A woman picks cotton during the 2015 cotton harvest, which runs from early September to late October or early November annually.

© 2015 Simon Buxton/Anti-Slavery International

Despite recent reforms, systematic forced labor was still rampant in 2017 in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector, new research shows.

A report by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF), a German-based nongovernmental organization, found evidence of a state-sponsored system of forced labor in all regions they monitored during the 2017 harvest. Local officials, under pressure of a quota production system, continued to force people to pick cotton with little accountability.

This research is consistent with findings in a 2016 joint report by UGF and Human Rights Watch documenting labor rights violations that underpin Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, including in areas with World Bank funded cotton sector projects. The new report confirms that forced labor continued in World Bank project areas, contrary to the bank’s loan agreements. While this should be grounds for project suspension, the bank remains heavily invested in projects that benefit Uzbekistan’s cotton sector.

Throughout 2017, Uzbekistan saw significant political change, including on forced labor in the cotton fields. At the UN General Assembly on September 19, 2017, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev acknowledged for the first time publicly the issue of forced labor in his country. The next day, World Bank President Jim Kim raised the issue of forced labor with Mirziyoyev. Several days later, Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov recalled university students and some public sector workers who had been forced to work in the cotton fields.

However, as UGF’s new report makes clear, it is too soon to declare victory. Later in the harvest, many recalled workers were sent back, while others were forced to pay for replacement workers under threat of penalty, a form of extortion.

Kim recently met with Mirziyoyev again and pledged to “advance the government’s efforts to build a brighter future for all the people of Uzbekistan.” This is a good start but the bank needs to follow its words with actions by working with Uzbekistan to develop and implement a time-bound plan to end forced labor in both the fall harvest and spring weeding season, and to develop a roadmap towards accountability for and prevention of labor rights abuses. Now, with signs of Uzbekistan’s political opening, it is more vital than ever that the Bank press for the systematic change required to end Uzbekistan’s use of forced and child labor in the cotton sector.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 25, 2018, 4:27 pm

Today marks the entry into force of the European Union’s General Data Privacy Regulation, a law that will advance your rights and improve privacy protections online. Human Rights Watch has a new privacy policy that you can read here.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 25, 2018, 4:00 am

(Beirut) – Qatar submitted documents to the United Nations on May 21, 2018, to join two core human rights treaties, following cabinet approval on March 14, Human Rights Watch said today. But Qatar’s accession to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights includes formal reservations that will deprive women and migrant workers of the treaties’ protections.

Qatar rejected gender equality provisions in marriage, divorce, and child custody on grounds that they contravene Sharia, or Islamic law. It also declared it would interpret several provisions in line with Sharia, including on defining cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment – avoiding bans on capital and corporal punishment – minimum marriage ages, and freedom of religion. And it said it would interpret the term “trade unions” in accordance with its national law, limiting migrant workers’ rights to form unions.

“Qatar’s accession to these core human rights treaties is an important public commitment to uphold the rights of everyone in the country,” said Belkis Wille, senior Qatar researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But the government undercuts its own actions by falling back on tired and outdated carve-outs to reject equal rights for women and migrant workers.”

Qatar is the third country of the Gulf Cooperation Council states to ratify both covenants, following Kuwait and Bahrain.

Qatar’s reservations relating to equal rights between men and women in marriage, divorce, and child custody are done on religious grounds, a position similar to that of several other countries that cite Sharia or other religious personal status laws for making such reservations. Qatar’s personal status law discriminates against women by requiring a male guardian to approve their marriage. The law gives men a unilateral right to divorce while requiring women to apply to the courts for divorce on limited grounds and women are required to obey their husbands.

Qatar also provides that fathers retain guardianship over their children following divorce even if the mother has custody. In most cases, boys live with their mother until age 13 and girls until age 15, when they automatically move to their father’s custody unless the court rules otherwise or extends the custody in the best interest of the child. Women, but not men, lose custody if they remarry. Under inheritance provisions, female siblings receive half the amount their brothers get.

Qatar also said it will interpret the right to profess and practice one’s own religion so that it “does not violate the rules of public order and public morals, the protection of public safe[t]y and public health, or the rights of and basic freedoms of others.” While people of other faiths can practice their religion in Qatar, the penal code prohibits proselytizing.

Article 116 of Qatar’s Labor Law allows only Qatari nationals the right to form workers’ associations or trade unions. As a result, migrant workers, who make up over 90 percent of the workforce, cannot exercise their rights to freedom of association and to form trade unions. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 25, 2018, 4:00 am

Refugees are seen at the Cox's Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh, near Rakhine state, Myanmar, during a trip by United Nations envoys to the region April 29, 2018. Picture taken on April 29, 2018. 

© 2018 Reuters

The Canadian government is stepping up the call for justice for Myanmar’s embattled ethnic Rohingya population.

On Wednesday, the government announced a series of measures to respond to the Rohingya crisis including supporting a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and measures to preserve evidence of the Myanmar military’s heinous crimes against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.

“Canada will lead the call for justice and work with like-minded governments to explore all avenues to hold perpetrators to account,” said Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. “There can be no impunity for the perpetrators of these horrific crimes.”

The same day, parliament unanimously passed a motion calling on the Trudeau government to “redouble efforts in accountability and evidence-gathering,” publicly support an ICC referral, and impose new sanctions on Myanmar’s military.

There is an urgent need for accountability in Myanmar, where the military launched a campaign of ethnic cleaning in August 2017 involving mass killing, rape, looting, and the destruction of hundreds of villages forcing 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Our research found that military abuses amounted to crimes against humanity.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the United Nations Security Council to refer the crisis in Myanmar – a non-ICC member – to the court because of the government’s failure to investigate these mass atrocities. Canada has now heeded this call by putting forward a comprehensive strategy in response to the crisis. Other countries such as the US, UK, Germany, France, and Australia, which are major donors and have substantial influence in Myanmar, should follow suit to send a strong message to Myanmar’s civilian and military leadership.

Canada also announced that it will support initiatives to collect and preserve evidence of atrocities for future legal proceedings. This accountability mechanism is a critically needed successor to the current UN Fact-Finding Mission, whose mandate expires in September 2018, and would help increase pressure on Myanmar’s leaders to end abuses and abide by international law.

The government also said it would establish a working group of likeminded countries to more effectively coordinate response efforts. This group should include countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Pakistan that are influential regional neighbors. Besides the “likeminded” countries, it will be critical for Canada to work with countries that may be persuadable like Japan and China, both major investors in Rakhine State. These countries have acted as a major firewall for de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the military against coordinated international action and are critical to engage around any accountability efforts. 

The road to justice for the Rohingya is long, but Canada should stay the course so that victims and their families can one day see those responsible for these horrific crimes held to account.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 24, 2018, 5:42 pm

An Amazon.com Inc driver stands next to an Amazon delivery truck in Los Angeles, California, U.S., May 21, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

US law enforcement agencies’ use of Rekognition, an Amazon surveillance system that uses facial recognition powered by artificial intelligence, poses threats to the rights to peaceful assembly and respect for private life, among others.

Human Rights Watch and other organizations have pointed this out in a letter to Amazon expressing strong concerns about the system. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California obtained documents showing the system was marketed to police departments, and highlighted its potential dangers to rights.

We should all be asking exactly how this technology is being used by police in Orlando, Florida, and Washington County, Oregon, as well as how it could be used elsewhere. (Motorola, which sells equipment to law enforcement, also has access.)

But this is only part of the puzzle. People in the US also need to know whether law enforcement agents have been disclosing uses of this technology for criminal investigations to judges and defendants – because if they aren’t doing so, this would prevent courts from evaluating the system’s legality and accuracy.

