Recent reports that the US monitored calls between members of President Trump’s campaign staff and Russian intelligence personnel have renewed controversy about the surveillance powers of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI), and how those bodies handle the information they collect. But anyone concerned about the scope or legality of the US government’s warrantless intelligence surveillance should also worry about the way these programs may affect the country’s border and immigrant communities.

A general view shows part of the Loma Blanca neighborhood as a section of the border fence marking the boundarie with El Paso, U.S. is seen on the background, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico January 18, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

The US currently has two main “foreign” surveillance powers it can—in practice—use to obtain and sift through information on people within its borders without a warrant. (We do not yet know whether either of these was the legal basis for intercepting the conversations with Trump’s campaign staff). 

The first, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is scheduled to expire at the end of this year, setting the stage for an intense debate in Congress about reforming surveillance. Under Section 702, the NSA (with telecommunications companies’ help) automatically searches virtually all the Internet communications flowing over the fiber optic cables that connect the US to the rest of the world—a practice known as “upstream” scanning. 

As of 2015, 26 percent of people in the United States were first- or second-generation immigrants.  Upstream monitoring, as we currently understand it, means that whenever any of these tens of millions of people—or anyone else in the US—sends an email to a friend or family member in another country, the US government is likely searching those communications to see if they contain e-mail addresses or other “selectors” of interest. This kind of suspicionless, warrantless, disproportionate monitoring violates human rights.

In addition to Section 702, Executive Order 12333 allows the NSA and other US agencies to vacuum up the communications of US citizens and lawful permanent residents in the course of foreign surveillance. Leaked documents indicate that pursuant to EO 12333, the US has grabbed records of potentially all telephone calls in countries including Mexico and the Philippines. In other words, if you are in El Paso, Texas and have called your mother in Juárez, Mexico, US intelligence agencies probably have a record of your call. They can use this data to map social networks—and share it for law enforcement purposes.

The US’ vast warrantless surveillance powers are not only an issue for legal wonks or the technically savvy: they may be affecting people and communities throughout the United States and the world. Congress and the judiciary should regard them as direct threats to both US democracy and human rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(New York) – The latest revisions to China’s Criminal Law impose up to seven years in prison for “spreading rumors” about disasters, Human Rights Watch said today. The revised law, which took effect November 1, 2015, does not clarify what constitutes a “rumor,” heightening concerns that the provision will be used to curtail freedom of speech, particularly on the Internet.

“The revised Criminal Law adds a potent weapon to the Chinese government’s arsenal of punishments against netizens, including those who simply share information that departs from the official version of events,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities are once again criminalizing free speech on the Internet, which has been the Chinese people’s only relatively free avenue for expressing themselves.”

The National People’s Congress Standing Committee approved the addition of a provision to article 291(1) of the Criminal Law (Criminal Law Amendment Act (9)), which states that whoever “fabricates or deliberately spreads on media, including on the Internet, false information regarding dangerous situations, the spread of diseases, disasters and police information, and who seriously disturb social order” would face prison sentences – with a maximum of seven years for those whose rumors result in “serious consequences.” The vagueness of the provision means that individuals doing nothing more than asking questions or reposting information online about reported local disasters could be subject to prosecution.

In the past, the Chinese government has detained netizens who questioned official casualty figures or who had published alternative information about disasters ranging from SARS in 2003 to the Tianjin chemical blast in 2015, under the guise of preventing “rumors.”

The revision was made in the context of a wider effort to rein in online freedom since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013:

  • In August 2013, the authorities waged a campaign against “online rumors” that included warning Internet users against breaching “seven bottom lines” in their Internet postings, taking into custody the well-known online commentator Charles Xue, and closing popular “public accounts” on the social media platform “WeChat” that report and comment on current affairs;
  • In September 2013, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (the state prosecution) issued a judicial interpretation making the crimes of defamation, creating disturbances, illegal business operations, and extortion applicable to expressions in cyberspace. The first netizen who was criminally prosecuted after this took effect was well-known blogger Qin Huohuo, who was sentenced to three years in prison in April 2014 for allegedly defaming the government and celebrities by questioning whether they were corrupt or engaged in other dishonest behavior;
  • In July and August 2014, authorities suspended popular foreign instant messaging services, including KakaoTalk, claiming the service was being used for “distributing terrorism-related information”;
  • In 2015, government agencies such as the State Internet Information Office issued multiple new directives, including tightening restrictions over the use of usernames and avatars, and requiring writers of online literature in particular to register with their real names;
  • In 2015, the government has also shut down or restricted access to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which many users depend on to access content blocked to users inside the country and also help shield user privacy;
  • In March 2015, authorities also deployed a new cyber weapon, the “Great Cannon,” to disrupt the services of, an organization that works to document China’s censorship and facilitate access to information;
  • In July 2015, the government published a draft cybersecurity law that will requires domestic and foreign Internet companies to increase censorship on the government’s behalf, register users’ real names, localize data, and aid government surveillance; and
  • In August 2015, the government announced that it would station police in major Internet companies to more effectively prevent “spreading rumors” online.

Activists in China are regularly prosecuted for speech-related “crimes,” Human Rights Watch said. The best known of these crimes is “inciting subversion,” which carries a maximum of 15 years in prison. But authorities have also used other crimes such as “inciting ethnic hatred,” as in the case of human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who has been detained since May 2014 for a number of social media posts questioning the government’s policies towards Uighurs and Tibetans.

While providing the public with accurate information during disasters is important, the best way to counter inaccurate information would be to ensure that official information is reliable and transparent, Human Rights Watch said.

Above all, journalists should have unimpeded access to investigate and inform the public about these events, and the wider public should have the freedom to debate and discuss disaster response.

“The casualties of China’s new provision would not be limited to journalists, activists and netizens, but the right of ordinary people and the world to know about crucial developments in China,” Richardson said. “The best way to dispel false rumors would be to allow, not curtail, free expression.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Khayrullo Mirsaidov, a well-respected independent journalist in Tajikistan, was arrested on December 5, 2017, after publicly appealing to Tajikistan’s president about alleged local authority corruption.

©Radio Ozodi/Tajik Service of Radio Free Europe

(Bishkek) – A court in Tajikistan on July 11, 2018, convicted a well-known journalist on bogus charges and sentenced him to 12 years in prison, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said. Khayrullo Mirsaidov was charged with embezzling and misusing state funds and false reporting to police after he made corruption allegations against local government officials.

The United States, European Union member states, and Tajikistan’s other international partners should publicly and privately press Tajik authorities to set aside the conviction. They should also communicate the consequences on their bilateral relations of the arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of hundreds of government critics, including opposition leaders, lawyers, and journalists. Washington and Brussels should make clear that targeted punitive measures against Tajik officials responsible for egregious human rights abuses are possible unless concrete improvements are made.

“If allowed to stand, this conviction and draconian sentence strike a blow to free speech and the journalistic profession in Tajikistan,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Sadly, we now add a journalist known throughout the region for the high quality and independence of his work to the ranks of Tajikistan’s numerous other imprisoned political activists and lawyers.”

The regional Prosecutor General’s Office arrested Mirsaidov, 39, in Khujand, in Tajikistan’s northern Sughd region, on December 5, 2017, on charges of embezzlement; incitement of interethnic, national, or religious hatred; forgery; and providing false testimony after he voluntarily appeared at the prosecutor general’s office for questioning. The charges were brought after Mirsaidov appealed to Tajikistan’s president to crack down on corruption by local authorities. Authorities later dropped the charges of incitement. 

The conviction followed a deeply flawed investigation. Prosecutors issued a gag order preventing Mirsaidov’s attorneys from discussing the case in public and severely limiting Mirsaidov’s access to the alleged evidence against him. He was held in pretrial detention for seven months through the end of his trial, which began in June, though he had no criminal record, and no charges alleging violence. His lawyer said she will appeal the verdict.

