The Philippine Navy band welcomes the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) vessel Her Majesty's Australian Ship (HMAS) Adelaide (III) upon arrival for a goodwill visit as part of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Joint Task Group, Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017, at the Pier 15, south harbor in Metro Manila, Philippines on October 10, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/Romeo Ranoco
(Sydney) – The Australian government should require human rights vetting for all foreign military personnel who receive Australian training, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Defence Minister Christopher Pyne. The government should adopt a law or regulations that would prohibit training and other assistance to foreign military units and personnel who have been responsible for serious rights violations.

“Australia’s cooperation with often-abusive foreign armed forces means that human rights vetting is crucial for any training of foreign military officers and soldiers,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “Foreign forces seeking Australian support should be compelled to deter abuses and hold violators to account.”

In October 2018, Australia’s Department of Defence acknowledged that it does not vet Myanmar military personnel taking part in its training activities, despite the Myanmar military’s long history of war crimes and other abuses.

A recent United Nations report detailed crimes against humanity, war crimes, and possible genocide by Myanmar’s security forces against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State. The report found that the actions of the Myanmar military “so seriously violated international law that any engagement in any form with the Tatmadaw [military], its current leadership, and its businesses, is indefensible.” Since the report, the Australian government has imposed targeted financial sanctions and travel bans against five Myanmar military officers for human rights violations committed by units under their command.

Human Rights Watch urged the Australian government to examine the “Leahy Law,” as it is known, in the United States. The law prohibits the US government from using funds for assistance to units of foreign security forces if credible information implicates that unit in committing gross human rights violations.

Australia’s training for the Myanmar military is limited to cooperation in non-combat areas, providing training in relation to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping, and in the English language. However, any military training bestows legitimacy on those who receive it and the Australian government should avoid legitimizing forces involved in widespread and systematic human rights violations.

“Targeted sanctions are an important first step, but we know it’s not just the five Myanmar officers sanctioned by Australia who are responsible for atrocities against the Rohingya,” Pearson said. “Human rights training can only be effective if combined with a will to hold forces accountable. Soldiers who commit murder and rape know it’s wrong, but also know they can get away with it.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 14, 2018, 4:55 pm

Official seal notices are sticked on a backdoor entrance of the Zion church after it was shutdown by authorities in Beijing, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. 

© 2018 Andy Wong/ AP
(New York) – Chinese authorities should immediately release the pastor and scores of members of an independent Protestant church in the southwestern city of Chengdu, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should also return church properties and allow the members to resume worship services.

On December 9 and 10, 2018, police officers in Chengdu took into custody Pastor Wang Yi and more than 100 congregants of the Early Rain Covenant Church from the church premises or their homes. Early Rain is considered an “underground” church because it is not registered with the government.

“The shutdown of a Protestant church in Chengdu epitomizes the Xi Jinping government’s relentless assault on religious freedom in China,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher. “It makes a mockery of the government’s claim that it respects religious beliefs.”

Authorities also ransacked and sealed Early Rain Covenant Church’s properties, including its offices, a kindergarten, a seminary, and a bible college, and searched the homes of many congregants. The police forced church members to sign a pledge that they would not attend the church again and blocked them from going to the church schools. The church’s accounts on China’s social media platform WeChat were also removed.

Some church members, who were later released, said the police had beaten them. One said he was tied to a chair and deprived of water and food for 24 hours. Dozens of church members remained in police custody. While some families of detainees said they have received police detention notices, others have not been given information regarding the whereabouts or well-being of their loved ones. Police criminally detained Wang Yi on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power,” according to the notice Wang Yi’s mother received. The wife of church elder Li Yingqiang said police told her that Li was detained for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Wang Yi, a prominent member of China’s Christian community and a former legal scholar, is known for his impassioned sermons and outspoken criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. Shortly before his arrest, Wang Yi had published an essay critical of the government’s tight control over religion, and calling on China’s Christians to carry out civil disobedience, such as resisting government orders not to preach outside of church premises or to prohibit children from attending church. Two days after Wang was taken into custody, a statement he had drafted in anticipation of being detained was posted online. In it Wang Yi vowed to “use peaceful means… to resist every and all governmental and judicial measures that persecute the church and interfere with Christian belief.”

In recent years, police have frequently harassed Wang Yi and key members of the Early Rain Covenant Church, an independent evangelical church with about 500 congregants. Early in 2018, the church organized a petition to protest the newly amended Regulations on Religious Affairs. The regulations ban “unauthorized” religious teaching and participation in overseas religious training or meetings and expand the role of local authorities in controlling religious activities. The regulations tighten existing religious controls in China, which already restrict religious practice to five officially recognized religions in officially approved premises, among other restrictions.

Several church members believe that the petition, which drew signatures from over 400 pastors across China, might have prompted the mass arrests. In September, Chengdu authorities informed the church that its activities had violated the government’s religious policy.

Under President Xi, the government has further tightened control over Christianity in its broad efforts to “Sinicize” religion or “adopt Chinese characteristics” – in other words, to ensure that religious groups support the government and the Communist Party. Authorities have demolished hundreds of Christian churches or crosses on top of churches, evicted congregations, confiscated Bibles and other church materials, and installed surveillance cameras in the churches allowed to function. In April, the government banned online sales of the Bible. In September, Beijing authorities shut down the Zion Church, one of the city’s largest Protestant underground churches.

In March, Pastor John Sanqiang Cao was sentenced to seven years in prison for “organizing others to illegally cross the border” between China and Myanmar. Cao had been involved in educational projects for impoverished minority groups in Myanmar. In 2014, a court sentenced Pastor Zhang Shaojie to 12 years in prison for “fraud” and “gathering a crowd to disturb public order.”

In September, the Roman Catholic Church and China reached a deal designed to end a decades-long standoff over authority to appoint bishops in China. China’s estimated 12 million Roman Catholics are divided between an underground community that pledges allegiance to the pope and a government-run association with state-appointed bishops. Under the accord, Beijing will propose names for future bishops and the pope will have veto power. Many had hoped the new accord would bring the persecution of bishops of underground churches to an end. However, in November, authorities in Zhejiang province forcibly disappeared Bishop Shao Zhumin, his fifth disappearance in his two years as bishop. Shao’s current whereabouts are unclear.

The Chinese government has also ratcheted up restrictions over Buddhism in Tibetan areas and imposed unprecedented control over religious practices in the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang, as Human Rights Watch has extensively documented.

“Pastor Wang Yi has said he would stand up for his faith if he were to be imprisoned,” Wang said. “Everyone who supports religious freedom should stand with Wang Yi and speak out against the Chinese government’s repression of religion.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 14, 2018, 1:00 am

A general view of the Parliament House in Singapore June 2, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters
(Bangkok) – Singapore authorities should drop criminal defamation charges against Terry Xu, editor of the online news site The Online Citizen, for publishing a letter alleging government corruption, Human Rights Watch said today. Xu is scheduled to appear in court on December 13, 2018. The authorities should also drop the criminal defamation charge filed against the letter’s author.

“Singapore authorities have once again responded to criticism with criminal charges,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government should respond to any inaccuracies in the letter by seeking a correction, apology or retraction, rather than with a heavy-handed criminal prosecution.” 

The letter, published on September 4 by The Online Citizen, one of the few alternative news sources in Singapore, was from someone identified as “Willy Sum.” The letter criticized a Facebook post by a member of parliament and alleged corruption in the upper echelons of the Singapore government. The Online Citizen took down the letter two weeks later after the government Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) ordered it to do so.

Nevertheless, on November 20 the police went to the homes of Xu and “Willy Sum” and seized their electronic equipment. Xu was interrogated for eight hours at the police station. On December 12, the authorities announced that Xu would be charged with criminal defamation. If convicted, he faces up to two years in prison. The authorities also charged the letter writer, identified as DeCosta Daniel Augustin, with criminal defamation and with unauthorized access to computer material in violation of the Computer Misuse Act for allegedly using another person’s email account to submit the letter.

Criminal defamation violates international norms on freedom of speech that defamation should be considered a civil matter, not a crime punishable with imprisonment. Criminal defamation laws are a disproportionate and unnecessary restriction on free speech and create a chilling effect that effectively restricts legitimate as well as harmful speech.

For these reasons, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression and the representative on freedom of the media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), together with the Organization of American States special rapporteur for freedom of expression, have concluded that criminal defamation is “not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression” and have called for the abolition of such laws.

Defamation cases filed by government officials or public persons are particularly problematic. While government officials and those involved in public affairs are entitled to protection of their reputation, including protection against defamation, as individuals who have sought to play a role in public affairs they must tolerate a greater degree of scrutiny and criticism than ordinary citizens.

“It’s outrageous that the news site took down the letter after the authorities told it to do so, yet the government is still bringing criminal charges against the site and the letter’s author,” Robertson said. “The criminal defamation charges should be dropped immediately.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 13, 2018, 11:45 pm

Tanks occupy the Avenida Presidente Vargas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, April 4, 1968.

© 1968 Correio da Manhã

Fifty years ago today, Brazil´s military regime unleashed all-out repression with the publication of Institutional Act 5. Brazil’s president, army general Artur da Costa e Silva, immediately invoked the Act to close Congress and state legislatures, arrest opposition politicians, and revoke their political rights. He established widespread censorship and suspended habeas corpus for offenses that criminalized political activity, crimes against national security, and other crimes.

This kicked off the bloodiest period of the dictatorship (1964-1985) and spurred a stronger response by leftist groups that were engaged in ongoing armed resistance.

In 2014, a National Truth Commission identified 377 state agents, close to 200 of them still alive, as responsible for hundreds of cases of torture, killings, and enforced disappearances.

Last week, forensic experts identified the remains of trade unionist Aluísio Palhano Pedreira Ferreira, whom authorities kidnapped and disappeared in 1971, the Commission concluded. He is one of only five people identified from the more than 1,000 bags of human remains unearthed from a clandestine grave almost 30 years ago.

The anniversary of Institutional Act 5 has gained new significance this year, after Brazilians elected former army captain Jair Bolsonaro as president. As congressman, Bolsonaro opposed the creation of the Truth Commission. Paraphrasing the motto inscribed on Brazil’s flag, Bolsonaro has defined the bloody military period as “20 years of order and progress.” He also calls the late Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who directed one of the dictatorship’s torture centers, a “hero.”

Prosecutors charged Ustra and a civil police officer with kidnapping Palhano, but the courts rejected the case, citing an amnesty law passed by the military regime that has so far shielded all torturers from justice. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ruled twice that the amnesty law should not prevent the prosecution of grave human rights violations.

