A syringe used for injecting the opioid heroin. 

© Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters

As we approach 2019 – the year set out by the UN a decade ago as the target date by which to “eliminate or reduce significantly and measurably” illegal drug markets – the International Drug Policy Consortium, a global coalition of 170 nongovernmental organizations working on drug policy issues, argues that this goal has been “spectacularly missed.”

The Consortium’s report, drawing on data from government and nongovernment sources, provides a comprehensive evaluation of the 10-year UN drugs strategy and concludes by urging UN member states to conduct their own honest and thorough assessment of the strategy, something that has so far not happened.

According to UN data analyzed in the report, illegal cultivation of opium poppy and coca bush increased by 130 and 34 percent respectively between 2009 and 2018; the number of adolescents and adults who had used drugs at least once in 2016 grew by 31 percent compared to 2011; and drug-related deaths surged by 145 percent from 2011 to 2015. Meanwhile, the global drug market continues to flourish with annual turnover estimated at US$426 to US$652 billion. More than half of the gross profits from the drug trade are laundered, with law enforcement seizing less than one percent of that money.

Overly punitive drug policies have exacerbated violence in countries like Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mexico, the report said, resulting in countless deaths, enforced disappearances, and displaced persons.

UN data shows that one in five prisoners worldwide is behind bars for drug offences, the overwhelming majority for mere drug possession. In some countries, as many as 80 percent of women in prison are there for drug offences.

Rates of HIV, hepatitis C, and tuberculosis infection among people who use drugs continue to be far higher than in the general population as most countries lack prevention and health services, or people are reluctant to use health services because drug use is criminalized.

At the UN General Assembly, US President Donald Trump recently called for member states to sign a document supporting “action on the global war against drugs”. Sixty-three countries did not sign, saying the document was too narrow, without enough focus on health, human rights, and appropriate punishments.

The report recommends that the next global drug strategy focus not on creating a “drug free world” but on improving health outcomes, compliance with human rights norms, and promoting development, peace and security.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2018, 10:01 pm

Honduran migrants rest in the main square of Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas state, Mexico, on October 19, 2018.

© 2018 Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images
The people in the Central American caravan making their way to the US border with Mexico are facing real life-and-death issues that need to be addressed. What they don’t need is to be overshadowed by posturing and threats, particularly from the President of the United States.

Look at these three tweets, sent by President Donald Trump:

Anybody entering the United States illegally will be arrested and detained, prior to being sent back to their country!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2018

We have today informed the countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador that if they allow their citizens, or others, to journey through their borders and up to the United States, with the intention of entering our country illegally, all payments made to them will STOP (END)!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2018

....In addition to stopping all payments to these countries, which seem to have almost no control over their population, I must, in the strongest of terms, ask Mexico to stop this onslaught - and if unable to do so I will call up the U.S. Military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!..

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2018

Rather than threatening vulnerable people in fear of their lives, the president should really turn down the rhetoric more than a few notches. A caravan of several thousand migrants and asylum seekers is hardly “an onslaught.” It is made up of people from San Pedro Sula in Honduras, one of the most violent, gang-ridden municipalities in the world. It is hardly surprising that people living there would feel compelled to leave.

The causes of migration are multiple, and people’s individual need for protection may vary; it is highly likely a fair, case-by-case assessment will recognize some asylum claims and deny others.

Trump’s tweet that every person arriving illegally will be arrested, detained, and sent back willfully ignores the rights of asylum seekers that the United States has long agreed to respect, and the realities facing people fleeing for their lives. Asylum seekers do not need a passport, visa, or letter of invitation. Both the US and Mexico have legal obligations to assess refugee claims before sending someone back to a place where they could face persecution and abuse.

Cutting aid to refugee-producing countries will only make worse the conditions that displace people in the first place. The US has directed foreign aid to tackle inter-related security, governance, and economic drivers of displacement. After a migration surge in 2014, the US increased aid to Honduras and the other countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle in recognition that building walls or lining up troops would not solve the problem.

Root causes must be addressed, among them ending corruption and impunity for abuses by state security forces. This is the right approach: people generally don’t want to leave their homes if they can live normal, safe lives there. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2018, 3:52 pm

British academic, Matthew Hedges, with his wife Daniela Tejada. 

© 2017 Daniela Tejada

(Amman) – The United Arab Emirates detained a British academic for months without charge, denying him his due process rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The abuses raise serious concerns about whether Matthew Hedges, a doctoral candidate at Durham University in England, can get a fair trial in the UAE.

Security forces detained Hedges, 31, on May 5, 2018, denied him effective legal assistance, and finally charged him with spying on October 16. He is due to appear in court next on October 24. His wife, Daniela Tejada, told Human Rights Watch that security forces have held him in prolonged solitary confinement for much of the time. Prolonged solitary confinement is strictly prohibited under international law and can amount to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

“The UAE invests considerable time and money painting itself as a progressive and tolerant country, but Hedges’ case shows the face of an autocratic government with a fundamental lack of respect for the rule of law,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “UAE rulers cannot claim to preside over a global knowledge and education hub while locking up academics for months in solitary confinement.”

Authorities arrested Hedges at Dubai International Airport as he was preparing to leave the country following a two-week trip to the UAE. Tejada said he was there for fieldwork for his doctoral thesis on the impact of Emirati security and foreign policies.

On October 16, the state-owned Emirati newspaper al-Bayan reported that the UAE’s public prosecutor, Hamad al-Shamsi, had referred Hedges to the Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeal on state security charges of “spying for a foreign state,” in an act that “jeopardizes the military, economy, and political security of the UAE." Al-Bayan made reference to a prosecution statement in which al-Shamsi claims Hedges came to the UAE “under the guise of an academic researcher.”

Al-Bayan said the statement contended that the charges were based on Hedges’ confession and “evidence secured from his electronic devices; and surveillance and intelligence gathering by UAE intelligence and security agencies.” The conditions of Hedges’ detention, and his lack of access to a lawyer, especially during his interrogation, raise concerns regarding whether his confession was obtained under duress.

Tejada said that UAE authorities detained Hedges incommunicado for the first two weeks and have since held him in solitary confinement in an undisclosed location in Abu Dhabi. She said that his first court hearing wasn’t until October 3 and that security forces did not allow him to access legal counsel until October 10, at his second hearing, more than five months after his arrest.

She said the authorities only informed Hedges about his trial five days in advance and provided little information about the charges or the nature of the court hearing. “This has majorly jeopardized Matt's possibilities to get external legal representation,” Tejada said. She said she had contacted more than 20 lawyers in the UAE trying to find someone to represent her husband, but that they had all declined, saying they didn’t have enough information or time to prepare a case. As a result, Hedges is being represented by a court-appointed lawyer, who, Tejada says, Hedges has difficulty communicating with because the lawyer is not fluent in English.

She said the authorities had allowed her husband to receive only a handful of visits from British officials, one visit from her, and one from other family. She said he told her he was denied weekly showers and forced to sleep on the floor for his first three months in detention. She said that while he was granted access to medical assistance, he was prescribed a “worrying cocktail of antidepressants, anti-anxiety medicine, and sleeping pills” and denied access to a psychiatrist. A UK consular officer told Tejada that Hedges was hospitalized for excessive vomiting on October 9. She has received no information on his medical situation since October 14 and does not know whether he remains hospitalized.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented serious allegations of violations of due process and fair trial guarantees in the UAE, especially in state security-related cases. These include allegations of torture and ill-treatment at state security facilities.

A May 2015 report on the UAE by the United Nations special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers confirms the patterns of abuse in the UAE’s handling of state security cases that Human Rights Watch and other independent observers have documented, including denying legal assistance during pretrial incommunicado detention, and admitting coerced confessions as evidence in court proceedings.

The UAE government has become increasingly repressive since 2011. The authorities have carried out a sustained assault on freedom of expression and association, arbitrarily detaining and prosecuting peaceful critics, political dissidents, human rights activists, and academics.

In May, the same month as Hedges’ arrest, an Abu Dhabi court sentenced the award-winning human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor to 10 years in prison for “defaming” the UAE on social media. In March, UAE courts sentenced a prominent Emirati academic, Nasser bin Ghaith, to 10 years in prison. The authorities forcibly disappeared him in August 2015 and brought charges that included peaceful criticism of the UAE and Egyptian authorities.

Allegations of UAE security forces abusing UK nationals are also not new, as revealed in a June 2015 response by the Foreign and Commonwealth office to an access to information request. The response cited 47 complaints by British nationals of torture or mistreatment in the UAE justice system in the previous five years.

British authorities should insist the UAE immediately disclose Hedges’ whereabouts; improve his detention conditions; allow him sufficient access to proper legal representation, consular services, and his family; and guarantee him a fair trial.

“In light of the UAE's record of mistreating state security detainees, and its apparent record of mistreating British nationals, the UK should be raising Hedges’ cases with UAE authorities at the highest levels,” Page said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2018, 4:00 am

Ethiopia's incoming Prime Minister Abiye Ahmed delivers his acceptance speech after taking his oath of office during a ceremony at the House of Peoples' Representatives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia April 2, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

This week, the Ethiopian government released over 1,000 youth from “rehabilitation camps” following a month-long detention. They were among some 3,000 youth from the capital, Addis Ababa, whom the federal police commissioner, Zeynu Jemal, said had been arrested in September. Most were arrested at bars, shisha cafes, and khat dens. The police chief said the arrests were to address “rising criminality and disturbance” in the city, but smoking shisha (a flavored tobacco) and chewing khat (a mild stimulant) are not criminal offenses in Ethiopia.

The arrests came after several days of violence and tension in Addis, fueled in part by the return of some exiled, previously banned, politicians. At least 23 people were killed in the violence and security forces killed several more during a subsequent demonstration.

On October 16, the police commissioner said with a straight face that the youth would be released because “brainwashing” was complete. It is an apt term to describe a longstanding detention practice in Ethiopia, used most recently during the 2017 state of emergency. The authorities take people arrested to military camps, indoctrinate them in government policies and perspectives, and often force them to do strenuous physical exercise. The detainees are not charged with a crime.

These camps have no legal basis, and their recent use signals a worrying return to a period when the security forces frequently carried out arbitrary arrests. Given Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s many speeches about the importance of the rule of law, many Ethiopians hoped these repressive tactics were a relic of the past.

Since he came to power in April, Abiy has demonstrated his commitment to reform by releasing thousands of political prisoners, passing an amnesty law, removing banned organizations from the terrorist lists, and starting the process to rewrite repressive laws. Returning to mass arrests and “brainwashing” puts this reform agenda at risk, and Ethiopia could easily backslide. Abiy should firmly commit to shutting the rehabilitation camps and end arbitrary arrests. As recent years of protest have shown, repressive tactics will not ensure Ethiopia’s long-term stability and prosperity. They will threaten it.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 20, 2018, 4:01 am

Lebanon: Burning Trash Poses Serious Health Risk

Lebanese municipalities are endangering the health of residents by openly burning waste despite the passage of a national solid waste management law banning the practice. 

