“This bill will be the last one. The first and the last one.” That is how Emmanuel Macron answered the question I had just asked him: “What would happen, Mr. President, if France were hit by another terrorist attack in the coming months? Would you propose yet another bill?”

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

© 2016 Reuters/Charles Platiau

The exchange took place last Friday, in the late afternoon. I was in the Elysée as part of a delegation of leading human rights organizations, lawyers and magistrates to meet President Macron and two of his advisors. We had come to express our concerns and criticisms of two bills drafted by the government and submitted to Parliament: a sixth extension of the state of emergency until November, and a counterterrorism bill directly inspired by the provisions of the state of emergency. This bill would make permanent special powers which were supposed to be temporary, introduced as necessary only for the extraordinary circumstances of a time-limited state of emergency.

For over an hour and a half, we set out methodically the abuses committed against ordinary citizens when those powers were used under the state of emergency. We warned the President that the counterterrorism bill would entrench what were exceptional powers into regular law and pose grave dangers for fundamental rights and the rule of law. We denounced the lack of evaluation of the effectiveness of state of emergency measures and of the existing legal arsenal for counterterrorism. We lamented the choice of an accelerated procedure for the parliamentary review of these two proposed bills, depriving the country of what ought to be a meaningful democratic debate about the concept of liberty, one of France’s founding values.

But despite this discussion, President Macron did not waver.

Far from reinforcing freedoms, as the President claimed this past Monday in his speech to Parliament, the new bill would entrench in regular law abusive powers introduced under the state of emergency. It would normalize the considerable powers awarded by the state of emergency to the Ministry of the Interior and the administrative police. The drastic weakening of judicial safeguards, which are the foundation of the rule of law and an essential defense against abuse, would become permanent. In effect it treats France as if it is always in a state of emergency. By authorizing “assigned residence orders”, whereby individuals’ freedom of movement is severely limited even though they have not been accused of a crime, this new bill also confirms a dangerous shift towards so-called preventive justice. Just this week we’ve learned that since the state of emergency was declared in November 2015, there have been 708 assigned residence orders. More than one a day. This is a trend, not a small set of isolated actions. The “logic of suspicion”, on which these orders are predicated, opens the door to significant abuse.

During the meeting, the President admitted that the state of emergency can foster “arbitrary behaviors” and has led to « excesses ». Emmanuel Macron, then a candidate, had himself expressed in his book, Revolution “that reducing the freedoms of all, and the dignity of each citizen, has never anywhere led to an increase in security.” Despite that, Emmanuel Macron chose to follow in the footsteps of governments that, over the last two decades, have responded to the threat of terrorism with ever harsher laws, turning France into the country with the most expansive counterterrorism laws in Europe. Members of Parliament, a large majority of whom are supportive of the President, will most likely adopt the bill without much opposition. Macron may well say this is his “first and last law” on security; but recent history in France and elsewhere teaches us that once states start down this legislative slope, more repressive laws follow.

If we refer to the past 18 months, France may well be addicted to emergency powers. As a responsible leader, however, the French President’s job is to break that dependency and resist the temptation to react to the fear of another attack with laws that do more harm to rights than they do good to security. As activists, lawyers, and voices of civil society, that is what we will keep telling the President and our elected representatives. End the state of emergency, don’t simply inject a dose of it into ordinary law. 

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

French soldiers from Operation Barkhane stand outside their armored personnel carrier during a sandstorm in Inat, Mali, May 26, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters
“The jihadists are the law now,” an elder from central Mali told me. “The very day the French-supported operation finished, the Islamists were back in the villages,” confided another villager last week, referring to a military operation near the Mali-Burkina Faso border in April.

The endurance of the jihadist recruitment success and their appeal to many villagers suggests that military operations on their own will not be sufficient to defeat the threat. President Emmanuel Macron should keep this in mind when he visits the country this Friday.

Hailed as a military success, the 2013 French-led military intervention in northern Mali ended the region’s occupation by ethnic Tuareg separatists and armed Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda. But since 2015, attacks against Malian forces and abuses by Al-Qaeda-linked groups have moved southward to Mali’s previously stable central regions and, last year, spread into neighboring Burkina Faso.

Since 2015, I’ve interviewed scores of witnesses and victims to abuses in central Mali. They described how, in recent months, groups of up to 50 Islamist fighters closed down schools, banned women from riding on motorcycles driven by men other than their husbands, and imposed their version of Sharia (Islamic law). “We used to spend days celebrating a marriage or baptism, dancing and singing together,” one man said. “Not anymore.”

Men accused of being informants for the Malian government often turn up dead. Since 2015, Islamists have executed at least 40 men in their custody, including village chiefs and local officials. Some were murdered in front of their families. Several people said they felt pressured to send one of their sons to join the Islamists.

However, an equal number of villagers told me they welcomed the presence of the Islamist groups in central Mali; they saw them as a benevolent alternative to a state they associate with predatory and abusive governance. Many seethed as they described Malian army abuses during counterterrorism operations, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and executions.

Since late 2016, I have documented the alleged extrajudicial killing by soldiers of 12 detainees, the most recent in early May, and the forced disappearance of several others. Villagers described how soldiers detained and executed three family members in January. “We heard gunshots in the distance,” one witness said. “I followed the tracks of the army truck and found our people in a shallow grave.” This week, I received a desperate email from the brother of a man forced into a white pickup by men in uniform on February 3. “We have heard nothing; we have searched everywhere,” he said.

While the behavior of the state security services has improved in recent years, Malian authorities have made no meaningful  effort to investigate those implicated in violations.

The jihadists speak a lot about corruption… how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us. Honestly, they don’t need to try very hard to recruit the youth.

Villagers said the Islamists are recruiting by exploiting frustrations over poverty, abusive security services, rampant banditry, local Peuhl clan rivalries, and, especially, corruption.

“The jihadists speak a lot about corruption… how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us,” one elder said. “Honestly, they don’t need to try very hard to recruit the youth…”

Villagers also said the Islamists are increasingly filling the governance vacuum. They welcomed Islamist efforts to investigate and punish livestock thieves, including by executions. Others praised Sharia rulings in favor of victims of domestic violence or spousal abandonment. Elders from both the sedentary Bambara and pastoral Peuhl communities credited the Islamists’ efforts in late 2016 to resolve deadly land disputes. This meaningfully reduced communal violence in some regions, they said.

“We are fed up with paying bribes every time you meet a man in uniform or government official,” one villager said. “The Islamists get all this done without asking for taxes, money, or one of our cows.”

It was corruption, poor governance, and abusive security force conduct that significantly contributed  to Mali’s spectacular collapse in 2012. The burden to resolve this situation lies first and foremost with the Malian government. But the French strategy in Mali and the wider Sahel won’t succeed without helping Mali to address the issues underlying decades of insecurity and the growing support for abusive armed Islamist groups. Military operations, including those supported by the French, are not enough to pull Mali from this deepening quagmire.

When President Macron visits Mali on Friday, he should urge the government to professionalize the security forces and hold them accountable, to support the chronically neglected judiciary, and to take concrete action against rampant corruption. Strengthening Mali’s weak rule of law institutions is complicated work, but no counterterrorism strategy can succeed without it.

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

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

An empty courtroom at Nineveh’s counterterrorism court in Tal Kayf, north of Mosul. 

© 2018 AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo

(Beirut) – Prosecutions of Islamic State (ISIS) suspects in Iraq are proceeding based on a deeply flawed and vague counterterrorism law, but the Nineveh governorate’s counterterrorism court has made improvements in recent months, Human Rights Watch said today.

Following a December 2017 Human Rights Watch report, judges in the Nineveh governorate in northern Iraq are requiring a higher evidentiary standard to detain and prosecute suspects, minimizing the court’s reliance on confessions alone, erroneous wanted lists, and unsubstantiated allegations.

“What we see in Nineveh is a significant shift in the way that prosecutions are proceeding,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Throwing out cases with flimsy or no evidence is a step forward, but more work is needed to ensure defendants are not mistreated and get fair trials.”