Human Rights Watch recently published a detailed investigation of “parallel construction,” a practice in which the government conceals its use of a particular investigative technique (such as surveillance) from defendants and judges by deliberately creating an alternative explanation for how a piece of information was found. One of the risks Human Rights Watch identified was that, thanks to this practice, judges might never decide whether new technologies are constitutional and sufficiently minimize any impact on rights.

A bill introduced in Illinois throws the potential consequences of the secret use of technologies such as Rekognition into high relief: If passed, the legislation could empower police to surveil peaceful protesters using drones equipped with facial recognition software. There is always a risk that biased or inadequately trained officers anywhere could single out protesters for investigations simply because they exercised their free-expression rights, and an airborne facial recognition tool could facilitate such conduct.

Concerns over technology like Rekognition are not limited to law enforcement uses. For example, such technology could be employed in the development of fully autonomous weapons (also known as “killer robots”) – which Human Rights Watch is campaigning to outlaw.

US lawmakers and courts need to make sure all government uses of systems relying on biometric data or artificial intelligence respect rights. But they can only do that if they – and we – know about those techniques in the first place.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 24, 2018, 4:22 pm

Head of Protocol and representative of the King of Bahrain, Brigadier Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa (C) inspects an armoured military ballistic helmet during inauguration of Bahrain International Defense Exhibition and Conference at the Bahrain Exhibition Center, Manama. 

© 2017 Reuters
(Washington, DC) – The United States Senate should not approve two proposed arms sales totaling nearly US$1 billion to Bahrain given its government’s dismal record on human rights and relentless persecution of dissidents.
The proposed arms sales, already approved by the US State Department, come amid the continued downward spiral of human rights since anti-government demonstrations in 2011, and Bahrain’s continued participation in the Saudi-led Yemen conflict that has contributed to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. In the past year, Bahrain has sharpened its crackdown on activists, lawyers, and journalists. It has arbitrarily revoked a record number of citizenships of nationals, carried out unfair trials of civilians in military courts, and harassed, intimidated, imprisoned, and prosecuted rights defenders and their family members. This is in addition to widespread ill treatment and torture by security forces and deadly dispersal of peaceful protests, since anti-government protests erupted in 2011.
“These two weapons sales make clear that the Trump administration intends nothing short of a free pass on human rights for Bahrain” said Sarah Margon, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “The US Senate should block all arms sales to Bahrain until, at a minimum, they release all unjustly imprisoned human rights defenders and dissidents, and make clear that a key US ally should not continue in such mass human rights abuses.”
On April 27, 2018, the State Department approved the sale of AH-1Z attack helicopters, missiles, and other military equipment to the kingdom, for an estimated cost of US$911.4 million. This deal comes on the heels of President Donald Trump’s revised policies for conventional arms transfers and drone exports, signed on April 19, that place greater emphasis on US economic interests than human rights.
On May 17, the State Department approved a second weapons’ deal with Bahrain worth up to US$45 million, which included 3,200 bomb bodies to arm Bahrain’s F-16 fighters fleet. In both cases, the Senate was notified of the sales and, under the Arms Export Control Act, has 30 days from the notification date to oppose the deal.
There are significant human rights concerns in both Bahrain’s behavior domestically and its participation in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said. The US should hold off on all arms sales to Bahrain until authorities show they are serious about addressing human rights concerns. That should include releasing all human rights defenders and dissidents serving long jail terms for peaceful expression, and holding accountable officials and security officers who participating in or ordered the widespread torture during interrogations since 2011.
In an early demonstration of the Trump administration’s policy toward human rights and arms sales, in March 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lifted the human rights conditions that the Obama administration had attached to a sale to Bahrain of F-16 fighter jets worth US$2.8 billion.
In June 2017, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker announced that he would hold up all newly announced arms sales to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations until the council found a path to reunification in a dispute between Qatar and other countries. Corker lifted that hold eight months later, in February 2018, allowing for these two sales to Bahrain to proceed, and has said that he does not believe that human rights conditions should be attached to weapons sales as a matter of US policy.
The Saudi-led coalition and party to the conflict in Yemen, has since 2015 conducted thousands of airstrikes in Yemen – including scores that appear to violate the laws of war – contributing to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The coalition has failed to credibly investigate potential war crimes, and coalition members, including Bahrain, have provided insufficient or no information about their role in alleged unlawful attacks.
Available information shows that Bahrain has participated in the military campaign. In March 2015, the Emirati State news agency reported that Bahrain had deployed 15 aircraft to take part in coalition operations and, in December 2015, a Bahraini F-16 jet carrying out coalition operations crashed in Saudi Arabia, the coalition said in a statement.
The human rights situation in Bahrain continues to deteriorate as the government increased a crackdown on critics. The country’s preeminent human rights defenders were either jailed or exiled as the judicial authorities handed down long prison sentences to dissidents accused of speech crimes in trials that did not meet basic due process standards. The government failed to credibly investigate and prosecute officials and police officers who allegedly committed violations, including torture since 2011. Authorities also use excessive and deadly force to disperse peaceful protests, and forcibly disappear people, and hold them in incommunicado detention.
On May 25, 2017, security forces apparently violently raided a sit-in in the village of Diraz. Five  demonstrators died and dozens more were injured.
Bahraini authorities have, since 2012, arbitrarily revoked the citizenship of at least 728 citizens, including human rights defenders, political activists, journalists, and religious scholars, and subjected some of them to arbitrary deportations, according to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), a nongovernmental organization. The vast majority of Bahraini citizens stripped of their citizenship are left effectively stateless and are not given adequate opportunity to meaningfully appeal these rulings.
Authorities in 2017 shut down the country’s only independent newspaper and suspended the activities of the leading secular-left opposition political group Wa’ad. On May 13, 2018, Bahrain’s parliament approved a law barring members of dissolved opposition groups from running in general elections planned for the end of 2018.
The Bahraini government also reversed two of the few previously implemented substantive recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), was established after the 2011 anti-government demonstrations. Authorities in January 2017 restored arrest and investigation powers to the National Security Agency, despite its record of torture during interrogation. And in April 2017, Bahrain’s ruler signed legislation authorizing the trial of civilians before military courts, which contravenes international law.
“Bahrain’s backsliding on human rights should not be rewarded with arms sales that could further entrench repression in Bahrain,” Margon said.
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 24, 2018, 4:00 pm

Russia is proudly about to welcome hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors. In three weeks, fans, journalists and officials will arrive for the FIFA World Cup 2018, one of the most widely watched sporting events in the world. After months of polishing, Moscow, my city, literally sparkles. Street cafes are decorated with artificial grass and welcoming signs, and football paraphernalia is everywhere you look.

Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov gestures from a defendants' box as he attends a court hearing in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, July 21, 2015. 

© 2018 Reuters

But walking through Moscow, I have trouble connecting with the message of sport’s unifying power. A different message plays constantly on my mind: the words spoken ten days ago in a Siberian prison by a Ukrainian filmmaker from Crimea, Oleg Sentsov to his lawyer. Sentsov is serving a 20-year prison term on bogus terrorism charges, following a political show-trial.  On May 14 he went on hunger strike to demand the release of 64 Ukrainians held in Russia and in Crimea on politically motivated charges.  He told his lawyer that if he died during the World Cup, it would help bring attention to their plight. Those who know Oleg well say that he will not back down.

This is the second time in four years that Russia is basking in the global spotlight of a mega sporting event. In 2014, it hosted the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Just weeks before the Games, the Kremlin suddenly and unexpectedly released some of its most high-profile prisoners: the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, several Greenpeace activists, and two members of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot.  The ugly shadow these cases had cast was lifted.