After years of researching Lebanon’s waste crisis, I was horrified to find out it had come to my family’s village. Open waste burning at unregulated dumps across Lebanon creates serious health risks for people living nearby. Mine and other Lebanese families regularly go to our ancestral villages to escape the crowds, noise, and pollution of the cities. Learning that the local government is polluting our villages by burning trash has brought the crisis and my own research home for me in a critical way.

According to a 2017 Ministry of Environment and UNDP report, there are more than 941 open dumps across Lebanon, including 617 municipal waste dumps, more than 150 of which are being burned on a weekly basis. Open burning poses serious health risks like heart disease, cancer, skin diseases, asthma, and respiratory illnesses. Despite the recent passage of a law clearly banning the practice, open burning continues.

The most recent analysis available indicates that open burning of waste is taking place in some of the poorest areas of the country. In other words, those populations least equipped to manage the health impacts of open burning or to escape from sites near open dumps are among those most negatively affected.

We have to protect ourselves and our neighbors. Residents can call on officials within the Ministry of Environment, Environmental Police, and Public Prosecutor Offices to stand up for our health. If you see open burning or dumping of waste call the Ministry of Environment on 1789 and file a complaint. Together we can #StopTheBurning.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 19, 2018, 8:21 pm

A small scale model built by 14-year-old Syrian Mohamed Qutaish, representing the way he imagines the reconstruction of Aleppo, Aleppo, Syria, August 31, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

On October 18, a high-level UN official reported that Syria’s notorious Law 10 – which allows authorities to seize property without due process or adequate compensation – has been withdrawn by the Syrian government.

Neither the Syrian government nor the Russians – which the UN cited as its source – have made an official announcement about a change in the status of the law and no word of it on the Syrian parliament’s website. As recently as October 4, local officials continued to discuss re-development projects in these areas under the guise of Law 10.

If true, the Syrian government should provide evidence of the law’s withdrawal and stop any appropriations that are taking place under the authority of Law 10.

The repeal of the law would be an important first step to protecting the property rights of thousands of Syrians. Law 10, however, is only one of many legislative instruments the Syrian government is using to unjustly confiscate property. These include Decree 66, Law 10’s predecessor, which has been used to target and expel residents of previously anti-government held areas, and Decree 63 which empowers the Ministry of Finance to seize assets of those individuals who fall under the Counterterrorism Law of 2012, a dangerously broad law that unfairly criminalizes a large segment of the population without due process rights or fair trial.

Even if Law 10 is rescinded, the government’s allies, neighbouring countries, and the UN need to keep pressure up on the Syrian government to end unlawful appropriation and displacement practices. Residents from areas that have been re-taken by the government continue to face arbitrary and incomprehensible restrictions on return to their homes and towns of origin, and the government continues to demolish their property. In a world where actions speak louder than words, this should remain a cause of utmost concern for the many interested interlocutors, particularly states and donors interested in seeing refugees return and reconstruction start.

If the law is indeed withdrawn, the Syrian government needs to work closely with affected communities and independent property rights experts to ensure that no Syrian is unjustly deprived of their homes, and that they have something to return to in dignity and safety.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 19, 2018, 5:43 pm

Satellite image of Jail Ogaden May 2016. 

© CNES 2018 - Airbus DS 2018; Source Google Earth

The government of Ethiopia should commit to undertaking criminal investigations and prosecutions following many years of rights abuses in Jail Ogaden, a detention facility in eastern Ethiopia’s Somali region, Human Rights Watch said today. A video released today by Human Rights Watch features victims’ accounts, using footage filmed inside the prison in September.

On August 22, 2018, Somali Regional State officials formally closed Jail Ogaden and announced that it will be converted into a museum. On August 27, federal officials arrested the Somali region president, Abdi Mohamoud Omar, for “violations of human rights and inciting ethnic and religious conflict in the Somali region.” He has not yet been charged. However, officials have not taken any known measures to investigate and prosecute senior members of the Liyu Police, a paramilitary regional force, and other Somali region officials who have been implicated in years of abuse in Jail Ogaden and throughout the region.

“Closing Jail Ogaden is a positive step but is no substitute for holding abusive officials to account for years of horrific abuse,” said Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Federal and regional authorities need to encourage victims of abuse to come forward and ensure justice for torture and other human rights abuses in the Somali region.”


Ethiopia: Jail Ogaden Torturers Should be Brought to Justice

The government of Ethiopia should commit to undertaking criminal investigations and prosecutions following many years of rights abuses in Jail Ogaden, a detention facility in eastern Ethiopia’s Somali region.

In a July 2018 report, Human Rights Watch documented a brutal and relentless pattern of abuse and torture in Ethiopia’s notorious Jail Ogaden, where prisoners had no access to adequate medical care, family, lawyers, or even, at times, food. Former prisoners and others interviewed implicate Liyu Police members, prison guards, and senior Somali region officials in torture, rape, and humiliation of prisoners. The evidence includes 25 hours of video footage from 2011 that documents a regional government evaluation of Jail Ogaden. That footage shows prison officials bluntly acknowledging rampant abuse.

New regional government leadership is left with the difficult task of rebuilding trust with a society. People in the region have faced over a decade of serious abuses, both by the Ethiopian army and the Liyu police, combined with internal displacement and serious food insecurity.

Impunity for torture is not limited to the Somali Region. Reports from Human Rights Watch and other independent organizations over many years have described torture in Ethiopia’s many detention facilities. Despite the prime minister’s admission that torture is used, the ongoing restructuring of the federal security and intelligence apparatus, and the closure of some abusive facilities, there has been no indications that individual responsible for torture will be held to account for years of abuse.

Ethiopia should fulfill its obligations under international human rights law, including the absolute prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and the obligation to prosecute and punish officials who engage in such practices. Ethiopia should send a strong message that mistreatment of prisoners will not be tolerated and that there is a price to be paid, regardless of rank, for anyone responsible for torture and other human rights violations.

“Notably absent from prime minister Abiy’s commitment to reform are pledges to hold abusive security officials, many of whom are still in their positions, to account,” Horne said. “Announcing criminal investigations for torture in Jail Ogaden would signal a shift in Ethiopia’s culture of impunity and send an important message country wide to victims and abusers that there are implications for carrying out such heinous acts.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 19, 2018, 2:00 pm

(New York) – The Bangladesh government has embarked upon intensive and intrusive surveillance and monitoring of social media ahead of national elections, raising concern over a chilling effect on speech, Human Rights Watch said today. Draconian new laws and policies are being used to target political opponents, journalists, internet commentators, and broadcasters.

Police in Bangladesh have registered hundreds of complaints under the Information and Communication Technology Act, including against authors of social media posts and journalists criticizing the political leadership and the ruling Awami League party.

© 2018 David Bergman

National elections are due in Bangladesh by January 2019. Opposition parties and independent observers fear that the increasing crackdown on privacy and free expression is an attempt to limit speech and criticism of the government in the election period. The government claims these efforts are to stem harmful rumors, false information, or objectionable content to maintain law and order.

 “Bangladesh is using claims about public security to silence opponents and critics,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government’s surveillance practices are violating the rights to privacy and freedom of expression ahead of the elections.”

Bangladesh has 28 million Facebook users. Since social media emerged as a key tool to express dissent and organize protests, the authorities have monitored various platforms and internet-based communication. This has already led to arrests for using social media to criticize the government.

Enhanced Surveillance

On October 9, 2018, the government announced the formation of a nine-member monitoring cell to “detect rumors” on social media, including Facebook. The state minister for post and telecommunication, Tarana Halim, said that content that threatens communal harmony, disturbs state security, or embarrasses the state would be considered rumors and sent to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission for filtering or blocking. The intention was not to police content, but to ensure people have the “right information only,” she said.

Bangladesh is using claims about public security to silence opponents and critics.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

The government has also ordered security agencies to intensify their surveillance of online expression. The agencies include the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a paramilitary force implicated in serious human rights violations including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. “Besides maintaining law and order in the country, we will implement this [project] to monitor the evil propaganda and militant activities on the social media and bring the people behind these to justice,” a RAB spokesperson said.

The government had previously announced its Cyber Threat Detection and Response project of installing mass monitoring equipment at key points on Bangladesh’s networks to bolster widespread telecom and internet surveillance. The project, designed to allow the authorities to track criminal activities, provides enormous power to monitor internet usage, raising concerns over violations of privacy rights on a mass scale.

Crackdown on Dissent

Television networks, already under government pressure, will face increased restrictions under the proposed National Broadcast Act 2018. The law, which the cabinet approved on October 15, provides sentences of up to three years in prison for “going against the spirit” of the 1971 liberation war, or airing “misleading or false” information.

On October 11, a police complaint known as a General Diary was filed against Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, a well-known public health activist who is also involved in opposition politics, over his criticism of the army chief on a television talk show. The Detective Branch is investigating him for treason.

On October 10, a new law governing online speech, the Digital Security Act (DSA), came into force. It replaced the controversial section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT Act) with provisions that are in several respects more broadly drawn and carry even harsher sentences. It grants law enforcement authorities wide-ranging powers to remove or block online information that “harms the unity of the country or any part of it, economic activities, security, defense, religious values or public order or spreads communal hostility and hatred.”

The government rejected journalists’ calls for amendments to nine sections of the act. At an October 3 news conference, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said, “Only those journalists who have piled up false news against us and are waiting for releasing those one after another after the announcement of the election schedule, should be worried about the law.”

Journalists, however, do have cause for concern because of the recent history of the use of existing laws covering sedition and criminal defamation to threaten and detain journalists for exercising free expression and peaceful speech. A journalist, who asked not to be named, told Human Rights Watch, “There is a blanket of fear spreading over this country, and I don’t know when we are going to be freed.”

There is a blanket of fear spreading over this country, and I don’t know when we are going to be freed.

Journalist, Bangladesh

There are also concerns that the Digital Security Act will be used, as section 57 of the ICT Act was earlier, to crack down on peaceful social media content.

On the night of August 4, police arrested Nusrat Jahan Sonia, a 25-year-old primary school teacher in a rural area of Patuakali district, south of Dhaka, who was seven months pregnant. They held her for over two weeks under section 57. Sonia’s alleged offense was “spreading rumors.” However, a member of her family said that Sonia had merely shared a Facebook post that reportedly appealed for caution and peace during a student protest over road safety. She has been suspended from her job at a government school until her case is cleared, which may take years.

In a similar case, a Chittagong university professor, Maidul Islam, has been in custody since September, charged under section 57 with making “defamatory” remarks against the prime minister on social media.

On August 5, Shahidul Alam, an internationally renowned photographer, was detained in Dhaka, accused of “provoking” unrest for Facebook comments criticizing a crackdown on student protesters and journalists covering the protests. Alam remains in custody.

At a bail hearing, the attorney general, Mahbubey Alam, told the court: “Shahidul made his comment like a political leader. His statement was false and wicked.… The next parliamentary election is knocking at the door. Shahidul’s statement consists of many elements that can make the situation in the country volatile. So he cannot get bail.” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has accused Shahidul Alam of spreading “false news” and being “mentally sick.”

