Participants take part in the annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem July 21, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

This week, the Israeli government opposed a petition submitted by the Association of Israeli Gay Fathers requesting that common-law and same-sex couples be allowed to adopt. The government said that it opposed changing the law because adoption by same-sex couples would place an “additional burden” on the child.

“The professional opinion of the Child Welfare Services supports preserving the existing situation” that the adopting couple consist of a man and a woman, the brief said. The government takes into account “the reality of Israeli society and the difficulty it may entail with regard to the child being adopted.”

In short, the government is saying that social prejudice could negatively affect children of same-sex couples. But perpetuating discrimination in the name of child welfare is an untenable approach. Barring children from being adopted into loving, supportive families on spurious grounds is hardly in the best interest of the child.

There is in any case no real evidence to support the government’s concerns, and ample reason to doubt them. More than 70 peer-reviewed scholarly studies from around the world have concluded that children of gay or lesbian parents fare as well as other children. While providing a range of protections to same-sex people, Israeli law only permits adoption by same-sex couples in specific restricted situations, such as when there is a previous connection between the child and the prospective adoptive parent or the prospective adoptive parent is the partner of the child’s biological parent.

Israel is a member of the Equal Rights Coalition (ERC), an international coalition of countries advocating equal rights for LGBTI people. On June 6, the Netherlands issued a statement on behalf of all the 35 member-countries at the 35th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The coalition said that there is room for improvement among member countries to achieve full equality for LGBTI people: “We stand ready to learn from legislative processes and other positive examples aimed at strengthening the protection and promotion of equal rights for LGBTI persons and to share our experiences in repealing discriminatory laws, improve responses to hate-motivated violence, and promoting legal protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

There is still time for the Israeli government to reconsider its position. Keeping best practices in mind, the Israeli government should look at the 25 countries in the world that have already allowed adoption by same-sex couples, including the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Canada, and Spain, and reverse its decision to continue barring same-sex couples from adopting children.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 20, 2017, 4:43 pm

A man reacts to teargas fired by police at protesters calling for electoral reform in Harare, Zimbabwe, July 12, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

On Tuesday night, unidentified assailants burned down a bar in Harare owned by Elias Mudzuri, the deputy president of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, MDC-T. Mudzuri and several other local activists with whom I spoke believed that supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party were responsible for this attack, as well as the one that destroyed the house of an MDC-T local councilor.

ZANU-PF has not only rejected such allegations, but sought to blame the opposition. Last week, after an MDC-T vehicle was torched, Ignatious Chombo, the minister of Home Affairs responsible for the police, dismissed the attack as “an inside job [by the MDC-T] to get attention and a trick by a fracturing party that is facing loss in the next election.”

The recent cases of apparent political violence, like those in past years, have one thing in common: no arrests despite the victims’ willingness to file a report with the police. Human Rights Watch research has shown that the police’s failure to make arrests in these cases and the resulting impunity has helped fuel cycles of political violence in the country.

Nor does the minister responsible for the police enhance his and the department’s credibility by making partisan statements about criminal acts even before the police have investigated. Instead, Chombo should be directing the police to make impartial and thorough investigations, and arresting those found responsible. He is responsible for ensuring that the police work for all Zimbabweans regardless of their political affiliation.

In the current highly polarized environment, one of the biggest challenges Zimbabwe faces ahead of elections next year is to have independent, professional, and non-partisan institutions of justice. Zimbabwe’s neighbors in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) should press the government to provide justice for past abuses, end further violence, and ensure elections are credible, free, and fair. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 20, 2017, 2:17 pm

Demonstrators raises their thumbs in approval inside Congress in favor of a draft law by the government which seeks to ease the country's strict abortion ban, in Valparaiso, Chile, March 17, 2016. The law passed the Senate on July 19, 2017.

© 2016 Reuters

(Washington, DC) – The Chilean Senate on July 19, 2017 adopted a bill to ease abortion restrictions, Human Rights Watch said today. As Chile has the most restrictive abortion law in South America and one of the strictest in the world, the vote is a significant development in realizing women’s human rights and preventing unsafe, clandestine abortions in the region. 

The bill was approved more than two years after President Michelle Bachelet’s government introduced the original version of the bill.  The bill decriminalizes abortion under three circumstances:  if the life of the pregnant woman or girl is at risk; if the pregnancy is the result of rape; and if the fetus suffers severe conditions not compatible with life outside of the womb.

“Chile’s absolute prohibition on abortion has been a cruel law and bad public policy,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Doctors will no longer have to turn away women who are in desperate and life-threatening situations to seek clandestine or unsafe procedures.”

The Chilean Senate’s vote marks a significant advancement in the protection of women’s health and rights.

José Miguel Vivanco

Americas director

Chile is one of very few countries in the world where abortion is criminalized with no exceptions. They also include Nicaragua and El Salvador in Latin America, which has some of the world’s most restrictive abortion policies. These highly restrictive laws fuel unsafe, clandestine abortions, putting women’s lives at risk. By approving this bill, Chile distances itself from legal restrictions that directly harm women’s health, Human Rights Watch said.

President Bachelet first introduced the bill in January 2015 to address the absolute ban on abortion in Chile’s criminal code. Under articles 342 (3) and 344 of the Chilean Criminal Code of 1874, an abortion caused by the pregnant woman or another person is punishable by up to five years in prison.

The Senate voted on each exception to the abortion ban individually. The provision relating to a risk to the life of the pregnant women or girl was approved by a vote of 20 to 14.  The provision allowing abortion when a fetus is not viable was approved 19 to 14. The narrowest exception, and most controversial going into the vote, was abortion in the case of rape, which passed by only 2 votes, 18 to 16.   

This version of the bill must go back to the Chamber of Deputies before it is ready for President Bachelet to sign into law.

While the new law represents an advance in the region, the limitations in the law still mean that women who face health concerns due to a pregnancy cannot lawfully terminate a pregnancy. In addition, policymakers will have to address issues related to conscientious objection by a health care provider, which can impede access to legal abortion.

“The Chilean Senate’s vote marks a significant advancement in the protection of women’s health and rights,” Vivanco said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 20, 2017, 2:00 pm

(Beirut) – The Supreme Fatwa Committee linked to one of Libya’s competing governments should repeal a discriminatory religious edict accusing `Ibadi faith followers in Libya of “deviance” and adherence to an “infidel” doctrine, Human Rights Watch said today. The government linked to the committee, the Interim Government based in Al-Bayda, and parliament have yet to respond publicly to this edict.

In July 2017, the Supreme Fatwa Committee under the General Authority for Endowments and Islamic Affairs, the religious authority of the Interim Government, issued a religious edict or fatwa on the suitability of an `Ibadi preacher leading prayers in a mosque in the Nafussa Mountains, in western Libya. In the edict, the committee said that the minority sect of Islam was “a misguided and aberrant group. They are Kharijites with secret beliefs and infidels without dignity.” Kharijites is used to describe Muslims who rebelled against the Caliphate in the early ages of Islam.

“Religious authorities in Libya should stop pandering to extremists by castigating minorities in incendiary language,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Interim Government should repudiate this dangerous edict and affirm that all faiths and sects deserve tolerance and equal protection.”

`Ibadi Muslims number between 300,000 and 400,000 in Libya, according to the Libyan Tmazight Congress, an organization that advocates on behalf of members of the Amazigh community. The `Ibadi faith is practiced by Amazighs in the Nafussa Mountains, Tripoli, and the western coastal town of Zuwara. Amazighs constitute 5 to 10 percent of the Libyan population. Neighboring Tunisia and Algeria also have `Ibadi Muslim residents.

On July 10, the Amazigh Supreme Council, a body representing some Amazigh communities in Libya, decried the edict, as did The Libyan Tmazight Congress. On July 18, more than 200 Libyan writers, academics, activists, politicians, and journalists signed a statement in response to the fatwa, stating they “categorically rejected the sectarian religious discourse, which divides Libyans and strives to disseminate hate speech.”

Attacks against religious minorities in Libya have gone unpunished since the end of the 2011 uprising against the strongman Muammar Gaddafi. In 2012, armed groups with radical ideologies, attacked religious sites across the country, including in Tripoli, Zliten, and Misrata, destroying several mosques and tombs of Sufi religious leaders and scholars. Authorities at the time failed to stop the attacks and made no arrests. In 2015, an armed group that pledged allegiance to the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) murdered 21 mostly Egyptian Coptic Christians because of their faith, in the vicinity of the central coastal town of Sirte.