On February 4, 2019, Human Rights Watch visited Nineveh’s counterterrorism court in Tal Kayf, north of Mosul. The head of the investigation court, Raed al-Maslah, said the court is processing the highest number of ISIS suspects in the country, with 9,000 cases in 2018. Of those, 2,036 cases were dropped; 3,162 remain under investigation; 2,827 were referred to trial, including 561 children; and 975 were transferred to other courts because the cases were not linked to terror charges. He did not have statistics on the outcomes.

Al-Maslah said that his court was taking action to improve overall respect of the rule of law. He said that in response to a Human Rights Watch report uncovering a prison the National Security Service (NSS) was illegally running in Mosul, he asked the NSS to transfer the several hundred prisoners to the Interior Ministry. However, he acknowledged they still held about 70 detainees.

In perhaps the biggest improvement in the court’s prosecutions, he said that since mid-2018, his court has been requiring a higher evidentiary standard to detain and prosecute suspects. He said that investigators have found a trove of ISIS documents that have facilitated the process, along with social media, phone, and text message data; fingerprints; and other forensic material.

In light of this new evidence, al-Maslah said he struck 7,000 names off wanted lists because they consisted of a first and last name but no other information. He said judges will only issue an arrest warrant based on evidence in ISIS documents, or on detailed and credible allegations from witnesses, including the suspect’s father and grandfather’s name. He said his court has issued 50,000 arrest warrants for people wanted for ISIS affiliation under this new standard.

Under the new procedures, anyone arrested typically appears before an investigative judge within 48 hours. If they maintain innocence, intelligence officers consult the accused’s local community leader and two neighbors to assess the credibility of the allegations. If the person is cleared, including based on witness testimony, the court issues a notice to remove the defendant’s name from wanted lists countrywide, reducing the possibility of rearrests.

Human Rights Watch sat in on a trial before the Nineveh counterterrorism court on February 4 and observed judges applying the new rules. Two lawyers that regularly appear at the court confirmed that the court’s operations had improved. “The court is more process-driven than before and as a result you are seeing fewer confession-based prosecutions, and fewer allegations of torture,” one said. “Also, with time the court has become much more sensitive to individuals using ISIS allegations as a form of personal revenge.”

There is some indication that these heightened evidentiary standards are being applied elsewhere. In a February 7 statement, the US-led coalition highlighted an increase in local police forces in Baghdad and Diyala using warrants and collecting evidence “to support investigations with the aim to prosecute offenders in a proper manner.” An international trial observer told Human Rights Watch that they had seen heightened evidentiary standards used in Karkh, one of two criminal courts in Baghdad.

However, Human Rights Watch researchers observed that in October 2018, in Baghdad’s second criminal court, Risafa, judges continue to process cases solely based on a defendant’s confession, with the defendant frequently alleging torture to extract the statement. This suggests that the heightened requirements are not being used consistently in proceedings across Iraq. Authorities should consider transferring cases from Baghdad to the Nineveh counterterrorism court if the suspect is believed to have committed their crime in Nineveh.

In addition, concerns about torture and reliance on coerced confessions remain with the lawyers saying that from their observations, the prevalence of torture, as well as deaths in custody, have continued.

In a trial of a man accused of ISIS membership that Human Rights Watch observed in early 2019, the defendant denied some charges he had confessed to and said that an officer had threatened to take him “back to Safina” to beat him again if he changed any part of his confession in court. Safina is a village south of Mosul where Human Rights Watch had documented torture allegations in abandoned houses in 2017 and has heard continued allegations of abuse. The judge ordered a medical examination after repeated requests from the defendant but did not ask for details or to show any marks on his body consistent with torture. Human Rights Watch has observed that judges routinely ignore torture allegations by defendants, and almost never investigate accused officers.

Iraq’s deeply flawed, vague counterterrorism law (no. 13/2005) remains a major concern, Human Rights Watch said. The law covers a wide variety of crimes including membership or support for a terrorist organization. While judicial authorities can issue lower sentences, the law stipulates the death penalty for anyone who committed, incited, planned, financed, or assisted in a terrorist act.

In one case before the Nineveh counterterrorism court in early January, a male nurse was prosecuted under the law because he provided ISIS members with medical care after ISIS took over the area. International humanitarian law prohibits prosecuting medical workers for performing medical duties compatible with medical ethics.

Because authorities are still not bringing any additional charges beyond the counterterrorism law against ISIS suspects, including from the penal code, authorities are not making efforts to solicit victim participation in the trials, including as witnesses.

Iraqi authorities should develop a coordinated strategy to prioritize the prosecution of those who committed the most serious crimes by bringing charges for the full range of crimes committed, and with a clear role for victims, Human Rights Watch said. Authorities should drop charges against those whose functions under ISIS helped protect human rights.

On February 24, Human Rights Watch also wrote to Muhammad Tahir al-Mulhim, director of the human rights office within the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council, Foreign Minister Mohamed Alhakim, and Interior Ministry Inspector General Jamal al-Asadi, asking whether the government had investigated Human Rights Watch allegations of ill-treatment of prisoners in an August 2018 report. Human Rights Watch also wrote to Chief Justice Faik Zaidan, asking what steps judges are obliged to take once a defendant alleges torture. None of those contacted has responded.

Iraq’s High Judicial Council should issue guidelines on the steps judges are obliged when a defendant alleges torture. Judges should investigate all credible allegations of torture and the security forces responsible, and order transfers of detainees to different facilities immediately after they allege torture or ill-treatment, to protect them from retaliation. Parliament should pass the draft Anti-Torture Law, which would require judges to order a medical examination of any detainee alleging torture within 24 hours of learning of the allegation.

Iraq’s foreign minister should urge parliament to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. Pending this ratification, the government should commit to setting up a National Preventative Mechanism that can inspect all detention centers in Iraq and set up effective complaint mechanisms for authorities and facilities involved in detention and interrogations. The heads of the federal intelligence agency, NSS, and the new minister of interior, once appointed, should issue statements to their chain of command on the prohibition of the use of torture and their commitment to punish perpetrators. The prime minister should publicly condemn the use of torture by all law enforcement, security and military personnel.

“The recent developments in Nineveh show that judicial authorities can better ensure that terrorism trials respect defendants’ rights.” Fakih said. “We hope to see courts elsewhere in Iraq learning from the improvements in Nineveh and introducing similar measures that can serve justice while protecting defendants from abuse.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government authorities have charged hundreds of children with terrorism for alleged Islamic State (also known as ISIS) affiliation. The prosecutions are often based on dubious accusations and forced confessions obtained through torture. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Egyptian security forces have been involved in systematic abuses such as enforced disappearance and torture and have used abusive counterterrorism laws and measures to crush peaceful dissent. Egyptian security forces stand guard outside one of the entrances of Tora prison, in Cairo, Egypt.

© 2015 Hassan Ammar/AP Images

(Geneva) – States at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva should ensure that Egypt is not allowed to seize a leading role in relation to the mandate of the United Nations’ expert on human rights and counter-terrorism, nine international human rights organizations have said. In light of Egypt’s record of severe and widespread abuse of counterterrorism measures to violate human rights, the organizations warned against attempts by Egypt to undermine the expert’s mandate.

The mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism is due to be renewed in the coming weeks at the ongoing Human Rights Council session in Geneva. Mexico has for many years led the resolution that established and maintained the expert but is now understood to be in discussions with Egypt about a possible leadership role for Egypt. Other changes to the resolution text may also be under consideration.

“Egypt has an appalling record of abusing counterterrorism measures against human rights defenders and other dissenting voices and was recently denounced by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders for severe reprisals against people who spoke with another visiting UN expert,” said Matt Pollard, senior legal adviser and UN representative for the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva. “To give such a country shared leadership on the renewal of the mandate of the UN’s expert on human rights and counter-terrorism would only do further harm to civil society and others in Egypt and elsewhere, undermine the work of the expert and the UN as a whole, and badly tarnish the long history of leadership Mexico has shown on these issues.”

Nine organizations – Amnesty International, ARTICLE 19, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists, International Service for Human Rights, and Privacy International – had earlier sent a joint letter to all countries representatives in Geneva highlighting their concerns. This was followed by a joint oral statement at the Human Rights Council session on March 1, during an interactive dialogue with the special rapporteur.

Egypt has gradually sought to dilute or distort the longstanding focus of the UN Human Rights Council’s work to protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, the groups said. In 2018 it succeeded in watering down the council’s longstanding thematic resolution on the topic, in which states annually recognize concerns about abuses and urge respect for human rights at a global and abstract level.