Bangladesh is obliged under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to protect its citizens from arbitrary arrest (article 9), from arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy and correspondence (article 17), and their freedom of expression (article 19). Any interference with the rights to privacy and free expression should be based on clear law, for a legitimate reason, and be proportionate – that is, the minimal interference necessary. Peaceful criticism of the government and state authorities should always be permitted.

Recent policies directing security agencies to monitor social media and prosecute users who offend the government, as well as the draconian provisions of the new Digital Security Act, violate those rights.

“There is a chilling atmosphere for journalism and free speech in Bangladesh right now, with even those sharing innocuous social media posts at risk of arrest and harassment,” Adams said. “The government should immediately end this assault on fundamental political rights, and instead create an environment conducive to ensuring that Bangladeshis are able to elect their leaders without fear.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 19, 2018, 5:00 am

A demonstrator attends a rally outside the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan, Belgium, October 5, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

Over the past 17 years, Afghanistan’s international donors have poured nearly US$1 billion into the country’s elections. Given the legacy of violence and lost opportunities, it’s time these donors pushed Afghan authorities to make sure these elections have a better chance of delivering on the promise of democratic rule for the Afghan people.

On October 20, Afghans will go to the polls for parliamentary elections that were meant to be held in 2015. Rising insecurity and contested electoral reforms delayed the vote, and both still threaten the outcome. Since June, 10 parliamentary candidates have been killed in suicide bombings and other attacks. The Taliban claimed responsibility for an October 17 bombing that killed candidate Jabar Qahraman in Helmand, a province insurgents largely control, and for the September 25 killing of candidate Nasir Mubarez in Kandahar. The Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), an affiliate of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks, particularly in Nangarhar province, including a July 1 bombing that killed Sikh candidate Avtar Singh Khalsa.

Many more Afghans have been injured or killed in attacks on voter registration centers, campaign rallies, and other election related activities. From January through September, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan documented 126 deaths and 240 injuries among civilians in election-related violence. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has raised concerns about more attacks on voters on election day, as the Taliban have called on Afghans to boycott the vote.

Violence is not the only concern. Despite promised electoral reforms, problems that have plagued past elections have multiplied, and include suspicious voter registration numbers, fake ID cards, scores of polling centers closed because of security or, in one case, political deadlock over defining constituencies. Contested results, which are almost inevitable, may lead to even greater instability and provoke a political crisis.

But despite all this, there is reason for hope. More Afghan women are running for office than ever before, some of whom have campaigned on advancing women’s rights and girls’ education. Others have campaigned against corruption and Afghanistan’s entrenched “warlord” political elite. All candidates have assumed tremendous risks, as do voters who will turn out on election day.

Donors, who have long welcomed elections in Afghanistan but too often turned a blind eye to electoral fraud, need to help ensure it’s a risk worth taking.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 19, 2018, 2:01 am

(New York) – Turkey should urgently ask UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to establish a United Nations investigation into the possible extrajudicial execution of the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders said today.

The investigation should determine the circumstances surrounding Saudi Arabia’s role in the enforced disappearance and possible killing of Khashoggi. It should aim to identify everyone responsible for ordering, planning, and executing any operations connected with the case.

“Turkey should enlist the UN to initiate a timely, credible, and transparent investigation” said Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “UN involvement is the best guarantee against a Saudi whitewash or attempts by other governments to sweep the issue under the carpet to preserve lucrative business ties with Riyadh.”

 Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

© 2018 Cemal Kaşıkçı

Evidence collected by the UN investigation team should be preserved for use in future prosecutions. The investigation team should have complete access to travel where it needs to and to interview potential witnesses or suspects without interference. The team should also recommend avenues for bringing to justice anyone against whom credible and admissible evidence of involvement is found.

Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 and has not been seen or heard from since. Saudi Arabia has denied involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance, claiming he left the consulate on his own shortly after his arrival, but it has failed to produce any evidence supporting this claim.

Saudi authorities have escalated their crackdown on dissenting voices in the country since Mohammad bin Salman became crown prince in June 2017, marked by systematic repression of dissent, including peaceful expression directed to the promotion and protection of human rights. Virtually all human rights defenders and critical voices, including religious clerics, journalists, and academics, have been targeted in the recent arrests.

Khashoggi’s disappearance comes after more than a year of arrests targeting journalists who reported on corruption, women’s rights, and other sensitive issues. Several are being held in unknown locations, without charges, according to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Many individuals, including the prominent women human rights defenders Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan, and Aziza al-Yousef, have been arbitrarily detained without charge for months. These women activists and many others may face lengthy prison terms or the death penalty following grossly unfair trials before the counterterrorism court for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, or assembly.

The Turkish authorities announced that they had initiated a criminal investigation on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance on October 2. As part of this investigation, they conducted a forensic examination of the Saudi Arabian consulate on October 15. Information from the investigation has been shared with the media through a series of leaks, including claims regarding the existence of audio and visual records proving that Khashoggi was murdered in the consulate.

On October 15, Saudi Arabia’s king ordered the Public Prosecution to open an investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance. Given the possible involvement of Saudi authorities in Khashoggi’s enforced disappearance and possible murder, and the lack of independence of Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system, the impartiality of any investigation by the Saudi authorities would be in question. 

Khashoggi’s fiancé, Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish national, told media outlets that when Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate on October 2 to obtain their marriage documents, he left her his phones and instructions to alert the Turkish authorities if he did not return after two hours. That was the last time Cengiz saw him. Turkish authorities believe Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents inside the consulate.

"This demonstrates all the more clearly how imperative an impartial and independent investigation is in order to establish the truth and ensure justice for Jamal Khashoggi,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders. “If the UN is truly mobilized to fight impunity for crimes against journalists, then at the very least they must be fully engaged in one of the most shocking and extreme cases in recent years by undertaking this investigation."

There is a precedent for such a UN investigation. In 2008, Pakistan asked then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to establish an investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. That investigation uncovered what investigators said was an attempt by Pakistani authorities to whitewash the events surrounding Bhutto's murder.

An investigation into Khashoggi’s enforced disappearance and possible murder should start promptly and be thorough, impartial, and independent. UN Secretary-General Guterres should appoint a senior criminal investigator with extensive experience in international investigations to head the team. Once the investigation is concluded, the secretary-general should issue a public report on the overall findings along with his recommendations for following up.

“Jamal Khashoggi’s family and the rest of the world deserve the full truth about what happened to him,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “Partial explanations and one-sided investigations by Saudi Arabia, which is suspected of involvement, aren’t good enough. Only the UN has the credibility and independence required to expose the masterminds behind Khashoggi’s enforced disappearance and to hold them to account.”

Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and all other UN member countries should fully cooperate with the UN investigation to ensure that it has all the access and support necessary to determine what happened to Khashoggi. To facilitate the investigation, Saudi Arabia should immediately waive diplomatic protections such as the inviolability or immunity of all relevant premises and officials bestowed by treaties such as the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has called for waiving these diplomatic protections in the case. 

Turkey should turn over all evidence, including audio and visual records that Turkish officials have repeatedly claimed to the media reveal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate. A newly formed Turkish-Saudi working group investigating the murder will be unable to make progress in the face of Saudi Arabia’s blanket denials and rejection of any involvement in Khashoggi’s enforced disappearance.

“If the government of Saudi Arabia is not involved in Jamal Khashoggi’s fate, it has the most to gain in seeing an impartial UN investigation determine what happened,” said Sherine Tadros, head the New York office of Amnesty International. “Without a credible UN inquiry, there will always be a cloud of suspicion hanging over Saudi Arabia, no matter what its leadership says to explain away how Khashoggi vanished.”

Jamal Khashoggi is a prominent Saudi journalist with several Saudi Arabia-based Arabic and English-language newspapers including Okaz and the Saudi Gazette, and he served two stints as the editor-in-chief of the Saudi daily al-Watan. In December 2016, Saudi authorities publicly denounced Khashoggi after he criticized then US President-Elect Donald Trump at an event in Washington, and he fled Saudi Arabia to the United States in June 2017, becoming a regular columnist for the Washington Post.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 18, 2018, 2:58 pm

(Washington, DC) – Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra should veto a bill that would grant a conditional release to former President Alberto Fujimori, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill, passed by the Peruvian Congress on October 12, 2018, is a thinly veiled effort to free Fujimori disguised as a prison system reform.

The bill grants prisoners who are over a certain age and have served a third of their sentences the right to serve to the remain under “electronic surveillance.” Fujimori supporters in Congress introduced the bill six days after a Supreme Court judge overturned a December 2017 pardon that led to Fujimori’s release. The bill rocketed through Congress, passing only three days after it was introduced.

“Since their plan to ensure Fujimori’s freedom through a pardon is crumbling, Fujimori supporters are moving forward with a ‘plan b’ to guarantee that their political chief doesn’t go back to prison,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Proponents of the bill say it’s intended to ease prison conditions for elderly prisoners, but the timing and language in the bill show that its objective is to ensure the freedom of an autocratic former president convicted of serious human rights violations.”

Fujimori was sentenced in 2009 to 25 years in prison for human rights violations, including two abductions, the enforced disappearance and murder of 9 students and a teacher from La Cantuta University, and the extrajudicial execution of 15 people in the Barrios Altos neighborhood of Lima. The Supreme Court ruled that these were crimes against humanity.

In 2017, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski granted Fujimori a humanitarian pardon. The pardon appeared to be the result of a politically motivated decision that lacked fairness and transparency. There are strong reasons to believe that the release was the result of a negotiation by Kuczynski’s government in response to growing pressure from Fujimori supporters in Congress, including an attempt to impeach Kuczynski.

On May 30, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), the main human rights court in the Americas, analyzed Fujimori’s pardon. The court ruled that releasing people convicted of serious human rights abuses could be compatible with Peru’s duty to investigate, prosecute, and punish abuses, provided the release was “strictly necessary” to ensure a prisoner’s right to health. It suggested that the Peruvian courts should examine the pardon, pending an IACtHR examination.

On October 3, a Supreme Court judge concluded that Fujimori’s “humanitarian pardon” was inconsistent with Peru’s international human rights obligations, and ordered that Fujimori be sent back to prison. An appeal is pending, and Fujimori has not been sent back to prison.

Fujimori’s detention conditions, the judge found, did not pose a risk to his health. He was held in a prison that was “virtually exclusive” for him and had “large rooms,” 24-hour nursing services, and no restrictions on visits. Whenever he was sick, the authorities allowed him to visit the hospital of his choice, the judge said.

The new bill specifies several categories of prisoner who can be freed. Among these are male prisoners who are more than 78-years-old and have served a third of their sentence. Fujimori, who is 80, has served 10 of the 25 years of his sentence.

The beneficiaries can serve the remainder of their time under “electronic surveillance,” with their movements limited to the province in which they choose to live. Defendants can leave their province provided they “inform” authorities of Peru’s prison system and offer a “guarantor” who, the bill says, could face “criminal responsibility” if the defendant does not return to the province in time. The bill excludes people convicted of certain crimes, including treason, aggravated drug trafficking, and terrorism, but not any of the extremely serious crimes Fujimori was convicted of.

