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North Korea prison camp survivor awaits UN report with hope, despair

Posted: 15 Feb 2014 05:00 PM PST

SEOUL (Reuters) - After a year of investigation, the United Nations is set to release a detailed report on human rights violations in North Korea, but defectors from the country and experts are deeply sceptical it will have any effect on the regime in Pyongyang.

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea was set up last March to begin building a case for possible criminal prosecution.

Michael Kirby, a former chief justice of Australia who chairs the independent inquiry, said after preliminary findings last year that inmates in North Korea's prison camps suffered "unspeakable atrocities", comparable with Nazi abuses uncovered after World War 2.

But any attempt to follow up after the final report is issued on Monday will most likely be blocked by China. North Korea itself labels any attack on its human rights record as a U.S.-led conspiracy.

China, the North's major ally and main benefactor, stands ready to veto any attempt to mobilise the Security Council to open an investigation against Pyongyang, a non-signatory to the International Criminal Court.

"In some respects I have been disappointed with the United Nations, although the U.N. is trying to resolve the issue" said Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean defector who has given the U.N. panel harrowing accounts of his life and escape from a prison camp. As a 13-year-old, he informed a prison guard of a plot by his mother and brother to escape and both were executed, according to a book on his life called "Escape from Camp 14".

"The Human Rights Council, the biggest organisation in the U.N., has not solved any problems," Shin said in an interview in Seoul ahead of the report's release.

In March 2013, the Council established the Commission of Inquiry to investigate violations of human rights in North Korea and to seek out those accountable, "in particular where the violations may amount to crimes against humanity."

More than 200,000 people are believed to be held in North Korean prison camps, according to independent estimates.

The U.N. panel has worked to bring new attention to the allegations of horror at North Korea's gulags with evidence and testimony from exiles, including camp survivors, in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington but has failed to gain access to North Korea.

Shin said China continues to use North Korea as a tool to keep U.S. influence in the region under control.

"So far China has neglected North Korea's human rights issue and supported its dictatorship," said Shin, who is scheduled to address the U.N. Human Rights Council in March when the panel's findings are formally presented.


After more than two years in power, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shows no signs of changing the iron-fisted rule of his predecessors, forging ahead with a reign of terror and ordering the execution of his powerful uncle following a brutal public purge.

"North Korea won't bat an eyelid," said Hwang Jae-ok, vice president of the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, who has extensively studied Pyongyang's human rights record. "It has built up a strong tolerance to sanctions and pressure."

The North has been under gradually tougher international and U.S. sanctions since its first nuclear test in 2006.

The sanctions have not stopped Kim, believed to be in his early 30s, from stepping up the nuclear and missile programmes launched by his father and accomplishing what experts have said were notable successes that have turned the clock back on years of disarmament efforts led by Washington.

Human rights activists hope the panel's report work and the global attention it generates will seep back across North Korea.

But Baek Kyung-yoon, a North Korean female army captain who fled to the South in 2000, said her former compatriots are unlikely to have the luxury of pondering about human rights or anticipating improvement.

"Loyalty (to the regime) is everything and it's nonsense to discuss human rights there," Baek said on Wednesday, ahead of the premiere of "The Apostle: He Was Anointed By God". The Korean-language film is based on her experience of ordering the torture of a man who possessed a few pages from the Bible.

A U.S. Christian missionary, Kenneth Bae, was sentenced last year to 15 years of hard labour after being convicted of state subversion. Pyongyang has abruptly rescinded a visit by U.S. special envoy to seek Bae's release for a second time.

Religious persecution is one of 11 areas of inquiry by the U.N. panel, which also include food deprivation, torture, executions and abductions.

Despite his frustration with the lack of visible progress, Shin, who had a finger chopped off with a butcher knife by prison guards as a punishment, still hopes the United Nations can bring change in North Korea.

"Personally the COI (Commission of Inquiry) is my last remaining hope. Even if there is little chance for change, I am betting everything I have."

(Editing by Jack Kim and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Venezuelan students fight police, 'Chavistas' rally

Posted: 15 Feb 2014 04:30 PM PST

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan police fired teargas and turned water cannons on stone-throwing protesters on Saturday to stop them blocking a Caracas highway in a fourth day of sporadic unrest against President Nicolas Maduro's government.

The latest trouble flared as night fell, after thousands of Maduro supporters had earlier flooded the centre of the capital to call for peace and make a show of political strength after this week's deadly violence during street protests.

Three people were shot dead on Wednesday in the worst violence since Maduro's disputed election last year.

The 51-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez has faced two weeks of mainly small protests led by students and hardline opposition leaders complaining about Venezuela's rampant crime, shortages of basic products, and alleged repression of political rivals.

"We'll be here day-after-day, night-after-night, until something changes," vowed Javier Sanchez, 20, picking up stones to hurl at police while other students shouted at him "Stop! No violence!" in the upscale Altamira district of Caracas.

After about 2,000 students had gathered peacefully in Altamira Square, debating strategy and chanting slogans in the afternoon sun, a few hundred set off to try and block a major highway. Police halted them before they could get there.

In a repeat of daily confrontations this week, the students threw objects and taunted the police, who responded with volleys of teargas and a water cannon truck, or "whale" as Venezuelans call it.

"People are asleep. It's time for action," said student Michael Paredes, 26, carrying vinegar and putting on a bandana to protect against teargas.

Staking his presidency on maintaining his mentor's socialist legacy, Maduro accuses his rivals of trying to create conditions for a coup like the one 12 years ago that briefly ousted Chavez.


