Pro-abortion activist take part in a demonstration in front of the Constitutional Court where opposing parliamentarians presented arguments against the newly approved law that allows abortions under limited circumstances, in Santiago, Chile. The banner the activists hold reads in Spanish "For the health and lives of women."

© 2017 Esteban Felix/AP photo

(Washington, DC) – The Chilean Constitutional Tribunal protected women’s rights when it ruled on August 21, 2017 that a new law to end the full criminalization of abortion in Chile was constitutional, Human Rights Watch said today.

The court’s decision addressed two lawsuits brought by members of parliament from opposition parties challenging the constitutionality of the country’s new abortion law, passed by Congress on August 2. The law decriminalizes abortion under three circumstances: if the life of the pregnant woman or girl is at risk; if the pregnancy is the result of rape; or if the fetus suffers severe conditions not compatible with life outside of the womb.

“The ruling is a landmark for human rights in Chile,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “By ending the cruel, harmful, and regressive policy of criminalizing abortion in all circumstances, the court protected women’s lives and fundamental rights.”

This should create new impetus for countries in the region that still impose an absolute ban on abortion to reconsider their legislation, following Chile’s key move to uphold women’s rights.

José Miguel Vivanco

Americas director

In testimony before the court, on August 16, Vivanco argued that “the total ban on abortion is a disproportionate and overwhelming burden on women that undermines their dignity and their fundamental rights to life, health, and to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.”

President Michelle Bachelet first introduced the bill in January 2015, to address the absolute ban on abortion in Chile’s criminal code. Under articles 342 (3) and 344 of the Chilean Criminal Code, an abortion caused by the pregnant woman or another person was punishable by up to five years in prison.

While the new law represents progress in Chile, limitations in the law and the ruling continue to unduly restrict women’s access to abortion. Women or girls whose health, as opposed to their life, is at risk due to a pregnancy cannot lawfully terminate a pregnancy under the new law. In addition, the court appears to allow private hospitals to refuse access to abortion on grounds of conscience, rather than limiting such objections to individual doctors. The text of the court’s complete ruling will be released on August 28.

Before the adoption of the new law and the court’s ruling, Chile was one of very few countries in the world where abortion is criminalized with no exceptions. Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic in Latin America remain among the handful of countries with some of the world’s most restrictive abortion policies. These highly restrictive laws fuel unsafe, clandestine abortions, putting women’s lives at risk.

“This should create new impetus for countries in the region that still impose an absolute ban on abortion to reconsider their legislation, following Chile’s key move to uphold women’s rights,” Vivanco said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 21, 2017, 8:30 pm

Punhal Sario

It was only last month when Punhal Sario marched from the Pakistani cities of Hyderabad to Karachi to demand the return of fellow activists who had gone “missing,” a Pakistani euphemism for those forcibly disappeared by the state authorities. Now, Sario himself is feared missing.

Witnesses say that Sario, a 58-year-old human rights activist and head of the Voice for Missing Persons of Sindh, was abducted from Hyderabad by security forces on August 3. Four days later, men in plainclothes accompanied by police officials abducted three other people – Partab Shivani, a teacher and activist; Naseer Kumbhar, a writer; and Mohammad Umer, a political party worker – from the Tharparkar district of Sindh province. Pakistani authorities deny any involvement, but have produced no information on the men’s whereabouts.

In a further show of intimidation of critical voices in Sindh, on August 8, security forces raided the home of Amar Sindhu, a well-known poet and activist in Mirpurkas district. Sindhu alleges that the authorities wanted to take her brother Najaf Ali into custody, who was not home at the time of the raid.

These recent alleged rights violations come just weeks after a review of Pakistan by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which recommended that Pakistan end the practice of enforced disappearances and secret detentions. These latest abductions unfortunately suggest that the Pakistani government will ignore the UN body’s recommendation to make disappearances – an arrest or detention by state officials followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person’s fate or whereabouts – a criminal offense under Pakistani law.

People who are disappeared are held without legal protection, making them much more vulnerable to torture and other abuses. The nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that 728 people were forcibly disappeared in Pakistan in 2016 alone.

Pakistan’s new prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, can start his term in office with measures that would signal to Pakistanis and the world that his government is intent on reversing the country’s deteriorating human rights situation. Urgently providing information on the whereabouts of Punhal Sario and other disappeared activists and ensuring the prompt release of those wrongfully detained would be an important first step.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 21, 2017, 7:16 pm

Environmental groups stage a protest to demand the relocation of a pulp mill built on the banks of Uruguay river, in Buenos Aires, January 29, 2009.

© 2009 REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian

All is not well with an ambitious attempt to forge a sweeping treaty on sustainable development across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Earlier this month, representatives of 24 Latin American and Caribbean countries held week-long talks in Buenos Aires to reach an agreement on protecting the rights of millions of people across the region confronting grave environmental challenges posed by economic development efforts. The goal of the talks – the seventh since 2014 – was to secure meaningful participation and access to justice for people who will be affected by economic projects.

But, for the first time in the process, civil society organizations, who had been active in the negotiations announced that, disheartened by what they see as weak proposals to protect human rights, they may pull out.

Many in civil society held high hopes for a strong agreement to support sustainable development in the region. They hoped that a legally binding pact could help end the proliferation of environmental conflicts and address dire problems faced by the millions of people who suffer from pollution and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources.

But civil society groups are deeply concerned that negotiating governments are backing off existing human rights standards, and that the negotiations have lost leadership and direction.

To date, the United Nations-led effort has exhibited a level of openness to the participation of the public that is unprecedented at the UN. Civil society organizations have a valuable contribution to make to the negotiations. Should they leave, hopes for a robust agreement will dim.

Not all was somber in the negotiating room, however. In another first, Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru tabled important language to safeguard environmental defenders. The proposed protections for environmental defenders are a step in the right direction, offering hope to those individuals and groups who defend the environment and their communities, and are under threat in the region.

“The agreement on environmental rights cannot succeed if those who defend them are targeted, attacked, or murdered,” said John Knox, the UN expert on human rights and environment, in a side-event co-organized by Human Rights Watch in Buenos Aires.

Governments should embrace the efforts by Costa Rica and others to protect and give hope to those who put their lives at risk in defense of the environment, for the benefit of all.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 21, 2017, 1:59 pm

Brazilian Army soldiers patrol outside Maracana Stadium during a rehearsal of the 2016 Rio Olympics opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 17, 2016. 

© 2016 Ricardo Moraes/Reuters
(São Paulo) – Brazil’s Senate is being asked to consider a bill that would shield members of the Armed Forces accused of unlawful killings of civilians from prosecution in civilian courts. The Senate should reject the bill because it increases the risk of impunity rather than justice in these cases.
 
“The leadership of Brazil’s Armed Forces wants to bring back a practice that was used during the time of the dictatorship,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “Under the proposal, the military would sit in judgment of itself in cases that constitute serious violations of human rights, a recipe for impunity.”
 
At the end of July 2017, Brazil’s government ordered the deployment of thousands of members of the Armed Forces in Rio de Janeiro in response to an increase in violence. The soldiers will remain in the city until the end of 2018, said the commander of the Army, General Eduardo Villas Boas.

What the Armed Forces really want is to stack the deck against victims of serious human rights violations getting justice.

Maria Laura Canineu

Brazil Director, Americas Division

Members of the Armed Forces are patrolling the streets of Rio and conducting raids alongside state military police and civil police officers. If the bill is passed, soldiers charged with unlawful killings or attempted killings of civilians during those operations will be tried in military courts, while other law enforcement personnel will continue to face civilian courts. Civilian courts should continue to have jurisdiction over all unlawful killings cases irrespective of the alleged killer, Human Rights Watch said.