The bill also states that authorities cannot overturn the release if a beneficiary is charged or convicted again for “crimes committed in the past.” Fujimori is currently facing a criminal prosecution for the 1992 killing of six men in the Lima district of Pativilca by members of the “Colina” death squad, which was active under the Fujimori administration. Additionally, in April, a prosecutor requested that he be charged in connection with the forced sterilizations of hundreds of women, most of them poor or indigenous, during his administration. 

Under Peruvian law, until now, the conditional release of prisoners has been granted by judges. The new bill transfers this power to the chief of the prisons’ system.

Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to ensure real accountability for serious human rights violations. But serious illness can transform an ordinary sentence of incarceration into an ordeal that is cruel and punitive to a degree that outweighs the need for a specific punishment. Release for people convicted of even the most serious crimes may be warranted under these circumstances.

People convicted of atrocities can also benefit from conditional release rules available to other convicts, provided that the justice delivered remains proportionate to the gravity of the crimes.

Human Rights Watch has said that releasing Fujimori would be consistent with international human rights law, as long as he was not granted special treatment. But the bill that has been presented for the president’s signature is a thinly concealed effort to grant him special treatment, under the guise of a broader reform.

“A law that helps improve human rights conditions for prisoners, including those responsible for serious crimes, would be a positive step,” Vivanco said. “But that’s not what this bill is about – it’s about betraying victims’ rights to benefit a powerful man responsible for atrocious crimes.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 18, 2018, 2:00 pm

Video: Senegalese activists campaign against sexual abuse in schools

Abusive teachers and other staff sexually exploit, harass, and abuse adolescent girls in Senegal’s secondary schools. While Senegal has taken important steps to expand girls’ access to quality education, it needs to step up efforts to protect girls from these abuses and hold teachers who violate professional norms or Senegalese law, responsible. #ItsNotOK

(Dakar) – Abusive teachers and other staff sexually exploit, harass, and abuse adolescent girls in Senegal’s secondary schools, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. While Senegal has taken important steps to expand girls’ access to quality education, it needs to step up efforts to protect girls from these abuses and hold teachers who violate professional norms or Senegalese law, responsible.

The 85-page report, “‘It’s Not Normal’: Sexual Exploitation, Harassment and Abuse in Secondary Schools,” documents abuses against female students in secondary schools, primarily by teachers and school officials. Human Rights Watch found cases of teachers who abuse their authority by engaging in sexual relations with students in exchange for money, good grades, food, or items such as mobile phones and new clothes.

“To its credit, Senegal has acknowledged that sexual violence is a serious problem in its schools,” said Elin Martínez, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “But many teachers are getting away with sexually exploiting and harassing their students, who tolerate sexual offenses to advance in secondary school.”

The behavior is a gross violation of teachers’ professional and ethical obligations, and when victims are below age 16, is a crime under Senegalese law. Harassment and coercion of students for sexual purposes and the abuse of their power and authority over a child by teachers carries sentences of up to 10 years in prison.

Human Rights Watch conducted interviews and group discussions with over 160 girls and young women, as well as with more than 60 parents, education experts, psychologists, local activists, development partners, and national and local government officials in eight districts in four regions of Senegal.

The scale and prevalence of sexual abuse against students is unknown. Taboos and social stigmas have silenced many girls and young women affected by these practices. But research by Human Rights Watch, United Nations agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and academics, suggests that school-related sexual and gender-based violence is a serious problem in Senegal.

Students, and in some cases teachers and school officials, described some of the cases documented as “relationships” between teachers and students. Such characterization can downplay the gravity of the abuse, affect reporting, and blur school officials’ perception of the severity of these abuses. In some cases, girls get pregnant as a result, and drop out of school permanently.

Aïssatou, 16, whose real name is not used for her protection, said: “One day, he [the teacher] asked me to go to his house. When I went to his house, he offered to give me money and resources. And I told him no… He became nasty, [he said] he was not going to give me good grades.”

Students are also harassed by teachers and are affected by the gender stereotypes and sexual overtones in class. Some girls said their teachers use inappropriate language or gestures – describing girls’ bodies or clothes in a sexual manner – when talking to students directly or referring to other students in their class.

The government has taken steps to tackle sexual violence and gender-based discrimination in schools as part of broader efforts to increase girls’ access to, and retention in, secondary education. In 2013, it adopted a robust child protection strategy. With international support, the government has also focused on reducing teenage pregnancies, including through programs that help girls stay in secondary school.

Some schools have tried to ensure that students study in a safe learning environment, adopting zero tolerance policies for school-related abuses or by making girls comfortable with reporting abuse. Lalia Mané, a middle school teacher and a member of the government’s girls’ education initiative, said: “I tell my students, if there’s a teacher that asks you for favors … you must go press charges at the police station.”

But these measures are not replicated in all secondary schools because there is no national policy to tackle school-related sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse.

Key factors that undermined the consistent reporting of sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse include cultural perceptions that girls and young women are responsible for their teachers’ advances; a concern over losing teachers, and the lack of clarity on what constitutes sexual exploitation. Schools generally lack confidential systems for reporting, and many girls are reluctant to report abuse for fear that officials will shame them or not believe them.

The government should adopt a stronger national response to end sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse in schools, including a national policy that clarifies what constitutes unlawful or inappropriate behavior. It should make clear that any and all sexual “relationships” between teaching staff and students, and exploitation and coercion are explicitly prohibited and subject to professional sanction. It should ensure that principals and senior school staff understand their obligation to properly investigate any allegations of sexual abuse and to refer cases to police or prosecutors. Human Rights Watch found that schools do not adequately teach children about sexuality, reproductive health, and their sexual and reproductive rights. The government should adopt a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum that follows international standards and ensure that young people have access to good adolescent health services.

“The government wants girls to succeed in education,” Martínez said. “But it needs to end the culture of silence around abuse by teachers, encourage girls to speak out, and send an unequivocal message to all education staff that it will not tolerate sexual violence against students.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 18, 2018, 7:01 am

Lebanon: Burning Trash Poses Serious Health Risk

Lebanese municipalities are endangering the health of residents by openly burning waste despite the passage of a national solid waste management law banning the practice. 

(Beirut) – Lebanese municipalities are endangering the health of residents by openly burning waste despite the passage of a national solid waste management law banning the practice, Human Rights Watch said today. Following decades of mismanagement of solid waste, Lebanon’s parliament passed the law on September 24, 2018, during the first parliamentary session since elections in May.

Municipalities are flouting the law, which bans open dumping and burning of waste and sets penalties for violations. The law gives the Environment Ministry an oversight and monitoring role and mandates the ministry to develop a national waste management strategy within the next six months.  

“Now that parliament has passed the long overdue solid waste management law, the Lebanese government needs to carry it out,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless violators are held accountable, Lebanese will continue to suffer devastating impacts on their health and their environment.” 

Signs of burning at the al-Qantara dump, including soot from recent burns and ash deposits, October 11, 2018, Qantara, Lebanon. 

© 2018 Lama Fakih for Human Rights Watch

Lebanon’s waste crisis gained international recognition in 2015, when garbage overflowed in the streets of Beirut. But Lebanon’s mismanagement of its waste, including by burning it at dumps, is decades-old. Human Rights Watch found in a December 2017 report that burning waste at more than 150 open dumps was risking the health of nearby residents. The practice violates Lebanon’s obligations under international law, including the government’s duties to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to health.

Human Rights Watch researchers visited two villages in south Lebanon, al-Qantara and Qabrikha, on October 11 and spoke with residents in al-Qantara who had witnessed the open burning of waste in the municipal open dumps in both villages in previous days. Media have reported that the practice continues in other towns and villages across the country.

Signs of burning at the al-Qantara dump, including soot from recent burns and ash deposits, October 11, 2018, Qantara, Lebanon.

© 2018 Lama Fakih for Human Rights Watch

The dump at Qabrikha was still smoking when Human Rights Watch researchers were on the site and there were clear signs of burning at the al-Qantara dump, including soot from recent burns and ash deposits. Residents said that municipal open dumps in neighboring al-Ghandoriya, Rab Thalatine, and Beni Hayyan were also still burning waste in spite of the new law, but Human Rights Watch was unable to verify these claims through site visits.

One resident said that, despite repeated requests to the head of the Qabrikha municipality about the burning over the past week, the burning persisted. “We got to a point where we can’t sleep anymore,” he said. “It [the Qabrikha dump] is continuously on fire and affecting us…The smell would get stuck in your nose. It’s a problem. My son is 6 years old, he has a cough…Two days ago, when they burned in the morning, you couldn’t see the surrounding towns.”

Scientific studies have documented the dangers that smoke from the open burning of household waste pose to human health. Children and older people are at particular risk.

Human Rights Watch interviewed the deputy head of the Qabrikha municipality, Imad Fahes, on October 12 by phone. Fahes admitted that the municipality was open burning nonrecyclable waste on a monthly basis. He said that while he was aware of the new waste management law and the penalties associated with open dumping and burning of waste, the municipality was waiting for instructions from the Jabal Amel union of municipalities on how to proceed.

“Perhaps we can adopt sanitary landfilling,” he said. “But we need expertise and to know whether it would affect groundwater. There’s also the funding issue…But the principal thing we need is instructions and technical guidance.”

Guidelines to municipalities and unions of municipalities on solid waste management were however already circulated by the Ministry of Environment in November 2017. 
Human Rights Watch tried unsuccessfully multiple times to reach the head of the al-Qantara municipality but did interview an employee from the al-Qantara municipality responsible for picking up the waste. He denied that the municipality was burning trash. When researchers told him there was evidence of burning at the dump site, he said this must be from old burning at the site. But visible ash deposits and black soot at the dump, and a noticeable absence of piles of trash, suggested that this was not the case. Residents also said the burning at the al-Qantara site was continuing and one resident provided photos to Human Rights Watch taken on September 24 that appeared to show smoke from the burning of trash at the al-Qantara dump.

Signs of burning at the al-Qantara dump, including soot from recent burns and ash deposits, October 11, 2018, Qantara, Lebanon.

© 2018 Lama Fakih for Human Rights Watch

The Environment Ministry should urgently begin monitoring compliance with the solid waste management law and ensure that violators are appropriately penalized, Human Rights Watch said. The ministry has set up a complaints process to receive information about environmental offenses like open dumping and burning of trash, including a hotline that residents can call by dialing 1789. The cabinet should consider the ministry’s budget requests to ensure it can carry out monitoring. The government should ensure that everyone in Lebanon who suffers a violation of their right to health through action or failures by state bodies has an effective remedy.

The environmental public prosecutor in each governorate should also be adequately resourced to investigate complaints received from the Environment Ministry and others and ensure that violators are held accountable. The Justice Ministry should publish the names of the environmental public prosecutors in each governorate to facilitate the reporting of violations, Human Rights Watch said.

In January, Human Rights Watch opened a campaign calling on parliament and the cabinet to pass a waste management law and develop a strategy on waste management for the entire country and comply with environmental and public health best practices and international law. Over 12,000 people signed a petition in support of the campaign.