However, any move to gain control over the resolution on which the mandate of the special rapporteur depends, or to dilute or reframe her mandate, would have far deeper and further-ranging damaging effects. The special rapporteur acts on individual complaints, reports on the situation in particular countries, and addresses in detail topics relating to counterterrorism work around the world on an ongoing basis. The special rapporteur also serves an essential function in providing independent oversight of counterterrorism measures from a human rights perspective within the overall UN system. The mandate holds a uniquely important role in the UN counterterrorism architecture, as the only UN entity with the exclusive mandate to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism.

The organizations have been urging other countries to strongly oppose any attempts to weaken the mandate of the special rapporteur. The special rapporteur’s role should not be diluted by including the flawed Egyptian-led approach into the resolution for its renewal, or by sharing the leadership of the mandate renewal resolution with Egypt or other countries that have such an appalling record in relation to the very issues the mandate is to address.

Allowing Egypt to jointly lead the mandate renewal would only serve to encourage a continuation of its pattern of gross human rights violations and abuses against civil society and others within Egypt in the name of countering terrorism, while shielding it from international scrutiny, the groups said. It would also pose a long-term threat to the UN’s role in ensuring that counterterrorism measures are consistent with human rights, and that measures to uphold human rights for all and the rule of law are the fundamental basis for the fight against terrorism.

The organizations included are:

  1. Amnesty International
  2. ARTICLE 19
  3. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
  4. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
  5. Human Rights Watch
  6. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
  7. International Commission of Jurists
  8. International Service for Human Rights
  9. Privacy International
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Graffiti that reads "Daesh (ISIS)," marks the home of relatives of an ISIS member in a west Mosul neighborhood, Iraq. 

© 2018 Private

(Beirut) – Iraqi authorities in Nineveh are harassing, threatening, and arresting aid workers, even bringing bogus terrorism charges against them, undermining their work, Human Rights Watch said today. In some cases, local authorities are also compelling organizations to stop providing services to families the authorities accuse of ISIS ties.

“As if the their working conditions aren’t difficult enough, aid workers in Mosul and other parts of Nineveh have faced baseless charges of ISIS affiliation, and have even been arrested,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Charges of ISIS affiliation appear to be thinly veiled attempts to get some organizations to divert aid to corrupt local authorities or to stop giving assistance to some needy families accused of having relatives in ISIS.”

Human Rights Watch spoke with two people who have been tracking harassment of and physical assaults on aid workers by government officials. The sources said that since January 2018, they had documented at least 22 incidents in Nineveh, ranging from intimidation and arrests to assault, robbery, and live fire incidents. They said that such abuses were not unique to the governorate, with similar cases happening elsewhere in Iraq. Human Rights Watch documented two cases in which authorities detained aid workers because of humanitarian work, accusing them of being affiliated with ISIS.

In one case Human Rights Watch documented in early December 2018, a local lawyer for an aid organization said that military intelligence officers arrested him, two drivers, and a group of displaced people he was trying to help to get identity documents. He said they repeatedly interrogated the group and accused them of ISIS affiliation despite running their names through security databases and confirming that they were not wanted.

The officers refused to release the group even after the lawyer overheard a judge whom one officer called tell him that they could not charge the group with anything. After holding them for a day and a half, the officers took the group to a police station and the police eventually released them without charge.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented 17 cases in which lawyers working for humanitarian organizations in Nineveh over the last two years had witnessed or themselves experienced verbal harassment, arrest threats, or arrest.

In another recent case, an international aid worker said that in early January 2019, he saw a colleague who is a guard at a camp for displaced people south of Mosul prevent a group of armed local police from entering the camp with their armored vehicle. The action was consistent with global humanitarian principles on the nature of camps and an April 2017 directive from the then-prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, barring armed personnel from camps. But the aid worker said that police arrested the guard after he left work, took him to a local police station, beat and robbed him, and accused him of ISIS affiliation. After colleagues intervened, police released him and dropped the allegations against him, but later that night the same officers made death threats against him and other guards at the camp.

In another case, an aid worker said, staff at an aid agency refused to add a neighborhood leader to the group’s list of people entitled to its benefits because he did not meet their criteria. The neighborhood leader then filed a complaint with the Nineveh governor’s office, saying the organization was supporting ISIS.

The aid worker said the man called one of the team members and said he would drop the complaint if they added his name to the list. The aid worker refused. The aid worker said that she received calls from three other organizations telling her that at a meeting with the Nineveh governor, his deputy said that her organization was “supporting terrorism” and that his office had opened a full investigation.

Since then, an administrative assistant in the office of the governor of Nineveh has called in several staff members of the aid group to interrogate them. In early October, the governor’s office called the aid worker again, demanding the organization’s beneficiary lists to “vet them to exclude ISIS families.” She said the governor’s office also told the group to hire three specific people, implying that hiring them would resolve the accusations.

The aid worker said that as a result of the threats and demands, which she described as routine in several areas where the organization works, it has had to halt three major projects in Nineveh, with donors threatening to pull their funding as a result.

Local attempts to use terrorism allegations to compel organizations to alter lists of people entitled to their services have been successful in some cases. Another international aid worker said that his agency sends engineers to identify homes of civilians to rehabilitate in areas damaged by fighting, but that a governor has told him that organizations rebuilding private property are prohibited from rehabilitating homes of families with perceived ISIS affiliation.

In early November, the aid worker said, a local leader approached his team in Mosul and said the organization could not work on 20 homes it had identified because he had new information these families had relatives who were ISIS members. The aid worker said he demanded substantiation for the claims, but his organization was concerned that if the ties could be shown but they continued their work on those homes, the authorities would block the rest of their work.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented security forces preventing certain families from receiving humanitarian or legal assistance if authorities or local communities perceive them to be affiliated with ISIS.

Aid agencies told Human Rights Watch said that they have raised these incidents with the office of the prime minister, but have not received information about tangible steps taken to address the attacks and prevent further harassment.

On February 21, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the attention of the prime minister, requesting information on the steps his office has taken to investigate allegations of attacks on aid workers, to punish security officers responsible for attacks, and to prevent future attacks.

Iraq’s security forces, with the support of coalition partners, should integrate information around the protection of humanitarian workers and principles into training curricula and establish Standard Operating Procedures for investigating and addressing incidents of targeting or interference with humanitarian work.

Donors funding humanitarian operations in Iraq, coalition partners, and leaders in humanitarian agencies and organizations should raise cases of targeting and interference with the office of the prime minister and with implicated security forces, and press the government to put a stop to the attacks and to hold those responsible to account. Donors should use all opportunities to reiterate humanitarian principles and principles of needs-based programming to government officials.

“Unless there is a robust response to abuses of aid workers and attempts to undermine aid operations, it is going to become even harder and more dangerous for them to help Iraqis who need their assistance, including families with perceived ISIS affiliation,” Fakih said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Our organizations are deeply concerned about reported moves to allow Egypt a role in the Human Rights Council resolution to renew the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism (SR on CT). We fear that such a move would undermine the integrity and credibility of this vital mandate.

Egypt has an appalling record when it comes to abusing counter-terrorism measures to suppress civil society and dissenting voices. The Special Rapporteur has announced that the theme of her report to the 40th session is the misuse of counterterrorism measures against civil society and human rights defenders, and the session will thus be an important opportunity to shine a spotlight on Egypt’s record in this regard.

In mid-January 2019, on the launch of its annual World Report, Human Rights Watch stated that:

“Using counterterrorism as a guise to crush all forms of dissent could be Egypt’s hallmark of 2018... There’s simply not much room left to peacefully challenge the government without being detained and unfairly prosecuted as a ‘terrorist.’”

The Egyptian authorities' approach to counter-terrorism relies on systematic and widespread use of prolonged arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, and torture and ill-treatment including by rape, in addition to scores of possible cases of extrajudicial executions of detainees, and hundreds of unlawful killings of peaceful protesters. Many of these violations may amount to crimes against humanity. In North Sinai, the army has razed thousands of homes and farmlands leading to the forced evictions of tens of thousands of residents, many of whom were offered no compensation or temporary housing. The army may have also been involved in unlawful ground and airstrikes including by using cluster munitions. Further, the government has recently granted impunity to officers through special laws that make it even harder to question security officers involved in abuses.