Armed conflict and insecurity have plagued Libya since May 2014, and caused the collapse of central authority and the emergence of three competing governments, including the Interim Government headed by Abdullah Al-Thinni, based in the eastern part of the country. Key institutions, most notably law enforcement and the judiciary, are either dysfunctional or unable to exercise their powers.

Given widespread insecurity across the country and lack of central authority, there is a real risk of persecution and attacks against `Ibadi faith members, who can be easily singled out and targeted, no matter where they are located, Human Rights Watch said. The incendiary edict issued by the religious authority in eastern Libya was in response to a request from an individual in the Nafussa Mountains in western Libya, who asked about the suitability of praying “behind” a preacher who followed the `Ibadi faith.

The Interim Government’s religious authority, the General Authority for Endowments and Islamic Affairs, oversees the Supreme Fatwa Committee as one of its divisions, and pays the salaries of staff and committee members. The Libyan National Army forces under General Khalifa Hiftar and Libya’s parliament, the House of Representatives headed by Agilah Saleh, support the Interim Government. The Government of National Accord (GNA), the only internationally recognized and UN-backed authority in Libya, is based in Tripoli.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 20, 2017, 6:01 am

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

© 2009 Raheb Homavandi/Reuters
 
(Beirut) – The Iranian government should immediately halt all executions for drug-related offenses while parliament debates amendments to reform the country’s drug law, Human Rights Watch said today. Parliament is expected to vote in two weeks on an amendment to the drug law that would drastically increase the bar for a mandatory death penalty sentence.
 
“It makes no sense for Iran’s judiciary to execute people now under a drug law that will likely bar such executions as early as next month,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It would be the height of cruelty to execute someone today for a crime that would at worst get them a 30-year sentence when this law is amended.”
 
On July 16, 2017, parliament approved a proposal to amend Iran’s 1997 Law to Combat Drugs to limit the death penalty for some nonviolent, drug-related offenses. However, parliament sent the draft legislation back to the parliamentary judiciary commission for a fourth time to deliberate the proposed changes for certain offenses.
 
Under Iran’s current drug law, at least 10 offenses, including some that are nonviolent, are punishable by death, including possession of as little as 30 grams of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines. The law also mandates the death penalty for trafficking, possession, or trade of more than five kilograms of opium or 30 grams of heroin; repeated offenses involving smaller amounts; or the manufacture of more than 50 grams of synthetic drugs.
 
On December 6, 2016, 146 members of parliament introduced a draft amendment that sought to replace capital punishment for drug offenses with imprisonment for up to 30 years, while allowing the death penalty if the accused or one of the participants in the crime used or carried weapons intending to use them against law enforcement agencies. The death penalty also would still apply to a leader of a drug trafficking cartel, anyone who used a child in drug trafficking, or anyone facing new drug-related charges who had previously been sentenced to execution or 15 years to life for drug-related offenses.
 
Under pressure from the judiciary and administration, however, the judiciary commission retracted part of their proposed amendments on July 9. It added the death penalty for nonviolent charges of “production, distribution, trafficking, and selling” of more than 100 kilograms of “traditional” drugs such as opium or two kilograms of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines. The commission also restored the death penalty for possession, purchase, or concealing more than five kilograms of “synthetic drugs.” In both cases the death penalty would only apply where the accused had previously been sentenced to more than two years for drug-related offenses. On July 18, Hasan Noroozi, the commission’s spokesman, told IRNA news agency that the commission is adding “possession, purchase or concealing” 50 kilograms of “traditional” drugs to the offenses punishable by death.
 
On April 9, the commission proposed to apply the amendments retroactively, which would dramatically reduce the number of people currently on death row in Iran. In addition, on July 5, judiciary commission members asked the judiciary to suspend executions of drug offenders until parliament could vote on the bill.
 
A Human Rights Watch review of the Norway-based Iran Human Rights Organization’s database, which documents executions in Iran, shows that Ghezelhesar and Karaj Central prisons have not carried out any executions since the beginning of Ramadan on May 26, but that other prison authorities in Isfahan, Western Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Sistan and Baluchestan, and Khorasan Razavi, have continued to execute people convicted of drug offenses. The group said that the authorities have executed at least 39 people since July 5 on drug-related charges.
 
In mid-July, Human Rights Watch interviewed via smartphone applications six family members of prisoners who are on death row. They said that they are hopeful that the new law would spare their loved ones from execution. The mother of a man executed in Khoram Abad prison in Lorestan province on June 24, said, “If authorities hadn’t executed my son today, [under the new law] he would have been sentenced to imprisonment.”
 
Iran has one the highest rates of executions in the world. According to Amnesty International, in 2016, Iran executed at least 567 people, the majority for drug-related convictions. In December 2016, Noroozi, the parliamentary judicial committee spokesman, urged parliament to amend the law, stating that 5,000 people are on Iran’s death row for drug-related offenses, the majority of them ages 20 to 30.
 
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented serious violations of due process, torture, and other violations of the rights of criminal suspects facing drug-related charges. Such flawed judicial proceedings heighten grave concerns about the application of the death penalty.
 
Under article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran has ratified, countries that still retain capital punishment may apply the death penalty only for the “most serious crimes.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that interprets the covenant, has said that drug offenses are not among the “most serious crimes,” and that the use of the death penalty for such crimes violates international law. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because it is inherently inhumane and irreversible.
 
“Parliament should resist any pressure to curb reforms to the drug law and move forward with a bill that better protects the right to life,” Whitson said. “This would be the first step in addressing the epidemic of executions in Iran and a move toward abolishing the death penalty.”
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 20, 2017, 5:01 am

Protesters gather in front of the Parliament building during a protest in Warsaw, Poland, July 16, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

(Budapest) – A bill being rushed through Poland’s Parliament would pave the way for government control of the Supreme Court, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill would terminate the mandate of existing Supreme Court judges, except those chosen by the government, and lead to a court in which all judges were effectively selected by the government. Parliament is set to vote on the bill on July 20, 2017.

Under the draft law, the National Judicial Council (NJC) will select new judges. A July 12 law effectively ensures that the council’s membership would predominantly consist of government appointees. The draft bill also states that the mandate of the first president of the Supreme Court, the most senior member on the bench, would expire when the incumbent turns 65. The current first president will turn 65 in November.

“This is a blatant attack by Poland’s government on the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Poland’s parliament should vote down this deeply flawed bill, which runs counter to European Union and Council of Europe standards.”

The Supreme Court plays a vital role in Poland. It supervises the work of lower courts, confirms the validity of parliamentary and presidential elections, and issues opinions on draft legislation. It has assumed greater importance since 2016 because the governing party has deliberately weakened the country’s highest court, the Constitutional Tribunal, and undermined its ability to review the constitutionality of laws. It appears that the ruling party is trying to do the same to the Supreme Court, Human Rights Watch said.

The draft law in its current state would call into question the independence of newly appointed judges and thereby undermine the Supreme Court, Human Rights Watch said.

The law adopted on July 12 effectively gives the government control over judicial appointments. It gives parliament, which is controlled by the ruling party, the power to dismiss current members of the National Judicial Council and appoint 22 of its 25 members. The council is responsible for appointing judges, including Supreme Court judges, and safeguarding the independence of courts and judges. The law undermines the separation of powers between the executive and judiciary and poses a serious threat to the independence of Poland’s justice system.

The moves have faced some opposition in parliament. During a fast-track first and second reading of the draft Supreme Court law on July 18, President Andrzej Duda, who usually backs the ruling party, submitted amendments to the July 12 Act that would require a three-fifths majority in parliament to appoint judges. The change would make it more difficult for the ruling party to push through Supreme Court appointments. The government said on July 18 that it planned to include amendments reflecting Duda’s to the draft law on Supreme Court. A parliamentary commission is reviewing the draft law ahead of the third and final reading and vote.

Since it came to power in October 2015, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) government has repeatedly undermined the rule of law. The Constitutional Tribunal has been a particular target. The governing majority failed to recognize the appointment of several duly appointed judges before the current government took power and passed laws that extended government influence over the tribunal and undermined its effectiveness and independence. The government has also refused to implement several court rulings that it viewed as unfavorable.

The government has also passed laws that interfere with media freedom, restrict freedom of assembly and association and sexual and reproductive rights, and adopted a problematic counterterrorism law.

The Polish government’s attack on the rule of law has drawn wide condemnation from the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner and secretary general, and other international bodies.