The new law requires the Environment Ministry to establish a national strategy within six months. In January, the cabinet passed a a summary policy on Integrated Solid Waste Management, and the environment minister formed a committee on waste management, which includes a civil society representative.

Smoke rising from the smoldering dump at Qabrikha, October 11, 2018, Qabrikha, Lebanon.

© 2018 Lama Fakih for Human Rights Watch

In keeping with its obligations under the new law, the Ministry of Environment should build on the summary policy by developing a long-term strategy for waste management. It will need to detail plans for reduction, sorting, collection, transfer, storage, processing, and disposal of solid waste in a manner that takes into account the perspectives of the public health and environmental experts and local communities, Human Rights Watch said.

“The next six months present an opportunity for the community to work with the Environment Ministry to build on the summary waste management strategy that was passed in January,” Fakih said. “For the long-term strategy to be effective, it should take into consideration the concerns and expertise of local communities and public health and environmental experts.”

The dump at Qabrikha is adjacent to a recycling facility. Human Rights Watch researchers visited the facility and spoke with an employee there. He said waste that was not recyclable and non-organic was returned to the municipalities whose trash was processed at the facility. He said that Qabrikha municipality moved this waste into the nearby open dump, where he saw them burn it. He said trash at this dump included plastic bags and diapers. Human Rights Watch researchers also observed clothes and other household waste at the dump. Qabrikha is in the Wadi Hujeir Nature Preserve.

Residents could not specify when burning at the dumps began but estimated that it had been going on for years and said that burning in the past week had been particularly intense.

One woman who moved to al-Qantara in May 2017 said the municipalities have been burning the al-Qantara and Qabrikha open dumps since she arrived:

We can’t breathe at night. The smoke builds up and it moves towards us like fog. I can’t recover from the flu…There’s smoke every day. And the smell is strong at night. It’s the smell of nylon, it’s heavy and odd, something you can’t handle. I didn’t see a doctor or pharmacist regarding the symptoms. I take medicine for blood pressure and diabetes, why add to all this? I drink tea with lemon… The maximum I can do is close the windows, what more can I do?... And not just me, others, even my grandsons, they’re always sick.

Another woman, who has lived in al-Qantara for two and a half years with her husband, said:

The smell of trash, the burning, it’s unbearable. Especially the 2-3 days we went through last week…The smell is usually from Qabrikha…The latest incident was 3 or 4 days ago. I woke up at night suffocating. Smoke was filling the house. This is a village. There’s no pollution. Why would we have to wake up feeling like this? It was from Rab Thalatine. I knew because of the direction of the wind, which was from the east...The smoke smelled like trash… The main symptom was difficulty breathing and chest pressure…My husband had a surgery in the lungs. This smoke isn’t good for him. And of course he was irritated. He had difficulty breathing.

An older man also described his symptoms during the trash burning: “The symptoms are usually difficulty breathing. And some symptoms the next day, like black phlegm, from all the polluted air that gets into you. I experience this only when the burning takes place, otherwise no.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 18, 2018, 4:00 am

The Union Flag and European Union flag fly in Parliament Square in central London, September 9, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

The prospect of the UK crashing out of the European Union without an agreement – a so-called “no-deal Brexit” – looms ever larger.

If there is no deal in place on March 30, 2019, the residency status of almost five million people will be plunged into uncertainty. It would leave many of the 3.8 million EU citizens living in the UK, as well as the estimated 1 million UK citizens living in other EU countries, in legal limbo.

The UK government has promised that even without a deal people won’t be “turfed out” of the country they call home, or lose rights that come from residence, including to work, send their kids to school, or see a doctor. But even with good faith on both sides, the current lack of clear legal guarantees is deeply worrying.

A no-deal Brexit could also cause significant hardships in the UK in the short-term. Civil servants have done contingency planning for fuel, food, and medicine shortages.

There is also a risk of a spike in hate crimes similar to that immediately after the June 2016 referendum vote. Social tensions could be exacerbated by shortages and disruption that a no-deal Brexit could bring.

What about human rights currently protected under EU law? The UK has legislated to incorporate into domestic law almost all EU laws on Brexit day, including protection against discrimination, and for workers’ rights. This takes effect even without a deal.

Unfortunately, the UK government chose to discard the EU charter of fundamental rights, which guarantees EU-based protections in employment, equality, and privacy. Scrapping this means a future UK government could legislate, for example, to weaken rights for pregnant women and parents at work, or make it harder for people with disabilities to prove discrimination.

Voices in the ruling Conservative party speak of Brexit as an opportunity  to “whittle away” rules to reduce the “burden” on businesses and cut “massive” numbers of EU regulations to attract trade and investment. If a no-deal Brexit happens, and the UK economy stagnates, calls to deregulate could increase, including weakening EU-derived workers’ rights in the name of “competitiveness.”  

The UK’s political parties are deeply divided over the UK’s future relationship with Europe. But that cannot be allowed to obscure the collective responsibility to protect people, deal or no-deal.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 17, 2018, 1:09 pm

The graduation ceremony at Middle Eastern Technical University, Ankara, July 6. 2018. The banner carried by students accused of insulting Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is among the hundreds laid out at the ceremony.

© 2018 Batuhan Dereli
(Berlin) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has chosen to drop a complaint against four Ankara students he accused of “insulting the president” for holding up a satirical banner, Human Rights Watch said today. The students’ trial is due to begin on October 22, but the prosecutor is likely to seek their acquittal following the announcement that the president has withdrawn his complaint. While the move is a positive and welcome development for the four students scheduled for trial, it does not address the wider problem of thousands of similar ongoing cases in the courts which blatantly violate freedom of expression, the organization said.

“‘Insulting the president’ should not be a crime, and students holding up a satirical banner obviously should never have faced prosecution,” said Benjamin Ward, Europe and Central Asia acting director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkish courts have convicted thousands of people in the past four years simply for speaking out against the president. The government should stop this mockery of human rights and respect people in Turkey’s right to peaceful free expression.”

The case is one of many such prosecutions for the same offense over the past four years and relies on article 299 of Turkey’s penal code, a provision rarely used before Erdoğan was elected president in 2014. Human Rights Watch first reported a rising number of prosecutions for “insulting the president” in 2015, and the numbers are increasing.

The students, D.C.Y., B.A., F.E.D., and Ö.K., identified only by initials for their protection, were detained after their July 6 graduation ceremony at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. There is a university tradition that graduating students mark the ceremony by holding up humorous and satirical banners, many of them reflecting current developments in Turkey. Among the hundreds of banners, three students carried a banner with the caption “Now it’s ….Kingdom of the Tayyips,” depicting animals drawn with the president’s face. The caricature was based on a 2005 cover image from Turkey’s satirical magazine Penguen.

Police detained the students at their homes following a complaint by a lawyer acting for Erdoğan. On July 11, 2018, an Ankara court ordered they be placed in pretrial detention pending trial. A fourth student, Ö.K., who helped the others transport the banner to the campus, was also charged with the same offense and remanded to custody a day later. The court ordered the four released on August 10. Ş.D., manager of the stationery shop that printed the banner, was charged with the same offense and faces trial with the students on October 22.

Prosecutions under article 299 of the Turkish penal code for “insulting the president” require the Minister of Justice’s permission and carry potential prison sentences of one to four years. They have risen dramatically from 132 in 2014 to more than 6,000 in 2017. Courts have often suspended sentences or converted them to fines. Using the article to prosecute journalists, academics, juveniles, and ordinary people for social media postings, a phenomenon since Erdoğan became president, is a direct assault on freedom of expression and critical speech devoid of advocacy or incitement to violence.

When the images were first published by Penguen on February 24, 2005, Erdoğan, then prime minister, lodged a complaint of defamation and sought damages from the magazine of 40 thousand Turkish Lira (approximately US$31,000). An Istanbul court rejected the law suit and ruled that the caricature fell within the boundaries of freedom of expression and was not defamatory.

On July 17, 2018, the chair of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu tweeted the “Kingdom of Tayyips” caricature, saying, “You must tolerate criticism and humour, you have to! You cannot stop criticism and humour by putting them in prison.” The next day, the Ankara prosecutor’s office initiated a preliminary investigation against him for insulting the president. Other CHP parliamentarians also shared the caricature on Twitter to support the students. Erdoğan’s lawyers have filed a criminal complaint against 72 CHP parliamentarians for insulting the president because they tweeted the banner image. Members of parliament enjoy immunity and cannot be questioned by the prosecutor’s office while they are serving parliamentarians, unless that immunity is stripped in accordance with the law.

Turkey is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and legally bound under both to respect freedom of expression. The European Court of Human Rights has made clear that any efforts to protect a head of state “cannot justify conferring on him or her a privilege or special protection vis-à-vis the right to … express opinions about him or her.” Satirical speech enjoys special protection as a form of artistic expression and social commentary, and the court routinely finds that charges of “insulting the president” violate the Convention, noting that criminalization of satire would have a deterrent effect on free debate of questions of general interest. United Nations and regional experts on freedom of expression have called for repeal of all laws that provide special protection for public figures.

 “Turkey should stop throttling free speech through misuse of the criminal law and behave like a democratic society based on rule of law and respect for human rights,” Ward said “Decisions by prosecutors and courts to start or drop cases should not rest on the word of the president.”

For more details on specific cases, please see below.


A Sharp, Ongoing Rise in Prosecutions Under Article 299

According to the Ministry of Justice’s General Directorate of Judicial Records and Statistics, the number of people prosecuted for article 299 has rapidly increased since 2014. The records reveal that 132 people (including 1 minor) were prosecuted in 2014, that there was a sharp increase to 1,953 (including 76 minors) in 2015, and that in 2016, the number of cases more than doubled, with 4,187 persons (including 148 minors) prosecuted. In 2016, 54 of the minors prosecuted were aged between 12 and 15. A further huge leap occurred in 2017, when prosecutions rose to 6,033, with 340 cases concerning minors (42 aged between 12 and 15). According to the ministry’s statistics, the number of convictions also rose over the same period. While 40 persons were convicted for insulting the president in 2014, 238 were convicted in 2015, the number almost quadrupled to 884 in 2016, and jumped to a staggering 2,099 convictions in 2017.

According to a report by Bianet, a media monitoring and online news organization, at least eight journalists were convicted for insulting the president in the first three months of 2018.

Among the recent prosecutions and convictions under article 299, the following cases against well-known public figures stand out. Numerous other cases against ordinary people are never reported in the media and are therefore difficult to document. 

Ahmet Yıldırım, former member of parliament for the Peoples’ Democratic Party
On September 12, 2015, Yıldırım gave a press conference in the eastern town of Muş regarding a blanket curfew in the city of Cizre. In his speech, he referred to the president as “that would-be sultan in the palace.” Yıldırım’s parliamentary immunity was lifted in May 2016 along with other MPs from his party, and he was convicted of insulting the president by a court in Muş. An appeal court in Erzurum confirmed his conviction on January 22, 2018, and on February 27, Yıldırım was stripped of his parliamentary seat because of the conviction. He is the first parliamentarian in Turkey to have been stripped of his seat for insulting the president.