In a joint statement, the US and EU member states, including the UK, Germany, France, and the EU delegation in Tajikistan moved swiftly to condemn Mirsaidov’s sentence, calling it “extremely harsh” and “incompatible with the crime he was accused of.” They said that “[t]his sentencing will have a negative impact on the freedom of media and expression in Tajikistan,” and urged Tajik authorities to re-consider this verdict.

On the same day, Harlem Desir, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) representative for freedom of the media stated that he was “alarmed by the stringent and disproportionate sentence handed down to the journalist,” especially given the relatively small sum of 124,000 Somoni (approx. ‎€11,521) he was accused of embezzling. Desir reiterated his earlier call for Tajik authorities to immediately release Mirsaidov and “ensure that journalists in Tajikistan are free to report on all matters of public interest without fear of reprisal.”

In November 2017, Mirsaidov wrote an open letter to President Emomali Rahmon, Prosecutor General Yusuf Rahmon, and the head of the Sughd region, Abdurakhmon Kodiri, asking them to investigate an allegation of corruption. His letter detailed alleged attempts by the head of the Sughd Department of Youth and Sport to solicit a US$1,000 bribe from the funds Sughd authorities allocated to the local youth satirical comedy troupe – known commonly by its Russian acronym KVNthat Mirsaidov manages. The funds were intended to pay for microphones and other equipment for the troupe.

Over the past 18 years, Mirsaidov has earned a reputation for fearless, independent journalism and solid political analysis. He has reported for Deutsche Welle, Asia-Plus, and the Fergana media outlets, among others. Mirsaidov has often written about human rights issues, ecological problems, and respect for ethnic minorities. He also worked as a media development trainer in projects sponsored by the OSCE, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID), and the Index on Censorship, a nongovernmental group.

Mirsaidov has managed the Sughd region’s competitive KVN team since 2014, leading the comedy troupe to the finals and to win championships in Bishkek, Sochi, and Moscow. KVN comedy competitions have a long and popular tradition across the former Soviet countries and are known for including political satire.

Tajikistan’s appalling human rights record deteriorated further in 2018, as authorities intensified a widespread crackdown on free expression and association, peaceful political opposition activity, the independent legal profession, and the independent exercise of religious faith. Well over 150 political activists, including a number of lawyers, remain unjustly jailed, and relatives of dissidents who peacefully criticize the government from outside the country have been subject to violent retaliation orchestrated by authorities, including arbitrary detention, threats of rape, confiscation of passports and property, and vigilante justice at the hands of sometimes violent mobs.

Over two years, at least 20 journalists have fled the country, fearing prosecution for their professional activities. Journalists perceived to be critical of the government risk harassment and intimidation.

“Tajikistan’s international partners should publicly and unanimously condemn this mockery of justice,” said Marius Fossum, Central Asia representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “Tajikistan’s human rights situation has been spiraling downward at a rapid pace and the time has come for Washington, Brussels, and all actors to examine the possibility of enacting targeted punitive measures unless immediate human rights improvements are made.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Activists from the citizens’ movements Filimbi and LUCHA RDC Afrique peacefully protest on July 11, 2018 in Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, for the release of fellow activists detained in the capital Kinshasa since December 2017.

© 2018 Private

Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo arrested seven activists on Wednesday in the eastern city of Goma after a sit-in in front of MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo. The activists read out a memorandum demanding the release of their fellow activists in the capital, Kinshasa, sang protest songs, and displayed banners with messages such as “Release Our Friends” and “Activism is Not a Crime.”

“We were peacefully singing in front of MONUSCO,” an activist from the Filimbi youth movement who escaped arrest told Human Rights Watch. “As we started to leave, police arrived and encircled us. Then they came after us and we ran toward the base. They arrested seven of us and drove them off in a private jeep.”

One of the detained activists said that they were taken to the police station at the mayor’s office, where police kicked them and hit some of them with the butt of a gun.

The activists from the Filimbi and LUCHA RDC Afrique youth movements – Christophe Muissa, Patrick Kambale Nguka, Eustache Hangi Kyaviro, Jackson Lumoo Hangi, Urbain Mesi Mumbere, Espoir Muhimuka, and Emmanuel Binyenye – were released later that afternoon.

The activists had organized their protest to support Filimbi’s national coordinator, Carbone Beni, and Filimbi activists Grâce Tshunza, Mino Bompomi, Cédric Kalonji, and Palmer Kabeya, who went to court in Kinshasa that day. Detained since December, they are accused of “insulting the Head of State” and “disturbing public order through propaganda of false information,” among other charges.

During the court proceedings, which Human Rights Watch observed, the activists’ lawyers denied the charges, saying they were simply relaying a message from the Catholic Church’s Lay Coordination Committee, which had called for a peaceful protest on December 31 against President Joseph Kabila staying in power past his constitutionally mandated two-term limit. Congolese authorities brutally repressed that demonstration and two more that followed.

The defense also argued that statements the defendants had made under torture in incommunicado detention should be considered null and void. The court rejected their motion on procedural grounds.

The activists had previously been denied provisional release, despite Beni’s deteriorating health.   The trial is due to resume on July 19. Authorities should finally end their suffering, drop these politically motivated charges, and release them.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Excerpt from 2014 court document describing US Drug Enforcement Administration's undercover distribution of compromised phones.

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – United States law enforcement has used undercover distributions of phones to monitor suspects’ activities, raising rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said today. The Justice Department should disclose its policies regarding the tactic and whether it is currently being used. 

Human Rights Watch has identified two forms of this technique that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has used or, evidence suggests, has contemplated using. One involved the undercover sale of BlackBerry devices whose individual encryption keys the DEA possessed, enabling the agency to decode messages sent and received by suspects. The second, as described in a previously unreported internal email belonging to the surveillance software company Hacking Team, may have entailed installing monitoring software on a significant number of phones before attempting to put them into suspects’ hands.

“Putting a smartphone whose security has been compromised into circulation could create privacy and security risks for anyone who ultimately uses that device and jeopardize free expression,” said Sarah St.Vincent, researcher on US surveillance and domestic law enforcement at Human Rights Watch. “Who’s going to speak freely on the phone if they have to worry about whether it’s bugged?”

Both techniques for distributing compromised phones raise human rights concerns for a broader range of smartphone users, including peaceful activists whose groups may be at risk of government monitoring and non-suspects who may obtain the compromised phones. They also prompt questions about what rights protections the government is applying if the tactic remains in use.

The DEA’s use of the first technique is revealed in court documents filed in 2012 and 2014 during the prosecution in southern California of an alleged drug ring. The traffickers included John Krokos, a Canadian citizen whom the authorities believed was involved in smuggling cocaine between the US, Mexico, and Canada. In early 2010, Krokos and some of his associates began buying encrypted BlackBerry devices from a source in California without realizing she was an undercover DEA agent, as first reported by the Arizona Daily Sun and Vancouver Sun but examined here in detail for the first time. The US also used an undercover law enforcement agent to sell Krokos’ ring some encrypted BlackBerry devices in Mexico in late 2009, although that agent’s institutional affiliation is unclear.

After members of Krokos’ ring were arrested, the government revealed that it had held encryption “keys” allowing it to decode messages agents intercepted from the devices. An affidavit indicates that the intercepted communications included the content of emails.

A court filing suggests that from at least mid-2010, agents obtained wiretap warrants for the real-time monitoring of the compromised devices. However, the available documents do not mention whether a court authorized the dissemination of the devices at the outset. The DEA also attempted to prevent the suspects from buying non-compromised encrypted BlackBerry devices from other sellers, including by arranging for shipments of such devices to be intercepted in Mexico.

The available documents do not suggest that BlackBerry knew about these activities. In response to a request for comment, BlackBerry told Human Rights Watch that it had no involvement in the Krokos investigation. It said customers purchasing BlackBerry devices – in this case, apparently the US government – receive the keys to the encryption used on those individual devices.

