Students shout slogans as they take part in a protest over recent traffic accidents that killed a boy and a girl, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 4, 2018. 

© 2018 Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
(New York) – Bangladesh authorities are tracking social media accounts and have detained dozens of people across the country for criticizing the government over its violent crackdown on peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch said today. The recent wave of arrests, targeting student protesters and journalists, has created an atmosphere of fear, putting a serious chill on free speech.

Thousands of students took to the streets after a speeding bus killed two students on July 29, 2018. The protesters called for safer roads, accountable governance, and the upholding of the rule of law but were met with teargas and rubber bullets from security forces and violent attacks by supporters of the ruling Awami League.

After police stood by while government supporters beat up the student protesters, the authorities moved quickly to stifle any condemnation of the violence. Dhaka police have been conducting block raids in residential areas of the city where many university students live. Students told Human Rights Watch that police have been going door-to-door, raiding houses, and checking phones for communications related to the protests.

“Sheikh Hasina’s government appears unable to tolerate criticism after Awami League supporters attacked protesters with machetes, sticks, and metal pipes and is apparently desperate to shut down dissent,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The authorities should halt arbitrary arrests, prosecute those involved in violent attacks, and immediately and unconditionally release people it has thrown in jail just for speaking out.”

The authorities should halt arbitrary arrests, prosecute those involved in violent attacks, and immediately and unconditionally release people it has thrown in jail just for speaking out.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Among those arrested is renowned photographer and activist, Shahidul Alam, who has been in detention for nine days, during which he says he was beaten in custody. Quazi Nawshaba Ahmed, an actress, has remained in custody, denied bail, after she was arrested on August 4, apparently accused of spreading rumors on Facebook.

Nearly all the arrests have been made under section 57 of the draconian Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT Act). Section 57 authorizes the prosecution of anyone who publishes, in electronic form, material that is fake and obscene; defamatory; “tends to deprave and corrupt” its audience; causes, or may cause, “deterioration in law and order”; prejudices the image of the state or a person; or “causes or may cause hurt to religious belief.”

The vague and overly broad law has been used repeatedly over the years to stifle criticism. Bangladesh authorities had earlier recognized that the law is misused and stated that the government has no intention of curbing free speech. Instead, Bangladesh authorities have done just that, Human Rights Watch said.

The Police Cybercrime Investigation Division posted on Facebook on August 7 that “We too desire safe roads, but we request that concerned citizens please help us by providing us with the [social media] post links and detailed addresses of those plotting to create chaos in the country by spreading rumors in the country and abroad. We are committed to bringing these propagators under the law, wherever they are, in the country or abroad.” The Criminal Investigation Department shared the post on August 9. On August 10, students who had supported the protests or called for Alam’s release told Human Rights Watch they received anonymous calls threatening them to be quiet on social media or face consequences.

Section 57 of the ICT Act is a vaguely worded law that is used to silence criticism; fewer than half of the arrests under the act actually result in convictions. In September 2017, Muhammad Nazrul Islam Shamim, special public prosecutor of the Cyber Tribunal, told The Dhaka Tribune that “some cases are totally fabricated and are filed to harass people.”

“Bangladesh authorities should accept that criticism, including from young people, is part of a vibrant and healthy democracy,” Adams said. “The Bangladesh government should, once and for all, replace the ICT Act with one that upholds the principles of freedom of expression and stop intimidating those who hold it accountable.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 15, 2018, 12:00 am

Indonesian plainclothes police arrest Johan Teterisa (third from left) outside the Merdeka Stadium in Ambon on June 29, 2007. Teterisa led Alifuru nationalists in unfurling the banned RMS flag while performing the traditional cakalele dance before President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other dignitaries.

© 2007 Agung Setyahadi/Kompas

Indonesian authorities have moved six Moluccan political prisoners from a remote high-security prison island to an ordinary prison close to home, in Ambon, the provincial capital of the Moluccan Islands.

Semuel Waileruny, the prisoners’ lawyer, said the six are those serving very long prison terms: Ruben Saija (20 years), Yohanis Saija (20 years), Jordan Saija (17 years), John Markus (17 years), Romanus Batseran (17 years), and Johan Teterisa (15 years). Two other prisoners, Jonathan Riri and Pieter Johannes, remained jailed in Porong and Pamekasan prisons in East Java province.

The six are among more than 60 activists arrested and imprisoned since June 2007 after 28 of them staged a protest dance in front of then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Ambon stadium.

In 2009, they were transferred to Nusa Kambangan in Central Java, 3,000 kilometers from Ambon, which severely handicapped the Moluccan prisoners’ ability to stay in touch with friends and relatives. The prisoners have endured more than a decade of torture and ill-treatment. In January 2016, some activists visited them in Nusa Kambangan. Former political prisoner Filep Karma from Papua raised money to have their families visit them for the first time in May 2016.

Human Rights Watch, along with other human rights groups including Amnesty International and Kontras, have long pressed the Indonesian government to release the prisoners, who are being imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their political beliefs.

The men are part of a long-simmering independence movement that has existed in the southern Moluccas Islands since 1950, when a group of Moluccan nationalists proclaimed the creation of the Republic of Southern Moluccas in defiance of the Indonesian government’s claim to the region. Ever since, Moluccan activists who advocate pro-independence views have risked arrest, prolonged detention, and torture by Indonesian security forces.

In April 2016, a Human Rights Watch delegation met with Minister of Law and Human Rights Yasonna Laoly in Jakarta, during which he promised to transfer these prisoners back to Ambon. Laoly has no authority to release them. He had offered they ask for a presidential pardon from President Joko Widodo, but they refused, saying they were not guilty of any crime.

Laoly has kept his promise, moving these prisoners closer to their families in Ambon.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 14, 2018, 4:48 pm

People are seen near a bus destroyed by an airstrike that killed dozens of children, on August 12, 2018 in Saada, Yemen.

© 2018 Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

Investigating the terrible toll that the war in Yemen is inflicting on civilians has become, sadly, a regular occurrence for human rights investigators.

We and others have documented scores of unlawful airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition that have killed hundreds of civilians in Yemen. We have shown that the coalition’s blockade makes it harder to get vital humanitarian aid into the country. And we have sounded the alarm that the coalition, and the Houthi armed group it’s fighting, are accelerating the country’s march towards catastrophic famine.

But then came last week’s deadly airstrike on a bus filled with children.

At least 21 boys were killed when coalition forces struck the vehicle in Houthi-held northern Yemen. Another 35 were wounded. One distressing video shows a very young boy being treated at a hospital. His face is bloodied, his clothes torn, his face a picture of blank bewilderment. He is still wearing a tiny blue backpack.

This video, awful as it is, shows all too clearly the cost of Yemen’s war on civilians. But the attack also shows the callous indifference of the Western powers enthusiastically arming the coalition. How have the United States and the United Kingdom, who have sold billions in arms to Saudi Arabia since the war began in March 2015, reacted to this incident?

Have they suspended their arms sales to the coalition? They have not.

Have they demanded United Nations sanctions on coalition leaders commanding the forces responsible for repeated laws-of-war violations in Yemen? They have not.

Instead the UK government spoke of its “deep concern” about civilian deaths, while the US says it’s sufficient for the Saudi-led coalition alone to investigate the attack. This is the same coalition that has failed time and again to credibly investigate its own allegedly unlawful airstrikes and, contrary to UN and human rights groups’ findings, has repeatedly found no evidence coalition forces violated the laws of war.

If key arms suppliers are genuinely intent on minimizing civilian harm in Yemen, this horrific incident should mark the point of no return. Weapons sales to Saudi Arabia should be immediately suspended. And the UK government should say publicly that these continued apparent war crimes necessitate the renewal and strengthening of the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen – charged with investigating violations in the country – at the UN Human Rights Council this September.

