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

Dear Member/Senator:

The undersigned organizations, which are dedicated to protecting privacy, civil liberties and human rights, write to outline our serious concerns regarding proposed legislation that would provide a new process for cross-border access by foreign governments to electronic communications and related data held in the United States. We urge you to oppose this legislation in its current form if it is introduced as either a stand-alone bill or as part of another legislative vehicle. We would appreciate the opportunity to discuss how best to improve the current cross-border process in a rights-protective manner.  

At present, when a foreign government seeks to obtain electronic communications content held in the United States by U.S. service providers, they generally follow a process laid out in a “mutual legal assistance treaty” (MLAT) between that country and the United States. Under an MLAT, individual requests for the content of communications are evaluated by the U.S. government, and if the required standards are met, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) will seek an order from a U.S. court to provide the content of communications to the foreign country. Importantly, through this review process, the DOJ and U.S. judges take additional steps to protect the rights of individuals in the United States and abroad, including requiring the minimization of data, ensuring the request does not violate the Constitution and will not cause serious human rights violations, and evaluating whether responding to the request is consistent with U.S. treaty obligations.    

The current MLAT process is time consuming, and the U.S. government and foreign governments have argued that a less cumbersome procedure is needed. But rather than improve or devote more resources to the MLAT process, the proposed legislation would empower certain foreign governments to bypass it. Specifically, it would amend U.S. law to permit U.S. communications providers to respond directly to foreign government requests for stored data, and would even allow companies to conduct wiretaps (i.e. collect data in real time) for foreign governments, something that the current MLAT process does not allow. In doing so, the proposed bill eliminates many key safeguards provided under current law that protect the rights of individuals inside and outside the United States. For example, the new approach eliminates the individualized review presently conducted by the U.S. government to ensure that requests for data are not likely to be used to commit serious human rights violations. Thus, without significant amendments, this legislation poses threats to privacy, civil liberties, and human rights.

Our principal concerns with the proposed legislation are as follows:

Provides broad discretion to the Executive Branch to enter into agreements without appropriate oversight: The bill gives the Executive Branch broad discretion to enter into bilateral agreements with other countries without appropriate congressional involvement. Under the current proposal, Congress would not need to approve, ratify, or otherwise endorse such agreements and there is no mechanism for Congress to review implementation of such agreements . Instead, similar to extradition treaties, the bill should require that Congress ratify each individual bilateral agreement, and review such agreements on a periodic basis to determine whether they should be extended.  Further, the bill bars any judicial or administrative review of whether the approval requirements were met. Such unilateral power in the hands of the executive branch without congressional or judicial oversight is a recipe for arbitrariness or decisions based on political factors that do not take adequate account of the rights of people inside or outside the United States.

Allows foreign governments to obtain U.S. held data under a weak standard: The bill only requires that the order by the foreign government be based “on requirements for a reasonable justification based on articulable and credible facts, particularity, legality, and severity regarding the conduct under investigation.” This is a lower standard than the U.S. probable cause standard that applies to foreign requests for the content of communications under current law, impacting both the non-U.S. persons who may be targets of the foreign government requests and U.S. persons whose information may be incidentally collected. This standard may also be insufficient to meet the requirements of international human rights law. In addition, although the bill includes language stating that orders must “identify a specific person, account, address, or personal device, or any other specific identifier as the object of the Order,” this language is insufficient to prevent large-scale collection. For example, an “address” could be an IP address, which can cover numerous computers, or it could include an entire apartment building.