The European Commission in January 2016 triggered its 2014 rule of law mechanism against Poland, the first time it had used a procedure intended to address systematic threats to rule of law in member states. It includes three stages: a Commission assessment, dialogue with the member state, and recommendations and monitoring a member state’s follow up of the Commission’s recommendations. The European Commission issued recommendations to Poland for reforms to the Constitutional Tribunal in June 2016, which the Polish government has largely ignored. But the Commission has yet to take meaningful action in response.

On July 19, the Commission first vice-president, Frans Timmermans, indicated that the Commission was planning infringement proceedings if the law were adopted. He said that the Commission was also considering proceedings under article 7 of the EU Treaty that if accepted by the Council of EU member states could lead to the suspension of Poland’s voting rights.

The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, a constitutional law expert advisory body, published opinions in March and October 2016 raising serious concerns about Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal Act. The Polish government has ignored the concerns. On July 18, the Council’s secretary general, Thorbjorn Jagland, sent a letter to the speaker of Poland's parliament expressing concern about the draft law on the Supreme Court and the National Judicial Council Act. He urged the Polish parliament to uphold Council of Europe standards.

In April, the Council of Europe human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, said the Polish parliament should reject amendments to the National Judicial Council Act because they would compromise judicial independence. The Polish government ignored these calls.

The disturbing developments in Poland bear a striking resemblance to similar efforts by the Hungarian government to weaken its Constitutional Court, forcibly retire judges, and assert greater control over judicial appointments. The weak responses, and at times complete lack of responses, to developments in Hungary and Poland by other EU member states sends a signal that undermining the rule of law and flouting EU values carries few consequences, Human Rights Watch said.

“The European Commission has a responsibility to protect compliance with EU treaty obligations and use every tool at its disposal to deal with attacks on core rights in Poland, and member states have a responsibility to support those efforts,” Gall said. “Turning a blind eye to Poland’s efforts to undermine these rights would potentially encourage further rights violations that would be detrimental to people in Poland and to the EU as whole.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 20, 2017, 4:00 am

Journalist Pavel Sheremet talks on the air at a radio station in Kiev, Ukraine on October 11, 2015.

© 2016 Reuters

Pavel Sheremet, a leading journalist, was killed in central Kyiv one year ago today when a bomb planted in his car exploded. We still don’t know who did it and why.

Sheremet was known for his incisive journalism, raising issues of public concern – such as violence by volunteer battalions and investigations into corruption – that were often uncomfortable for the authorities. Since the early 1990s he had lived and worked in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, and was harassed, threatened, and detained for his work. For the past five years, he had been based in Ukraine, working for Ukrainskaya Pravda, a fiercely independent newspaper, and as a presenter at the Vesti radio station.

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko both promised on several occasions to do everything possible to find Sheremet’s killers. Yet we are no closer to knowing the truth than a year ago. What is clear is that there are many questions about the investigation, and Ukraine’s authorities have yet to provide convincing answers.

A team of journalists and researchers from the “Investigation.Info” project and the International Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project conducted their own investigation into Sheremet’s murder, revealing their findings in documentary “Killing Pavel.” They exposed major gaps in the official investigation, including the failure to identify and question several witnesses present at the crime scene before and during his car’s explosion. Investigators also disregarded key surveillance footage as evidence. A July report by the Committee to Protect Journalists also revealed glaring shortcomings in the authorities’ probe into the killing. All this poses questions about the authorities’ ability and willingness to conduct a rigorous and effective investigation.

Yesterday, several dozen prominent Ukrainian human rights defenders and journalists, along with international groups, published a joint open letter to the country’s leadership demanding an effective investigation into Sheremet’s death, calling for true transparency about its progress. Ukrainian authorities cannot afford to ignore these calls for justice. They need to go beyond unmet promises to deliver justice and answer the question: Who killed Sheremet? 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 20, 2017, 4:00 am

(Beirut) – Lebanese authorities should conduct an independent, thorough, and transparent investigation into the deaths of Syrians in military custody and allegations of torture and ill-treatment in detention, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 4, 2017, the Lebanese military issued a statement saying four Syrians died in its custody following mass raids in Arsal, a restricted access area in northeast Lebanon where many Syrian refugees live. On July 14, Human Rights Watch received credible reports that a fifth Syrian detainee had also died in custody.

A Lebanese soldier at an army post in the hills above the Lebanese town of Arsal

© 2016 Reuters

A doctor with expertise in documenting torture reviewed photos of three of the men provided by their family lawyers to Human Rights Watch, which showed widespread bruising and cuts. He said the injuries were “consistent with inflicted trauma in the setting of physical torture” and that “any statement that the deaths of these individuals were due to natural causes is inconsistent with these photographs.” Human Rights Watch also spoke with five former detainees, who said that army personnel beat and ill-treated them and other detainees. A military officer told Human Rights Watch that the army was investigating the deaths and would publish its findings.

“While the Lebanese army’s promise to investigate these shocking deaths is a positive step, the promise will be meaningless without transparent and independent accountability for anyone found guilty of wrongdoing,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Anyone who supports the Lebanese army should support efforts to tackle such serious allegations of military abuse.”

Photos of the bodies of three Syrians who died in Lebanese military custody, provided to Human Rights Watch by their families' lawyers. © 2017 Private

On June 30, the Lebanese army announced it had raided two unofficial refugee camps in Arsal that day, and was met with suicide bombers, a bomb, and a grenade, resulting in the injury of seven soldiers. On July 15, the army released a statement saying that it detained 356 people following these raids. It referred 56 for prosecution and 257 to the General Security agency for lack of residency. A humanitarian organization official told Human Rights Watch that children were among those detained.

The Lebanese army regularly conducts raids on unofficial refugee camps in Lebanon, but has not responded to questions from Human Rights Watch about the purpose of these raids. The raids came amid calls from Lebanese politicians for the return of refugees to Syria and reports of an impending military operation against armed groups on the Syrian border near Arsal.

Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm reports that Syrians died during the raids themselves, but a source in Arsal said the municipality received nine bodies, not including the five men who were reported to have died in custody.

The army’s July 4 statement said that four detainees who “suffered from chronic health issues that were aggravated due to the climate condition” died before being interrogated. It identified them as Mustafa Abd el Karim Absse, 57; Khaled Hussein el-Mleis, 43; Anas Hussein el-Husseiki, 32; and Othman Merhi el-Mleis. The army did not specify where it had detained them.

Human Rights Watch spoke with a family member and a close acquaintance of two of the deceased, who said that they had no known serious health conditions. Both said that the army gave no reason for the arrests and did not notify the families of the deaths.

On July 14, Human Rights Watch received reports that a fifth Syrian detainee, Toufic al Ghawi, 23, died in detention after the army transferred him to the Elias Hrawi government hospital. A witness in Arsal who saw the body before burial said, “Toufic didn’t look human anymore. His flesh was torn apart.” Human Rights Watch has not received photographs of the body.

Additional evidence supports the allegations of abuse and torture during the arrests in Arsal and at military detention facilities. A witness in Arsal told Human Rights Watch that he had seen 34 former detainees with marks on their hands, legs, and backs, and in one case, on a former detainee’s head.

Human Rights Watch spoke with five former detainees who said they were mistreated, physically abused, and denied food and water, along with scores of other detainees during four to five days of detention without charge before being released.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the military on July 10 to verify the number of those arrested, injured, or killed during the army raids; those still in custody; and the conditions of their detention, but has not received a response. Human Rights Watch also requested permission to enter Arsal to interview witnesses, but has not received permission. An army officer told Human Rights Watch that the army was not allowing “media organizations” to enter Arsal. Human Rights Watch shared its findings with the military and military prosecutor.

Under international law, Lebanon has an obligation to investigate deaths in custody and hold those responsible to account. Human Rights Watch and local human rights organizations have long documented reports of torture and ill-treatment by security services including the army. Impunity for violence is a recurring problem in Lebanon. Even when officials have initiated investigations into deaths, torture, or ill-treatment, they have often not been concluded or made public. Human Rights Watch is not aware of cases where military personnel have been held to account.

“The Lebanese public and the Syrian families of those who died in detention deserve a clear accounting of what happened to them and punishment for those found responsible,” Whitson said. “Unfortunately, Lebanese authorities have a history of opening investigations in response to public pressure, but failing to conclude them or publish the results.”