The Turkish singer known as Suavi
In a speech on October 29, 2016, Suavi said, “there is no difference between Fethullah Gülen and Tayyip Erdoğan.” Suavi was tried before the Izmir Criminal Court of First Instance for insulting the president. On April 17, the court convicted Suavi, sentencing him to 11 months and 20 days in prison. The sentence was converted to a fine of 14,000 Turkish Liras (US$3,410) and 2,180 Turkish Liras ($531) for the president’s legal fees. The case is on appeal.

Abdullatif Şener, Justice and Development Party founding member and deputy prime minister from 2002-07
Abdullatif Şener was indicted for insulting the president in March 2018 for several Twitter posts. In his testimony, Şener said that his account was hacked and that he did not write the tweets in question. The case continues. 

Adnan Keskin, former Republican People’s Party parliamentarian
On February 13, 2018, an Antalya court convicted Adnan Keskin of insulting the president. He was sentenced to 11 months and 20 days in jail, suspended on condition he does not commit a similar offense in the next 5 years. The case concerned a speech by Keskin made at the opening of a party office in 2016 including the words “fascist” and “thief.” A lower court had acquitted him, but the prosecutor appealed the acquittal.

The singer Zuhal Olcay
During a concert in Istanbul on August 5, 2016, Zuhal Olcay inserted Erdoğan’s name in a song entitled “I have given up on this world,” and someone lodged a complaint. After examining video of her performance, the Anadolu Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office prosecuted the singer for publicly insulting the president. On July 12, 2018, an Istanbul court convicted the singer and handed down a suspended prison sentence of 11 months and 20 days. Erdoğans’s lawyers appealed the decision to suspend the sentence, arguing that the singer should serve the prison sentence. The appeal is pending at the Court of Cassation. 

Writer Ahmet Altan
Altan, currently imprisoned, has faced many cases, including a February 28, 2018 conviction for “insulting the president.” Altan criticized the government and the president in a June 14, 2016 article he wrote about government policy in the mainly Kurdish southeast and military operations in the region. He was given 2 years and 11 months, in addition to 3 years for spreading terrorist propaganda, for which he was convicted at the same trial. In another case on April 26, 2018, Altan was acquitted of insulting the president. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 17, 2018, 8:26 am

(Bangkok, October 17, 2018) – Vietnam should reverse the draconian sentence imposed on a veteran environment and democracy activist, Le Dinh Luong, and release him, Human Rights Watch said today. The appeals court is scheduled to hear his case on October 18, 2018, in Nghe An province.

“Le Dinh Luong’s 20-year sentence is one of the harshest in the government’s crackdown on peaceful activists,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “This is an opportunity for the court to right this wrong, distinguish between criticism of the government and actual threats to national security, and defend everyone’s right to free expression.”

The government arrested Le Dinh Luong, 53, in July 2017 and charged him with “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration” under article 79 of the 1999 Penal Code. The People’s Court of Nghe An province originally scheduled Luong’s trial for July 30, 2018, but postponed the hearing at the last minute. Though the trial was supposed to be open to the public, only Le Dinh Luong’s wife and younger brother were allowed into the courtroom. Foreign diplomats who tried to attend were barred. 

On August 16, the People’s Court convicted him and gave him an extraordinarily long prison sentence of 20 years, to be followed by an additional five years of probation with severe restrictions on his movements. In an unusual move, the court imposed a longer sentence than the 17 years the Nghe An prosecutors office recommended. 

Le Dinh Luong has participated in various activities that the Vietnamese authorities consider politically unacceptable, including religious and environmental protests. He has joined various environmental demonstrations, including against Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a Taiwanese company that has dumped toxic waste in the ocean and polluted Vietnam’s central coast, causing massive fish deaths and an environmental disaster. 

Police and army newspapers repeatedly accused Le Dinh Luong of being a “dangerous reactionary” connected to the Viet Tan, a US-based political party. His case has raised many fair trial concerns.

In August 2017, the police rejected a request to have Ha Huy Son serve as Le Dinh Luong’s defense lawyer. The police claimed that a person suspected of serious national security violations would not be allowed to have a lawyer until the investigation was completed under then-article 58 (now article 74) of the Criminal Procedure Code. He was not given permission to be represented by defense lawyers until early July. On July 17, his daughter-in-law, Nguyen Thi Xoan, told a reporter for Defend the Defenders that the family had been given no information about him since his arrest. 

Freedom of expression and the right to be represented by counsel are guaranteed by the Vietnamese Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Vietnam is a party. The appeals court should immediately release Luong and other activists who have been wrongly imprisoned and allow them to peacefully express their views. 

The US State Department, the European Union, and various non-governmental organizations have urged the Vietnamese government to ensure that Le Dinh Luong and other human rights defenders obtain a fair trial as guaranteed by Vietnamese and international law. 

“A 20-year prison sentence for peaceful protest is outrageous,” Robertson said. “It should not matter if someone is protesting in favor or against the government’s preferred position. Vietnam’s actions, in this case, will show its real attitude toward the rule of law.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 17, 2018, 1:20 am

A mural in Xinjiang reads "Stability is a blessing, Instability is a calamity," Yarkand, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China on September 20, 2012. 

© 2012 Getty Images
(New York) – The Chinese government should release to their families children held in orphanages in Xinjiang because their parents have been arbitrarily detained, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Financial Times and the Associated Press have reported on the removal of children of detained Turkic Muslims from their extended families and placed in state institutions. Human Rights Watch’s September 2018 report on mass detentions in Xinjiang detailed one such case. One million Turkic Muslims are credibly estimated to be detained in unlawful political education camps in Xinjiang, along with an unknown number arbitrarily held in detention centers and prisons, under China’s abusive “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism.”

“China’s authorities are cruelly putting the children of some of Xinjiang’s political detainees in state institutions,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “This is part of a perverse government program to take Turkic Muslim children from their extended families in the name of children’s material well-being.”

In November 2016, Xinjiang’s Chinese Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo ordered local officials to place all orphans from Xinjiang into institutions by 2020 as part of a range of development initiatives for the region. The order involves “concentrating” (集中收养) orphans previously cared for in “a scattered manner” – including by their extended families – and placing them in institutions to “improve their living standards.”

The regional policy broadly defines orphans as “children who have lost their parents or whose parents cannot be found;” in some regions this includes those whose one or both parents are detained or imprisoned.

Under Xinjiang’s regional implementation policy, issued in January 2017, local officials are encouraged to “channel” children it considers orphans into state orphanages, including by filling all empty beds in existing orphanages and upgrading and building new facilities. Some of these new facilities appear designed to house 100 or more children, according to media accounts. The government’s goal is to move from 24 percent institutionalization rate of “orphans” in Xinjiang to 100 percent between 2017 and 2020.

While the regional policy generally describes the targets of the policy as those who “wish to be institutionalized,” it otherwise gives no details concerning consent. It is unclear whether it is the children’s, the parents,’ or the extended families’ wishes that would be taken into consideration; which government agency would make the decision; and whether there are procedures for determining such consent or to challenge such determination.

A local government report in September 2017 states that children can stay with guardians who are unwilling to send them to orphanages. However, other localities have received hard quotas to be filled. In Jimsar County, officials were required to send 30 orphans to institutions by October 2017. In Xinyuan County, the authorities ordered officials to institutionalize 60 orphans by November 2017 or suffer demerits. In Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, a policy report acknowledges the difficulties in meeting those demands: “The orphans’ guardians are relatives such as grandparents…the guardians do not wish to give the children to the institutions. The guardians and the children are unwilling to be separated long-term, and do not trust that the orphanages to be a safe place for the children.”

Article 4 of China’s Adoption Law defines orphans as “those under 14 who have lost their parents, those whose parents cannot be found, and those whose parents have special difficulties and are unable to raise their children.” While article 43 of China’s Law on the Protection of Minors says that orphanages established by the Ministry of Civil Affairs have the responsibility to care for orphans, Chinese law does not empower government authorities to remove children from their relatives to place them in state care, nor any legal procedures to do so.

Reports of children being placed in orphanages against their families’ wishes are particularly alarming given the government’s sustained assault on the cultural identity of Turkic Muslim minority communities in Xinjiang, as Human Rights Watch and others have documented. In schools, authorities have long prohibited children from learning religion and have progressively marginalized the use of ethnic languages while promoting the use of Mandarin as the medium of instructions. All Muslim religious practice has been curtailed.

The preamble to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Chinese government has ratified, recognizes the family as the natural environment for the growth and well-being of children. The convention obligates governments to ensure that a “child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures, that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child.” Such a determination may be necessary in a particular case, such as involving parental abuse or neglect.

Even when alternative care arrangements are necessary, care by close family members should be given priority. Removing a child from the family’s care is normally a measure of last resort and should, whenever possible, be temporary and for the shortest possible duration. Officials need to ensure that a child who is capable of forming their own views has the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting them. The child’s views should be given due consideration in accordance with their age and maturity.

All decisions concerning alternative care should take full account of the desirability, in principle, of maintaining the child as close as possible to their habitual place of residence, to facilitate contact and potential reintegration with the child’s family, and to minimize disruption of the child’s educational, cultural, and social life.

As information has emerged in recent months about mass, systematic human rights violations in Xinjiang, United Nations bodies, governments, and others have publicly expressed concern about China’s policies. The United States has been considering imposing sanctions on various Xinjiang officials and entities. Germany and Sweden have temporarily suspended deportations of ethnic Uighurs to China. But governments should take stronger steps, notably by creating an international coalition to gather evidence of serious abuses and press for accountability.

“By unnecessarily sending children in Xinjiang to state institutions, officials are adding to the trauma of China’s ‘Strike Hard’ Campaign,” Richardson said. “Governments that weren’t previously outraged by Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang should press China to change course immediately and limit the long-term harm of these policies.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 17, 2018, 12:00 am

The Saudi authorities’ apparent brazen crime of disappearing and potentially murdering Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi, not seen since entering Istanbul’s Saudi consulate on October 2, has surprised even those used to following Saudi Arabia’s atrocious rights record. But the abusive bent of the government under Crown Prince and de facto leader Mohammad bin Salman at home, and in its neighbour Yemen, was clear well before the Khashoggi affair.


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Despite bin Salman’s ambitious reform rhetoric, repression and human rights violations have increased in the kingdom under his leadership. The crown prince has ramped up the crackdown on criticism and opposition, including arrests, prosecutions, and convictions of peaceful dissidents and human rights advocates.

Despite this, the UK government rolled out the red carpet for the Saudi crown prince last March, and Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons that the UK’s link with Saudi Arabia is historic, important, and “has saved the lives of potentially hundreds of people in the country.”

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves after delivering her keynote speech on Brexit at Lancaster House in London, January 17, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

May didn’t mention that this “link” has had devastating consequences in Yemen. The UK supports the Saudi-led coalition, having sold at least £4.6 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia since the conflict began in 2015.

