Like an addict, France does not know how to quit its state of emergency even though it has become clear that maintaining it erodes the rule of law and fosters human rights abuses while not keeping the country safer. The February 22 report by the parliamentary commission tasked with monitoring the state of emergency provided yet another reminder that it no longer serves any meaningful purpose.

French police and anti-crime brigade (BAC) secure a street they carried out a counter-terrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris, France, July 21, 2016.

REUTERS/Charles Platiau

The commission president, Dominique Raimbourg, from the governing Socialist Party, noted that activity under the state of emergency has been “greatly reduced” since the last extension. His fellow commission member, Jean-Frédéric Poisson, from the main opposition party Les Republicains, noted that “time that passes erodes the efficiency and nature of the state of emergency.” A French commission of inquiry into the Paris attacks had already concluded back in July 2016 that  the state of emergency had “limited impact” on improving security and any effect it may have had “quickly dissipated.”

Human Rights Watch’s own research has found repeated abuses against ordinary people during policing operations under emergency powers.

So why is France maintaining the state of emergency despite repeated warnings by its own oversight mechanisms?

It is mainly due to confusion by politicians about the purpose of a state of emergency. Many have said that it is justified by an ongoing terrorist risk. This was clearly displayed in December 2016 when Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux justified his request for a fifth extension by saying that “the terrorist threat was at its highest.” Under this reasoning, a state of emergency is needed as long as there is a high security risk.

This reasoning is dangerous on many levels. By suggesting that regular laws, procedures, and oversight mechanisms are not sufficient to counter threats, it weakens the premise of the rule of law and relegates it to a luxury for “normal” times. But it also sets the stage for the trap in which France finds itself. French leaders have implied that they will only lift the state of emergency when the security risk has subsided but since they can’t predict the risk of future terrorist attacks, they prefer to maintain it rather than pay a political price if a subsequent attack takes place.

So lifting the state of emergency becomes less dependent on security considerations and more on political calculations. This would explain why France’s latest extension was driven by the electoral calendar, punting the issue to the next president and legislature. Call it political procrastination, or perhaps more aptly, political cowardice.

This disconnect between its initial purpose and current raison d’être was captured nicely by Sébastien Pietrasanta, a parliamentarian and rapporteur for the commission investigating the state’s response to the November 2015 attacks, who recently noted that “the effect of the state of emergency is fading and yet we extend it…even though the link with terrorism is quite tenuous.”

I have seen this logic at play in the Middle East. Egypt and Syria, countries I have worked on for years, maintained their states of emergency for 31 and 48 years respectively. Every time the state of emergency was up for renewal, the country’s rulers argued that the risk was still there or that the timing was not right to lift it. France is not a tin-pot autocracy and its rulers are not despots, but there is a cautionary tale in these experiences.

It is time to reframe the debate in France. A continuing state of emergency should not be dependent on the existence of risk – an exogenous measure that cannot be controlled by political calculations. It should be restricted to situations where there is an exceptional need for exceptional measures at an exceptional moment. It may have been justified for a few days immediately after the November 2015 attacks as the country’s security forces were caught unprepared. But it should have been lifted as soon as the institutions resumed their normal functioning – regardless of whether the underlying security threat has been addressed.

It is time to reframe the debate in France. A continuing state of emergency should not be dependent on the existence of risk, it should be restricted to situations where there is an exceptional need for exceptional measures at an exceptional moment.

Nadim Houry

Director, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program

The French government’s own website on the fight against terrorism noted in August 2016 that the government has “completed its legal arsenal and put in place an unprecedented reinforcement of its means in the police, justice, army and intelligence services.” France already has a raft of laws under the non-emergency regime that permit the authorities to investigate, detain, and prosecute terrorism suspects. Judicial controls in no way impede their effectiveness.

France needs to adopt a clear path out of the state of emergency. The parliamentary commission monitoring the state of emergency suggested in December setting an upper limit on the extension of a state of emergency but parliament ignored it and voted a fifth extension with almost no debate. Candidates in the upcoming presidential election have largely avoided talking about the issue, perpetuating the procrastination strategy by the political class, and journalists have not pushed them on the issue.

It is no longer enough to wait and hope that the security threat will simply vanish or that the future president or legislature will finally decide to tackle the issue. The debate about lifting the state of emergency should become a priority topic in this presidential election. Like any addict hoping to recover, France needs to start by recognizing the problem and begin a serious conversation on how to quit.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

As Co-Director of the US Program, Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno guides Human Rights Watch’s work on national security, criminal justice, immigration, surveillance, and drug policy in the United States.

Previously, as Deputy Washington Director for Human Rights Watch, McFarland Sánchez-Moreno conducted advocacy before the US government on a wide array of global human rights issues, including matters related to the Middle East and North Africa during the “Arab uprisings” of 2011. Earlier, she held the position of Senior Americas Researcher, covering Colombia's internal armed conflict and working on the extradition and trial of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori.

McFarland Sánchez-Moreno holds a law degree from New York University School of Law and did most of her undergraduate studies in Lima, Peru, before completing her BA at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a native speaker of both Spanish and English.



"Deadly Threats: Successors to the Paramilitaries in Colombia ," (February 2010)

"Your Reaction to NSA Curbs," on BBC World Service’s “World Have Your Say” (January 2014)

Interview with PBSNewshour "Why Does U.S. Having Varying Responses to Mid-East Unrest?"


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – Egyptian military forces in the northern Sinai Peninsula executed at least two and as many as eight unarmed detainees and covered up the killings to make it appear that the victims were armed “terrorists” shot to death in a raid, Human Rights Watch said today. Video of the killings, aired by a television channel aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and based in Turkey on April 20, 2017, appears to show a man in a camouflage uniform executing the two men, one after the other, with an assault rifle.

Two Sinai sources identified the executioner as a well-known member of a local militia that works at the behest of the Egyptian military. The video also appears to show a member of Egypt’s military intelligence service observing and directing the first execution and that the soldiers used Humvee vehicles supplied by the United States to transport the detainees. Other videos and photographs Human Rights Watch reviewed corroborate the incident.

“These outrageous killings confirm that Egypt’s counterterrorism campaign in the Sinai is out of control,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt’s allies cannot claim ignorance about these deadly abuses.”

Countries that provide weapons, materiel, or training to the Egyptian military should suspend all such assistance as long as the Egyptian armed forces remain responsible for widespread and serious violation of human rights, Human Rights Watch said. International law obliges Egypt to apprehend and prosecute the men responsible for the killings.

Sinai News 24, an independent Facebook page that tracks events in the Sinai Peninsula, reported that the two victims were brothers from the Rumailat clan – Daoud Sabri al-Awabdah, 16, and Abd al-Hadi Sabri al-Awabdah, 19 – whom the army had arrested in the town of Rafah and forcibly disappeared on July 18, 2016. In the execution video, the militia member is shown briefly interrogating the second victim about his family and confirming that he is a member of the Rumailat before he and another soldier execute him.

A member of a military-backed militia prepares to execute the second detainee.

© 2017 Mekameleen

Human Rights Watch was not able to immediately confirm the location or date of the killings, but the video appeared to be authentic.

Human Rights Watch reviewed an original version of the execution video and a separate video, posted on a pro-government Facebook page on November 20, 2016, that appears to show the same eight bodies seen in the execution video lined up next to a building that also appears in the execution video. In the second video, six soldiers stand next to the line of bodies. “This is the revenge for those who died,” one says.

In a photograph of the same scene obtained by Human Rights Watch, one of the soldiers can be seen lifting the head of one of the bodies by the hair as he looks at the camera. In a third video of the scene, also posted on the same pro-government Facebook page, a man can be heard saying, “Should I change the position of the gun?” The man who is filming the body replies, “Finish, finish.”

In addition, two bodies that appear in the execution video were also shown in official media releases published by the Egyptian armed forces on November 5 and December 6, 2016. In the December release, the armed forces spokesman described the operation that led to the victims’ death as “law enforcement forces” continuing to “tighten their security grip in the areas of countering terrorist activities in North Sinai, where they managed to eliminate eight armed terrorist elements.”

A representative for Mekameleen, the channel that obtained the execution video, told Human Rights Watch that according to their information, the incident took place sometime in October or November in al-Tuma, a village south of Sheikh Zuweid, a town where Egyptian forces have repeatedly fought elements of the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Residents of al-Tuma had previously abandoned the village due to the fighting, North Sinai residents told Human Rights Watch.

Two North Sinai sources told Human Rights Watch that the man seen executing both victims is a member of a local militia, colloquially called Group 103, which was formed by the Egyptian military in 2015 to assist in Sinai operations and which the military arms and oversees. The second source knew the man’s identity because they previously lived near each other in Sheikh Zuweid. Three other sources – the Mekameleen representative, an expert on Sinai affairs in Egypt, and an independent Sinai group – all independently identified the same man to Human Rights Watch.

In the execution video, the militia member appears to be wearing an Egyptian army infantry patch on his shoulder. A second man in the video appears to be wearing a patch of the armed forces’ Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance Department. During the first execution, the intelligence officer stands mostly off screen to the right of the camera holding a mobile phone, and a voice can be heard directing the militia member: “Not just the head. Not just the head. Enough.” Soldiers can be seen placing and removing their assault rifles next to at least two of the eight bodies, apparently so that the bodies could be falsely photographed with weapons.

Since the military removed former President Mohamed Morsy in July 2013, violence has significantly increased in North Sinai, an underdeveloped and long-marginalized governorate that borders Israel and Gaza. The extremist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which pledged allegiance to ISIS and renamed itself Sinai Province in November 2014, has established a stronghold in the area and waged a series of attacks on Egyptian police and armed forces there, in addition to targeting Christians and suspected collaborators. Since 2013, North Sinai has experienced at least 1,500 armed attacks, which have killed dozens of civilians and hundreds of members of the security forces, according to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

These outrageous killings confirm that Egypt’s counterterrorism campaign in the Sinai is out of control.

Joe Stork

Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director, Human Rights Watch

In response, Egypt has deployed more forces to the Sinai than at any time since the country’s 1973 war with Israel. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who as defense minister orchestrated Morsy’s ouster, has repeatedly stated that Egypt is in a “state of war” and compared recent operations to the previous conflicts with Israel, in 1973 and 1967.

The counterterrorism campaign in North Sinai has been rife with abuses. Between July 2013 and August 2015, Egyptian authorities destroyed around half of the town of Rafah, on the border with the Gaza Strip, evicting thousands of families and demolishing at least 3,255 buildings. Dozens of families Human Rights Watch interviewed in 2016 and 2017 reported numerous arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings by Egyptian military and Interior Ministry forces.

In January 2017, Interior Ministry counterterrorism troops most likely executed at least four and as many as 10 North Sinai men whom they had previously arrested. The Interior Ministry then apparently staged a fake raid to cover up the incident.

The killings shown in the video that surfaced on April 20 fit a pattern described by several North Sinai residents. At least two detainees formerly held by the army told Human Rights Watch that their guards would come at dawn, summon certain detainees, and take them away without telling them where they were going. These detainees did not return, said the former prisoners, who said they believed the men had been executed.

In one of two such cases in November 2014 that Human Rights Watch documented, the detainee discovered after his release that one of the men taken away by guards had been killed the same day. The man’s family found his body later in a deserted area.

Egypt’s allies cannot claim ignorance about these deadly abuses.

Joe Stork

Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director, Human Rights Watch

Several North Sinai residents have told Human Rights Watch that when the army conducts regular arrest sweeps in villages, troops are usually accompanied by one or more militia members, sometimes referred to as “collaborators,” who play a leading role in identifying and arresting suspects. Other residents said that these individuals have threatened them or had their relatives arrested due to personal or business disputes.

Residents said that military “collaborators” have falsely identified numerous individuals as “terrorists,” leading army troops to arrest them. One former resident of Sheikh Zuweid said that members of these militias live in or next to the Zohor army barracks in Sheikh Zuweid. The army forcibly evicted residents of many buildings surrounding the base and allowed militia members to occupy them, this person said.

If the fighting in North Sinai has risen to the level of an “armed conflict” under international law, the conduct of both sides would be regulated by international humanitarian law, also known as the laws of war. The willful killing of a civilian or prisoner of war constitutes a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, which would be a further obligation on Egypt to arrest and prosecute those responsible.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – The suicide bombings at two Egyptian churches on April 9, 2017, that killed at least 45 people are a terrifying reminder of the escalating threats facing Egypt’s Christian minority, Human Rights Watch said today. Two parishioners and a pastor at one of the churches told Human Rights Watch that police protection at the church gate was inadequate and may have allowed the bomber to enter.

The attacks during Palm Sunday services in Tanta and Alexandria, claimed by the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), were the worst day of violence targeting Christians in Egypt’s modern history. In response, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a nationwide state of emergency, the first since security forces violently dispersed anti-government protests in 2013, killing hundreds.

Relatives of victims grieve next to coffins arriving to the Coptic church that was bombed on Sunday in Tanta, Egypt, April 9, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

“These church bombings were the savage work of extremists who have no regard for the sanctity of life,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The deep-rooted sectarianism in many places in Egypt provides the climate where this hateful ideology can fester, but states of emergency have been the path to more abuses, not greater protection for Christian lives.”

In Tanta, a city in the Nile Delta 95 kilometers north of Cairo, a man wearing concealed explosives managed to pass through a security check outside St. George’s Church and detonate himself near the front pews, killing at least 28 people and wounding 77, according to media reports. In Alexandria, church security camera footage showed another bomber trying to enter St. Mark’s Church through an open gate and being directed toward a metal detector guarded by police officers. When an officer stopped the man, he detonated his explosives, killing at least 17 people and wounding 48.

Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, was inside St. Mark’s Church but was not harmed, according to the Interior Ministry.

Two members of St. George’s Church and one of the church’s pastors told Human Rights Watch that police had not taken serious steps to secure the church for Palm Sunday, though they had defused an explosive device in the street next to the church just 11 days earlier. One church member said that the police should have taken the explosive device as a sign of an impending attack.

Coptic Christians in Egypt have faced escalating threats since a December 11, 2016, ISIS suicide bombing at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, which killed at least 25 people and wounded 49. At least seven Coptic Christians in North Sinai, the stronghold of Egypt’s ISIS affiliate, were killed in the following months, prompting the majority of Coptic residents in al-Arish, the area’s biggest town, to flee to mainland Egypt. On February 19, 2017, in a video claiming responsibility for the Cairo cathedral bombing, ISIS threatened further attacks on Christians, accusing them of being “the spearhead of the crusader project to fight God’s religion in Egypt.”

Coptic Christians, an estimated 10 percent of the Egyptian population, face widespread legal and social discrimination and are routinely denied high-level government and security services jobs. They have been the victims of increasing sectarian attacks since the 2011 uprising, particularly since July 2013, when the military removed Mohamed Morsy, Egypt’s first freely elected president. On a number of occasions, Human Rights Watch has documented how Interior Ministry officials and prosecutors fail to conduct proper investigations or prosecutions into sectarian attacks on Coptic Christians.

In an April 10 statement, ISIS identified the two bombers as Egyptians, using the pseudonyms Abu al-Bara al-Masri and Abu Ishaq al-Masri. The group threatened further violence, describing Christians as “crusaders” and “apostates” and declaring that “the bill between us and them is very large, and they will pay it with rivers of blood from their children, with God’s permission.”

Hours after the attacks, Interior Minister Magdy Abd al-Ghaffar replaced two police generals responsible for security in Gharbia governorate, which includes Tanta, moving them to new assignments. The following day, al-Sisi formally decreed a three-month state of emergency, giving the armed forces responsibility for preserving security throughout the country and protecting private and public property.

On April 11, parliament voted unanimously to approve al-Sisi’s decree. Under the constitution, a majority is needed for approval, and a two-thirds majority to approve any renewal.

Egypt’s emergency law, which dates to 1958, gives the authorities sweeping powers to arrest, detain, try, and sentence suspects with almost no judicial review. A state of emergency was in place continuously between October 1981, after extremists assassinated President Anwar al-Sadat, and June 2012, when the government allowed it to expire more than a year after a nationwide uprising ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.