Does not adequately protect the rights of people in the United States: Although foreign governments would not be permitted to use this cross-border process to target U.S. persons (i.e., citizens and legal permanent residents) or individuals located inside the United States, they would still be likely to obtain the communications of Americans who were in contact with foreign targets through “incidental collection.”  In some cases, foreign governments could then voluntarily share such information about U.S. persons with the U.S. government, even though it was collected without the safeguards that would otherwise apply under the Fourth Amendment and the Wiretap Act. Specifically, foreign governments could share any metadata for Americans’ communications (such as the “to” and “from” lines of an email) with the U.S. government.  Additionally, they could share the content of U.S. persons’ communications if the foreign government believes the information “relates to significant harm, or the threat thereof, to the United States or U.S. persons,” which is a standard lower than what would be required for the U.S. government to obtain the information on its own.  Moreover, since the bill also permits foreign governments to voluntarily share collected U.S. person communications with third-party governments in certain situations, including those that do not meet baseline human rights standards, it further threatens the rights of people in the United States.

No requirement for prior individualized and independent review: Prior individualized review by an independent decisionmaker is a fundamental protection under the U.S. system of justice and under international human rights law. However, the bill only requires “review or oversight by a court, judge, magistrate, or other independent authority.”  By permitting foreign countries to rely only on "oversight” which may be generalized, the system fails to require both the prior individualized and independent review necessary to protect individuals inside and outside the United States.

Permits real-time or prospective surveillance for the first time and without adequate safeguards: Under current law, U.S. providers may only turn over stored -- and not real-time -- content to foreign governments through the MLAT process, and when the U.S. government conducts real time or prospective surveillance, the Wiretap Act provides additional safeguards beyond those required for access to stored content. The bill, however, would permit foreign governments, for the first time, to issue orders for U.S. providers to turn over the content of communications in real time without including protections comparable to those contained in the Wiretap Act.

Fails to prevent data localization mandates or requirements for encryption back doors: The bill does not include any language to prohibit foreign countries from requiring that U.S. communications providers store their data in that country (data localization). Although efforts by countries with strong data privacy requirements to apply those protections to data held by U.S. providers may be helpful, rules that simply require data to be stored in a specific country can impede the free flow of information on the internet. Nor does the bill bar foreign countries from requiring U.S. communications providers to create back doors to circumvent encryption. The bill thus fails to protect against many of the threats that the government has suggested it is intended to forestall. 

Fails to require review and establish standards for disclosure of sensitive metadata: Under current law, although foreign government requests for communications content are subject to the rights-protective MLAT process, U.S. providers may voluntarily turn over communications metadata based simply upon a request from a foreign government. This is true even for particularly sensitive metadata, such as email logs and other traffic data. In fact, it is often easier for foreign governments to obtain metadata from U.S. providers than it is for the U.S. government to do so. Any legislation governing cross-border data requests should include a requirement that foreign government requests for sensitive metadata must be subject to prior independent review, and should establish a meaningful standard for that review. The bill, however, fails to address this problem.

Does not appropriately limit the types of crimes that may justify a foreign government data request: The bill applies to data requests in connection with the prevention, detection, investigation, and prosecution of “serious crime, including terrorism,” but it does not list, define, or otherwise limit the “serious crimes” that are covered. Further, unlike the current MLAT requirements, the bill fails to include a dual criminality requirement to ensure that data requests to U.S. providers would only cover the types of crimes that U.S. law also recognizes as serious criminal behavior. The bill thereby creates risks that U.S. providers will be called upon to assist in investigations and prosecutions that violate human rights and civil liberties.  

Fails to ensure that the U.S. government only enters into agreements with foreign governments that meet strong human rights standards: The bill establishes requirements for the U.S. Attorney General, with the concurrence of the U.S. Secretary of State, to approve individual bilateral agreements with foreign governments under which they may seek the contents of communications directly from U.S. communications providers. However, the provisions for U.S. executive branch review and approval of such bilateral agreements only specify “factors to be considered” rather than making the listed factors mandatory for approval. For example, it should be mandatory (and not simply a factor to consider) that countries can only be approved where they adhere to applicable international human rights obligations and commitments, so that there can be no approvals for countries that the State Department has assessed to have committed serious human rights violations.