Evidence continues to mount of the coalition’s repeated violations of the laws of war in Yemen, some of which may amount to war crimes, which keep killing Yemeni civilians.  The United Nations has called on the coalition to end these violations, which are exacerbating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Some 12 to 13 million people in Yemen face starvation, according to the UN.

Despite this, the UK government still refuses to call out the coalition over its violations in Yemen. Its decision to keep selling arms to Saudi Arabia, despite the risk that they could be used unlawfully, is being challenged in court. This week, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt joined his French and German counterparts in expressing “grave concern” over Saudi Arabia’s likely role in Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Yet he failed to say anything about revisiting the UK’s wider relationship with Saudi Arabia. Which begs the question, when will the UK finally send the critical message to bin Salman and stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia?

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 16, 2018, 3:12 pm

Members of the Baha'i religion demonstrate in Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach on June 19, 2011 asking Iranian authorities to release seven Baha'i prisoners accused of spying for Israel and sentenced to 20 years in jail. 

© 2011 Ana Carolina Fernandes/AFP/Getty Images

(Beirut) – Iranian intelligence officials have increased the arrests of the country’s Baha’i religious minority over the past two months, with no clear charges, Human Rights Watch said today. In August and September 2018, authorities arrested more than 20 Baha’i citizens, as well as a city council member who a colleague said offered support for those arrested.

Those arrested included 12 people in the city of Shiraz, 4 of whom remain detained in an Intelligence Ministry detention center. On September 25, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported that between August 23 and September 23, authorities arrested 11 more Baha’is in Isfahan and Karaj provinces and transferred them to the Shiraz detention center. The source who spoke to Human Rights Watch did not know about the charges brought against the detainees. Authorities also detained Mehdi Hajati, a member of Shiraz City Council, for 10 days after he said he was trying to secure the release of the Baha’is.

“The more than 20 arrests in a month without providing any justification shows how intolerant the Islamic Republic is towards Iran’s Baha’i community,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “And authorities are taking their campaign of intimidation, harassment, and persecution even further by detaining elected officials who dare to show solidarity with their fellow citizens who are Baha’i.”

Iran’s constitution does not recognize Baha’is as a religious minority in Iran. Authorities routinely harass, prosecute, and imprison Baha’is solely for practicing  their faith, and they also regularly destroy their places of burial. They also prevent Baha’i students from registering at universities and expel those who are adherent of this faith.

On October 10, a source who wished to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch that authorities arrested Bahareh Qaderi, Navid Bazmandegan, Ehsan Mahboob Rahvafa, Elaheh Samizadeh, Soudabeh Haghighat, and Noora Pourmoradaian on August 24 and 25. The source said the authorities arrested Koroosh Rouhani, Mahboob Habibi, Dorna Esmaili, Houman Esmalili, Negar Misaghian, and Pejman Shahriari on August 17.

Authorities released Misaghian and Dorna Esmaili the day of their arrest, while conditionally releasing Rouhani, Shahriari, Habibi, Haghighat, Pourmoradian, and Samizadeh until their trial.

The Center for Human Rights in Iran said that authorities arrested Bahareh Zeini, Sepideh Rouhani, Afshin Bolbolan, Milad Dordan, Anousheh Rayneh, Farhang Sahba and Foujan Rashidi in city of Baharestan, in Isfahan province, and Peyman Manavi, Kianoush Salmanzadeh, Maryam Ghaffarmanesh and Jamileh Pakrou in the city of Karaj, in Alborz Province in period between August 23 and September 23.

On September 27, Qasem Moghimi a member of the Shiraz City Council, told the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) that authorities arrested Hajati, a member of Shiraz city council who is also a member of the council’s citizens’ rights commission, “for supporting Baha’is.”

Hajati had tweeted on September 25 that “Over the past 10 days, I tried my best to secure the release of two Baha’i friends but have failed. While standing against the foreign enemy, our generation has a duty to do its best to reform the judicial processes and other issues that threaten social justice.”

On September 30, Ali Alqasimehr, the head of the judiciary in Fars province, told Mehr News that other than “supporting a deviate cult,” Hajati is facing other criminal charges but did not provide details. Authorities released Hajati on October 7.

Several members of the Iranian parliament raised concerns about Hajati’s arrest and said he was defending citizens’ rights. On October 3, however, the association of members of parliament from Fars province published an open letter asking authorities to not allow the “deviant cult” of Bahai’s to conspire and operate while ensuring citizens’ rights are respected.

On September 18, Iran Wire news website published the name of 54 Baha’i students whom authorities had prevented from registering at universities after they took the national entrance exam for the 2018 school year. The origin of such blatant discrimination reportedly goes back to a 1991 by-law of the High Council of Cultural Revolution, a body in charge of setting education policies, that mandates authorities to expel Baha’i students from higher education institutions. 

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”(ICCPR), to which Iran is a party, freedom of religion includes “freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”  Similarly, under ICCPR “anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him.”

“For four decades Iran’s judiciary and security agencies have violated the most fundamental rights of the Baha’i community in Iran,” Page said. “President Rouhani and his cabinet need to stop pretending that they aren’t responsible for persecuting the Baha’i and end these violations.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 16, 2018, 5:00 am

Syria: Residents Blocked From Returning

The Syrian government is unlawfully preventing displaced residents from former anti-government-held areas from returning to their properties.

(Beirut) – The Syrian government is unlawfully preventing displaced residents from former anti-government-held areas from returning to their properties, Human Rights Watch said today.
Residents of one town, Qaboun, said the government is also demolishing their properties with no warning, and without providing alternative housing or compensation. Human Rights Watch analyzed satellite imagery over Qaboun neighborhoods showing large-scale demolitions starting in late May 2017, after fighting there ended. The imagery confirms the demolitions are still taking place.

© DigitalGlobe 2018

“Russia and Syria are calling on people to return to attract reconstruction funding, but as always with the Syrian government, reality is much different,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Apparently under the guise of a notorious property rights law, the Syrian government is actually blocking residents from returning.”

The Syrian council of ministers and local authorities designated parts of Darayya for redevelopment in April 2018 and Qaboun in July. Both towns have been identified with the Syrian revolution, and the government has retaken both from anti-government groups. But under Law 10 of 2018, passed in April, the government can appropriate private property without due process or adequate compensation in redevelopment zones, a Human Rights Watch analysis found.

Human Rights Watch spoke to seven Syrians who had attempted to return to their homes in Darayya and Qaboun, or whose immediate relatives attempted to return in May and July. Residents said that they or their relatives were unable to access their residential or commercial properties. In Darayya, they said, the government was imposing town-wide restrictions on access, and in Qaboun they said, the government either had restricted access to their neighborhoods or had demolished their property.

The Syrian government recaptured the towns after large-scale offensives that included indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and the use of prohibited weapons. The offensives caused extensive damage and resulted in mass displacement of thousands of residents.

Based on media and government statements issued between May 2017 and October 2018, the Syrian government announced that it was destroying tunnels created by anti-government groups, as well as explosive remnants armed groups left behind in Qaboun. However, satellite imagery Human Rights Watch reviewed during this period showed that the government demolished houses with heavy, earth moving machinery such as bulldozers, and excavators as well as with the uncontrolled detonation of high explosives, which is inconsistent with closing underground tunnels.

Satellite image of a large blast cloud from the demolition of a residential apartment building with high explosives. Blast cloud consistent with the detonation of a large conventional bomb.

© DigitalGlobe 2018

Human Rights Watch also compared impact sites from the airstrikes with the demolitions. Human Rights Watch found that while many buildings were most likely damaged in airstrikes or ground fighting, but it was clear that many of the buildings demolished were also visibly intact and potentially inhabitable and were not demolished because they were damaged by airstrikes.

As one refugee put it: “They took our children, our blood and now our property – what is left for us to return to?”

Preventing displaced residents from accessing and returning to their homes without an apparently valid security reason or providing alternatives to the displaced communities makes these restrictions arbitrary, and most likely amounts to forced displacement, Human Rights Watch said.

International law guarantees freedom of movement for people who are in a country lawfully. Restrictions should only be imposed if they are provided by law, necessary to achieve legitimate aims, nondiscriminatory, and proportionate – that is, carefully balanced against the specific reason for the restriction.

In imposing restrictions on entry and exit from Qaboun and blocking return to Darayya entirely without providing a legitimate reason, or individualized security screenings of residents seeking to enter or leave, the government is violating its obligations to guarantee freedom of movement. Given the time that has passed since the recapture of these areas, and the scale of impact of these restrictions, they also appear to be disproportionate.

International humanitarian law also prohibits “wanton destruction” of property, and deliberate, indiscriminate, or disproportionate attacks against civilians and civilian objects. The scale of the demolitions, and the fact that the government had retaken the area for at least a year, indicates that these demolitions are likely disproportionate, and may be war crimes.

Before and After Demolition Before and After Demolition
Before: © DigitalGlobe 2018 After: © DigitalGlobe 2018

The restrictions on access, demolitions, and confiscation of property also affect displaced people’s ability and willingness to return to their areas of origin, Human Rights Watch said. Refugees indicated that their inability to go to their areas of origin and the lack of guarantees that security will be maintained there are reasons they would not return. Others said that this is only the latest in a series of Syrian government actions showing disregard for the civilian population.

Russia, and other countries that are calling for the return of refugees, should use their leverage with the Syrian government to ensure that the property rights of displaced people seeking to return are protected, and that the government does not expropriate or demolish their properties arbitrarily and without providing them with alternatives.

Donor countries, investors, and humanitarian agencies operating in areas retaken by the government should ensure that any funds they provide to programs aimed at rebuilding and rehabilitating structures in areas retaken by the government meet certain standards. They should make certain that their funds do not contribute to the abuse of property rights of residents or displaced people, and that the funds do not go to entities or people responsible for human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law.

The United Nations should ensure that its agencies’ programming, including delivery of humanitarian aid, small-scale infrastructure rehabilitation projects and provision of services, does not contribute to violating the property rights of residents or displaced people and is not applied in a discriminatory manner.

“In demolishing their homes and restricting access to their property, the Syrian government is signaling that despite official rhetoric inviting Syrians ‘home,’ they do not want refugees or displaced persons back,” Fakih said. “Donors considering funding reconstruction to facilitate returns should be put on notice.”

The Government Restrictions

Local officials have not provided a reason for preventing them from returning to Darayya or Qaboun, or for the other restrictions on access, residents said. Other areas including Wadi Barada and al-Tadamon have faced similar restrictions.

On September 25, news outlets reported that a Damascus provincial committee report on the implementation Law No. 10 in al-Tadamon, a neighborhood in Damascus, found only 690 homes inhabitable – about 10 percent of all housing, according to an activist quoted in the report – and that residents would not be allowed to return to homes considered uninhabitable. Residents of al-Tadamon contended that the report was subjective and unfair. The news report did not make clear whether compensation or alternative housing would be provided to the residents.

In other areas, including Zabadani and al-Moadmiyeh, that are close to Darayya and Qaboun, residents have told Human Rights Watch that they are returning and have access to their property.