Can the same breakthrough happen for Sentsov? Much has changed since Sochi. Just after Sochi, Russian forces occupied Crimea and started backing the separatists’ war in eastern Ukraine, prompting a new wave of Russian “patriotism” that is growing apace with Russia’s international isolation. Sentsov, a sharp critic of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, was arrested three months after the Sochi Olympics, and Russia increasingly ignores criticism of its deteriorating human rights record. 

Does the Kremlin care enough about international pressure and the shadow cast by Sentsov’s case to free him? Stranger things have happened, and the outrage over his imprisonment has been mounting inside and outside Russia. For the sake of Oleg Sentsov and others jailed for dissent through political manipulation of justice, we can only hope that Russia still cares about its international image enough to realize that the only right thing to do is to release them immediately.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 24, 2018, 3:10 pm

Congolese Special Prosecutor Toussaint Muntazini (R) and the five other judges of the Special Criminal Court (SCC)—which is to investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in the Central African Republic since 2003—sit at the National Assembly in Bangui, having been sworn in on June 30, 2017. 

© 2017 Saber Jendoubi/AFP/Getty Images

(Bangui) – The Central African Republic’s Parliament should swiftly adopt the rules of procedure and evidence for the country’s Special Criminal Court, 40 Central African organizations, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and Human Rights Watch said in a letter to members of parliament released today. The court cannot proceed with investigations and trials until the rules of procedure and evidence are in place to govern the court’s operations.

The Special Criminal Court is a new court based in the Central African Republic’s domestic justice system that operates with international participation and support. The court has a mandate to try war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the Central African Republic since 2003. It was established by law in 2015, but the appointment of the special prosecutor, judges, and a chief register began in 2017.

“The Special Criminal Court offers a landmark opportunity to break the cycles of impunity that drive violence in the Central African Republic,” said Maître Mathias Barthélémy Morouba, president of the Central African Human Rights Observatory. “The recent violence in Bangui shows that, five years into this conflict, armed groups still feel they can kill and terrorize civilians without consequence.”

The organizations are holding a news conference on May 24, 2018, in Bangui, the capital, on the need to adopt the rules of procedure and evidence without delay and distributed their letter seeking their adoption to all members of parliament. The rules were sent to parliament on May 15 amid the worst fighting in the capital since 2015.

The rules include key provisions for ensuring respect for the rights of the accused, protection of witnesses, engagement by victims, and the potential for reparations. The rules as presented should be adopted swiftly to enable the court to advance its core operations, the groups said.

Many of the organizations participated in consultations on a draft of the rules, during a workshop in Bangui in October 2017. During the workshop, lawyers, judges, and human rights defenders exchanged views on the text. The draft rules were subsequently revised based on those discussions and other input.

The work of the new court complements two investigations opened by the International Criminal Court into crimes committed in the Central African Republic, as well as investigations by the country’s regular national justice system.

“We have already waited too long to see justice for atrocity crimes,” said Monsieur Hervé Séverin Lidamon, president of the Victims’ Association for the 2012-2014 Events. “Parliament is in a position to send a strong message to current and would-be perpetrators: prepare to be held accountable for your actions.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 24, 2018, 9:00 am

A Rohingya woman walks through Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, March 22, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

(Yangon) – Myanmar should comply with a United Nations committee’s request for information on the military’s responsibility for widespread rape of Rohingya women and girls in northern Rakhine State, Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights said today. The two groups provided the committee with an 11-page joint report on sexual violence committed by Myanmar’s security forces against Rohingya villagers in 2016 and 2017.

In November 2017, the independent expert committee monitoring implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), a global women’s rights treaty, requested the Myanmar government submit a report on the situation of women and girls from northern Rakhine State by May 28, 2018. The CEDAW committee has only requested such an “exceptional report” three times previously.

“The CEDAW committee’s rare request for Myanmar to report on sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls outside normal reporting procedures shows the extreme nature of the military’s mass atrocities,” said Skye Wheeler, women’s rights emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should cease its shameless denials and start openly cooperating with international monitors.”

The CEDAW committee request followed numerous reports of Myanmar army-led attacks on Rohingya Muslims, including mass killings, rape and other sexual violence, and widespread arson in hundreds of predominantly Rohingya villages, forcing more than 717,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017.

The joint report by Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights includes information based on hundreds of interviews with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, including 37 women and girls who were raped in August and September 2017, mostly by gangs of uniformed soldiers. Witnesses and survivors also saw many other women and girls raped in groups, which amounted to patterns of gang rapes, as well as biting, kicking, and other physical abuse. Many recounted soldiers killing their elderly parents or children, including by throwing their infants into fires.

The CEDAW committee’s rare request shows the extreme nature of the Myanmar military’s mass atrocities.

Skye Wheeler

Women’s Rights Emergencies Researcher, Human Rights Watch

“I was held down by six men and raped by five of them,” said a 33-year-old Rohingya woman. “First, [the soldiers] killed my brother.… [They] stuck a knife into my side and kept it there while the men were raping me. That was how they kept me in place.… I was trying to move and [the wound] was bleeding more.”

The CEDAW committee requested that Myanmar’s government provide information on the battalions that carried out the attacks in northern Rakhine State and their commanding officers. As a party to CEDAW, Myanmar is required to report on its implementation of the convention, including in the case of exceptional reports, which are requested in situations where there is “reliable and adequate information indicating grave or systematic violations of women’s human rights.”

Myanmar’s government claims it instructs its security forces to respect military codes of conduct that forbid rape. It has repeatedly denied that its forces committed rape, including through biased investigations that lack credibility. A Rakhine State minister responded to reports of sexual violence against Rohingya last year by saying: “Look at those women who are making these claims – would anyone want to rape them?”

“Myanmar’s security forces used brutal gang rapes to terrify and injure as part of their ongoing attack on the Rohingya population,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer at Fortify Rights. “The authorities’ denials, essentially saying Rohingya women are liars, compound the terrible harms inflicted.”

The CEDAW committee also requested that the Myanmar government report on any efforts to provide justice and other reparations to sexual violence victims, as well as on access to sexual and reproductive health care for Rohingya women and girls. Successive Myanmar governments have persecuted the Rohingya for decades, denying them citizenship rights, freedom of movement, and equal access to education and health care.

CEDAW should call on the Myanmar government to:

Ensure unimpeded access for humanitarian aid organizations, journalists, and human rights monitors in Rakhine State
Immediately repeal all discriminatory laws and cease practices that restrict the marriage, movement, childbirth, and livelihoods of Rohingya
Ensure full access to quality sexual and reproductive health care, including prenatal care and emergency obstetric care

Sexual violence, like torture, is often followed by long-term trauma and serious mental health consequences including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Rohingya survivors of sexual violence and other attacks should be able to access long-term health care services as well as a path to justice and voluntary, dignified, and safe return to their homes.

International condemnation and calls for independent, rigorous investigations have been growing. In April 2018, the Myanmar army was included on the UN secretary-general’s “list of shame,” a register of national armed forces and armed groups whose members are credibly suspected of carrying out sexual violence.

The Myanmar government has continued to deny the UN Fact-Finding Mission and UN special rapporteurs access to northern Rakhine State. The authorities also continue to obstruct the delivery of humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations.

“Myanmar has repeatedly ignored international calls for information and access,” Smith said. “The CEDAW committee’s report request was an important step, but the UN should now ramp up its pressure on the government to end its atrocities against women and girls as well as its denials of abuses ever taking place.”