The aftermath of an explosion that took place at a Coptic church on Sunday in Tanta, Egypt, April 9, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

Though al-Sisi’s administration has taken numerous steps to recreate the powers Mubarak had during the state of emergency – including a broad counterterrorism law passed in 2015 – the emergency law goes further. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticized Egypt for resorting to states of emergency and urged the government to use the penal code and regular courts instead.

A state of emergency allows for trials before Emergency State Security Courts, whose composition is determined by the president and whose verdicts cannot be appealed. It allows the authorities to arrest and search suspects without warrants, conduct surveillance on and censor any publication, seize property, forcibly evacuate areas, restrict public meetings, and set opening and closing times for businesses. People detained under the emergency law can only challenge their detention, before the Supreme State Security Court, if they are not released within six months, and the president must approve a court release order, allowing for indefinite detention.

In June 2013, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the emergency law’s warrantless arrest and search powers violated the constitution. In the absence of a lower house of parliament – which the court had dissolved a year earlier for violating elections law – the emergency law remained unchanged, and the military removed President Morsy’s administration from power one month later.

On April 11, a parliamentary committee proposed amendments to the emergency law to bring it in line with the court’s 2013 ruling. The amendments would allow police to arrest anyone suspected of a crime and allow prosecutors to seek permission from an Emergency State Security Court to hold detainees for indefinitely renewable one-month periods.

After al-Sisi declared the state of emergency, Ali Abdel Aal, the speaker of parliament, said that social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube would fall under its surveillance and censorship provisions, the newspaper Al Masry al Youm reported. The day before the state of emergency, authorities confiscated editions of Al Bawaba, a pro-government newspaper, which criticized the authorities for failing to protect the churches.

In practice, Egyptian authorities have exercised de facto emergency powers since the military removed President Morsy. The government has effectively banned opposition protests, and police and Interior Ministry National Security officers have arbitrarily arrested thousands of suspects, used torture routinely to elicit confessions, and forcibly disappeared hundreds for months at a time. Courts and prosecutors have issued mass death sentences and held hundreds of other detainees in preventive detention for more than two years, exceeding the amount of time allowed by law. Judges have regularly acted as rubber stamps for National Security officers, only a handful of whom have received sentences for abusing detainees in custody, and all of which remain on appeal.

Under international law, governments may declare a state of emergency when there is a “public emergency that threatens the life of the nation,” but the emergency restrictions must be proportionate and limited to the greatest extent possible in both time and area. Some rights, including the absolute ban on torture, the right to judicial review of detention, and the right to a fair trial, cannot be limited even during emergencies.

Mina Nagy, a member of St. George’s Church who was on his way to attend the service when the explosion took place, told Human Rights Watch that the church had opened only one gate that day, but that the metal detector there did not work. Police stationed at the gate performed only cursory inspections of those who entered, he said.

“This is a man who’s entering, so what should you search for?” Nagy said. “In this security situation, I should check your identity if you’ve got a strange look like you’re not from here. Try to find out your character, your identity, who are you, kind of like what happened in Alexandria. The man refused to let him go through the main door so he went to the metal detector.”

A second church member who knew many of those who survived the bombing and asked not to be identified also said that the church’s metal detector rarely worked and that the police guards rarely inspected the bags or clothing of people entering the church. He said that police should have set up checkpoints down the street from the church gate, given the holiday crowds.

“The whole problem is about the protection of the church,” he said.

A pastor who was inside the church at the time of the explosion, which killed his son, told Human Rights Watch that security camera footage from inside the church showed a man wearing a cap and sunglasses and holding a jacket entering the church and moving quickly toward the area where priests were standing before detonating his explosives.

“There’s one door, where only one person can pass through the metal detector, which in principle is the responsibility of the Interior Ministry,” the pastor said. “How he ran through the gate no one knows.”

Security at the church was “decoration,” the pastor said. “There’s scenery. Just scenery.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Nairobi) – Armed groups have carried out a wave of killings in central Mali since January 2017. The killings, by Islamist armed groups, self-defense militias, and, to a lesser extent, government soldiers, have resulted in at least 52 deaths, led to the displacement of over 10,000 people, and dramatically elevated ethnic tensions. Malian authorities should investigate and prosecute all those responsible.

Islamist armed groups have over the past two years progressively increased their presence in central Mali, where they have executed civilians and government officials and committed other abuses. Their presence, and recruitment of local residents, has inflamed and exploited tensions among the Peuhl, Bambara, and Dogon ethnic groups, spawning the growth of often-abusive self-defense militias.
“Violence since January fueled by explosive ethnic tensions has swept across central Mali, leaving dozens dead,” said Corinne Dufka, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Malian government should ramp up efforts to stop this violence by vigorously prosecuting the killings and stepping up patrols to protect vulnerable populations.”
During a 10-day research mission to Mali in February, and by phone in late February and March, Human Rights Watch interviewed 57 victims and witnesses to killings and other abuses in central Mali. Human Rights Watch also interviewed members of the ethnic Peuhl and Bambara communities; former detainees; local government, security and justice officials; and foreign diplomats.
On February 11, alleged Peuhl Islamist fighters killed a Bambara shopkeeper near the town of Ke-Macina in Ségou region, 320 kilometers from the capital, Bamako. This sparked retaliatory killings against Peuhl villagers by a Bambara self-defense militia known as the Dozos, leaving at least 21 people dead, including children.
On February 18, armed Islamists executed nine Bozo and Bambara traders returning home from a local market for their perceived support of the Dozos. Since then, at least 16 people – both civilians and armed group members – have been killed in an escalating series of tit-for-tat attacks. Both Peuhl and Bambara villagers told Human Rights Watch that villagers were terrified as large groups of armed men have been seen driving around on motorcycles and vehicles in their villages in central Mali.
Additionally, since January, three local government representatives in Mopti region have been assassinated, allegedly by armed Islamists.
While the Malian security forces have generally acted to quell the ethnic violence, witnesses reported that in response to the growing presence of armed Islamists in central Mali, some soldiers executed at least eight suspected Islamists and forcibly disappeared several others since late December 2016.
Bambara and Peuhl community leaders lamented the violence that has gripped central Mali for the past two years. Villagers, local officials, and elders from both ethnicities said that poverty, public sector corruption, inadequate security, and the lack of investigations and justice for communal violence and criminality were fueling recruitment by armed groups.
A Peuhl youth leader, addressing the lack of justice for the many killings since early 2015, said: “In central Mali, we, the Peuhl, were the jihadists’ first victims… we’ve also lost imams, mayors, and chiefs at the hands of the jihadists, but no one talks about that.” Another said, “So many Peuhl have been tortured, disappeared or killed by the soldiers and by the Dozos, but there is never justice for these terrible crimes.”
A Bambara leader said: “Since 2015, so many of our people have been gunned down in their farms, at home, or on their way to market. We have reported this to local and Bamako authorities, but what we hear are excuses for why they don’t investigate – the rain, the danger, insufficient vehicles. But in the end, there is no justice and the killings keep happening.”
A Peuhl villager said, “To end all this, everyone must be treated with dignity; every killing must be investigated. If not, if the state doesn’t pay attention, people will continue to join the jihadists and their numbers and force will continue to grow.”
The government should investigate and hold to account those responsible for serious abuses committed in central Mali by armed groups, civil defense militias, and state security forces. It should also report on the progress made into its investigation into the May 2016 deadly communal violence near the town of Dioura, in Mopti region.

To end all this, everyone must be treated with dignity; every killing must be investigated. If not, if the state doesn’t pay attention, people will continue to join the jihadists and their numbers and force will continue to grow.

Villager, central Mali

On March 2, the government announced the establishment of a 45-day commission of inquiry to investigate the violence in Ke-Macina. The commission, consisting of nine magistrates and 22 gendarmes, was given 45 days to submit a report, the government said. If it carries out its mandate credibly and impartially, the commission will be a meaningful step in seeking justice for the victims and their families.

Human Rights Watch recommended the implementation of a longer-term commission, preferably initiated by the Malian parliament, in order to address a broader range of issues. Such a longer-term commission should:
  • Investigate sources of weapons for both armed Islamist groups and self-defense groups, including the Dozos;
  • Investigate the underlying causes of inter-communal tensions in central Mali, including government corruption, resolution of farmer-herder tensions, and the crucial need for civilian protection from – and justice for – rampant banditry; and
  • Develop clear recommendations for accountability, reparations, and prevention of further abuses.

“The worsening violence in central Mali thrusts members of all ethnic groups into the dangerous cycle of violence and impunity,” Dufka said. “The Malian government and its allies need to confront this insecurity head on before more blood is shed. The Ke-Macina investigation is a very good place to start.”

The Seeds of Violence
In 2012, Mali’s northern regions fell to separatist ethnic Tuareg and Al-Qaeda-linked armed groups. Military operations by French and Malian forces since 2013, along with a 2015 peace accord, sought to eliminate the presence of Islamist armed groups, disarm Tuareg and other fighters, and re-establish state control over the north. However, insecurity and violence in Mali’s previously stable central and southern regions has increased.

Since early 2015, an Islamist armed group referred to as the Macina Liberation Front, or Katiba Macina, under the command of an Islamic preacher, Hamadoun Koufa Diallo, has attacked army bases and police and gendarme posts. The group has executed numerous alleged army informants and officials, including mayors and local administrators.

Armed Islamist groups have closed schools, warned people not to collaborate with the government, increasingly imposed harsh restrictions based on their interpretation of Islam, prohibited traditional celebrations including marriages and baptisms, and imposed Sharia (Islamic law) in some villages. The insecurity has led to displacement of thousands of civilians.

While the group’s new area of operation is largely inhabited by the Peuhl, Bambara, and Dogon ethnic groups, Islamist groups have concentrated their recruitment efforts on the Peuhl. Since 2015, Peuhl community leaders have expressed concern about the Islamists’ recruitment. They attributed this success to the Islamists’ exploitation of community frustrations with poverty, government corruption, generational disputes within Peuhl clan leadership, the lack of justice for common crime, abusive conduct by the Malian security services, and the government’s failure to protect civilians from rampant banditry.

The sparse presence of Malian security forces in the area has also led to the formation of ethnically aligned self-defense groups, notably by the Bambara and the Dogon, near the Burkina Faso border. Several Bambara leaders said they took security into their own hands because Malian security forces had failed to protect their villages and property. They said the Islamist armed group killings of numerous Bambara farmers, herders, and local leaders had not been investigated, nor had any of those responsible been brought to account.

The sedentary Bambara and pastoral Peuhl communities have long had disputes and misunderstandings over access to water and land. However, since the proliferation of Islamist armed groups and the growth and militarization of the Dozo, such disputes have become increasingly deadly.

Communal Violence in Ke-Macina
The deadly communal violence on February 11 and 12 between members of the Peuhl and Bambara communities around the town of Ke-Macina was sparked by the February 11 killing of a Bambara shopkeeper, Chiaka Traoré, by an alleged Islamist fighter in the village of Diawaribougou, four kilometers away. The Malian Security Ministry said that 20 people had been killed and 18 wounded. However, Peuhl community leaders told Human Rights Watch the death toll could be over 30.

A witness to the killing of the shopkeeper said, “He was killed at about 8 p.m. by two men on a motorcycle who pretended to buy gas at his little shop. They whipped out a gun and shot him several times before speeding off.”

A friend of the victim told Human Rights Watch:

Chiaka told me a few weeks before he died that he had gotten death threats from the Peuhl bandits – usually they warn you two times. He said the jihadists told him if he didn’t stop talking about [Hamadoun] Kouffa and talking to the FAMA [Malian army], that they would come for him. He said he had complained to the mayor and gendarmes, but they couldn’t protect him.

Human Rights Watch has documented about 40 such targeted killings of suspected informants by Islamist armed groups in central Mali since early 2015.

Witnesses said that after burying the shopkeeper on February 12, a group of about 100 Dozos, some living in villages around Ke-Macina and others from neighboring administrative areas, attacked seven largely Peuhl hamlets, killing residents and setting fire to numerous houses. The hamlets attacked were Wuro Hadji Samba, Wuro Botamkobé, Wuro Brahima Hadji, Wuro Nona, Wuro Thaté, Wuro Direbé, and Sampey. Witnesses said the Dozos were armed with hunting rifles and some with military assault weapons. An elderly resident who was shot in the arm during the attack on his village said:

We were saddened to learn of the assassination of the shopkeeper, and I went to his burial, but unfortunately, the authorities and Dozos said we should leave. Thirty minutes after returning home, I saw several young people in traditional Dozo attire and armed with hunting rifles and Kalashnikov [assault rifles] coming toward us. I recognized seven of them – they were from my very village.

Without talking, they started firing. I was hit in the arm and saw my brother and another relative fall dead. His 4-year-old son was also shot. In my village they killed six people and wounded three… then they attacked the next village. We have lived together for a very long time – how could they have done this?

A wounded man from a village three kilometers away gave a similar description, saying a woman and two children from his village were killed in the attack. A herder described the burials of 21 victims, including two who had been burned beyond recognition:

Most of the dead were buried on Sunday and Monday, but on Tuesday we found and buried four more bodies, including a man and women who burned to death inside their house. Eleven are buried in a common grave Ke-Macina, another six in a hamlet, and the four I helped bury. Some were shot at close range, others at a distance… others burned.

Other Retaliatory Killings
At least 24 other people have been killed during communal violence since January 2017. The victims include members of Peuhl, Bambara, and Bozo ethnic groups. The attackers are allegedly members of Islamist armed groups and Dozo traditional hunters.

Witnesses and elders from both the Bambara and Peuhl communities said that some of these killings were retaliation for the Ke-Macina violence, while others appeared to be a response for the large-scale theft of livestock.

On February 18, armed Islamists allegedly stopped and killed nine traders – most from the Bozo ethnic group – on their way back from the Saturday market in Niono in Ségou region. Three people with detailed knowledge of the incident said that more than 20 heavily armed Islamists, who had been driving around the area in a beige Toyota pickup and several motorcycles, stopped the traders and their donkey carts 25 kilometers from Niono, at about 4 p.m. The armed men accused the traders of complicity in the Ke-Macina killings, demanded to know if they had any relationship with the Dozo, then took them off the main road, tied their hands behind their backs, and shot each one in the head.

At least 15 other people were killed in fighting between the Bambara and Peuhl over livestock theft. Members of both communities said while these disputes have grown increasingly common as competition over grazing and farmland has increased, they have become much more lethal since the appearance of armed Islamist groups in 2015 and the resulting proliferation of firearms. They said the Islamists have on several occasions intervened in the disputes on behalf of the Peuhl, especially after Peuhl herders had been murdered.

Around February 20, Peuhl leaders said, a group of Dozos killed three Peuhl herders tending their cows. A Dozo leader told Human Rights Watch that on February 21, “About 20 kilometers from Diabaly, 10 of our people were killed and 13 wounded when we were ambushed by jihadists while trying to get back our cattle… It was a heavy ambush – they were really well armed.” He added: “Killing has become an almost daily thing… just yesterday [March 27], Bambaras taking a sick relative to the hospital were attacked. Two of our people died.” Leaders from both communities lamented the lack of justice for the many killings.

Assassinations of Local Government Representatives
Three local government and village leaders in Mopti region have been assassinated so far in 2017. In all three cases, the perpetrators arrived on motorcycles and quickly fled after killing their victims, two of whom were of Dogon ethnicity. While no Islamist group has claimed responsibility, all three cases resemble previous targeted killings of suspected collaborators by armed Islamists.

The mayor of Boni, Hamadoun Dicko, was shot and killed after leaving a mosque on January 18. The mayor of Mondoro, Souleymane Ongoiba, was fatally shot in front of his home in Douentza on January 28. Adry Ongoiba, the 72-year-old chief of the Dogon section of the village of Yirma, 35 kilometers from Boni, was assassinated on March 26 at his home. A witness to Adry’s killing said:

Around 2:20 a.m., I heard gunshots, and immediately ran outside… I saw two men running away and moments later heard the sound of a motorcycle as it sped away. I found the chief lying on his back with two bullets in his head and chest… There was panic, the women were wailing. People were saying the assailants were speaking Pulaar, and said, “It is you we are looking for.” He was killed with an automatic weapon… the bullets we found there were not from local hunting rifles, that’s for sure.