Photographic Evidence of Torture
Human Rights Watch received 28 photographs of three of the deceased men, taken at the Elias Hrawi government hospital in Zahle, from the law firm representing the families of the deceased. The lawyers said they were not able to locate Othman el-Mleis’s body. Dr. Homer Venters, director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights, who has expertise in documenting torture, reviewed the photographs and shared his report:

The photos reveal widespread physical trauma of the upper and lower extremities. The lack of defensive wounds suggests that these injuries were inflicted while the victims were restrained or otherwise incapacitated and the distribution of these injuries are consistent with inflicted trauma in the setting of physical torture. Several of the photos are consistent with lacerations caused from being suspended by the wrists. It would be reasonable to conclude that the deaths of these men is the result of in-custody violence, although the precise cause of death cannot be predicted based on the information and photographs submitted. Any statement that the deaths of these individuals was due to natural causes is inconsistent with these photographs.

Corroborating Evidence of Torture and Mistreatment of Arsal Detainees
Human Rights Watch spoke with five former detainees from Arsal who said they were detained without charge for four to five days. They said soldiers handcuffed them, hooded them with their shirts, put them on the ground in the sun, and stomped or hit anyone raising their head. “I moved my head up slightly, and immediately a soldier hit me with his boot,” one man said.

The men said soldiers then loaded them onto trucks “one over the other, as if they’re shipping potato bags,” and took them to multiple detention sites including Rayak Air Base in the Bekaa Valley and the military intelligence and military police bases in Ablah. At Rayak Air Base, they said, army personnel held more than 100 of them in one room overnight, denied them food and water, and did not allow them to use the bathroom. “They would beat whoever asked to go to the bathroom,” said a former detainee in his 60s.

They said that army personnel at Rayak beat, insulted, and threatened them and others. “They beat people, some with batons, others with the butt of a gun,” one said. “I saw one soldier on the outside poking one of the detainees from the window with a bent skewer. He beat him, then he started cutting his face…until blood came out.”

The men interviewed said they were finally transferred to General Security, the agency in charge of foreigners’ entry and residency, who did not mistreat them and released them. The former detainees said that the army never told them why they had been detained.

One former detainee, interviewed on July 11, said: “I had to leave my son behind [in detention]. To this day, I don’t know what has happened to him.” Lebanese law limits pre-charge detention to 96 hours.

Medical Reports
Human Rights Watch also reviewed medical reports for three of the deceased, dated July 1 and 2, and prepared by a forensic doctor at the request of the general prosecutor, concluding that they had suffered heart attacks and a stroke, and that the bodies did not show marks of violence.

A lawyer representing the families said she had received permission from a Judge of Urgent Affairs for a forensic doctor to examine the bodies, conduct an autopsy, and take medical samples to ascertain the cause of death. After she took the medical samples to the Hotel Dieu hospital in Beirut for analysis, the lawyer said, Military Intelligence personnel there demanded she turn them over, by order of the Military Information Directorate. She handed them over after the general prosecutor, Samir Hammoud, instructed her to do so. Following the military’s intervention, she said that the X-ray, CT scan, and autopsy results have not been released to her or made public.

The investigation into the men’s deaths is now before the military court, the family’s lawyer said. Human Rights Watch has previously raised concerns about the independence, impartiality, and competence of the Military Tribunal, where the majority of judges are military officers who are not required to have law degrees, and where trials take place behind closed doors.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 20, 2017, 4:00 am

A notice of electronic surveillance is posted near a 95-by-50-foot American flag unfurled on the side of an apartment complex in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S., June 14, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

The US government may be entitled to keep many of the specific details of its intelligence surveillance operations secret, but should it be able to invade your privacy, hinder your free expression, and jeopardize your fair-trial rights on the basis of secret laws and legal interpretations?

Under international human rights law, the answer is a resounding no – and a lawsuit heard by a federal court in Washington, DC earlier this week may help to advance this principle under US law.

The suit, Campaign for Accountability v. Department of Justice, seeks to compel the Justice Department to disclose the existence and content of opinions of its Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). Those opinions regularly decide major questions about what the executive branch has the power to do under the US Constitution or statutes. But all too often, the government withholds them from the public.

Where surveillance is concerned, the US executive branch has used secret legal interpretations as the basis for several large-scale activities that have violated civil rights. During the George W. Bush administration, the OLC used secret memoranda to justify the Stellar Wind program, which involved collecting content and metadata of Americans’ international communications without a warrant. Another form of secret law – undisclosed authorizations by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – allowed the government to collect records of US domestic phone calls in bulk for years under a non-obvious interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. This stopped only after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked one of the court orders and Congress put its foot down.

These secret legal interpretations and decisions can have real-world implications that go far beyond privacy infringements. For example, the government may be using narrow definitions to prevent people charged with crimes from finding out if agents have used information “derived from” warrantless and possibly unconstitutional surveillance when investigating them. No defendant faced with the loss of his or her liberty, and no judge seeking to ensure a fair trial, should have to guess at whether the government is telling the whole truth or using secret interpretations when it offers assurances – as it recently did in a major Oregon case – that no evidence in the case “derives from” intelligence surveillance.

To protect civil liberties and the integrity of the courts, all surveillance laws should be accessible to and easily understood by everyone – and the release of OLC opinions would do much to advance this cause.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 19, 2017, 9:50 pm

A masked member of the Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia takes part in a rally in Makassar, South Sulawesi, November 1, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

The Indonesian government today ordered the disbanding of Hizbut Tahrir, a conservative Islamist group that supports the creation of a Sharia-based Islamic caliphate to replace the country’s pluralist democracy. The government sought to justify the ban on the basis that the organization’s activities were “against Pancasila and the soul of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia.” Pancasila, or “five principles,” is Indonesia’s official state philosophy.

The government’s action follows President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s issuance of a decree on July 12 that amended the country’s law regulating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and enabled the government to fast-track the banning of groups it considers security threats. The decree stripped the 2013 Mass Organizations Law of a detailed set of procedures required before official bans could be imposed on such groups.

Today’s action was an apparent response to pressure from 14 Muslim organizations, including the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Islamic mass organization, to ban Hizbut Tahrir for posing a “national security threat.” Within the government, there was a deepening concern about the possible destabilizing impact of increasingly influential Islamists propagating an intolerant strain of Sunni Islam.

Hizbut Tahrir has been banned in much of the Middle East and countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Russia, while its public activities have been restricted in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Hizbut Tahrir’s Indonesian branch has an estimated 40,000 registered members.

The decision to ban Hizbut Tahrir constitutes a troubling infringement of the rights of freedom of association and expression. If the organization or its members have broken the law, the response should be criminal prosecutions, not banning. International law ensures the right to form associations, and any limitations on activities must be based on law, strictly necessary, and the least restrictive possible. Banning an organization should be a last resort, and the organization should be able to contest the ban in court.

Banning any organization strictly on ideological grounds, including Pancasila, is a draconian action that undermines rights of freedom of association and expression that Indonesians have fought hard to establish since the end of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. The government’s move to ban Hizbut Tahrir only underscores the fragility of the rights and freedoms Indonesians have come to take for granted since Suharto’s fall.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 19, 2017, 8:51 pm

Screengrab from Khulood's Snapchat story.

A woman named Khulood was interrogated yesterday in Riyadh and handed over for prosecution. Her transgression? Wearing “indecent” clothing. But the same night, Saudi authorities released her without charge.

A brief Snapchat video of Khulood appeared over the weekend with her in a short skirt and top which revealed her partial midriff as she walked through the Heritage Village of Ushayqir, 100 miles north of Riyadh. Authorities in Saudi Arabia, which has a strict dress code – women must wear a loose black garment called an abaya and headscarf – considered this an act of defiance.

Saudis themselves took to Twitter to both laud and disparage her act. Some called for her trial while others pointed out that visiting foreign female dignitaries seem able to dress however they like.

News agency AFP reported that the Saudi government said in a statement today that the video had been published without Khulood’s knowledge.

While Khulood at least no longer faces trial for this act, Saudi’s strict dress code still has many impacts on women, including their ability to work. The Saudi Labor Ministry fines employers and workers who breach guidelines on sex segregation and women’s dress code, including mandatory headscarves. “Zahra,” a 25-year-old Saudi woman, told Human Rights Watch these rules mean that, “Companies don’t want to hire women. It is too much of a hassle.”

All this stands in sharp contrast to Saudi Arabia’s purported efforts to strengthen women’s role in society. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic reform plan, for example, says Saudi women are a “great asset” and vows to let them “strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy.”