In the military justice system, the courts of first instance are staffed by four military officers and a civilian judge, all with an equal vote. The appeals court (the Superior Military Tribunal, SMT) is made up of 15 military officers and only 5 civilians. Its decisions can be appealed to the Supreme Federal Court, a civilian court.

The Military Criminal Code, approved in 1969 during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985), provided that unlawful killings of civilians should be tried before military courts, but it was amended in 1996 to move trials for such crimes to civilian courts. Adoption of the bill would reverse a very important step in leaving behind Brazil’s authoritarian past and strengthening the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said.

Under international norms, extrajudicial executions and other grave human rights violations should not be tried before military courts. The Inter-American Court on Human Rights has ruled that “military criminal jurisdiction is not the competent jurisdiction to investigate and, if applicable, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of human rights violations.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has held that it is not appropriate to try violations of human rights before military jurisdictions given that “when the State permits investigations to be conducted by the entities with possible involvement, independence and impartiality are clearly compromised.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors implementation of governments’ obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has called on states parties to ensure that military personnel alleged to have committed human rights violations are subject to civilian jurisdiction. According to the committee, the “wide jurisdiction of the military courts to deal with all the cases involving prosecution of military personnel ... contribute[s] to the impunity which such personnel enjoy against punishment for serious human rights violations.”

Villas Boas has called for the Senate to approve the bill, contending that soldiers deployed in Rio de Janeiro need “legal protection.” In a note to the media, the army also said that subjecting soldiers to the jurisdiction of civilian courts “can hinder prompt reaction” during security operations.

“Brazil´s civilian legal framework provides full due process guarantees to any soldier accused of an unlawful killing, just like to any other citizen,” Canineu said. “What the Armed Forces really want is to stack the deck against victims of serious human rights violations getting justice.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 21, 2017, 1:30 pm

(Washington, DC) – The Trump administration should use the announced departure of Stephen Bannon as chief White House strategist to quickly distance its civil rights and immigration policies from white nationalist politics, Human Rights Watch said today. The White House announced that Chief of Staff John Kelly and Bannon have “mutually agreed” that August 18, 2017 will be Bannon’s last day.

White House Senior Advisor Steve Bannon attends a roundtable discussion held by U.S. President Donald Trump with auto industry leaders at the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan, March 15, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

“Steve Bannon’s departure from the White House could reduce the toxic influence of white nationalist politics in the White House, but only if coupled by a real shift in administration policies on civil rights and immigration,” said Jasmine L. Tyler, US Program advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “But President Donald Trump himself needs to shift his rhetoric and commit his administration to protecting the human rights of everyone in the United States, across the racial spectrum, if he hopes to regain credibility and distance himself from the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who have embraced him.”

Human Rights Watch opposed Bannon’s appointment because of his longstanding affinity for the white nationalist movement and has repeatedly called for his removal.

Going forward, the Trump administration needs to uphold the fundamental values of equality and nondiscrimination, Human Rights Watch said. The Trump administration should reverse its decision to eviscerate the mandates and budgets of US civil rights institutions; end its attempt to exclude white nationalism from the federal government’s Countering Violent Extremism programs; and end immigration and refugee policies based on anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiment.
 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 18, 2017, 7:24 pm

Prominent Yemeni activist Hisham al-Omeisy was detained on August 14, 2017 in Sanaa. 

© Australian Broadcasting Corporation

(Beirut) – Houthi authorities in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, should immediately and unconditionally release Hisham al-Omeisy, a prominent activist detained on August 14, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today.

Al-Omeisy, 38, has been an important public voice in Yemen, providing commentary on the country’s armed conflict. He has used social media, tweeting in English and Arabic, to report on and analyze events in real-time, including airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition that supports the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. He has also addressed the closing of space for nongovernmental groups and the impact of the war on Yemeni civilians.

“Yemen more than ever needs activists like Hisham al-Omeisy to bring attention to the devastation that war, famine, and disease have wrought on the country and its people,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Houthi authorities should immediately release al-Omeisy and return him safely to his family.”

At about 2:45 p.m. on August 14, approximately 15 security officers arrested al-Omeisy in the Sanaa neighborhood of Jawlat al-Misbahi. Four days after the arrest, the National Security Bureau (NSB) is still holding al-Omeisy in an undisclosed location. He has not been charged, brought before a judge, or given access to a lawyer or his family.

The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, have controlled Sanaa and much of Yemen since September 2014. On July 28, 2016, the Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress announced the formation of a governing council to run the country. The Supreme Political Council oversees the Sanaa-based Interior Ministry, which in turn supervises detention sites in Houthi and Saleh-controlled Yemen.

Parties to the armed conflict in Yemen have severely restricted the ability of nongovernmental groups to operate, Human Rights Watch said. In areas under the control of the Houthis and forces loyal to Saleh, the authorities have detained journalists and activists and have looted or closed groups’ offices. In areas where the government retains authority, security forces have beaten, arbitrarily detained, and forcibly disappeared activists.

All authorities in Yemen should immediately cease targeting, harassing, and arbitrarily detaining activists and journalists, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has documented 66 cases in which Houthi-Saleh forces arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared people, including two deaths in custody and 11 cases of alleged torture or other ill-treatment, including the abuse of a child. Other international and Yemeni organizations have documented scores more cases. Yemeni government forces and Yemeni forces backed by the United Arab Emirates have also arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, and tortured dozens of people elsewhere in the country.

Authorities from all sides across Yemen should immediately free those wrongfully held, end detention without access to lawyers or family members, and appropriately prosecute officials responsible for mistreatment, Human Rights Watch said.

Under international human rights law, an enforced disappearance occurs when the authorities take someone into custody and deny holding them or fail to disclose their fate or whereabouts. “Disappeared” people are at greater risk of torture and other ill-treatment, especially when they are detained outside formal detention facilities, such as police jails and prisons.

While the Sanaa-based authorities may take appropriate measures to address security concerns related to Yemen’s armed conflict, international human rights and humanitarian law protects the right not to be arbitrarily detained, tortured or ill-treated, or forcibly disappeared. At a minimum, those detained should be informed of the specific grounds for their arrest, be able to fairly contest their detention before an independent and impartial judge, have access to a lawyer and family members, and have their case periodically reviewed.

“Members of Yemen’s warring parties are putting themselves at risk of future prosecution if they don’t account for the whereabouts or otherwise mistreat those they have detained,” Whitson said.

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 18, 2017, 4:00 am

Journalists at Turan News Agency in Azerbaijan while tax police raided their office earlier this month. 

© Azadliq Radiosu (RFE/RL)

Just last month, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev gave more than 200 apartments away free to journalists and accepted a “friend of journalists” award in return. He claimed that thousands of press agencies operate in Azerbaijan.

But in fact, Azerbaijan has a long record of state antagonism toward independent and opposition media. The most recent victim is the country’s last remaining independent news agency – Turan. It’s now under investigation and could face closure.  

On August 7, Azerbaijani authorities launched a tax-evasion investigation against Turan, alleging it owes more than US$ 21,000 in taxes for the 2014-2016 period. Turan’s director, Mehman Aliyev (no relation to Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev), denies the allegations, and considers the investigation politically motivated. Nevertheless, the agency vowed to cooperate fully with the investigation and was preparing documents requested by tax authorities to meet the August 17 deadline. But on August 16, the tax police raided Turan’s office, searched the premises and computers of its journalists, and confiscated all financial documents and the accountant’s computer.