We furthermore consider it wholly inappropriate for a State recently accused of severe reprisals following the visit of another Special Rapporteur in September/October 2018 to be rewarded with joining the core group on this vital mandate. The severity of these reprisals led in December 2018 to a joint statement from the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and the Special Rapporteur on Right to Housing warning that Egypt is “not ready to host further visits”.

Despite its rhetoric, the Egyptian government’s approach is not primarily to give greater consideration to the human rights of victims of terrorism, which is a topic that had already been addressed in more detail in the previous Mexican thematic resolution and previous reports of the mandate. Rather, it aims to divert attention from the adverse human rights effects of its and other States’ counter-terrorism measures against individuals and the activities of civil society, including by effectively presenting the State itself as a victim.

Any Egyptian involvement in the mandate renewal would be qualitatively different and far more damaging than the role it was accorded in the March 2018 thematic resolution. The March 2018 agreement was said at the time to be entirely without prejudice to the mandate resolution, and this was indeed offered to civil society and others at that time as a reassurance in the face of similar concerns.

Any dilution of the focus of the mandate, in the short or long term would also significantly narrow the already highly restricted space for independent oversight of counter-terrorism measures from a human rights perspective within the overall UN system. The mandate holds a uniquely important role in the UN Counter-Terrorism architecture, participating as the only UN entity with the exclusive mandate to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism.

Further, allowing Egypt to jointly lead the mandate renewal would only serve to encourage a continuation of its pattern of violations and abuses against civil society and others within Egypt, while shielding it from outside scrutiny.

We therefore urge you to communicate to the Permanent Missions of Mexico and Egypt your opposition to any such developments in relation to the leadership or content of the resolution to renew the Special Rapporteur’s mandate.


Amnesty International

Article 19

Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies 
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation

Human Rights Watch

International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) 
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) 
Privacy International 
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Satellite-analysis of US-led coalition air strike locations in Baghuz (19 January - 20 February 2019)

© Damage analysis by Human Rights Watch; Image courtesy of Planet Labs Inc.

(New York) – Protecting civilians should be a key priority for the US-led coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) makes its last territorial stand in Syria, Human Rights Watch said today, based on research in northern Syria and analysis of satellite imagery. Satellite-recorded video taken on the morning of February 20, 2019 shows hundreds of people walking along a small agricultural access road in the town of Baghuz near the Euphrates river.

The UN high commissioner for human rights had warned on February 19 that about 200 families remained trapped in the town and called for their safe passage out. On February 20, journalists saw some of these families evacuating the town. But the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces spokesperson said that some civilians remain in the pocket of land.

“Civilians leaving Baghuz is a relief but it should not obscure the fact that this battle appears to have been waged without sufficient consideration to their wellbeing,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism/counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “Just because they may be families of ISIS members or sympathized with them does not take away their protected status.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 20 people who escaped the ISIS pocket in recent weeks. They described the Baghuz area being repeatedly shelled and subjected to air strikes, resulting in the town’s destruction. An analysis of satellite imagery revealed that the majority of buildings in Baghuz were destroyed during a one-month period between January 19 and February 20, a period during which large numbers of civilians were still present. Human Rights Watch identified over 630 major damage sites in Baghuz during this period, consistent with the detonation of large, air-dropped munitions.

The number of civilians killed in the fighting remains unknown. Many of those who escaped said that they buried people wherever they could. Satellite imagery recorded between January 26 and February 9 appeared to show ongoing mass burials on an empty plot of land next to the main road in the center of Baghuz. Human Rights Watch is not in a position to determine how many of those buried were civilians.

Journalists stationed near the Baghuz front lines told Human Rights Watch that they have observed a decrease in the number of airstrikes since February 14, but that shelling has continued to strike the pocket.

In addition to hundreds of US-led coalition airstrikes on the area, escapees described artillery attacks coming from territory controlled by the Syrian government, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, and even from the Iraqi border, where Iraqi, French, and American artillery were based. French artillery is positioned at a forward operating base on the plateau of the Baghuz mountain in Iraq's western Anbar province opposite Syria's Deir Ezzor region, 10.5 kilometers east of Baghuz. The head of that unit told AFP earlier in February that his forces had fired 3,500 rounds on the Syrian front, which includes Baghuz.

“The scariest part was the shelling,” said a 42-year-old Iraqi man who managed to escape. “It came from all sides, including the Iraqi side. The field was strewn with bodies of people and we’d all stay flat on the ground, for hours on end, not moving while the shells flew from one direction to the other.” Human Rights Watch identified in satellite imagery hundreds of impact craters from heavy artillery fire within Baghuz between January 19 and February 19 consistent with this and other witness accounts.

Witnesses described harrowing conditions in the last months, with lack of food and aid forcing them to eat grass and weeds to survive, even as they moved multiple times to escape relentless attacks. As US-backed troops advanced on the area, large numbers of civilians retreated with ISIS along the Euphrates river to Baghuz, where they were encircled completely with the Baghuz mountains to the east and the river to the south.


Satellite: Movement of people, fleeing heavy air strikes and artillery fire in Baghuz, Syria

Time series animation of satellite imagery showing the movement of thousands of people towards the Euphrates River fleeing heavy air strikes and artillery fire in Baghuz (20 January - 19 February 2019). Image courtesy of Planet Labs Inc.

Satellite imagery recorded between January 26 and February 20 shows the movement of thousands of people toward the river as US-led coalition forces hit the built-up areas of Baghuz with air strikes and artillery fire. People who later escaped the area told Human Rights Watch that many of the people with them were relatives of ISIS members, but others were people who had been displaced multiple times in Iraq and Syria and had remained in ISIS controlled areas because they had no place else to go.

Most witnesses said that it was very dangerous to try to escape ISIS-controlled areas because the group punished people who tried to flee and had mined the roads. They said that smugglers were charging up to US$400 per person, which most of them no longer had.

Families slept in open fields for days, in temperatures that got very cold at night, and dug small trenches in the ground to protect themselves from the shelling and air strikes.

Witness accounts of air and artillery strikes together with image-based analysis of air strike damage in Baghuz, raise concerns that US-led coalition forces fighting ISIS failed to take adequate precautions to minimize civilian casualties.

The coalition should choose means and methods of warfare to minimize incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and damage to civilian objects, including in their choice of weaponry in populated areas. The coalition should conduct thorough, prompt, and impartial investigations of the attacks resulting in civilian casualties, do everything feasible to prevent similar attacks, and provide compensation or condolence payments to people who suffered losses due to the coalition’s operations, Human Rights Watch said.

All parties to the conflict should facilitate access for aid groups to populations in need, and the international community should increase its efforts to assist those in need, Human Rights Watch said.

“In the air, we see the international coalition expend vast resources to defeat ISIS, but on the ground it has expended very little to protect children and other civilians caught up in its attacks,” Houry said.


Satellite: Destruction of buildings from US-led coalition air strikes and artillery bombardment on the town of Baghuz

Time series animation of satellite imagery showing the destruction of hundreds of buildings from US-led coalition air strikes and artillery bombardment from multiple sides on the town of Baghuz (20 January to 19 February 2019). Image courtesy of Planet Labs Inc.

Perilous Escapes, Then More Hardship

As the strikes intensified in January, thousands of people decided to leave the Baghuz area and made the arduous and dangerous journey out of ISIS-held areas by walking to the top of the Baghuz mountain and into SDF-controlled territory. Those with money paid smugglers to help transport them part of the way. Between December 4 and February 19, more than 31,000 people left the area.

A Syrian woman described the decision to leave:

There were strikes from all directions. It just became too dangerous. At one point, we gathered each other, we were in the hundreds, and we left Baghuz. We walked from 1 p.m. until 10 p.m. We were in a group of 12 families. We slept outside. I tore my dress to cover my child’s head.

Air strikes and artillery shells fell as people escaped, other witnesses said.

“The planes were hitting people even as they escaped – we saw them one night, up on the mountain people trying to escape, women and children and then boom, boom – two rockets right on the mountain,” said an Iraqi man who was among those who escaped in January. His account was corroborated by others who were present, who also described shells falling as they walked to the top of the mountain.