The company further stated that it does not possess copies of the encryption keys for the devices it produces and therefore would not have been able to provide them to the government, even in response to a court order. Control over a device’s encryption key is solely in the hands of the customer, the company said.

The DEA declined to comment on these issues due to ongoing proceedings arising from the Krokos investigation.

Ensuring that it holds encryption “keys” to decode communications may not be the only way US law enforcement may make a phone vulnerable before selling or giving it to a suspect. This possibility is illustrated by a previously unreported May 20, 2015 email between personnel at Hacking Team, an Italian firm that has sold surveillance technology to governments. The message, which has no known connection to the Krokos investigation, suggests that the government may seek to infect phones with surveillance software before agents distribute these devices to suspects (or cause others to do the same). A later Justice Department letter to Congress reported by Motherboard acknowledged this technique, but the Hacking Team email raises new questions about the method’s scale and details.

BlackBerry responded to Human Rights Watch’s request for comment regarding the May 2015 Hacking Team email by stating that it had had no involvement with Hacking Team and that its analysis had not revealed any compromise of the security of its platform by the surveillance company.

The US government’s policies for secretly distributing devices it has compromised by obtaining encryption keys or installing surveillance tools largely remain unknown. Documents the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) disclosed in 2011 mention seeking a warrant explicitly for a “two-step” process of installing a spying mechanism on a US computer and then carrying out surveillance, but it is unclear whether the DEA has adopted similar standard procedures for the measures it has used or considered.

Under international human rights law, all surveillance methods that interfere with privacy should be authorized by clear, publicly available laws; be subject to approval by a court or other independent body for specific purposes such as protecting public safety or national security; and be proportionate to those aims. Undermining the security of devices to conduct surveillance could have long-term repercussions for privacy, including for people other than the original intended surveillance targets, making it all the more important for the Justice Department to disclose its policies regarding these tactics.

“These are intrusive investigative methods with potentially far-reaching rights consequences in the US and globally,” St.Vincent said. “The Justice Department should disclose its policies for spreading vulnerable devices around, whether in the US or elsewhere – and Congress and the courts should be vigilant in preventing potential abuses.”

Comments by experts and former officials interviewed about the subject and further details regarding the documents located by Human Rights Watch are provided below.

Encryption, Surveillance Authorization, and Human Rights

Encryption is a technique for encoding the content of communications in a manner that makes them unreadable by anyone who lacks the “key” to decode them. Journalists, human rights activists, and millions of others worldwide regularly use encrypted communications – sometimes without realizing it, since some applications and devices employ encryption by default.

Where surveillance is concerned, international human rights law requires any government that interferences with privacy or correspondence to comply with domestic and international law. The measure must also be limited to what is necessary and proportionate to achieving a legitimate aim. Surveillance should be authorized by a court or other body that is independent of the law enforcement, intelligence, or other agency implementing the surveillance. In the United States, the surveillance of the content of telephone or electronic communications is generally subject to a requirement that authorities obtain a judicial warrant in advance based on strict criteria.

Experts’, Former Officials’ Assessments

In an interview with Human Rights Watch, former DEA attorney Robert Spelke, who retired from the Justice Department in 2011, recalled that DEA agents had deliberately disseminated satellite phones to drug trafficking organizations in Colombia through confidential informants approximately 10 years ago during operations with which he was personally familiar.

In Spelke’s recollection, the DEA was able to track the location of these phones – although he did not suggest that the phones’ technical security had been compromised. Human Rights Watch was unable to corroborate the use of this method in Colombia, although the May 2015 Hacking Team email said the DEA has expressed a particular interest in “the ability to know the geographic location of [a] device, and its user.”

“If a DEA agent has a connection into a drug organization and [the agency] can get the phones into them,” then it would do so, Spelke said. In Colombia, he recalled, “We were getting sat[ellite] phones to captains of go-fast [drug-running] boats, and we gave phones to some other people who were in the jungle.” He indicated that the DEA would have obtained warrants or court orders in any relevant countries.

Former DEA Special Agent Bobby Kimbrough, who retired from the agency in 2016, told Human Rights Watch he was not aware of any distribution of compromised devices. However, he suggested that investigative technology exists that should largely remain unrevealed to protect agents’ safety. He said that for the DEA to be able to “do what the taxpayers pay the agents to do – and that is secure, stop, and apprehend those that engage in the illegal drug trade – sometimes the technology is not commonly known or commonly used.”

However, US courts will typically prohibit the prosecution from using evidence obtained through techniques that broke the law, meaning that the use of a legally questionable investigative method can undermine the government’s case. Kimbrough said DEA agents – whom he emphasized do “a very dangerous job” – take pains to do everything legally so as not to risk such consequences. “It would be a sad day to put over a year or two years into an operation … and have done something to break the rules and have it be for naught,” he said. He emphasized that an agent would always obtain advance confirmation from a US government attorney that a technology was legal to use, to avoid the risk of negative legal repercussions.

Notwithstanding this caution, the distribution of surveillance-ready devices raises difficult questions under current US law and multiple human rights concerns.

Jumana Musa, director of the Fourth Amendment Center at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, declined to comment on the Krokos case – some aspects of which remain ongoing – but expressed broader doubts about the legality of agents’ dissemination of compromised phones unless a judge has already issued a wiretap warrant.

“If they’re going to be in a position of putting in somebody’s hands a device that would give them the ability to listen to people’s real-time communications, then the bare minimum is that they need to get a warrant” for real-time wiretapping, Musa said, observing that such warrants are only issued under exceptionally strict standards to prevent abuses. “You don’t set up a wiretap before you get the wiretap order.”

Even if authorized by a warrant, the dissemination of vulnerable devices could create a risk of significant harm. Riana Pfefferkorn, a cryptography fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, told Human Rights Watch it would be “frightening to use a wiretap order to authorize seeding compromised devices among people.” She suggested that anyone who might accept such a tactic when the targets are suspected drug traffickers should consider a hypothetical scenario in which agents secretly gave such non-secure devices to “journalists or activists.”

The existence of this technique might also “make people suspicious of using the products that are out there for protecting themselves,” Pfefferkorn added.

Hamid Khan, campaign coordinator Stop LAPD Spying, a grassroots coalition that has investigated law enforcement and privacy issues in Los Angeles (the area where the Krokos investigation took place), told Human Rights Watch that any warrantless distribution of compromised phones “completely throws due process out the window” and should be viewed in the broader context of an investigative environment that “flips innocent until proven guilty on its head.”

The United States has a lengthy history of excessive surveillance of minority communities, and Khan suggested that the larger issue of surveillance’s impact on “the most vulnerable populations” should be kept in mind as methods evolve.

The Krokos Investigation

Government filings say that in 2009, the DEA began investigating John Krokos, a Canadian citizen whom the authorities described as part of an international cocaine trafficking ring. Investigators regarded encrypted communications using BlackBerry devices as integral to Krokos’ operation. In late 2009, an undercover source began selling encrypted BlackBerry devices (EBDs) to Krokos and his associates, and US law enforcement soon began a multi-year period of intercepting communications that the traffickers believed were encrypted and would therefore be unintelligible if captured by authorities.

In response to a 2013 motion by one of Krokos’ co-defendants, Zaid Wakil, to suppress evidence in the case due to alleged constitutional violations, prosecutors filed a declaration stating that a DEA special agent had initially posed as a drug buyer to infiltrate the suspected trafficking ring “but subsequently posed as a person who could supply encrypted [B]lackberry devices … to the group.”

The declaration noted that the agent went on to meet with one of Krokos’ suspected associates “on multiple occasions in Southern California to supply EBDs” and that “[t]he exchanges typically occurred in parking lots in Southern California” – including the parking lot of a Home Depot in the West Hills area of Los Angeles. Undercover sales of the devices to Krokos’ ring had also taken place in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico the previous year.

The declaration suggests that at some point after the phones had been sold to the suspected traffickers, “agents applied for and obtained orders for the wiretap interception of the EBDs” and other devices with which the users communicated. The earliest orders for real-time wiretapping mentioned in the documents examined by Human Rights Watch date to mid-2010, although the government had previously obtained search warrants for historical communications sent and received by the devices.