The Malian Security Forces
Peuhl and Bambara villagers reported that the Malian security forces, who are responsible for protecting all Malians, have both protected vulnerable Peuhl villagers and seemingly turned a blind eye to the violence. Several Peuhl leaders said they believed the government was arming the Dozo militia.

Several residents said that after incidents of communal violence, the army tried to calm tensions by patrolling, crediting the soldiers with saving their lives. Two Peuhl elders told Human Rights Watch they believed many more Peuhl would have died if the army had not deployed in the days after February 12 to dissuade further killing. One official said, “Yes, the army was patrolling, but they cannot be everywhere, and some villages were attacked either just before or after the army had passed through.”

A few Peuhl villagers felt both protected and victimized by the army. A man from a village close to Ke-Macina said:

On Sunday night, we were on alert; we had heard of the burned hamlets and people killed. The army arrived, asking if we were okay. We said we were okay for the moment and they continued on their way. But just an hour later, the Dozos arrived on motorcycles and started firing, killing three youth and wounding two more. We tried to defend ourselves from the Dozo with our local-made weapons, but then the army returned and started shooting at us. But later they evacuated the wounded to Ke-Macina.

Other residents questioned why the security forces did not intervene more aggressively to stop the killing on February 12, which they said went on for several hours. “The army was only a few kilometers away when all this going on… and the sound of gunfire really carries in the bush,” a witness said. One Peuhl man said that he had warned the security forces and local government “of the tense situation at the cemetery.” He added, “As soon as I left I told the authorities, ‘The situation is hot; there are over 100 Dozos there and more coming, they are armed and talking of revenge… the FAMA must go or there will be a serious problem’… but they didn’t act as aggressively as they should have. The killing went on from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.!”

Several Peuhl villagers and leaders questioned why Dozo members, include several Dozo leaders, had not been detained for questioning in the days after the violence. “The armed Dozos who took part in the killing were there, on the day the government delegation visited the area to assess the damage and try to calm things down,” a witness said. “They were armed. Some of those who killed our people were hanging around… but no one was arrested.”

The armed Dozos who took part in the killing were there, on the day the government delegation visited the area to assess the damage and try to calm things down. They were armed. Some of those who killed our people were hanging around… but no one was arrested.

Witness to February 11-12 communal violence in Ke-Macina, Mali

Peuhl leaders also questioned why a ban on using motorcycles for transportation between villages in the Ségou region, announced in mid-February by Chef d’Etat-major Didier Dacko, as a security measure, did not always appear to apply to Dozo.

Gendarmes, army officials, and Dozo leaders interviewed said that the ban applied to everyone. However, several Peuhl said they have on several occasions witnessed large groups of armed men, including Dozo, circulating in Ségou region on motorcycles. One Peuhl youth noted, “In some cases, Dozo even stop villagers, ask for IDs, search hamlets and do the job of soldiers.”

Several Peuhl leaders said the use by some Dozo of automatic weapons suggests that Malian security services are supporting them, a charge members of the army categorically denied to Human Rights Watch.

Several villagers expressed concern about the proliferation of arms and said that civilians could easily buy them from traders, including those going back and forth to Mauritania. One Bambara villager said:

The state doesn’t give the Dozo anything, except rice and help with medical bills, but they also help Peuhl villagers at times. No, both the Dozos and even the Peuhl buy their Kalashnikovs. The state is not present so we are all are doing this. Usually we get them from Mauritania – there is no control at the border, or customs… we know how to go about purchasing them and who we have to ask.

A Peuhl youth leader said, similarly:

The price of a nice cow, that’s how much a Kalashnikov costs – about 500,000 CFA (US$800). People buy them from shop owners who go to Mauritania and Algeria all the time – for some reason, the army doesn’t always search their cars. When you need a gun, whatever [ethnicity] you are, you put in your order, they tell you to wait several days, and your merchandise is delivered.

Malian Security Force Violations
Since early 2017, Human Rights Watch has documented several abuses allegedly committed by members of the Malian security forces, including the summary executions of three men, the enforced disappearance of six men, and the mistreatment in detention of several detainees. The alleged violations occurred during counterterrorism operations in Ségou and Mopti regions.

As compared with previous years, allegations of abuse by the security forces have steadily declined. However, the military and civilian justice systems have made little effort to investigate and hold to account soldiers implicated in violations against detainees.

Three witnesses said that about 6:30 a.m. on January 21, soldiers conducting an operation in the village of Yirma, in Mopti region, detained and later executed three members of the same extended family: Hamadoun Isss Diallo, 65; Amadou Hamadou Diallo, 27; and Hamadoun Boucari Diallo, 25.

“From my house I saw three army vehicles with mounted machine guns and full of soldiers take the men away,” one said. Another witness said: “the soldiers bound their eyes and drove off in the same direction from which they had come, [toward] Mondoro [26 kilometers away].” Less than 30 minutes later, the witnesses said, they heard gunshots in the distance. They later found the men after disinterring them from a shallow grave near Bamguel village, 18 kilometers away. One witness described following vehicle tracks to the site, where he saw “a grave, newly dug covered with branches of trees and many spent casings… I returned to our village to deliver the bad news.”

The executions near Yirma occurred just kilometers away from a very similar incident a month earlier, on December 19, when soldiers detained and executed five men from Issèye village. One of two witnesses interviewed said:

At about 11 a.m., 10 FAMA vehicles full of heavily armed soldiers stormed the village. They didn’t stay long. They detained the village chief first, then the others. Around 4 p.m., we heard gunfire, and the next morning we found the shallow grave just a few kilometers away. We uncovered the bodies… the chief was on top… each had several gunshot wounds. There was blood, and many bullet casings.

The witnesses said they had informed the gendarmerie in Boni of the killings, but one witness said, “We’re aware of no investigation… no one has contacted us since that day – no one is trying to find those who murdered our people. Imagine, in 2015, the chief himself was detained and tortured by the jihadists, and now he has been killed by the authorities.”

Human Rights Watch also documented the enforced disappearance of six men. Witnesses said that Malian security forces detained the men during operations in January and February. The witnesses had unsuccessfully looked for the men in several detention centers in Mopti and Ségou regions, and even in Bamako.

Two witnesses said that Ibrahim Barry, 35, was detained in Mopti on February 3, during a meeting organized by a local nongovernmental organization. One witness said: “At about 10:30 a.m., two uniformed people came into the room with a list, saying they were looking for a particular person, who wasn’t in our meeting. Later, at around 1:30 p.m., we broke for lunch. As Ibrahim headed out the door, he was forced into a white pickup by men in uniform. No one has seen him since that day.”

Two witnesses said Boura Alou Diallo, 32, was detained near the village of Kokoli around January 23, and held for two days in the Mondoro army camp. “He was seen tied to a tree near the camp for two days,” said one witness. “I was informed by our people that they heard gunfire inside the camp. We have looked everywhere, but haven’t seen a trace of him since that day.”

Around January 17, four members of the same family were arrested during an army operation in the village of Tomoyi, near the town of Ténenkou. A witness said, “The soldiers surrounded the village, did house to house searches, then took away four men from the same family. Before leaving, an officer said, ‘Don’t be afraid…we’ll do our investigation and return them.’” Their names and approximate ages are: Hassan Sidibe, 53; Boubacar Sidibe, 49; Boubacar Sidibe, 30; and Yonousa Sidibe, 30.

Malian authorities should impartially investigate these cases, as well as the March 30 killing, allegedly by gendarmes, of Amadou Diallo and Amadou Dicko in Konna village, 70 kilometers from Mopti. Agence France Presse (AFP) quoted an army spokesman as saying the security forces recovered arms from the men after they attempted to attack a gendarme post at 2 a.m.

However, local residents including the mayor said the men were not armed at the time. One resident told Human Rights Watch that the two men were arrested shortly after returning to Konna at about 11 p,m. “They had gone to the Boni market to sell about a dozen cows,” the resident said. “We saw them being arrested after buying bread at a local store. We know them… They are traders, not rebels.”

Sékou Touré, president of the Konna Youth Association and a member of the village’s security brigade, was quoted by AFP as saying, “We all know these two young people. They are not terrorists, it’s just a military blunder.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Erbil) – Procedural changes for authorizing airstrikes in Iraq raise concerns about the protection of civilians, especially following airstrikes in Mosul on March 17, 2017, that allegedly caused dozens of civilian deaths, Human Rights Watch said today. The United States-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Iraq should make public the detailed findings of its investigations into the attack. The coalition should ensure that serious violations of the laws of war are appropriately referred for criminal prosecution and that civilian victims or their families receive adequate redress. Previous coalition investigations have not released detailed information on their process, findings, or any disciplinary or compensatory measures taken.

On March 25, international media outlets reported that coalition airstrikes on the New Mosul neighborhood of west Mosul killed up to 200 people. The press desk of the US-led coalition, the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, confirmed that the coalition had “struck ISIS fighters and equipment,” in the area on March 17 and said that it had opened a formal investigation. However, on March 26 the Iraqi army denied that the coalition was responsible for the civilian casualties, claiming that they resulted from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) laid by ISIS. It did not release any footage or imagery from the site.

Relatives carry the bodies of civilians killed in an attack in New Mosul neighborhood of west Mosul on March 17, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

“The coalition should thoroughly and transparently investigate the dozens of civilian deaths, and in the case of wrongdoing, hold those responsible to account,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The high number of civilian deaths in recent fighting, as well as recent announcements about changed procedures for vetting airstrikes, raise concerns about the way the battle for west Mosul is being fought.”

In December 2016, the US-led coalition spokesperson, Air Force Col. John Dorrian, confirmed to the media that a US directive that month had reduced the number of steps required for some coalition troops to authorize and clear coalition airstrikes. He stated that the principal change removed the requirement for the coalition’s “strike cell” in Baghdad to clear individual strikes.

Human Rights Watch interviewed three civilians who had been in the vicinity of the March 17 attack at the time, two of whom were wounded in the attack. A person who was in the attacked homes until two days before the attack said by phone that on March 9, ISIS fighters told him and at least 45 families living in a four-block area in New Mosul to leave the area without providing a reason. His and his brother’s families moved to a very large, three-story home of a friend, about 200 meters away. By March 15, about 140 people had arrived at the house, he said, with many families staying in the basement’s two rooms, each about 4 by 5 meters.

Because the home was overcrowded, he moved his family that day, to another friend’s house in the neighborhood. Up until that point, he had not seen anything to suggest that ISIS had booby-trapped the large home, but he saw that ISIS fighters had broken holes between the walls of this and neighboring homes and were using them to move between buildings.

He said he heard heavy explosions from March 15 to 22 and did not go outside. He remembers hearing a particularly large explosion at about 8:30 a.m. on March 17, as well as aircraft overhead. On March 23, he went to the large home to check on his brother’s family, and found the home had been completely destroyed. Neighbors who said they witnessed the strike told him that a munition had destroyed it on the morning of March 17. Another house next door had been destroyed, and a third had been damaged.

For the next five days, he helped rescue workers pull bodies from the rubble of the large house, and on March 25, found his brother’s body. He said that he and rescue workers pulled at least 100 bodies from the rubble, and that relatives had come to the area looking for another 37 people whom they had not yet found. He said they had pulled out only one survivor, a local resident who was being treated in Erbil.

Human Rights Watch interviewed the survivor in Erbil on March 28. He said that on March 17, at approximately 8:15 a.m., he saw one ISIS fighter passing through the building, and that the building was then struck, he believed from the air. The owner of a smaller home damaged in the attack told Human Rights Watch that at about 9 p.m. on March 16, an ISIS fighter told him and the owner of the big home next door that everyone should evacuate the building and go deeper into ISIS territory before morning. The people inside the home were preparing to evacuate in the morning when, he said, there was a big explosion, wounding him and killing four family members.

Coalition investigators had not contacted any of these individuals at the time Human Rights Watch spoke to them.

Relatives carry the bodies of civilians killed in an attack in New Mosul neighborhood of west Mosul on March 17, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

A commander with the Iraq Counter Terrorism Service told Human Rights Watch on March 26 that he had inspected the site where “the massacre took place.” He said there were signs of TNT and other explosives at the site, and that the damage was not consistent with an airstrike, but instead an internal explosion.

Human Rights Watch attempted to visit New Mosul to investigate the allegations on March 26 but Counter Terrorism Service personnel denied access to the area, saying they were under orders from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi not to grant access to journalists or nongovernmental organizations. Several journalists gained access to the site earlier that day, but told Human Rights Watch that armed forces told them to leave within 30 minutes and prevented them from filming. One municipal councilwoman told Human Rights Watch on March 27 that she was also denied access to the area.

In the case of US strikes, US forces, including those under US Central Command, routinely investigate civilian casualties caused by US forces following a credibility assessment under US Army Regulation (AR) 15-6. Central Command oversees the US-led coalition.

The coalition should ensure that it makes public the findings of its investigations into attacks causing civilian casualties and, if it finds serious violations of the laws of war, should refer those responsible for appropriate criminal prosecution. The findings should include information on accountability measures taken, with explanations, and the redress provided to victims or their families. In the past, Central Command investigations under AR 15-6 into civilian casualties have not provided this information, nor has recent coalition reporting on investigations. The investigation should not rely solely on internal, assessments from air forces involved, which may underreport civilian casualties, but seek direct testimony from survivors, Human Rights Watch said.

The Armed Service, Foreign Relations, and Intelligence Committees of the US Congress should request regular and timely briefings into strikes by coalition forces and any investigation under way to obtain greater clarity into the manner in which the coalition conducts strikes and the process through which it investigates casualties.

ISIS has continued to carry out atrocities that amount to war crimes in Mosul. The laws of war apply to all sides in the fighting in Iraq, including ISIS, and require the parties to the conflict to take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and to “take all feasible precautions” to avoid or minimize the incidental loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects. ISIS should cease putting civilians at risk by forcing them to accompany fighters, including into areas of active combat. Using civilians as human shields is a war crime.

World Report 2017: Iraq

World Report 2017: Iraq

In Iraq, clashes with ISIS intensified in 2016, operations to retake Mosul displaced more than 45,000 Iraqis, and credible allegations emerged of summary executions, beatings of men in custody, and enforced disappearances.

“Making it easier to call in airstrikes will almost necessarily afford civilians fewer protections from being injured or killed, increasing the danger to the very people these operations are supposedly meant to protect,” said Fakih.

Changes in the Authorization Process

According to the US military, the coalition “strike cell” located in Baghdad, provides information about the target areas to coalition aircraft, confirms enemy presence at targets, and provides targeting recommendations. The current directive allows some coalition members, potentially including Iraqi forces, to request the coalition to carry out airstrikes without an additional layer of authorization and review from the coalition “strike cell” in Baghdad.

The US Defense Department spokesperson, Capt. Jeff Davis, told the New York Times on March 24: “There’s been no loosening of the rules of engagement.” He did not address these other changes that could place civilians at greater risk, Human Rights Watch said.

Whether coalition members consider these to be changes in the rules of engagement or merely procedural changes, the net effect appears to be that coalition aircraft are now able to conduct strikes in densely populated areas with less information and time to ascertain the number of civilians who may be injured or killed, fewer measures to verify the target, and fewer recommendations about the appropriate ordnance to use. This increases the likelihood of civilian casualties in an attack.

The coalition should thoroughly and transparently investigate the dozens of civilian deaths, and in the case of wrongdoing, hold those responsible to account.

Lama Fakih

Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director, Human Rights Watch

It is also unclear how the coalition vets and verifies information received from various coalition partners that are requesting strikes before authorizing a strike, and how the new directives may have changed this procedure. Trained terminal attack controllers maintain the authority to clear strikes and release ordnance, but reliance on erroneous information may contribute to civilian deaths.

In addition, since the operation to retake west Mosul began, Human Rights Watch has documented Iraqi forces’ use of inherently indiscriminate improvised rocket-assisted munitions and heavy artillery in civilian-populated areas. The willingness to use such weapons in civilian-populated areas suggests that the Iraqi government is also taking fewer precautions to protect civilian life.