Those who escaped the area faced new struggles. Upon arrival at the first SDF checkpoint, escapees were left out in the cold, in some cases for over a day, without SDF forces providing them with blankets or aid, only a little food, and without access to humanitarian agencies. The SDF then transported them from the checkpoint to al-Omar oil field, where SDF and US forces screened the people and provided them with some food, but still required them to sleep out in the open, before finally transporting them to al-Hol camp, a displacement camp six hour’s drive away that is controlled by the Kurdish-led authorities in al-Hasakeh governorate. Human Rights Watch interviewed the escapees in the camp.


Satellite: The rapid expansion of al Hol camp with thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting in Baghuz

Time series animation of satellite imagery showing the rapid expansion of al Hol camp with thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting in Baghuz (29 December 2018 to 20 February 2019). Image courtesy of Planet Labs Inc.

For weeks, transport to al-Hol was in open air trucks despite cold and rainy weather. Since December 4, at least 61 infants have died from hypothermia and malnutrition during the escape from Baghuz or shortly after arriving at the camp, according to the UN. Members of the Kurdish Red Crescent who were providing assistance to displaced civilians upon arrival confirmed that a number of infants died of hypothermia and malnutrition during the transfer.

While conditions have slightly improved since the start of the latest displacement, Human Rights Watch observed during multiday visits to al-Hol in mid-February that humanitarian needs of the displaced population remain high and that the camp administration lacks sufficient support.

Three women in the camp interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had lost their infants on the way, citing lack of medical care. Two of the children died while in al-Hol due to malnutrition and insufficient access to health care.

Local camp authorities said that the UN and aid agencies had been slow in helping them cope with the large influx and had refused to set up camps closer to the front line. They gave as an example a 15-day delay in the UN delivering tents to the camp as it reportedly awaited approval from Damascus. The UN blames local authorities for not facilitating access.

Satellite Imagery Analysis of Airstrikes and Shelling over Baghuz

Human Rights Watch analysis of satellite imagery of Baghuz identified over 600 distinct impact sites consistent with the detonation of large, air-dropped munitions between January 19 and February 19. Munitions of this size can pose an excessive risk to civilians when used in populated areas, given their large blast and fragmentation radius. The coalition should cease using explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.

Obligations of US-led Coalition members

International law says that parties to a conflict are required at all times to take all feasible precautions to avoid, and in any event to minimize, civilian casualties to the greatest extent possible. In case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person should be considered a civilian. Where civilians are present at the site of a military objective, coalition forces should only target the military objective and determine that the harm caused to civilians or civilian property by any planned attack would be proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated in the attack.

If coalition forces failed to detect the presence of dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians in the vicinity of strike sites, this raises serious concerns about how coalition forces ascertain whether civilians are in the vicinity of a target and whether they took all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm. It also raises questions about how the coalition determines whether a person is a civilian or combatant, and whether coalition forces complied with the requirement to treat a person as civilian if there is doubt and with its obligation to distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Time series animation of satellite imagery showing the rapid expansion of al Hol camp with thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting in Baghuz (29 December 2018 to 20 February 2019). Image courtesy of Planet Labs Inc.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Time series animation of satellite imagery showing the destruction of hundreds of buildings from US-led coalition air strikes and artillery bombardment from multiple sides on the town of Baghuz (20 January to 19 February 2019). Image courtesy of Planet Labs Inc.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Time series animation of satellite imagery showing the movement of thousands of people towards the Euphrates River fleeing heavy air strikes and artillery fire in Baghuz (20 January - 19 February 2019).  Image courtesy of Planet Labs Inc.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Mozambican army soldiers patrol the streets of Mocimboa da Praia after security in the area was increased following a two-day attack by suspected Islamist fighters, March 2018. 

© 2018 ADRIEN BARBIER/AFP/Getty Images

(Johannesburg) – Mozambique’s state security forces are intimidating, detaining, and prosecuting journalists covering the fighting against an armed Islamist group in the northern province of Cabo Delgado. For 13 days in January 2019, the military held incommunicado Amade Abubacar, a journalist who was interviewing villagers displaced by insurgents, then turned him over for civilian prosecution.

Since June 2018, the government has barred various media organizations and correspondents from visiting the province, while the army detained journalists who managed to go there or police arrested them on bogus charges.

“The Mozambican government’s actions to silence the media in Cabo Delgado obstruct public scrutiny of the military operations and alleged abuses,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should immediately release Amade Abubacar and allow him and other journalists to operate safely and freely.” 

On January 5, police officers arrested Abubacar, who works for Rádio e Televisao Comunitária Nacedje (Nacedje Community Radio and Television) and as a freelance writer for other local media groups. MISA Mozambique, a local media rights group, said Abubacar was transferred that day to a military barracks in Mueda district, where soldiers allegedly beat and ill-treated him, and held him without access to a lawyer or family members for 13 days. 

On January 17, the public prosecutor's office charged Abubacar with "violation of state secrets” and "public instigation to crime.” State prosecutors alleged that Abubacar’s notebook contained detailed information about the armed group, including names of insurgents, and that he was covering the insurgency without informing his editor at the community radio station. He is currently being detained at the Macomia District Command of the Mozambique Police.

Under Mozambican law, military personnel are prohibited from holding detainees in military barracks. Suspects detained during military operations must be handed over to police, who will proceed with arrests and either release the suspects or charge them within 48 hours. 

The head of the Mozambican Bar association, Flavio Menete, called Abubacar’s arrest a “legal aberration,” and said that the Public Prosecutor’s Office ignored the journalist’s detention in a military installation to validate his detention. United Nations human rights experts said the arrest of Abubacar could have “a chilling effect on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression in Mozambique.”

Human Rights Watch has documented other cases of arbitrary detentions of journalists and other abuses by government security forces in villages attacked by the armed Islamist group known locally as both Al-Sunna wa Jama’a and Al-Shabab. The group has no publicly known link to the abusive Somali armed group Al-Shabab. 

An editor based in the northern province of Nampula, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told Human Rights Watch that army soldiers operating in Cabo Delgado target anyone perceived as trying to uncover abuses in the region and accuse them of being insurgents. “To be able to report the events in the province, one must be disguised as a local resident and avoid being detected,” he said. “Any sign that you might be a journalist will put you in serious danger.”

The editor said he was detained twice since September at military checkpoints for several hours. He said that on both occasions, soldiers searched his car and belongings, and threatened to kill him if his cover story was not real.

On June 30, 2018, army soldiers stopped a Zimbabwean journalist in Pemba city, together with his interpreter and driver, while he was interviewing residents on the streets. When the journalist told the soldiers that he planned to head north to interview victims of insurgent attacks, soldiers took them to the nearest police station where they were kept incommunicado until the following morning. They were released on July 2 without charges, after the Pemba state prosecutor intervened.

The same week, a team from BBC Africa was denied accreditation to work in Cabo Delgado province. A team member told Human Rights Watch that an official from Gabinfo, the government body that regulates journalists in the country, told them that the government didn’t want any focus on Cabo Delgado because “the story was embarrassing.”

On July 10, soldiers detained a three-member crew from an international news agency for about three hours outside Chitolo village, in Mocimboa da Praia district. One of the reporters said there was no army presence in the village when they arrived in the morning. However, when they finished interviewing residents and left the village around midday, a large contingent of soldiers had set up a roadblock and stopped them. Soldiers took them to a police station in Mocimboa da Praia, where they removed the memory cards and deleted photos from the journalists’ cameras. 

Two Cabo Delgado-based Mozambican journalists said that members of the intelligence services had warned them not to report events in some villages of Macomia and Mocimboa da Praia, unless “there is a visit by government officials.” One said, “I used to be one of the first reporters to arrive at the scene after the attacks. I even covered stories of abuses by security forces. But in November, a member of the police investigation unit told me that I should stop acting like a brave man if I loved my life and my family.”