Using bogus tax-related charges to jail critical journalists is nothing new for Azerbaijan. Just last month, authorities sentenced Faig Amirli, financial director of the already closed pro-opposition Azadlig newspaper, to three years and three months in prison. Aziz Orujov, head of the recently -closed Kanal 13 online TV, has been awaiting trial on tax-related charges since June. A number of non-governmental groups also had to close following spurious tax audits and criminal investigations.

Mehman Aliyev told local media he fears the same fate awaits his popular agency, which has been operating in Azerbaijan since 1990, cooperating with leading international agencies, and providing independent news and analysis in three languages.

The investigation is the latest in a vicious crackdown on critical media in the country. Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan 162 among 180 countries for press freedom. At least eight journalists and bloggers are currently in prison on politically-motivated charges. Among them is Mehman Huseynov, one of the country’s most popular journalists and bloggers, who’s serving two years in prison on bogus defamation charges.

Azerbaijani authorities permanently blocked the websites of some major media outlets critical of the government, and in March 2017 amended laws to tighten control over online media.

Gifting flats to the journalists has nothing to do with respecting Azerbaijan’s international obligations on media freedom; Not unjustly jailing journalists and making sure that Turan news agency can operate without undue government interference, has. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 18, 2017, 3:00 am

Catholic nuns hold placards as they protest against drug-related extrajudicial killings, on International Human Rights Day in Manila, Philippines, December 10, 2016.

© 2016 Ezra Acayan/Reuters

(New York) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s call for police to shoot human rights activists who are “obstructing justice” places all members of the country’s human rights community in grave danger, Human Rights Watch said today. On August 16, 2017, Duterte instructed Philippine National Police personnel to “shoot those who are part of [drug activity]. If they [members of human rights organizations] are obstructing justice, you shoot them.”

Duterte should immediately withdraw his statement or be investigated for possibly instigating or inciting violence against Philippine human rights advocates.

“President Duterte’s threats against human rights activists is like painting a target on the backs of courageous people working to protect the rights and upholding the dignity of all Filipinos,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “Duterte should retract his reprehensible remarks immediately before there is more blood on his hands.”

President Duterte’s threats against human rights activists is like painting a target on the backs of courageous people working to protect the rights and upholding the dignity of all Filipinos.

Phelim Kine

Deputy Asia Director

Duterte’s threat was part of a longer harangue against what he described as an unfair criticism of his abusive “war on drugs,” which has killed at least 7,000 Filipinos since he took office in June 2016. Duterte alleged that human rights organizations criticized his drug war while protecting alleged criminals. “When it comes to criminals, [human rights organizations] will proclaim, 'human rights violations' [to protect them]," Duterte said.

Duterte also warned that human rights organizations may face criminal investigations for criticizing his anti-drug campaign. “One of these days, you human rights groups, I will also investigate you. That's the truth. For conspiracy,” Duterte said.

Duterte previously threatened to kill human rights defenders in December 2016, allegedly for fostering drug use in the country. He followed up that threat a month later by warning that he would extend his anti-drug campaign to the lawyers of alleged drug users and dealers. His call on police to consider human rights advocates legitimate drug-war targets is a sinister escalation in his rhetoric, Human Rights Watch said.

Duterte has also publicly denounced the national Commission on Human Rights (CHR). During a news conference following his State of the Nation Address on July 24, 2017, Duterte threatened to block any CHR investigations of alleged abuses by Philippine security forces and stated that the commission would be “better abolished.” Duterte publicly backtracked on his threat on August 2 by insisting it had been a “joke.”

The commission’s chairman, Chito Gascon, has earned Duterte’s enmity by publicly criticizing the scale of the “drug war” killings as “unprecedented” and declaring that the death toll had overwhelmed the commission’s capacity to adequately investigate them. Gascon has also warned that a government failure to stop the killings might prompt an investigation by the International Criminal Court, of which the Philippines is a member.

Human Rights Watch field research found that government claims that the deaths of suspected drug users and dealers were lawful but were blatant falsehoods. The research painted a chilling portrait of mostly impoverished urban slum dwellers being gunned down in state-sanctioned “death squad” operations that ignore rule-of-law protections. Interviews with witnesses and victims’ relatives and analysis of police records exposed a pattern of unlawful police conduct designed to paint a veneer of legality over extrajudicial executions that may amount to crimes against humanity. The investigations revealed that police routinely execute drug suspects and then cover up their crimes by planting drugs and guns at the scene.

Efforts to seek accountability for drug-war deaths have gone nowhere, Human Rights Watch said. The Philippine National Police director-general, Ronald dela Rosa, has rejected calls for a thorough and impartial investigation of the killings as “legal harassment” and said it “dampens the morale” of police officers. Duterte and some of his key ministers have praised the killings as proof of the “success” of the anti-drug campaign.

Duterte and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre III have sought to justify their total disregard for the rule of law and due legal process for “drug personalities” by questioning the humanity of suspected drug users and drug dealers. Duterte’s instigation of unlawful police violence and the incitement of vigilante killings may amount to crimes against humanity, in violation of international law.

“Duterte is on notice that his death threats against human rights advocates could pave the way for prosecution for crimes against humanity,” Kine said. “Duterte’s assault on accountability highlights the urgent need for a UN-led international investigation into his drug-war slaughter.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 18, 2017, 12:56 am

A Rohingya boy from Burma carries his brother as he leaves after offering the afternoon prayer during the holy month of Ramadan, at a camp in New Delhi, India, June 28, 2015. 

© 2015 Adnan Abidi / Reuters

(New York) – The Indian government should not forcibly return ethnic Rohingya refugees to Burma, where they face persecution, Human Rights Watch said today. India should abide by its international legal obligations and protect the Rohingya – a Muslim minority predominately from western Burma – from systematic abuse by Burmese officials and state security forces.

On August 9, 2017, the Indian minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, told the parliament that “the government has issued detailed instructions for deportation of illegal foreign nationals including Rohingyas,” noting that there were around “40,000 Rohingyas living illegally in the country.”

“India has a long record of helping vulnerable populations fleeing from neighboring countries, including Sri Lankans, Afghans, and Tibetans,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Indian authorities should abide by India’s international legal obligations and not forcibly return any Rohingya to Burma without first fairly evaluating their claims as refugees.”

Indian authorities should abide by India’s international legal obligations and not forcibly return any Rohingya to Burma without first fairly evaluating their claims as refugees.

Meenakshi Ganguly

South Asia Director

About 16,500 Rohingya living in India are registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The government contends that tens of thousands are unregistered. Minister Rijiju told Reuters news agency, “They [UNHCR] are doing it, we can't stop them from registering. But we are not signatory to the accord on refugees.” He added: “As far as we are concerned, they are all illegal immigrants. They have no basis to live here. Anybody who is an illegal migrant will be deported.”

Rijiju’s statement does not accurately reflect India’s obligations under international refugee law. While India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, it is still bound by customary international law not to forcibly return any refugee to a place where they face a serious risk of persecution or threats to their life or freedom.

The Rohingya are largely living in the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, Telangana, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and Rajasthan. Since 2016, Rohingya refugees in Jammu have been targeted by right-wing Hindu groups who have been calling for their eviction from the state, with some groups even threatening attacks if the government rejected their call.

In December 2016, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a group with links to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), demanded the eviction of Rohingya from Jammu, calling them a threat to security. Another group, the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party, started a public campaign against the Rohingya, putting up billboards in the city calling on Rohingya and Bangladeshis to leave the state. In February 2017, a BJP member whose lawyer is the BJP spokesman in Jammu, filed a petition in the state high court seeking the Rohingya’s deportation, arguing that there had been a sharp increase in illegal migrants from Burma and Bangladesh.