The rush to interrogate Khulood is a reminder of how far Saudi Arabia has to go. Not only can women not wear what they want in public, but they also remain subject to the most serious impediment to women’s rights there is: Saudi’s male guardianship system. From birth to death, a woman must have a male guardian – a father, husband, brother, or son – give permission before she can travel abroad, marry, or even leave prison.

But there is now hope that this sorry system could be dismantled. In April 2017, King Salman ordered all government agencies to list, within three months, the procedures that require male guardian approval. That deadline passed quietly on Saturday. Saudi women wait to find out whether any of those rules will be dropped.

If Saudi Arabia’s new leadership is serious about social change, it should end the male guardianship system in its entirety, and lift other barriers for women including sex-segregation and the dress code.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 19, 2017, 5:14 pm

An Afghan woman walks past a damaged car after a suicide attack on French restaurant "Le Jardin" in Kabul, Afghanistan January 2, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

Many more women are being killed and injured in Afghanistan today than a year ago, according to the United Nation’s latest civilian casualty report. They are casualties of an intensifying armed conflict that is also claiming more children as victims every year.

As news outlets focus on increases in US troop numbers and policy shifts in Afghanistan, it’s easy to forget the terrible toll the war has on Afghan civilians.

The mid-year 2017 report from the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) says casualties among women leapt 23 percent to 174 deaths and 462 injuries over the same period in 2016. The report, released earlier this week, tallies casualties between January 1 and June 30, 2017.

Many of these women were civil servants killed or injured when the Taliban or other insurgents launched deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on government institutions – like when a bomb exploded on a shuttle bus taking female staff to work at Kabul’s Water Supply Department in May, killing two and injuring four, including a child. Or the February suicide attack targeting the Afghan Supreme Court’s staff, which left nine women dead and seven injured. The list goes on.

Following the trend of previous reports, in which every year brings higher casualties than the last, UNAMA  documented a total of 1,662 war-related civilian deaths, and 3,581 injuries for the first half of 2017, roughly the same as the record set last year. An appalling number of those casualties continue to be children, with 436 deaths and 1,141 injuries – a 9 percent increase over the previous year.

The Taliban and groups linked to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) were responsible for 67 percent of all civilian casualties during the period. Many of these were the result of deliberate attacks on civilians, which are war crimes.

The good news is that civilian deaths and injuries by pro-government forces and their allies during ground engagements have declined since 2016. However, aerial operations by government and international forces were another story, as civilian casualties from air attacks jumped 43 percent from a year ago to 95 deaths and 117 injuries. There is a need for the government to better address fundamental weaknesses in training these forces, in tracking and addressing civilian harm, and paying compensation for wrongdoing in order to minimize such losses in the future. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 19, 2017, 2:25 pm
(Washington, DC) – The Department of Homeland Security should not expand expedited removal from the United States for asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said today. Plans to expand the program from its current limit of people caught within 100 miles of the border who arrived within a 14-day period to a nationwide dragnet for anyone who cannot prove they have been in the country for more than 90 days were reported on July 17, 2017, by the Washington Post based on a 13-page internal agency memo.

A U.S. border patrol agent walks along the border fence separating Mexico from the United States near Calexico, California, U.S. February 8, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters
Human Rights Watch has documented cases and gathered information that points to abusive treatment by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that violates the right to seek asylum. On July 12, plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit alleging that Customs and Border Protection agents violated US and international law by refusing to allow the plaintiffs and others to seek asylum in the United States, including by using threats, force, and misrepresentations.

“There is mounting evidence that Customs and Border Protection agents are routinely denying people the right to seek asylum,” said Alison Leal Parker, US program co-director at Human Rights Watch. “Not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but everyone who expresses a fear of persecution has a right to fair consideration of their claims.”

The Department of Homeland Security should prioritize efforts to address abuses that pervade Customs and Border Protection, Human Rights Watch said. Homeland Security officials should also examine mounting evidence that Customs and Border Protection agents unlawfully turn away large numbers of asylum seekers at the border under the existing expedited removal procedures.

Customs and Border Protection officers are obligated under US law to refer people who express an intention to seek protection to an asylum officer from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. The asylum officer, in turn, conducts a more in-depth evaluation of whether the person’s fear is “credible” – that is, whether it might qualify the person for asylum or other protections. If Customs and Border Protection agents fail to identify people who are afraid to return to their country, they can be summarily deported, Human Rights Watch said.

According to the Customs and Border Protection Inspector’s Field Manual, “If the alien indicates in any fashion or at any time during the inspections process, that he or she has a fear of persecution, or that he or she has suffered or may suffer torture, you are required to refer the alien to an asylum officer for a credible fear determination…. Inspectors should consider verbal as well as non-verbal cues given by the alien.”

Human Rights Watch has obtained complaints under the Freedom of Information Act alleging that Border Patrol officers threatened migrants with having their children taken away if they sought asylum, sexually assaulted one migrant, refused to record migrants’ expressed fears on the appropriate governmental form, or otherwise denied them access to further consideration of their claims. Human Rights Watch has also gathered accounts from seven families who told Human Rights Watch separately that they had told Customs and Border Protection agents that they were afraid to return to their country of origin but were not granted access to the asylum process.

There is a growing body of evidence that seems to indicate that such practices are widespread. Human Rights First has documented numerous incidents in which Customs and Border Protection officers have allegedly turned asylum seekers away at the border, and released an audio recording of what appears to be one such incident on July 13, 2017.

A 2015 Guardian story documented deaths after deportation to Central America, and a 2014 Human Rights Watch report documented scores of cases of people returned to harm’s way in Honduras after being turned away by Customs and Border Protection agents during the expedited removal process.

The US immigration system is rife with other abuses as well. US law mandates the needless and excessive detention of immigrants who do not belong behind bars, and lacks adequate mechanisms to weigh the deep connections many immigrants have to their US families and communities when deciding whether to deport people. Without reform, any expansion of expedited removal will serve to multiply the impact of these harmful and misguided policies.

Rather than ramping up the enforcement capacity of a broken and abusive CBP, Congress and DHS should work together to rein in its worst excesses

Alison Leal Parker

Co-Director of US Program

The Washington Post report about the internal Homeland Security memo cited two administration officials who confirmed that an expansion of expedited removal is under review. The Washington Post quoted Joanne F. Talbot, a Homeland Security spokesperson, as saying, “Anyone who is surprised that the administration is considering lawfully expanding the use of expedited removal has not been paying attention.”

Dramatic expansion of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is also being promoted through a US$1.9 billion increase in its appropriation bill over last year’s budget. The increased funding would be used to hire hundreds of new Customs and Border Protection agents and keep many thousands of additional immigrants in detention. It passed the House subcommittee on July 18 and will move to full consideration in the House. The Senate will also consider appropriations legislation before the end of July.

“Rather than ramping up the enforcement capacity of a broken and abusive CBP, Congress and DHS should work together to rein in its worst excesses,” Parker said. “Customs and Border Protection first needs to prove that it can do its job, which means both protecting US borders and ensuring that people who fear for their lives if returned to their countries get fair consideration.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 19, 2017, 4:00 am

Satellite imagery from July 12 showing the building and Tigris riverbank seen in a video posted of soldiers throwing a detainee off a cliff in west Mosul as well as military vehicles in the vicinity. 

© 2017 DigitalGlobe
 
(Beirut) – International observers have discovered an execution site in west Mosul, Human Rights Watch said today. That report, combined with new statements about executions in and around Mosul’s Old City and persistent documentation about Iraqi forces extrajudicially killing men fleeing Mosul in the final phase of the battle against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), are an urgent call to action by the Iraqi government.
 
Despite repeated promises to investigate wrongdoing by security forces, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has yet to demonstrate that Iraqi authorities have held a single soldier accountable for murdering, torturing, and abusing Iraqis in this conflict.
 
“As Prime Minister Abadi enjoys victory in Mosul, he is ignoring the flood of evidence of his soldiers committing vicious war crimes in the very city he’s promised to liberate,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Abadi’s victory will collapse unless he takes concrete steps to end the grotesque abuses by his own security forces.”
 
International observers, whose evidence has proven reliable in the past, told Human Rights Watch that on July 17, 2017, at about 3:30 p.m., a shopkeeper in a neighborhood directly west of the Old City that was retaken in April from ISIS took them into an empty building and showed them a row of 17 male corpses, barefoot but in civilian dress, surrounded by pools of blood. They said many appeared to have been blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their back.
 