Bolsonaro’s electoral victory is emblematic of Brazilians’ widespread disillusionment with democracy. Only 34 percent of Brazilians said in a poll published in November that they preferred democracy to any other form of government, one of the lowest percentages in the Americas.  

The anniversary of Institutional Act 5 should remind Brazilians of the horrors of the authoritarian path.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 13, 2018, 5:13 pm

Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and Farhad Meysami, a human rights defender, protest the suspension of  Sotoudeh's law license in front of the Tehran bar association in Tehran, February 2015. 

© Private 2015

(Beirut) – Iranian authorities have escalated their crackdown on lawyers, Human Rights Watch said today. Over the past month, revolutionary courts have sentenced at least three lawyers to long prison terms for their human rights activism and security forces have arrested another one.

On December 10, 2018, the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) reported that a revolutionary court had sentenced Qasem Sholehsadi and Arash Keykhosravi, human rights lawyers arrested during a gathering in front of parliament on August 18, to six years in prison. Mohammad Najafi, a human rights lawyer who is serving a three-year sentence for exposing torture in prison, has been sentenced to an additional 13 years for two other sets of charges, his lawyer, Payam Derafshan told Human Rights Watch. Authorities have detained Amir Salar Davoudi, another human rights lawyer, since November 20.

“Now Iran is not only arresting dissidents, human rights defenders, and labor leaders, but their lawyers as well, criminalizing their fundamental freedoms,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Lawyers should be the cornerstone of protecting the rights of the accused, but in Iran, they are just another enemy of repressive authorities.”

Davoudi’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he has not been able to meet with his client or read the charges against him. He said he believes Davoudi, who is in Evin prison, is facing charges of “propaganda against the state” and “insulting the Supreme Leader” and that authorities are also trying to charge him with “assembly and collusion to act against national security.”

Judge Abolghassem Salavati at branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced Sholehsadi on the charge of “assembly and collusion to act against national security” to five years in prison and an additional year for “propaganda against the state.” Salavati used a video message Sholehsadi posted on social media saying that he would demonstrate in front of the parliament and his peaceful gathering in front of parliament as the sole evidence against him, a source confirmed on December 11. Keykhosravi was sentenced on similar charges.

The Arak revolutionary court, in Markazi province, sentenced Najafi to 10 years in prison on the charge of “cooperating with an enemy state through transferring information and news to anti-revolutionary networks…” and to another 3 years for “propaganda against the state and insulting the Supreme Leader,” Derafshan told Human Rights Watch. The court used the defendant’s confession of chanting “death to the dictator” during a demonstration to charge him with “insulting the Supreme leader,” though Najafi said in court that he was not referring to the Supreme Leader in his chant.

The authorities had already sentenced Najafi to prison in reprisal for his role in exposing Vahid Heydari’s death in custody in January and reporting that Heydari’s body bore marks of torture and other ill-treatment. On July 26, Branch 2 of Arak’s criminal court sentenced Najafi to three years in prison for “disrupting public order through unconventional acts such as chanting slogans” and “publishing false information to disturb public opinion.” He began serving his sentence on October 28.

On August 31, the authorities arrested Derafshan and another human rights lawyer, Farokh Forouzan, when they were visiting Keykhosravi’s family. Derafshan, Forouzan, Sholehsadi, and Keykhosravi have been released temporarily on bail.

Since June, the Intelligence Ministry has arrested several human rights lawyers and activists, including the prominent human rights defender Nasrin Sotoudeh; her husband, Reza Khandan; and Farhad Meysami for their peaceful activism against compulsory hijab laws. Meysami has reportedly been on a hunger strike since August 1, and his health condition has drastically deteriorated.

Sotoudeh is facing several charges, including for her efforts to represent women who protested compulsory hijab laws and her public support of the group Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to reducing executions in Iran.

Freedoms of assembly and expressions are guaranteed under international human rights law. Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a party, recognizes the right to peaceful assembly, stating that “no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers provide that lawyers must be allowed to carry out their work “without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.” In addition, it affirms the right of lawyers to freedom of expression, also provided for in Article 19 of the ICCPR, which includes “the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights.”

“Iran’s authorities are incinerating what remains of fundamental freedoms to cover up their manifold abuses against their own citizens,” Page said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 13, 2018, 7:00 am

Fewer than half of the school-age refugee children in Lebanon are in formal education.

(Beirut) - The number of Syrian refugee children enrolled in school in Lebanon has stalled at the same inadequate levels as in the 2017-2018 school year, Human Rights Watch said today.

Fewer than half of the 631,000 school-age refugee children in Lebanon are in formal education, with roughly 210,000 in donor-supported public schools and 63,000 in private schools. The Education Ministry said that it was obliged to limit enrollment and cut costs due to insufficient funding from international donors.

“Every Syrian refugee child who is not in school is an indictment of the collective failure to fulfill their right to education,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There was already an education crisis in Lebanon, yet the current school year has been marred by finger-pointing over funding and last-minute decisions that left many kids out in the cold.”

International donors have made joint pledges to support universal enrollment for Syrian refugee children and should ensure they are providing sufficient funds to reach that goal, Human Rights Watch said. They should work with Lebanon’s Education Ministry to increase accountability, transparency, and predictability in education planning.

The Education Ministry’s goal for 2018-2019 was to enroll 250,000 Syrian children, an increase of 40,000, and 215,000 Lebanese children in public schools, which would have required $149 million in donor funding. As of November, the ministry said that it had received only $100 million.

Human Rights Watch interviewed six Syrian families with a total of 14 children who could not enroll. Some said that they were not informed that new students could not enroll, or of subsequent policy changes, or whether their children would be placed on waiting lists. Human Rights Watch also interviewed Education Ministry officials, staff of nongovernmental groups and UN agencies, and donor governments that are funding education in Lebanon, but could not identify a single issue or actor responsible for the budget shortfall.

In September, the ministry decided it would not accept new Syrian students but limit enrollment to students who had previously been enrolled in public schools or completed accredited pre-primary or catch-up programs. However, many Syrian children who were in school last year did not re-enroll. The ministry extended the deadline by two weeks, to October 27, and instructed schools and nongovernmental groups to identify students who did not return. On October 20, it also eased restrictions to allow new Syrian students to enroll, so long as no new classes had to be opened to accommodate them. As of November 20, about 36,000 new students have enrolled, but 28,500 former students still had not, a ministry official said. Taking the lower enrollment numbers into account, the ministry reported in mid-November that it still faced a $30 million budget gap.

The families told Human Rights Watch that officials at a primary school in the Bekaa valley had either refused to enroll their children or accepted them but told them to leave after a few days, including one boy who had in fact been enrolled in a public school last year. Groups supporting children in the area corroborated the families’ accounts and reported similar problems at two other public schools.

In other areas, some school officials arbitrarily insisted that refugee children present documents that the Education Ministry does not require for enrollment, such as proof of legal residency in Lebanon, or asked parents to pay to enroll their children, staff at several groups said. Human Rights Watch has previously found noncompliance by some public school staff with official education policies.

Human Rights Watch was not able to determine whether any individual donors failed to meet agreed funding goals, but has documented that a lack of transparent and timely donor funding has undermined the goal of reaching Syrian refugee children with education. At a series of international conferences since 2016, Lebanese and donor government representatives have jointly agreed on the goal of universal enrollment for refugee children and on education budgets.

Some Syrian children who were denied enrollment at public schools have been left with no alternative access to education. Syrian parents whose children had been rejected by public schools told Human Rights Watch that preschool programs run by nongovernmental groups could not accept the children back, either because classes had filled up or because their children had aged out of the preschool programs. The Education Ministry generally permits nongovernmental groups to help primary-school-age children who are already enrolled in public schools, for instance with homework support, but does not permit them to teach out-of-school children in this age group.

The Education Ministry did not repeat last year’s “Back to School” campaign, in which nongovernmental groups and UN agencies had encouraged Syrian and vulnerable Lebanese families to enroll their children. The ministry said the campaign had been inefficient and that a new campaign risked enrolling children whom there were no funds to teach. But nongovernmental education providers said that the lack of a campaign contributed to poor re-enrollment this fall among children who had formerly been in school.

Other education programs have also been curtailed or interrupted, including the Accelerated Learning Program, to help children who had been out of school catch up. The ministry lost funding for the program and cut the number of students during the summer, and only received funding to continue it in November, an official said. Placement tests are due to be held in December. The program is the only way back to school for thousands of Syrian children who could not pass entrance examinations. As of November, the ministry had not reinstated a program to allow UN agencies to place Syrian volunteers as “community education liaisons” to support Syrian students at second shift schools taught in Arabic.

Some families said that the barriers to education were pushing them to think about leaving Lebanon for Syria, despite the risks involved, and that others had already left. Humanitarian organizations have also noted that limited access to education is one of the factors pushing Syrians to return to Syria despite concerns about safety.

Human Rights Watch does not have evidence that recent returns of Syrians have been forced. However, harsh living conditions, largely as a result of Lebanese policies that have restricted legal residency, work, and freedom of movement, have put so much indirect pressure on refugees that some believe they have no option but to return to a country where they face serious risks.

Lebanon should follow through on the important commitments to refugee rights that it made at a the Friends of Syria donor conference in Brussels in April, including on residency statuslegal protection, education,  and nonrefoulement or not returning people to places where they would be in danger.

“Many refugee children are still shut out of school in Lebanon and it’s already December, putting their future at risk,” Van Esveld said. “Donors should ensure that the Education Ministry has the promised funds to prevent a “lost generation,” while insisting on access to quality education. Parents shouldn’t be forced to decide between their kids’ education and their safety.”

Accounts from Families

Names have been changed for the protection and privacy of those interviewed.

“Sara,” the mother of two boys ages 11 and 8 in the Bekaa valley, described her desperation as October went by and they were unable to enroll in school:

I went to register them both, and at first the school told me they could begin on October 10. But then [the younger son] only went for 5 days, and the older boy went for 10 days, and the director told them to leave. “You don’t have a name here,” the director said. She meant they weren’t on the list from the ministry, or on her computer. [My older son] was told to leave in the middle of a class by his teacher, and when he went to the director and asked why, the director slapped him. He deserves to know at least why they won’t let him go to school. I tried to register them at other schools. [My older son] was a good student before, now he can’t remember how to multiply, and [my younger son] can’t even read.

“Sabrine,” 40, said that a public primary school had refused to enroll her daughters last year, saying that there was no room for them, and rejected them again this fall. “Um Ahmad,” 27, said her boys, ages 10 and 11, were both enrolled in first grade at a public school last year. This year, officials at the school allowed the older boy to register but rejected his brother, without explanation.

Some school officials who initially registered but then refused to enroll students said they were acting on verbal instructions from the Education Ministry, humanitarian groups reported.