Burmese security forces have committed widespread rape against women and girls as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine State.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 24, 2018, 4:00 am

People shout slogans outisde the Tamil Nadu House during a protest, after at least 10 people were killed when police fired on protesters seeking closure of plant on environmental grounds in town of Thoothukudi in southern state of Tamil Nadu, in New Delhi, India on May 23, 2018.
© 2018 Reuters/Adnan Abidi
(New York) – Authorities in India’s Tamil Nadu state should conduct a prompt, impartial, and transparent investigation into the police shooting of protesters against a copper plant that left at least 12 dead and 80 injured, Human Rights Watch said today. Television news video footage shows two plainclothes men firing at protesters from atop a police van during a demonstration on May 22, 2018.

Since February, residents of the port city of Tuticorin have protested against the expansion of a copper smelting plant and demanded its closure because of environmental concerns. Previous protests have largely been peaceful. On May 22, protesters clashed with police after being prevented from marching to the offices of the local administration. Police said they were compelled to respond with live ammunition after demonstrators pelted police with stones, attacked a government building, and set vehicles on fire.

“The police have a duty during protests to maintain law and order, but lethal force can only be used if there is an imminent threat to life,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Tamil Nadu authorities need to carry out a prompt and credible investigation to determine if police used excessive force and hold those responsible to account.”

Tamil Nadu authorities need to carry out a prompt and credible investigation to determine if police used excessive force and hold those responsible to account.

Meenakshi Ganguly

South Asia Director

The Tamil Nadu government said that the police had to take action “under unavoidable circumstances” to bring the violence under control. ​Protests have continued, with one person reportedly killed by a rubber bullet and dozens injured on May 23. The government has ordered an internet shutdown for five days in three districts.

Following widespread condemnation of the killings, the state chief minister has ordered an inquiry and announced compensation of 10 lakh rupees (US$14,600) to each of the families of those who died.

Sterlite Copper, a business unit of Vedanta, a United Kingdom-based multinational mining and metals conglomerate, set up the copper smelting plant in 1996. Residents living in towns and villages nearby have long alleged that the plant had damaged their health, water, and environment.

In 2013, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board directed Sterlite to temporarily shut down its copper plant following allegations of a gas leak. Days later, India’s Supreme Court ordered the company to pay damages of 100 crore rupees ($15 million) for environmental rehabilitation measures.

In an official statement reported in the media, Sterlite Copper said: “It's with great sorrow and regret that we witnessed today’s incidents around the protest today at Tuticorin. The company has appealed to government and authorities to ensure safety of our employees, facilities, and surrounding communities. Sterlite Copper plant is non-operational as we await approval for the consent to operate.”

On May 23, the Madras High Court, in an interim order, stayed the expansion of Sterlite Copper’s industrial unit.

The Indian government should publicly order the police to abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The Basic Principles state that law enforcement officials shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.” Furthermore, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

The Basic Principles further provide that, “[i]n cases of death and serious injury or other grave consequences, a detailed report shall be sent promptly to the competent authorities.” The findings of the investigation should be public and result in appropriate disciplinary action or prosecution.

“It’s important that the Tamil Nadu authorities respond to protests in accordance with international law, but they should also be addressing concerns raised about health and environmental harms,” Ganguly said. “Protest organizers should take steps to deter supporters from engaging in violence, including attacks on law enforcement officers.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 24, 2018, 12:20 am

Pro-democracy activist Rome Rangsiman (C) holds up a Thailand flag as anti-government protesters gather during a protest to demand that the military government hold a general election by November, in Bangkok, Thailand on May 22, 2018.
© 2018 Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha
(New York) – Thai authorities should immediately drop all charges and unconditionally release 14 pro-democracy activists who peacefully expressed opposition to military rule, Human Rights Watch said today. The 14 are charged with sedition, which carries a maximum seven-year prison term, and violating the military junta’s ban on political gatherings of more than five people.

“The arrest of peaceful democracy activists calling for free and fair elections shows that Thailand’s military junta has no intention of easing its oppressive rule,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Gagging peaceful public protests makes a mockery of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s self-proclaimed commitment to return Thailand to democracy.”

The arrest of peaceful democracy activists calling for free and fair elections shows that Thailand’s military junta has no intention of easing its oppressive rule.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

On May 22, 2018, a peaceful rally was held in front of the United Nations compound in Bangkok to mark the fourth anniversary of the 2014 military coup. Police broke up the rally and arrested leaders and members of the “We Want Election” movement after they read a statement calling for the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to lift all restrictions on fundamental freedoms and hold promised elections.

The 14 pro-democracy activists being held at Phayathai Police Station and Chanasongkram Police Station in Bangkok are: Nuttaa Mahattana, Chonthicha Jangrew, Anon Numpa, Rangsiman Rome, Sirawith Seritiwat, Piyarat Chongthep, Ekachai Hongkangwan, Chokchai Paiboonratchata, Kiri Khanthong, Putthaising Pimchan, Roj Trong-ngarmrak, Viset Sangkhavisit, Pattarapol Jankot, and Prasong Wangwan.

International human rights law, as reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Thailand in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But since the May 2014 coup, the junta has routinely enforced censorship and blocked public discussions about the state of human rights and democracy in Thailand. Hundreds of activists and dissidents have been prosecuted on criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for the peaceful expression of their views. Public gatherings of more than five people and pro-democracy activities are prohibited. Thousands have been summoned and pressured to stop making political comments against the junta.

International pressure is urgently needed to press for a speedy transition to civilian democratic rule in Thailand.

“With each new politically motivated arrest, Thailand’s path toward democracy is fading,” Adams said. “Governments around the world should press the junta to set a firm date for elections and allow people and political parties to organize and express their visions for the future of the country.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 23, 2018, 10:34 pm

South Korean police officers stand guard in front of the Constitutional Court in Seoul, South Korea on March 10, 2017. 
© 2017 Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji
(Seoul) – Criminalization of abortion is incompatible with South Korea’s human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said today in an amicus brief to the Constitutional Court of Korea. The court will hear a case on May 24, 2018, involving the country’s laws on abortion. The court should decriminalize abortion, and authorities should ensure that safe and legal abortion is accessible.

South Korea’s laws provide that procuring or providing an abortion in most circumstances is a crime. A woman who undergoes an abortion risks a prison sentence of up to a year or a fine of up to 2 million won (US$1,850). Healthcare workers who provide abortions can face up to two years in prison, though there are exceptions in cases of rape or incest if the pregnancy is between blood relatives who cannot marry legally, if continuing the pregnancy is likely to jeopardize the woman’s health, or if the woman or her spouse has certain hereditary or communicable diseases. Married women must have their spouse’s permission for an abortion.

“South Korean women are being denied reproductive choices that should be their right,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director. “South Korea should remove all penalties for women who seek an abortion and their medical providers, and ensure access to safe, legal abortion.”

International human rights treaties require governments to respect women’s reproductive and other human rights. Authoritative interpretations of these treaties by United Nations experts have said that governments should eliminate criminal penalties for abortion and take steps to ensure that legal abortion is accessible. The experts also have said that other barriers to abortion should be removed, including requirements for spousal consent.

The criminalization of abortion in South Korea negatively affects many human rights, Human Rights Watch said. The amicus brief to the Constitutional Court analyzes its impact on women’s rights to life, health, nondiscrimination and equality, privacy, information, and freedom from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, as well as the right to decide the number and spacing of their children.

UN human rights bodies and experts have criticized South Korea’s punitive restrictions on abortion and have urged the government to modify these laws. In December 2017, a report by the UN working group on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of human rights conditions for South Korea said that it should “[r]espect reproductive rights of women, which include decriminalization of abortions” and “[r]emove all penalties for women who seek abortion, and for doctors and other medical personnel involved in providing these services.”