If the deaths of so many children in a single day doesn’t stir the conscience, what will?

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 14, 2018, 4:10 pm

White supremacists hold a 'Unite The Right 2' rally in Washington, D.C. at the one-year anniversary of the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2018.

© 2018 Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The sight of white supremacists calling for “white civil rights” in front of the White House on Sunday is one I’ll never forget. And while the group of white nationalists was tiny – less than 30 – the demonstration was a stark reminder of the perilous state of race relations under the Trump administration.

The truth is that this supposed concern for “white civil rights” is usually just a flimsy cover for racism, bigotry, and xenophobia.

The Unite the Right 2 rally comes at a time when polls suggest most Americans say race relations have worsened under President Trump. Since the first Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where Heather Heyer was killed when struck by a car allegedly driven by a white supremist, Trump has advanced policies that have set back rights for minorities, refugees, women, and others.

Trump blamed “both sides” for violence between white supremacists and anti-racist counter protesters in Charlottesville. A year later, Trump refused to explicitly identify, condemn, and reject white supremacy, instead tweeting blandly that “We must come together as a nation. I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence.” Some of the white supremacists outside the White House wore red, Trump campaign “Make America Great Again” hats. 

The president’s words and actions on the question of race speak for themselves. He called undocumented immigrants “animals” and used such language to rationalize policies like “zero-tolerance” and increased funding for immigration detention. He has called African countries “shitholes”, expressing a preference for more migration from countries like Norway.  He has tried through executive orders to ban travel from several largely Muslim countries. He has said NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police killings “shouldn’t be in the country,” while, at the same time, his administration scales back police accountability mechanisms.

On Sunday, at Lafayette Square Park, the voices of the people championing “white civil rights” who have seen a friend in Trump were drowned out by the outpouring of messages of human rights and civil rights.  Over a thousand anti-racist, anti-xenophobic protesters gathered to demonstrate that hate and white supremacy have no place in the White House or in US policies.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 14, 2018, 1:54 pm

For the second time this month, Tajikistan’s government has allowed a child of exiled dissidents to leave the country and reunite with their family living abroad.

Tajik authorities have placed 10-year-old Fatima Davlyatova, daughter of peaceful political activist, Shabnam Khudoydodova, on a watch list and prevented her from leaving to Europe to reunite with her mother.

© Khudoydodova family

The children – Ibrohim Hamza, aged 4, and Fatima Davlyatova, aged 10 – are unrelated apart from one thing: They had effectively been held hostage for years – banned from leaving the country since a severe human rights crackdown picked up steam in 2015 – to punish their parents abroad for peaceful political and human rights work.

It was just over a week ago that authorities pulled Fatima Davlyatova, along with her grandmother and uncle, from an international flight just before take-off, blocking them from traveling to Europe to reunite with Fatima’s mother, activist Shabnam Khudoydodova.

But a dramatic reversal happened two days ago, on August 11: Following an international outcry, security officers – with apparent support from top government officials – gave the family new tickets to fly out.

In Hamza’s case, the travel ban could have killed him. Hamza is severely ill, but Tajik authorities had prevented him and his mother traveling abroad for necessary treatment, before finally relenting on August 2. His father and grandfather are both opposition politicians living in exile.

Even though the government’s actions were very late in coming, it has acted correctly in allowing ordinary Tajik citizens to leave the country. As Hugh Philipott, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Tajikistan tweeted about Fatima’s flight out, the government’s “excellent decision” allowed “three generations (to be) reunited.” #TheRightThingToDo, he added.

However, allowing these children to leave is only the very tip of the iceberg in terms of ending the government’s practice of harassing relatives of exiled activists and politicians, or indeed of ending the human rights crisis that has gripped the country for the last three years. In September 2015, the main opposition party was banned, kicking off an intense downward spiral of repression and human rights abuses.

Yet change has to start somewhere for the poorest country in Central Asia, already facing many development and security challenges. Let’s hope the happiness allowed to two small children could also be a turning point in the government’s respect for human rights.  

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 14, 2018, 4:01 am

Activist Tep Vanny takes part in a land rights protest in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 7, 2012.

© 2012 Reuters

(New York) – Cambodian authorities should quash the politically motivated conviction of prominent land rights activist Tep Vanny and unconditionally release her, Human Rights Watch said today. Tep Vanny was arrested on August 15, 2016, and convicted on baseless charges to silence her peaceful activism on behalf of the Boeung Kak Lake community in Phnom Penh.

“Tep Vanny has now spent two years behind bars on fabricated charges and should be released immediately,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “This is just one of many outrageous cases in which the authorities have misused Cambodia’s justice system to harass and imprison peaceful land rights activists.”

Tep Vanny, 38, is a recipient of the 2013 Vital Voices Global Leadership Award for her efforts to defend the Boeung Kak Lake community from government land grabs and to demand respect for basic freedoms.

Since her arrest, Tep Vanny has been held at Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 2. A week after her arrest, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced her to six days in prison on spurious charges of insulting a public official at one of the “Black Monday” protests to demand the release of wrongfully detained human rights activists. Having already served the six-day sentence in pretrial detention, Vanny should have been released, but was instead transferred back to prison based on a series of dormant charges reactivated by the prosecutor.

Previous reporting by Human Rights Watch concluded that in this and other criminal trials against Tep Vanny, the charges had no factual basis and were apparently fabricated. Trial judges did not require the prosecution to present evidence to substantiate the charges, unjustifiably disallowed testimony by defense witnesses, and arbitrarily rushed proceedings to prevent cross-examination of prosecution evidence.

In 2013, Tep Vanny joined protesters in front of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house to peacefully call for the release of a detained fellow community member. Authorities arrested her but did not prosecute her at the time and let the case lie dormant.

However, after the government suddenly activated the case, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted her on February 23, 2017, under article 218 of the criminal code for intentional violence with aggravating circumstances. The judge sentenced her to two and a half years in prison and ordered her to pay a fine of 5 million Cambodian riels (US$1,250). The court also ordered her to pay 9 million riels (US$2,250) in compensation to two security guards who alleged injury. On August 8, 2017, the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal upheld the ruling, as did the Supreme Court on February 8, 2018.

On February 23, 2017, state security officials kicked, shoved, and dragged activists who had gathered outside the courthouse, injuring two Boeung Kak activists and a pregnant woman. Video footage of the incident shows para-police chasing demonstrators into a neighboring mall, and guards repeatedly punching and kicking one of them with evident excessive use of force.

The authorities also prosecuted another long-dormant case against Tep Vanny, relating to her participation in a 2011 protest, but have yet to order her to serve the sentence. On September 19, 2016, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Vanny and three other Boeung Kak Lake community members – Kong Chantha, Bo Chhorvy, and Heng Mom – for obstructing a public official with aggravating circumstances and insulting a public official under articles 502 and 504 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code. The judge sentenced all four to six months in prison.

On February 23, 2017, the Court of Appeal upheld their conviction and sentence, as did the Supreme Court on December 8. However, the presiding judge of the Supreme Court has left the enforcement of the prison sentence to the discretion of the prosecutor, who so far has not acted.

Other affected land communities who had sought justice and engaged in peaceful activism have also been heavily harassed through arbitrary arrests, detention, and criminal prosecution. One of the more prominent examples is the Borei Keila community, whose activists were also at the forefront of and arrested in response to the Black Monday campaign. Authorities had arrested more than 38 Borei Keila activists by the end of March 2017.

The prosecution of Tep Vanny and other activists violates the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, as well as the right to a fair trial, protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a party. These rights are also contained in Cambodia’s constitution.