“Awad,” 50, said that his three children, ages 7 to 10, were turned away by public school officials when they tried to register in October because they lacked certifications of previous enrollment at a public school. He said that barriers to accessing education were contributing to refugees leaving Lebanon:

The camp I’m in has 17 children who are not in school. A whole extended family went back to Syria because they wanted the kids to get an education. I think I will have to go back at the end of the year too, if I can’t get my children in school here.

Refugee Education and Funding

The Syrian conflict forced an estimated 1.5 million refugees into Lebanon, which with a population of approximately 4 million, is hosting the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.  

At a conference in London in February 2016, donors and countries hosting Syrian refugees had committed to ensure that there would be no “lost generation” of children, and that $1.4 billion annually was needed to support education, primarily in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

At the conference, Lebanon presented an updated version of a national education plan, “Reaching All Children with Education II,” with a budgeted need of $350 million annually in donor support for five years, an overall figure that includes first and second shift enrollment costs as well as other costs. Donors and Lebanese government representatives re-committed to universal enrollment and the $350 million figure in subsequent meetings in Brussels.

Even before the Syrian conflict, 70 percent of Lebanese parents sent their children to private schools due to concerns about the quality of the public school system. Lebanon’s public schools now have roughly the same number of Syrian and Lebanese children enrolled.

Overall, there are 631,000 refugee children in Lebanon, ages 3 to 18, who are eligible to enroll in formal education, from pre-primary through secondary school. During the 2017-2018 school year, about 213,000 Syrian refugee children enrolled in public schools, including 59,000 enrolled in “first shift” morning classes at public schools alongside Lebanese children and 154,000 in Syrian-only, “second shift” classes, which operate in the afternoons at public schools, of whom 149,000 completed the year. Another 63,000 Syrian children were enrolled in private or semi-private schools.

For the current school year, the Education Ministry reported in November that 155,000 Syrian children are enrolled in second-shift classes. Figures for Lebanese and Syrian children in the morning shift classes were not yet available. But an official estimated that the numbers in morning shift classes and private schools remain roughly equivalent to last year.

The Education Ministry said it had not repeated its “Back to School” campaign because it cost $1 million and that only 20 percent of children it reached were out of school. It said that a new campaign risked reaching children whom it had no funds to teach. Instead, the ministry said that nongovernmental groups and UN agencies should identify out-of-school children and place them on waiting lists in case more funding becomes available.

The Education Ministry said in planning documents that its goal was to increase enrollment to 250,000 Syrian children in 2018-19, at a projected cost of $135.8 million, based on previously-agreed “unit costs” of $600 per Syrian child enrolled in second shift classes, and $363 per Syrian child enrolled in first shift classes. In addition, the ministry aimed to increase enrollment of vulnerable Lebanese children from 210,000 to 215,000, at a cost of $12.9 million in donations, at $60 per child. Donor funding offsets part of the school fees that Lebanese families would otherwise have to pay. As of July, donors had contributed $100 million, leaving a budget gap of $48.7 million for the school year that began on September 25 for Lebanese children and October 10 for Syrians.

Based on current enrollment figures, the ministry reported in late November that it still faced a $30 million funding gap.

In discussing the budget shortfall, all parties mentioned an ongoing disagreement over the way the Education Ministry was using $100 out of the $600 allocated per child enrolled in second shift classes to build new schools rather than for maintenance and depreciation of existing facilities, and donors were pushing for the ministry to switch from “unit costs” per enrolled student to an overall cost for the RACE 2 program, but there was no information to show these issues were linked to the funding shortfall.


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 13, 2018, 5:00 am


Colombia: Rape, Kidnapping and Murder Continue After Peace Agreement

Groups that emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas are terrorizing the mostly Afro-Colombian municipality of Tumaco.

(Bogotá) – Groups that emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas are terrorizing the mostly Afro-Colombian municipality of Tumaco, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 57-page report, “Recycled Violence: Abuses by FARC Dissident Groups in Tumaco on Colombia’s Pacific Coast,” shows how flaws in the demobilization of FARC guerrillas – and in their reincorporation into society – helped prompt the formation of these new dissident groups. These groups, including United Guerrillas of the Pacific and the Oliver Sinisterra Front, now batter urban neighborhoods and rural hamlets of Tumaco. These groups have engaged in scores of killings in Tumaco, contributing to a dramatic spike in homicide rates.

“Tumaco residents hoped that the accord would finally bring peace to their communities and neighborhoods, but their hopes were soon frustrated,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “FARC dissidents are killing and disappearing those who dare defy them, raping women and girls, recruiting children, and forcing thousands of people to flee.”

Tumaco residents have, for many years, endured horrific abuses at the hands of armed groups, including right-wing paramilitaries and groups that succeeded them, as well as the FARC. Before the peace accord, in 2014, Human Rights Watch documented abuses in Tumaco by the FARC and the Rastrojos – a group that grew out of paramilitary death squads. Now, the violence is dominated by FARC dissident groups that formed, in part, as a result of blunders in the demobilization process and a failure to reincorporate former guerrillas into society.

In 2017, the homicide rate in Tumaco was four times the national average, and data through September show killings are up nearly 50 percent during 2018. For residents of Tumaco, simply crossing an “invisible border” into neighborhoods where the group in control doesn’t know them – or entering from an area dominated by a rival group – can be a death sentence.

Murder victims include rights defenders. With at least seven rights defenders reported killed since January 2017, Tumaco is the municipality with the highest number of such killings in Colombia, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Armed groups in Tumaco, including FARC dissident groups, are also committing rape. Nowhere else in Colombia does sexual violence by armed groups appear to be so widespread in absolute terms as in Tumaco. Human Rights Watch documented the case of a 14-year-old girl who was raped in rural Tumaco in October 2017. Four armed men arrived at her home one night around 11 p.m. and told her parents that “the commander” had asked for her. They took her away, returning her the next morning with various wounds. She told her parents that several men had raped her.

FARC dissident groups have also been responsible for disappearances and kidnappings in Tumaco. Residents believe that the bodies of the disappeared are thrown into the sea, estuaries, or rivers.

In March, the Oliver Sinisterra Front kidnapped three employees of the Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio who were reporting on the group’s operations in Mataje, Ecuador. The group held the men hostage, demanding that the Ecuadorian government release three imprisoned members. The bodies of the newspaper employees were found in rural Tumaco in mid-June.

“The brutal kidnapping and murder of three Ecuadorian press workers on the border with Colombia wasn’t just an isolated incident,” Vivanco said. “It was part of a trend of widespread abuses by FARC dissident groups in the area.”

In early 2018, the Colombian government began a powerful military and police operation to curb abuses by armed groups, deploying thousands of security officers to Tumaco, and nine neighboring municipalities in Nariño Province. Yet since then, serious abuses in Tumaco have continued at comparable or higher rates. And a new group, led by a former FARC guerrilla known as Mario Lata, has emerged in the area.

Impunity remains the norm for abuses in Tumaco. In the more than 300 murders officially counted there since 2017, only one person has been convicted. No one has been charged, let alone convicted, for any of the disappearances, child recruitment, or forced displacement.

When President Iván Duque took office in August 2018, he prioritized actions to capture or kill high-level commanders of FARC dissident groups, especially a man known as Guacho, head of the Oliver Sinisterra Group.

The Colombian government should increase the number of investigators, prosecutors, and judges in Tumaco who handle forced displacement, disappearances, sexual violence, child recruitment, and other serious abuses. It should also increase efforts to reduce coca cultivation in Tumaco, including replacing it with food crops. The government should take steps to ensure that Tumaco residents have adequate services, displaced people have shelter, and rape victims have the services they need.

“The government’s focus on capturing Guacho is certainly understandable,” Vivanco said. “But Tumaco residents who have endured years and years of abuses from many sides of the conflict need much more to ensure that violence isn’t recycled again.” 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 13, 2018, 5:00 am

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha arrives at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, January 17, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom
(New York) – Thailand’s junta should immediately end restrictions on the right to free expression so that credible national elections can be held on February 24, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today.

On December 11, 2018, the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) lifted its prohibition on public gatherings and political activities, allowing political parties to conduct election campaigns for parliament. However, the junta kept in place military orders restricting expression and authorizing detention and prosecution for speech critical of the junta, its policies and actions, and the monarchy. All criminal cases in military and civilian courts related to opposition to military rule will proceed.

“Thailand can’t hold credible elections when political parties, the media, and voters are gagged by threats of arrest and criminal prosecution,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “With polling day just two months away, the Thai junta should immediately lift all legal orders that restrict the right to freedom of expression.”

Since the May 2014 military coup, Thailand’s junta has broadly and arbitrarily interpreted peaceful criticism and dissenting opinions to constitute disinformation, seditious acts, and threats to national security. For more than four years, the junta has routinely enforced media censorship and blocked public discussions about human rights and democracy. On December 1, Thai authorities blocked access to the Human Rights Watch Thailand webpage, alleging that the contents were inappropriate and constituted a “national security threat.”

For more than four years under military rule, Thai authorities have prosecuted hundreds of activists and dissidents on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for peaceful expression of their views. Since the beginning of 2018, more than 100 pro-democracy activists have been prosecuted for peacefully demanding the junta to hold the promised elections without further delay and to lift all restrictions on fundamental freedoms.

In August, the leader of the Future Forward Party, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was charged with violating the Computer-Related Crime Act, which could result in a five-year prison term, for online commentary criticizing the junta. Watana Muangsook, former Social Development and Human Security Minister, and other key members of the Pheu Thai Party have also been repeatedly charged with sedition and computer-related crimes for making comments, including on social media, opposing military rule.

Local human rights and political activists expressed concern to Human Rights Watch that independent monitoring of elections will not be possible under current conditions. Thai authorities frequently retaliate with criminal charges, including for criminal defamation and Computer-Related Crime Act violations, against anyone who reports allegations of state-sponsored abuses and official misconduct. The junta forcibly blocked efforts to monitor the constitutional referendum in 2016 and prosecuted many people involved in such activities.

Thailand’s upcoming elections will be held while Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha still maintains unchecked and unaccountable powers, including for human rights violations, that will remain in place until a new government is formed. The junta-appointed Senate and other elements of the 2017 constitution will ensure prolonged military control even after elections are held.

After the 2014 coup, the United States, European Union, and many other countries set conditions for their normalization of relations with Thailand. These included holding free and fair elections to establish a democratic civilian government and improved respect for human rights. For the February elections to be a genuine democratic process, Thailand’s friends should press the junta to:

  • End the use of abusive, unaccountable powers under sections 44 and 48 of the 2014 interim constitution;
  • End restrictions on the right to freedom of expression;
  • Ensure that political parties and supporters are able to freely participate in peaceful election campaign activities;
  • Free everyone detained for peaceful criticism of the government;
  • Drop all sedition charges and other criminal lawsuits related to peaceful opposition to military rule;
  • Transfer all remaining civilian cases still in military courts to civilian courts that meet international fair trial standards;
  • Ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders to work, including by dropping politically motivated lawsuits and strategic lawsuits against public participation against them; and
  • Permit independent and impartial election observers to freely monitor the election campaign and the conduct of the elections, and to issue public reports.