In March 2018, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women urged South Korea to “legalize abortion in cases of rape, incest, threats to the life and/or health of the pregnant woman, or severe fetal impairment, and to decriminalize it in all other cases, remove punitive measures for women who undergo abortion, and provide women with access to quality post-abortion care, especially in cases of complications resulting from unsafe abortions.” The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) made similar recommendations in 2017, as did the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 2012.

Unsafe abortions pose a grave threat to the health of women and girls. According to a 2017 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Guttmacher Institute, 25 million unsafe abortions occurred every year between 2010 and 2014. The WHO has noted that the removal of restrictions on abortion results in reduction of maternal mortality.

“South Korea’s Constitutional Court should protect women’s health and safety by ruling in accordance with international law,” Gerntholtz said. “Decisions about abortion belong to a pregnant woman, without penalty or interference by the government or anyone else.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 23, 2018, 10:10 pm

Vasila Inoyatova, chairwoman of Ezgulik and Abdurakhman Tashanov, deputy chairperson of Ezgulik together with human rights activist Bobomurod Razzakov, Ezgulik’s Bukhara representative, on the day of his release from prison on October 25, 2016.

© Ezgulik
(Bishkek) – Vasila Inoyatova, an Uzbek human rights activist who died of medical complications on May 19, 2018, at age 62, made an unassailable contribution to Uzbekistan’s human rights movement and nascent democracy, Human Rights Watch said today. She was the founder and chairwoman of Ezgulik (Compassion)¸ one of Uzbekistan’s most prominent independent human rights organizations.

“Vasila Inoyatova fiercely defended human rights and spoke truth to power even during the darkest times in Uzbekistan,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Inoyatova’s commitment to human rights in Uzbekistan came at a great personal cost to her and her loved ones, but she always managed to pursue justice with passion, warmth, and a devilish sense of humor.”

In 1990, as movements for national autonomy and democracy were emerging across the Soviet Union, Inoyatova joined the political movement Birlik (Unity). After Uzbekistan’s independence in 1991, Birlik became one of the country’s leading opposition political parties with Inoyatova as its general secretary. She led the party until she formed Ezgulik in 2002.

Ezgulik is Uzbekistan’s only registered independent human rights group, with representatives and activists in all areas of the country. Under Inoyatova’s leadership, Ezgulik has reported on issues including forced labor, torture, access to justice, and the right to a fair trial, and conducted prison visits to journalists, activists, and others jailed on political grounds. Ezgulik was a vital resource for international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, often helping link victims of abuses with diplomats, reporters, and other nongovernmental organizations.

The Uzbek government repeatedly harassed Inoyatova and her organization.

Following Uzbekistan’s Andijan massacre in May 2005, when Uzbek government forces shot and killed hundreds of largely peaceful protesters, Uzbek authorities arrested and imprisoned numerous rights activists and reporters, including many of Inoyatova’s Ezgulik colleagues. Despite enormous government pressure, Inoyatova continued to speak out about abuses and the Andijan massacre.

Near the end of the rule of Uzbekistan’s late president Islam Karimov, Inoyatova successfully persuaded Uzbek prison authorities to allow her and her colleagues to visit long-held political prisoners, several of whom had been isolated and without contact with the wider world for over a decade. After Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed the presidency in September 2016, the government began to release some political prisoners. Inoyatova travelled to meet many of them as they left prison, welcoming them home.

“Inoyatova’s untimely death is an immeasurable loss, especially at a time when there’s a possibility for the first time in many years to push for positive change in Uzbekistan,” Swerdlow said. “We owe Vasila a huge debt of gratitude for her courageous work and will keep her memory alive in the years to come.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 23, 2018, 9:00 pm

Tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh are at imminent risk of landslides. Bangladesh authorities, with the assistance of the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies, should urgently relocate refugees to safer ground. 

(Cox’s Bazar) – Tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh are at imminent risk of landslides, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing a new online video. Bangladesh authorities, with the assistance of the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies, should urgently relocate refugees to safer ground.

Thousands of hand-built tarpaulin and bamboo shelters are threatened by strong winds and cyclones during the coming monsoon season. Rohingya refugees living on the steep, deforested slopes of sand and clay in the Kutupalong-Balukhali camps face added dangers of landslides. Altogether over 700,000 recent Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are living in camps in Bangladesh.

“The situation in the Rohingya camps is a disaster waiting to happen,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Already, after a few bouts of rain, some shelters were blown away and the narrow paths are slippery and dangerous.”

A landslide in the Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh on May 18, 2018 washed away a shelter housing 17 Rohingya refugees, all of whom were unharmed.

© 2018 Bill Frelick/Human Rights Watch
A landslide on May 18, 2018, in a densely packed area in Camp 11, washed away a hut that housed three families, numbering a total of 17 people, who were unharmed. Nobi Hassan, the head of one of those families, told Human Rights Watch that he asked the appointed local leader to relocate them to a safer place, but was told they had to stay in the same block. He said there is no space left in that block and all the other huts were also precariously situated.

“Many Rohingya want to return to Myanmar if their rights and identity are respected, but sadly that won’t happen anytime soon,” Frelick said. “In the meantime, people like Nobi Hassan and his family desperately need a safe place to live.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 23, 2018, 8:00 pm

Policemen detain opposition supporters during a protest ahead of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration ceremony, Moscow, Russia May 5, 2018. 

© 2018 Reuters

This afternoon, a court in Moscow sentenced the press secretary of Russia’s leading opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, to 25 days in jail for “repeated violation” of regulations on public rallies, an administrative offense.

The charges against Kira Yarmysh, the press secretary, stem from her social media posts calling on people to join the May 5 country-wide “He’s Not our Tsar” protests, two days before Vladimir Putin’s inauguration for his fourth presidential term.

Yarmysh was arrested on May 22 at the police station where she had rushed to try to secure the release of Ruslan Shaveddinov, one of Navalny’s key campaigners, arrested by police earlier that same day. Police detained Yarmysh and kept her overnight. During that time, a court sentenced Shaveddinov to 30 days of jail time – also related to social media posts about the protests.

Navalny supporters organized around 90 “He’s Not Our Tsar” protests across Russia. In 43 cities, local authorities refused to authorize the rallies. In 17, local authorities told organizers to hold their rallies at remote and inconvenient locations. Ultimately, police detained around 1,600 peaceful protesters, including 158 children, in 27 cities.

In some cases, police officers used excessive force against young protesters. In Saratov, police detained a 12-year-old boy who was peacefully chanting slogans with other protesters. Two plainclothes officials twisted the boy’s hands behind his back and dragged him into a police car. His father, who picked him up from a police station an hour later, was issued a charge sheet for “neglecting parental duties,” for not preventing his son from attending an unauthorized protest. We interviewed a 14-year-old whom police detained at the Moscow protest. He spent over two and half hours locked in a police bus and then several hours at the precinct before his parents – who were also charged with “neglecting parental duties” – could retrieve him.

Among those detained in Moscow was Navalny himself. He’s also currently serving 30 days in jail for “repeated” violations of rallies regulations. All in all, 15 members of Navalny’s team, including Yarmysh, are under short-term arrest on similar charges. Under Russian law, repeat violations of regulations on public rallies could ultimately lead to five years in prison. Given Russia’s flagrant disregard for its international obligations to respect freedom of assembly, one cannot but fear this could be the next step in the government’s increasing crackdown on the opposition.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 23, 2018, 6:03 pm

Congolese Special Prosecutor Toussaint Muntazini (R) and the five other judges of the Special Criminal Court (SCC)—which is to investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in the Central African Republic since 2003—sit at the National Assembly in Bangui, having been sworn in on June 30, 2017. 