Beyond outright violations of the laws of war, an easing of the rules of engagement, or equipment malfunction, higher civilian casualties could also stem from the increased tempo of the battle against ISIS, and the high civilian population density of the areas where the battle is being fought, Human Rights Watch said. These concerns are particularly acute when fighting occurs in urban areas where the location of civilians is not easily known without exhaustive surveillance. Even then, civilians may not be seen. The risk of this is heightened given that ISIS is known to use civilians as human shields.

Steps to Reduce Civilian Casualties

Coalition and Iraqi commanders can immediately take several steps to reduce the risk of civilian casualties, Human Rights Watch said. All armed forces are prohibited from conducting indiscriminate attacks and should not use explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. Commanders should, where possible, limit the use of indirect fires (mortars, artillery, and rockets) not using precision-guided munitions, and select weapons and specific ordnance to minimize civilian casualties to the maximum extent possible. Terminal attack controllers should be required to maintain the highest level of direct control over each strike, including both visually acquiring the target and attacking aircraft.

The high number of civilian deaths in recent fighting, as well as recent announcements about changed procedures for vetting airstrikes, raise concerns about the way the battle for west Mosul is being fought.

Lama Fakih

Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director, Human Rights Watch

Commanders should closely review all requests for air and artillery strikes to ensure that all targets are legitimate military objectives and that the strikes would not cause disproportionate civilian harm compared with the expected military gain. Information regarding the target, the target area, and the presence of civilians or civilian objects should be verified using all available means, including by visual confirmation and the use of various intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms.

Commanders should ensure that objects that are protected under the laws of war, such as hospitals, houses of worship, and historical artifacts, are not attacked, unless they lose their protected status. To this end, commanders should ensure that no-strike lists are developed, widely disseminated to all coalition forces, constantly updated, and are adhered to.

Possible Rules Changes in Syria, Yemen

In recent weeks, there have also been reports about aerial attacks by US or other coalition forces in Syria resulting in possibly significant civilian casualties. On March 16, US forces struck a mosque near al-Jinah in Syria’s Aleppo governorate, killing dozens of people. While US authorities said that the attack targeted and killed members of Al-Qaeda, residents told Human Rights Watch that the attack killed civilians. On March 21, an airstrike hit a school near Raqqa killing dozens of civilians who had sought shelter in the school, according to local activists and monitoring groups. The US-led coalition has said that it conducted attacks against ISIS near Raqqa on March 21.

According to the New York Times, in January the Trump administration stated that it loosened the rules of engagement in at least three governorates in Yemen, declaring parts of them “areas of active hostilities” and rapidly scaled-up US operations against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the ensuing weeks. The Trump administration is also considering scaling-up or lifting restrictions on US support to the Saudi-led coalition in its military campaign against the Houthi armed group in Yemen, according to the Washington Post.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Multiple witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the bodies of those killed, including bodies of members of Iraqi security forces, were thrown into a naturally occurring sinkhole at a site known as Khafsa, about eight kilometers south of western Mosul. Local residents said that before pulling out of the area in mid-February, ISIS laid improvised landmines at the site, which are sometimes referred to as improvised explosive devices or booby traps.

“This mass grave is a grotesque symbol of ISIS’s cruel and depraved conduct – a crime of a monumental scale,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Laying landmines in the mass grave is clearly an attempt by ISIS to hide evidence of its crimes.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Washington, DC) – Members of the Global Coalition against Daesh (another name for the Islamic State) meeting in Washington, DC, on March 22 should make protecting civilians and justice for victims priorities in their ongoing battle against the group, Human Rights Watch said today in a memorandum to the participants. Based on violations documented, Human Rights Watch highlighted five key areas that coalition members need to improve in their conduct of operations.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will host the foreign ministers of the Global Coalition working to defeat the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). It will be the first meeting of the full coalition, now at 68 members, since December 2014. The aim of the meeting, according to a coalition press release, is “to accelerate international efforts to defeat Daesh in the remaining areas it holds in Iraq and Syria and maximize pressure on its branches, affiliates, and networks.” ISIS has carried out war crimes and atrocities amounting to crimes against humanity, including systematic rape.

“In fighting ISIS, coalition members should not lose sight of the fact that their aim should not just be to retake territory but to make sure they take all precautions to protect the people still living in these areas,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “A victory against ISIS that does not address the security needs of civilians and leaves them at the mercy of revenge attacks will ring hollow.”

Human Rights Watch urges coalition members to make the following commitments:

  1. Take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties and investigate potentially unlawful strikes: Given the discrepancy in reporting of the various coalition members, the coalition should establish baseline public reporting and investigation standards for all coalition members.
  1. Cease support for any abusive groups: Human Rights Watch has documented widespread violations by ground forces battling ISIS. These violations include summary executions, beatings, and torture of men in custody, as well as arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances, destruction of civilian objects, use of child soldiers, and mutilation of corpses. Despite these reports, the coalition has yet to develop procedures for robust vetting and investigations of allegations of abuse by local partners.
  1. Provide safe passage to fleeing civilians and provide sufficient support to displaced people: Aid agencies are bracing for the possibility that an additional 300,000-320,000 civilians may flee in coming weeks from western parts of Mosul during the Iraq operation. People fleeing have reported grave dangers in trying to escape. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq has reported that aid agencies are operating “at their limit.” Aid workers have expressed similar concerns regarding any future offensive on Raqqa in Syria. Coalition members should ensure that there is a clear and coordinated plan for civilians to flee areas of fighting for safety and to get the aid they need once they have reached safety.
  1. Clear commitment to justice for victims: There has been considerable media attention surrounding the grave crimes committed by ISIS in violation of international law, but few concrete plans to provide justice for these crimes. Many ISIS victims are left without any access to justice or assistance. Coalition members should make justice a key pillar in its fight against ISIS by adopting concrete measures to assist victims, collect and preserve evidence, and support efforts to investigate and prosecute serious crimes. Beyond the crimes that ISIS has committed, other actors who have committed grave crimes should also be held to account.
  1. Increase efforts to survey and clear landmines and explosive remnants of war: Improvised mines laid by ISIS have killed and injured hundreds of civilians returning to their homes, including children. UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) officials have estimated that it could cost $50 million to remove mines, which are often referred to as victim-activated improvised explosive devices or booby traps, from in and around the Iraqi city of Mosul. In Syria, UNMAS estimates that more than 6.3 million people including 2 million children live in contaminated areas after nearly six years of war. Mine clearance efforts should be a priority to ensure the safe return of civilians.

“What happens after ISIS is defeated is in many ways as important as the actual defeat of ISIS,” Houry said. “The coalition will not be able to say, ‘Mission Accomplished’ without addressing justice, governance, and displacement.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Five Guidelines to Promote Respect for International Law in Combatting ISIS

On March 22, 2017, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will host the foreign ministers of the Global Coalition combating the Islamic State, known as ISIS. This meeting will be the first meeting of the full coalition, now at 68 members, since December 2014.

Human Rights Watch has in the past raised concerns with US, Iraqi, and other local forces regarding alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law during military operations against ISIS. The below memorandum highlights five areas of concern related to the upcoming operations against ISIS, and offers some recommendations to coalition members in light of alleged violations we have documented so far.

1. Take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties; investigate alleged unlawful strikes

Human Rights Watch has documented several missile and aerial attacks carried out by US-led coalition forces which caused civilian casualties. In the Syrian city of Manbij, Human Rights Watch documented six possible US-led coalition airstrikes that killed at least 24 civilians, including 15 children. In one coalition airstrike on the Syrian village of Tokhar, Human Rights Watch collected the names of 97 civilians, including 62 children, who died. No information regarding the investigation into these attacks has been made public yet.

According to official coalition statistics, its strikes have killed at least 220 civilians since the start of the anti-ISIS campaign, known as Operation Inherent Resolve. However, the true casualty figures for civilians are likely higher. Airwars, an organization that tracks allegations of civilian deaths in detail, reports that at least 2,590 civilians were likely killed in coalition strikes. Amnesty International examined 11 coalition airstrikes in Syria that they estimated killed some 300 civilians in ISIS-controlled areas.

Underreporting of civilian casualties by military official sources are due to various reasons. Coalition members do not have the same policies when it comes to reporting strikes and investigating allegations of civilian casualties. For example, many coalition partners, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark, do not report in any detail the dates and locations of their airstrikes, making any investigation impossible. For countries that do report their airstrikes, such as the US, the process of investigating allegations of civilian casualties tends to be dominated by internal, air-only assessments – processes which tend to dismiss or sideline ground reports of non-military origin. This discrepancy was clear in a Washington Post investigation that found that at least eleven civilians died in a May 2015 strike in Iraq – mostly women and children – in an attack the US claimed had only killed four. The discrepancy was due to the way the US had conducted its initial assessment by solely relying on what was visible from the air.

International law requires compensation for civilian victims in the event of violations of international law. Warring parties have also instituted programs, such as in Afghanistan, to provide payments for loss of civilian life and property without a showing that a violation has occurred, – often known as condolence payments. In Iraq and Syria there is no clear mechanism for civilian victims or surviving relatives to obtain any form of compensation. In 2015, the US government agreed to set aside $5 million for the Defense Department to use in Iraq if the US military harms a civilian or destroys their property. However, it was not made clear how victims can lodge a complaint or seek compensation and this fund did not seem to extend to victims in Syria. To date, it is not known if any Iraqi or Syrian victim has been able to obtain any compensation for strikes conducted under Operation Inherent Resolve.

The need for more robust mechanisms to protect civilians is made more urgent by the intensification of the fight against ISIS and a push by the new US administration to potentially loosen rules of engagement. On January 28, President Trump signed a national security memorandum directing the military to give him a plan to defeat ISIS. It said the plan should include “recommended changes to any United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force.” The push for looser rules is taking place at the same time as US Marines have deployed to Syria reportedly to operate artillery units in support of the battle for Raqqa.

Human Rights Watch urges coalition members to:

  • Take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties when conducting attacks;
  • Establish baseline public reporting and investigation standards for all members of the coalition;
  • Publicly disclose information about civilian casualty figures;
  • Promptly and thoroughly investigate credible allegations of civilian casualties from military operations and report on findings. Investigations into casualties should include engagement with external independent casualty monitors.

2. Don’t support abusive groups

Coalition forces support local forces on the ground and in turn rely on them for targeting information. Human Rights Watch has documented widespread violations committed by ground forces battling ISIS. These violations include summary executions, beatings, and torture of men in custody, as well as arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, destruction of civilian objects, use of child soldiers, and mutilation of corpses by government forces.

Of particular concern are screening procedures and detention of men and boys fleeing ISIS areas. Groups within the military are screening and subsequently sometimes detaining men fleeing Mosul, including in unidentified locations where they are cut off from contact with the outside world.

The Popular Mobilization Forces (known as the PMF or Hashd al-Sha'abi) are apparently screening the men for suspected involvement with ISIS. Given these groups’ lack of training in screening, the irregular nature of these screenings and detentions, and the detainees’ lack of contact with the outside world, the detained men are at heightened risk of abuse, including arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance.

There are also concerns about revenge attacks against alleged families of ISIS members. Sunni tribal groups in Iraq (known as the Hashad al-`Asha'ri) within the PMF, and Iraqi soldiers recently forced at least 125 families who were accused of having some familial ties to ISIS out of their homes. Human Rights Watch also previously documented security forces from Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government unlawfully destroying large numbers of Sunni Arab homes, and sometimes entire villages, in areas retaken from the ISIS.

Some of the local allies of coalition forces have been guilty of recruiting and using child soldiers, including two Iraqi government-backed tribal militias (Hashad al-Asha`ri) as well as Kurdish groups participating in the fight against ISIS.

Human Rights Watch urges coalition members to:

  • Cease coordination with or assistance to armed groups or parties that commit widespread or systematic abuses, including those who recruit and fail to demobilize child soldiers;
  • Develop mechanisms to investigate allegations of abuse by local armed groups;
  • Implement vetting procedures to curtail abuses by local armed groups;
  • Work to ensure that only bodies with a screening mandate can screen people and ensure that anyone detained is detained under clear provision of Iraqi law, held in a recognized detention center accessible to independent monitors, and granted all due process rights enshrined in Iraqi and international law, including being brought promptly before a judge. The authorities should also promptly notify the families of detainees of the whereabouts of their relatives and publish overall numbers of detainees.

3. Provide safe passage to fleeing civilians, provide sufficient support to displaced

The government of Iraq has reported that 180,000 civilians have fled western Mosul since mid-February, when military operations to retake the western districts of the city began. Humanitarian agencies are bracing for the possibility that an additional 300,000-320,000 civilians may flee in coming weeks. People fleeing have reported grave dangers in trying to escape. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq has reported that humanitarian agencies are operating “at their limit.”

Humanitarian workers have expressed similar concerns with regards to any future offensive on Raqqa. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as a result of a Raqqa offensive, more than 360,000 people will be in need of humanitarian assistance in Raqqa district, including more than 160,000 displaced persons. Staff from humanitarian organizations working to meet the needs of those affected by fighting in Raqqa have told Human Rights Watch that civilians there will require access to healthcare, especially sexual and reproductive health for women and girls, food assistance, and access to potable water. They anticipate that health facilities and water pumping stations may have been severely damaged due to airstrikes and will need to be repaired or alternatives found, and that there is likely a shortage of medical professionals in the city.

Human Rights Watch urges coalition members to work with local forces to:

  • Ensure there is a clear and coordinated plan for civilians to flee areas of fighting for safety and to access humanitarian aid;
  • Protect civilians fleeing and in camps from attacks or any form of revenge;
  • Allow freedom of movement for all displaced persons in areas under their control, including those displaced persons who wish to reside or travel outside of formal camps. Movement restrictions should only be imposed if “provided by law…and necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others,” and where the restrictions are proportionate in terms of time, extent, and impact on people’s lives, as outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

4. Commit to justice for victims

There has been considerable media attention to the grave crimes in violation of international law committed by ISIS, but little by way of concrete plans on how to provide justice for these crimes. Victims of ISIS are often left with little assistance or support, and in some cases are even perceived suspiciously by fellow Iraqis or Syrians given that they were in the custody of or lived under the control of ISIS.

In March 2015, Iraq’s Council of Ministers declared ISIS crimes against Yezidis to be genocide, but Iraq has no provisions in its domestic law for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. A “Genocide Committee” in Dohuk, a major city in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which was established by the Kurdish government, is attempting to document these crimes but so far it appears that there have been no judicial investigations against captured ISIS members for war crimes or crimes against humanity. The primary exception to lack of trials has been patently unfair trials, in July 2015 and February 2016, each lasting all of two hours, that convicted at least 36 men for the mass killing a year earlier of up to 1,700 Shia military cadets.

Investigating and prosecuting grave abuses presents real challenges. But this can be overcome by developing a concrete and comprehensive plan that would support victims, provide expertise to collect and preserve evidence, assist in local and international investigations, and push political leaders to prioritize justice.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged that the International Criminal Court (ICC) be given jurisdiction over the situations in Iraq and Syria, either through the Iraqi government becoming a member of the ICC or through a Security Council referral in the case of Syria. This would allow for possible prosecution of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity by all parties to the conflicts. A move by the Iraqi authorities to join the court would be a powerful signal of their commitment to justice for grave abuses – no matter the perpetrator. International involvement can also help in establishing a credible system that could independently and impartially investigate grave abuses. Beyond the atrocities that ISIS has committed, other actors who have also committed grave abuses in both countries will need to be held to account.

Overall, coalition partners fighting ISIS should place comprehensive and meaningful justice for victims at the center of their strategies. Ensuring fair and transparent proceedings will be essential to the stability of the region in the future.

Human Rights Watch urges coalition members to:

  • Publicly commit to making justice a key pillar in their fight against ISIS;
  • Support local and international efforts to investigate grave crimes, including through the collection, preservation, and analysis of potential evidence;
  • Press Iraqi authorities to commit to relevant legislative reforms, including by incorporating war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide into its domestic law;
  • Provide support, including medical and psychological support, to victims of grave abuses.