“The junta’s half-step to relax its chokehold on fundamental freedoms is inadequate,” Adams said. “Foreign governments seeking the restoration of democracy in Thailand should publicly state that they will only recognize an election that meets international standards.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 13, 2018, 1:00 am

On December 12, Patrice Edouard Nagaissona, a one-time self-declared political coordinator of anti-balaka militias, was arrested in France on International Criminal Court (ICC) charges. With his arrest, the prospects for justice for grave crimes committed during the Central African Republic’s most recent crisis took a welcome step forward.

A burned Pentecostal church in Zéré. Hundreds of Christian and Muslim homes and places of worship were destroyed in the town during a series of attacks by both ex-Seleka and anti-balaka forces. November 4, 2013.

The anti-balaka is implicated in grave abuses during the country’s conflict since 2012, including attacking and killing civilians suspected of collaborating with Seleka rebels during the conflict.

Nagaissona is accused by the ICC of alleged responsibility for murder, deportation, imprisonment, and torture as part of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the western part of the Central African Republic between December 2013 and December 2014.

Nagaissona is the second arrest in a month in the ICC’s more recent investigation in the Central African Republic, thanks to the cooperation of authorities in France where Nagaissona was taken into custody. The ICC’s first investigation in the country, which focused on crimes committed in 2002 and 2003, has brought just one case, which ended in acquittal in June. Human Rights Watch criticized the lack of additional cases in the ICC’s first investigation, and has urged the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor to pursue charges that are representative of the crimes committed to ensure meaningful delivery of justice.

To that end, it will be crucial to see charges in this investigation cover suspects implicated in grave crimes from all warring groups. In particular, the Seleka and ex-Seleka groups are implicated in widespread continuing abuses and no ICC charges of individuals involved with the Seleka have been announced. As we have seen, pursuing cases involving individuals associated with just one side in a crisis can create enormous problems.

Nagaissona’s arrest is positive. Many in the Central African Republic claimed he was “untouchable” because of his senior post at the Confederation of African Football. But today’s news should be a wake-up call for perpetrators of the worst crimes all over the world: even those in positions of power can be held to account.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 12, 2018, 10:18 pm

A person is arrested by riot police during a protest against the government of President Daniel Ortega in Managua, on October 14, 2018.

© 2018 INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images
(Washington, DC) – United States President Donald Trump should move quickly to sign into law a bill that will allow targeted sanctions against top Nicaraguan officials and others implicated in egregious human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today. The legislation will create a powerful tool to press the Ortega-Murillo government to end its pattern of abuse against opponents.

On December 11, 2018, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act (NICA), a bipartisan bill that allows the US Treasury Department to sanction any non-US person implicated in egregious human rights abuses and corruption in Nicaragua. The bill would allow for freezing assets held in the US, forbidding entry to the US, and revoking US visas. The Senate passed the bill on November 27.

“This bi-partisan legislation can play a very important role in pressing the Ortega-Murillo government to stop its brutal repression of opponents,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “It is now critical to move forward with its enactment and implementation to send a powerful message that Nicaragua’s crackdown with impunity on the government’s opponents will no longer be tolerated.”

Under the NICA Act, the US Treasury Department would have the power to sanction “any foreign person, including any current or former official of the Government of Nicaragua or any person acting on behalf of that Government” whom the US president determines has been involved in “significant acts of violence or conduct that constitutes an abuse or violation of human rights against persons associated with the protests in Nicaragua that began on April 18, 2018.”

Other activities that could lead to sanctions include the arrest or prosecution of a person or media outlet “primarily because of the legitimate exercise by such person of the freedom of speech, assembly, or the press,” “significant actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions,” and “acts of significant corruption.”

The law defines “involvement” in these activities in various ways, including responsibility for “ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing” the actions, having “knowingly participated” in them “directly or indirectly,” or being the leader of an institution implicated in them.

Since April, 325 people have been killed and 2,000 injured in Nicaragua during a brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters, according to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR). The commission found that the National Police of Nicaragua and armed pro-government groups, which acted in coordination with the police, are responsible for most deaths and injuries.

Police and these groups have also abducted or arbitrarily arrested hundreds of people across the country. Over 300 remain arbitrarily detained, the commission said in November, including many who were charged with grave crimes like “terrorism” in connection with their alleged involvement in anti-government protests. Human Rights Watch has documented cases in which detainees were beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks or raped.

President Daniel Ortega, who under Nicaraguan law is the “supreme chief” of police, has rewarded top officials who bear responsibility for the bloodbath. Not a single police officer or member of an armed pro-government group has been brought to justice for these abuses.

The pressing need for legislation that allows for targeted sanctions is highlighted not only by the egregious violations and overwhelming impunity, but also the government’s concerted effort to silence nongovernmental groups and critical media outlets. On December 12, Nicaragua’s National Assembly, controlled by Ortega’s party, arbitrarily cancelled the legal registration of the country’s most prominent human rights organization, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH).

The US government already sanctioned three Nicaraguan officials in July for their responsibility in the crackdown and involvement in acts of corruption under Executive Order 13818 “Blocking the Property of Persons Involved in Serious Human Rights Abuse or Corruption,” which expands upon the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. In late November, Trump signed a new executive order specific to Nicaragua, enabling the US Treasury Department to sanction two additional Nicaraguans.

The officials sanctioned for their involvement in the crackdown are Vice-President Rosario Murillo, who is Ortega’s wife; General Francisco Díaz, the police chief; Fidel Moreno Briones, a political appointee in the Managua mayor’s office; and Néstor Moncada Lau, a top presidential aide. Others have been sanctioned for their participation in corruption schemes.

In addition to sanctions, the NICA Act instructs US executive directors in various international financial institutions to use “the voice, vote, and influence of the United States” to oppose loans or financial or technical assistance to the Nicaraguan government for projects in Nicaragua.

Within 90 days of the law’s enactment, the US president is required to brief Congressional committees on the government’s strategy to engage with civil society in Nicaragua and to adopt measures to support the protection of human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 12, 2018, 10:00 pm

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech in the Palais des Nations at the United Nations in Geneva, January 18, 2017.

© 2017 Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Few governments work harder to eliminate criticism of their human rights record at the United Nations than China. And China’s efforts may well make it easier for other abusive actors to escape scrutiny. Other governments – and the U.N. system itself – should push back against these encroachments.

The Chinese government under President Xi Jinping has a widely-documented record of serious human rights violations. They include the crackdown on rights lawyers and activists that began in shortly after he assumed power in 2013 and the continued use of torture in police custody despite laws ostensibly intended to end the practice.

This has not stopped China from working assiduously to weaken or block key human rights reviews at the United Nations, ease important standards, and ensure only praise for its rights record. Few, if any, senior U.N. officials broach the Chinese government’s human rights record when visiting China or meeting with Chinese leaders.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch exposed Beijing’s efforts to silence U.N. human rights experts and staff, to prevent critical voices from China from participating in U.N. processes, and to manipulate rules and procedures to ensure more favorable reviews. The net effect: weaker United Nations scrutiny, not just of China but of other abusive governments. One positive response is that the United Nations now reports annually on government reprisals against human rights defenders participating in U.N. human rights efforts; China has topped the list of offenders in every report issued.

In March, China introduced a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council, entitled “Promoting the International Human Rights Cause through Win-Win Cooperation.” The title might sound innocuous, but the resolution gutted procedures to hold countries accountable for human rights violations, suggesting “dialogue” instead.  

It failed to specify any course of action when rights violators refuse to cooperate with U.N. experts, retaliate against rights defenders, or actively reject human rights principles. And it even failed to acknowledge any role for the Human Rights Council itself to address serious human rights violations when “dialogue” and “cooperation” don’t produce results. The resolution was adopted by a distressingly strong majority.

In August, China was reviewed by the U.N. Committee to Eliminate Racial Discrimination, evidently hoping to slip through unnoticed. But  thanks to tough questions by committee members, particularly about China’s “Strike Hard” campaign in Xinjiang, where credible estimates suggest 1 million Turkic Muslims are arbitrarily detained in “political education” camps, Beijing has been forced to acknowledge that these camps exist.

And in early November, the Human Rights Council scrutinized China’s record through the Universal Periodic Review, a process by which all U.N. member-states review one another.  About two dozen countries helped prevent China from pulling off the whitewash it sought, instead vocally calling out Beijing’s mass arbitrary detention in Xinjiang, its glacial progress toward ratifying a key human rights treaty on civil and political rights, and its persecution and enforced disappearance of rights lawyers and activists. The countries that had the courage to stand up to China defended both the people in China who are enduring human rights violations, and the responsibility of the council to put China on the spot about those violations.

But the review was marred by the U.N.’s own complicity with China’s quest for a critique-free review. While accepting — seemingly without question — contributions from groups that praised China’s rights record, U.N. officials removed without explanation the submissions from Hong Kong, Tibetan, and Uyghur groups that are critical of Beijing. Many of the excluded contributions were reinstated at the eleventh hour, but the damage was done.

What’s at stake here? If the ideas proposed in China’s resolution, which only the United States voted against, become actual operating principles for the Human Rights Council, victims of state-sponsored abuses worldwide — including in Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen — will face almost impossible odds in holding abusive governments accountable.

Instead, they’ll have to stand on the sidelines and hope their abuses are either ended or resolved through “dialogue” and “cooperation.” If the United Nations doesn’t vigorously support its own experts and processes when a powerful member-state is under review, or if the United Nations helps silence critical voices, rather than defend them, everyone’s rights are under threat.

The new U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, made waves when in her first speech to the Human Rights Council in September she called on China to allow access for U.N. investigators to Xinjiang. The U.N. Security Council, which will visit China later in November, has an opportunity to demonstrate support for the high commissioner, for victims of human rights abuses across China, and for the United Nations itself by echoing her call.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 12, 2018, 2:41 pm

Video: End Impunity for Killings of Shia Muslims in Nigeria

Nigerian authorities have failed to ensure justice for the killings of hundreds of members of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) since 2015. 

(Abuja) – Nigerian authorities have failed to ensure justice for the killings of hundreds of members of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) since 2015, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing a video of security forces’ violent crackdowns against members of the IMN.