“I believe that, since the EBDs had encryption technology on them, Krokos felt relatively safe in communicating over the devices,” a Homeland Security Investigations special agent wrote in the declaration.

The agent went on to state that “[i]n fact, law enforcement had the encryption software ‘keys’ to the devices and was able to intercept communications over them.”

An affidavit by the undercover DEA agent who sold the BlackBerry devices in California also describes repeated efforts by the agency to prevent the suspected traffickers from obtaining non-compromised devices from vendors, including by arranging for shipments of such devices to be intercepted in Mexico.

Krokos and several of his associates were ultimately convicted of federal offenses related to the drug trafficking conspiracy. Wakil’s prosecution remains ongoing.

Parallel Construction – Keeping Evidence Secret

Krokos’ co-defendant Wakil ultimately became the subject of a US government attempt to engage in “parallel construction” – a controversial method for concealing investigative sources and methods from defendants. In January, Human Rights Watch published an investigative report on parallel construction concluding that the practice violates rights.

The parallel construction method in Wakil’s case involved a request from DEA agents to Arizona police to find a reason to conduct a “traffic stop” of Wakil’s rental car. An Arizona officer subsequently stopped the car on the grounds that it lacked a license plate and had an illegal windshield attachment. However, authorities did not disclose in the Arizona state-level prosecution that a DEA agent had placed a secret “slap-on” GPS tracking device on Wakil’s rental car without getting a warrant; this warrantless tracking violated Arizona law at the time, and the US Supreme Court has since ruled that it is unconstitutional throughout the country.

The prosecutors in the state court also did not disclose the interceptions of communications from compromised devices, which were part of the chain of investigative steps that had led the DEA to suspect Wakil of being involved in drug trafficking. At the state level, Wakil was convicted of narcotics trafficking.

The interceptions and unlawful GPS tracking came to light during the prosecution of Wakil in federal court for offenses stemming from the same activities. An Arizona judge went on to vacate Wakil’s state-court conviction. However, while as a matter of policy US defendants often are not prosecuted in both state and federal court for the same acts, the law does not strictly prohibit such successive prosecutions and the federal proceedings against Wakil remained in progress at the time of publication.

Other California Investigations

Human Rights Watch has identified another federal drug investigation from approximately the same period as the Krokos sting, and the same California jurisdiction, in which indictments refer to the suspects’ extensive use of encrypted BlackBerry communications. The indictments in the resulting cases, United States v. Alvarez and United States v. Higgins, go on to describe the content of communications within the alleged rings, and a government filing suggests that “email intercepts” were used in the investigation. However, the available court records do not clarify whether federal agents had distributed compromised devices and/or were decrypting intercepted conversations.

While inconclusive, these documents raise questions about whether the technique employed in the Krokos case has been used more widely.

The Hacking Team Email

In July 2015, a large number of internal emails belonging to Hacking Team were leaked, and a searchable database is now available on WikiLeaks. An email Hacking Team’s operations manager sent on May 20, 2015 provides notes from what he describes as a meeting with “the DEA Team,” including procurement and technical officials, two days earlier.

The email’s author indicated that the DEA was infecting “a large number of phones” with Hacking Team’s software and then “work[ing] to circulate these phones within target organizations” of suspected drug traffickers, although he noted that the agents wanted to be able to use the malware’s capabilities “[o]nly when a person of interest in the [target] organization begins to use one of the phones.”

The email said the DEA wanted to buy the monitoring software for “perhaps 1,000” phones and that while agents “showed high interest in BlackBerry 10, as it is widely used in Latin America where they operate,” they were “looking at all the options possible to infect Android and iPhones as well.”

The Hacking Team emails available through WikiLeaks do not appear to confirm whether the DEA made this purchase. Hacking Team did not respond to a request for comment regarding the May 20, 2015 e-mail prior to publication, and the DEA declined to comment, citing pending judicial matters.

In July 2015, after the breach of Hacking Team’s emails publicly revealed a longstanding relationship between the company and the DEA, the Justice Department wrote a letter to the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee stating that Hacking Team’s surveillance application could be installed either “remotely” or “through physical access” to a device.

The letter, which has previously been reported, describes the use of this technique outside the United States, explaining that agents of a country that hosted the DEA would “provide the targeted devices” and that the DEA would then install Hacking Team’s software before handing the devices back “to be given to … foreign-based drug traffickers and money launderers.” The letter said this activity occurred in 16 instances under foreign court orders, and that the software was “used to collect real-time written communications … and location information.”

In the same letter, the Justice Department said the DEA had “recently” cancelled its contract with Hacking Team, although it did not disavow the technique it had described.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Migrants are seen in front of a dorm destroyed during Bosnian 1992-1995 war, in Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina May 11, 2018.

© 2018 REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Western Balkan and European Union leaders meet in London this week for a summit that could be a chance to revive stalled reforms and focus attention on critical issues. Unfortunately, there is every chance it will turn out to be full of hot air.

Hosted by the UK, the meeting gathers leaders of six Western Balkan countries and their closest European Union partners with a stated aim of strengthening security cooperation political dialogue and economic stability across the region. 

However, neither promoting human rights nor the rule of law – key criteria for possible future EU membership – have even been mentioned. 

That may give some people the impression that things are quiet in those departments – but it is far from the case.

The Western Balkans remains a prisoner of low expectations by EU governments and the United States – who have long prioritized stability over building democratic institutions that can ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Across the region, minorities face serious problems securing their rights.

The plight of the Roma stands out especially. As elsewhere, they remain marginalized and subject to discrimination. Bosnia and Herzegovina still does not recognize them as fully equal citizens. That leaves them and other minority groups without equal rights to political participation and constitutional protection, even though the European Court of Human Rights has declared Bosnia’s position on this a violation of human rights.

Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro routinely deny Roma equal access to basic services. They are often forcibly evicted without adequate alternate housing.

Roma from Kosovo – those who were not forced to flee in the Kosovo war  – are kept segregated in informal settlements. Roma that the UN placed in camps that were contaminated by lead when it administered Kosovo still await compensation. A UN trust fund for community assistance projects has not garnered any donations.

The flow of migrants along the “Western Balkan route” has subsided. But governments are sometimes still resorting to using increased border protection measures, including violent push-backs from Croatia, an EU member since 2013, and from Serbia, or detention in inhumane conditions in Macedonia. Aid groups and volunteers try to help migrants in both Serbia and Bosnia, but that is no substitute for the provision of adequate reception conditions by the governments.

People with disabilities are also denied their rights. In Croatia, children and adults with disabilities remain trapped in institutions. In Serbia, the recent increase in the number of children with disabilities placed in institutions, and their lack of access to education, raises similar concerns, notwithstanding Serbia’s promises that these children will be able to go to school.

Journalists and human rights defenders work in a hostile environment across the region. Threats and even violent attacks are frequent in Serbia and Montenegro. Some face copycat smear campaigns and personal attacks for investigating powerful political and business interests. They are, however, coming together to advocate for their rights across borders.

Thankfully, the agenda in London does include what it refers to euphemistically as “legacy issues of the past” – which in fact remain the issues of the present in the region.

The failure to adequately address war crimes and other wartime abuses helps perpetuate current political conflicts. Investigations are underfunded, convicted war criminals are often glorified in their home countries, and cross-border cooperation is minimal. Organizations that advocate justice for war crimes are portrayed as foreign agents in some countries.

If Britain and the other EU members want to increase stability in the Western Balkans, they should insist on effective cooperation between prosecutors and police across the region on war crimes to ensure that people cannot evade responsibility by moving to another country or acquiring its nationality.

Kosovo authorities should fully cooperate with the Hague-based Kosovo Specialist Chambers, set up to examine serious wartime and post-war abuses there. Building societies based on the rule of law requires holding people who have committed serious crimes to account, even if they occupy powerful positions.