“Tep Vanny’s plight should be at the center of demands by foreign governments and donors to the Cambodian authorities to immediately release all political prisoners,” Robertson said. “The government’s treatment of Vanny and other detained activists is a critical indicator of its engagement with the international community after the widely derided July elections.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 14, 2018, 12:45 am

Azerbaijani opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov, amid a crowd of supporters just after being released from prison. Aug 13, 2018.

© 2018 Aziz Karimov

This morning, I could not believe it when I got a text saying that Ilgar Mammadov, my friend, former colleague, and a prominent political activist from Azerbaijan, was released from prison. After being behind bars for five years, Mammadov was finally reunited with his family.

Azerbaijani authorities arrested Mammadov in February 2013, shortly after he announced plans to challenge President Ilham Aliyev in the October 2013 presidential election. In a total mockery of justice, the authorities convicted Mammadov of inciting violence and sentenced him to seven years in prison.

But today’s ruling made by a court in Azerbaijan’s Sheki district reduces Mammadov’s remaining two-year jail sentence to a suspended term. While this is a moment of tremendous relief, Mammadov’s rights continue to be violated, by virtue of the fact his guilty verdict still stands and the authorities will still limit his freedoms – including his freedom of movement.

Mammadov should have never been imprisoned in the first place. In two separate judgments, the European Court of Human Rights found Mammadov’s detention illegal, that the charges against him were in retaliation for his criticism of the authorities, and his conviction a violation of fair trial norms. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe had called for Mammadov’s immediate release at least a dozen times. In addition, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe initiated a rare inquiry into Mammadov’s continued detention, and in an unprecedented move, the Committee of Ministers decided to trigger legal proceedings against Azerbaijan, referring the case back to the court last fall.

It’s not just Mammadov who was unfairly imprisoned. In a vicious crackdown against critics, Azerbaijani authorities have jailed dozens of human rights defenders, political activists, and journalists. The government adopted a range of draconian laws and regulations, impeding independent groups’ work and their ability to secure funding.

Understandably, Azerbaijan’s international partners are issuing statements to welcome Mammadov’s release, but they should refrain from heaping praise on the government. Every one of Mammadov’s 2,015 days in prison was a violation of his rights, and the authorities still have to right this wrong. Azerbaijan’s international partners should insist authorities fully exonerate Mammadov, ensure his compensation for damages is paid in full, and lift all restrictions on his freedom —to travel, to speak out, to engage in political activism. They should also urge authorities to release the others imprisoned for speaking up for freedom in Azerbaijan.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 13, 2018, 7:52 pm

Students gather at Elephant Road Circle beside Dhaka College demanding road safety and justice for the traffic deaths, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on August 4, 2018.

© 2018 Turjoy Chowdhury/NurPhoto via Getty Images

An 18-year-old student, recovering from severe injuries he received during street protests in Bangladesh, recently contacted Human Rights Watch. He is concerned for his country, he said, and wants to speak out, but fears not only arbitrary arrest, but also that his attackers will return to ensure his silence. “Let them know about us. Let us feel we are not alone. It’s too much,” he said.

Indeed, it is too much. Like him, tens of thousands of students took to the streets calling for better road safety after a speeding bus killed two students late last month. Students demanded safer roads, but also accountable governance and the rule of law: the protests’ slogan is “we want justice.” They filled the streets of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, bringing the city of 18 million people to a standstill.

But the Bangladesh government responded to the peaceful protests with force, using tear gas and rubber bullets. Students, parents, teachers, or just appalled citizens have been sending to Human Rights Watch pictures and videos of men identifying themselves as ruling Awami League supporters beating up the student protestors, even including schoolchildren in uniform.

The 18-year-old said he was taking pictures of the protests on August 3 when a group of men – some alleged members of the Awami League student wing, the Bangladesh Chhatra League – attacked him. “They wanted my camera,” he said. He saw the police watching while the thugs beat him with sticks, pipes, and machetes. “They did nothing,” he said.

Instead of prosecuting the attackers, the Bangladesh government has been monitoring social media accounts to shut down criticism. At least 20 people have been arrested, including the renowned photographer and activist, Shahidul Alam, for speaking out against the violent crackdown.

This needs to end. The Bangladesh authorities should release Shahidul Alam and others, address violence by everyone, including its supporters, and instead uphold the right of everyone, even children, to peacefully protest. Because nobody – not least young students – should fear violence or arrest just for speaking out.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 13, 2018, 5:43 pm

(London) – Diplomats and representatives of international organizations should press Tajik authorities to unconditionally set aside the conviction against a respected journalist convicted on politically motivated charges, 12 human rights organizations said today. 

The diplomats and representatives of these groups should attend the appeal hearing for the journalist, Khayrullo Mirsaidov on August 15, 2018, in Khujand City Court. It is expected to last several days.

Khayrullo Mirsaidov, a well-respected independent journalist in Tajikistan, was arrested on December 5, 2017, after publicly appealing to Tajikistan’s president about alleged local authority corruption.

©Radio Ozodi/Tajik Service of Radio Free Europe

“Attendance by representatives of the diplomatic community throughout the appeal process will send a clear signal to the Tajik authorities that violations of freedom of expression in the country will not go unnoticed,” said Katie Morris, Head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19. “Tajikistan’s international partners should emphasize that Mirsaidov’s continued detention will have implications for the country’s international standing and its bilateral relationships.”

The 12 groups include ARTICLE 19, Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, Freedom Now, Human Rights Watch, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), International Media Support, International Partnership for Human Rights, the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan (NANSMIT), Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Mirsaidov’s conviction is in retaliation for his public allegations and criticism of corruption against local government officials in the Sugdh region, the groups said. Authorities brought the charges after he wrote a public letter in November 2017 to President Emomali Rahmon, calling upon him to address government corruption.

On July 11, Mirsaidov was sentenced to 12 years in jail on politically motivated charges of embezzlement and misuse of state funds, and false reporting to the police. His family was ordered to pay the local government 124,000 Tajik somoni (approximately €11,350 or US$13,000) in financial damages, more than 10 times the average yearly salary in Tajikistan.

“The Mirsaidov case follows an established pattern in which whistleblowers, journalists, and others find themselves in the authorities’ crosshairs after uncovering corruption, crime and other violations,” said Marius Fossum, Norwegian Helsinki Committee regional representative in Central Asia. “Democratic countries must no longer tolerate the Tajik government’s brutal crackdown on freedom of expression and should consider imposing targeted sanctions against officials complicit in blatant rights violations, such as the bogus prosecution of Khayrullo Mirsaidov.”

United Nations human rights experts condemned the sentence calling it a “clearly targeted measure against journalism and the public’s right to information.” They said that Mirsaidov’s sentence demonstrates that “[the Tajik] authorities are cracking down on reporting of corruption, rather than on corruption itself.”

The criminal investigation and trial have been marred by serious flaws. Prior to his conviction, Mirsaidov was held in pretrial detention for seven months following his arrest on December 5, 2017; although he posed neither a flight risk nor a credible threat to public safety.

“Mirsaidov’s work, including his stance against corruption, should be commended, not punished with a 12-year sentence on bogus charges,” said Steve Swerdlow, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If the proceedings against him and the outrageous sentence are allowed to stand, the small vestiges of free expression that exist in Tajikistan are threatened with extinction.”

Representatives of the embassies of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the US, and the EU Delegation in Tajikistan have condemned Mirsaidov’s conviction as extremely harsh, saying in a joint statement that his sentence “will have a negative impact on the freedom of media and expression in Tajikistan,” and may affect bilateral relations with the government of Tajikistan.