On December 17, soldiers detained an academic, a journalist, and a driver in Mocimboa da Praia district, after they interviewed residents of Chitolo village. The academic said that 15 army soldiers took them to a makeshift barracks at Quelimane Primary School, where about 80 soldiers were camped even though the school was still functioning. At the school the soldiers intimidated and questioned them for several hours and searched their cellphones and cameras. “At night, they gave us four pieces of bread and water for dinner before forcing the three of us to sleep on the back of our pickup truck,” the academic said. “In the morning we used the school toilets to wash ourselves.” he said. The soldiers allowed them to leave that morning but refused to return the seized electronic equipment.

“Mozambique’s fight against insurgents is no excuse to unduly constrain media freedom,” Mavhinga said. “By obstructing the media in Cabo Delgado, the government is trying to prevent Mozambicans from learning what both sides to the conflict are doing.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Video: Children of ISIS Members Trapped in Squalid Camps and Prisons

Tunisian officials have been dragging their feet on helping bring home Tunisian children held without charge in foreign camps and prisons for families of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) members.

(Tunis) – Tunisian officials have been dragging their feet on helping bring home Tunisian children held without charge in foreign camps and prisons for families of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) members, Human Rights Watch said today. Most of the children are held with their mothers, but at least six are orphans.

In rare calls and letters to family members, mothers of the children described living in overcrowded prison cells in Libya or tent camps in northeast Syria with acute shortages of food, clothing, and medicine. Two Tunisia-based family members said the mothers told them that some women and children – they did not say how many – had been beaten by interrogators, sometimes repeatedly, in al-Jawiyyah, a prison in Misrata, Libya, and that some detainees, including children, were severely withdrawn and spoke of wanting to kill themselves.

“Legitimate security concerns are no license for governments to abandon young children and other nationals held without charge in squalid camps and prisons abroad,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Tunisian children are stuck in these camps with no education, no future, and no way out while their government seems to barely lift a finger to help them.”

In December 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed Tunisian family members of 13 women and 35 children detained in Libya and Syria as well as government officials, human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, Western diplomats, and United Nations representatives. In July and September 2018, Human Rights Watch visited the three camps in northeast Syria controlled by US-backed Kurdish authorities detaining Tunisians and other foreign women and children linked to ISIS members.

A woman walks with a child in Roj camp, which holds foreign wives and children of Islamic State (ISIS) members, in northeast Syria, September 2018.

© 2018 Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

While Tunisia is not the only country stalling on helping its stranded women and children to come home, and many of the others have significantly greater resources, Tunisia has one of the largest contingents. About 200 children and 100 women claiming Tunisian nationality have been held abroad without charge for up to two years as ISIS family members, most in Syria and neighboring Libya and some in Iraq, Tunisia’s Ministry of Women and Children told Human Rights Watch. Many of the children are age six or younger, and bringing home their mothers as well may be in their best interest.

Other countries should similarly help bring home children stranded in Iraq, Libya, and Syria after their parents joined the extremist armed group. Most younger children were born in ISIS-held areas or brought there by their parents.

Nearly all family members interviewed said they had received no replies to letters and documents they had sent to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the president, and other officials beseeching them to help bring the women and children home. “We went to everyone, but no one responded,” said Hamda Laouini, whose daughter, daughter-in-law, and four grandchildren are detained in Ain Issa camp in northeast Syria.

“For God’s sake, save the children from destruction,” one mother detained in a Libyan prison wrote to a family member in a 2018 letter shared with Human Rights Watch. “They are slipping [emotionally] from our hands.”

Authorities in northeast Syria and Libya have asked home countries to take back the women and children, saying they do not plan to prosecute them. Iraq has prosecuted foreign adults and children as young as nine for links to ISIS – often in procedures that fail fair trial standards – but has also asked countries to take back the children. Although inconsistent in their approach, at least nine countries have repatriated about 200 children and women detained in Iraq, Libya, and northeast Syria, showing that it is possible.

In a written response to requests for comment, the Tunisian Foreign Affairs Ministry said that “Tunisia attaches special importance” to the cases of the detained children as part of its “firm belief in human rights.” But so far Tunisia has helped bring only three of these children home, from Libya. In January, Tunisia also reportedly agreed to bring home six orphans living in a Red Crescent shelter in Libya by mid-February.

The Foreign Ministry response also said the government would not turn away detainees whose citizenship is established, noting that the Tunisian Constitution prohibits denying or revoking citizenship or preventing citizens from returning home. While Human Rights Watch found no evidence that Tunisia was turning away citizens at its borders, most if not all of the detainees have no way to leave locked camps and prisons to reach Tunisian consulates or borders, some of which are hundreds of kilometers away and on the other side of conflict zones, without their governments’ intervention.

International human rights law provides that everyone has the right to a nationality and that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of theirs. Countries have a responsibility to ensure that children are not deprived of this right. This obligation extends to children born abroad to one of their nationals and who would otherwise be stateless. Countries must ensure acquisition of nationality by an otherwise stateless child “as soon as possible,” the UN Human Rights Committee has said.

Countries including Tunisia should ensure that all child nationals detained abroad solely because they are the sons and daughters of alleged or confirmed ISIS members are swiftly and safely brought home unless they fear ill-treatment upon return, Human Rights Watch said. If mothers are held without charge, children should not be sent home without them, absent compelling evidence that such separation is in the best interests of the child.

If Tunisia and other home countries deem the mothers to be security risks, they can screen and, if appropriate, monitor or prosecute them upon repatriation in line with fair trial standards. However, they should not interfere with the right of everyone to enter, and return to, the country of their nationality. Children will have more access to mothers serving prison sentences at home than they will if their mothers are held abroad.

Upon return, nationals should be provided rehabilitation and reintegration services. Children should be treated first and foremost as victims and should not be prosecuted for links to groups such as ISIS absent evidence of violent acts. Detention of children should be an exceptional measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate duration, in line with juvenile justice standards. Donors should prioritize assistance to countries such as Tunisia to ensure they have the capacity to screen and reintegrate returnees.

“These children and even their mothers cannot leave locked camps and prisons and make their way home on their own any more than fish can swim across the desert,” Tayler said. “Leaving family members to languish without charge in foreign camps and prisons will compound their suffering and risk fueling further grievances.”

Children Stranded Abroad
An estimated 2,000 children and 1,000 women from 46 nationalities are detained in prisons in Iraq and Libya and three camps northeast Syria – Roj, Ain Issa, and al-Hol – for family ties to foreign ISIS suspects or members. A majority, according to Human Rights Watch research, have not been charged with any crime. But most countries have balked at helping them come home, claiming they may be security threats or that verifying their nationalities may be difficult. Many of the women and children’s husbands and fathers are imprisoned, missing, or dead.

Most of the detained women and children were captured or surrendered as ISIS retreated from Sirte, Libya in December 2016; Mosul, Iraq in July 2017; and Raqqa, Syria in October 2017.

Dozens of countries with greater financial resources than cash-strapped Tunisia are also stalling on bringing home wives and children of ISIS members. The Belgian government said in December that it would appeal a court order to repatriate six Belgian children and their two mothers from al-Hol camp.

Of more than 200 women and children transferred out of prisons and camps so far, most were brought home by Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Egypt, and Sudan. Germany, France, and the United States have brought home only a few each. France in October 2018 said it may repatriate additional children from northeast Syria, and in January said it would accept but prosecute adult French ISIS members if they are deported or otherwise come home. In January, two children from Trinidad were released from Roj camp in a rescue involving Roger Walters, co-founder of the rock band Pink Floyd.

Tunisians in Camps and Prisons
Tunisian authorities say that just under 3,000 of their nationals have joined ISIS abroad. Two Western diplomats told Human Rights Watch they believe the number is far higher, with up to 6,500 Tunisians having traveled to Syria and another 1,000 to 1,500 to Libya. Either way, it is one of the world’s highest rates per capita. The numbers reportedly include as many as 1,000 women, although there are no breakdowns between women who joined ISIS and those who accompanied spouses.

Tunisia also is estimated to have one of the highest number of ISIS members who surrendered or returned home on their own – about 900, according to government officials. Two Western diplomats told Human Rights Watch they believe the number is closer to 1,500.

The country has been under a state of emergency since 2015, when ISIS and other extremist armed groups began a series of mass attacks on civilians as well as security targets. Perpetrators in two of the highest-profile ISIS attacks, on the Bardo Museum in Tunis and a coastal resort in Sousse in 2015, reportedly trained in Libya. A female suicide bomber who in October wounded 26 people, most of them police officers, in central Tunis had sworn allegiance to ISIS but had not traveled abroad.

