to make politically motivated arrests under flawed laws."
In Laos, the report said among the most "significant" human rights problems were that the government denied citizens the right to change their government, conditions in some prisons were harsh, and corruption in the police and judiciary led to a lack of due process and arbitrary arrest and detention.
Other human rights problems include the abuse of prisoners and detainees by some police and security force members; government infringements on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association as well as the right to privacy; government restrictions on academic freedom; local restrictions on religious freedom; and trafficking in persons.
"The government did not take steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses, and police and security force members acted with impunity," it said.