“The international support shown thus far for press freedom in Tajikistan has been helpful and should be followed by continued pressure on the government to release Mirsaidov unconditionally,” said Gulnara Akhundova at International Media Support. “International representatives in the country should demonstrate their solidarity with Mirsaidov by attending his appeal, and maintain pressure on the government throughout the appeal process to respect human rights and media freedom.” 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 13, 2018, 7:30 am

Egyptian authorities have failed to investigate or prosecute a single member of the security forces five years after their systematic and widespread killing of largely peaceful protesters in Rab’a Square in Cairo. Hundreds of protesters have been convicted under unfair charges in mass trials stemming from the protests.


(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities have failed to investigate or prosecute a single member of the security forces five years after their systematic and widespread killing of largely peaceful protesters in Rab’a Square in Cairo, Human Rights Watch said. Hundreds of protesters have been convicted under unfair charges in mass trials stemming from the protests.

Security forces killed at least 817 protesters within a few hours on August 14, 2013, as they violently dispersed the sit-in at Rab’a al-Adawiya, the main gathering of protesters demanding the reinstatement of President Mohamed Morsy, whom the army overthrew and arrested on July 3, 2013. The comprehensive failure to investigate the largest mass killings in Egypt’s modern history, which probably amounts to crimes against humanity, reinforces the urgent need for an international inquiry. Egypt recently issued a law to “immunize” senior military officers from being questioned for potential violations following Morsy’s ouster.

“Five years on from the Rab’a massacre, the only response from authorities has been to try to insulate those responsible for these crimes from justice,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The response from Egypt’s allies to the crimes at Rab’a and to the lack of justice for the victims has been complete silence.”

In August 2014, Human Rights Watch released the findings of a year-long investigation into the Rab’a Massacre, its aftermath, and other incidents of mass killings of protesters, based on interviews with over 200 witnesses, on-site investigations immediately after the attacks began, and a review of hours of video footage, physical evidence, and statements by public officials.

Human Rights Watch concluded based on this evidence that “the killings not only constituted serious violations of international human rights law, but likely amounted to crimes against humanity, given both their widespread and systematic nature, and the evidence suggesting the killings were part of a policy.”

On July 26, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi approved Law No.161 of 2018 on the “treatment of the armed forces’ senior commanders,” which empowers the president to grant military commanders ministerial status and “diplomatic immunity” when traveling outside the country to shield them from accountability.

The law also grants these officers “immunity” from prosecution or questioning for any event between July 3, 2013, and January 2016, unless the Supreme Council of Armed Forces gives permission. Existing Egyptian law only allows military prosecutors, who are part of the Defense Ministry, to pursue investigations against current or former army officers, adding another layer of local impunity for military staff.

The Egyptian army overthrew former President Morsy on the heels of mass anti-government protests on June 30, 2013. Morsy supporters responded with protests throughout Egypt and gathered in two main squares in Cairo, Rab’a and al-Nahda. Human Rights Watch documented in detail six incidents in which security forces unlawfully opened fire on masses of largely peaceful protesters, between July 3 and August 16. At least 1,185 people died.

Despite generally exonerating security forces, several official statements and reports accused the police of using excessive force. The prime minister who supervised the dispersal, Hazem al-Beblawy, said in response to the 2014 Human Rights Watch report that “anyone who committed a mistake … should be investigated.”

On December 13, 2013, interim President Adly Mansour established a fact-finding committee to collect “information and evidence” on the events that accompanied the June 30 protests. The committee, which included law professors and former government executives, lacked any judicial powers.

The committee released an executive summary on November 26, 2014, in which it largely blamed protest leaders for the casualties in Rab’a for allowing arms inside the protest, but also admitted that security forces failed to target only people who were armed. The committee also found fault with the unarmed protesters, because they remained at the sit-in knowing that some protesters were armed. The full report is yet to be made public.

On March 6, 2014, Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) released a report on the Rab’a dispersal saying that some protesters were armed and resisted security forces, which compelled them to use lethal force. However, the report also said that there was a “disproportionate response” and “excessive use of force by security forces,” and that security forces failed to maintain a safe exit for protesters willing to leave or to provide medical aid for the wounded.

Both the committee and the NCHR demanded that victims who “did not participate in violence” be compensated. The NCHR also called for an independent judicial investigation.

On July 28, 2018, following an unfair mass trial, the terrorism chamber in the South Cairo Criminal Court issued preliminary death sentences for 75 defendants in the Rab’a dispersal case. Over 739 defendants, roughly half of them in custody, have been tried in the case. The final verdict is due on September 8. Defendants face charges of premeditated murder, attacking citizens, resisting authorities, destroying public property, and possessing firearms and Molotov cocktails.

Defendants include protesters, Muslim Brotherhood leaders, journalists, and children. Several members of security forces who participated in the violent dispersal were called as witnesses, yet prosecutors did not question any of them on excessive use of force or the deliberate or indiscriminate killing of unarmed protesters.

On January 9, 2018, the Giza Criminal Court for major offenses sentenced 23 protesters to life in prison, 223 to 15 years in prison, and 22 others to 3 years in prison, while 109 were acquitted in the case stemming from al-Nahda Square sit-in dispersal. The defendants faced charges similar to those in the Rab’a sit-in case. No member of the security forces involved was questioned.

On September 18, 2017, a criminal court held in Wadi al-Natroun prison issued the verdict in the case stemming from dispersing pro-Morsy protesters at al-Fath Mosque in Cairo two days after the Raba’ dispersal. The court issued prison sentences that ranged from three years to life in prison against 335 defendants, while acquitting 52. Among those found not guilty was an Irish citizen, Ibrahim Halawa, and three of his sisters.

In addition to the failure to investigate security forces’ mass killings, the authorities failed to meet requirements of article 241 of the Egyptian Constitution that required issuing a transitional justice law during the first parliamentary session in 2016. The article says that the law should guarantee “disclosure of truth, accountability, proposals for national reconciliation frameworks, and compensation for victims in accordance with international standards.”

“Without justice, Rab’a remains an open wound. Those responsible for the mass killings of protesters shouldn’t count on being able to shield themselves from accountability forever,” Whitson added.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 13, 2018, 6:00 am

A sign which reads “Care instead of Punishment” is held aloft at a protest rally calling for decriminalization of personal drug use, Tbilisi, Georgia, December 10, 2016.

© Yana Korbezelashvili for White Noise Movement

(Tbilisi) – Georgia’s drug laws and their aggressive enforcement is causing severe and unjustifiable harm, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Drug prosecutions for consumption and possession often lead to long prison sentences and prohibitive fines against people who have not harmed others, but who acquired small amounts of drugs for personal, recreational use.

The 67-page report, “Harsh Punishment: The Human Toll of Georgia’s Abusive Drug Laws,” describes the impact of overly punitive drug laws and practices on people who use drugs, and on their families. Human Rights Watch documented abusive, mandatory street drug testing, coerced plea bargains, and arbitrary additional punishments, such as stripping people of their driver’s licenses or prohibiting them from working in an array of professions, interfering with their ability to earn a livelihood. Georgia has partially liberalized drug laws, but they remain harsh.

“Every year, Georgian authorities needlessly detain thousands of people, subject them to forced drug tests and funnel them through the criminal justice system, for nothing more than drug consumption or possession for personal use,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, and author of the report. “Locking people up for no more than using drugs causes tremendous harm and does nothing to help those who need and want treatment.”

The report is based on more than 85 in-depth interviews with people who have been prosecuted for drug-related crimes, their lawyers and family members, as well as social workers, community organization leaders, government officials, and various advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations.