The campaign by Hindu groups against the Rohingya in Jammu has prompted vigilante-style attacks against them. In April, unidentified assailants reportedly set on fire five huts housing Rohingya in Jammu. Four days earlier several Rohingya families living in the outskirts of Jammu alleged that unidentified people beat them up and set ablaze the scrap they collected to earn a livelihood.

Xenophobic statements by government officials about Rohingya could fuel further violence against them and Bengali-speaking Muslims.

Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the rampant and systemic violations against the ethnic Rohingya in Burma. The estimated 1.2 million Rohingya, most of whom live in Burma’s Rakhine State, have long been targets of government discrimination, facilitated by their effective denial of citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law. The Rohingya have faced longstanding rights abuses, including restrictions on movement, limitations on access to health care, livelihood, shelter, and education; as well as arbitrary arrests and detention, and forced labor.

An estimated 120,000 people, the vast majority Rohingya, are currently displaced in camps in Rakhine State as a result of violence in 2012 that amounted to crimes against humanity and “ethnic cleansing.” The displaced Rohingya live in squalid, prison-like conditions in these camps. An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Rohingya are living in Bangladesh, where the vast majority have also been prevented from filing refugee claims. The Burmese government refuses to use the term “Rohingya,” with which the group self-identifies, but often uses the pejorative term “Bengali,” implying illegal migrant status in Burma.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous abuses associated with recent military operations following attacks by alleged Rohingya militants in October 2016 in Rakhine State, including widespread arson, extrajudicial killings, systematic rape, and other forms of sexual violence. The United Nations estimates that more than 1,000 people were killed in the crackdown. A February report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) concluded that the attacks against the Rohingya “very likely” amounted to “crimes against humanity.”

In March 2017, the UN Human Rights Council, of which India is a member, passed a resolution establishing an independent international fact-finding mission with a mandate to investigate allegations of recent human rights abuses in Burma, especially in Rakhine State. The government has stated its intention to deny the mission access to the country.

Due to Burma’s discriminatory citizenship policies, it refuses to cooperate in the repatriation of Rohingya, itself a denial of the human right of any person to return to their country.

India has in the past called upon Burma to address the issues around the Rohingya and to ensure their protection. Minister Rijiju has stated that deportations will occur only in consultation with the authorities in Bangladesh and Burma.

“Without the willingness or capacity to evaluate refugee claims, the Indian government should put an end to any plans to deport the Rohingya, and instead register them so that they can get an education and health care and find work,” Ganguly said. “Most of the Rohingya were forced to flee egregious abuse, and India should show leadership by protecting the beleaguered community and calling on the Burmese government to end the repression and atrocities causing these people to leave.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 17, 2017, 10:39 pm

A supporter holds up a picture of presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi during a rally in Tehran May 29, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

Former Iranian presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi ended his hunger strike after authorities agreed to remove security guards from his home. The 79-year-old Karroubi, who authorities have placed under house arrest for more than six years, began a hunger strike yesterday morning to protest these guards’ constant presence in his house, as well as to reiterate his demand for a public trial.

Over the past 24 hours, Iranian activists mobilized support for Karroubi’s demand on social media. Several prominent human rights defenders, including Narges Mohammadi, who is currently serving a 10-year sentence in Evin prison for her peaceful activism, said that they were going on hunger strikes in solidarity with him.

In addition to Karroubi, authorities have also kept Mirhossein Mousavi, the other pro-reform presidential candidate in 2009, and Zahra Rahnavard, a scholar and Mousavi’s wife, under house arrest since February 2011.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention considers their detentions to be arbitrary. Iranian officials, including in the judiciary, have failed to provide any legal justification for these detentions. According to media reports quoting senior Iranian officials, the Iran Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supports the house arrest orders.

In 2013, during his first presidential campaign, President Hassan Rouhani promised to lift the house arrest of the two former candidates and Rahnavard. But despite winning a second term with a significant popular mandate, he hasn’t followed through on his pledge.

A few Iranian parliament members sympathetic to reformists have stated their support for lifting the house arrest, and visited Karroubi’s family when he was recently hospitalized for an operation.

After Karroubi was transferred to the hospital last night, Rouhani reportedly directed senior officials, including the minister of health, Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi, to visit Karroubi at the hospital, during which they promised that the security guards would be removed from his residence. Mohammad Taghi Karoubi, Karoubi’s son, also tweeted that the government has promised to do its best to fulfill Karroubi’s demand for a public trial.

Rouhani and parliamentarians who have ignored Karroubi and the Mousavis’ plight should act to end their house arrest once and for all. The events surrounding the government crackdown after the disputed presidential election of 2009 continue to remain at the center of political debate and public scrutiny in Iran, and many Iranians are counting on these elected officials to cease this outrageous violation of fundamental rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 17, 2017, 5:37 pm

Thai authorities charge Professor Chayan Vaddhanaphuti and four participants of the 2017 International Conference on Thai Studies at Chiang Mai University with violating the junta's ban on public assembly. 

© 2017 Private

(New York) – Thai authorities should immediately drop charges against a prominent academic and four conference participants for violating the military junta’s ban on public assembly at a conference at Chiang Mai University in July 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The International Conference on Thai Studies included discussions and other activities that the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta deemed critical of military rule.

Professor Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, who faces up to one year in prison if convicted, is scheduled to report to police in Chiang Mai province on August 23. Four conference attendees – Pakawadee Veerapatpong, Chaipong Samnieng, Nontawat Machai, and Thiramon Bua-ngam – have been charged for the same offense for holding posters saying “An academic forum is not a military barrack” to protest the military’s surveillance of participants during the July 15-18 conference. None are currently in custody.

“Government censorship and military surveillance have no place at an academic conference,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “By prosecuting a conference organizer and participants, the Thai junta is showing the world its utter contempt for academic freedom and other liberties.”

By prosecuting a conference organizer and participants, the Thai junta is showing the world its utter contempt for academic freedom and other liberties.

Brad Adams

Asia Director


Since taking power after the May 2014 coup, Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha has asserted that the airing of differences in political opinions could undermine social stability. Thai authorities have frequently forced the cancellation of community meetings, academic panels, issue seminars, and public forums on political matters, and especially issues related to dissent towards NCPO policies or the state of human rights in Thailand.

Frequently, these repressive interventions are based on the NCPO’s ban on public gatherings of more than five people, and orders outlawing public criticisms of any aspect of military rule. The junta views people who repeatedly express dissenting views and opinions, or show support for the deposed civilian government, as posing a threat to national security, and frequently arrests and prosecutes them under various laws.

Over the past three years, thousands of activists, politicians, journalists, and human rights defenders have been arrested and taken to military camps across Thailand for hostile interrogation aimed at stamping out dissident views and compelling a change in their political attitudes. Many of these cases took place in Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand, the hometown of former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra.

Most of those released from these interrogations, which the NCPO calls “attitude adjustment” programs, are forced to sign a written agreement that state they will cease making political comments, stop their involvement in political activities, or not undertake any actions to oppose military rule. Failure to comply with these written agreements can result in being detained again, or charged with the crime of disobeying the NCPO’s orders, which carries a sentence of up to two years in prison.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a party, protects the rights of individuals to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly. The UN committee that oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Thailand has also ratified, has advised governments that academic freedom, as an element of the right to education, includes: “the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the State or any other actor, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognized human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction.”

“Academics worldwide should call for the trumped-up charges against Professor Chayan and the four conference attendees to be dropped immediately,” Adams said. “Thailand faces a dim future if speech is censored, academic criticism is punished, and political discussions are banned even inside a university.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 16, 2017, 6:43 pm

Angolan authorities have moved to ban protests and demonstrations by groups not running in next week’s parliamentary elections.