5. Increase efforts to survey and clear landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW)

Explosive ordnance used by ISIS forces and the ERW created during the conflict pose a significant danger to civilians and hinder recovery efforts in areas that were under ISIS control. UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) officials have estimated that it could cost $50 million to remove mines, which are often referred to as victim-activated improvised explosive devices or booby traps, from in and around the Iraqi city of Mosul. In Syria, UNMAS estimates that more than 6.3 million people including 2 million children live in mine and ERW contaminated areas after nearly six years of war.

Improvised mines laid by ISIS have killed and injured hundreds of civilians returning to their homes, including children. For example, Human Rights Watch collected the names of 69 civilians, including 19 children, killed by improvised mines in schools, homes, and on roads during and after the fighting over control for the city of Manbij. Local hospital staff said that they had treated hundreds of people injured by improvised mines in that town alone.

Mine clearance efforts should be prioritized to ensure the safe return of civilians.

Human Rights Watch urges coalition members to:

  • Support efforts to raise awareness and conduct mine risk education among those returning to territory formerly controlled by ISIS;
  • Develop capacity to survey and rapidly clear mines and ERW from homes and residential areas to facilitate the return of the civilian population;
  • Countries bordering Syria should facilitate access for humanitarian demining organizations and for assistance to survivors.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(New York) ­– The Chinese authorities’ failure to release details about terrorism convictions heightens concerns that the country’s counterterrorism law is being used to prosecute nonviolent activity, Human Rights Watch said today. The 2017 Supreme People’s Court (SPC) report, presented on March 12, 2017, departs from past practice by excluding details on 2016 terrorism cases, such as the number of individuals convicted. China’s new Counterterrorism Law took effect in January 2016.

Human Rights Watch said that China’s terrorism prosecutions, primarily in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, are subject to politically motivated abuse because of the expansive definition of terrorism, lack of transparency, and violations of fair trial rights.

Zhou Qiang, president of China’s Supreme People’s Court, gives a speech during the National People’s Congress in Beijing on March 12, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

“The Chinese government claims it’s combating terrorism threats, particularly in Xinjiang, but gives scarce details about these incidents while strictly controlling access of journalists and other independent monitors,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “By refusing to provide information on terrorism cases, Beijing can easily suppress rights to peaceful criticism and religious identity.”

The 2016 SPC’s annual report to the National People’s Congress stated that in 2015, Chinese courts convicted 1,419 people for threatening state security, inciting “splittism,” and taking part in terrorism – nearly double the numbers of the previous year’s report. But the court’s 2015 and 2016 reports did not disclose a breakdown of these numbers, so it is unclear how many people were convicted for terrorism and precisely for which offense.

Human Rights Watch examined available data from China Court Net, a general news site run by the SPC, and the Peking University Law Database for information on terrorism-related cases in 2016. Only four court verdicts related to terrorism prosecutions from 2016 are publicly available. These two sources may only contain a small percentage of terrorism-related verdicts in 2016. The SPC decision that required court verdicts be posted online provides exemptions for cases that involve state secrets or personal privacy, and cases that are otherwise “not suitable for making public,” which gives the courts wide latitude to withhold information.

The four cases involved seven people – all but one ethnic Uyghurs from Xinjiang. Five received prison sentences from eight months to three years, while one was given a suspended sentence and one was exempted from criminal penalties.

In all four cases, the individuals were convicted of possessing, accessing, and distributing terrorism-related videos or audios. Three of the verdicts gave details about these materials:

  • Yu was convicted for clicking on weblinks that contained images of flags of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and of jihad, masked men with guns, and masked women, as well as essays “that encouraged people to join jihad.” Yu forwarded some of these materials to a relative.
  • Duo was convicted for distributing to a WeChat public group of 62 people a short video of a beheading by two masked men.
  • Abdusemet Halik (阿卜杜塞麦提•哈力克), one of a group of four convicted, possessed over 100 e-books, 100 audio clips, and 346 videos, most of them produced by ETIM and focusing on waging jihad in China, including on how to make bombs. Memet Rishit (麦麦提•热西提) possessed 11 news videos about Rebiya Kadeer, leader of exiled Uyghurs; 3 videos by ETIM promoting a holy war against “the blood-sucking atheist Communists” who “have occupied the East Turkestan and call it Xinjiang”; and 53 e-books on “religious extremism.” Yunus (玉奴斯) had 16 videos and audio recordings produced by ETIM on “religious extremism.” In addition to possessing and distributing these videos to their classmates, the three – plus the fourth defendant, Rizwangul Halik (热孜宛古丽•哈力克) – were also convicted of organizing others and participating in “physical training in imitation of the violent videos” in a park in Changchun City, Jilin Province, and of attempting to travel via Hong Kong to join Al-Qaeda, according to the verdict. During the trial, three of the four defendants told the court that they were tortured to confess.

In addition to these cases, Human Rights Watch learned about a dozen other individuals who were punished with days of detention and fines under administrative laws for watching, downloading, or storing audio, videos, and pictures related to extremism and terrorism during this period, but which were not severe enough to constitute criminal acts.

State media reports about the implementation of the new Counterterrorism Law, in effect since January 1, 2016, show a similar focus of the authorities to punish, through fines or days of administrative detention, possession or distribution of materials that the authorities consider as “terrorist” or “extremist” in nature, as well as distributing “fake terrorism information.” The Counterterrorism Law gives expansive definitions of “terrorism” and “extremism,” and does not clearly articulate what constitutes “fake terrorism information.”

Governments may prosecute speech that incites criminal acts – speech that directly encourages the commission of a crime, is intended to result in criminal action, or is likely to result in criminal action – whether or not criminal action does, in fact, result. But laws that impose criminal punishment for what has been called “indirect incitement” – for example, justifying or glorifying terrorism – encroach on expression protected under international human rights law.

The implementation of China’s Counterterrorism Law has also focused on punishing hotels and courier services for failure to comply with the government’s “real name registration” requirements, in which individuals staying in hotels or sending courier posts must use their identification cards.

None of the publicly available information about the people who received administrative or criminal punishments on terrorism-related charges in 2016 indicates they perpetrated or were linked to violent acts. The last two state reports about violence in Xinjiang, for example, suggested that those who committed violent acts were killed at the scene by security forces.

China’s terrorism convictions will generate disbelief as long as the criminal process remains opaque and so little information reaches the public.

Sophie Richardson

China Director

Xinjiang, home to 10 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, is a site of pervasive discrimination, repression, and restriction on fundamental human rights including freedom of religion. Opposition to central and local policies has been expressed in peaceful protests, but also through bombings and other acts of violence.

A 2015 report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project documented more than 600 casualties in violent incidents in Xinjiang between 2013 and 2014, which included people killed by criminal offenders and state security forces.

The Chinese government has often blamed attacks on “foreign” forces including ETIM, an alleged separatist organization founded by Uyghurs which has been on the United Nations list of terrorist organizations since 2002, though the group’s existence has been debated. The government has not offered invitations to independent monitors to investigate such incidents, including the UN special rapporteur on torture and the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

“China’s terrorism convictions will generate disbelief as long as the criminal process remains opaque and so little information reaches the public,” Richardson said. “The government needs to open up the system to independent monitors from China and abroad, including the UN.”

Abuses of Individuals Suspected of Terrorism, Extremism

China’s laws on terrorism and extremism open the door to abusive treatment of suspects accused of such crimes.

Under the Counterterrorism Law, police are empowered to impose far-reaching restrictions on individuals they merely suspect of being involved in terrorism, even if they have little or no evidence (articles 39, 53). If police “receive a report of suspected terrorist activity, or discover suspected terrorist activity,” they can “order” the suspects to comply with “one or more of these restrictive measures” (article 53).

The restrictions include bans on traveling outside the suspect’s area of residence or the country without police approval, bans on taking public transportation or entering specified venues without police approval, as well as ID and passport confiscation.

The decision to impose these restrictions is an entirely internal procedure within the police system. Because there are no clear criteria in the Counterterrorism Law on imposing or withdrawing any of the restrictions, they can be imposed arbitrarily and, for some of the restrictions, indefinitely. Moreover, these restrictions apply prior to the stage of a police investigation, effectively giving police the power of preventive detention before a decision is made whether to file a case (ch: li’an). This means that the legal guarantee of the right to legal counsel, or any procedural rights stipulated in China’s Criminal Procedure Law, do not apply throughout this process.

Some of the suspects subjected to this preventive detention will proceed to pretrial proceedings under the Criminal Procedure Law, but pretrial proceedings in terrorism cases are opaque: the Criminal Procedure Law denies terrorism suspects basic defense protections, including access to family members and lawyers, and allows suspects to be held for months in undisclosed locations. The Counterterrorism Law states that terrorism suspects and prisoners “may be” subjected to solitary confinement (article 29); the Xinjiang Implementing Measures state those who are “major ringleaders” will always be subjected to solitary confinement because of their crime (article 40). The same applies to those who commit or incite others to commit crimes while in confinement, or refuse to be “re-educated” and show “violent tendencies.” The Implementing Measures do not outline any review mechanisms for imposing solitary confinement, or conditions for lifting it. This is contrary to the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules), which prohibit the use of indefinite solitary confinement as it amounts to torture. China is a party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which it ratified in 1988.

Under the Counterterrorism Law, prior to release, prisons or detention centers are empowered to conduct an assessment of the “danger … posed to society” by these individuals when they complete their sentences (article 30). The assessment is sent to the intermediate people’s court of the region where the sentence was served.

If the court finds that the convict is a “danger to society,” it should “order” the person to receive an “educational placement” (ch: jiaoyu anzhi), a measure undertaken by provincial governments, even after a sentence is completed. Yet there are no clear criteria for such an assessment, or clear explanation whether this “educational placement” involves deprivation of liberty. The Counterterrorism Law also does not provide a time limit for this “educational placement” measure. The Implementing Measures state that it is the “education placement” institutions that can make a recommendation to the local court to remove such measures, but do not explain how the individual being subjected to the measure can apply to have it removed.

These provisions mean that even after someone has served a full sentence they can remain effectively indefinitely detained, with little or no recourse.

Vague, Overbroad Definitions of Terrorism in Chinese Law

Since 2014, the Chinese government has revised or drafted new legislation to combat terrorism. Taken together, these laws criminalize a wide range of activities. They restrict participating, abetting, organizing, or funding terrorism, as well as possessing, publishing, printing, or distributing content that contains terrorism, including digital content. They encourage “the masses” to report on terrorists and terrorism activities, and they set out penalties for those who withhold such information.

Xinjiang is the only region in China that has a set of Implementing Measures on the Counterterrorism Law (Xinjiang Implementing Measures), which have been in effect since August 1, 2016. Two recently revised regional regulations – one on religious affairs and one on prevention of juvenile crimes – also mention prohibitions against terrorism. The National People’s Congress is also drafting a new Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Anti-Religious Extremism Law, according to state media.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised human rights concerns in China’s approach to terrorism and extremism. Chinese laws define terrorism in an overly broad and vague manner, and do not necessarily require actual action or violence to prompt prosecution, deprivation of liberty, or other restrictions:

  • Article 3 of the Counterterrorism Law includes in the definition of “terrorism,” “advocacy” (ch: zhuzhang) or “behavior” (ch: xingwei) that “elicit panic in society, endanger public security, infringe upon personal and property rights, or threaten state agencies or international organizations through violence, destruction, intimidation, or other means to achieve its political aims.” The term “advocacy” could apply to proposed policy changes or criticism of government policy, or conduct that is within the boundaries of freedom of expression as set out under international human rights law. This article also notes that mere possession of “terror publicity materials” is considered a “behavior” that constitutes “terrorism,” yet there is no clear definition of “materials that promote terrorism.” This article also defines “terrorist incident” (ch: kongbu shijian) as an episode that is “in the process of occurring or which has already occurred and which has caused or may cause significant harm to society.” The open-ended nature of the last clause provides authorities with a legal basis to abuse their power on occasions they deem as constituting a “terrorist incident.” The Chinese government has, in the past, labeled the Dalai Lama’s prayers for self-immolations as “terrorism in disguise,” and Tibetans who self-immolate in protests against Chinese government rule as “terrorists.”
  • Article 4 of the Counterterrorism Law defines “extremism” as “the ideological basis of terrorism,” and elaborates by saying that “the state opposes all forms of extremism, such as inciting hatred, discrimination, or agitating violence through distorting religious doctrines or other means.” This vague and overly broad definition provides the authorities with a legal basis to violate freedom of religion; allegations of “religious extremism” have been routinely employed to limit and often prosecute religious activities that merely take place outside state-controlled religious institutions.

Under these expansive definitions of terrorism and extremism, a large range of activity relevant to ethnic and religious expression and custom are punishable and are being prohibited, including:

  • “Exploiting religious teaching, sermons, exegesis, study, weddings, funerals, gathering and cultural or recreational activities and so forth to advocate terrorism or extremism” (article 50(1), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Making, downloading, storing, reproducing, reviewing, or copying audio, video, images or print materials or network links with terrorist, extremist or other such contents” (article 50(2), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Illegally possessing printed or electronic products with terrorist, extremist or other such content” (article 50(3), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Designing, making, distributing, mailing, selling, or displaying clothing, symbols, flags, badges, utensils, souvenirs and so forth that have terrorist or extremist content (article 50(4), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Using clothing, symbols, and so forth to advocate terrorism or extremism in a public place or compelling others to wear or don terrorist or extremist clothing or symbols (article 50(5), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Organizing, forcing, instigating, encouraging or enticing a minor to participate in religious activities” (article 51(2), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Exploiting religion to obstruct or interfere with others’ activities such as weddings and funerals or inheritances” (article 51(3), Xinjiang Implementing Measures)
  • “Distorting the concept of ‘halal,’ or generalizing the concept of ‘halal,’ expanding and mutating it into social life and other areas” (article 51(4), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Intimidating or inducing others to boycott national policy measures, or destroy state documents prescribed for by law, such as resident identity cards, household registration books, and marriage certificates, or currency” (article 51(5), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Deliberately sensationalizing, fabricating or distorting socially sensitive cases (incidents), or intentionally starting rumors or spreading false information, undermining the implementation of social management” (article 51(6), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Using extremism to incite or coerce the masses to undermine the implementation of legally established systems such as for marriage, justice, education or social management” (article 120(4), Chinese Criminal Law); and
  • “Where methods such as violence or coercion are used to compel others to wear or adorn themselves with apparel or emblems promoting terrorism or extremism” (article 120(5), Chinese Criminal Law).
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Egyptian internal security forces waging a campaign in the Sinai Peninsula against an affiliate of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) may have extrajudicially executed at least four and perhaps as many as 10 men in January 2017. The security forces may have arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared the men and then staged a counterterrorism raid to cover up the killings.

A Human Rights Watch investigation relying on multiple sources of evidence including documents, interviews with relatives, and an edited video of the purported raid made public by the authorities, suggests that police arrested at least some of the men months before the alleged gunfight at a house in North Sinai and that the raid itself was staged.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – Egyptian internal security forces waging a campaign in the Sinai Peninsula against an affiliate of the Islamic State may have extrajudicially executed at least four and perhaps as many as 10 men in January 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The security forces may have arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared the men and then staged a counterterrorism raid to cover up the killings.

A Human Rights Watch investigation relying on multiple sources of evidence including documents, interviews with relatives, and an edited video of the purported raid made public by the authorities suggests that police arrested at least some of the men months before the alleged gunfight at a house in North Sinai and that the raid itself was staged.

Egyptian internal security forces waging a campaign in the Sinai Peninsula against an affiliate of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) may have extrajudicially executed at least four and perhaps as many as 10 men in January 2017.

“These apparent extrajudicial killings reveal total impunity for Egypt’s security forces in the Sinai Peninsula under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s counterterrorism policies,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Prosecutors need to conduct a full and transparent investigation to get to the bottom of what appear to be grave abuses.”