They said the shopkeeper told them that he had seen the Iraqi Security Forces’ 16th Division, identifiable by their badges and vehicles, in the neighborhood four nights earlier, and that night had heard multiple gunshots coming from the area of the empty building. The next morning, when armed forces had left the area, he told them, he went into the building and saw the bodies lying in positions that suggested they were shot there and had not been moved. He said he did not recognize any of those killed.
 
The international observers also saw soldiers from the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) in the area. They contacted Human Rights Watch by phone from the site and later shared five photos they took of the bodies.
 
On July 17, another international observer told Human Rights Watch they spoke to a senior government official in Mosul who told them he was comfortable with the execution of suspected ISIS-affiliates “as long as there was no torture.” The observer said a commander showed their group a video taken a few days earlier of a group of CTS soldiers holding two detainees in the Old City. They said the commander told them that the forces had executed the men right after the video was taken.
 
Salah al-Imara, an Iraqi citizen who regularly publishes information regarding security and military activities in and around Mosul, published four videos allegedly filmed in west Mosul on Facebook on July 11 and 12. One video, posted on July 11, appears to show Iraqi soldiers beating a detainee, then throwing him off a cliff and shooting at him and at the body of another man already lying at the bottom of the cliff. Human Rights Watch had verified the location of the first video based on satellite imagery. Other videos showed Iraqi soldiers kicking and beating a bleeding man, federal police forces beating at least three men, and Iraqi soldiers kicking a man on the ground in their custody.
 
A third international observer told Human Rights Watch on July 18 that they witnessed CTS soldiers bring an ISIS suspect to their base in a neighborhood southwest of the Old City on July 11. The observer did not see what happened to the suspect next, but said that a soldier later showed them a video of himself and a group of other soldiers brutally beating the man, and a second video of the man dead, with a bullet to his head.
 
“Some Iraqi soldiers seem to have so little fear that they will face any consequence for murdering and torturing suspects in Mosul that they are freely sharing evidence of what look like very cruel exploits in videos and photographs,” Whitson said. “Excusing such celebratory revenge killings will haunt Iraq for generations to come.”
 
A fourth international observer told Human Rights Watch on July 11 that the day before they had witnessed a group of CTS soldiers push a man whose hands were tied behind his back into a destroyed shop near the main road in the west to the Old City. They said they heard several gunshots, went into the shop after the soldiers had left, and found the man’s body with several bullet holes in the back of his head. They shared the photo of the body.
 
On July 10, the same observer said they saw Iraqi Security Forces just outside the Old City holding about 12 men with their hands tied behind their backs. They said an officer told them that the military’s 9th Division had detained these men inside the Old City on suspicion of ISIS affiliation. They said they saw the soldiers lead the detained men just out of sight, then heard shots ring out from their direction. The observer was unable to verify what happened.
 
On July 7, two additional international observers told Human Rights Watch that on different occasions in late June, they witnessed soldiers bring at least five suspected ISIS affiliates out of the Old City to the west, strapped to the hoods of Humvees, when temperatures in the city often reached 48 degrees Celsius, or 118 degrees Fahrenheit.
 
The nongovernmental organization Mosul Eye has been documenting abuses by all sides in Mosul since 2014, and has posted numerous videos and witness statements about executions on its Twitter feed since July 14, with one reading: “Mass Executions ‘Speicher Style’ [a reference to an ISIS massacre in 2014] for the last survivors of the old city. ISF is killing and throwing bodies of everyone it finds to the river.”
 
As of July 10, the Iraqi military has prevented access to west Mosul for most journalists, limiting coverage of recent events inside the Old City. Iraqi forces should allow journalists access to west Mosul to report on the conflict and any alleged abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
 
Throughout the operation to retake Mosul, Human Rights Watch has documented Iraqi forces detaining and holding at least 1,200 men and boys in inhumane conditions without charge, and in some cases torturing and executing them, under the guise of screening them for ISIS-affiliation. In the final weeks of the Mosul operation, Human Rights Watch has reported on executions of suspected ISIS-affiliates in and around Mosul’s Old City.
 
An Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative told Human Rights Watch on July 19 that he would request a government investigation into the allegations. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised concerns about allegations of ill-treatment, torture, and executions in meetings with Iraqi officials in Baghdad as well as with representatives from United States-led coalition member countries. Human Rights Watch does not know of a single transparent investigation into abuses by Iraqi armed forces, any instances of commanders being held accountable for abuse, or any victims of abuse receiving compensation.
 
Iraqi criminal justice authorities should investigate all alleged crimes, including unlawful killings and mutilation of corpses, by any party in the conflict in a prompt, transparent, and effective manner, up to the highest levels of responsibility. Those found criminally responsible should be appropriately prosecuted. Extrajudicial executions and torture during an armed conflict are war crimes.
 
“Relentless reports, videos, and photographs of unlawful executions and beatings by Iraqi soldiers should be enough to raise serious concerns among the highest ranks in Baghdad and the international coalition combatting ISIS,” Whitson said. “As we well know in Iraq, if the government doesn’t provide an accounting for these murders, the Iraqi people may take matters into their own hands.”
 
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 19, 2017, 4:00 am

(Bishkek) – Tajik authorities have detained, interrogated, and threatened relatives of 10 peaceful opposition activists who took part in a conference in Germany on July 9, 2017, in retaliation for the peaceful exercise of their fundamental rights, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said today.

Activists provided details about 10 incidents in cities around the country that have been sanctioned by the Tajik government at the highest level. Tajik security services officers and local officials publicly shamed, banned from leaving the country, and threatened to confiscate the property of the activists’ relatives, and in one case threatened to rape an activist’s daughter.

“The Tajik government’s vicious campaign of intimidation against dissidents’ relatives is widening and becoming ever more brazen,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The simultaneous actions by security services and local officials across numerous cities suggest a policy of collective punishment sanctioned at the highest levels, which should end immediately.”

Hundreds of political activists, including several human rights lawyers, have been jailed in the widening crackdown on free expression, and opposition parties banned. The authorities are also violating the rights of family members who remain in the country, primarily relatives of members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and the opposition movement Group 24. National and local officials mobilize vigilante groups of “concerned citizens,” including school officials, who surround relatives’ homes and brand the families “enemies of the people.”

Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) chairman Muhiddin Kabiri addresses a conference attended by Tajikistani opposition activists in Dortmund, Germany on July 9, 2017. 

© 2017 IRPT

The latest string of attacks was retaliation against opposition activists who attended the July 9 conference in Dortmund, Germany, marking the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords that formally ended Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war. On July 10, Tajik media reported that a pro-government security analyst, Saifullo Safarov, deputy director of the Strategic Research Center of the Office of the President of Tajikistan, appeared on national television condemning the opposition activists who attended the Dortmund conference. He stated that their attempts to unite into a coordinated opposition movement posed a “serious threat” to Tajikistan’s national security.

Earlier incidents of retaliation occurred in September and December 2016, when activists abroad engaged in peaceful protests.

IRPT activists provided detailed accounts to Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee about violations against their families committed by authorities between July 7 and July 10 in the capital, Dushanbe, and seven other villages and cities across the country. In each case, security services officers explicitly linked their visits and abusive actions to the participation of the people’s relatives in a peaceful political conference in Dortmund, Germany.

The United States, the European Union and its member states, and other international partners should urgently address the growing pattern of retaliatory attacks in Tajikistan as part of the wider deteriorating human rights situation there and publicly condemn the abuses, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said. Washington, Brussels, and other actors should consider asset freezes and visa denials to Tajik officials and government entities that take part in these abuses.

“The catalogue of retaliatory abuse in Tajikistan simply for exercising freedom of expression is staggering,” said Marius Fossum, Central Asia representative for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “No one should be publicly shamed, pressured to divorce their spouse, or be threatened with having their child raped or property arbitrarily confiscated under any circumstances, let alone for the exercise of basic human rights.”

Dangara

On July 7, 2017, police and security services officers in Sebiston, a village in Tajikistan’s southern Dangara district, went to the home of the parents of Jannatulloh Komilov, an IRPT activist now based in Germany. The officers berated Komilov’s elderly mother, Saima Kulova, for her son’s opposition activities, and questioned and intimidated his brothers, Zubaidulloh and Ubaidulloh Komilov. The officials threatened to confiscate the family’s home and adjoining land unless Jannatulloh Komilov ceases his participation in opposition activities abroad. Two days later, officials returned, detaining Komilov’s father-in-law, Zubaidulloh Atovulloev, overnight.