“Samussuku” Chiconda required stitches on his forehead after police officers beat him with batons, Luanda, February 24, 2017.

© 2017 Luaty Beirao

The August 23 elections will take place in an environment marred by severe restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, and limited access to information due to government repression and censorship in state media and in private media outlets controlled by ruling party officials.

In a document distributed to the media and quoted by Angolan News Agency, the Ministry of the Interior said street protests planned by activists pose a security risk and “may clash with activities of political parties.”

The ban does not affect groups that intend to hold activities in support of a political party, provided the activity is authorized by local authorities.

While governments may place reasonable time and place restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly, an electoral campaign does not permit the government to place broad bans on freedom of expression, whether on political parties or those not directly participating in the vote. 

This principle is reflected in article 47 of Angola’s Constitution, which guarantees the right of all citizens to protest without pre-authorization, provided they inform authorities in advance. However, during the pre-election period, the government has repeatedly blocked peaceful anti-government protests with intimidation and arbitrary arrest and detention. On the rare occasions when protests were not prevented, the police responded with unnecessary or excessive use of force.

Demonstrations during the electoral process are not exclusive to political parties or individuals contesting elections. The Angolan government should not use security as an excuse to restrict people’s rights to free expression and peaceful assembly. They should allow all citizens to actively participate in the upcoming elections, whether through public debates or street demonstrations, as well as casting their ballots.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 16, 2017, 5:54 pm

A man poses for a photo with a portrait of Santiago Maldonado, during a demonstration to demand actions to find him in Buenos Aires, Argentina, August 11, 2017. 

© 2017 Marcos Brindicci/Reuters

Pressure is building on Argentina to find 28-year-old Santiago Maldonado, who has been missing, possibly the victim of an enforced disappearance, since security forces broke up a protest in southern Argentina on August 1.

Maldonado, who was visiting a Mapuche indigenous community in Cushamen, in the southern province of Chubut, was reportedly last seen by local residents when the Gendarmerie – a federal security force – intervened to disperse a demonstration on August 1. The press reported that Maldonado was there to support the Mapuches’ land claims and opposition to the extradition of an indigenous leader, Jones Huala, sought by Chilean authorities for his alleged participation in setting a building on fire and trying to burn a member of Chilean security forces in 2013.

Residents reportedly ran towards a nearby river, escaping from members of security forces who shot bullets and pellets towards them. Some residents said they saw Maldonado stay behind and heard the security officers say, “here we have one” and “you’re under arrest.” Another resident claims to have seen security agents beat a man, and others say they saw the agents force someone into a van. Although no one could see who was placed inside the van, the community claims no one else from the community is unaccounted for.

Last week, the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances urged the Argentine government to take swift action to find Maldonado. Under international law, an enforced disappearance occurs when state agents detain a person but refuse to acknowledge the detention or refuse to provide information on the whereabouts or fate of the detainee.

Prosecutors have found evidence, including hair, at a Gendarmerie base, which is currently being evaluated as part of an ongoing investigation. On August 14, two members of the Mapuche community declared before the judge investigating the case that they saw the Gendarmerie take Maldonado away, according to press reports.

Government officials, including Patricia Bullrich, the security minister, and Claudio Avruj, the human rights secretary, have said that the government is actively searching for Maldonado. Bullrich said on August 11 that there was no record of Maldonado being detained, and she is scheduled to provide a comprehensive report on the case before a Senate commission on August 16.

When someone goes missing, no matter under which circumstances, time is of the essence. This is all the more important when the person may have been forcibly disappeared by security forces. The Argentine government should prioritize efforts to ensure the investigation is effective and capable of determining what happened to Maldonado and his whereabouts in the shortest period of time. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 16, 2017, 2:00 pm

(Beirut) – Forces loyal to the Libyan National Army (LNA) in eastern Libya appear to have executed captured fighters in Benghazi and desecrated corpses, Human Rights Watch said today. Video recordings posted online since January 2017 seem to show LNA fighters carrying out seven distinct unlawful executions of “extremists.”

The most recent video, which appeared on social media on July 24, 2017, shows the apparent summary execution on July 17 of 20 blindfolded men with their hands tied behind their backs in orange jumpsuits, whom the commander in charge accuses of “terrorism.” The executioners appear to be members of a special forces unit headed by Mahmoud al-Werfalli. The Army Special Forces in Benghazi, under the command of Wanis Bukhamada, are linked to the LNA, which is commanded by Gen. Khalifa Hiftar. The LNA is allied with the Interim Government, one of the three governments vying for legitimacy, international recognition, and control of territory in Libya.

The above image is a screenshot from a video posted on July 24, 2017 showing the apparent summary execution by LNA fighters of 20 prisoners, whom the commander, believed to be ICC suspect Mahmoud Al-Werfalli (wearing cap),  accuses of “terrorism.” The original video can be found here

 

On August 15, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for al-Werfalli for the war crime of murder. He is wanted by the court for his alleged role in the killing of 33 people in seven incidents that took place in and around Benghazi between June 2016 and July 2017. The Interim Government should take immediate steps to facilitate the surrender of al-Werfalli to the ICC, Human Rights Watch said.

“The posted videos suggest that LNA-linked forces committed a series of grave war crimes over many months,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The ICC warrant for al-Werfalli is a wake-up call to other abusive commanders in Libya that one day their serious crimes could land them in a prison cell in The Hague.”

Human Rights Watch reviewed seven videos and several still images that appear to show distinct incidents of LNA-affiliated soldiers executing prisoners in their custody. Some of these videos and images show fighters desecrating the bodies of supposed fighters who opposed the LNA, including the burning and kicking of a corpse and posing for photographs with another corpse that had a leash tied around its neck.

In the video that was posted on social media on July 24, al-Werfalli and LNA soldiers are seen wearing the insignia of the Army Special Forces. Al-Werfalli reads out the execution judgment, identifies the unit, the date of July 17, and the capital offenses attributed to those in custody. He is the main executioner or supervisor of executions in six more video recordings of apparent summary executions of people accused of “terrorism” and committing crimes against the LNA.

The summary execution of fighters who have been captured or who have surrendered is a war crime.

Despite a commitment to investigate alleged crimes by its forces, the LNA has yet to announce the findings of any investigations or sanctions it has imposed on any of its members found to have committed violations. In a July 20 statement, the LNA rejected allegations made by the United Nations on July 18 that soldiers under al-Werfalli’s command were responsible for summary executions and that captured fighters in Benghazi were at “imminent risk of torture and even summary execution.”

The LNA said in its response that there was no evidence to substantiate the accusations of torture and executions and that any conclusions of the LNA’s investigative commission to uncover abuses in “unverified videos” would be made public.

Human Rights Watch was not able to verify the date when the videos and photos were taken, or the location where they were recorded. However, an analysis of the imagery revealed no indications that they had been doctored or were otherwise inauthentic. Human Rights Watch sought comment from the LNA spokesman but was unable to reach him. On August 8, Human Rights Watch emailed the LNA for comment on the videos and photographs that appear to show al-Werfalli presiding over or carrying out the execution of prisoners. Human Rights Watch did not receive a response.

Three of the seven videos appear to show al-Werfalli himself executing captured and unarmed men, individually or in groups. In three other videos, he appears to give orders to men in military uniform to execute unarmed detainees. In the seventh and most recent video to surface, a commander, who appears to be al-Werfalli, both gives orders and participates in the execution of the 20 unarmed, blindfolded prisoners in orange jumpsuits with their hands tied behind their backs.