On December 12, 2015, the Nigeria army used disproportionate force against the group’s street procession in Zaria, Kaduna State in northwest Nigeria to clear a route for the army chief’s convoy. In an ensuing three-day violent crackdown, the army killed 347 members of the group and arrested hundreds more, including the group’s leader, Sheikh Ibrahim El Zakzaky, and his wife, Ibraheemat.

Representatives of the group allege that subsequent crackdowns on the group’s activities and protests in Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Yobe, Plateau, Sokoto, and Abuja, the federal capital, have resulted in the death of at least 110 people.

“The repression against the IMN Shia Muslim group by government security forces risks creating grievances that could worsen Nigeria’s already precarious security situation,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The increasing spate of protests by the group is a cry for justice that authorities would do well to heed.”

The authorities should end impunity for the disproportionately violent Zaria attacks, carry out a speedy and independent investigation into subsequent crackdowns on protests, and hold anyone found responsible for using unlawful force to account.

In September 2016, a Kaduna State Judicial Commission of Inquiry recommended prosecuting soldiers involved in the Zaria killings. State prosecutors ignored that recommendation but brought charges against 177 members of the group in the killing of Corporal Dan Kaduna Yakubu, the only military casualty in the episode.

The lawyer for the defendants, Maxwell Kyon, told Human Rights Watch in June 2018 that defendants with severe gunshot wounds were denied medical care by prison authorities, resulting in the deaths of three of them in custody.

In July, after the defendants spent over two years in detention, the court discharged and acquitted 87 of them because the prosecution could not substantiate the charges. The trial of the 90 others is ongoing. 

Sanusi Abdulkadir, a leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) leads on November 16, 2016 in Kano the funeral prayers for the some of the victims of clashes that broke out on November 14 between police and members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) taking part in an annual 130-kilometre walk to the city of Zaria to mark the Ashura religious festival

© 2018 AMINU ABUBAKAR/AFP/Getty Images

The commission also recommended that Sheikh El Zakzaky should bear responsibility for failing to call his followers to order when authorities asked him to. The government refused to obey a December 2016 Abuja High Court order for his release and payment of compensation for the destruction of his home. The Sheikh and his wife were charged before a Kaduna high court in April 2018 with aiding and abetting murder, among other offenses. The court ordered them detained by the Department of State Security, pending their trial, set for 2019.

According to a media report, the police arrested another 115 members of the group during a protest in Abuja to demand El Zakzaky’s release in April. On October 27, soldiers shot into a gathering of the movement’s members in Zuba, a major bus terminal on the highway northwest of Abuja, leaving at least six people dead. On October 29, soldiers at a military checkpoint shot at the group’s religious procession at Karu, northeast of Abuja, killing at least 21 people. On October 30, the police used teargas and live ammunition to stop the group’s procession into the Abuja city center and arrested 400 members, 120 of whom have been charged with various offenses.

In statements released on October 28 and 29, the Nigerian army admitted that soldiers shot and killed three members of the group in Zuba, saying they had blocked the road and attempted to steal military equipment the troops were escorting from Abuja to the Army Central Ammunition Depot in Kaduna. The statement also said that soldiers killed three other members of the group after protesters threw fuel bottles, large stones, and other dangerous objects that injured four soldiers at the Karu checkpoint.

The Islamic movement, in a statement, rejected the army’s claims, countering that soldiers killed 42 of their members without provocation.

A spokesman for the group, Abdullahi Muhammad Musa, who took part in the Karu procession, told Human Rights Watch that though the soldiers initially fired warning shots to disperse the procession, they soon began shooting directly at protesters as they tried to flee.

Human Rights Watch documented 21 dead bodies with gunshot injuries and interviewed witnesses in Karu after the shootings on October 29. The group’s members said they kept the bodies at home, preserving them with blocks of ice to prevent soldiers from burying them secretly to distort the death toll.

A senior medical officer at the Federal Medical Center in the town of Keffi told Human Rights Watch that four injured victims of the Karu incident had been treated there. The doctor said that one woman’s hand was amputated because of gunshot wounds, another had gunshot wounds to her right leg, and two men had been shot in the head.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights General Comment on the Right to Life states that firearms should never be used simply to disperse an assembly and prohibits intentional lethal use of force by law enforcement officials, unless it is strictly unavoidable in order to protect life and all other means are insufficient to achieve that objective.

Any unnecessary use of force, especially lethal force, by security forces violates Nigeria’s obligations under international law, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, as well as national constitutional guarantees of the rights to life, and freedom of religion, peaceful assembly, and movement. The Nigerian army has yet to respond to a Human Rights Watch request for comments on the allegations.

“Any unlawful use of violent force against processions and protesters is highly likely to be counterproductive, as well as a crime,” Ewang said. “International partners providing assistance to the Nigerian military should press authorities to respect those rights and ensure that anyone responsible for unlawful violence and for killing Islamic Movement members faces justice in an open and fair trial.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 12, 2018, 7:00 am

Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo sit beside police officers as they leave Insein court in Yangon, Myanmar July 9, 2018. 

© 2018 Reuters

It’s been one year since Myanmar police arrested Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on December 12, 2017. Over the past year, Myanmar’s increasingly restricted state of press freedom has been laid bare for the world to see.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been imprisoned since their arrest while investigating a massacre by the military in the village of Inn Din in Rakhine State. On September 30, a court convicted them of violating the country’s Official Secrets Act and sentenced both to seven years in prison. 

Their conviction in the face of strong evidence that the police handed them documents as part of a plan to trap and arrest them has sent a chill through the Myanmar media. “After the Reuters journalists were arrested, most journalists were asking ‘Who will be the next victim?’” said a local journalist. “We are always asking ourselves, ‘What if we print that story? Will there be a problem for us?’” Reporting on abuses by the military and Rohingya Muslims is considered particularly risky.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo took the risk to investigate and uncover such compelling evidence of a massacre that even the military could not disregard the truth. In April, two months after Reuters published its investigation, the military announced that seven soldiers had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for their part in the massacre.

The world is finally catching up to Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s act of bravery: the two were featured in Time magazine’s Person of the Year issue identifying “the Guardians and the War on Truth.” Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Su Kyi should immediately request President Win Myint to grant them a full pardon. The parliament should then move swiftly to amend the colonial-era Official Secrets Act and other repressive laws so they conform to international human rights standards. Myanmar’s leaders need to stop making excuses and end once and for all the abusive laws being used to arrest and imprison journalists simply for doing their job.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 12, 2018, 5:01 am

Egyptians shout slogans against the government while on a ferry during the funeral of Syed Tafshan, who died in clashes with residents of the Nile island of al-Warraq island, when security forces attempted to demolish illegal buildings, in the south of Cairo, Egypt July 16, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

(Geneva) – The United Nations should ensure an urgent and robust system-wide response to credible reports that the Egyptian authorities have attacked people who engaged with the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing, six human rights organizations said today.

The UN expert was in Egypt from September 24 to October 3, 2018, the first visit of a UN human rights expert to Egypt in almost a decade.

A joint statement issued by the special rapporteurs on adequate housing and on the situation of human rights defenders described the attacks as “a worrying pattern of reprisals against individuals and communities directly related to the visit of the special rapporteur on the right to housing.”.

Witnesses said that several people who met with the special rapporteur’s team or provided them with information experienced reprisals. They included the demolition of several homes, the incommunicado detention of one man for two days, summons for interrogation in police stations, and a travel ban against one lawyer.

These recent reports are the latest in what has become a systematic pattern by the Egyptian authorities of attacking or otherwise carrying out reprisals against those who attempt to engage with or provide information to UN entities on human rights violations by the Egyptian authorities. Egyptian security forces also placed restrictions on the rapporteur’s movement in Egypt.

“Restricting the work of a UN team after officially inviting them to visit the country and retaliating against individuals who cooperated with her is a testament to how the Egyptian government deals with human rights: mere decorative actions to cover up unprecedented oppression of civil society,” the organizations said.

During her visit, the special rapporteur visited several areas in Cairo to investigate the right to adequate housing, but the authorities refused to allow her to visit Warraq island, in Giza, where residents are at risk of forced eviction. In Manshiyet Naser, an area in Western Cairo known for unsafe housing conditions and where authorities have been carrying out forced evictions, residents and lawyers operating in the area confirmed that police officers arrested one man the special rapporteur had met with several days earlier. The police held him incommunicado for two days, before releasing him without charge.

In addition, on October 22, the authorities demolished several houses in the neighborhood, including at least one belonging to someone with whom the special rapporteur had met. These demolitions were also reported by Egyptian media, including the pro-government newspaper al-Youm7 which published photos of the demolitions.

The steps the UN has taken to challenge the Egyptian government’s brutal and widespread campaign of repression are commendable. This includes recent statements that strongly denounce the mass death sentences for people who participated in protests in Egypt, and a rare call by a large number of UN independent experts for the UN Human Rights Council to “urgently respond” to the government’s “appalling” behavior.

The organizations said that Egypt appears to be attempting to use the UN to whitewash its abysmal human rights record by agreeing to country visits by a few selected UN experts, including on the right to adequate housing, on the rights of persons with albinism, and the independent expert on foreign debt, among others.

Instead of working on improving its human rights records and ending human rights violations, the Egyptian government’s response to the UN about these violations has been to deny any and all wrongdoing and to accuse the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights and other UN officials of breaching UN standards and adopting the “lies” of “terrorist” organizations.

This is happening in the context of a whole-scale repression campaign that the government has been leading to crush civil society and independent organizations by means of intimidation, arbitrary arrests, unfair prosecutions, and travel bans, among other abusive measures. The attacks against those who engaged with the special rapporteur on adequate housing and the restrictions imposed on her team during her visit are a direct attack on the UN system itself and a flagrant example of non-cooperation with the UN human rights system. These may also set a dangerous precedent in which a visit of a UN expert is used by the authorities to target and harass those who denounce human rights violation, including through the commission of further human rights violations. 