Fails to ensure notice to targets and others: The bill fails to require notice -- even after the fact -- to the target of a data request, or others whose communications will inevitably be “incidentally” collected. Yet notice is a key human rights protection that gives targets and others an opportunity to ask a court to vindicate their rights and seek redress where abuses occur. The bill does not even require notice to the U.S. government when a foreign government demands data stored in the United States from a U.S. company, to allow the U.S. government to recognize any patterns of abuse.    

For these reasons, without significant amendments to the bill, we urge you to oppose this legislation. We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss how to address the government’s concerns in a rights protective manner.


Access Now
Advocacy for Principled Action in Government
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International
Center for Democracy and Technology
Center for Media and Democracy
Constitutional Alliance
Council on American-Islamic Relations
Defending Rights & Dissent
Demand Progress
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Fight for the Future
Government Accountability Project
Government Information Watch
Human Rights Watch
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
National Security Counselors
New America's Open Technology Institute
Project On Government Oversight
Restore the Fourth

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


On October 2, 2016 scores of people, possibly hundreds, died at the annual Irreecha cultural festival of Ethiopia’s ethnic Oromo people, following a stampede triggered by security forces’ use of teargas and discharge of firearms in response to an increasingly restive crowd. Some died after falling into a deep open trench, others drowned in the nearby lake while fleeing security forces, and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that others were shot by security forces. Many were trampled after armed security forces blocked main roads exiting the site, leaving those fleeing with few options.

Irreecha is the most important cultural festival of Ethiopia’s 35 million ethnic Oromos who gather to celebrate the end of the rainy season and welcome the harvest season. Massive crowds, estimated in the millions, gather each year at Bishoftu, 40 kilometers southeast of Addis Ababa every year. Until 2016, there had never been any major incidents or security problems despite annual massive crowds.

Ethiopian government and security officials should act with restraint and take concrete steps to prevent injuries and deaths at this year’s Irreecha festival on October 1, 2017. 

The government eventually said the official death toll was 55 people but opposition groups estimate nearly 700 died. Neither figure has been substantiated or explained. An investigation by the government affiliated Ethiopian Human Rights Commission was not transparent or credible and there is no evidence of accountability.

One year on, government has failed to meaningfully investigate the security forces’ response, and there is no independent and credible determination of the death toll. Based on analysis of dozens of videos and photos and over 50 interviews with attendees and other witnesses, this report documents the abuses which occurred on October 2, 2016 at Bishoftu. It is not intended to be a comprehensive investigation; rather, the findings underscore the need, not only for credible investigations into what occurred in 2016, but also for the government to ensure security forces refrain from the unnecessary use of force and act professionally at this year’s event, currently scheduled for October 1, 2017.

The 2016 Irreecha festival was held following a year of protests against government policies and security force aggression that left over 1000 people dead across Ethiopia and tens of thousands detained by security forces.

Faced with longstanding tensions that had been greatly exacerbated by a year of brutal repression, the government attempted to play a more dominant role than in previous years with increased security presence and attempts to control who took the stage during the 2016 Irreecha. According to attendees, this prompted anger within the crowd and led some people to get on stage to lead anti-government chants. The security forces initially sought to control the crowds, using teargas. Later, witnesses described security forces firing into the crowd using live ammunition.

In several videos recorded at the scene, numerous gunshots could clearly be heard as crowds flee. Witnesses reported seeing people killed with bullet wounds.

Ethiopia’s then communication minister and other senior officials stated that security forces were unarmed and there was no live ammunition at Irreecha, despite photos clearly showing heavily armed security forces at the event and several witness accounts of gunfire and bullet wounds.


International guidelines, such as the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, stipulate that the police should use force only as a last resort, and refrain from the use of firearms except in the face of extreme danger to themselves or others that cannot be prevented by other means. While the crowd at Irreecha was chanting anti-government slogans, and expressing anger against the government, it does not appear that there was violence from the crowd or an imminent threat to security forces.