The video starts by showing several incidents of crimes the captured men allegedly committed. The commander, who is dressed in fatigues, a black t-shirt, and black cap, then reads out the judgment of execution by firing squad against 18 of the men kneeling in four rows. The commander refers to the men as “terrorists” and says that a “field court” has found them guilty of “kidnapping, torturing, killing, bombing, slaying, and torturing the sons of the military establishment in particular and the Libyan people in general.”

The commander does not name any of the captured men or cite their affiliations. He says the date is July 17. Once the reading of the judgment is over, he orders armed men in military uniforms to execute the captured detainees row by row. The recording shows them doing so. Two more individuals are executed in the same way at the end of the video.

In another video recording posted on social media in June, a man who appears to be al-Werfalli is seen reciting religious texts and then ordering four men in fatigues, black t-shirts, and face-masks to shoot in the head four men kneeling in an open field. The captives are hooded and appear to have their hands bound behind their backs. Al-Werfalli does not name the victims but accuses them of crimes, including assassinations, and calls them Kharijites – a term for Muslims who rebelled against the Caliphate in the early ages of Islam. Al-Werfalli says that it is the month of Ramadan, which would mean June 2017.

Another undated video appears to show al-Werfalli reciting religious verses in a room while a man kneels on the floor with his arms behind his head. Other soldiers can be seen and heard in the background. Al-Werfalli accuses the man of being a member of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and then pulls out a handgun and shoots him in the back of the head, apparently killing him. Another undated video shows the apparent interrogation of this same man, who says he is Algerian.

On May 22, an undated video appeared online showing the apparent execution of two men: Emad Eddin al-Jazawi, a fighter with the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, a coalition of fighters including extremists who oppose the LNA, and the son of a minister of the National Salvation Government, another of the rival governments. The video begins with al-Jazawi being interrogated and later shows him in a cage with another man, Haitham Jomaa al-Kafrawi, identified in the video as an Egyptian member of Al-Qaeda, who is also being interrogated. The recording ends with al-Jazawi and al-Kafrawi kneeling on the ground, backs to the camera, as al-Werfalli gives two soldiers an order to execute them. A photo bubble appears above the heads of the victims, showing photos of both men.

On May 15, al-Werfalli announced his resignation from the special forces, after he and his forces were accused of abuses, including looting and burning homes, as well as attacking a rescue division linked with the Interior Ministry in Benghazi that resulted in the killing of an officer. Al-Werfalli denied responsibility for those acts. However, the next day, the commander of the Special Forces, Wanis Bukhamada, rejected al-Werfalli’s resignation due to the “many sacrifices al-Werfalli” had made, and kept him in his position.

Armed conflict, insecurity, and political divisions have plagued Libya since May 2014, when General Hiftar announced a war to root out “terrorism” in Benghazi. As a result of armed conflicts in both the east and west, central authority collapsed and the three competing governments emerged, including the Interim Government, which the House of Representatives supports. Key institutions, most notably law enforcement and the judiciary, are dysfunctional in most parts of the country. On July 5, General Hiftar announced the complete “liberation” of Benghazi from armed groups opposing the LNA, including extremists, but pockets of resistance remain.

The ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has a mandate to investigate crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide committed in Libya since February 15, 2011. Human Rights Watch’s research in Libya since 2011 has found rampant violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including mass long-term arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, forced displacement, and unlawful killings. In the face of mounting atrocities, Human Rights Watch has called on the ICC prosecutor to urgently pursue an investigation into ongoing grave crimes by all sides, including possible crimes against humanity.

In May, Bensouda said her office was committed to making the Libya situation a priority in 2017. Given the serious crimes committed in Libya and the challenges facing the authorities, the ICC’s mandate remains crucial to ending impunity in Libya, Human Rights Watch said.
 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 16, 2017, 5:00 am

(Geneva) – The United Nations Minamata Convention on Mercury, which went into effect on August 16, 2017, could benefit millions of people affected by toxic mercury, Human Rights Watch said today. Under the treaty, governments are obligated to protect their citizens from the harmful effects of mercury and to put in place controls in polluting industries, such as artisanal and small-scale gold mining and coal-fired power plants. 

Mercury, a shiny liquid metal, attacks the central nervous system, can result in lifelong disability, and is very harmful to children. It can be lethal in higher doses.

The United Nations Minamata Convention on Mercury, which went into effect on August 16, 2017, could benefit millions of people affected by toxic mercury.

“Millions of children and adults around the world are exposed to mercury on a daily basis,” said Juliane Kippenberg, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The Minamata Convention strengthens governments’ obligations to protect people’s rights to health and to a healthy environment from this toxic substance.”

Pure mercury in a wooden pan used to process gold. 

© 2014 Mark Z. Saludes for Human Rights Watch

The Minamata Convention was adopted in 2013 in Japan. It is named after the Japanese fishing town of Minamata, where mercury was discharged into the bay by a large chemical company from 1932 until 1968. Japan officially recognized that more than 2,955 people suffered mercury poisoning as a result, but subsequently compensated about 60,000 people. The actual number of victims is thought to be even higher.

Human Rights Watch has documented exposure to mercury by children and adults working in artisanal and small-scale gold mines in Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Tanzania, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. Mercury is mixed into the ore to attract the gold particles. The resulting gold-mercury amalgam is then held over a fire, where the mercury is burned off, leaving raw gold behind.

Although mercury is particularly harmful to children, some children work regularly with mercury from young ages, unaware of the health risks. Children are also exposed to mercury fumes when their parents or older siblings burn the amalgam in their homes. Fifteen-year-old “Michelle” from the Philippines told Human Rights Watch that she had started processing gold with mercury at age 8, and started to suffer spasms – a typical symptom of mercury poisoning – a year later. She had never sought medical care or received a diagnosis.

The Minamata Convention obligates member countries to promote mercury-free gold processing methods; take special measures to protect vulnerable populations, including children and women of child-bearing age from exposure; and put an end to particularly harmful practices in gold processing, such as burning the mercury-gold amalgam in residential areas. Member countries commit to improving health care services for populations affected by exposure to mercury. The treaty also regulates other important industries, such as mercury use in products and manufacturing processes, and emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Mercury-contaminated water flows into the Bosigon River in Malaya, Camarines Norte.
 

© 2014 Mark Z. Saludes for Human Rights Watch

Currently, 74 countries are parties to the Minamata Convention, including important gold mining and donor countries – among them Peru, Brazil, Ghana, Canada, the United States, and Switzerland. On May 18, the European Union and seven EU member countries ratified the convention, bringing the total number of ratifications more than 50, triggering the entry into force on August 16. The first Conference of the Parties will take place from September 24 to September 29 in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Global Environmental Facility, a multi-donor trust fund, has been designated in the treaty to provide financial support to governments from developing countries that seek to take action on mercury and has already started funding programs.

“Now that the Mercury Convention is in effect, governments have to walk the walk and put the treaty into practice,” Kippenberg said. “People suffering from mercury poisoning need swift protection and treatment.”

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 16, 2017, 4:01 am

Pro-democracy leaders Nathan Law (C), Joshua Wong (R), and Alex Chow meet journalists outside a court in Hong Kong, on September 21, 2016.

© 2016 Bobby Yip/Reuters

(New York, August 16, 2017) – The Hong Kong government should quash the 2016 convictions of three student leaders for their roles in a peaceful protest, Human Rights Watch said today. On August 17, 2017, the Court of Appeal of the High Court of Hong Kong is due to rule on the Hong Kong Department of Justice’s request that Alex Chow, Nathan Law, and Joshua Wong be given prison sentences.