© 2017 Saber Jendoubi/AFP/Getty Images

Governments across Africa should take note of developments in the Central African Republic to deliver justice to victims of grave crimes committed in the country.

The Special Criminal Court (SCC), established in 2015, is a domestic court that operates with significant international support. The court is staffed by international judges, prosecutors, and administrators, who work alongside practitioners from the Central African Republic. The United Nations is contributing to the court’s security, staff recruitment, the training of investigators, and witness protection. (We examine the court in a report released last week.)

Too often, countries that suffer widespread atrocities lack the capacity or the will to try such crimes. The SCC is an example of how governments can demonstrate commitment to victims by teaming up with international partners to work to overcome the challenges. Also, trials at – or close to – home can have more impact and resonance than trials in distant courthouses.

Trying war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Central African Republic will not be easy. The court will need to manage security challenges—armed groups still control large parts of the country and violence has recently resurfaced in the capital, Bangui. The court also needs far more funding from donors to succeed.

The court has made important progress. Key staff – including the special prosecutor, chief registrar, investigators, and judges – are now in place and working out of make-shift premises in Bangui. Outreach about the court’s work with local communities has begun. If the court can conduct credible prosecutions of atrocities, it would represent a major break from the country’s troubled history of violence driven by impunity.

The SCC will also operate alongside the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC has two investigations in the Central African Republic, which were referred by the government, and is likely to prosecute a few highest-level perpetrators.

The SCC will not be a cure for all that ails the Central African Republic, but it could help put the country on the right track. Lack of justice is fueling further crimes there, as it has in many different countries. To achieve lasting peace, accountability for the many grave international crimes that civilians suffered is crucial. 

Governments across the globe who need to grapple with grave crimes committed in their countries should see the SCC as a model they can explore to hold their perpetrators to account.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 23, 2018, 5:34 pm

Thousands of children and adults with disabilities in Brazil are needlessly confined to institutions, where they may face neglect and abuse. Brazil should make it a priority to provide support for people with disabilities to live independently and in their communities, rather than in institutions. 

(Rio de Janeiro) – Thousands of children and adults with disabilities in Brazil are needlessly confined to institutions, where they may face neglect and abuse, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Brazil should make it a priority to provide support for people with disabilities to live independently and in their communities, rather than in institutions.

The 83-page report, “‘They Stay until They Die’: A Lifetime of Isolation and Neglect in Institutions for People with Disabilities in Brazil,” found that many people with disabilities enter institutions as children and remain there for their entire lives. Most of these institutions visited by Human Rights Watch researchers did not provide for more than people’s basic needs, such as food and hygiene, with scarce contact with the community and little opportunity for personal development. Some residents are tied to their beds and given sedatives to control them.

“Many people with disabilities in Brazil are locked away in institutions in abysmal conditions, with no control over their lives,” said Carlos Ríos-Espinosa, senior disability rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The government of Brazil should make sure that people with disabilities have the support they need to live in the community just like everyone else.”

This report is based on 171 interviews with people with disabilities, including 10 children, as well as family members, institution staff, experts on disability rights, and authorities from all levels of government, as well as visits to 19 institutions in the states of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Bahia, and the Federal District.

Many institutions have a detention-center like atmosphere, Human Rights Watch found. Some have bars on their doors and windows. Conditions are often inhumane, with dozens of people crammed into rooms filled with beds packed tightly together. Most adults and children with disabilities in the institutions visited had few, if any, personal items. In some cases, the residents shared clothes, and in one institution even toothbrushes. Many people were confined to their beds or rooms around the clock.

Most children with disabilities in institutions received very limited education – or none. Research has shown that children’s physical, intellectual, and emotional development can be damaged by the absence of a one-to-one relationship with a caregiver. Most children in institutions Human Rights Watch visited have a living parent but over time often lose contact with their families.  

“Too often children with disabilities end up in Brazil’s institutions because families struggle to take care of them without resources and adequate community services,” Ríos-Espinosa said. “All children have the right to grow up in a family, and government resources should support families and children, not tear them apart.”

In Brazil, judges determine the placement of a child in an institution in exceptional cases when the child is at risk of abandonment, neglect, or violence, and there are no alternative solutions. But children with disabilities end up staying in institutions much longer than the legal limit of 18 months, often indefinitely. Although Brazil has foster care and adoption, these options should be developed further, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch found numerous cases in which people with disabilities had been living in institutions all their lives, among them a 70-year-old man with an intellectual disability who had lived there since he was 5.

Many adults in institutions are deprived of their liberty in violation of Brazil’s obligations under international law because a guardian has placed them there, without their consent, and they have no right to contest their institutionalization. At the request of a relative or an institution director, courts can strip people with disabilities of their legal capacity, or the right to make decisions for themselves. A guardian then makes all decisions for the person, including in some cases to place them in an institution. Once there, they can’t leave unless the guardian agrees.

Most people in institutions are not allowed to make even everyday choices such as what and when to eat, who to socialize with, what television program to watch, or whether to go out and participate in a leisure activity.

Carolina [not her real name], 50, suffered a spine injury because of domestic violence that left her with a permanent physical disability. Her sons then placed her in an institution near Brasília. She described her life: “This place is very bad, it is like a prison. I don’t want to stay here. I’m obliged to be here. My sons don’t want to support me at home. I never go outside. I would like to go out, away from here. It’s my dream. When you come like this [with a disability], it’s over.”

In one institution in Salvador, an 18-year-old man with a progressive disability that gradually weakened the muscles in his legs had difficulty leaving the room he shared with another person. He did not have a wheelchair and moving on his own was extremely painful. Although the institution was just 200 meters from the sea, he was unable to go to the beach and said that his dream was to “see the sea.”

Many institution managers said they did not have adequate staff to provide individualized attention to residents, including children. Most institutions in Brazil are privately run. Nearly 70 percent have partnerships with municipal governments, according to the Ministry of Social Development response to the Human Rights Watch findings.

Under the international Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which Brazil has ratified, governments must respect the inherent dignity of people with disabilities by acknowledging them as people on an equal basis with others. This includes ensuring that people with disabilities can live independently in the community and not segregated and confined in institutions. Under the treaty, governments must also prevent discrimination and abuse against people with disabilities and remove barriers that prevent their full inclusion in society. All children, including children with disabilities, have a right to grow up in a family. No child should be separated from their parents because of a disability or poverty.

“Institutionalizing people with disabilities is dehumanizing,” Ríos-Espinosa said. “There is an entrenched belief that at least some people with disabilities need to live in institutions, but that simply isn’t true. Shutting people with disabilities away in institutions is one of the worst forms of exclusion and discrimination.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 23, 2018, 8:55 am

Then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a graduation ceremony at King Faisal Air College in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 25, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters


Saudi authorities have released two of the leading women’s rights activists, Aisha al-Manea on May 23 and Hessa al-Sheikh on May 24. Both were arrested the previous week but not named in the local state media campaign accusing those detained of treason. The conditions of their release have not been made public. Among those still detained are Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, Mohammed al-Rabea, and Ibrahim al-Modaimeegh. Saudi activists have said that others arrested but not identified in government-aligned media include Madeha al-Ajroush and Walaa al-Shubbar. Saudi activists have told Human Rights Watch that the detainees are being held incommunicado.

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities have accused seven recently detained women’s rights activists and others associated with the women’s rights movement of serious crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. A statement issued by the Presidency of the State Security cited possible charges for “suspicious contact with foreign parties” and undermining the “security and stability” of the state that appear to be directly based on their activism.

The Presidency of the State Security was created by King Salman shortly after he named his son, Mohammad bin Salman, crown prince in June 2017, and reports directly to the king’s office. Within days of the activists’ arrests, pro-government newspapers and social media accounts launched an alarming and apparently coordinated campaign against them, branding them “traitors.” Saudi activists say at least four other women’s rights defenders have also been arrested since May 15, 2018, bringing the total suspected number of detainees to at least 11.

