Thursday, August 25, 2011

U.S. Citizen Sues Web Hosting Company for Identifying Him to Thai Government

A suit was filed yesterday against Netfirms, a Canadian web hosting company incorporated in the United States, for releasing personal information to the Thai government. Netfirms’ disclosures allowed Thai officials to identify, detain, and interrogate the plaintiff, Mr. Anthony Chai, both in Thailand and on U.S. soil. These disclosures, without which Mr. Chai would have remained anonymous, resulted in the Thai government charging Mr. Chai with violating a Thai law that restricts free speech – ironically, for comments he wrote online criticizing that very law.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California by the World Organization for Human Rights USA and the Law Office of Snell & Wilmer, alleges that the company’s conduct violated California state law, as well as Constitutional and international human rights law. "This case lies at the intersection of privacy guarantees, freedom of expression, international human rights law and the Internet. I am honored to work with Human Rights USA on this important case," said M.C. Sungaila, Partner with Snell & Wilmer.

As set out in the complaint, Mr. Chai, owns a computer store in Long Beach, California from which he and his patrons would access and anonymously post comments on a Thai-language pro-democracy website,, hosted by Netfirms. Many of the anonymous comments expressed concern with Thailand’s lese majesté laws which prohibit any negative statements about the Thai monarchy and provide for severe punishment, including imprisonment for up to fifteen years.

Mr. Chai’s privacy rights were violated when, at the request of Thai government officials, Netfirms suspended Manusaya’s account and provided Mr. Chai's IP address and e-mail address to the Thai officials without notice and without his consent. As a result of this release of Mr. Chai’s confidential personal information to Thai government officials, he was subsequently detained at the Bangkok airport, taken to the Department of Special Investigations, and interrogated about his postings on the website. After finally being released from police custody in Bangkok and returning home to California, Mr. Chai was then interrogated by Thai officials over the course of two days on U.S. soil at a hotel in Hollywood, California. Mr. Chai was later informed by Thai officials that if he returns to Thailand, he will be arrested and charged with violating lese majesté laws.

Theresa Harris, Executive Director of Human Rights USA said, “Internet companies need to take great care before releasing confidential information to investigators, especially when those requests come from foreign governments. Information is power, and these companies have the power to place a person at peril of imprisonment for the equivalent of an anonymous letter to the editor. Companies must be held accountable when they disregard the rights of the people who use their services.”

Mr. Chai's case underscores the need for internet communications corporations, no matter how big or small, to put human rights first in their business dealings. When a company provides tools for international communications as its primary service, human rights are an inherent part of the business model.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

One Man’s Persecution is NOT Another Man’s National Security Threat

The Third Circuit recently took the opportunity to uphold key refugee law principles and make it clear to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that it could not bar deserving refugees from protection in the United States without a good reason. (See Yusupov v. Attorney General, No. 09-3032 (3d Cir., June 16, 2011)).

Bekhzod Yusupov and Ismoil Samadov feared they would face persecution and torture for their religious beliefs if they were deported to their native Uzbekistan. Although the Uzbek government had issued extradition requests for the two men, claiming they were wanted for subversive activity, the U.S. Department of State and two immigration judges recognized that the Uzbek government commonly uses its criminal justice system to persecute political opponents. The immigration judges determined that the men faced a likelihood of persecution and torture and were deserving of refugee protection.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Because the attorneys for DHS argued that the men were a danger to U.S. national security, and because the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) agreed, the men were granted a limited and easily revocable form of protection instead of the broader protection they had sought. And what was the primary evidence that led DHS and the BIA to conclude Yusupov and Samadov were national security risks? The extradition requests. The very same spurious, unreliable extradition requests that the immigration judges and the BIA considered proof that Yusupov and Samadov would more likely than not be tortured in Uzbekistan was also the primary evidence that they were threats to U.S. security.

In fact, DHS offered no direct evidence that either man was actually a threat to national security, basing their argument on speculative and circumstantial evidence in addition to the extradition requests.

The Third Circuit reversed the BIA’s decision and directed the BIA to grant both men withholding of removal, a broader form of protection than that which they had previously been granted. If a person facing deportation can show that they will more likely than not face persecution or torture in the country to which they will be deported, then under U.S. law they must be granted withholding of removal. The law is based on the principle of “non-refoulement” found in both the Convention on the Status of Refugees and the Convention Against Torture, which both state that governments should not deport people into situations of persecution and torture.

Like many countries, the U.S. makes an exception to the non-refoulement principle for individuals that pose a threat to national security. But, as the Third Circuit’s decision made clear, that exception is limited to people who pose an actual, not speculative, threat, and DHS must provide reasonable grounds for believing someone is a threat. In the cases of Yusupov and Samadov, DHS failed to meet that burden.