Under Hong Kong ordinances, anyone sentenced to more than three months in prison is barred from running for the Legislative Council and for the District Council for five years.

“Hong Kong authorities should never have prosecuted these three student leaders for peaceful protests in the first place,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The justice department’s outlandish application seeking jail time is not about public order but is instead a craven political move to keep the trio out of the Legislative Council, as well as deter future protests.”

On July 21, 2016, a Hong Kong court convicted Chow and Wong of unlawful assembly, and Law of incitement, offenses under the Public Order Ordinance. Chow was given a three-week sentence with a one-year suspension. Wong and Law were given community service orders of 80 hours and 120 hours, respectively, and have since fulfilled their obligations.

The justice department’s outlandish application seeking jail time is not about public order but is instead a craven political move to keep the trio out of the Legislative Council, as well as deter future protests.

Sophie Richardson

China Director

In October, the Hong Kong Department of Justice filed an application for a review of the sentences, an uncommon step, and now seeks prison terms for the three. The prosecutors claim that “the nature of the crime in this case is extremely serious,” and that “as the accused do not feel true remorse, awarding a sentence of community service is wrong on principle and clearly not enough.”

In an unrelated but similar case, the appeals court imposed a heavier penalty on 13 defendants who had been convicted of unlawful assembly for another anti-government protest in 2014. The 13, who had previously been sentenced to community service, were given prison terms between 8 and 13 months after the justice department sought a review of their sentences.

The charges against the three student leaders stem from their leadership of a peaceful sit-in that triggered the 79-day pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014. At that time, Hong Kong authorities characterized the demonstrations as illegal, invoking the Public Order Ordinance, which has been criticized by the United Nations Human Rights Committee for possibly “facilitat[ing] excessive restrictions” to basic rights. The law, which requires that processions involving more than 30 people and assemblies with more than 50 must apply for and receive a “letter of no objection” from the government in advance, is incompatible with article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which applies to Hong Kong.

Human Rights Watch has long urged Hong Kong authorities to revise the ordinance to comply with the ICCPR.

Imposing new punishments on Wong and Law, who had already completed their sentences of community service, may violate article 14(7) of the ICCPR, which enunciates the principle of “double jeopardy” that no one shall be “punished again” for the same offense.

In November 2016 and July 2017, Hong Kong courts disqualified a total of six elected pro-democratic legislators. The court decisions were based on a November 2016 judicial interpretation issued by China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, changing Hong Kong’s functional constitution during legal proceedings. As a result, pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong’s semi-democratic legislature lost their limited power to reject motions and bill amendments raised by other legislators. The Hong Kong government is expected to organize a by-election for the six vacated seats. At least two of the three student leaders had expressed interest in running for these seats.

Human Rights Watch has documented the surge in politically motivated prosecutions against Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders since the Umbrella Movement protests culminated in December 2014. Most were charged with participating in or leading peaceful protests. Human Rights Watch has also documented other forms of official harassment against opposition politicians, such as delays and rejections in registering political parties on political grounds. There were also increased reports of suspected mainland security police following, intimidating, and assaulting democracy advocates, particularly during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Hong Kong from June 29 to July 1, 2017.

“People are increasingly losing confidence in the neutrality of Hong Kong’s justice system,” Richardson said. “Hong Kong authorities should quash the convictions of peaceful protesters that have raised serious concerns about the long-term prospect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 15, 2017, 11:50 pm

Protesters at an entry point before the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in Washington, DC, U.S., January 20, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

United States activists are raising alarms about a new report that the Justice Department has obtained a search warrant for information about visitors to a website that coordinated protests at President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The warrant was issued as a part of an investigation into alleged criminal activities by certain people during the protests. DreamHost, the website host, has said the warrant would require it to disclose more than 1.3 million IP addresses that the government could use to identify people who visited the site.

DreamHost has correctly raised the alarm that this demand could discourage people from exercising their rights to free expression online. Human Rights Watch is concerned not only about this immediate impact on free speech, but also about a risk that if the authorities obtain this information, there may be insufficient protections to prevent them from storing and searching the data for the long-term. If the government takes an expansive view of its powers in that respect – as it has tried to do in at least one previous case – it may even be able to enter the data into databases that could later be used to create profiles of, or map relationships between, people for whom there is no suspicion of wrongdoing.

As DreamHost has pointed out in a legal filing, the warrant does not provide, “any assurance that the government will return or destroy the large portion of the information irrelevant to the government’s criminal case or cases.” Recent media reports have described troubling aspects of government databases – some furnished by the Palo Alto-based company Palantir – that may enable government entities to store and data mine large collections of law enforcement and other information. While we don’t yet know how the authorities intend to treat the data they gather from DreamHost, storing and mining data that is unrelated or unnecessary to an actual criminal investigation would raise serious potential human rights concerns, particularly when the collection appears to be centered on lawful expression, and organizing around political protest.

At a minimum, judges should consider these possible long-term effects when deciding whether to issue a warrant for large sets of user data. And companies that receive similar overreaching warrants should follow DreamHost’s example and challenge them on behalf of their users. The rights of everyone – from the politically active to the merely curious – are too important to sacrifice automatically to a blanket demand.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 15, 2017, 10:00 pm

If it was up to the thousands who participated in last week’s Prague Pride, it’s clear the Czech Republic would be joining the growing list of countries legalizing same-sex marriage.

Campaigners for same-sex marriage during Prague Pride, Czech Republic, August 12, 2017.

© 2017 Boris Dittrich/Human Rights Watch

Marriage equality was a major theme during Prague Pride Week, which prominently featured a lesbian couple in wedding dresses riding in a carriage in the parade. While there was no doubt where the estimated 35,000 participants in the parade stood on the issue, public opinion still remains split with a May Czech opinion poll showing a slight majority of 52 percent in favour of same-sex marriage.

After years of effort, the door may be opening for activists to achieve marriage equality. On October 20 and 21, national parliamentary elections will be held in the Czech Republic and same-sex marriage is on the agenda.

After joining the European Union (EU) in 2004, the Czech Republic introduced civil unions in 2006. In the run-up to the October elections, a coalition of five Czech non-governmental organizations started a campaign called Jsme fér! (We are fair) to achieve marriage equality during the next four year parliamentary period. The chair of the campaign and the advocacy director joined me in my meetings with Czech politicians to discuss marriage equality. On Thursday, August 10, we met in the Czech parliament building with Zbynek Stanjura, chairman of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which is a conservative opposition party. Inspired by the sudden adoption of marriage equality legislation in Germany through a vote of conscience, Stanjura, who is personally not in favour of marriage equality, suggested that his party could agree on a free vote in parliament – that is without any party whip. He predicted several of his colleagues would vote in favour of marriage equality. The next day we met with the former Prime Minister and former EU Commissioner Vladimir Spidla, who is now the chief advisor of the current Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka. He predicted his party, the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD), currently the biggest political party in government with two coalition partners, would be in favour of marriage equality.

The Equal Marriage campaigners will now ask all 200 candidates for the Chamber of Deputies if they would vote in favour of marriage equality should they be elected. The campaigners will urge the public to support those candidates who commit to marriage equality. Now is the time to vote for full equality.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 15, 2017, 5:10 pm

(Beirut) – The Iranian parliament on August 13, 2017, approved a long-awaited amendment to the country’s drug law that significantly raises the bar for a mandatory death sentence, Human Rights Watch said today. The amendment, which the parliamentary judiciary commission revised four times, is a step in the right direction despite being more limited than a December 2016 draft amendment that sought to outlaw the death penalty for most nonviolent drug related offenses.