The EU accession process—a key mechanism for reform— has essentially stalled since Croatia joined the bloc.

The European Commission’s new strategy for the region, which aimed to restart the idea of accession, has already run into trouble. EU member states, including France, have postponed the decision to open negotiations with Albania and Macedonia until next June.

It is perhaps even more telling that, in its six-month presidency of the EU, Austria has more or less dropped the region as a priority. Considering Austria’s strong track record of commitment to its neighbourhood, that suggests that even the region’s former champions are losing interest.

That should change. EU governments should recognize that the genuine prospect of accession, coupled with human rights conditionality, can help drive reform, and that long-term stability requires democratic institutions that are capable of responding to and protecting the needs of citizens.

One ray of hope is that some of the states that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s are expected to sign a declaration that could lead to forming a regional truth and reconciliation commission. It is a move long advocated by nongovernmental groups in the region.

This commission would work to establish a comprehensive account of both the crimes and victims of the conflicts. All the governments from the region at the summit should commit themselves to signing.

The Western Balkans region faces real human rights challenges that would benefit from effective cooperation between its states and from international support.

If Britain truly wants “a strong, stable and prosperous” neighbourhood, these issues should get more attention at the summit.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A man holds a portrait of Kem Ley, an anti-government figure and the head of a grassroots advocacy group, "Khmer for Khmer", shot dead on July 10, as they attend a funeral procession to carry his body to his hometown, in Phnom Penh July 24, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters/Samrang Pring/File Photo
(New York) – Cambodian authorities have yet to carry out a credible, impartial investigation into the murder of prominent political commentator Dr. Kem Ley two years ago, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should invite the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia to conduct an independent investigation and commit to act on its findings.

On July 10, 2016, Kem Ley was assassinated in broad daylight at a Caltex petrol station in Phnom Penh. The killing took place two days after he publicly criticized Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family for abusing its power to accumulate vast personal wealth. Three days later, five UN human rights experts called for an investigation to “be conducted by an independent body with no ties to the government,” but the government has ignored their demand.

“Kem Ley apparently paid with his life for becoming a popular critic of massive corruption at the highest levels of government,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Cambodian government claims to respect the rule of law, but since Kem Ley’s murder the authorities have ignored all investigative leads and harassed critics who demand justice.”

Kem Ley, 45, was the founder of the grassroots network Khmer for Khmer and a prominent political commentator who was a frequent critic of the government. The grassroots network had registered as the Grassroots Democracy Party with the intention of running during the June 2017 commune council elections. Kem Ley’s death and the subsequent funeral procession showed his popularity in the country, drawing tens of thousands of people onto the streets.

Kem Ley’s wife was seven months’ pregnant when he was shot. Due to threats against her and her children, they fled  the country in August 2016. The family was granted a special humanitarian visa by the Australian authorities on February 14, 2018.

The government claims to have resolved the case after a fundamentally flawed and farcical half-day trial on March 1, 2017 that raised more questions than it answered, Human Rights Watch said. A man named Oeuth Ang confessed to killing Kem Ley, whom he claimed owed him an unpaid debt of US$3,000. Evidence of the alleged debt was never produced by the prosecution, nor was any relationship between the two men established. The debt claim was strongly denied by both Kem Ley’s widow and Oeuth Ang’s wife. Video footage from the Caltex station where the killing occurred showed a possible suspect carrying an AK-47 assault weapon running after Oeuth Ang when he was escaping the scene.

Oeuth Ang was convicted of premeditated murder and the unauthorized possession of a weapon and sentenced to life imprisonment. Police and prosecutors did not investigate any other suspects or accomplices, despite evidence indicating their existence, and the lack of any motive for the killing.

Since Kem Ley’s murder, the Cambodia government has harassed individuals who have expressed doubts about the official version of events or offered alternative theories about who might have been behind Kem Ley’s killing. A number have been sued in Cambodia’s politically controlled courts. Hun Sen brought a criminal defamation suit against political commentator Kim Sok after he alluded in an interview on Radio Free Asia (RFA) to the involvement of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in Kem Ley’s assassination. A court convicted Kim Sok of criminal defamation and incitement to commit a felony and sentenced him to 18 months’ imprisonment and a fine of 8 million Cambodian Riel (US$2,000) to be paid to the government and 800 million Cambodian Riel ($200,000) in compensation to be paid to the CPP.

Sam Rainsy, the former leader of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and Thak Lany, a former CNRP senator, were each slapped with lawsuits when they claimed that Hun Sen had ordered the murder of Kem Ley. Both have gone into exile.

“The past two decades are littered with dead critics of Hun Sen, yet the people who ordered these killings are never arrested, let alone prosecuted,” Adams said. “The UN and foreign donors should insist that this time is different and that Kem Ley’s killers are brought to justice.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 19, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

There are hopeful signs that Uzbekistan could shed its reputation as one of the worst human rights abusers in the world, but activists say it still needs to do more.

It’s time for a reality check on Uzbekistan’s reforms. Almost two years on from Shavkat Mirziyoyev taking the presidency in September 2016, some of the Central Asian country’s key international partners are reassessing relations. They would do well to focus on the realities of human rights in Uzbekistan, as well as the government’s ambitious reform plans.

By all accounts things are getting a little frenzied in Tashkent. On a recent visit, we heard from government staff and international officials about the hundreds of laws, presidential decrees, and roadmaps being drawn up to reform Soviet-era regulations on various human rights issues and many topics beyond. Civil servants are working round the clock. “We don’t sleep anymore,” one Uzbek official told us.

All the activity has certainly made a difference. There are signs of hope that Uzbekistan could shed its reputation as one of the worst human rights abusers in the world. Several dozen political prisoners have been released. New laws – if effectively implemented – could be modest steps toward a more independent judiciary and freer civil society. And local media has become more lively, with topics previously seen as taboo getting an airing.

Yet this narrative should not overshadow another: The Uzbek government remains highly authoritarian, the security services retain huge power, free elections and political pluralism are distant dreams, and there are still thousands of people in prison on politically motivated charges.

Both aspects should inform reassessments by Uzbekistan’s partners. European Union member states are expected to agree soon to mandate the European Commission to start talks with Tashkent on an “enhanced” Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is working on a new Uzbekistan strategy for future engagement.

In June the United States upgraded Tashkent from Tier III to the less critical Tier II “watch list” in the State Department’s annual trafficking report, which assesses Uzbekistan’s efforts to combat forced and child labor in the cotton fields. The U.S. is also reviewing Uzbekistan’s stance on religious freedom.

Some diplomats in Tashkent contend that the Uzbek government’s “direction of travel” on human rights is more important than the appalling nature of the journey’s starting point. Yet reality checks on Uzbekistan’s torture in detention, forced labor in the cotton fields, and free expression show that the trip will be long.

Torture and other ill-treatment is endemic in Uzbek prisons. Human Rights Watch in 2011 found electric shock, asphyxiation, and beatings. In startlingly frank comments, the head of the Supreme Court, Kozimjon Komilov, admitted last month that evidence obtained by torture had regularly been used in court. “We have indeed closed our eyes to this sensitive issue for many years,” he said.

A November 2017 law bans using torture-tainted evidence in court. But there are few signs that torture has stopped, as the recent case of a journalist, Bobomurod Abdullayev, shows. He was arrested in September 2017 – a full year after Mirziyoyev took power – and charged with plotting to overthrow the state. The openness of his Tashkent trial drew credits including from Human Rights Watch, but the torture he suffered is chilling. Abdullayev was brutally beaten, kept naked in a freezing cell, and not allowed to sit down or sleep for six days. Although the judge who oversaw Abdullayev’s criminal trial called in May for an investigation into the torture he suffered, no meaningful action has yet been taken.

Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov said in May that there would be “no impunity” for officers who use torture. And in June several security agency officers were jailed for their role in the death and torture of a Bukhara entrepreneur, Ilhom Ibodov. Yet Uzbekistan has yet to take structural steps to address the issue, including ratifying and carrying out a key UN anti-torture protocol and allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to conduct independent prison monitoring. Those would be important steps forward.

In a speech at the United Nations General Assembly last year, President Mirziyoyev acknowledged for the first time the decades-old practice of usingforced labor and pledged steps to abolish it. The government says it is determined to enforce a ban on forced labor by civil servants, doctors, nurses, and teachers, to create an incentive for mechanization and the use of paid labor to harvest the cotton crop.

When we met in her Tashkent apartment, Elena Urlaeva, an Uzbek human rights veteran, was quick to emphasize the significance of a genuine, regular dialogue between government officials, the International Labor Organization, and rights activists on the issue of forced labor that was unimaginable two years ago. But Urlaeva says she still expects that hundreds of thousands of civil servants and others will again be forced to pick cotton in the harvest starting in September.

There is also much light and shadow in Uzbekistan’s experiment with greater freedom of expression. The president has urged the media not to hold back in addressing urgent social issues. As Human Rights Watch has found, some local journalists are covering sensitive issues such as forced labor and corruption that were previously taboo. They have also helped bring to the fore cases of injustice or wrongdoing by officials that have spurred unprecedented debate on social media and in some cases, remedial action. Bakhodir Eliboev, a human rights activist and blogger from Rishtan, says there are now up to 400 bloggers in Uzbekistan. “There could be a thousand within a year,” he said.  

Yet much of the media remains under state control, and censorship is the norm. Journalists self-censor, unclear where the “red lines” are. Several pioneering online outlets such as,, and, were mysteriously blocked for a period last month.

It is a step forward that Voice of America’s correspondent received accreditation last month, but the government is still blocking the same for the BBC, which got the green light a year ago to appoint a local reporter, and others. Keeping a lid on genuine free expression and independent media remain government cornerstones. This should worry Tashkent’s international partners.

The government’s reform efforts undoubtedly face real challenges. These include too few well-trained civil servants, and local officials whose mentality has been shaped by decades of authoritarian rule. Ministries are hungry for know-how and best practices from Europe, the U.S. and other industrial economies (much less so from China and Russia). “We get several requests a week,” one Western diplomat told us.

This offers a clear opportunity for these partners to ensure that, as support for Tashkent increases, they also make clear their expectations on improvements in the rule of law and basic freedoms, with possible consequences for continued support if real changes do not occur.

In this way the realities of human rights for ordinary people in Uzbekistan would come more in line with the government’s ambitious plans.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo leave Insein court in a police van in Yangon, Myanmar, July 9, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

A judge in Yangon formally charged two Reuters journalists on Monday for possessing confidential government documents in the latest blow to press freedom in Myanmar. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, detained for the past seven months during preliminary hearings, will now face trial for allegedly violating Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

The judge decided to proceed to trial despite strong evidence for dismissal – witness accounts pointing to entrapment, indications of police misconduct in the investigation, and prosecution witnesses with contradicting testimonies.

The two journalists were detained in December after meeting with police officers who handed them papers in an apparent setup, since corroborated by several witnesses, including an officer who testified that the police were ordered to “trap” the journalists by planting “secret” documents on them.

The government can arrest us like this, waste our time in the court for many days.... But we want to tell them, right here, that they can never hide the truth.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

In the months before their arrest, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been investigating a massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar security forces in September 2017 in Inn Din village, northern Rakhine State. The massacre was part of the military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing that drove more than 720,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar authorities, who have denied extensive evidence of mass atrocities, appear to have targeted Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo because their reporting threatened the government’s tightly controlled narrative.

“The government can arrest us like this, waste our time in the court for many days, and stop us from being able to write news,” Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo wrote in a letter from prison. “But we want to tell them, right here, that they can never hide the truth.”

After an initial thaw in the country’s long-repressed media environment, the new civilian administration under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has cracked down on free speech. Since 2016, scores of cases have been filed against journalists and activists for perceived criticism of the government or military under a slew of repressive laws.

The charges against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for their uncovering of atrocities reflect more than just the dire state of free speech in Myanmar. They show the lengths the government will go to silence and punish those who expose its brutal ways.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev (L) arrives for a meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on February 6, 2017. 

© 2017 REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
The European Parliament, the EU’s elected representatives, have made clear they will not ratify a deal with Azerbaijan unless it improves it’s human rights record. The European Commission should now follow through with a clear message — Azerbaijan’s crackdown on dissent must end and political prisoners freed.

The European Parliament adopted a resolution on 4 July, reiterating its commitment to strengthening ties with Azerbaijan, but not at the expense of human rights. In fact, parliament members said they wouldn’t ratify any agreement with a country that fails to respect fundamental EU values and rights.

They said that the European Council and Commission should use the partnership talks, underway since February 2017, to press their point, and should make their completion of an agreement conditional on Azerbaijan’s release of political prisoners and the ability of non-governmental groups and lawyers to work without undue government interference.

The resolution is significant because the European Parliament, as the EU’s legislative body, holds a significant role in ratifying international agreements before they enter into force. And this time, European lawmakers made it abundantly clear that they would accept no deal with Azerbaijan if fundamental values and rights are not respected and critical activists remain behind bars.

What is it all about? A new partnership agreement with Azerbaijan would deepen the political and economic ties between Europe’s Western bloc and the oil-rich country in the South Caucasus. The decision to open talks in February 2017 was taken soon after Azerbaijan freed 17 of the dozens of wrongly jailed activists, journalists and human rights defenders. The EU’s eagerness to engage with Azerbaijan reflected, at best, wishful thinking – that giving the country’s leadership what they desired could lead to further improvements of the country’s abysmal human rights record — or at worst, it reflected worrying cynicism on the EU’s part, with hydrocarbon interests trumping rights concerns.

For years, Azerbaijani authorities have engaged in concerted efforts to silence all critical voices in the country. They have arrested dozens of critics of the government, civil and political activists, journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders. Even when they have released some from politically motivated imprisonment, they have arrested many others. Many activists have fled the country or face politically motivated travel bans.

The authorities have also decimated the country’s once vibrant civil society by adopting laws that make it practically impossible for human rights groups to get funding abroad. Azerbaijan also stifles critical media, blocks prominent independent websites, and interferes with the work of independent lawyers by initiating disciplinary sanctions or disbarring them.

Many of those in jail or outside contesting Azerbaijan’s increasingly authoritarian government, count on the EU to stay principled in its dealings with Baku. Among them is Ilgar Mammadov, one of the few alternative political voices in Azerbaijan, imprisoned since February 2013, despite two European Court decisions finding his detention illegal. Last year, many EU member states supported the Council of Europe initiative to start legal proceedings against Azerbaijan for its failure to implement the European Court decision by freeing Mammadov.

Yet, Mammadov remains jailed and the same states appear determined to sign a closer partnership deal with Azerbaijan. The European Parliament resolution explicitly mentions Mammadov and several other detained activists and journalists, and calls on the commission to ensure their release as a condition for finalising the partnership talks.

It’s always important for the voices of EU’s elected representatives to support those suffering from repression in the EU’s neighborhood. But those calls are often promptly dismissed in Azerbaijan. They are also too often set aside by the European Commission, whose stated resolve to uphold rights in its policy toward Azerbaijan appears to waver in the face of economic or political interests.

Shortly after the negotiations over a new partnership agreement started, Azerbaijani authorities resumed the arrests of the country’s most outspoken critics. Mehman Huseynov, a popular blogger, was sentenced in March 2017 to two years in prison for allegedly defaming police officers after he went public about the ill-treatment he had suffered in their custody. In May, the exiled journalist Afgan Mukhtarli was abducted in Georgia and illegally taken across the border to Azerbaijan, where he was sentenced to six years in prison on bogus criminal charges. Many other political opposition supporters or youth activists shared the same treatment.