In light of these alarming circumstances, the organizations urge the UN to take prompt action to address these attacks, including: 

  • The Coordinating Committee of the UN Special Procedures and all UN Special Procedure mandate holders should ensure that any further visits to Egypt are accompanied by sufficient and credible action by the Egyptian government to guarantee respect for the Terms of Reference for country visits, including: (a) confidential and private contacts with witnesses and others; (b) that no reprisals will occur against those who cooperate or seek to cooperate with the UN; and (c) that reprisals that may have occurred are adequately addressed, including by carrying out credible, thorough, and independent investigations into allegations and, where appropriate, providing adequate reparations to victims of reprisals documented by the UN in recent years. If the Egyptian authorities fail to adhere to such measures, the Coordinating Committee should recommend suspending further visits to Egypt.
  • The Office of the Secretary General, represented by the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, should ensure an independent UN investigation into allegations of reprisals committed in the context of the visit of the special rapporteur on adequate housing. It should provide a report to relevant UN bodies, including to the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, on these attacks and propose steps by the UN system and the Egyptian authorities to address such reprisals and ensure that they are not repeated.   
  • The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) should review any ongoing cooperation between the Egyptian government and the OHCHR in light of numerous and serious reports of reprisals committed by the Egyptian government against those who engage with the UN human rights system. The OHCHR should ensure that any further cooperation includes a clear, time-bound commitment by the Egyptian government to ensure credible, thorough, impartial, and independent investigations into allegations of reprisals and, where appropriate, provide adequate reparations for victims.
  • The Human Rights Council President should address allegations of reprisals, including engaging directly with the Egyptian authorities, in line with good practices of Council Presidents.
  • UN member states should initiate action at the UN Human Rights Council to address these reprisals and ensure that Egypt adheres to its responsibilities as a member state of the UN as well as a current member of the UN Human Rights Council, recalling that members are bound to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights, and fully cooperate with the Council (GA RES 60/251).

It is critical for the UN and its member states to ensure an urgent and robust UN system-wide response to address the dire situation that civil society is facing in Egypt, including attacks by the government in reprisal against those who met with the special rapporteur on adequate housing, the groups said. Failing to do so will only encourage similar human rights violations in the future and risk undermining the accessibility and credibility of the UN experts and wider human rights system.

The organizations are:

Amnesty International
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
The Committee for Justice
Human Rights Watch
International Service for Human Rights
Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 12, 2018, 5:00 am

Russian blogger, Zhenya Svetski, wearing a rainbow scarf in Moscow, December 2018. 

© 2018 Dmitry Belyakov for Human Rights Watch

(New York) – Russia’s “gay propaganda” law is having a negative impact on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The 2013 law exacerbated the hostility LGBT people in Russia have long suffered, and also stifled access to LGBT-inclusive education and support services, with harmful consequences for children.

The 92-page report, “No Support: Russia’s ‘Gay Propaganda’ Law Imperils LGBT Youth,” documents how Russia’s “gay propaganda” law is having a deeply damaging effect on LGBT children. Human Rights Watch interviewed LGBT youth and mental health professionals in diverse locations across Russia, including urban and rural areas, to examine the everyday experiences of the children in schools, homes, and in public, and their ability to get reliable and accurate information about themselves as well as counseling and other support services.

“Russia’s ‘gay propaganda’ law is harming youth by cutting them off from vital information,” said Michael Garcia Bochenek, senior children’s rights counsel at Human Rights Watch. “And amid the intense social hostility surrounding LGBT people in Russia, the law stops mental health providers from counseling children who have questions about sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Formally called the law “aimed at protecting children from information promoting the denial of traditional family values,” the “gay propaganda” law bans the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” – a reference universally understood to mean a ban on providing children with access to information about LGBT people’s lives. The ban includes, but is not limited to, information provided via the press, television, radio, and the Internet.

The law directly harms children by denying them access to essential information and fostering stigma against LGBT children and their families, Human Rights Watch found.

The 2013 law contributed to an intensification of stigma, harassment, and violence against LGBT people in Russia. The law has been used to shut down online information and mental health referral services for children and discourage support groups and mental health professionals from working with children. It has further entrenched antipathy toward LGBT people, and it has had a chilling effect on mental health professionals who work with LGBT youth, with some psychologists reporting self-censorship on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Russia’s “gay propaganda” law is a classic example of political homophobia, Human Rights Watch said. It targets vulnerable sexual and gender minorities for political gain. When President Vladimir Putin signed the federal law in June 2013, he pandered to widespread antipathy toward LGBT people. The law gives the strong endorsement of the Russian state to the false and discriminatory view that LGBT people are a threat to tradition and the family. On the international stage, the law helped position Russia as a champion of so-called “traditional values.”

“No one wants to get beaten on the street, but that’s the fear LGBT people in Russia live with now,” Nikita R., an 18-year-old transgender man, told Human Rights Watch. “We know that most people believe the mass media, and the stories there teach them that we are horrible creatures, so we are in danger all the time.”

The law has been used multiple times to shut down Deti-404 (Children-404), an online group that offers psychological support, advice, and a safe online community for LGBT children, including those who experience violence and aggression because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The law’s effects have also been insidious in clinical and counseling settings. Mental health providers told Human Rights Watch that the law interferes with their ability to offer honest, scientifically accurate, and open counseling services, leading some to self-censor themselves or set out explicit disclaimers at the start of sessions.

During proceedings at the European Court of Human Rights about the law, Dr. Ilan Meyer, an internationally renowned expert in social psychology and public health specializing in minority populations, submitted testimony that the law does not protect youth, and in fact harms them.

“Should Russia aim to improve the health and well-being of its citizens…interventions that are the exact opposite of what the propaganda law dictates would be required,” he said.

“Furthermore, laws such as Russia’s propaganda law can have serious negative impact on the health and well-being of [LGBT people] in that the law increases and enshrines stigma and prejudice, leading to discrimination and violence.”

The court ruled in 2017 that the law violates the rights to freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination guaranteed in the European Convention on Human Rights, and that the law was indeed harmful to children.

A psychologist who works with LGBT youth told Human Rights Watch that almost every LGBT client she has ever had was “treated as if they were as scapegoats, clowns, or outcasts.” Amid such intense social hostility toward LGBT people, mental health support for youth is crucial.

But the “gay propaganda” law curtails the ability for mental health professionals to offer that support. Another psychologist described how even in situations where it is clinically relevant to discuss a child client’s sexual orientation, he feels constrained by the law: “Teenagers often wait for me to ask a direct and precise question about his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, but the law prevents me from doing that.” Another said she covers all LGBT-themed books on her office bookshelf during clinical sessions to avoid being accused of spreading “gay propaganda.”

“The ‘gay propaganda’ law risks inflicting long-term harm on generations of Russian youth by encouraging discrimination and curtailing access to support services,” Bochenek said. “This law doesn’t protect anyone, but it does cut off kids from the services they need to thrive, and in some cases even survive.” 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 12, 2018, 4:00 am

This week Bahraini soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi was taken to Bangkok Criminal Court, where bail was denied and his detention was extended for 60 days so Thailand can prepare his extradition to Bahrain, a country where he has said he was tortured.

Hakeem Ali Mohamed Ali al-Araibi in detention at Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok.

© 2018 Private

Al-Araibi is a former member of Bahrain’s national team who was detained following the 2011 Arab Spring protests in that country. He is a recognized refugee in Australia, where he now lives, and Canberra has requested Thailand allow him to return home. The Australian Football Federation, the Football Melbourne league, and his local Melbourne team have all appealed for his safe return.

Al-Araibi was arrested at Bangkok airport last month after flying to Thailand on honeymoon with his wife. His detention came on the basis of a now-lifted Interpol “red notice” arrest warrant issued on Bahrain’s request. Hakeem fears for his life if he is returned to the country he fled.

Speaking to Human Rights Watch from a Thai detention center on December 6, al-Araibi said: “Bahrain is a state that has no human rights. My life is in danger. FIFA should protect me and all players.”  He added, “I want to tell President Infantino that he has the power to save my life – and I am asking him to help.”

FIFA, the powerful global football body, has called urgently for al-Araibi’s freedom, saying it “is committed to the respect of internationally recognized human rights,” and concluding that it “supports the calls for the Thai authorities to allow Mr. Al-Arabi to return to Australia…at the earliest possible moment.”

But FIFA can do more. FIFA has recently made numerous reforms to uphold human rights, and has leverage over al-Araibi’s forced return to Bahrain.

FIFA’s Vice President is Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s ruling family. Al-Araibi has accused Sheikh Salman of failing to stop the persecution and torture of Bahraini athletes who joined the country’s 2011 protests. Sheikh Salman’s senior position within both FIFA and the Bahraini ruling family makes him well-positioned to stop the extradition, and should act immediately.

FIFA’s human rights policies will ring hollow if Bahrain succeeds in extraditing a player where there is a real risk he will suffer abuse.

Al-Araibi’s concluded his interview with me by saying: “Even if this is the last time we talk, you have my full authority to continue to fight for my case, for my freedom. Shukran.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 12, 2018, 1:01 am

Rath Rott Mony 

© Private
(New York) – The Thai government should not forcibly return the dissident Rath Rott Mony to Cambodia, Human Rights Watch said today. There are strong reasons to believe that Mony would face politically motivated prosecution, wrongful detention, and ill-treatment in Cambodia.

“Thailand should not do Cambodia’s bidding by forcibly returning an outspoken activist who exposed police failures to stop abuses and child sex trafficking,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Thai authorities should immediately release Rath Rott Mony and allow him to seek protection from the United Nations refugee agency.”

Thai authorities arrested Mony, 47, president of the Cambodian Construction Workers Trade Union Federation (CCTUF), in Bangkok on December 7, 2018, based on a formal request by the Cambodian government. Cambodian police are believed to be unhappy about his role in the production of the RT documentary “My Mother Sold Me,” which included accounts of poor girls sold into sex work. Cambodian authorities accused the documentary makers of paying the featured girls and their mothers to lie on camera to harm Cambodia’s reputation.

Thai authorities have frequently collaborated with the Cambodian government to harass, arrest, and forcibly return exiled dissidents – including opposition politicians, human rights activists, and journalists – who fled to Thailand to escape persecution by the Cambodian government under Prime Minister Hun Sen. It is critically important for Thai authorities not to put Mony into harm’s way in violation of international law.

Under customary international law, Thailand is obligated to ensure that no one is forcibly sent to a place where they would risk being subjected to persecution, torture, or other serious human rights violations. Article 3 of the Convention against Torture, which Thailand has ratified, prohibits actions to “expel, return (‘refouler’) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing” that they would be in a danger of being tortured.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 12, 2018, 12:55 am

Migrants including asylum seekers in a dilapidated building in Borici camp, Bihac, Bosnia Herzegovina. November 19, 2018.

© 2018 Human Rights Watch
(Budapest) – Croatian police are pushing migrants and asylum seekers back to Bosnia and Herzegovina, in some cases violently, and without giving them the possibility to seek asylum, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 people, including 11 heads of families and 1 unaccompanied boy, who said that Croatian police deported them to Bosnia and Herzegovina without due process after detaining them deep inside Croatian territory. Sixteen, including women and children, said police beat them with batons, kicked and punched them, stole their money, and either stole or destroyed their mobile phones.

Tent camp on outskirts of Velika Kladusa, Bosnia Herzegovina, close to Croatian border, where migrants including asylum seekers sleep rough. November 21, 2018.