In its decision, the Third Circuit stressed the fact that Congress passed U.S. refugee law with the intent to fully live up to the United States’ obligations under international refugee law, and that the exceptions Congress created to the non-refoulement principle were to be applied narrowly. To apply the exception broadly enough to cover individuals falsely charged with crimes by despotic governments seeking to suppress their free expression would undermine the entire purpose of U.S. refugee law, as the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute explained in a brief amicus curiae submitted on behalf of Yusupov and Samadov. The two men, facing politically motivated criminal charges, are text-book examples of a kind of person refugee law is meant to protect. Thankfully, the Third Circuit’s decision reinforces core principles of U.S. and international refugee law, and will allow Yusupov and Samadov to receive the protection they deserve.

Human Rights USA wishes to congratulate the attorneys at Steel, Rudnick & Ruben and Seton Hall Law School’s Center for Social Justice, who represented Yusupov and Samadov, respectively, as well as the amici curiae who contributed crucial legal analysis to the case, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund, Becker, Glynn, Melamed & Muffly LLP, and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

U.S. Violated Duty to Protect Woman from Domestic Violence

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has clarified the standard for assessing states’ compliance with human rights obligations. According to the Commission, states must use due diligence to protect people’s human rights, prevent human rights violations, and investigate and redress the violations that occur.

This came as part of the Commission’s decision in the case of Jessica Lanahan (formerly Gonzales) v. United States, released by the Commission today. The Commission determined that the United States had failed to meet its obligation to protect Ms. Lanahan and her daughters’ human rights under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. The Declaration lays out fundamental human rights that must be protected by members of the Organization of American States, including the right to non-discrimination and equal protection under the law, the right to life, the right to special protection for children, and the right to judicial protection.

In 1999, Ms. Lanahan’s estranged husband kidnapped their three daughters in violation of a restraining order. She repeatedly sought help from local police over a 10 hour period, but the police department failed to investigate or issue an arrest warrant for her husband. After her husband appeared at the police station, began shooting and was killed in a shoot-out with police, the bodies of her daughters were discovered in her husband’s truck. The ensuing police investigation failed to determine the time or cause of death of the girls. Ms. Lanahan sought vindication in federal court, but the Supreme Court determined that she had no constitutional right to protection and the failure of police to enforce the restraining order did not violate any constitutional provision. Ms. Lanahan then turned to the Inter-American Commission.

The Commission noted the numerous international authorities explaining that gender-based violence is a form of discrimination, and that systemic failures of governments to adequately address gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence, and to protect women from this harm not only constitute discrimination but fuel further societal discrimination and violence. The Commission stressed that all states must act with diligence to protect women and children from domestic violence, and to not only prevent arbitrary deprivations of life but also to affirmatively protect peoples’ right to life. And when acts of domestic violence do occur, a state must conduct a thorough and meaningful investigation of those violations.

According to the Commission, Ms. Lanahan’s and her daughters’ rights were violated by the police department’s failure to enforce the restraining order and the insufficient investigation into her daughters’ deaths, and by the failure of the U.S. government to investigate any aspect of these incidents.

This important decision does more than just vindicate Ms. Lanahan’s rights. It also makes clear that the U.S. must do more than merely pass laws or create nominal policies protecting human rights; those laws and policies must actually be enforced, procedures must be in place to adequately respond to people seeking protection of their rights, and failures of protection must be genuinely addressed lest they contribute to societal acceptance of human rights violations and perpetuate those very violations.

Human Rights USA welcomes this landmark decision and is proud to be among the signatories to amicus briefs supporting Ms. Lanahan’s case. Our congratulations and thanks go out to Ms. Lanahan’s attorneys at the University of Miami School of Law Human Rights Clinic, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Intern Spotlight: Elizabeth Murray, Social Media Intern at Human Rights USA

Elizabeth Murray is a rising junior at Franklin & Marshall College working towards a major in government and a minor in women's and gender studies. Elizabeth plans on attending law school after graduation to pursue a career in international human rights law.

What attracted you to Human Rights USA, and why did you want to intern with the organization?
As a Pre-Law student in college I wanted to intern for an organization that could help me prepare for law school, but also cared about the same human rights issues that I did. Human Rights USA was a perfect fit in that way, and I was especially impressed with the organization's dedication to gender-based issues. I'm a women's and gender studies minor, and the gendered component of the law has always been of interest to me.

What is one of your favorite moments from working with Human Rights USA this summer?
My fondest memory of working with Human Rights USA this summer has to be the fundraiser that I helped plan. As a team we worked so hard to make sure that everything would run smoothly, and when the night of the event finally arrived it was more than I could have hoped for. I got the chance to meet a group of people who had made successful careers out of human rights litigation, as well as some of Human Rights USA's previous clients. The entire evening reminded me why human rights issues have always been so important to me, and why I want to make a career out of advocating for them in the future.

If you could leave any future interns with one piece of advice, what would it be?
To take advantage of every opportunity that you're given during your internship, because the summer literally flies by! Interns at Human Rights USA have the unique opportunity to be exposed to a variety of clients, attorneys, and cases and come away with priceless first-hand experience working in a nonprofit setting. After this internship I know I'll go home having gained some the most useful tools I'll need to finish my course work and pursue a future in human rights litigation!