There are, however, no indications the current turmoil could lead to his ouster. The military, whose role swung both Chavez's 36-hour toppling and return, appears solidly behind Maduro.

Addressing his supporters in Caracas from a pastel-colored stage displaying the slogan "People of Peace," Maduro mocked the demands of protesters who want him to step down.

"You want to see people in the streets? We'll give you people in the streets," he said to cheers from thousands of supporters.

"I'm not going to give up one millimetre of the power the Venezuelan people have given me ... nothing will stop me from building this revolution which commandant Chavez left us!"

Maduro said in his speech he had ordered the temporary closure of Metro station and the suspension of bus services in the east of the city, where the protests are centered.

Student leaders are vowing to stay out until Maduro falls, raising the prospect of a protracted crisis. But most rallies are attracting just a few hundred people, and the opposition's political leaders are divided as to whether or not street demonstrations are the way forward.

The protests could, in fact, play into Maduro's hands by helping him unite factions in the ruling Socialist Party and distract people from economic problems like shortages of goods.

He says Venezuela faces an "economic war" waged by the opposition, backed by U.S. financiers and made worse by speculators. Supporters say he is a victim of Western "imperial" propaganda and saboteurs seeking to discredit Chavez's legacy.

"We have to celebrate the revolution, which is love and peace," said Kaina Lovera, 16, wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the late Chavez's face.


Maduro's critics say he is wrecking the economy by sticking with failed Chavez-era policies such as currency and price controls, which many local economists blame for the shortages.

Among those critics is hardline opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, whom the government calls the "face of fascism" and the intellectual author of the violence.

The 42-year-old U.S.-educated economist says peaceful marches organized by his Popular Will party have been infiltrated by provocateurs and attacked by militant pro-government gangs known locally as "colectivos."

Lopez remains in his home in the Chacao district of eastern Caracas where he was once mayor, colleagues said, despite a judge's arrest warrant. It was not clear why police had not acted on that, though such a move could fuel further protests.

Maduro demanded on Saturday that Lopez surrender himself.

"The opposition organize these violent groups, and then they hide and cry," the president said. "You fugitive from justice, trembling with fear, you fascist coward! Hand yourself in!"

Of 99 people arrested nationwide since Wednesday, most have been released pending trial with 13 still behind bars, Venezuelan judicial authorities say.

While Latin American leftist allies have sent messages of solidarity to Maduro and condemned the "coup" intentions against him, Western nations have called for calm and dialogue.

The United States, whose government has constantly crossed swords with Venezuela's socialist administration since Chavez came to power in 1999, expressed concern over the detentions and arrest warrant for Lopez.

"These actions have a chilling effect on citizens' rights to express their grievances peacefully," Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.

"We call on the Venezuelan government to provide the political space necessary for meaningful dialogue with the Venezuelan people and to release detained protesters. We urge all parties to work to restore calm and refrain from violence."

(Additional reporting by Efrain Otero, Diego Ore and Eyanir Chinea, Will Dunham in Washingon; Editing by Bernard Orr; editing by Daniel Wallis, Bernard Orr)

Venezuela music star Dudamel targeted by opposition critics

Posted: 15 Feb 2014 03:20 PM PST

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's classical music superstar Gustavo Dudamel is facing vitriolic criticism from some supporters of the country's political opposition who accuse him of keeping silent during unrest this week that killed three people.

Dudamel, 33, is director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. He is visiting his home country to conduct concerts marking the 39th anniversary of its renowned "El Sistema" music program, which gives classical music training to children from poor neighbourhoods.

His visit has coincided with opposition street protests against socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

On Saturday, Dudamel conducted a free "concert for peace" including Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, at the ornate Foreign Ministry building in downtown Caracas.

The opposition accuses the security forces and pro-government militants of attacking peaceful demonstrators in the centre of the capital on Wednesday, while the Maduro's administration blames its rivals for the deaths.

Some in the opposition were outraged that the famous conductor did not use his public position to condemn Maduro, interpreting that as support for the leftist government.

"I can't stay silent ... You were playing in a concert while people were massacred," wrote self-exiled Venezuelan classical pianist Gabriela Montero in an open letter to the conductor.

"We've passed the point of no return. Music, ambition and fame count for nothing alongside human suffering," he wrote.

Some hardline opposition supporters used social media to circulate a computer-generated image of Dudamel with his baton raised and blood pouring from his hands, against a backdrop of student protesters being arrested by the police.


In a brief statement in response to his critics, the conductor said the country's Sistema program represented the value of peace, love and unity.

"It has become the emblem and flag of our country to the world ... we lament (Wednesday's) events," it read. "With our music and with our instruments in hand, we declare an absolute no to violence and a resounding yes to peace."

Dudamel's supporters also weighed into the debate.

Some suggested it was worth his playing the part of a loyal "Chavista," or supporter of the late Hugo Chavez, if that meant continued government funding for El Sistema.

But others said his politics were none of their business.

"Dudamel has no more of a duty to heed to our points of view than anyone else," wrote one pro-opposition blogger, Juan Cristobal Nagel, while conceding that his post on the topic was likely to anger some of his friends.

"Just like we wouldn't want Chavistas to force a political position down our throats, so too should Dudamel enjoy the privilege of freedom to support the cause he might think is better."

Dudamel is the most well-known alumnus of El Sistema, which since the mid-1970s has taught hundreds of thousands of youths, many from poor homes in dangerous slums, to play musical instruments and in orchestras.

Supporters say it gives them discipline, cuts school truancy rates and boosts self-esteem. It currently includes more than 300,000 youngsters playing for 180 orchestras and has inspired similar projects in countries around the world.


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