There were numerous protests around Bishoftu in the hours and days after the event. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces shot live ammunition during some of these protests as well. In the days that followed, many individuals who attended Irreecha were arrested in their home communities.

In the week that followed, angry youth attacked government buildings and private businesses, leading to an abusive and far-reaching state of emergency, lifted in August 2017. During the state of emergency, security forces arbitrarily detained over 21,000 people in “rehabilitation camps,” artists, politicians, and journalists were tried on politically motivated charges; there were increased limitations on internet access; and many communities reported heavier than usual military presence.

Despite government promises of “deep reform” to address protester grievances, there has been little movement on fundamental issues raised by protesters, including the lack of political space and brutality of the security forces, during the year-long protests heightening tensions further ahead of this year’s Irreecha.

The government expressed regret over the loss of life at the 2016 Irreecha, but also exonerated security forces, blaming the chaos and deaths, as it often does, on “anti-peace forces.” Many Oromo interviewees told Human Rights Watch that they believe the heavy-handed security forces’ response at Irreecha was an intentional and planned massacre, a narrative whose resonance only serves to increase tensions still further ahead of this year’s festival, which could be a flashpoint for further unrest.

The government has strongly resisted calls for international investigations, including into Irreecha. The consistent lack of credibility of government investigations into ongoing abuses and the scale of the crimes being committed are a compelling argument for the need for an independent, international investigation into abuses during the protests, the state of emergency and the events on October 2. Ethiopia’s international allies should call on the government to agree to such an inquiry.

Importantly, the government should take urgent steps to ensure Irreecha 2017 unfolds with far greater restraint and competence on the part of the security forces, and that effective steps are taken to minimize and de-escalate any risk of violence. The government should consider whether a smaller or lower-profile security presence would be the best way to accomplish those goals. Security forces should expect and tolerate free expression which may be critical of the policies of the ruling party and not use force or threat of force to silence critical speech.


To the Government of Ethiopia

Regarding the 2016 Irreecha Festival

  • Support a credible, independent and transparent investigation into the use of force by security forces and discipline or prosecute those found responsible for the excessive use of lethal force and other crowd control tactics that led to fatalities.
  • Ensure authorities who have received inquiries from families of people who have disappeared or are missing reply promptly, providing all known information on the whereabouts and fate of these people and on steps being taken to acquire such information if not readily available.
  • Promptly release from custody and drop any charges against all persons arbitrarily detained for attending 2016 Irreecha, or otherwise peacefully exercising their fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression, association, and assembly.

Regarding the 2017 Irreecha Festival

  • Ensure law enforcement and security organs issue clear orders to their forces that the use of force, including firing of tear gas and discharging firearms in the air, should be strictly minimized, and that use of excessive force will be punished. Permit the 2017 Irreecha festival to proceed without undue government obstruction.
  •  Ensure that any security plans for the festival are carefully tailored to minimize and de-escalate the risk of violent confrontation.

To Ethiopia’s International Partners

  • In the absence of decisive steps to establish a credible domestic investigation into abuses in Ethiopia since November 2015, including the 2016 Irreecha festival and the subsequent state of emergency, all concerned governments should press for an independent international investigation into abuses and press for accountability for the excessive use of force in protests and during the 2016 Irreecha.
  • Publicly call and privately press for the release of anyone arbitrarily detained during the time of the protests, Irreecha, and the state of emergency, including those prosecuted under the criminal code or anti-terrorism law.
  • Improve and increase monitoring of trials of detainees to ensure trials meet international fair trial standards.
  • Publicly and privately raise concerns with Ethiopian government officials at all levels regarding their response to the 2016 Irreecha festival, urge the government to ensure that appropriate levels of force are used in 2017 Irreecha and urge the government to ensure that security presence does not exacerbate an already tense situation.
  • Attend the 2017 Irreecha festival and monitor festival preparations in the days before the festival.
  • Urge Ethiopian officials to invite relevant United Nations and African Union human rights mechanisms, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to visit Ethiopia.