The killings appear to fit a pattern of abuses against civilians by both military and internal security forces who are fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) under the largest deployment of Egyptian troops in Sinai since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel. Fighting in North Sinai has left hundreds dead since 2013, including civilians, security force members, and alleged ISIS fighters. The ISIS affiliate, which calls itself Sinai Province, has killed scores of civilians, targeting many either for alleged collaboration with the authorities or because they were Christians.

Journalists and human rights groups are rarely able to investigate frequent and credible reports of abuse because the government denies them access to North Sinai.

These apparent extrajudicial killings reveal total impunity for Egypt’s security forces in the Sinai Peninsula under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s counterterrorism policies,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Prosecutors need to conduct a full and transparent investigation to get to the bottom of what appear to be grave abuses.

Joe Stork

Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director, Human Rights Watch

On January 13, the Interior Ministry claimed in a statement that its counterterrorism forces had tracked a group of suspected ISIS fighters to an abandoned house in al-Arish, a town on the northern Sinai coast, earlier that day and were preparing to raid the house when they came under fire. According to the statement, the troops returned fire and killed all 10 suspects inside. The ministry named six of the dead men and accused them of participating in killings and other attacks on security forces, some of which had been claimed by ISIS, but did not identify the other four men.
That same day, the ministry also released a short video purporting to show the raid itself. The video was posted on YouTube with the title, The death of 10 terrorist elements in an exchange of fire with security forces in North Sinai. The heavily edited clip shows at least eight commandos approaching a building, two of them firing at a man on the ground outside, and six dead men in civilian clothes lying in various rooms inside the building, surrounded by weapons, fresh pools of blood, and walls with bullet holes.
Human Rights Watch spoke with relatives of three of the dead men – Ahmed Rashid, Mansour Gam’a, and Mohamed Ayoub – and a lawyer who is representing the families of Rashid and a fourth man, Abd al-Aty Abd al-Aty. All said that the Interior Ministry’s security forces had arrested the men without warrants in October and November 2016, months before the alleged January raid took place.
The killings caused outrage among citizens of al-Arish and rare protests against the Interior Ministry during some of the men’s funerals. Leaders of local clans met on January 14 to form a “popular committee” and issued a list of demands, including the immediate release of anyone held without charge, the resignation of North Sinai’s representatives in parliament, and holding to account those responsible for the killings. Hossam al-Rifai, a member of parliament for North Sinai, called for the creation of a government fact-finding committee to investigate the incident.
Salah Salam, a member of the government-sponsored National Council for Human Rights, told the Aswat Masriya news service on January 15 that the names of the six slain men had been on a list of 650 people allegedly being held without charge in North Sinai, which local residents had earlier asked him to deliver to a presidential pardon committee. Salam told Human Rights Watch on March 16 that he did not have a copy of the list that he sent to the pardon committee, but that those who compiled it told him that the names of the six men were included, and that the government must investigate 
The families of Rashid and Abd al-Aty sent telegrams to the authorities inquiring about the two men shortly after their arrests and gave Human Rights Watch photos of receipts showing the dates they had sent the telegrams in October and November. The telegram receipts seen by Human Rights Watch contain serial numbers that could verify to investigators when they were sent. The two families also filed a joint complaint to the prosecutor general asking him to investigate their relatives’ deaths. The authorities did not respond to any of these complaints or requests for information.

Friends Ahmed Rashid, 24, (left) and Abd al-Aty Abd al-Aty, 25, (right) were arrested by the police about one week apart in October 2016, relatives and a family lawyer said. 

© Private
Relatives of Gam’a and Ayoub said they felt too intimidated by security forces to complain or pursue legal redress. Yehia Ayoub, the lawyer representing the families of Rashid and Abd al-Aty, told Human Rights Watch that Interior Ministry officials had contacted some of the men’s relatives to tell them to drop their efforts, and that in late February and early March, police arrested two cousins of Rashid and a cousin and two other relatives of Abd al-Aty to pressure their families to drop the issue. Human Rights Watch is not publishing the names of the family members out of concern for their safety.
Neither the Interior Ministry nor the public prosecution office have opened an investigation into the deaths, the relatives and lawyer told Human Rights Watch. The Interior Ministry’s statement claimed that security forces had conducted the raid after receiving permission from prosecutors.

“In addition to a prompt and thorough investigation, the Egyptian government should open North Sinai to journalists, human rights investigators, and aid groups,” Stork said. “For years now, North Sinai has been a black hole.”

Doubts Cast on Government Account

Independent observers are rarely allowed to investigate the ongoing conflict in North Sinai, which the government treats as a closed military zone and where curfew hours and a state of emergency have been in place since October 2014. Egyptian journalists who have reported from North Sinai have faced prosecution, as have analysts who have written about the conflict. Ismail al-Iskandrani, a researcher who reported on Islamist movements and developments in the Sinai Peninsula, has been detained pending trial since November 29, 2015, on charges of spreading false news and aiding an illegal group.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the Interior Ministry’s video and other documents provided by the families, including burial forms and photographs of three of the men’s bodies taken at a morgue. Human Rights Watch also consulted with a forensic expert and several military experts regarding the photos and the video of the raid.

Two military experts consulted by Human Rights Watch said that certain elements of the video led them to doubt its authenticity, including a bright floodlight that illuminated the commandos as they approached the house and the commandos’ behavior during the raid, which did not indicate that they felt under threat.

Stefan Schmitt, the director of the international forensic program at Physicians for Human Rights, told Human Rights Watch that the video was too heavily edited to be taken as a credible depiction of the authorities’ story and that the positioning of the bodies and blood inside the house raised the suspicion that at least one of the bodies had been moved prior to the video taping. Sutures on at least two of the bodies photographed in the morgue indicated that autopsies were performed and that there should be autopsy reports, he said. Ayoub, the lawyer representing the families of Rashid and Abd al-Aty, told Human Rights Watch that the authorities have not provided the families with such reports.

Rashid had recently graduated from a technical institute, was employed driving a taxi, and had gotten married about two months before his arrest, his family said.

© Private

Ayoub and the relatives of Rashid told Human Rights Watch that they had viewed the bodies of Rashid and Abd al-Aty in the morgue and that both appeared to have been shot once in the head. Both they and a relative of Gam’a also described reddened areas on the feet and hands of three of the bodies that they believed were signs of the use of electric shocks and cigarette burns, but Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm the cause of these marks or the existence of bullet wounds.

Relatives of Ayoub and Gam’a also said that two former detainees had approached the families separately to say they saw the men at different times, three weeks after their disappearance, inside the headquarters of the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency in al-Arish. The families said they were unable to confirm those accounts.

The relatives all said that they had learned of the men’s killings from the news and that the authorities had not contacted them. A local political activist who is coordinating the Arish “popular committee” said that the only response from the authorities had been to release about three dozen illegally detained people in North Sinai.

Human Rights Watch sent letters by email to the Interior Ministry and prosecutor general on March 6, inquiring about the families’ claims and whether the authorities had opened any investigation. Neither has responded.

Analysis of Statement and Video of Interior Ministry

The roughly one-and-a-half-minute video posted on YouTube by the Interior Ministry on the day of the alleged raid repeated a statement released the same day on the ministry’s Facebook page. The statement identified a man named Ahmed Mahmoud Yousef Abd al-Qader as an alleged commander with the local ISIS affiliate whom the ministry blamed for organizing “terrorist groups” and instructing them to carry out a string of attacks, including a coordinated assault on two police checkpoints in al-Arish just four days earlier that left eight police officers and one civilian dead.

After “intensive follow-up field operations,” the ministry statement said, its forces were able to identify some of the alleged ISIS fighters involved in the January checkpoint attacks. The ministry claimed that the attackers had been moving frequently between various hiding places, but relatives of Ayoub, Gam’a, and Rashid told Human Rights Watch that police had arrested the three men at their homes. Far from living as fugitives, they said, Rashid had married two months before his arrest and Gam’a lived with his wife and frequently visited a doctor with her to seek treatment for infertility.

The ministry said that counterterrorism forces tracked the men to an abandoned “chalet” near al-Arish’s Fourth Police Department. On January 13, the counterterrorism forces began their raid on the building, but fighters inside “fired a hail of bullets toward them, trying to escape,” the statement said. The commandos “dealt with the sources of fire,” killing all 10 men inside the building. The statement did not mention any casualties among the counterterrorism forces.


Still from a video published by the Egyptian Interior Ministry. The video shows commandos stealthily approaching a building. But military experts said the bright, white light illuminating the commandos during their approach was one indication that the raid was staged.

The purported video of the raid begins by showing what appear to be at least eight members of the counterterrorism forces wearing body armor and carrying small arms approaching the outside of a red brick, multi-story building. The men approach slowly, apparently to maintain stealth, but the entire scene is illuminated by a bright, white light.
A Human Rights Watch researcher who served as an infantryman and scout sniper in the US Army and who has experience with special forces and night raids said that such lighting during an actual raid, especially when the counterterrorism troops were moving slowly, would be “extremely inept and tactically unsound,” exposing the commandos to danger. An outside expert with combat experience who also served in the US army said that these first moments of the video resembled a training exercise.
After about 12 seconds, the video cuts to what appears to be a different location outside the building. Two members of the counterterrorism forces are shown firing at a man wearing civilian clothes who appears to be kneeling or falling to the ground three meters in front of them. Simultaneously, a third commando can be seen to the men’s right shining his flashlight into a room through a doorway.

Military experts said this still from the Interior Ministry video appeared to show that the commandos had secured the area before shooting the man. A third commando can be seen entering a room through an exterior door. Experts said that a commando taking part in an active raid, with shooting nearby, would not enter a room without backup, and that this was an indication that the raid was staged.

Both the Human Rights Watch researcher with military experience and an active-duty officer in the Colombian army with combat experience whom Human Rights Watch consulted said that the tactics displayed during this moment in the video were also unsound, and did not reflect how such forces would behave during a real raid. A commando who anticipated a threat while entering a room would not inspect the room with a flashlight without someone to support him while other commandos were opening fire on a threat just a few feet away, the Human Rights Watch researcher said.
Both experts also questioned the shooting itself, noting that the man being shot appeared to be kneeling or already on the ground and that the video, which shows his body from a closer perspective seconds later, reveals a handgun tucked into his pants. The fact that he was shot in this manner and at close range suggests that the counterterrorism forces had secured the area before shooting him, the active-duty officer said. The Human Rights Watch researcher said that commandos would probably only approach a suspect that closely if they were trying to arrest him.
After the shooting incident, the video shows different rooms, apparently inside the building, and what appear to be six bodies, as well as blood pooling on the floor and weapons lying next to the bodies or leaning against the walls. Schmitt, the forensic expert, said that the pools of blood shown on the floor of at least one room, and the bodies lying on the bed next to the blood, raised the suspicion that at least one of the bodies had been moved prior to the video taping. While this would not indicate, in itself, that the raid was staged, Schmitt said, the video could not be taken as credible evidence of what the ministry said occurred.
The active-duty officer said that the close positioning of the bodies next to one another, as well as the positioning of the guns, indicated that the alleged fighters had not taken up defensive positions with their weapons, as they probably would have if they had opened fire on approaching commandos during a raid, or been alerted to the raid by the bright lighting or shooting of the man outside.
Accounts by Relatives and the Lawyer
Ahmed Yousef Mohamed Rashid
In its January 13 statement, the Interior Ministry accused Rashid of “involvement in the assassination of a number of civilians for their alleged collaboration with security forces.” Rashid’s wife and another relative told Human Rights Watch that Rashid, 24, had recently graduated from a technical institute, was employed driving a taxi, and had married two months before his arrest on October 17.

When police arrested Ahmed Rashid, 24, from his family home on October 17, 2016, they destroyed much of the family’s personal property, including the bed, refrigerator, television, toilet, stove, and glass cupboards. 

© Private

On that day, Rashid’s relative said, dozens of men wearing uniforms with “police” written on them and other men in civilian clothes raided their home in the Samran neighborhood of al-Arish and arrested Rashid without showing a warrant. The authorities had not previously wanted Rashid for any crime, and the relative said they did not know why police came for him.

“It was October 17 around noon,” she said. “Suddenly the door slammed, and I felt terrified when I saw the [security] forces and couldn’t talk.”

Rashid’s relative said that the security forces split up and entered an apartment on the ground floor and Rashid’s on the second floor. They took Rashid into an armored vehicle for a moment and then returned with him.

“I asked [an officer] what was going on but he didn’t answer,” his relative said. “I had to go out but I was hearing voices. They hit him while his grandmother was standing there. She yelled at them: ‘Shame, shame!’”

Rashid’s relative said that neighbors later told her that there had been at least 15 armored vehicles and police vans outside her home during the raid. The security forces searched the two apartments and destroyed most of the family’s property, including the bed, refrigerator, television, toilet, stove, and glass cupboards. Police also took three mobile phones and about 2,000 Egyptian pounds (US$119), the relative said. The family sent Human Rights Watch photos of the damage.

Rashid’s wife, who was one-month pregnant at the time, yelled at the police that these were new furnishings and that she was recently married. An officer told her, “Come, see your things while they’re being destroyed,” she said. Another officer grabbed her and pushed her against the wall twice. She said that she later suffered a miscarriage, but Human Rights Watch was not able to obtain any medical documentation.

Two days later, security forces returned to their street and arrested more residents. When Rashid’s wife approached the officers to ask them about Rashid, one of them told her, “He will never see the street again. Find another husband.”

Three days after his arrest, Rashid’s family sent telegrams to the justice and interior ministers and the prosecutor general to inquire about Rashid’s whereabouts but received no response.

The family of Rashid said they sent a telegram to the prosecutor general on October 30, 2016, two weeks after his arrest, to find out what had happened to him. A receipt they provided to Human Rights Watch shows the handwritten date and a stamped serial number at the top that could help investigators verify that Rashid had been arrested before his death. 

© Private

On January 13, the day of the alleged raid, Rashid’s family had no internet connection, but friends called and told them that they had seen Rashid name in the statement.

“I didn’t believe it,” Rashid’s relative said. “I thought maybe it was a false statement or something.”

When Rashid’s relative saw his body in a morgue in Ismailia, a city on the Suez Canal 124 miles west of al-Arish, they saw what they believed was one bullet wound in his head. The family had also recognized Rashid in the Interior Ministry’s video as one of the men shown dead inside the house, though the green pants and black jacket he is shown wearing in the video were not the clothes in which he was arrested.

Rashid’s relative said that he had been close friends with one of the other six men named in the Interior Ministry’s statement and killed in the alleged raid, Abd al-Aty Ali Abd al-Aty al-Deeb, who was arrested about nine days before Rashid.

Mohamed Ibrahim Mohamed Ayoub

Mohamed Ayoub, 23, was working as a driver when police arrested him after seeing him walking on the roof of his home in al-Arish one night in November 2016, his family said. Authorities in police and military offices around al-Arish denied holding Ayoub, and the family heard nothing about him until the Interior Ministry announced he had been killed on January 13, 2017.