Parliament has made clear it wants to see progress on everything EU diplomats have ignored while negotiating a new bilateral deal or securing multi-billion loans for the construction of new a pipeline owned by Azerbaijan’s state oil company, SOCAR.

In principle, closer partnership through the new EU-Azerbaijan deal should deliver concrete benefits for EU and Azerbaijani citizens. But the absence of serious political consequences for the Azerbaijani leadership’s blatant disrespect for fundamental rights has left activists in jail or in exile with little or no hope. It would be embarrassing for both Brussels and Baku if the European Parliament decides to kill the deal because basic human rights conditions are not met in Azerbaijan.

Federica Mogherini and others at the European Commission should now convey the clear message that the crackdown on dissent needs to end and those unjustly jailed be released without further delay.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk arrive for a joint news conference following the EU-Ukraine summit in Kiev, Ukraine, July 13, 2017. © 2017 REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

On 9 July, Brussels will host the 20th EU-Ukraine Summit, the annual exercise when Kyiv and the European block highlight their strong bilateral relations. No doubt, the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and European Union leaders will follow the usual united front.

But they will also most likely have in mind that this summit is special. There might be some new faces in the family picture next year, as both parties will face tough elections by then, with the presidential election in Ukraine next March and the election of a new European Parliament less than two months later.

In this context, next week’s meeting will be a test of the EU’s will and capacity to promote a truly democratic Ukraine. But it will require EU leaders to go beyond business as usual and get honest with Kyiv. So far, the EU rhetoric has been supportive: Kyiv must continue reforms, which would bring it closer to the EU politically and economically, as Federica Mogherini said just a week ago in Copenhagen. But when it comes to respect for the rule of law and human rights, the EU finds it a lot easier to address violations in the conflict-affected eastern Ukraine and Russia-occupied Crimea than to call out Ukrainian authorities on human rights abuses in the rest of the country. 

To be clear, Ukraine has been devastated by Russia’s military incursions in Donbas and occupation of Crimea. Despite that, the country has made profound strides in transforming some of its political institutions and practices. However, in the past two years, Ukraine has taken several steps backward on media freedom and free association, and it has done little in the face of rising hate violence, without drawing much alarm or protest from the EU. The government’s backtracking might worsen if it chooses nationalist expediency in next year’s elections. The EU should take these disturbing actions seriously.

These are three things Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk should stress to Petro Poroshenko.

First, there should be no restrictions on media freedom in Ukraine. 

The Ukrainian government tries to justify these restrictions by pointing to the need to counter Russia’s military aggression in eastern Ukraine and anti-Ukraine propaganda. The EU needs to be absolutely clear that this is not an acceptable reason to curtail free speech and intimidate journalists. At least two journalists are in prison on treason charges for comments critical of government policies on eastern Ukraine. 

Several foreign journalists, mostly Russian citizens, have been banned or expelled from Ukraine. Most of Russian media’s coverage of events in Ukraine is hard to stomach. But banning journalists for anti-Ukraine coverage should not be Kyiv’s preferred way to combat Russia’s formidable propaganda machine. Fighting fakes with facts and transparency is what will help Kyiv to keep its integrity and avoid using the same methods as the Kremlin. 

Which is why protecting free speech and the work of journalists should be a priority. Yet, the killers of Oles Buzina and Pavel Sheremet, Ukrainian journalists killed in 2015 and 2016 respectively, are still at large years later, despite numerous public pledges by Poroshenko himself to bring Sheremet’s killers to justice. 

Second, the EU should be genuinely concerned by the authorities’ attempts to curb independent watchdogs

When President Poroshenko signed a March 2017 law to force activists and journalists investigating corruption to publicly declare their personal assets or face prison if they refuse to comply – an intrusive and unnecessary measure that would largely deter any anti-corruption work in the country – Ukraine’s international partners rightly stood up and told Poroshenko that it was a terrible idea. Over a year later the law is now in full effect, despite the president’s promises to get rid of it. 

Worse, two presidential draft proposals before parliament would impose new public reporting obligations on all nonprofit organisations. These proposals are shockingly out of line with principles Ukraine subscribed to when joining the Council of Europe and would jeopardise Ukrainian nongovernmental groups’ security and capacity to operate. European Union officials frequently voice their support for Ukraine’s civil society. Now they need to remind Ukrainian authorities that strangling independent groups with unnecessary and onerous measures is not the right thing to do to get closer to Europe.

Finally, European Union leaders should condemn the government’s inaction over growing attacks by violent radical groups.

On 23 June, a group of ultranationalists attacked a Roma settlement near Lviv, killing one person and injuring several more, including a child. This was the sixth recent anti-Roma attack. On 8 March, International Women’s Day, radical groups attacked the Women’s March in Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine, physically assaulting participants. On 10 May, threats of violence by radical groups disrupted an LGBTI rights event hosted by Amnesty International. Ukrainian authorities rarely investigate such attacks, and more often than not, police stand by and do nothing, despite resources and police training provided by the EU.

Ukraine is at a pivotal moment. If the EU truly wants to see a reliable and confident partner in Ukraine, it needs to consistently encourage President Poroshenko to foster genuinely democratic reform, rather than turning a blind eye to radical violence in the name of political expedience. The EU cannot say it fully supports Ukraine’s future if it’s looking the other way when Ukrainian authorities waver on core European values.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Fueled by access to large data sets and powerful computers, machine learning and artificial intelligence can offer significant benefits to society. At the same time, left unchecked, these rapidly expanding technologies can pose serious risks to human rights by, for example, replicating biases, hindering due process and undermining the laws of war.

To address these concerns, Human Rights Watch and a coalition of rights and technology groups recently joined in a landmark statement on human rights standards for machine learning.

Known as the Toronto Declaration, the statement calls on governments and companies to ensure that machine learning applications respect the principles of equality and non-discrimination. The document articulates the human rights norms that the public and private sector should meet to ensure that algorithms used in a wide array of fields – from policing and criminal justice to employment and education – are applied equally and fairly, and that those who believe their rights have been violated have a meaningful avenue to redress.

While there has been a robust dialogue on ethics and artificial intelligence, the Declaration emphasizes the centrality and applicability of human rights law, which is designed to protect rights and provide remedies where human beings are harmed.

The Declaration focuses on machine learning and the rights to equality and non-discrimination, but many of the principles apply to other artificial intelligence systems. In addition, machine learning and artificial intelligence both impact a broad array of human rights, including the right to privacy, freedom of expression, participation in cultural life, the right to remedy, and the right to life. More work is needed to ensure that all human rights are protected as artificial intelligence increasingly touches nearly all aspects of modern life.

Drafted by rights groups, technologists, and researchers, the Toronto Declaration was finalized and announced on May 16, 2018 at the RightsCon conference in Toronto.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Ugandan lawmakers arrive at the parliament, in Kampala, Uganda September 21, 2017.

© 2018 Reuters

This weekend the Ugandan government began to implement a troubling new set of tax rules requiring social media users – including of popular apps like WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook - to pay a daily fee of 200 Ugandan Shilling (US$0.05). The levy will be collected through mobile money services run by local telecom companies, for which the new law – passed by Uganda’s parliament back in May – also imposes a 1 percent tax for every transaction.

The government claims the taxes will raise revenue for the benefit of everyone in the country, but the new fees actually appear to be just another way for authorities to stifle free speech. Both government critics and the media in Uganda have been silenced through intimidation by security forces, while online public debate has also faced a clampdown, like when the government  tried to block all access to social media during the elections and the subsequent inauguration of President Museveni in 2016.

Uganda guarantees the rights to freedom of speech, association, and access to information in its own laws and is a party to several international treaties that also provide key protections. But if strictly implemented, these new tax rules will mean many Ugandans, 27 percent of whom live on less than US$1.25 a day, will not be able to exercise these rights via social media, which will become much less accessible.

This is especially significant in a country where more and more people are turning to social media to communicate their dissatisfaction with the government, as well as using it to organize peaceful protests. Certain groups in Uganda, such as the hearing impaired, also rely on social media to access services and information they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to.