Darayya is in the Damascus suburbs, eight kilometers from the capital. It was under the control of anti-government armed groups from 2012 until 2016. In August 2016, the government retook the area after a four-year siege, which ended with the surrender of anti-government armed groups, and the evacuation of the entire population.

The town is widely acknowledged to have been central to the Syrian uprising, and is strongly affiliated with the political opposition, having produced prominent political activists. Since 2012, the Syrian government has detained and tortured dozens in unofficial prisons, and retaliated with large-scale attacks on the town.

Human Rights Watch spoke to three residents, who had attempted to return or whose immediate relatives attempted to return in 2018. All three said that Darayya had been completely closed off to residents for two years with government checkpoints and physical barriers erected by government forces. To enter, one either had to have a relative in the Syrian military or pay a bribe and even then, residents could not stay in the town, they said.

“There is a large steel barricade, and several checkpoints,” said Samer, a former Darayya resident. “They don’t allow anyone in. Our house is 300 meters from the checkpoint.” One resident said that his neighbor paid upwards of $1 million SYP to be able to enter and check on his property.

Two residents who attempted to return said that officials they spoke with at civil registries and municipalities would not provide a reason for blocking access to Darayya

A woman who attempted to return to her home in Darayya in May said that the Syrian government would not allow her in. She had returned fearing that the family’s property would be confiscated under Law 10, she said. When she went to the municipality office, officials did not allow her to visit her properties and provided no reason, saying “Not allowed means not allowed. We don’t question these things in Syria.”

A young woman whose father died recently also attempted to return to check on the lands and inheritance issues. She said she was not allowed to reach her property, and that due to the lack of transparency around the policies and property registration, she was unable to resolve, or even understand, what steps were needed to ensure that her father’s property in Darayya could pass on to her.

On August 27, a Facebook page of the Darayya Executive Office, an affiliate of the Syrian government, announced that people could enter Darayya on August 28. The decision permitted residents who had registered to enter from one point in the town, and only to check on their homes. They had to leave the same day and could not resettle or remain in Darayya.

“The government would turn us away at checkpoints,” one former resident said. “At first, they said it was security reasons, and we understood, but two years later and dozens of other areas were opened, why is Darayya still closed?”

In September, the Executive Office shared lists of names and announced that people on these lists could register and obtain a permission card that would allow them to enter Darayya at any time. However, the government did not allow any to stay or return to their homes, based on comments from residents on the Facebook page and the residents had to leave the same day.

Recent media reports have implied that residents have not been able to return to Darayya because of heavy damage to the buildings and no connection to basic infrastructure, including water and electricity. However, Human Rights Watch research shows that in other areas, that were re-taken by the government later than Darayya, including Zabadani and al-Moadmiyeh, residents were allowed to return, apparently without these preconditions in place.

A woman who attempted to return to Darayya in May 2018 after the local authorities designated it for redevelopment told Human Rights Watch that the municipality blocked her from visiting her properties. She said they did allow her to submit copies of her title deeds and the number of the property to demonstrate property ownership, as required by Law 10 to not be stripped of property in redevelopment zones, but that municipality officials told her ownership would only be recognized after security clearance without explaining what that would mean. “Some people will get an approval. Others won’t,” she said. “Hopefully, our name gets on the list and they let us back. We didn’t get any promises. We’re just hoping.”


Qaboun is in the Damascus countryside, six kilometers from the capital. It was under anti-government control until 2017, then recaptured by the government. Between 2014 and 2017, there was a ceasefire between the parties to the conflict there.

However, in March 2017, the Syrian government, supported by the Russian military, opened an offensive to retake Qaboun. Satellite imagery Human Rights Watch reviewed shows that the Syrian-Russian military alliance bombarded the Teshreen neighborhood with heavy artillery and large, air-dropped munitions between early February and mid-April 2017. This was followed by a large ground offensive along southern and eastern edges of Qaboun between mid-April and late May 2017. Satellite imagery recorded during this period shows the presence and movement of military vehicles, including Armored Personnel Carriers and tanks, but the majority of the ground fighting was concentrated further north from the demolition zone. The Syrian government retook Qaboun in May 2017.

In Qaboun, recaptured in May 2017, state officials made certain neighborhoods off limits to residents while allowing entry into other neighborhoods, one former resident said. But even in the neighborhoods that residents can enter, the government had imposed restrictions on entry and exit, requiring people who want to go to Damascus to pay 500 Syrian pounds [US$1] and imposing a same day return requirement. Those entering the neighborhoods are required to leave their identification cards at a checkpoint on their way in.

Human Rights Watch spoke to four people from Qaboun who said that access to certain neighborhoods remains restricted and that demolitions that began in 2018 are ongoing in neighborhoods along the M5 Highway.

“Leila,” whose relatives remain in Damascus and the Damascus countryside and who asked not to be identified to protect her family’s security, said that her house was still standing when her family left in May 2017 as part of the mass displacement to Idlib after anti-government forces in Qaboun surrendered. She has not been back since: 

I left in the displacement of Qaboun [after the government retook the area], and within a few months, asked one of my cousins to visit the house. We left a car there, and I wanted to make sure that everything was there. They refused to allow him in and did not give a reason. I insisted that he visit, and he paid them a bribe and they allowed him in. The house had been struck during the fighting – we were still there – and was burned but it was still standing at the time.

Her cousin visited the property again in August or September 2018, and found it razed to the ground. Leila and other residents said that only government officials are allowed to operate and demolish in the area. She said that her home was not part of an informal settlement and that the damage to the house did not warrant its destruction. She said her family received no notice, compensation, or support in finding alternative housing.

The government had previously used the excuse of clearing informal settlements to demolish homes.

Another resident, “Omar,” said his property was demolished shortly after Qaboun was retaken. He said he left Qaboun in May 2017 and was provided with pictures in June by a friend inside Qaboun that showed the destruction. He said that his house was formally registered, and not part of the informal settlements. His family also received no notice, compensation, or alternative housing. “This is the government’s usual practice,” he said. “They also demolished one of our properties back in 2012, and similarly gave no warning and no money. They don’t want us to return.”

Leila and Omar also said that the government is blocking access to several other neighborhoods including al-Falujeh, al-‘Aardiyeh, Mazra’et al-Hammam, Mashrou’ al-Wan, Mou’asseset al-Kahrabeh, and Jame’ al-Hussein. In another neighborhood, where Leila owns a second home, no reason was given for restricting access: “Last Eid [June 2018] my daughters were able to visit the property and move relatively freely. This Eid [August 2018], they tried again and were told they could not access the area.”

Human Rights Watch analyzed a time series of satellite imagery and identified hundreds of mostly residential buildings in Qaboun demolished between May 22, 2017 and September 29, 2018. The demolitions were conducted with heavy, earth moving machinery such as bulldozers, and excavators and the uncontrolled detonation of high explosives. The demolitions were concentrated in the southern end of the town along the M5 highway, over 35 hectares in total area.

Between May 22 and July 2, 2017, dozens of buildings in the southern end of Qaboun along the M5 highway were demolished. There were a limited number of air strikes in this part of town, and the majority of buildings demolished during this period appeared intact and potentially inhabitable before they were demolished. Demolitions resumed between September 13 and October 22, 2017, this time further north from the M5 highway.

A third round of demolitions began sometime between March 27 and April 13, 2018, and continued until early September. In parallel, satellite images showed dozens of dump trucks taken to the area to remove debris from demolished buildings, creating large areas of bare soil along the northern side of the M5 highway.

A satellite image taken on May 11 captured a large smoke plume and debris cloud immediately after the probable detonation of multiple residential buildings with high explosives.

In 2014, Human Rights Watch documented large scale demolitions in Qaboun neighborhoods, apparently in retaliation for affiliation with the political opposition. In all the cases, the demolitions took place with little to no warning, and the government failed to provide alternative housing or any compensation, residents told Human Rights Watch.

Three residents told Human Rights Watch that their families who remained inside Syria and visited Qaboun informed them that their houses were demolished between May 2017 and March 2018. Two of the residents shared pictures of the houses with Human Rights Watch, which showed an extensive amount of rubble, and destroyed structures and said that the property was not part of informal settlements. Human Rights Watch did not interview any witnesses to the demolitions in 2017 and 2018, but residents consistently said that they believed the government was responsible for the demolitions because they were in control of the area at the time.

One resident said that the government demolished properties of his in 2012, 2013, and 2017:

We had three homes in Qaboun. We owned them. In 2012, the government demolished the first home. In 2013, the regime took over the area, and didn’t allow a single person to go in. The buildings were not damaged in airstrikes, but they demolished them anyway, razing them to the ground. Then, end of last year [2017], after they forced us out, they demolished our final home. Nothing remains.

Law 10

The law, passed by the Syrian government on April 2, 2018, empowers the government to create redevelopment zones across Syria by decree, with extensive and in some cases formidable requirements for property owners or tenants to qualify to remain or to be compensated when they are required to move for redevelopment.

Following international pressure, the Syrian Foreign Minister confirmed that “indeed, the deadline for proving ownership of a property after the announcement of a re-development zone had been amended and extended to one year.” Diplomats and lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the Syrian government is returning the law for reconsideration in parliament. However, at the time of writing, no legislative amendment to Law 10 had been passed by parliament.

Law No. 10 replaced Decree 66 of 2012, to allow for the redevelopment of areas in the Damascus countryside. Following the passage of Decree 66, Damascus Cham Holding, a public-private partnership between the Syrian government and private investors, was created. On March 27, news reports said that the Damascus provincial council had approved development plans for Basilia city, the second development project, Marota City, the first development project under Decree 66 was announced as far back as 2016. These two projects include parts of Darayya, Kafr Souseh and Mezzeh, towns in the Damascus countryside. In April 2018, following the passage of Law 10, SANA announced that additional parts of Darayya will also be included in redevelopment plans.

International Law

Residents’ right to a home and to adequate housing and property is protected under international law. The treaty body tasked with interpreting the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has found that this must include guarantees of legal protection from forced eviction, including (a) an opportunity for genuine consultation with those affected; (b) adequate and reasonable notice for everyone affected before the scheduled eviction date; and (g) provision of legal remedies, among others.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Arab Charter on Human Rights guarantee the right to property. The Arab Charter states that no one should “under any circumstances be arbitrarily or unlawfully divested of all or any part of their property.” In demolishing private homes and blocking residents’ access to their properties without notice, genuine consultation or providing adequate compensation, due process, or alternative housing, the Syrian government is failing to abide by the requirements, Human Rights Watch said.

Under the UN’s Pinheiro Principles, refugees and internally displaced are also protected from discriminatory housing, land, and restitution laws. These laws must be transparent and consistent. If a refugee or displaced person is unlawfully or arbitrarily denied their property, they are entitled to submit a claim for restitution from an independent and impartial body.

Imposing collective punishment by imposing arbitrary movement restrictions or unlawfully depriving people of their property also violates human rights and humanitarian law. If the Syrian government is blocking access to these areas due to some community members’ prior affiliation with the opposition, then this may constitute collective punishment.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 16, 2018, 4:00 am