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The Interior Ministry accused Ayoub of participating in the July 2016 killing of Col. Ahmed Rashad, the deputy warden of al-Qosaima Police Station in Sinai, and a number of other attacks on the police. A relative of Ayoub’s who asked to remain anonymous said that Ayoub was a 23-year-old driver whom the police arrested on November 26. Ayoub was not interested in politics and was scheduled to be drafted into the army soon, the relative said.
The relative, who witnessed the arrest, said security forces came during the night without a warrant and destroyed the door of Ayoub’s home in the Masaeed area of al-Arish. He said that the police had come to the house after seeing Ayoub walking on the roof. Ayoub felt scared and went downstairs when he saw the security forces coming, and a policeman shouted at him to come out. When Ayoub asked for a moment to have a drink of water, they shouted at him and pushed him into an armored vehicle, the relative said. The relative added that when Ayoub’s mother asked an officer if she could put proper clothes on during the arrest, the officer yelled at her that he would shoot if she moved.
A police officer ordered Ayoub’s father, his younger brother and two uncles to stand against a wall, the relative said, and told the police there to “kill whoever moved.” When the police were leaving, one policeman asked his commander what to do with them, pointing at Ayoub’s father and younger brother. The officer told him to put them into another armored vehicle, and they were taken to al-Arish Second Police Station, where they spent five days in custody, the relative said.
After their release, Ayoub’s father and brother asked about Ayoub in all the police and military detention centers they knew in the area, but the authorities denied holding him. About a month after Ayoub’s disappearance, a man came to the family home and told them that he had seen Ayoub in the National Security Agency headquarters in al-Arish and that Ayoub was being tortured with electric shock. Ayoub’s relative told Human Rights Watch that he did not know the man and could not verify his story.
The family heard nothing about Ayoub from the authorities until the Interior Ministry’s January 13 statement. The relative said that the family recognized Ayoub’s body in the Interior Ministry video but took no legal action because they felt intimidated. The police told them to sign a paper stating that Ayoub had been killed by a gunshot without further details. The authorities have not opened an investigation, the relative said.
“We went to receive the body from Ismailia’s morgue,” he said. “When I saw the body, I felt a knife in my heart. I’m afraid … and I can’t sleep. I’m afraid someone is going to raid our home when I’m sleeping.”
Mansour Mohamed Soliman Gam’a
The Interior Ministry statement accused Gam’a, 28, of stealing transport vehicles and “boobytrapping” them for use in ISIS attacks. A relative, who requested anonymity, said Gam’a was a 27-year-old driver, married with no children, and that Gam’a had not known the other men.
The relative said that Gam’a’s wife called him around midnight on October 17, the same day as Rashid’s arrest, to tell him that Interior Ministry forces had raided their home and arrested Gam’a without a warrant. Gam’a’s wife told the relative that she asked the police where they were taking him and that they told her only that he would return home after two days of interrogation.

Mansour Gam’a, 28, was arrested on October 17, 2016. His wife and other family members were too afraid of repercussions from the security forces to file any legal complaints related to his death. 

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“Here [in North Sinai] you can’t breathe,” the relative said, describing the way security forces treat civilians. “You can’t ask [officers] to present an arrest warrant.”
The relative said that a friend of the family who was arrested about 20 days after Gam’a visited the family after his release and told them that he had spent about 15 days in detention with Gam’a in the National Security Agency headquarters in al-Arish.
“We did not hire a lawyer or file any complaints because of the circumstances,” the relative said. “Even a lawyer won’t be able to get us our rights. Only God will get us our rights.”

He said that he had inquired about Gam’a in some police stations but that they had denied that Gam’a was there. The family did not receive any information about Gam’a until the Interior Ministry statement on January 13.

The relative said that anyone involved in the violent acts alleged by the Interior Ministry would not have stayed at their home like Gam’a, who had wanted to have children and sought regular treatment for his infertility.

“We did not send any faxes [to the authorities] … We thought he would go back home soon because he is a straight, clean guy,” the relative said. “We didn’t know it would reach this level.”

Abd al-Aty Ali Abd el-Aty al-Deeb

Abd al-aty Abd al-Aty, 25, was arrested on October 8, 2016, his family lawyer said. The family filed a complaint to the prosecutor general accusing National Security officers of killing him, but the police have arrested three of Abd al-Aty’s relatives to pressure them to drop their legal efforts, the lawyer said. 

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The Interior Ministry accused Abd al-Aty, 25, of involvement in the killing of Mohamed Mostafa Ayad, an engineer who had performed work for the armed forces and was kidnapped by unknown armed men in September 2016 and publicly shot to death five days later in a main square of al-Arish, according to media reports and activists on Facebook.

Ayoub, the lawyer who is representing Abd al-Aty’s and Rashid’s families, said that security forces arrested Abd al-Aty on October 8 and that the families had retained him about two weeks later.

Ayoub was at the Ismailia morgue when some of the men’s bodies were delivered to their families, and he said that both Abd al-Aty and Rashid appeared to have been shot once in their heads. He also said he saw burns on Abd al-Aty’s body and bruising on the wrists that he believed were signs of handcuffs. Human Rights Watch viewed photos of the two bodies but could not independently confirm the existence of bullet wounds to the men’s heads. Schmitt, the forensic expert, said he could not confirm the cause of the marks, but that Abd al-Aty’s body appeared to have had a full autopsy.

Ayoub said that the authorities did not allow him to obtain a copy of the autopsy report and that he does not know what it stated. A one-page certificate from the Ismailia branch of the Health Ministry’s Forensic Medical Authority, viewed by Human Rights Watch, stated that Abd al-Aty’s cause of death was “gunshots,” without further details.

Ayoub filed a complaint to prosecutors, also viewed by Human Rights Watch, on behalf of both Abd al-Aty’s and Rashid’s families a few days after their deaths, which accused Interior Ministry National Security officers in al-Arish of forcibly disappearing and killing the two men. Prosecutors have not responded, he said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

There is a perception that a fear of terrorism should translate into a fear of Muslims. It has been fueled in part by President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to ban all Muslims from entering the country and his executive order banning certain travel from several Muslim-majority countries. This erroneous notion has contributed to an increasingly hostile atmosphere of Islamophobia in the U.S.

People participating in the annual Muslim Day Parade carry U.S. flags in the Manhattan borough of New York City, September 25, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters
FBI and other data show that reported hate crimes against Muslims spiked last year to the highest levels since the September 11th attacks. Anti-Muslim hate groups are reportedly also on the rise, with the Southern Poverty Law Center estimating that the number of such groups tripled in 2016. As many officials, including President Trump, engage in dangerous rhetoric conflating Islam and the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide with violent extremism, it’s important to take a sober look at the facts and data on this issue, which paint a very different picture.

While it is true that some terrorism attacks across the globe are carried out by Muslims associated with violent extremism, religion itself is not actually a good predictor of terrorist violence. Many factors are associated with terrorism, not just the person’s religion.

The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), a research center that analyzes and produces metrics concerning global peace and security issues, releases an annual report detailing various drivers and correlates of terrorism. Its latest report estimates that since 1989, 93 percent of all terrorist attacks have occurred in countries that experienced high levels of political instability and state-sponsored violence, such as extrajudicial killings, torture and imprisonment without trial.

The research also found that 90 percent of terrorist incidents occurred in countries with ongoing internal or international conflicts and that lower respect for human rights and the existence of policies targeting religious freedoms correlated with higher levels of terrorism. In developed nations, IEP also found that socio-economic factors such as “youth unemployment, lack of confidence in the press, low faith in democracy, drug crime and negative attitudes towards immigration” had strong correlations with terrorist incidents.

Opinion polling has shown that Muslims around the world widely reject violence and extremism, with most respondents overwhelmingly denouncing tactics such as suicide bombings. In fact, people in many countries with large Muslim populations were found to be just as concerned as Western nations about the threat of violent extremism. Likewise, surveys have shown that many people in countries with large Muslim populations have very unfavorable opinions of terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda – as one example, Lebanon has only a 1-percent favorable opinion of ISIS. Also, despite the inaccurate claims that Muslims have not spoken out against terrorism, numerous Muslim scholars, clerics, and community leaders have repeatedly denounced terrorism and violent groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.

While terrorist attacks in the U.S. carried out by Muslims associated with violent extremism is certainly an issue worthy of attention, it is important to remember that 96 people have been killed in a handful of such attacks since the September 11 attacks. Meanwhile, more than 300,000 people have been killed from gun-related deaths by other Americans during the same period. An American is more likely to die being struck by lightning or choking on food than being killed in a terrorist attack.

To address real U.S. security issues, we need to deal in facts, not fear-mongering.

W. Paul Smith

Coordinator for the US Program

It’s also worth pointing out that violent acts and plots orchestrated by far-right individuals and groups, such as neo-Nazis and white supremacists, are just as much, if not more, of a problem in the U.S. In fact, before the 2016 Orlando shooting, far-right terrorism actually accounted for more deaths than those carried out by people associated with extremist views of Islam since September 11. Such incidents, however, have received far less attention and are almost always viewed as the isolated actions of disturbed individuals.

The reality is that terrorism simply does not pose as much of a threat as many people fear. While there will inevitably be acts of terrorism, the current atmosphere of Islamophobia in the U.S. is based far more on fear than on facts, and only fuels religious discrimination and alienation of Muslim communities. Scapegoating Muslims does nothing to keep people safer and instead feeds into the common recruitment narrative of ISIS that America is at war with Islam. To address real U.S. security issues, we need to deal in facts, not fear-mongering.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Erbil) – The Iraqi interior ministry is holding at least 1,269 detainees, including boys as young as 13, without charge in horrendous conditions and with limited access to medical care at three makeshift prisons, Human Rights Watch said today. At least four prisoners have died, in cases that appear to be linked to lack of proper medical care and poor conditions and two prisoners’ legs have been amputated, apparently because of lack of treatment for treatable wounds.

A hole in the ceiling of the second prison house, from a projectile that hit the building while the area was still under ISIS-control. Staff said the prison, holding 270 detainees, was structurally unsound and could collapse at any point.

© 2016 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

Two detention centers are in the town of Qayyarah, 60 kilometers south of Mosul, and the third at a local police station in Hammam al-Alil, 30 kilometers south of Mosul. At least one detainee has been held in Qayyarah for six months, with many others detained since November 2016. According to the Qayyarah prison staff, at least 80 of their detainees are children under 18, with the youngest being 13. Children are in Hammam al-Alil as well.

“The deplorable prison conditions in Qayyarah and Hammam al-Alil show that the Iraqi government is not providing the most basic detention standards or due process,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iraqis should understand better than most the dangerous consequences of abusing detainees in cruel prison conditions.”

On March 3, 2017, Human Rights Watch visited two of three houses in Qayyarah the Iraqi government has been using since retaking the area in August to detain men and boys suspected of being affiliated with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). On March 12, researchers visited the local police station at Hammam al-Alil, which is holding 225 people accused of varying crimes, including ISIS-affiliation, in four rooms. Human Rights Watch was unable to interview detainees, but spoke to prison staff.

The prisons are under the authority of the Interior Ministry’s intelligence service, which provides services there together with the Justice Ministry. Staff said that Iraqi security and military services combatting ISIS hand over people they detain to the intelligence service, which holds the detainees in the facilities while individually interrogating them.

The intelligence service then takes the detainees before an investigative judge to assess whether there is enough evidence to bring charges for supporting ISIS under Provision 4 of the Federal Iraqi Counterterrorism Law (no. 13/2005). The judge then either orders their release or transfers the detainees to Baghdad to face charges.

Prison staff in Qayyarah said they had released about 80 detainees and transferred another 775 to Baghdad by early March 2017. Iraq’s Criminal Procedural Code (no. 23/1971) requires detaining authorities to bring detainees before an investigative judge within 24 hours. But Qayyarah prison staff said they had held some detainees for as long as four months, while Human Rights Watch learned of the case of the man held without charge for six months.

Prison staff in Qayyarah said that the investigative judge had cleared at least 300 men for release who are now being held unlawfully after the National Security Service, a security body under the prime minister with a mandate to screen people fleeing ISIS-controlled areas, intervened. Security forces’ failure to comply with a judicial order for release is a crime under Iraqi law. If the security forces are failing to comply with judicial orders in a systematic manner as part of a state policy to ignore such orders and detain people arbitrarily, this could represent a crime against humanity.

Prison staff in Hammam al-Alil said they had released 115 detainees and transferred another 135 to Baghdad. They said they have been holding at least 60 men since the detention site opened in November, 2016.

The prison staff and Justice Minister, Haidar al-Zamili, who met with Human Rights Watch on February 2, 2017, said that detainees held on terrorism charges have no right under the counterterrorism law (no. 13/2005) to communicate with their family during the investigation period, and that the Qayyarah detainees have not been allowed to communicate with their families. A local judge overseeing the cases told Human Rights Watch that once a detainee has been brought before the investigative judge, they have the right to contact their families, but that family visits are being delayed because of the delays in bringing detainees before the judge.

They also said that despite the Iraqi constitution and Criminal Procedure Code (no.23/1971) guaranteeing detainees the right to a lawyer during interrogations and hearings, none had been provided with a lawyer present during their interrogations and many did not have a lawyer during their hearings before the investigative judge.

Human Rights Watch observed that the facilities are all extremely overcrowded, so that no detainee can lie down to sleep. Because of the overcrowding and lack of proper ventilation, the makeshift prison cells are overheated, with an incredible stench. Detainees at the Hammam al-Alil prison called out to the visiting Human Rights Watch researchers, begging them to crack open the door because they said they could not breathe. The detainees have either no time or minimal time outside their cells, eat inside their cells, and have no access to showers and limited access to bathrooms. The facilities have no medical support, contributing to the deaths and amputations, prison staff said.

While the staff said they were trying to improve conditions, they could not reduce the overcrowding. The overcrowding may have been exacerbated due to a temporary freeze, in early 2015, on transfers of prisoners to Baghdad due to the cost of such transfers, a Qayyarah court official told Human Rights Watch on March 11, 2017. He said that the transfers had resumed in mid-January. Prison staff in Hammam al-Alil said that on March 11, they were asked to accept another 11 prisoners but refused, saying there was simply no more room.

One interrogator in Hammam al-Alil said that he sometimes beats ISIS suspects, and an observer who visited the prison in February 2017 said he witnessed the ill-treatment of three detainees.

Detainees charged and convicted may still be entitled to release under the General Amnesty Law passed in August 2016 (no.27/2016), staff said. The law offered amnesty to anyone who joined ISIS or another extremist group against their will, and did not commit any serious offense, like torture or killing. The head of the Iraqi parliament’s legal committee, Mohsen al-Karkari, told Human Rights Watch during a meeting on February 7, 2017, that it was a roundabout way to limit the scope of the wide-reaching Iraqi counterterrorism law and release of thousands of terror suspects. According to the Justice Ministry, authorities have released 756 prisoners since the law was passed.

Human Rights Watch learned from a reliable source that the Iraqi government had sent a committee to review conditions in the facility a few weeks before the Human Rights Watch visit. The committee promised to send up to 20 more interrogators from Baghdad, to speed up investigations. On March 2, 2017, 10 interrogators had arrived at the Qayyarah prisons.

The evidence documented by Human Rights Watch strongly suggests that conditions at the Qayyarah and Hammam al-Alil facilities are hazardous, unfit to hold detainees for extended periods of time, and do not meet basic international standards. As a result, holding detainees there probably amounts to ill-treatment. The state of the facilities and severe understaffing pose severe risks to the prisoners, the prison administration, and the local community.

The authorities should transfer all detainees from these facilities to official prisons built to accommodate detainees, and equipped to meet basic international standards. Until that happens, the Interior and Justice Ministries should, as an urgent priority, improve the conditions, and speed up the investigative process so that it can transfer the prisoners out of the facility as quickly as possible. The ministries should provide all detainees a medical screening upon arrival, and ensure access to medical care.

The authorities should also ensure that there is a clear legal basis for detentions, that all detainees have access to legal counsel, including during interrogation, and that detainees are moved to facilities accessible to government inspection, independent monitors, relatives, and lawyers, with regular and unimpeded access. They should immediately notify families of the detention of their loved ones and under which authority, promptly take detainees before a judge to rule on the legality of their detention, and immediately comply with any judicial order for release.

Judges should order the release of detainees or prisoners being held in inhuman or degrading conditions.

When prosecuting children alleged to have committed illegal acts, they should be treated in accordance with international juvenile justice standards. International law allows for authorities to detain children pretrial in limited situations, but only if formally charged with committing a crime, not merely as suspects. The authorities should release all children not yet formally charged.

“The Iraqi authorities should immediately release the children it is holding in these hellholes unless they promptly charge them with a crime,” Whitson said. “Iraq should recognize and treat children accused of ISIS affiliation as the victims of illegal and unconscionable recruitment and exploitation by the group.”

International Law on Detention

International law governing the treatment of prisoners strictly prohibits cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The international norms regarding prison conditions are set out in the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the “Mandela Rules”). The rules require that “[a]ll accommodation provided for the use of prisoners and in particular all sleeping accommodation shall meet all requirements of health, due regard being paid to climatic conditions and particularly to cubic content of air, minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation.”