Kulob

On July 7 and 8, several security service officers in the southern city of Kulob threatened the Turkey-based IRPT activist Bobojon Kayumov’s mother and father at their family home. The officers stated that unless Kayumov ended his opposition work and specifically refrained from participating in the Dortmund conference they would “demolish” the family’s home. The officers then forced the two to record a videotaped statement condemning their son’s activities. On July 9, officers detained Kayumov’s father, holding him at the Kulob city security services facility until nighttime, and repeatedly interrogated him.

Vahdat

Jamshed Yorov is a Germany-based lawyer and the brother of Buzurgmehr Yorov. a lawyer imprisoned in Tajikistan since September 2015. He is serving a 25-year sentence following a flawed trial on politically motivated charges after publicly announcing he would represent jailed IRPT members. Jamshed Yorov participated in the Dortmund conference and made a public statement on July 9.

The next day security services officers went to his family’s home in Vahdat, Tajikistan, and told Yorov’s wife, Dilbar Zuhurova, that she and her children were barred from leaving Tajikistan and would be imprisoned if they tried to leave. Yorov told Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that officers pressured Zuhurova to divorce him, promising to supply her with food and money if she agrees. They also threatened to rape Jamshed’s 15-year-old daughter.

Pandovchi Sari dasht Village, Nurobod District

On July 8, security service officers detained Asomuddin Saidov, father of Poland-based IRPT activist Islomiddin Saidov, in the village of Pandowchi Sari dasht in Tajikistan’s central Nurobod district. The officers took the father to the Dushanbe security services detention facility for interrogation. They showed Saidov pictures of his son taking part in peaceful demonstrations in Warsaw in September 2016 and threatened to take “necessary actions” against his son if he would not cease his political activism. The officers also visited Islomiddin’s sister’s home in Dushanbe seeking to interrogate her.

On July 9 and 10, Pandowchi Sari dasht village officials summoned the father in front of a group of “concerned citizens” while officials and others denounced his son and the entire family for their “treacherous” political activities against the government. Officials and other people publicly shamed Saidov and exhorted him to bring his son back to Tajikistan to face justice.

Pakhtakor Village, Jayhun Village Council, Khatlon Region

On July 8, security service officers in the village of Pakhtakor in Tajikistan’s southern Khatlon region visited the home of Abdumuslim Rustamov, brother of IRPT activist Iftikhor Rustamov, as well as the separate homes of Iftikhor’s sisters Sabohat Khodjaeva and Zarnigor Rustamova, interrogating them about Rustamov’s political activities. They threatened further problems if he continues his opposition political activity.

On July 11, security service officers in the same village took Masnavikhon Faizrahmonova, the mother of the Austria-based IRPT activist and spokesman Mahmudjon Faizrahmonov, to the local security services building to be interrogated about her son’s activities. The authorities held a public meeting where various village residents condemned Faizrahmonov and his brothers for their political activities. Faizrahmonov told Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that the community had ostracized his family and that his mother’s health markedly deteriorated following the public shaming.

Khujand

On July 7 security service officers in the northern city of Khujand summoned relatives of IRPT activist Ilhomjon Yakubov to their facility, where the officers interrogated them for hours about his activities and threatened them with further unspecified “consequences” if he continues his political activism.

Rudaki

On July 8, authorities in the Rudaki district went to the home of Muhammadi Teshaev, the former head of the IRPT’s chapter in this area. They interrogated his family members and threatened to confiscate their house if Teshaev does not stop his political work.

Dushanbe

Before the Dortmund conference, security service officers in Dushanbe went to the family home of Poland-based IRPT activist Gulbarg Saifova, a relative of the exiled IRPT chairman Muhiddin Kabiri, who is also based in Europe. Officers forced Saifova’s parents to videotape a recording denouncing Saifova’s and Kabiri’s activities. Saifova ran for parliament in the March 2015 elections but was forced to flee the country and seek refuge in Poland due to persecution for her association with the IRPT.

On July 7, police in Dushanbe’s Firdavsi district visited the home of Europe-based IRPT activists Mijgona and Sayriniso Amonova and interrogated their father. Police officers called the women “traitors” and pressured their father to seek their return to Tajikistan so they could ask forgiveness of President Emomali Rahmon.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 19, 2017, 2:00 am

Childhood should be a time of innocence, play, and learning. But 15-year-old Subekti spent his shackled to the floor of his family’s house in Serang, a city about a three-hour drive from Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.

Fifteen-year-old Subekti spent his childhood shackled to the floor of his family’s house in Serang, Indonesia.

Private
For the past six years, since he was 9, Subekti has had both his ankles tightly chained to the floor, just meters away from where his parents sleep. Unable to walk or move around, Subekti’s muscles have atrophied, leaving skeletal legs.

A neighbor alerted the media last week to draw attention to Subekti’s plight. When members of the nongovernmental National Commission for Child Protection (Komnas Anak) visited, he reportedly begged them, “free me.”

His family told Komnas Anak that they shackled him to prevent him from disturbing the community. Subekti comes from a poor family where there is little awareness of mental health conditions. His parents believe he has a spiritual problem and consulted a faith healer but without success.

Subekti’s story is horrifying but not uncommon. More than 57,000 people in Indonesia with real or perceived mental health conditions have been subjected to pasung – shackled or locked up in confined space – at least once in their lives. Despite a 1977 government ban, the practice continues, fueled by the mistaken belief that mental health conditions are the result of possession by evil spirits, having sinned, or immoral behavior.

When Human Rights Watch researched the situation of people in pasung in Indonesia, families told us they felt they had little choice but to resort to shackling because they struggled to cope in the absence of government support and community mental health services.

Despite the media attention, eight days later, Subekti remains in chains. His house is only about a kilometer from the local government office, but authorities have not successfully convinced his parents to release him. He is now receiving mental health medication at home from a community health center.

In addition to providing him with counseling and other mental health services, the local social affairs office needs to ensure Subekti’s release. Local authorities should provide his family with the necessary support so that Subekti can live a normal childhood in the community.

While Human Rights Watch has documented Indonesian’s efforts to eliminate pasung, cases like Subekti’s remind us there is much work to be done to ensure no one lives a life in chains.  

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 19, 2017, 12:00 am

Angola’s Constitutional Court has ruled that a presidential decree that imposed severe restrictions on civil society groups violates the constitution. The ruling provides a big boost to nongovernmental organizations that operate in a politically contentious environment in which the courts typically side with the government.

Angolan President and MPLA leader, Jose Eduardo dos Santos attends a party central committee at a meeting in Luanda, Angola, December 2 ,2016. 

REUTERS/Herculano Coroado

Decree 74/15, signed by President José Eduardo dos Santos, required nongovernmental organizations to register with multiple authorities, including the Foreign Ministry, before they could operate and obtain a “declaration of suitability.” It also allowed authorities to determine the programs and projects that the organizations’ implemented.

To justify the restrictions, the government argued that it needed a strong tool to fight nongovernmental organizations that were involved in criminal acts, such as money laundering, or other activities that “threatened Angola’s sovereignty.”

After the decree took effect in March 2015, several human rights groups faced difficulties accessing their bank accounts, as some banks demanded to see the required approvals, even though the government was not issuing such documents.

The Angola Bar Association challenged the decree before the Constitutional Court, arguing that it allowed excessive and unlawful interference by the government in the work of civil society.

In a ruling dated July 5, 2017, made public on July 14, the court found that the president lacked the competence to regulate nongovernmental organizations. The ruling acknowledged the government’s concerns over the need to regulate organizations, but held that such regulation must come from the parliament.

The Constitutional Court’s decision sends a strong a message to the government that the courts will step in to protect fundamental rights such as freedom of association. It’s a breath of fresh air in a country where civil society struggles every day to operate free from political interference.

 

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 18, 2017, 2:43 pm

With less than two years to go before the UK is scheduled to leave the European Union, it’s still very unclear what human rights protections British citizens and residents will lose after Brexit.

Last week the UK government presented its key Brexit law, the so-called “Repeal Bill”, to parliament.

Flags are seen at the EU Commission headquarters ahead of a first full round of talks on Brexit, Britain's divorce terms from the European Union, in Brussels, Belgium July 17, 2017.

REUTERS/Yves Herman

The government had promised not to water down key employment and equality guarantees that UK residents currently enjoy under EU law. While the Repeal Bill singled out just one EU law that it plans to scrap after Brexit, that law is significant: the EU’s Charter on Fundamental Rights.