“The crown prince, who has styled himself as a reformer with Western allies and investors, should be thanking the activists for their contributions to the Saudi women’s rights movement,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, the Saudi authorities appear to be punishing these women’s rights champions for promoting a goal bin Salman alleges to support – ending discrimination against women.”

Local state media outlets identified the long-time rights advocates Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, and Eman al-Nafjan, along with Mohammad al-Rabea, an activist, and Ibrahim al-Modaimeegh, a human rights lawyer, among those arrested. It is not clear if the detained activists have been charged with the offenses the State Security cited.

Saudi activists told Human Rights Watch that the seriousness of the allegations and the viciousness of the deeply personalized media campaign are unprecedented and shocking. Saudi Arabia’s Okaz newspaper reported that those arrested could face up to 20 years in prison. Al-Jazirah, a local daily newspaper, published a photo of al-Hathloul and al-Yousef on its front page under a headline describing them as citizens who betrayed the state. A pro-government Twitter account posted images of those arrested with the word “traitor” splattered in red across their faces. Saudi Arabia does not permit any independent media to operate in the country.

Several of the detained activists are best known for campaigning against the ban on women driving and publicly advocating abolishing the male guardianship system, which gives men the authority to make a range of critical decisions on behalf of their female relatives. Their arrests come ahead of the anticipated lifting of a ban on women driving on June 24.

Saudi rights defenders said that in September 2017, the day the lifting of the ban was announced, officials working for the king’s office (also known as al-Diwan al-Malaki in Arabic) had phoned prominent activists, including some of those now detained, and warned them not to speak to the media.

Al-Yousef, 60, is a retired professor of computer science at King Saud University, and a leading activist in the longstanding campaign against the male guardianship system. Under this system, women need the permission of their male guardian – who may be their father, husband, brother, or even son – to apply for a passport, travel outside the country, study abroad on a government scholarship, get married, or even leave prison.

Al-Nafjan, 39, is an assistant professor of linguistics at a university in Riyadh, and the author of a popular blog on Saudi society, culture, and women’s rights. She has written about women’s rights for numerous international media, including the New York Times and the Guardian. In 2013, al-Yousef and al-Nafjan protested the driving ban by filming as they drove by police stations in Riyadh and were both briefly detained.

Saudi authorities detained al-Hathloul, 28, in November 2014, as she attempted to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates while live-streaming to bring international attention to the issue. She was held in a juvenile detention center for 73 days. She has built a significant social media following since then, with over 300,000 followers on Twitter, which has widespread popularity in Saudi Arabia.

Mohammad bin Salman has offered rhetorical support for women’s rights reforms, especially during his whirlwind public relations tour in the United States and Europe promoting business opportunities and promising “a return to moderate Islam.” During his interview with 60 Minutes on March 19, he said: “Saudi women still have not received their full rights. There are rights stipulated in Islam that they still don’t have. We have come a very long way and have a short way to go.”

Such reforms have so far been limited. In addition to planning to lift the driving ban, the authorities have allowed women to hold jobs previously closed to them, such as air traffic control, border control, and traffic police. However, the male guardianship system, the most serious impediment to women’s rights, remains largely intact.

Moreover, Mohammad bin Salman has overseen a widespread crackdown on prominent activists, lawyers, and human rights defenders, which has intensified since he began consolidating control over the country’s security institutions.

In mid-September 2017, Saudi authorities arrested dozens of people, including prominent clerics and intellectuals, in what appeared to be a coordinated crackdown on dissent. Other Saudi activists and dissidents are serving long prison terms based solely on their peaceful activism, including Waleed Abu al-Khair, Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Abdullah al-Hamid, Fadhil al-Manasif, Sulaiman al-Rashoodi, Abdulkareem al-Khodr, Fowzan al-Harbi, Raif Badawi, Saleh al-Ashwan, Abdulrahman al-Hamid, Zuhair Kutbi, Alaa Brinji, and Nadhir al-Majed.

“Every government that believed that the Saudi crown prince is a reformer and a champion for women should demand the immediate and unconditional release of all human rights activists,” Whitson said. “It’s not real reform if it takes place in a dystopia where rights activists are imprisoned, and freedom of expression exists just for those who publicly malign them.”


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 23, 2018, 6:26 am

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel talks with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban before a photo at the European Union Tallinn Digital Summit in Tallinn, Estonia, September 29, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

You might think Germany’s leading Christian Democrat parties have little to prove regarding their commitment to democratic values. But there is a serious gap: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its closest coalition partner the Christian Social Union (CSU) have yet to vigorously challenge the rights-damaging policies of their ally, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The silence of the European People’s Party (EPP), the umbrella of center-right parties in European institutions to which CDU, CSU as well as Hungary’s Fidesz belong, has only emboldened Orban at home and abroad. It’s time for the CDU and the CSU to seriously reconsider their ties with Orban’s Fidesz before it further damages democracy in Europe.

Fidesz is relentlessly using populist, xenophobic campaigns, and smearing journalists and nongovernmental organizations that expose rights violations and high-level corruption. The vilification of Hungarian-born philanthropist and billionaire George Soros – declared public enemy number one now for years – is part of wider Fidesz’s efforts to slur critics and reduce space for debate.

Right after the recent legislative election, pro-government weekly Figyelo published a list of 200 academics, journalists and civil society actors and labelled them ‘Soros mercenaries’. The list included staff members of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Amnesty International, the anti-corruption organization Transparency International and others.

In the past two years, the Hungarian government adopted laws aimed at silencing critics. A 2017 law requires nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign funding to register as a foreign-funded organization or face sanctions – a provision inspired by Russia’s ‘Foreign Agent’ Law. Hungary’s government looks set to fulfil Orban’s campaign pledge to pass a new legislative package aimed at hindering nongovernmental organizations working on migration and curb their access to funds. Parliament is just starting its general debate on the draft bills.

Last week, the Open Society Foundation, an organization funded by Soros which has been distributing grants to local nongovernmental organizations for decades decided to move its international operations from Budapest to Berlin citing the “increasingly repressive political and legal environment in Hungary.”

CDU and CSU leaders now have a choice: Either they tolerate Fidesz’s abusive ideology and let it spread within the EPP umbrella; or they decide to reject Fidesz and take the lead in suspending the party from their European platform. With the campaign we launch today, we call on them to protect democracy and European values: it’s high time to #ExpelFidesz from EPP.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 23, 2018, 4:01 am

(Tunis) – Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission sent its first criminal case stemming from the country’s 2011 uprising, for trial before a system of special courts on May 18, 2018, Human Rights Watch said today.

The case sent to the Specialized Chamber of the Court of the city of Kasserine, concerns the killing of 20 protesters and the wounding of 16 others by gunfire in the towns of Kasserine and Tala, during the 2011 uprising. Military courts first tried these cases in 2012 and 2014, in flawed trials that resulted in lenient sentences.

“More than seven years after the killings, reopening these cases provides a new opportunity for victims and survivors to see justice done for their suffering,” said Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is a significant step in Tunisia’s troubled path toward transitional justice.”

The Kasserine Chamber is one of 13 established by Tunisia’s transitional justice law in governorates across the country to try human rights violations committed under the presidencies of Habib Bourguiba, from 1956 to 1987, and his successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

During Tunisia’s popular uprising, which toppled Ben Ali in January 2011, security forces killed 132 protesters and injured hundreds more across the country. Many of the deaths and injuries, between December 17, 2010 and January 14, 2011, documented by Human Rights Watch, resulted from the security forces’ use of unjustifiable lethal force.