Iran has one of the highest rates of documented executions in the world. According to Amnesty International, in 2016 alone, Iran executed at least 567 individuals, including at least two who were children when they allegedly committed their crimes. When submitting the new draft law to the parliament, Hassan Noroozi, the spokesperson for the parliamentary judicial committee, stated that 5,000 people are currently on death row for drug offenses in Iran, the majority between the ages of 20 and 30.

A view of the Iranian parliament in Tehran September 2, 2009. 

© 2009 Raheb Homavandi/Reuters

“If the amendment becomes law, it could save hundreds of people from execution who never should have been on death row in the first place,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Even Iranian officials admit the ineffectiveness of capital punishment for combating drugs, and the parliament should next outlaw capital punishment for all drug offenders, and then end all executions.” 

For the bill to become law, the Guardian Council, a body of 12 Islamic jurists, must approve it, agreeing that the bill is in accordance with Iran’s constitution and their interpretation of sharia law.

Under Iran’s current drug law, nonviolent offenses, including possession of as little as 30 grams of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines, as well as trafficking, possession, or trade of more than five kilograms of opium or 30 grams of heroin carries a mandatory death sentence.

The approved amendment changes the punishment for drug offenses that previously carried the death penalty or life in prison to a prison term of up to 30 years. However, it still mandates the death penalty if the accused or one of the participants in the crime used or carried weapons and intended to use them against law enforcement agencies. The death penalty would still apply to a leader of a drug trafficking cartel, anyone who used a child in some way to traffic drugs, or anyone facing new drug-related charges who had previously been sentenced to execution or 15 years to life for drug-related offenses.

After facing pushback from Iran’s judiciary and the Interior Ministry’s drug control headquarters, parliament altered the amendment to maintain the death penalty for nonviolent charges of “production, distribution, trafficking, and selling” drugs. However, the amendment raises the amounts of drugs involved to more than 50 kilograms of “traditional” drugs such as opium or two kilograms of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines. It also restores the death penalty for possession, purchase, or concealing more than three kilograms of “synthetic drugs.”

Despite the prospect of reform, the authorities have continued executing people on drug-related offenses. On July 20, Human Rights Watch called on Iranian authorities to immediately halt these executions while the amendments await final approval.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented serious violations of due process, torture, and other violations of the rights of people accused of drug offenses, including in Ghezel Hesar prison in Karaj. Prisoners have told Human Rights Watch that authorities routinely blindfold and beat detainees and force them to sign confessions. Prisoners also said that court-appointed lawyers are not allowed to be present during interrogations or to meet privately with their clients, and that they are allowed only to submit written statements in their clients’ defense.

Under article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran has ratified, in countries that still retain capital punishment, the death penalty may be applied only for the “most serious crimes.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has said that drug offenses are not among the “most serious crimes,” and that the use of the death penalty for such crimes violates international law. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because it is inherently irreversible and inhumane.

“The Guardian Council shouldn’t wait a moment longer to approve reforms and take a first step to curbing Iran’s execution epidemic,” Whitson said. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 15, 2017, 8:04 am

Erkin Musaev, year unknown © Association for Human Rights in Central Asia

Erkin Musaev was a former Uzbek government official and UN staffer who arrested and imprisoned in 2006 on politically-motivated charges of espionage, among others. 

(Bishkek) – Erkin Musaev, a United Nations employee and former government official, tortured and unjustly jailed for 11 years in Uzbekistan, was finally freed on August 11, 2017, according to his family, Human Rights Watch said today. Musaev had been imprisoned since 2006 and was granted early release on orders of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the family said.
 
Mirziyoyev should release all those imprisoned on politically motivated charges and ensure effective investigations into the torture of detainees, including Musaev, Human Rights Watch said.
 
“Erkin Musaev’s release is a joyous occasion for him and his family, but Musaev’s 11-year ordeal won’t end until those who tortured him are brought to justice,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “President Mirziyoyev should see to it that all torture of detainees finally ends and all victims get a remedy.”
 
Musaev is the fifth political prisoner released since Mirziyoyev became acting president in September 2016, following the death of the long-time authoritarian leader Islam Karimov in August. During his campaign, Mirziyoyev promised increased accountability to citizens, and acknowledged the lack of reform in key aspects of Uzbekistan’s society, including the economy and the criminal justice system.
 
Since assuming office in December, Mirziyoyev has taken modest steps to loosen some restrictions on free expression, and openly criticized prosecutors for abuse of power in certain cases. He also announced plans to abolish exit visas, which improperly restrict the right of citizens to leave the country. But Mirziyoyev has taken few steps to free prisoners held on politically motivated charges.
 
Mirziyoyev should direct the relevant authorities to effectively investigate allegations that Musaev was tortured, and that his conviction and sentence were based on proceedings that violated basic fair trial standards, Human Rights Watch said. The Uzbek government should also immediately and unconditionally release the other peaceful activists and human rights defenders who remain in prison following politically motivated and unfair trials.
 
Musaev, now 50, was a UN employee and a former Uzbek government official in the Defense Ministry’s foreign trade department. He was involved in international cooperation programs with Western governments, including the US and the EU, for which authorities later accused him of espionage.
 
Musaev participated in a US government-sponsored exchange program in the mid-1990s, and in the late-1990s worked as a diplomat for the Uzbek government in Brussels. He later worked in Uzbekistan as a project manager for the UN Development Program’s “Border Management in Central Asia” project.
 
On January 31, 2006, border guards arrested Musaev at Tashkent airport, after allegedly uncovering a disk among his belongings containing “state secrets.” Musaev wrote to his father that officials had planted the evidence during the search. In its 2007 Human Rights report on Uzbekistan, the US State Department reported that Musaev was tortured in detention, which included severe beatings to his head, chest, and feet, and held for two months without access to a lawyer or any visitors.
 
A joint letter from the UN special rapporteur on torture and the head of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to then-President Karimov said that one beating by prison officials broke Musaev’s jaw. Authorities also coerced him to sign a confession that he had engaged in espionage for the US, the UK, and the UN.
 
Authorities initially charged Musaev with high treason and sharing government secrets. On June 13, 2006, a Tashkent military court sentenced him to 15 years in prison. The day after his conviction, he was also charged with abuse of power and neglect of duty, and another year was added to his sentence. In the ensuing years, Musaev’s relatives reported to journalists and US embassy officials that Uzbek authorities continued to periodically torture him, including one episode in which he was beaten so badly after refusing to provide false testimony that he was hospitalized as a result of significant blood loss. A court later tried and convicted him in another case in which he had been originally called as a witness, adding four years to his sentence.
 
In May 2008, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention held that Musaev’s imprisonment was “arbitrary”, and in contravention of several international treaties to which Uzbekistan is a party. By February 2011, authorities had transferred Musaev to a high security prison in Navoi province and his body showed signs of burns and other wounds.
 
In June 2012, the UN Human Rights Committee issued its decision that the Uzbek government had tortured and otherwise ill-treated Musaev and violated his rights to liberty, security, and fair trial under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (articles 7, 9 and 14 respectively). The committee called on Uzbekistan to provide him with an effective remedy for the violations. But Uzbek authorities ignored the ruling, and Musaev remained in prison.
 
“Musaev suffered harrowing torture at the hands of Uzbek authorities, and his story is just one of thousands of victims of arbitrary imprisonment and ill-treatment,” Swerdlow said. “Uzbekistan’s international partners, including the US and the EU, should use every means of influence at their disposal to reiterate their calls to President Mirziyoyev to release everyone being held unlawfully and arbitrarily under international standards.”
 
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 15, 2017, 2:00 am