In Georgia, first-time illegal drug consumption or possession of a small quantity of drugs for personal use is a misdemeanor. A repeat offense within a year results in criminal liability.

However, Georgian law does not establish a threshold for small quantities of approximately three-quarters of the substances classified as illicit drugs, including those commonly used in Georgia, such as amphetamine, methamphetamine, and desomorphine. Possession of even particles of these substances, including residue in a syringe, automatically qualifies as a large amount, triggering a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence. Possession of more than one gram is considered a “particularly large amount” and could result in life imprisonment.

In one case, in 2016, police arrested Kote Japaridze, 23, for possession of two grams of the recreational synthetic drug MDMA (“ecstasy”) and charged him with possession of a particularly large quantity of drugs. Facing up to 20 years in prison, Japaridze entered into a plea deal, and a court sentenced him to six years in prison, five of which were suspended. The court also imposed a fine of 25,000 Georgian lari (roughly US$10,800). Japaridze struggles to repay the debt for the fine and has been deprived of his driver’s license and banned from working in certain jobs for five years.

“The drugs I bought were for personal use, and yet I am paying dearly for it,” Japaridze told Human Rights Watch.

Every year, police randomly detain thousands of people for coerced drug testing for which fewer than 30 percent test positive. Police use positive test results as evidence for pressing administrative or criminal sanctions. If the person refuses to undergo testing, police can detain them for up to 12 hours in a forensics lab. Georgian law does not give people held for testing the same rights as detainees, such as the right to make a phone call, leaving them vulnerable to ill-treatment by the police, Human Rights Watch said.

Georgian law imposes long, mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses, with a nearly 100 percent conviction rate for these offenses. As a result, a person charged with a drug-related offense often feels there is no other choice than to agree to a plea deal to avoid a long prison term. These plea deals also lead to prohibitive fines, which can financially devastate the accused and his or her family.

In another case Human Rights Watch documented, a family lost their home to pay drug-related criminal fines.

Drug felony convictions also lead to suspension of driver’s licenses and a ban on work in all government positions and educational and medical institutions for periods ranging from 3 to 20 years after release from prison. Such restrictions effectively strip many people of their livelihoods, Human Rights Watch said.

Some of the harsher features of Georgia’s current drug policies and practices were adopted in 2006, and starting in 2012, Georgia’s leadership partially liberalized them. The government reduced criminal penalties for drug possession and consumption. It also adopted a National Strategy and Action Plan to fight drug addiction, which emphasized the importance of public health and prevention of drug use.

Recent constitutional court rulings further liberalized drug policies. Most recently, on July 30, 2018, the court abolished remaining administrative sanctions for marijuana consumption.

The Georgian government offers, free of charge, opioid substitution with Methadone or Suboxone, and short-term detoxification and rehabilitation. Since 2012, the government has significantly increased financial allocations for these programs.

The Georgian authorities should decriminalize personal use and possession of drugs, Human Rights Watch said. This means removing all criminal sanctions for use and possession of drugs for personal use.

“Many people understandably want the government to address the harmful use of drugs, but the most effective way is to focus on public health responses,” Gogia said. “Criminalization and locking people up for using drugs is not an answer.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 13, 2018, 4:03 am

Joko Widodo, Indonesia's president, left, stands for photographs with Ma'ruf Amin, top Islamic cleric and vice presidential candidate, after submitting their nomination papers to the General Election Commission in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018. 

© 2018 Dimas Ardian/ Bloomberg via Getty Images

(Jakarta) – The decision by Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to select Ma’ruf Amin as his vice-presidential running mate in the 2019 presidential election, raises questions about Jokowi’s commitment to improve human rights protection for all Indonesians, Human Rights Watch said today.

Amin, who has been the chairman of Indonesia’s Ulama Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, or MUI), the semi-official umbrella organization of Islamic group since 2007, and the supreme leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama – Indonesia’s largest mass Muslim organization – since 2015, has played a pivotal role in fuelling worsening discrimination against the country’s religious and gender minorities.

Over the past two decades at the MUI, Amin has helped draft and been a vocal supporter of fatwas, or religious edicts decrees, against the rights of religious minorities, including the country’s Ahmadiyah and Shia communities, as well lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Those fatwas, although not legally binding, have been used to legitimize increasingly hateful rhetoric by government officials against LGBT people and in some cases, fuelled deadly violence by militant Islamists against religious minorities.

“Amin has been central to some of the most intolerant elements of Indonesian contemporary religious and political culture, so fear of the negative impact he could have on the rights and safety of religious and gender minorities is well founded,” said Phelim Kine, deputy director of Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

Jokowi explained his decision to make Amin his running mate on the basis that “we complete each other, nationalistic and religious.” Jokowi has been the target of attacks by his opponents who questioned his religious piety by accusing him of pursuing “liberal secularism,” and of secretly being Christian or the son of communist parents. Amin’s selection indicates an effort at least in part to rebut these attacks.

Ma’ruf Amin has a well-documented history of intolerant views:

  • In October 2016, the MUI declared that then- Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama,  a Christian, had committed blasphemy against Islam. That fueled the creation of a radical anti-Ahok Islamist alliance that led to his political downfall and eventual imprisonment for violation of the country’s blasphemy law.
  • In February 2016, the MUI issued a fatwa calling for the criminalization of LGBT activities. Amin personally justified the fatwa on the basis that “homosexuality, whether lesbian or gay, and sodomy is legally haram and a form of crime,” That fatwa has helped fuel dangerous levels of anti-LGBT discrimination and led to arbitrary and unlawful raids by police and militant Islamists on private LGBT gatherings. These abuses have effectively derailed public health outreach efforts to populations vulnerable to HIV infection.
  • In March 2015, the MUI issued a fatwa calling for same-sex acts to be subject to punishments ranging from caning to the death penalty. The fatwa equates homosexuality with a curable disease with related sexual acts “that must be heavily punished.”
  • In 2008, the MUI responded to a 2006 Ministry of Health ban on female genital mutilation (FGM) by issuing a fatwa supporting FGM and declaring that “it is a form of honor for women.”
  • In 2005, when Amin chaired the MUI’s fatwa commission, the organization issued a fatwa that decreed that the Ahmadiyah, an Islamic revivalist movement, deviated from Quranic teachings. The government responded to that fatwa in 2008 by passing a nationwide anti-Ahmadiyah decree that bans the Ahmadiyah from proselytizing their faith. Since then, Islamist militants have repeatedly attacked the Ahmadiyah community, often with the passive or active involvement of government officials and security forces.

Jokowi’s decision to make Amin his running mate will compound widespread public cynicism about his administration’s failure to deliver on electoral promises to address Indonesia’s pressing human rights problems. He has released some Papuan political prisoners and announced a vague plan to address decades of gross human rights violations, including the massacre of up to 1 million people in 1965-1966.

However, Jokowi has largely ignored security force impunity for rights abuses and violations of women’s rights and religious freedom. He has also embraced the use of the death penalty for convicted drug traffickers and has spoken out only once, and in highly ambiguous terms, in defense of the country’s beleaguered LGBT population. During Indonesia’s May 2017 United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, the Indonesian government rejected multiple recommendations by UN member states including those on issues related to the rights of LGBT people, the abusive blasphemy law, and the death penalty. An Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs official described the recommendations as “hard to accept” for reasons including the vague and undefined notion of “Indonesian conditions.”

“Ma’ruf Amin has already shown he has no hesitation in putting vulnerable minorities at risk,” Kine said. “Jokowi will need to prove that he values his obligation to defend the rights and dignity of all the Indonesian people above pandering to extreme intolerance for short term political gain.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 11, 2018, 12:00 am

Iran's national flags are seen on a square in Tehran February 10, 2012.

