Prosecutor Hou in Taiwan and the PROTEX prosecutors in Argentina are egregious examples of how laws are misused to persecute spiritual groups.
by María Vardé*
*A paper presented at the webinar “Tai Ji Men: Victims No More,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on August 22, 2023, International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion and Belief.
August 22, 2023, is the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.
Acts of violence based on religion or belief usually come from radical individuals and groups, such as anti-cult movements and extremist sectors of society. When violence is perpetrated and managed by state institutions, we speak of institutional violence. This is frequently seen in authoritarian countries, where religious and spiritual groups are overtly seen as a threat to the political and social order on ideological grounds. In these cases, violence normally consists of direct physical attacks.
Institutional violence against pacific religious and belief communities is in contradiction with democratic principles and human rights. Numerous cases from the last decades demonstrate that in democratic countries, which adhere in principle to human rights, violence can exist in a disguised form through legal and administrative procedures. While this may appear to be a “moderate” kind of violence, acts like these frequently lead to severe physical harm by illegal detentions, irregular interrogations, and violent repression. As this is done under the banner of the law, it remains often invisible. To preserve democracy, it is important to denounce and make these invisible phenomena visible.
Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen’s 1996 accusations of tax evasion and fraud against Tai Ji Men are a clear example of how laws can be used in devious ways to persecute minorities. Prosecutor Hou’s illegal actions, such as inducing state officials to lie, using false witnesses, and fabricating evidence, among others, are acts of administrative violence. The irregular interrogations and detention of Tai Ji Men’s Shifu (Grand Master), his wife, and two Dizi (disciple) without evidence that they had committed any crime, and keeping them in miserable conditions, are acts of physical violence. The fact that these actions continue to go unpunished is inescapable proof that institutional violence remains in force in Taiwan, threatening its status as a democratic and righteous country.
Other examples of institutional violence based on religion and belief come from Argentina. The special prosecutor office against human trafficking and exploitation called PROTEX is accusing religious and spiritual groups of labor and sexual exploitation by means of “coercive persuasion” (aka brainwashing). According to Argentinian law against human trafficking, physical coercion and violence are not necessary elements for the crime. Therefore, any volunteer activity and donation can be seen as exploitation. If the alleged victims of such crime strongly deny having been forced to do anything or exploited, and even when forensic psychological tests show that they are mentally capable and have total use of their free will, PROTEX argues that they do not realize their exploitative situation because they are brainwashed. It has been proven that these prosecutors also used false witnesses, as in the case against the Jesus Christians, and fabricated evidence by twisting facts and testimonies. However, just like Prosecutor Hou, not only are the PROTEX prosecutors not punished, but they are getting more and more recognition.
Now, as noted by Dr. Karolina Kotkowska on one of our previous webinars, violence can also take the form of verbal aggression and media defamation. Tai Ji Men’s Shifu and dizi were also victims of this type of violence when Prosecutor Hou spread false information about them in the media, accusing them of raising goblins and evading taxes for non-existing millionaire figures. The media campaign was such that many people came to discriminate against them, believing them to be criminals, and several dizi even had problems with their families. Ultimately, the prosecutor’s purpose was to turn the populace against the Tai Ji Men and justify their prosecution.
In Argentina, PROTEX prosecutors are doing the same. They spread false information about the cases they start against religious and spiritual groups and insist that religious minorities, called “cults,” manipulate their followers and annul their personality to exploit them—and even traffic their organs. They are linking the issue of human trafficking with small religious groups to such an extent that last August 1st a seminar was held in the Senate of the Argentine Nation entitled “Cults and Human Trafficking,” even though the term “cult” is considered discriminatory by the State itself. The fact that the event was organized by a senator and publicized in the Senate’s official webpage is alarming.
By creating negative images of religious minorities to manipulate public opinion, defamation produces multiple results: it legitimizes the persecution of the defamed groups as the negative image generally relates to traits of criminal and dangerous behaviors; it creates moral panics that lead people to demand tougher laws to combat evil; and it stigmatizes the group followers. The stigmatization, in the most severe forms, can produce the segregation of minorities and the banalization of violence against them, undermining human dignity.
As can be seen in many of the testimonies provided by Tai Ji Men dizi, despite all their courage and strength, these processes generate uncertainty in those who suffer them because there is no recognition of their situation by the state; and fear, because the display of arbitrary injustice can be repeated at any time. In a context of institutional violence, the abuse of authority by state officials also exerts psychological violence on its victims. The same is visible in the Argentine cases, in which the alleged victims of exploitation by religious groups demand to stop being labeled as such, demand to be heard in court and to be allowed to make a defense against the allegations, without any response from state officials. This denial of personal autonomy to adult and psychologically healthy people is another form of institutional violence.
Despite all, Prosecutor Hou continued to be promoted and was never held accountable for his actions. Similarly, PROTEX is celebrated as an institution that defends human rights. Such ironies are common when judges and prosecutors are allowed to violate the law in democratic countries. Religion and belief are fundamental parts of individuals’ identity, and freedom in that respect must be defended. Academics and activists for universal human rights have the task of making these phenomena visible and to give visibility and agency to the victims of institutional violence. When justice ceases to seek the truth, democracy is in serious danger.