The First Instance Military Court in Le Kef, in June 2012, convicted Ben Ali in absentia for complicity in murder for the events in Kasserine and Tala, and sentenced him to life in prison. Other high-level officials were sentenced to prison terms of up to 12 years.

On April 12, 2014, the Military Appeals Court confirmed the life sentence for Ben Ali but revised the charges against the interior minister and the head of the security services at the time and other co-defendants, convicting them of “negligence,” and lowering their sentences to three years in prison. They were all freed after serving their time. A Human Rights Watch review of these cases concluded that the proceedings were flawed and failed to deliver justice to the victims.

The new trials will involve 24 defendants, including Ben Ali, the interior minister, and security services commanders, on charges of killing and crimes against humanity.

Since its establishment in 2014, the Truth and Dignity Commission (Instance Vérité et Dignité) has been investigating cases of gross violations of human rights committed between 1955 and 2013. The transitional justice law mandates the commission to transfer serious crimes to specialized chambers that “will have jurisdiction over widespread or systematic human rights violations, including deliberate killing, rape and sexual violence, torture, enforced disappearance, and execution without fair trial guarantees.” The law requires special training in transitional justice for the judges who preside over these chambers, which were set up within the country’s court system.

The Tala-Kasserine case is the seventh that the IVD has transferred to the Specialized Chambers. The first six date back to the 1990s or earlier. The first of these trials, regarding the forced disappearance of Kamel Matmati, an Islamist activist, will open on May 29. The other cases involve an extrajudicial killing and four deaths in detention.

The new trials should respect the rights of the defendants, Human Rights Watch said.

One issue that may arise is of the principle of “double jeopardy” – that is, that defendants have a right under international law not to be tried twice for the same offense. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has stated that this principle is not breached where a higher court quashes the verdict and orders a new trial, or where the trial is reopened due to exceptional circumstances such as the discovery of new evidence. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (to which Tunisia is a party), trials before the ICC where someone has previously been tried in another court are not considered to violate this principle, if the purpose of the previous proceedings was to shield the person concerned from criminal responsibility, or if those proceedings otherwise were not conducted independently or impartially in a manner designed to avoid the person being brought to justice.

The military court tried the defendants for the conduct of security forces under their command. However, Tunisian law is not well-equipped to address command responsibility, a key concept in international criminal law that makes commanders and civilian superiors liable for serious crimes committed by their subordinates if the superiors knew, or had reason to know, of the crimes and failed to take all reasonable steps to prevent or punish them. The Specialized Chamber should take into consideration the customary international law concept of command responsibility when trying the case. Tunisian legislators should also introduce a new provision in the penal code on command responsibility consistent with its definition under international law and incorporate the Rome Statute into domestic legislation.

The Kasserine and Tala Military Trials

The group trial before the Le Kef Permanent Military Court concerned killings in the western cities of Tala and Kasserine, most between January 8 and 12, 2011. On the evening of January 8, the anti-riot police who arrived in Tala from other towns shot five people dead. They killed a sixth person on January 12, then left the town and the army replaced them. In Kasserine, where anti-government demonstrations began with a protest rally by lawyers on January 4, police began using live fire against protesters on January 8, resulting in the death of 13 protesters, according to the military courts.

The Le Kef Military Court issued its judgment on June 12, 2012. It convicted former president Ben Ali in absentia of complicity in murder, under article 32 of the Tunisian penal code, and sentenced him to life in prison. It convicted Rafiq Haj Kacem, interior minister from November 2004 to January 12, 2011, on the same charge and sentenced him to 12 years in prison.

It also convicted and imposed 10-year prison sentences for the same charge on Adel Tiouiri, former director general of national security; Jalel Boudrigua, former director of the Anti-Riot Police (Brigades de l’ordre public, known as les BOP); Lotfi Ben Zouaoui, former director general of public security; Youssef Ben Abdelaziz, a former brigadier general in the Anti-Riot Police; and Khaled Ben Said, former director of the Special Anti-Terrorist Brigades. The tribunal also convicted six lower-ranking officers of murder of protesters under articles 201, 202, and 205 of the penal code, and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from 1 to 15 years.

The Military Court of Appeals on April 12, 2014, confirmed the first instance conviction and sentence for Ben Ali, but reduced the charges and sentences for the other defendants. The court ruled that Kacem, and the former senior security officials were guilty only of “failure to act,” under article 1 of Law No. 48 of June 1966 and reduced their sentences to three years. The Military Court of Appeals sentenced the lower-ranking officers to prison terms ranging from one to five years for murder, manslaughter, and violence resulting in death, under articles 201, 202, and 205 of the penal code.

Following a public outcry over the appeals verdict, the National Constituent Assembly enacted a law on June 12, 2014, specifically addressing how the transitional justice system should handle the human rights abuses committed during the uprising. The law classifies killing or injuring protesters during the 2010-2011 uprising as “gross violations of human rights” under the transitional justice law. It specifies that when the Truth and Dignity Commission sends cases involving abuses during the uprising to the public prosecution office, it will automatically transfer the cases to the Specialized Chambers, which will have primary jurisdiction to try them.

Command Responsibility

Tunisian law contains no provision defining command or superior responsibility for crimes. Article 32 of the penal code provides that a person can be held criminally accountable only if they directly commit a crime or are complicit in the commission of a crime. Despite joining the ICC in 2011, Tunisia has not passed any law to incorporate the Rome statute and definitions of international crimes into domestic law.

The judges in the military appeals trial came to a different conclusion from those who presided over the first instance trial. The lower court judges relied on inferential reasoning to surmise that orders existed to use lethal force against protesters, convicting the defendants under article 32 of the penal code. But the Appeals Court judges held that complicity in the meaning of article 32 requires proof of positive acts, such as written or oral orders, to further the criminal enterprise.

This reasoning led the Appeals Court to reverse the convictions of the high-level defendants and to convict them instead of simple “negligence.” International criminal law established long ago that criminal liability of military and civilian commanders in the cases of the worst crimes does not require written or explicit orders to commit the crimes. Tunisian law has still not clearly adopted these principles.

The specialized chambers will have the opportunity to apply important principles of responsibility under customary law.

Command or superior responsibility, as the concept is understood in international law, imputes liability to commanders or civilian superiors for the most serious crimes committed by subordinate members of armed forces or others under their control. Under this principle, a commander can be held criminally liable even if they did not order the crimes if three conditions are met. There must be an effective superior-subordinate relationship. The commander must have known or had reason to know that his subordinate was committing a crime. And the commander failed to take all reasonable steps to prevent or punish such acts.

Under UN standards on the use of force by security forces, governments and law enforcement agencies are required to ensure that superior officers are held responsible if they know, or should have known, that law enforcement officials under their command are resorting, or have resorted, to the unlawful use of force and firearms, and they did not take all measures in their power to prevent, suppress or report such use.

The UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions state: “Superiors, officers or other public officials may be held responsible for acts committed by officials under their authority if they had a reasonable opportunity to prevent such acts.”

Application of command responsibility to convict commanders would also not violate the principle of non-retroactivity – the principle under international law of not convicting someone of a crime that was not yet a crime when it was committed – because customary international law would apply. The International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia called it “a well-established principle of conventional and customary law.” It is also cited in the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.

In addition, Tunisia’s membership in the ICC requires it to adopt the principle of criminalizing command responsibility for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The Rome Statute, which created the ICC, makes it clear that command responsibility imputes liability to the military commanders or civilian superiors for crimes committed by subordinate members of armed forces or others under their effective control. Tunisia ratified the Rome Statute on June 24, 2011.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 23, 2018, 4:00 am