© 2012 Reuters

Iran’s senior officials are attempting to head off a looming economic crisis – triggered by the return of US sanctions – with threats of new rights-abusing policies.

Tehran’s prosecutor, Jafari Dolatabadi, on Wednesday warned that importers who abuse government subsidies could be charged with “corruption on earth,” which carries a possible death sentence.

Several hardliner newspapers and parliamentarians have echoed Dolatabadi’s call to execute people found responsible for contributing to the country’s economic instability.

After the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran, the economy is in dire straits. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the Iranian rial has lost 70 percent of its value since May. Possible massive corruption will not help protect people’s economic rights. Amidst these deteriorating economic conditions, Iranians have sporadically protested economic conditions, government corruption, and lack of social and political rights since late December 2017.

While Iranian officials have called on the judiciary to prosecute economic crimes, the threat of applying the death penalty is very alarming. Iran is notorious for executing people for crimes that do not meet the basic international standard of limiting capital punishment to the most serious offenses. According to Amnesty International, in 2017 alone, Iran executed at least 507 people, including those who were convicted for crimes they committed as children.

Iran has also executed several people on vague fraud charges with little transparency or due process. In 2014, authorities executed Mahafarid Amir Khosravi, a billionaire businessman at the heart of a US$2.6 billion state banking scam in Iran, without even informing his lawyer. Today, Babak Zanjani, a businessman, is on death row on charges of withholding billions in oil revenue channeled through his companies as part of Iran’s efforts to evade sanctions.

The Iranian economy became increasingly non-transparent while it was under heavy international sanctions between 2010 and 2013. Today, officials increasingly talk about the need to combat corruption at every level. Yet to do so requires an independent judiciary that ensures due process rights for all those accused.

The judiciary’s long record of violating detainees’ rights and wanton application of the death penalty raises grave concerns. Executions, an inhumane and inherently irreversible punishment, are never the answer, and in this case can only distract from other causes of this economic turmoil. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 10, 2018, 5:42 pm

A homophobic attack in a small village in southern Armenia has generated a public discussion about human rights in Armenia and a challenge to the new prime minister. 

Activists protest in front of General Prosecutor's Office in Yerevan to demand proper investigation of hate crime cases in Armenia, April 2018. 

© 2018 PINK Armenia

Last week, images of a bloodied face of a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights activist spread widely in Armenia – a victim of a mob attack in Shurnoukh village, where he and several others were guests at the home of fellow LGBT activist, Hayk Hakobyan.

According to Hakobyan, on August 3 at around 8 pm, a man from Goris city tried to force his way into Hakobyan’s house, eventually jumping the fence and arguing with Hakobyan’s nine guests, ordering them to leave.

A crowd of about 15 people were with the man, and it eventually swelled to about 30. They shouted homophobic slurs and threats, demanding that Hakobyan and his guests leave the village. Hakobyan and his friends fled the house and the crowd ran after them, hitting, kicking, throwing stones, and shouting “get rid of those gays” and “catch them and beat them up.”

A victim called the police, who arrived 90 minutes later, possibly due in part to the village’s remote location. Police took the victims’ statements and secured forensic exams. Six of Hakobyan’s friends were injured, one with bruises on the head and another with a broken nose. Police stated that they questioned several of the attackers, but they have yet to charge or arrest anyone.

Last April, Hakobyan was the victim of a homophobic assault in Goris. He reported it, but the perpetrators were never prosecuted. Hakobyan said one of the assailants was also among his recent attackers.

For years, the Armenian government has failed to effectively investigate anti-LGBT violence. The criminal code does not recognize anti- LGBT hate as an aggravating criminal circumstance, and a government bill on equality does not include sexual orientation and gender identity as a ground for protection from discrimination.

Homophobic comments in the Armenian media – including by public figures – colored the public debate on the attack. It’s hard to avoid the impression that some officials are using Armenia’s pervasive homophobia to mobilize the public against new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who embraces human rights including LGBT rights.

It won’t be easy for Pashinyan to stand by his principles, but that’s exactly what he should do. Indulging hate in the short-term while hoping for better times in the long-term has never succeeded.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 10, 2018, 1:19 pm

President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, right, with the opposition leader, Riek Machar, left, as Mr. Machar was sworn in as vice president in Juba, capital of South Sudan, on April 26, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters
 (Nairobi) – South Sudanese leaders should not undermine their efforts to bring an end to the country’s devastating conflict with an amnesty for war crimes and crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said.

The parties to the conflict signed a peace agreement on August 5, 2018, in Khartoum, agreeing to new power sharing arrangements and a timetable for further talks. On August 8, President Salva Kiir offered a “general amnesty” to heads of armed groups involved in the nation's five-year civil war as part of the agreement to end the fighting.

“Amnesty for atrocities not only conflicts with South Sudan’s international obligations, but experience shows it is no way to build a lasting peace,” said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “While South Sudan’s leaders may aim to provide assurances to opponents, they should make clear that the amnesty does not cover grave crimes by all parties since the conflict began.”

International law requires prosecuting those responsible for serious crimes, such as crimes against humanity and war crimes, to ensure victims’ rights to truth, justice, and an effective remedy, along with combating impunity. South Sudan has also ratified treaties such as the Convention against Torture, which provide for prosecution of people allegedly responsible for serious crimes. Because the United Nations takes the position that amnesties cannot be granted for serious crimes under international law, it will not endorse peace agreements that provide for such amnesties. The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights has also rejected amnesty for serious crimes.

South Sudan’s leaders have a history of providing de facto blanket amnesty to opponents as part of peace deals, even prior to the country’s independence in 2011. The resulting lack of justice has contributed to the country’s deepening social and ethnic divisions, and fueled violence and abuses. Human Rights Watch has previously urged mediators and South Sudanese leaders to ensure that peace deals did not include any amnesty for serious crimes.

Since the new conflict started in December 2013, continued fighting and abuses by government and opposition forces, and their aligned militias have forced more than 2 million people to flee the country. The fighting has displaced more than another 2 million people within the country, with more than 200,000 still in UN sites established to protect civilians.

Despite provisions in the August 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS) that envision a hybrid court to prosecute international crimes, South Sudan’s transitional government has not made genuine progress toward setting up the court. A memorandum of understanding on the court with the African Union (AU) has yet to be signed, and domestic legislation is yet to be adopted.

Under that agreement, the AU Commission has the authority to establish the hybrid court with or without the engagement of the South Sudanese government. The AU should proceed with creating the court on its own, unless the memorandum of understanding is immediately signed, Human Rights Watch said.

“The lack of accountability for serious crimes is a cause of South Sudan’s crisis, not a solution,” Keppler said. “Survivors of atrocities in South Sudan are strongly demanding justice. Their leaders should take urgent steps to make the hybrid court a reality as efforts to end the conflict continue.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 10, 2018, 4:00 am

A prisoner lies in his solitary confinement cell in the safety unit at Lotus Glen Correctional Centre, northern Queensland. Prisoners in solitary confinement typically spend 22 hours or more a day locked in small cells, sealed with solid doors, without meaningful social interaction with other prisoners; most contact with prison and health staff is perfunctory and may be wordless. 

© 2017 Daniel Soekov for Human Rights Watch

“The senior officer stood on my jaw while the other [officer] hit my head in and restrained me. They said, ‘You don’t run this prison … we do,’ and they cut my clothes off. They left me naked on the floor of the exercise yard for a couple of hours before giving me fresh clothes.”

For Waru (not his real name), an Indigenous prisoner with a psychosocial disability (mental health condition), the unspeakable is almost routine. As an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander man with a disability in an Australian prison, Waru was tragically accustomed to being locked up in solitary confinement, facing physical abuse, and hearing racial slurs from prison officers.