At first glance, this may not be so obvious. After all, the Charter only applies when EU member countries are applying EU laws – a scenario which won’t apply to the UK after Brexit. But make no mistake: ditching the Charter – which guarantees economic and social rights such as the right to healthcare and stand-alone equality protection and the protection of personal data – could mean British citizens and residents will lose some basic rights protections. Without the Charter – or equivalent rights protection, people’s ability to directly challenge bad UK laws in the courts may also be limited.

Aside from ditching the Charter, the government’s commitments on other key rights currently guaranteed by EU membership are also not very reassuring. These rights may remain part of UK law on Brexit day itself, but could be scrapped by the stroke of a ministerial pen – and without parliamentary debate – after the UK leaves. Worryingly, small print attached to the Repeal bill suggests that it will bestow the power on ministers to remove rights currently enjoyed by EU citizens living in the UK.

The fact sheet accompanying the Brexit bill promises that the “substantive law and the principles which underpin the [EU] Charter will be converted into UK law.” Yet it also claims incorrectly that the Charter “did not create any new rights”, and moreover, the government is offering no guarantee that key rights will not be tossed aside once Brexit is complete.

The key test for the UK parliament now is to ensure that UK citizens and residents have the same legal protection of their rights the day after Brexit as the day before. Will this be the case? Last week’s proposal by the government to scrap the EU Charter, while suggesting that doing so will have no impact on people’s rights, is an ominous sign.

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

When Somalia’s new minister of information took office in March, he promised to review the country’s restrictive media law, raising hopes of fostering a better environment for journalists and free expression in the country.

Journalists queue for a security sweep outside the venue of the presidential vote at the airport in Somalia's capital Mogadishu February 8, 2017. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Those hopes have largely been dashed. The amended law, approved by the cabinet on July 13, makes some reforms but does little to address the law’s deep flaws. Somalia’s journalists – a grueling and life-threatening profession here – deserve better.

Being a journalist in Somalia is dangerous: at least two journalists were murdered in 2016. Authorities have used various tactics to restrict media coverage, including arbitrary arrests and forced closures of media outlets, threats, and occasionally, criminal charges. The Islamist armed group Al-Shabab also targets journalists for reporting deemed unfavorable. Not surprisingly, journalists often self-censor on key issues of public interest, including security and governance, to stay safe.

While amendments to the law have partially addressed some concerns raised by Somali media organizations – including by reducing the heavy fines imposed on journalists for violating the law’s restrictions, and no longer making a journalism degree a requirement to practice journalism – the law still hands authorities a big stick to keep the media under control.

The law maintains vague and overbroad restrictions, including prohibiting “propaganda against the dignity of a citizen, individuals or government institutions,” and “dissemination of false information.” This leaves lots of room for interpretation by authorities – in response, journalists unclear of where the lines are drawn are likely to self-censor even more.

International and regional legal standards place a high value upon uninhibited expression concerning public persons and state institutions, and discourage open-ended and ill-defined provisions that risk chilling the media. Similar articles persist in Somalia’s 1963 criminal code, also under review.

But journalists continue to be arrested, and on occasion charged, under such outdated provisions. Two weeks ago, the authorities in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland arrested a journalist, Ahmed Ali Kilwe, reportedly for criticizing the president; he has since been released without charge.

The amended media law does not provide for parliamentary oversight of nominations for a new media regulatory body. It also maintains watered-down but still substantive requirements for entry into the journalism profession – there should be none.

When the revised media law heads to parliament for review, key committees should direct that the law be sent back to the drawing board to ensure that the final version helps to promote, not stunt, the development of a free and vibrant media in Somalia.

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

(Moscow) – Russia has introduced significant restrictions to online speech and invasive surveillance of online activity and prosecutes critics under the guise of fighting extremism, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 83-page report, “Online and On All Fronts: Russia’s Assault on Freedom of Expression,” documents Russian authorities’ stepped-up measures aimed at bringing the internet under greater state control. Since 2012, Russian authorities have unjustifiably prosecuted dozens of people for criminal offenses on the basis of social media posts, online videos, media articles, and interviews, and shut down or blocked access to hundreds of websites and web pages. Russian authorities have also pushed through parliament a raft of repressive laws regulating internet content and infrastructure. These laws provide the Russian government with a broad range of tools to restrict access to information, carry out unchecked surveillance, and censor information the government designates as “extremist,” out of line with “traditional values,” or otherwise harmful to the public.

“Russia’s authorities are leading an assault on free expression,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These laws aren’t just about introducing tough policies, but also about blatant violation of human rights.”

Russia has introduced significant restrictions to online speech and invasive surveillance of online activity and prosecutes critics under the guise of fighting extremism.

Russia should repeal the repressive legislation adopted in recent years, stop prosecuting critics under the guise of fighting extremism, and uphold its international obligations to safeguard free expression, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 50 lawyers, journalists, editors, political and human rights activists, experts, and bloggers and their family members, and analyzed laws and government regulations pertaining to internet content and freedom of expression, as well as indictments, court rulings, and other documents relevant to specific cases.

Some of the restrictive laws appear designed to shrink the space, including online, for public debate, especially on issues the authorities view as divisive or sensitive, such as the armed conflict in Ukraine, Russia’s role in the war in Syria, the rights of LGBT people, and public protests or other political and civic activism.

Curbing free speech serves to shut down public debate and denies a voice to anyone dissatisfied with the ongoing economic crisis or simply critical of Russia’s foreign policy, Human Rights Watch said.

“We have dozens of cases where people were literally sent to jail,” Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist and expert on internet freedom in Russia, told Human Rights Watch. “That of course has its effect on the level and freedom for political and public debate in social media.”

Witness: Russia’s New Normal

Witness: Russia’s New Normal

When Ekaterina Vologzheninova posted a satirical cartoon criticizing Russia’s involvement in Ukraine on her social media page, she had no idea what was coming next.

Other laws aim to undermine the privacy and security of internet users by regulating data storage, unjustifiably restricting users’ access to information, and ensuring that a wealth of data, including confidential user information and the content of communications, could be made available to authorities, often without any judicial oversight.

In 2016, parliament passed a set of counterterrorism amendments requiring telecommunications and internet companies to retain the contents of all communications for six months and the metadata for three years. The law makes it easier for the authorities to identify users and access personal information without judicial oversight, unjustifiably interfering with privacy and freedom of expression. A 2015 law that applies to email services, social media networks, and search engines prohibits storage of Russian citizens’ personal data on servers located outside Russia. A 2017 draft law aims to prohibit anonymity for users of online messaging applications, such as WhatsApp or Telegram.

“The Russian government effectively controls most traditional media, but independent internet users have been openly challenging the government’s actions,” said Gorbunova. “The authorities clearly view independent online users as a threat that needs to be disarmed.”

Russian authorities have increasingly used vague and overly broad anti-extremism laws against people who express critical views of the government and, in some cases, have conflated criticism of the government with extremism. Laws adopted since 2012 in the name of countering extremism have served to increase the number of prosecutions for extremist offenses, especially online.

Based on the data provided by the SOVA Center, a prominent Russian think tank, the number of social media users convicted of extremism offenses in 2015 was 216, in comparison with 30 in 2010. Between 2014 and 2016, approximately 85 percent of convictions for “extremist expression” dealt with online expression, with punishments ranging from fines or community service to prison time. In the period between September 2015 and February 2017, the number of people who went to jail for extremist speech spiked from 54 to 94.

In the three years of Russia’s occupation of Crimea, authorities have silenced dissent on the peninsula. They have aggressively targeted critics through harassment, intimidation, and, in some cases, trumped-up extremism charges, including prosecution for “separatist calls.” Human Rights Watch found that most prosecutions of Crimean Tatar activists, their lawyers, and others were for peacefully criticizing the occupation.

Freedom of expression is one of the essential foundations of a democratic society and it extends not only to information and ideas that are received favorably but also to those that offend, shock, or disturb. The Russian government should respect and uphold the right of people in Russia to freely receive and disseminate all types of information protected under international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said.

Russia’s international partners should raise concerns at the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the Council of Europe about Moscow’s curbs on free expression, as well as in bilateral conversations with the Russian government.

Major internet companies operating in Russia, such as Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and VK should carefully assess Russia’s government demands to censor content or share user data and refrain from complying where the underlying law or specific request are inconsistent with international human rights standards. They should not put people at risk, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Russian government has been casting criticism of it as extremist, instilling fear and encouraging self-censorship,” Gorbunova said. “Today people in Russia are increasingly unsure about the boundaries of acceptable speech.”

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