In 2016, President Béji Caïd Essebsi proposed an amnesty for returning ISIS fighters and their families but quickly retreated in the face of negative media commentary and street protests.

Tunisia has only allowed the repatriation of three children, who had been detained in a Libyan prison for ISIS members’ families, according to government officials, family members, and human rights activists. Libyan media reported that Tunisian authorities said they will bring home six orphans after the Red Crescent Society of Misrata, which is caring for the children, on January 17 called on Tunisia to repatriate them within one month.

Officials with the Tunisian Ministry of Women and Children said that about 100 women and 200 children are detained abroad as ISIS family members, but referred Human Rights Watch to the Foreign Affairs and Interior ministries for specific numbers and breakdowns. Neither ministry responded to Human Rights Watch requests for data.

The non-governmental Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad (RATTA) has collected information on 116 Tunisian detainees – 93 children and 23 women – of whom it says more than half are in Libya, nearly one-third are in Syria, and the rest are in Iraq, Turkey or elsewhere. Nearly half the children tracked by RATTA are no more than two years old and four-fifths are no older than six.

Confirming the detainees’ nationalities can be a complex process. Tunisian citizenship can be transferred through a father or a mother. However, many detainees, particularly the children born in former ISIS territory, lack proof of identity or potentially have a second nationality through one foreign parent. Many countries including Tunisia have severed diplomatic relations with Syria. The Kurdish-led coalition controlling camps in northeast Syria is not an internationally recognized government. In Libya, two governments vie for legitimacy and different militias control the prisons detaining the women and children.

In April 2017, in an apparent effort to bring home children detained in Libya, an official Tunisian delegation visited representatives of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The delegation brought DNA kits to help determine the children’s identities but never used them after the Libyan and Tunisian authorities failed to agree on terms for the transfer, three Tunisian government officials told Human Rights Watch.

The Tripoli-based GNA wanted the Tunisians to bring home the women, the children, and at least 80 corpses in a morgue that they said were dead Tunisian ISIS fighters, but the Tunisians were at most willing to bring back the children as a first step, fearing the mothers were a greater security risk, the government officials said. Only one mother detained in Libya is known to have agreed to be separated from her Tunisian children.

Mohammed Ben Rejeb, the president of RATTA, accused the Tunisian authorities of insisting on bringing home children first as a ruse to stall on repatriating any of them. “The Tunisian government doesn’t want to bring back the children or their mothers,” he said.

Desperate for a solution, four Tunisian families paid a Libyan lawyer 2,000 Libyan dinars (US$1,440) per child to get five children out of Libya. But the lawyer has only been able to help release two siblings, whom the Tunisian government let come home in November.

An April 2018 report by the UN human rights office described Mitiga prison in Tripoli and al-Jawiyyah prison in Misrata as “facilities notorious for endemic torture and other human rights violations or abuses,” including against women and children. The report did not make reference to detainees related to ISIS members. Mitiga and al-Jawiyyah prisons hold at least 53 Tunisians – 29 children and 24 women – according to Tunisian family members, human rights activists, and journalists.

Libyan authorities did not respond to more recent requests by a Human Rights Watch researcher to visit Mitiga, run by the Special Deterrence Force allied with the Tripoli-based GNA, and al-Jawiyyah, nominally run by the GNA Judicial Police. Human Rights Watch was also denied access in September 2018 to the shelter run by the Red Crescent Society in Misrata.

The Families’ Accounts
Most of the family members who spoke with Human Rights Watch in Tunisia said their female relatives were duped by recruiters or seduced or coerced by husbands, but others said the women went willingly.

Human Rights Watch is not in a position to assess these women’s motivations. Studies on recruitment include coercion and the desire to keep families intact as reasons that women have joined ISIS abroad, but they also list factors such as ideological motivations and desire for adventure. UN binding resolutions and principles for country responses to groups like ISIS note that women and children related to armed extremists may be perpetrators, supporters, or victims of terrorism.

“She was very obedient,” Hamida Hamouda said of her illiterate daughter-in-law, now detained with four children at Ain Issa camp. Two women detainees were child brides when they left with their husbands for Syria, family members said.

Zohra al-Hammi said four female relatives, now detained with five children in Roj camp, left with or followed their husbands to Syria in 2015 to keep their families intact. “Forty-five days later, they called and said, ‘We want to come back,’” she said, but Turkish border guards would not let them cross out of Syria.

Whatever the women’s motivations, relatives in Tunisia said the children stuck abroad from their families were brought by their parents to ISIS territories or were born there. Moncef Abidi said his sister Wahida and her Tunisian husband initially had legitimate jobs when the couple moved in 2013 to Libya. But two years later, the husband joined ISIS. Wahida called the family in tears, desperate to return to Tunisia with her son, Baraa, but said her husband told her, “If you go, our son stays with me,” Abidi said.

In 2016, during clashes between armed groups in the coastal city of Sabratha, Baraa’s father was killed and a bullet tore through Baraa’s back and out of his stomach. Baraa, now four, has had five operations and needs one more that cannot be performed in Libya, Abidi said.

Baraa and Wahida are detained together at Mitiga prison. The Special Deterrence Force reunited the mother and child but only after Baraa had spent four months in a hospital. The militia disseminated a video of the reunion, which shows Wahida, crying hysterically and Baraa, then a toddler, looking alternately frightened and dazed. “Can I please hug him – is that okay?” she asks. It is one of several videos that the Special Deterrence Force and GNA have released about the detained Tunisian women and children that appeared aimed at blaming Tunisia for the impasse on their repatriation.

Abidi said he has repeatedly appealed to the Tunisian authorities to let Baraa come home. “He is just a little boy,” Abidi said. “Why should he be punished for the crimes of his father?”

The family members’ descriptions of dire living conditions in the three northeast Syrian camps were consistent with Human Rights Watch findings in 2018 at these sites, where the Syrian Democratic Forces are holding up to 1,750 foreign women and children, including at least 150 Tunisians. Specialist health care, medicine, and food including infant formula were scarce and counseling and rehabilitation programs non-existent, female detainees told Human Rights Watch. Some women said that their interrogators, usually women, beat them during their initial questioning in detention facilities, before they were transferred to the camps.

Conditions in Al-Hol camp are “critical” and at least 29 children and newborns are reported to have died there or en route since early December, mainly from hypothermia, the World Health Organization said.

“I am hungry, I am hungry,” Bornia Mathlouthi said her 7-year-old grandson cried in December, when Mathlouthi spoke by phone with her daughter-in-law and three grandchildren in al-Hol camp. Two months ago, a sand storm destroyed the tent that housed the family, Mathlouthi said. All the children can do to pass time, she said, is “play with dirt and stones.”

“The children were hungry and pale and so was their mother,” said Chahiba Ghanmi, who visited her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren in al-Jawiyyah prison in 2018. “The mother says they only survive on spaghetti in water. I gave Ahmed a candy and a cake. He had no idea what they were. He ate the candy with the wrapping still on it.”

The camps in northeast Syria and prisons in Libya also sell food but at exorbitant prices and families are not always able to send money, the Tunisian relatives said.

In addition to Baraa in Libya, two children stranded in Syria need surgery, Tunisian family members told Human Rights Watch. One is a 10-year-old boy whose face was disfigured from a cooking-gas canister explosion in a tent in Roj camp. The other is a 4-year-old boy living with his Syrian mother in a camp for displaced Syrians in Aziz, who has a hole in his skull from a bombing attack. That boy’s Tunisian father is dead.

Returned children
In its written response, the Foreign Ministry said it has confirmed “a number” of children as Tunisian through DNA testing and was rehabilitating them but did not elaborate. Human rights activists, family members, and other government officials said they only knew of three repatriated children.

One of them is Tamim, a 4-year-old orphan who made headlines when the authorities repatriated him from Libya in 2017. Tamim’s parents were killed in February 2016 during US airstrikes and ground fighting in Sabratha. His grandfather, Faouzi Trabelsi, said he went to Libya four times to seek his grandson’s repatriation before Tunisian authorities agreed to let the boy come home.