More than 35 years after the United Nations first instituted an International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to be left behind.

People with disabilities in prisons across Australia are at serious risk of sexual and physical violence, and are disproportionately held in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day.

I visited 14 prisons across Australia, and heard story after story of Indigenous people with disabilities, whose lives have been cycles of abuse and imprisonment, without effective support. The result is Australia’s prisons are disproportionately full of Indigenous people.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up just 2 percent of the population, but they represent 28 percent of the full-time adult prison population. Multiple forms of disadvantage mean that they are more likely to live in out-of-home-care, end up homeless, have earlier contact with the police, and end up in prison more frequently than their non-Indigenous peers. Within this group, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with disabilities are even more likely to end up behind bars.

Once in prison, their lives continue to be rife with racism and abuse. Due to a lack of training, custodial staff often misinterpret the behavior of a prisoner with a disability and respond in a punitive rather than supportive manner.

The Australian government should commit to making it a priority to address abuse against, and meet the needs of, Indigenous prisoners with disabilities. That includes working closely with organizations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and people with disabilities to develop culturally appropriate resources and training materials for prison staff, service providers, police, and the judiciary. The government should fund representative organizations to provide specialized and culturally appropriate support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with disabilities in prison.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 9, 2018, 5:07 pm

Journalist Ahmed Rilwan. 

© Raajjemv

President Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives has long flaunted his disdain for a free media by detaining journalists and enacting sweeping laws to silence critics. But this week he hit a new low.

At an election campaign rally on August 7, Yameen responded to allegations by the jailed vice president, Ahmed Adeeb, that his government had obstructed the investigation into the abduction of journalist Ahmed Rilwan, who disappeared August 8, 2014. Yameen – who has yet to condemn the abduction or meet with Rilwan’s family – bluntly declared that the journalist was dead. Within hours he had backpedaled, claiming the media had “misconstrued” his remarks, and saying he hoped Rilwan would be found. But the retraction rang hollow.

Rilwan, known as @moyameehaa, “madman,” a popular blogger and journalist, was a vocal critic of corruption in the Maldivian government and its abysmal human rights record.  He had inspired a growing audience of young activists who had emerged during the Maldives’ brief democratic transition in 2008 and were desperate for real reform. He also drew the ire of groups endorsing a violent ultra-nationalist or Islamist ideology who threatened – repeatedly – to kill him. A stout advocate of religious tolerance, Rilwan regularly expressed concern about the rising threat of Islamic extremism in the Maldives.

Until he disappeared.

Rilwan was last seen just after midnight on August 8, 2014, at a ferry terminal linking the capital, Malé, to the neighboring island where he lived. Eyewitnesses told police that at about 2 a.m., they saw a man in dark clothes being forced at knifepoint into a red car parked outside Rilwan’s apartment. Other witnesses identified gang members with political connections who followed Rilwan the evening he went missing and another gang member who owned the car in which Rilwan was reportedly taken.  Nevertheless, the police failed to follow up on these leads. During the first two years following his abduction, they did not even classify Rilwan’s case as one of abduction or a missing person. Two suspects arrested shortly after his disappearance were freed two months later and although prosecuted, remained free for the duration of the trial.

On August 2, 2018, the Maldives criminal court acquitted the men of abducting Rilwan.  The judge called the police and prosecution negligent and careless, and said they had failed to conduct a thorough investigation.

Yameen may want to bury the truth about who took Rilwan, but Rilwan’s colleagues and friends refuse to keep quiet or forget. Yameen should heed them and order a thorough and open investigation into Rilwan’s disappearance, including whether those involved had links to people in the president’s party.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 9, 2018, 4:37 pm
(Beirut) – Iranian authorities should immediately stop harassing and threatening the families of activists and journalists as a means to silence dissent and criticism, three rights organizations said today.

On July 27, IRIB, the state broadcaster in Iran known for broadcasting coerced statements, airs the interview with the sister of activist Masih Alinejad on its 20:30 program, in which she denounces her sister.

On July 27, Iranian state TV’s “20:30” program featured an interview with Mina Alinejad, the sister of Iranian activist Masih Alinejad, in which she publicly denounced her sister for her advocacy against Iran’s compulsory hijab laws. During the interview, Mina Alinejad said she was appearing on TV of her own free will, but Masih has said in an Instagram post and a New York Times op-ed on July 31 that Iranian authorities have pressured her family to denounce her on state television.

“The longstanding use of Iran’s state media to force activists’ families to appear unwillingly to denounce their relatives shows the level the authorities will stoop to silence state critics,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Masih Alinejad founded the campaign “My Stealthy Freedom” in 2014, which advocates against women being forced to wear the compulsory hijab in public in Iran. The enforcement of a compulsory dress code for women in Iran violates their rights to private life, personal autonomy, and freedom of expression, as well as to freedom of religion, thought, and conscience. It is also a form of gender-based discrimination prohibited under international law.

There are serious concerns that this broadcast is just the latest example of authorities using one of their well-established tactics to pressure and threaten family members of Alinejad, who is based outside Iran.

In March 2018, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) filed a complaint at the United Nations Human Rights Council against Iranian authorities for their campaign of harassment against BBC Persian staff. The harassment included the arrest and intimidation of employees’ family members based in Iran.

The BBC Persian service is based in London and does not have an office in Iran. A BBC public statement detailed examples of harassment that family members of staff have received in Iran; in one instance, the press statement said, “a senior producer’s elderly mother was called in for questioning in Tehran by one of the many intelligence agencies. She was told that her son could have a car accident in London if he continued working for the BBC.”

“A government that preys on the bonds of family in order to lash out at its critics is a government that has no respect for the rights of its citizens – or common decency,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran.

Iran’s government-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) has a long history of parading Iran’s critics and their family members on national TV, where they are forced to make so-called “confessions” or public statements meant to discredit them and their causes. Human rights groups have documented several instances in which dissidents, activists, and journalists were featured in pseudo-documentary videos intended to “prove” their “guilt,” though they apparently did not appear willingly.

On February 13, a few days after the suspicious “suicide” in detention of prominent environmentalist Kavous Seyed Emami, IRIB’s 20:30 program claimed that he was a spy – an allegation for which his family has since filed a defamation lawsuit against IRIB. The program featured a video-recorded statement by Kavous’s brother saying that he had seen the body and believed that he had committed suicide. The family has said authorities coerced the brother into recording the video when they raided his house a few days earlier.

On July 9, Iranian state television broadcasted apologies by several women, including Maedeh Hojabri, a teenager briefly detained in May for posting videos of themselves dancing on their personal Instagram accounts.

In December 2015, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) rejected a complaint by two IRIB officials against the European Union’s decision to include them on its human rights sanctions list. The ECJ placed them on the list in 2013, after Press TV, an English and French channel affiliated with IRIB, broadcasted a series of forced confessions by detainees who had been tortured.

The Court ruled that under their leadership, IRIB and Press TV had both repeatedly and closely collaborated with the Iranian security apparatus and Revolutionary Court prosecutors to coerce confessions from prisoners of conscience and then broadcasted them under the pretext of interviews conducted with the approval of the prisoners.

“As the European Court of Justice emphasizes in its ruling against the IRIB chiefs, collaboration with the security apparatus in producing pseudo-documentary videos, and broadcasting coercive confessions are serious human rights violations,” said Shadi Sadr, executive director of Justice for Iran.