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

“Croatia has an obligation to protect asylum seekers and migrants,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern EU researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, the Croatian police viciously beat asylum seekers and pushed them back over the border.”

All 20 interviewees gave detailed accounts of being detained by people who either identified themselves as Croatian police or wore uniforms matching those worn by Croatian police. Seventeen gave consistent descriptions of the police vans used to transport them to the border. One mother and daughter were transported in what they described as a police car. Two people said that police had fired shots in the air, and five said that the police were wearing masks.

These findings confirm mounting evidence of abuse at Croatia’s external borders, Human Rights Watch said. In December 2016, Human Rights Watch documented similar abuses by Croatian police at Croatia’s border with Serbia. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported in August 2018 that it had received reports Croatia had summarily pushed back 2,500 migrants and asylum seekers to Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina since the beginning of the year, at times accompanied by violence and theft.

In response to a call by the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner to investigate the allegations, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic in September denied any wrongdoing and questioned the sources of the information. Police in Donji Lapac, on the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, refused to provide Croatia’s ombudswoman, Lora Vidović, access to police records on treatment of migrants and told her that police are acting in accordance with the law.

In a December 4 letter, Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic responded to a detailed description of the Human Rights Watch findings. He said that the evidence of summary returns and violence was insufficient to bring criminal prosecutions, that the allegations could not be confirmed, and that migrants accuse Croatian police in the hope that it will help them enter Croatia. He said that his ministry does not support any type of violence or intolerance by police officers.

Croatia has a bilateral readmission agreement with Bosnia and Herzegovina that allows Croatia to return third-country nationals without legal permission to stay in the country. According to the Security Ministry of Bosnia and Herzegovina, under the agreement, between January and November 27, Croatia returned 493 people to Bosnia and Herzegovina, 265 of whom were Turkish nationals. None of the people Human Rights Watch interviewed underwent any formal return procedure before being forced back over the border.

The summary return of asylum seekers without consideration of their protection needs is contrary to European Union asylum law, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Croatian authorities should conduct thorough and transparent investigations of abuse implicating their officials and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said. They should ensure full cooperation with the Ombudswoman’s inquiry, as required by national law and best practice for independent human rights institutions. The European Commission should call on Croatia, an EU member state, to halt and investigate summary returns of asylum seekers to Bosnia and Herzegovina and allegations of violence against asylum seekers. The Commission should also open legal proceedings against Croatia for violating EU laws, Human Rights Watch said.

As a result of the 2016 border closures on the Western Balkan route, thousands of asylum seekers were stranded, the majority in Serbia, and found new routes toward the EU. In 2018, migrant and asylum seeker arrivals increased in Bosnia and Herzegovina, from fewer than 1,000 in 2017 to approximately 22,400, according to the European Commission. The Commission estimates that 6,000 migrants and asylum seekers are currently in the country. Bosnia and Herzegovina has granted international protection to only 17 people since 2008. In 2017, 381 people applied for asylum there.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has only one official reception center for asylum seekers near Sarajevo, with capacity to accommodate just 156 people. Asylum seekers and migrants in the border towns of Bihac and Velika Kladusa, where Human Rights Watch conducted the interviews, are housed in temporary facilities managed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – a dilapidated building, a refurbished warehouse, and former hotels – or they sleep outdoors. The IOM and UNHCR have been improving the facilities. The EU has allocated over €9 million to support humanitarian assistance for asylum seekers and migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Just because the EU is sending humanitarian aid to refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that does not justify turning a blind eye to violence at the Croatian border,” Gall said. “Brussels should press Zagreb to comply with EU law, investigate alleged abuse, and provide fair and efficient access to asylum.”

For detailed accounts by the people interviewed, please see below.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 men, 6 women, and one 15-year-old unaccompanied boy. All interviewees’ names have been changed in order to protect their security and privacy. All interviews were conducted in English or with the aid of a Persian or Arabic speaking interpreter. Human Rights Watch informed interviewees of the purpose of the interview and its voluntary nature, and they verbally consented to be interviewed.

Denied Access to Asylum Procedure, Summarily Returned

All 20 people interviewed said that people who identified themselves as Croatian police or whom they described as police detained them well inside Croatian territory and subsequently returned them to Bosnia and Herzegovina without any consideration of asylum claims or human rights obstacles to their return.

Nine said that police detained them and others and took them to a police station in Croatia. The others said that police officers took them directly to the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina and made them cross.

Those taken to police stations said they were searched, photographed, and questioned about details such as their name, country of origin, age, and their route entering Croatia. They were not given copies of any forms. They said they were held there in rooms with limited or no seating for between 2 and 24 hours, then taken to the border. Three people said they asked for asylum at the police station but that the police ignored or laughed at them. Six others said they dared not speak because police officers told them to remain quiet.

Faven F. and Kidane K., a married couple in their thirties from Eritrea, said they had been walking for seven days when they were detained on November 9, close to Rijeka, 200 kilometers from the border. They said that four men in green uniforms detained them in the forest and took them in a windowless white van without proper seats to a police station in Rijeka:

They delivered us to new police. One was in plain clothes, the other one in dark blue uniform that said “Policija” on it…. At the station, they gave us a paper in English where we had to fill in name, surname, and place of birth…. A lady officer asked us questions about our trip, how we got there, who helped us. We told them that if Croatia can give us asylum, we would like to stay. The lady officer just laughed. They wrote our names on a white paper and some number and made us hold them for a mug shot. Then they kept us in the cell the whole night and didn’t give us food, but we could drink tap water in the bathroom.

Yaran Y., a 19-year-old from Iraq, was carrying his 14-year old sister Dilva, who has a disability and uses a wheelchair, on his back when they were detained along with at least five others at night in the forest. Yaran Y. said he told officers he wanted asylum for his sister, but that the police just laughed. “They told us to go to Brazil and ask for asylum there,” Yaran Y. said.

Ardashir A., a 33-year-old Iranian, was travelling with his wife and 7-year-old daughter in a group of 18 people, including 3 other children, the youngest of whom is under age 2. He said that Croatian police detained the group 12 kilometers inside Croatian territory on November 15 and took them to a police station:

They [Croatian police] brought us to a room, like a prison. They took our bags and gave us only a few slices of bread. There were no chairs, we sat on the floor. Two people in civilian clothes came after a while, I don’t know if they were police, but they took a group picture of us and refused to let us go to the toilet. A 10-year-old child really needed to go but wasn’t allowed so he had to endure. After two hours they took us … to the border.

Adal A., a 15-year-old boy from Afghanistan traveling on his own said that he was detained on November 15 near Zagreb and taken in a white windowless van to a police station:

They searched us at the police station and took our phones, power banks, bags, and everything we had. They took three kinds of pictures: front, side, and back. We had to hold a paper with a number. I was asked questions about my name, where I am from, my age, and about the smuggler. I told them I’m 15. We then sat in a room for 24 hours and received no food but could get water from the tap in the toilet.

Palmira P., a 45-year-old Iranian, said that a female police officer mistreated Palmira’s 11-year-old daughter during a body search in a police station courtyard on the outskirts of Rijeka in early November: “She pulled my daughter’s pants down in front of everyone. My daughter still has nightmares about this policewoman, screaming out in the middle of the night, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it!’”

Everyone interviewed said that Croatian police confiscated and never returned or destroyed their phones and destroyed power banks and phone chargers. Four people said that Croatian police forced them to unlock their phones before stealing them.

Madhara M., a 32-year-old from Iran, said a police officer found a €500 bill in his pocket on November 15: “He looked at it, inspected it, and admired it and then demonstratively put it in his pocket in front of me.”

Accounts of Violence and Abuse

Seventeen people described agonizing journeys ranging from 15 minutes to five hours in windowless white police vans to the border. In two cases, people described the vans with a deep dark blue/black stripe running through the middle and a police light on top. A Human Rights Watch researcher saw a police van matching that description while driving through Croatia.

Croatian roads close to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina cross windy, mountainous terrain. People interviewed said they had experienced nausea, vomited, or felt extreme cold or heat in the van. A 23-year-old Syrian woman said she believed the difficult van ride and pushback caused her to miscarry her 7-week pregnancy. Amez A., a 28-year-old Iraqi, said police sprayed what he thought was teargas into the van before closing the back doors and driving off, making everyone in the car vomit and have difficulty breathing.

Sixteen people, including women and children, said that they were slapped, pummelled with fists, beaten with police batons made of rubber or wood, or kicked by people they described as or who identified themselves as Croatian police during the pushbacks.

In many cases, the violence was accompanied by abusive language in English. Human Rights Watch observed marks and bruises on nine people and viewed photographs of injuries on four more who said they were the result of beatings by Croatian police officers. Four people said that they required treatment at Bosnian hospitals.

Adal A., the 15-year-old unaccompanied boy, described a particularly vicious beating on November 16:

They wore dark blue uniforms with masks, and as I exited the van, both police hit me with their batons. I felt a blow to my neck and I fell forward and wanted to get up. At that point, I was on the Bosnian side of the border stones, where another six Croatian police officers stood waiting. They were all over me, beating me. I don’t know how they beat me, but it was hard and strong, and I tried to protect my face. I was so badly beaten on my back that I still can’t sleep on it properly because of the pain. When they saw that my nose was bleeding, and that my hand was injured and that I couldn’t walk, they stopped…. They yelled “Go!” and as I was trying to leave, they fired guns in the air.

Human Rights Watch interviewed Adal A. four days after he said this had happened and observed marks and bruises on his legs and arms.

Aftab A., 37, from Iran, said that police officers in dark blue uniforms beat him and his 12-year-old son in what he called the “Tunnel of Death:”

They [police] make this tunnel [lined up on each side] and you have to pass. They took us out of the van one by one and they started beating me with batons from both sides. I was beaten on my arm, shoulder, and on my knee with batons. My son was beaten with batons on his back and on his head…We kept screaming ‘my son my son!’ or ‘my dad my dad!’ but they didn’t care. They kept beating at us until we crossed the border. Even my wife was struck across her back with a baton. The child was so scared and was crying for half an hour and then wouldn’t speak for a long time.

Madhara M., 32, from Iran, was taken to the border on November 15 along with four others, including a married couple. He said that Croatian police beat him and then threw him into a ditch he said separates Croatia from Bosnia and Herzegovina:

There were about eight police officers in front of the van. But there were more behind them making sure we can’t run away. The first punch broke my tooth… I fell, and the officer rolled me over, and punched me in the eye. It was so painful, I tried to escape by crawling, but the police struck me with the baton on my back. Suddenly, I received a second blow on the same eye. Then the police officers grabbed me and threw me into the ditch. All along, they were laughing and swearing in English, things like ‘I will fuck your mother.’