Taxing anyone to use social media is an affront to their basic human rights. Uganda can try to dress up this draconian new tax as a benefit, but in reality it is just another clumsy attempt to stamp on free speech.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Detained journalist Kyaw Soe Oo carries his daughter while escorted by police outside a court in Yangon, Myanmar, June 18, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

(New York) – Myanmar authorities should release two Reuters journalists detained for investigating a military massacre of Rohingya Muslims and drop the case against them, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 2, 2018, a Yangon court will hear final arguments on whether to charge Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, under the 1923 Official Secrets Act, which carries a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

The journalists were detained on December 12, 2017, after being invited by police officials to meet at a restaurant in Yangon, where they were handed rolled up papers allegedly linked to security force operations in northern Rakhine State. The Myanmar Police Force announced that the journalists were arrested for “illegally obtaining and possessing government documents,” with the intent “to send them to a foreign news agency.” For more than six months, the two men have been held without bail while evidence has emerged showing police misconduct and conflicting official accounts.

The authorities have turned to tactics long-favored by past military juntas – locking up and prosecuting those exposing the truth.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

“Myanmar authorities set up and arrested the two Reuters journalists because of their work exposing a massacre of Rohingya by the military,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The authorities have turned to tactics long-favored by past military juntas – locking up and prosecuting those exposing the truth.”

Prior to their arrest, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were investigating the September 2017 killing of 10 Rohingya men and boys by the Myanmar military in Inn Din village in northern Rakhine State. Reuters published an in-depth report based on their investigation in February, reconstructing the chronology of the attack through accounts from security personnel and villagers who took part in the military operation. The commanders of a military unit and paramilitary police battalion that carried out the abuses in Inn Din were sanctioned on June 25 by the European Union and Canada.

Since January 2018, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have attended weekly hearings at a Yangon courthouse while being held at the notorious Insein Prison, with their requests for bail and dismissal denied.

Witness accounts of the arrest point to a case of entrapment. In April, a police captain testified that Police Brig. Gen. Tin Ko Ko had ordered the officers to “trap” the journalists by handing them “secret documents” as a pretext for their arrest. Shortly after testifying, the captain was sentenced to one year in prison under the police discipline act and his family was evicted from government housing.

The prosecution’s case has been marked by inconsistencies and irregularities, indicating possible misconduct in the original police operation. During the hearings, one arresting officer testified that he was unaware of proper procedures for recording arrests, while another admitted that he had burned his notes on the arrest. An additional witness for the prosecution wrote the location where police claim the arrest took place on his hand. Police also submitted as evidence documents they allege were discovered on the reporters’ phones, which were searched without a warrant. Defense lawyers have asserted that the information provided by the police to the reporters was already in the public domain at the time of the arrest.

Detained journalist Wa Lone arrives for a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar, June 18, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are accused of violating section 3(1)(c) of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years for anyone who “obtains, collects, records or publishes or communicates to any other person any secret official … document or information” that may be “useful to an enemy.” Under the act’s draconian provisions, criminal penalties are imposed for sharing documents without any requirement that the disclosure pose a real risk of harm, contrary to international standards on freedom of expression.

In particular, section 3(1)(c) does not require that the conduct result in any actual harm to national security or even create a significant risk of such harm. The overly broad and vague provisions should be amended to penalize only conduct that can be proven to pose a concrete risk to national security, and to eliminate the criminal penalties for journalists and other nongovernmental personnel who receive information.

After their arrest, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were held incommunicado for two weeks, during which they were deprived of sleep and forced to kneel for hours during interrogation, according to defense lawyers. Human Rights Watch called for any evidence gathered through ill-treatment to be thrown out.

The use of torture or other coercive methods, including prolonged sleep deprivation, to obtain information from detainees is prohibited under customary international law as well as international human rights treaties. Article 15 of the United Nations Convention against Torture, which Myanmar has not ratified, provides that any statement “made as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceedings,” a restriction also outlined in the UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment 32 on fair trial rights.

The attack at Inn Din was one of a number of massacres carried out by the Myanmar military during its campaign of ethnic cleansing in northern Rakhine State, which has driven more than 720,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017. The government has repeatedly denied allegations of military abuses and refused to allow access to the region to independent investigators, including the UN Fact-Finding Mission and the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar.

Where is the truth and justice? Where is democracy and freedom?

Wa Lone

While the government has claimed that it will take action against security force personnel implicated in abuses if presented with “concrete evidence,” the only case in which soldiers have been detained for crimes committed in Rakhine State since August relates to the massacre exposed by Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. In January, the Myanmar government announced it was investigating the killings of “10 Bengali terrorists” in Inn Din, using a derogatory term for Rohingya. Seven soldiers were sentenced in April to 10 years in prison for their involvement in the massacre, which the government framed as a failure to “hand over to the police” the 10 men and boys, asserting they were lawfully arrested members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group.

The day after the announcement, Wa Lone reacted to the soldiers’ sentences after his appearance in court. “The culprits who committed the massacre were sentenced to 10 years in prison. However, the ones who reported on it – us – are accused under a law that can get us imprisoned for 14 years,” he called out to reporters on the courthouse steps. “Where is the truth and justice? Where is democracy and freedom?”

“The Reuters trial is a test case of press freedom under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government,” Adams said. “If the Reuters journalists are charged, authorities will be following in the footsteps of the military junta. Foreign governments should call for justice for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and an end to the arrest and imprisonment of journalists for doing their jobs.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(From L-R) Oleg Sentsov, Oyub Titiev and Yuri Dmitriev are in jail as the FIFA World Cup takes place in Russia.

Photos © 2018 Reuters

This week I briefly and inadvertently became a spreader of fake news. Late at night, my heart jumped when I saw a repost of a piece by a reputable media outlet with the headline: “Oleg Sentsov Will Be Transferred to Ukraine.” Sentsov, a Crimean filmmaker, is serving a 20-year prison term following a show trial in a bogus terrorism case. He has been on a hunger strike for 47 days, demanding the release of dozens of Ukrainian nationals jailed in Russia and Crimea on politically motivated charges.

He timed his hunger strike to coincide with the FIFA World Cup. As the tournament unfolds in Russia, many have been marking the days of Sentsov’s hunger strike on social media, registering new concern with each new day.

Like them, I constantly hear that clock ticking. Still, the Kremlin released several prominent political prisoners around the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and the World Cup is not over yet.

I quickly scanned the article: “Moscow and Kyiv negotiating an exchange,” it said. Russia’s ombudsperson was in Kiev at the time. It all seemed right. Elated, I reposted the piece and emailed colleagues. Moments later, I noticed the article’s actual date – April 2016. Those negotiations failed.

I was so hoping that, like Sochi, the World Cup would coincide with the release of people imprisoned for political reasons that my eyes had skimmed reality.

We’re desperate for news of Sentsov’s release. Just like we’re craving the release of Oyub Titiev, the Chechnya director of Russia’s leading rights group, Memorial, who is jailed in Grozny on trumped-up drug possession charges. This, while the ruthless head of Russia’s Chechen Republic was lavishly entertaining the Egyptian national team training there during the World Cup.

Instead, we’ve that learned Titiev’s case will go to trial very soon. And on Wednesday, we found out another Memorial activist, Yuri Dmitriev, is back in jail in north-western Russia. Dmitriev is known for documenting mass graves of people shot during Stalin’s terror. Just a few months ago, Russian civil society had celebrated Dmitriev’s acquittal in a trumped-up child pornography case. Now the authorities arrested him again, based on what could be another fabricated, similar case against him.

The clock is ticking. We have 17 days to go till the World Cup ends. FIFA has announced its concern for human rights defenders, and pressing Russian officials to release human rights activists would set an important precedent that sports bodies will use their leverage for good.   There’s still time for FIFA and key international actors to use their leverage and urge Russia to free these unjustly detained people before the tournament’s last game.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am