For his first month home, the authorities placed Tamim in a hospital ward for children who are orphaned or physically disabled. He received a month of medical and psychological care there but nothing since, his grandfather said.

The two other repatriated children, a 10-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl whose mother remains detained in Misrata, receive counseling from a state-appointed psychologist, a family member told Human Rights Watch. All three repatriated children appear to be adjusting to life back in Tunisia, the family members said.

The Foreign Ministry said the government is also developing an array of prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration programs to counter armed extremism. Western diplomats said the programs remain largely in the planning stage as Tunisia copes with overcrowded prisons, economic crisis and political turmoil.

Tunisia is “working to rehabilitate and reintegrate foreign terrorist fighters and their families” in line with UN Security Council resolutions such as Resolution 2396 of 2017, the Foreign Ministry said. That binding resolution emphasizes the need for children’s “timely” reintegration and rehabilitation.

All family members interviewed in Tunisia by Human Rights Watch said they thought the best way to help the children recover from detention and life under ISIS would be for Tunisian authorities to bring them home and their mothers with them.

“She is still breastfeeding them, they cannot be parted,” said Mohammed Kilani of his daughter and her 2-year-old twins – two of four young children detained with her in Roj camp. “The children are innocent, they have done nothing wrong. If my daughter committed any crime let her come back and be prosecuted in her own country.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Sometimes complex policy issues are best captured in a simple question. If ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is captured alive tomorrow, who should prosecute him, where and for what crimes?

When I pose this question to policymakers – in Western capitals or in the Middle East – I am often met with a blank stare. Most expect al-Baghdadi to be killed instead of caught. But even if al-Baghdadi is not captured alive, what about the thousands of ISIS members – some of whom held key roles in ISIS – currently detained in Syria and Iraq?

Even though ISIS’s territorial control in Syria is collapsing, the international anti-ISIS coalition and local powers have yet to adopt a coordinated strategy to hold ISIS members accountable. What we have is a piecemeal approach that is deeply flawed.

ISIS members have been prosecuted solely within the framework of domestic counterterrorism laws. Terrorism offenses are convenient because authorities only have to prove a connection between the accused and a terrorist organization, and sentences are lengthy. But the approach fails to capture the full range of crimes committed by ISIS or judge members for specific actions. It also denies victims their day in court, and sheds no light on the inner workings of the group. It is a missed opportunity to create a judicial record of ISIS atrocities and bring individuals to justice for those crimes.

There are also serious fair trial and due process concerns with the current approach. In Iraq, trials of ISIS suspects have been rushed, with speedy convictions and many death sentences handed down. Victims of ISIS abuse, including Yezidis, say they have been ignored in court proceedings and that those who harmed them are not being charged with crimes like rape or murder. Iraq’s approach is so blunt that an ISIS cook can receive the same punishment as an ISIS member who may have raped or beheaded victims. Due process violations, including torture, have further undermined confidence in the process.

In northern Syria, the US-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) are holding thousands of local and foreign ISIS suspects. The local authorities have set up makeshift courts that have tried hundreds of Syrian ISIS members by applying a locally enacted counterterrorism law. But the proceedings are deeply flawed. There are no defense lawyers to represent suspects and no appeals process.

The SDF’s makeshift courts are not recognized by the Syrian government or the international community – including the group’s own international partners – raising doubts about the long-term impact and enforceability of the rulings. Meanwhile, hundreds of foreign ISIS members – from 46 countries – remain in custody with no legal process because the SDF would like their home countries to take them back – a request that most home countries have rejected so far.

Local and international initiatives to improve these efforts have been ill-conceived and some have been underfunded. Iraqi authorities announced in 2017 that they would set up a Judicial Investigation Board for Crimes Against the Yezidis to investigate ISIS crimes against them. But key Yezidi groups that provide support to people formerly enslaved by ISIS say they were never contacted and that the investigative body has not published any information about its work or how it will feed into criminal cases.

Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also created a committee to investigate crimes against the Yezidis, but a recent report by the International Federation for Human Rights says the committee’s evidence does not currently feed into any prosecution system. Among the reasons for the absence of prosecution efforts for war crimes and crimes against humanity is the fact that international crimes, such as war crimes and genocide, are not currently incorporated into Iraqi law.

The United Nations has tried to assist Iraq, but its efforts have been limited and suffer from design flaws. The Security Council established a team to investigate ISIS crimes in Iraq, and the team began its work in late 2018. But the mandate of this team, known by the acronym UNITAD, is limited. For now, it only covers crimes committed in Iraq by ISIS members. It will not investigate ISIS crimes in Syria nor conduct investigations on the Syrian side of the border, nor will it look into grave crimes committed by groups that fought ISIS in Iraq despite overwhelming evidence of rampant abuses.

But even in Iraq, where the UN team will have a mandate to gather evidence, it is not clear how any UN evidence will be used in future trials. UN policy rightly prohibits supporting or assisting processes that could lead to the death penalty or that deny defendants a fundamentally fair trial. And death sentences and unfair trials are a common experience for those accused of ISIS affiliation in Iraq. So right now, it is not clear how this UN-effort will further prosecutions.

The absence of an international strategy to credibly prosecute ISIS members is particularly flagrant in northern Syria. The US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS never developed a plan to bring ISIS members held there to justice. Key members of the coalition have often repeated the mantra that foreign members of ISIS should be tried by the coalition’s local allies, yet the coalition has not assisted the local authorities in northern Syria to develop their courts.

With the United States announcing its withdrawal from Syria, the SDF finds itself holding hundreds of foreigners suspected of affiliation with ISIS with no capacity or strategy to investigate the crimes they are implicated in and prosecute them. One concern is that faced with no other options, the SDF may be tempted to eventually transfer these men to Syrian government custody – a troubling prospect given the rampant torture and lack of fair trials in areas under its control.

The UN – through the General Assembly – did establish in December 2016 an international mechanism (known as IIIM) to assist in investigating and prosecuting those responsible for the most serious international crimes committed in Syria since March 2011. Unlike UNITAD in Iraq, the IIIM can look at crimes by all parties in Syria. However, this impartial approach has come with an operational cost. Unlike the UN-mandated investigation in Iraq, which operates with the approval of Iraqi authorities and can dispatch teams to the country, the IIIM does not have the support of the Syrian government and cannot currently operate inside Syria.

While the IIIM and UNITAD are both rooted in the UN system, they are each confined to examining crimes in a particular country with no explicit system to exchange information or share evidence as there is no dedicated forum that currently has jurisdiction to prosecute these crimes. The IIIM is, in its own words, “neither a prosecutor’s office nor a court,” so it will have to find and transfer its evidence to a national, regional or international court that has – or may in the future have – jurisdiction.

Possible candidates for such transfers could be national courts with jurisdiction over the crimes because the suspects or the victims are nationals, or because these courts recognize universal jurisdiction over certain crimes. But so far, European countries have been reluctant to repatriate ISIS suspects to try them in their courts and some non-European countries that have repatriated their nationals have poor human rights records, raising torture and fair trial concerns.

This fragmented policy environment means that the question of how a hypothetical future trial of al-Baghdadi – or that of other senior ISIS member – will unfold has no clear answers to date. If the SDF detain him in Syria, what will they then do with him? Will the UN-created units be able to feed the information they have gathered into his prosecution given concerns around fair trial and the death penalty? Will he just be prosecuted for terrorism-related charges or will there be a way to prosecute him for war crimes and crimes against humanity?

While much time has been lost, it is not too late for the international community and key actors in Syria and Iraq to develop a more coherent response to bring ISIS members to account. Information sharing between the two UN teams and local mechanisms will be important, but there needs to be a clear process to ensure that such information is not used to violate key rights. More fundamentally, it is time to start thinking of possible venues that can provide fair trials, ensure victim participation, and prosecute senior ISIS members for the full range of crimes they may have committed.

If key international actors believe that such trials can be held locally – a proposition that seems far-fetched given the rampant abuses in Syria and Iraq – they should invest in beefing up local justice systems, ensure fair trial guarantees, eliminate the death penalty and encourage local authorities to amend their laws to allow prosecutions for international crimes. If the political will or context does not permit such efforts, then it is time to explore which other courts can assert jurisdiction. Hoping that these issues will solve themselves will not make the problems go away.

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