Bahadur B. and Nabila N., both 32 and from Iran, are a married couple who were traveling with Madhara M. Nabila N., who was three-months’ pregnant at the time, described the violence at the border:

They [Croatian police] were standing four on one side and four on the other side. We call it the ‘terror tunnel.’ They told us to get out. Bahadur tried to help me down from the van, as I was stiff from the ride. When he did, the police started beating him…I turned and screamed at them to stop beating my husband, but…. I stumbled on a bag in the darkness…When I got up, I was face-to-face with a police officer who was wearing a mask. I kept screaming, “Please don’t do it, we will leave” but he deliberately hit me hard with his baton across my hand. I kept screaming “baby, baby!” during the whole ordeal but they didn’t listen, they just laughed.

Both Yaran Y., 19, and his sister Dilva, 14, who has a physical disability, said they required medical treatment after Croatian police used physical force during the pushback in early July. Yaran Y. said:

I was carrying Dilva on my back the whole way while others pushed her wheelchair. Our family travelled with five other people. It was dark, when the police surprised us by firing shots in the air. They police wore dark or black color uniforms and there were six or seven of them. I asked one of the police officers for asylum but he harshly pushed me so I fell with my sister on my back. In the fall, my sister and I landed on a sharp wooden log which severely injured her foot and my hand.

A Human Rights Watch researcher observed scars on Dilva’s foot and Yaran’s hand and saw pictures of the fresh injuries.

Sirvan S., 38, from Iraq, said Croatian police in dark blue uniforms beat him and his youngest son, age 6, during a pushback on November 14: “My son and I were beaten with a rubber baton. I was beaten in the head and on my leg. My son was beaten with a baton on his leg and head as well as he was running from the police.” Sirvan’s wife, 16-year-old daughter, and 14-year-old son witnessed the violence.

Gorkem G., 30, travelling with his 25-year-old pregnant wife, 5-year-old son, and 2-year-old daughter, said that Croatian police pushed his son, so he fell hard to the ground. “He only wanted to say “hi” to the police,” Gorkem G. said

Family members described the anger, frustration, and trauma they experienced seeing the police officers beat their loved ones. A 10-year-old Yazidi boy from Iraq said, “I saw how police kicked my father in his back and how they beat him all over. It made me angry.” His father, Hussein H., said that police officers had dragged him out of the van at the border and kicked and punched him when he was on the ground.

Fatima F., 34, a Syrian mother of six, travelled with her husband’s 16-year-old brother and three of her children, ages 2, 4, and 10. She said that three police officers in dark uniforms beat her husband’s brother in front of her and her children:

They were merciless […] One officer was by the van, one in the middle of the line of people, and one close to the path [into Bosnia and Herzegovina]. They kept beating the others with batons, and kicking. They [the officers] saw me and the kids but they just kept beating the men despite the kids crying. They didn’t beat me or the children, but the children were very afraid when they saw the men being beaten. My oldest girl kept screaming when she saw my husband’s brother get beaten…[she] screams out in the middle of the night.

In three cases, people said they were forced to cross ice-cold rivers or streams even though they were near a bridge.

Thirty-year-old Abu Hassan A. from Iran, travelling in a group of seven other single men, said:

They [police] were wearing masks. There was a bridge about 50-60 meters away. More than six police were guarding the bridge. It [the stream] was about 5-6 meters wide and waist high and muddy. They told us we have to cross. Then the police… beat me with batons and kicked me, and the first handed me over to the second police who did the same thing, and then handed me over to the third, who did the same thing. After that, I was close to the riverbank, where two other police were waiting. The first one beat me again with baton and pushed me toward the other. They beat me on the legs, hands, arms, shoulders. This is what they did to force us to go into the water and across. I could barely stand or walk for a week after.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 11, 2018, 5:01 am

(New York) – Human Rights Watch released an interactive online game today to help people understand how important strong encryption is to everyone’s security in the digital age. The interactive feature, “Everyday Encryption,” shows how encryption protects people in their daily lives.

Technology companies and nongovernmental groups rely on encryption to secure sensitive data from malicious actors. At the same time, governments contend that encryption will limit their surveillance capabilities, saying that they are “going dark” in their ability to investigate crime and monitor potential terrorist threats. On December 6, 2018, the Australian parliament rushed to pass the Assistance and Access Bill to enable access to encrypted data. However, cybersecurity experts warn that this would weaken the security measures people rely on every day, in Australia and worldwide.

“Encryption helps shield our online transactions, personal data, intimate photos, and sensitive communications from prying eyes,” said Cynthia Wong, senior internet researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But how these technical defenses work is sometimes opaque, so we hope people who play the game will learn more about how important encryption is to their safety.”

A choose-your-own-adventure style game where the player is asked to guide a character in making choices about how she communicates or manages her data.

It is a choose-your-own-adventure style game where the player is asked to guide a character in making choices about how they communicate or manage their data. The game takes around 15 minutes to play and directs users to further resources on digital security and the policy debate on encryption.

Encryption scrambles data so that it is only readable by those who have the “key” to decode it. Financial institutions, online file storage services, phone and laptop makers, and other companies regularly use encryption to secure people’s personal data from cybercriminals and identity thieves. Websites increasingly support encryption, like Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS), to help shield people’s browsing habits from government agencies and others who may monitor their networks. And apps like WhatsApp, Signal, and iMessage encrypt chat messages end-to-end, in which the app provider doesn’t retain encryption keys and cannot read messages sent by users.

The interactive game, designed by Human Rights Watch’s 2017-2018 Ford-Mozilla open web fellow Rebecca Ricks, shows how encryption protects people in their daily lives – when they are surfing the web on a coffee shop’s Wi-Fi, for example – and what may happen if encryption built into devices or software is deliberately weakened. The game also demonstrates how encryption helps protect people who often find themselves under disproportionate scrutiny, such as activists, communities of color, or domestic violence survivors seeking safety from abusers.

Officials in several countries have begun demanding that companies like Apple, WhatsApp, and Telegram build intentional security weaknesses, known as “backdoors,” into their services to allow security agencies to get encrypted data. But this approach would weaken encryption for everyone and make people less safe.

In September 2018, law enforcement officials from the Five Eyes intelligence alliance –  a group that includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States – warned that if companies don’t voluntarily facilitate access to encrypted data, the countries “may pursue technological, enforcement, legislation or other measures” to force them to do so.

Australia's sweeping new law will allow security agencies to order technology firms to take vaguely described actions to enable access to encrypted data, without adequate judicial oversight and other critical safeguards.

The broadly drafted powers could, for example, enable authorities to force Apple and WhatsApp to send users fake software updates that would break encryption, secretly add third parties to users’ chats, or turn phones or smart speakers into live listening devices.  

Australia’s law is modelled on the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act, which similarly requires companies to potentially introduce intentional security vulnerabilities into encryption. In the US, law enforcement officials continue to call for anti-encryption legislation, even though they have been criticized for overstating the problem encryption poses to investigations. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had earlier tried to force Apple to override security measures built into iPhones to defeat encryption that protects user data. Authorities were investigating the perpetrators of the 2015 attack in San Bernardino, California, but eventually withdrew the court order because they were able to access the phone data without Apple’s help through a third-party contractor.

In April, Russia’s state media and communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, obtained a court ruling to block Telegram for the company’s failure to provide encryption keys to the Federal Security Service under counterterrorism legislation passed in 2016. Roskomnadzor then blocked millions of Internet Protocol addresses in an attempt to cut off access to Telegram inside the country, broadly disrupting access to unrelated websites and services. Iran also blocked Telegram in May and China has similarly passed a cybersecurity law that, if interpreted broadly, could require companies to install backdoors or refrain from using end-to-end encryption. In April 2017, the Chinese government released a Draft Encryption Law that, if passed, could harden backdoor requirements and restrict use of encryption to only pre-approved domestic products.

Government efforts to weaken encryption will endanger people and undermine rights. Where software makers do not retain encryption keys, the nearly universal view among cybersecurity experts is that it is impossible to build a backdoor for one government that wouldn’t leave all users exposed to people who would try to uncover that vulnerability for malicious purposes.

Repressive governments could exploit backdoors to identify “troublemakers” and throw them in jail, and cybercriminals seek them out to steal data for identity theft and credit card fraud. Even former Five Eyes intelligence officials and Europol have warned that undermining encryption for one purpose may have serious and widespread consequences that weaken cybersecurity overall.

“The debate over backdoors isn’t about privacy versus security, but rather inadequate security versus basic security for everyone,” Wong said. “With Australia and others passing laws that gut encryption in the technology we use every day, the public has a right to know just how much that will put our safety at risk, online and off.”


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 11, 2018, 5:01 am

A Chinese national flag sways in front of Google China's headquarters in Beijing on January 14, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

Google CEO Sundar Pichai will be in the hot seat tomorrow when he testifies before the United States House Judiciary Committee following an outcry over its plans to re-enter the Chinese search market.

A coalition of more than 70 human rights groups and advocates have raised serious questions about Google’s planned expansion in China in a letter released today.

Media reports said the Chinese search app, codenamed Project Dragonfly, would censor terms like “human rights” and “student protest”; track and store users’ location and search histories; and provide “unilateral access” to such data to a Chinese joint venture partner. This app would operate in a country with no meaningful privacy protections or independent judiciary, where threats to national security often include peaceful dissent, and where technology companies are required by law to facilitate surveillance.

So far, Google has described Project Dragonfly as “exploratory,” and declined to meaningfully respond to questions from rights groups, Congress, and the firm’s own employees.

Congress shouldn’t let this go. Here is what we hope the committee will ask to press Pichai on Google’s approach to China:

  1. Google publicly withdrew from the Chinese search market in 2010 because of human rights concerns, yet conditions have only worsened. What has changed since 2010 that leads Google to believe that re-entering China would lead to better outcomes?
  1. Google has committed to human rights principles to protect freedom of expression and privacy as a member of the Global Network Initiative (GNI). Google’s own Code of Conduct states it “is committed to advancing privacy and freedom of expression for our users around the world.” How will Google ensure Project Dragonfly or any other business in China is consistent with these principles?
  1. Google’s Artificial Intelligence Principles state it “will not design or deploy AI” for “technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of … human rights.” Even if Dragonfly was just “exploratory,” how does designing an app purpose-built for censorship and government surveillance in China comply with these commitments?
  1. Google offers two mobile apps in China – Google Translate and Files by Google – which potentially have access to incredibly sensitive user data. What information does Google collect about Chinese users, where is it stored, and how would they respond to a Chinese request for personal data?
  1. Google employees have been at the forefront of raising the alarm, privately and publicly, about Google’s approach to human rights. Will Pichai commit to protecting those employees from retaliation?
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 11, 2018, 12:01 am