Hadi Ghaemi, Executive Director
Center for Human Rights in Iran

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East Director
Human Rights Watch

Shadi Sadr, Executive Director
Justice for Iran


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 9, 2018, 3:00 pm

(Washington, DC) - The United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC) has found the Turkmen government responsible for the torture and death of a human rights activist, the Prove They are Alive Campaign! said today. The activist, Ogulsapar Muradova, died in state custody in 2006, after her arrest and trial on politically motivated charges. Human Rights Watch is a member of the campaign.

Ogulsapar Muradova in the mid-1990s 

© Annadurdy Khajiev
“Finally, there’s an authoritative acknowledgment of the Turkmen government’s responsibility for the monstrous torture and death of Ogulsapar Muradova,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, of the Prove they Are Alive! campaign. “Now the government should identify all those responsible for her death, hold them to account to her family. It’s been 12 years, but it’s never too late for justice.”

The government should also immediately end the forced disappearances of dozens of other people being held in Turkmen prisons, the campaign said.

Muradova was an activist with the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation, an independent human rights group that works on Turkmenistan from exile in Bulgaria, and a regular contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In June 2006, police in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, arrested Muradova and two other activists, her brother, Sapardurdy Khajiev, and Annakurban Amanklychev, and also her three adult children.

Just before the activists’ arrest, two of them had been assisting with a documentary about human rights and related issues in Turkmenistan.

Muradova’s children were released a few weeks later. In August 2006, following a rushed, closed trial, a court convicted Muradova, Amanklychev, and Khajiev on bogus charges related to alleged possession of bullets, and sentenced Muradova to six years in prison, and Amanklychev and Khajiev to seven years.

The circumstances of the activists’ arrest left no doubt they were targeted in retaliation for their human rights work, the campaign said. For example, then-President Saparmurat Niyazov, in a televised speech, condemned Muradova for assisting foreign journalists in “gathering slanderous information to show discontent among the population,” and other statements in the state media called her and the other activists “traitors.”

Muradova was held incommunicado the entire time she was in custody. On September 13, 2006, just weeks after her closed trial, her family was informed that she had died. Morgue staff allowed her family to see her body only after diplomatic intervention. A family member who viewed the body said he saw a deep cut in on her forehead, a dark mark around her neck which could be consistent with strangulation, open wounds on her hands, and severe bruising on her legs.

According to unconfirmed information received in December 2006 from a law enforcement official, Muradova died from torture during an interrogation by National Security Ministry officers. Another source later said a “suicide” was staged to conceal the real circumstances of her death.

The government claimed Muradova died of natural causes and did not investigate her death. In its response to the HRC in December 2016, the government said Muradova had been kept in Ovadan-Depe (prison AH-T/2) and claimed that on September 13, 2006, she “committed suicide” by hanging herself.

The HRC, responding to a complaint filed by Muradova’s brother, Annadurdy Khajiev, found the Turkmen government responsible for violating Muradova’s right to life, in an opinion issued in April 2018. The committee made the decision public in August.

The committee found that Turkmen authorities arrested Muradova for her journalism and human rights work, and that they did not conduct a prompt investigation into allegations of torture and her death in custody. It also found that the government’s failure to provide any information about her death caused mental stress to Khajiev that amounted to inhuman treatment.

The committee said the Turkmen government should conduct an impartial investigation into the circumstances of Muradova’s death; provide the family with a full account of its investigations, including the autopsy report, copies of trial transcripts, and the court verdict; and provide a remedy to Muradova’s family, including compensation and rehabilitation of her name.

Muradova was included in the Prove They Are Alive! campaign’s List of the Disappeared in Turkmenistan’s Prisons. The campaign said that like Muradova, dozens and most likely hundreds of other people have been subjected to lengthy periods of incommunicado detention, following rushed, closed, and unfair trials. Their families have been deprived of any information about their loved ones, in many cases for as long as 16 years. A list compiled by the Prove They Are Alive! campaign includes 112 confirmed cases of enforced disappearances in Turkmenistan. Dozens of their family members live in a constant state of distress tantamount to torture, not knowing their loved ones’ whereabouts, or whether they are dead or alive.

The Turkmen government should promptly reply to the HRC and take immediate steps to remedy the violations of Muradova’s and her family’s rights, the Prove They Are Alive! campaign and Human Rights Watch said. It should immediately end the practice of incommunicado detention and make a concerted effort to provide information to family members and relevant international bodies about the fate and whereabouts of people in custody.

“Ending enforced disappearances is an important step toward ensuring that no one suffers the same fate as Olgusapar Muradova,” said Vitali Ponomarev, Central Asia program director at the Memorial Human Rights Center, a partner in the campaign. “It’s time for the Turkmen government to end the suffering of the disappeared and their many families who are denied information about their loved ones.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 9, 2018, 2:02 pm

Video footage of a boy being beaten by police in Kimbe, Papua New Guinea.

© 2018 Private

(Sydney) – Papua New Guinean authorities should promptly conduct a thorough and credible investigation into the beating of a boy by police in Kimbe, West New Britain, that was captured on video and shared on social media, Human Rights Watch said today. The investigation should be capable not just of identifying the police responsible, but of prosecuting and punishing them.

A young boy is beaten by police in Kimbe, West New Britain,  Papua New Guinea. 

The graphic video shows two armed police officers hitting the naked boy with sticks, kicking him in the head, and dragging him along rocks on the ground. At one point, a police officer puts a gun to the boy's head. The boy cries and pleads with the officers.

Police Commissioner Gari Baki said the incident occurred a week and a half ago, and that he has ordered a "full investigation into the incident"; Baki confirmed the officers responsible will be interviewed as part of the investigation and conceded that "police brutality continues to be disregarded by a few officers."

"Announcing an investigation into this shocking incident is the first step, but authorities should ensure that it is independent and transparent, and that police found responsible are prosecuted," said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. "This is not just a few bad apples. Police abuse in Papua New Guinea is sadly widespread, and it will only end when abusive officers are held to account for their crimes."

A spokesperson for the Papua New Guinea police reportedly said that the boy in the video was hospitalized but is now "OK" and has been released into his parents' care. Human Rights Watch has been unable to confirm the location of the boy or his condition.

The Minister for Police Jelta Wong MP responded that, "the Commissioner has been tasked to provide answers and appropriate action against the perpetrators. Like all our leaders, I have seen this video and personally was sickened by the actions taken by the 2 members of the RPNGC [Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary]."

Papua New Guinea has a long history of police abuse, which continues with little accountability, even for fatalities and egregious physical abuse. In 2005 and 2006, Human Rights Watch documented widespread police violence, including brutal beatings, rape, and torture, against children in police custody. Beatings are so routine that police make little or no attempt to hide them, beating children in public. Police rarely provide medical care, even when victims are seriously injured.

In the past, public pressure over specific incidents of excessive use of force, has led the police to announce investigations into allegations of police violence, including the shooting of eight student protesters in 2016. But the findings of such investigations are rarely made public and officers have rarely, if ever, been convicted.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said she will raise the incident with Papua New Guinea's foreign affairs minister, Rimbink Pato. Bishop said that the incident indicates that, "Australia should continue to maintain a presence there, assisting, advising, [and] supporting the PNG police and PNG government."

Papua New Guinea is the largest per capita recipient of Australian development aid, with the Australian government providing A$58.9 million over two years for the Australian Federal Police to provide assistance to the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary. This includes basing 73 Australian Federal Police personnel in Papua New Guinea.

"The Australian government should closely monitor all incidents of police violence and benchmark further assistance to law enforcement upon progress in holding the perpetrators of police abuse to account," Pearson said. "Papua New Guinea authorities need to come clean about the results of previous investigations into excessive use of force, and ensure abusive officers are not simply quietly moved or dismissed but held to account for their actions."

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 9, 2018, 11:30 am