They also state that, “[t]he sanitary installations shall be adequate to enable every prisoner to comply with the needs of nature when necessary and in a clean and decent manner,” and that “[a]dequate bathing and shower installations shall be provided.” “The provision of health care for prisoners is a state responsibility. Prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community,” the rules state. Rule 58 protects a prisoner’s right to receive visits “at regular intervals” from family and friends.

Under Iraqi law, the High Judicial Council is responsible for monitoring prison conditions, while the ministries in charge of facilities are responsible for maintaining the conditions inside. The High Judicial Council should fulfil its mandate in monitoring these facilities. Iraq should ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture allowing independent international experts to conduct regular visits to places of detention in Iraq and provide for the creation of an independent inspectorate.

Special Provisions Regarding Child Detainees

In particular, children should enjoy full due process guarantees, including access to counsel, the right to challenge their confinement, contact with their families, and separation from adult detainees. Any punishment for criminal offenses should be appropriate to their age, and be aimed at their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

It is important to note that some of the child detainees may have committed acts of violence while simultaneously being victims of ISIS. The Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for children and armed conflict said in 2011 that when dealing with children who took part in armed groups “more effective and appropriate methods, other than detention and prosecution are encouraged, enabling children to come to terms with their past and the acts they committed.”

The government should also consider how to treat children accused of membership in a group like ISIS, but not of any specific violent act. In 2016, the UN secretary-general criticized countries for responding to violent extremism by administratively detaining and prosecuting children for their alleged association with such groups. He noted that such deprivation of liberty is contrary to the best interests of the child and can exacerbate community grievances.

The special representative of the secretary-general for children and armed conflict, Leila Zerrougui, has also stated that child soldiers should not be prosecuted “simply for association with an armed group or for having participated in hostilities.” Many countries worry that children who are ISIS members pose a future threat. But prosecution and detention of a child should always be a measure of last resort, and the purpose of any sentence should be to rehabilitate and reintegrate the child into society.

Qayyarah Prisons

In one Qayyarah detention facility, a room approximately 4 by 6 meters held 114 men, and in the other a room 3 by 4 meters held 38. They have no furniture or mattresses, with insufficient space for detainees to lie down to sleep. One prison houses 374 detainees within six rooms. The other facilities are smaller. The room with 114 detainees has a single toilet and blocked off windows. It had no ventilation system until early March 2017, when the prison director broke two small holes in the walls and installed ventilation fans. Despite these improvements, the smell is overwhelming. The detainees in the other five rooms share another single toilet.


A pile of water bottles filled with urine outside a hole in the wall from a 3 by 4 meter cell holding 38 detainees. 

© 2016 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

The second prison houses 270 detainees in a building that was hit by a projectile while the area was under ISIS control, with a hole in the hallway roof. Staff said the building is unstable and could collapse at any moment. The room Human Rights Watch saw has windows boarded up with only a small hole, from which detainees have thrown dozens of water bottles filled with their urine. The heat and smell are staggering. Staff members are building another room connected to the building to hold some of the detainees.

The prisons that hold 374 and 400 detainees respectively each only has one guard at any given time. The prison holding 270 has two because the single toilet is a pit in the yard, which opens into a main road, so a guard accompanies prisoners to the toilet. Staff said they took the prisoners out into the yard for 10 to 20 minutes a day, but allowed them only to sit, not walk around.

None of the three prisons have showers. The prisoners eat in the rooms.

Prison staff said they recently decided to hold child detainees separately. But Human Rights Watch was not allowed to visit a third building where staff said the child detainees were held.

Prison staff said that while conditions in the third building are slightly better, with less overcrowding, they do not allow the children to leave their cell. They have no opportunities for activities, exercise, diversion, education, or contact with their families. The only exception is for a small number who provide uncompensated labor for the prison staff by distributing food and water, including to the adult prisoners.

Staff said that until January 2017, the food served to detainees was inedible, and that the head of the prison finally refused to serve it, telling officials at the Justice and Interior Ministries that he would start buying food from his personal funds for the detainees. This finally triggered the ministries to send more support for better food. Now the detainees get three varied meals a day, prison staff said.

Staff told Human Rights Watch that despite repeated requests to the Baghdad authorities, the government had not provided any medical support to the prisons for months. The first two visits by doctors from the local branch of the health department were in early March 2017. Sources said that the doctors then suspended their visits, but did not know why. They said that two detainees had entered with what they believed to be treatable wounds, but they were not given access to timely medical care and eventually each had needed to have a leg amputated.

The family of one prisoner, Ali Muhammad Atiya, 41, a former grocer, told Human Rights Watch that when Iraqi forces retook Qayyarah in August 2016, Counterterrorism Service officers came to their home and detained Atiya for several hours. Four days later, intelligence officers returned and detained him, telling his son that the father had been affiliated with ISIS. The family said staff did not allow them to visit him, but that an intelligence officer told them that although an investigative judge ordered his release, he remained detained. In early February, a neighbor told them he had been at a hospital in Qayyarah, and had seen Atiya arrive there for treatment. Atiya’s mother went to the hospital, where medical staff told her he had severe diarrhea from dehydration. She spent five days with him and said he was very sick and weak and finally died. When Human Rights Watch interviewed the family, they had yet to receive the results of the forensic examination.

Staff told Human Rights Watch there were ongoing efforts to install air coolers and ventilation systems. During the week of March 12, 2017, they cleaned all the rooms for the first time to address an outbreak of scabies, allowed all the prisoners to shower in makeshift facilities set up on that day, and set up sanitation facilities for each building.

Hammam al-Alil Prison

Human Rights Watch visited two of the four prison rooms in the police station, one 6 by 4 meters, holding 72 men, and the other 7 by 4 meters, holding 103. They have no furniture or mattresses, with insufficient space for detainees to lie down to sleep. The prison houses 225 detainees, including three women in a separate cell, with about 50 of the 255 on ISIS-affiliation charges.

Dirty water blocks both sinks in the bathroom of Hammam al-Alil prison.

© 2016 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

The male detainees share six toilets in unsanitary conditions, with sinks blocked with dirty water, and no showers. The windows in the two rooms visited have been blocked off, with a small hole for a ventilator fan in each. The smell is overwhelming. Prison staff said that the ministries are not providing water for the bathroom, and that the director is trading fuel and other items in exchange for water from local authorities.

Prison staff said that the ministries did not provide any food for the detainees for the first several weeks after the facility opened, and that the staff had to ask the families of detainees to bring food that was then shared among all the detainees.

Staff said they did not know how many detainees were under 18, but said there were a considerable number, in cells with the adults. They said the youngest was 13. The child detainees have no opportunities for activities, exercise, diversion, education, or contact with their families.

Staff said that despite repeated requests to the Justice Ministry, Baghdad had not provided any medical support. They said one detainee with diabetes came to the prison in November 2016 after being held and not properly fed for 11 days in Qayyarah prison. They took him to the local clinic, but he died within days. Another prisoner arrived in November with gangrene in both his legs. In December, staff took him to a local hospital to have both legs amputated, after which he returned to the unsanitary conditions of the prison cell. He died three months later, in late February 2017. Another overweight detainee died in early 2017 after complaining for many days that he was unable to breath because of the stench and heat.

Staff said they allow one elderly prisoner to spend the nights in a separate, guard room, because the heat and stench of the cell is causing him serious breathing problems. When Human Rights Watch visited the cells, prisoners yelled out that they could barely breathe and begged staff to crack open the doors.


Dirty water blocks both sinks in the bathroom of Hammam al-Alil prison.

© 2016 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

Prison staff said the total staff is 10 people including the guards and interrogators, and that no one cleans the bathrooms or cells. They said they allow the prisoners from two of the rooms to pass between the rooms and the connected bathroom several hours of the day, but are unable to allow the prisoners outside because the building has no gates, walls or fences. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Dressed in fitted slacks, a satin bomber jacket with a fake fur collar, and a black scarf that loosely framed her face, Nadia, 22, spoke in a dull monotone of her journey from life under the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) to life in a Kurdish prison. She said she had not seen her three-year-old daughter since she fled her abusive husband, a fugitive ISIS member, in March. 

A Sunni Arab from the Salahuddin Governorate in central Iraq, Nadia—whose name has been changed to protect her identity—was married off to a local farmer in 2012. Although their marriage was arranged, they got along at first, she told me from the visiting room of an Erbil prison. But everything changed for the worse when ISIS took over their village for two months in 2014.

What happened next underscores the serious challenges the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) faces as it seeks to identify security threats among the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis streaming across its borders from ISIS-held territory and to prosecute those who were part of the extremist group. During this difficult process, there is a risk that the KRG may be arbitrarily branding many women and even children who lived under ISIS as guilty by association—including those who had not welcomed the extremist group or were abused during its harsh rule.

Many residents fled Nadia’s village when ISIS took over. But Nadia said that her husband insisted they remain to care for their cattle. After Iraqi forces routed ISIS a few months later, village elders returned and banished them and others who had not run away, accusing them of being ISIS sympathizers.

The couple moved with their infant daughter to Mosul, and there her husband, unable to find other work, did join ISIS as a checkpoint guard. Although he initially joined to support his family, said Nadia, he became increasingly “brainwashed” and quickly turned “aggressive,” beating her routinely. “He didn’t beat me until he joined ISIS,” said Nadia. “They changed him, they spoiled his mindset.” When she said she would leave him, he threatened to either kill her or take away their daughter. 

But when ISIS began pressuring Nadia’s husband to become a frontline fighter, he refused—and was beaten and jailed by the group for two months. The day after his release in November 2015, he fled to neighboring Turkey. After ISIS discovered his escape, one of its enforcers tried to make Nadia reveal his whereabouts. When she refused, she said, the enforcer hit her on the head with his rifle and threatened to kill her. Her in-laws feared for her life and persuaded her to let them smuggle her and her daughter into Turkey to join her husband.

She and her daughter reached Turkey after a weeks-long journey involving two sets of smugglers, crossing first into Syria on the back of a truck in a cage hidden beneath bags of sand and soil. “The guards would poke the soil with a stick to see if there was anything beneath it,” Nadia said. Terrified her daughter would cry, she said she reluctantly doped her with cold medicine. But she survived that trip only to be battered anew by her husband. “He beat me again and again and again,” Nadia told me. When he discovered she was plotting to return to Iraq with their daughter, “he threw me out of the apartment and closed the door in my face,” refusing to let her take their daughter with her. 

Alone and terrified, she said she crossed the southern Turkish border into what she thought was a sanctuary: Iraqi Kurdistan, whose troops are a key force in the international coalition fighting ISIS. But during a search of the bus she was traveling in, Asayish, the security arm of the KRG, arrested her after finding what they considered to be incriminating photos on her phone. One showed her wearing a black cap with the ISIS logo. 

“It was a joke, a terrible joke,” Nadia said of the photo, insisting she was not an ISIS member or sympathizer. The photo showed her fully made up with her hair down. “It was an insult to ISIS, as women should cover their faces and not wear makeup,” she told me. “If [members of ISIS] had seen this photo, they would have slaughtered me.” Another photo showed Nadia’s husband sporting a flowing beard and posing with an assault rifle. Nadia said she immediately told the Asayish agents that the photo was of her husband, that he had been an ISIS member, and that she was fleeing him. “Why would I keep that photo of my husband if I wanted to protect him?” she said she asked the agents. They did not believe her.

Now in her 12th month of detention at the Women and Children’s Reformatory in Erbil, Nadia is charged with participation in a terrorist group, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years. For the first 17 days of imprisonment, she said, security agents held her in isolation in a dank cell in an unsuccessful attempt to make her confess allegiance to ISIS. Solitary confinement for more than 15 days can constitute inhumane treatment and in some cases torture under United Nations standards. Her cell had no heat. The toilet was broken, and the two tiny windows were located near the ceiling. “They wanted to pressure me [into confessing],” Nadia said. “I wanted to kill myself. I was crying and begging, ‘Please, get me out of here.’” For four months, Nadia said, she could not make phone calls or take family visits. When we spoke in December, the KRG had still not provided her with a lawyer, and she said she had seen a judge only once.



Nadia was one of ten women detained on terrorism-related offenses whom I interviewed at the Women and Children’s Reformatory. Two of the women had been convicted for trying to commit suicide bombings—one of them in 2008—and readily admitted this was the case. But the other eight women claimed that their only crime was being related by marriage or blood to a member of ISIS or its precursor, al Qaeda in Iraq.

Many of the eight women said they had not been provided with a lawyer, as required under Iraqi law. They had spent anywhere from one to nine months in prison without charge or trial. International law requires that detainees be charged “promptly,” a period that should not exceed a few days or, at most, a few weeks. Six of the women’s children, ranging in age from ten months to eight years, were living inside the prison with them.

Dindar Zebari, the KRG liaison for nongovernmental organizations, denied any abuse of detainees and said that the KRG does its utmost to uphold the rights of the accused. Legal proceedings for terrorism-related cases tend to be more complex and take longer than those for common crimes, he said. Zebari insisted that the photos on Nadia’s phone were, in fact, “an indication of [her] support for ISIS.” He said a court would provide her and all others accused with lawyers if they could not hire one.

In a positive step for justice, on February 22, an Erbil court dismissed a case against Bassema Darwish, a Yazidi mother of three who had been enslaved and raped by an ISIS emir. The KRG had accused Darwish of complicity in the killings of three KRG peshmerga by ISIS fighters in October 2014. Darwish told the court an Asayish interrogator had beaten her and threatened her with rape if she did not confess to a role in the killings. Still, justice had been slow in coming: Darwish waited 28 months in prison to go to trial. And her case is not yet over: she remains in custody during a 30-day window for the KRG to decide whether to file an appeal and will most likely remain locked up pending the outcome of her case should it do so. 

The women and children I met at the Erbil reformatory had frequent access to a large courtyard. But much of the time the mothers and children were crowded into a poorly ventilated cell with the other female prisoners. Prison staff said the cell, housing 24 people, was built for half that number.

One of the prisoners, Yasmine, had been a 16-year-old widow when KRG forces caught her trying to enter Erbil wearing a suicide vest in 2008. Yasmine, who also did not want to disclose her real name, told me that al Qaeda in Iraq had recruited her by barraging her with messages and calls saying that U.S. forces had killed her husband and that she needed to avenge his death. Twenty months have passed since Yasmine completed her seven-year prison term, but she remains in jail. The KRG authorities, she and a family member said, had accused her of developing links to ISIS during her years in detention and would not let her leave prison, even though a judge had ordered her released for lack of evidence.

Among the women awaiting charge or trial, one said she was detained because her son had joined al Qaeda in Iraq a decade earlier, although she had cut off all contact with him since then because he had joined the extremist group. Another woman said that she was related to a prominent ISIS member but had never even spoken with the relative and had seen him only once in her life, at a family gathering in 2002. A third woman said that she and her husband, a former Iraqi police officer, were detained as ISIS suspects because their home was the only one in their village that ISIS had not destroyed; she said that was because ISIS had taken over the house and kicked them out.

Two women said that ISIS had killed one or more of their family members. Three women, including Nadia, said they had left their husbands because the men joined ISIS and that their spouses had threatened and beaten them or taken their children away in retaliation. 

Nadia is scheduled to go to trial on April 18. But she is charged under the KRG counterterrorism law of 2006, which lapsed last July, potentially leaving her in a legal limbo, along with many of the 1,500 other Iraqis the KRG says it is holding as ISIS suspects. 

As the KRG authorities try to get to the bottom of cases like Nadia’s, it’s critical that they base their findings on credible evidence and resist assuming guilt by association. The challenge of keeping the region safe from groups such as ISIS is immense, but it does not absolve authorities of the responsibility to afford suspects the due process rights to which they are entitled under domestic and international law.

As a start, the KRG should prioritize impartial investigations into the merits of the accusations against these women and ensure they are afforded full, fair-trial guarantees, including adequate counsel. They should enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward forced confessions or other detainee abuse. Other members of the international coalition fighting ISIS should press the KRG to do so as well; otherwise they risk dirtying their own hands. Settling for anything less risks revictimizing women who have already suffered under ISIS and fuels the ISIS narrative that the KRG and its allies are foes, not friends, of Iraqi Arabs.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am