To All Entities Tasked with Managing the Irreecha Festival, including the Gadaa Council and All Government Bodies Tasked with Security

  • Ensure there are multiple points of egress from the festival site. Security forces should not block these exits.
  • Any and all trenches should either be filled, fenced, or otherwise managed in a way that minimizes risks.


This report is based on research conducted between October 2016 and August 2017 in Ethiopia and three other countries. Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed 51 people, including 26 individuals from 10 different zones in Oromia who attended Irreecha in 2016, another 15 who were arrested in their communities due to their alleged involvement in Irreecha and 10 other individuals with knowledge of the event including members of the security forces, government officials, health workers, journalists and academics. All were interviewed individually in person, by telephone, or via other methods of communication.

No one interviewed for this report was offered any form of compensation. All interviewees were informed of the purpose of the interview and its voluntary nature, including their right to stop the interview at any point, and gave informed consent to be interviewed.

Human Rights Watch also consulted court documents, photos, videos and various secondary material, including academic articles, reports from nongovernmental organizations, and information collected by other credible experts to corroborate details or patterns of abuse described in the report. Human Rights Watch took various steps to verify the credibility of interviewees’ statements. All the information published in this report is based on at least two and usually more than two independent sources, including both interviews and secondary material, including videos. The initial moments of the stampede and the events leading up to the stampede were captured in dozens of videos from individuals on stage and in the crowd.

In the past, Ethiopian authorities have harassed and detained individuals for providing information or meeting with international human rights investigators, journalists, and others. Even after individuals flee Ethiopia, family members who remain may be at risk of reprisals. To protect victims and their family members against such reprisals identifying details, including locations of interviews are withheld where such information could suggest someone’s identity.


EPRDF: Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front

OFC: Oromo Federalist Congress

OLF: Oromo Liberation Front

OMN: Oromia Media Network

OPDO: Oromo People’s Democratic Organization

SNNPR: Southern Nations Nationalities’ and Peoples’ Region

TPLF: Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front

UNESCO: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

I. Background

The Protests of 2015 and 2016

Oromia is home to many of Ethiopia’s estimated 35 million ethnic Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group. Government repression across the region has escalated steadily over the years. Ethnic Oromo who express dissent are often arrested and tortured or otherwise illtreated in detention.[1] Abuses against individuals of Oromo ethnicity occur within a broader pattern of repression of dissenting or opposition voices in Ethiopia.

Oromo concerns about the government’s proposed expansion of the municipal boundary of the capital, Addis Ababa, triggered protesters in November 2015. Protesters feared that the Addis Ababa Integrated Development Master Plan would displace Oromo farmers living around Addis Ababa, as has increasingly occurred over the past decade. The protests soon spread to hundreds of locations in Oromia where people complained of displacement, numerous historical grievances and brutality by security forces during the protests.[2] In July 2016, protests spread to the Amhara region.

During the 2015-2016 protests, security forces killed over 1,000 protesters and arrested tens of thousands of students, teachers, opposition politicians, health workers, and those who sheltered or assisted fleeing protesters.[3] While many detainees were released before Irreecha in October, an unknown number remained in detention without charge or access to legal counsel or family. Most of the leadership of the legally registered opposition party, the Oromo Federalist Congress, have been charged under the anti-terrorism law, including Deputy-Chairman Bekele Gerba, and remain behind bars today.[4]

The government’s framing of the protests as being orchestrated or exacerbated by “anti-peace elements” was frequent prior to Irreecha in 2016. While in the latter stages of the protests there were clearly armed elements among the protesters, the protests were overall predominantly peaceful -- the government overemphasized the protester armed element and continuously denied the disproportionate armed response from security forces.[5] Protesters have repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that the Ethiopian government’s continued characterization of protesters as “anti-peace elements” and security forces routinely engaging in brutality exacerbated anger among people in Oromia.[6]

Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission – a government-funded entity – has produced two reports into the 2015-2016 protests. In Human Rights Watch’s analysis, neither is impartial nor demonstrates the independence that is needed for investigations to be credible. Both reports concluded that federal security force response was proportionate to threats posed by protesters.[7]


The Irreecha festival is held annually on the last Sunday in September or the first Sunday in October near the shores of Lake Hora in Bishoftu [also called Debre Zeit], Ethiopia, 40 kilometers southeast of Addis Ababa. Massive crowds gather there each year and in other locations around the world where there are ethnic Oromo communities.[8] The event serves to unify Oromo people, regardless of geographic origin, politics, or religion.[9] Irreecha is presided over by the Gadaa Council, a traditional council of Oromo elders, independent of the government, who play a key role in managing the festival.[10]

Previous governments, including the Derg government, which ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, restricted the Irreecha festival.[11] Since 1991, under the current Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government, Irreecha has been permitted and held without any major security problems until 2016.[12] On December 1, 2016, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) included the Gadaa system, the traditional Oromo political system, on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.[13] Ethiopia’s government played a major role in pushing for this designation.[14] Irreecha is one feature of this traditional system according to the UNESCO nomination documents.[15] The leader of the Gadaa Council is known as the Abaa Gadaa, a position currently held by Beyene Sembetu. The Abaa Gadaa traditionally opens the festival with a blessing. Attendees then go to nearby Lake Hora (Hora Arsadi) to give thanks and pray to Waqaa [God] for the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the harvest season.[16]

The recent history of Irreecha reflects the increasingly fraught and complex relationship between the government and Oromo communities. While Irreecha is ostensibly apolitical, many regular Irreecha attendees told Human Rights Watch that recent years have not only seen increasing crowds but also increased government involvement and increased expressions of resistance to government policies. A number of regular attendees report more security and surveillance, particularly over the last several years, as the relationship between the EPRDF government and the Oromo population has deteriorated.[17]

In the leadup to 2016 Irreecha, some Oromo stakeholders voiced concern about the increased politicization of the festival, particularly after a year of protests. The United Oromo Gadaa Council [“Gadaa Council”]asked Irreecha participants in August 2016 to avoid “bringing to the celebrations the flags of any and all political organizations.”[18]

The Irreecha festival site is outdoors on the shore of Lake Hora and is approximately 130 meters by 90 meters, small given the size of the crowds. With Lake Hora on one side of the site there are limited egress options should there be the need to evacuate a large amount of people in a short time. This makes it even more critical that appropriate crowd control measures are employed by security forces during Irreecha.

See below for overview and close-up maps of Bishoftu town and the Irreecha festival site:


II. The Events of 2016 Irreecha festival

Increased Tensions Ahead of Irreecha

Some Oromo expressed nervousness about attending the 2016 Irreecha given the tensions in Oromia and fear over the presence of the same security forces that had reacted with brutality to protests over the previous year. Some individuals told Human Rights Watch that they were told by local security officials or party cadres not to attend Irreecha and were pressured to convince others not to attend. One 14-year-old Grade 6 student from East Wollega zone described his experience:

The local police and some local government officials came to my school and took me and several classmates into the principal’s office. They told us not to go to Irreecha, and to tell other students not to go. They suspected we would protest the government there. We were the older students so they always thought we organized the local protests.[19]

The Gadaa Council had reportedly expressed concerns to the government during their annual discussions with authorities about the role the government wanted to play at Irreecha. Individuals who were present at the meetings between the Council and the government told Human Rights Watch that the Council had reportedly also expressed concern about security preparations for the festival including warning the government about the danger of a very deep natural trench that was located near the stage and recommended fencing it or filling it in.[20]

Attendees described a much larger than usual security presence, including many more security checkpoints, both on the routes to Bishoftu and inside the city. While there had been security checkpoints at past Irreechas, attendees reported much more stringent security provisions. A 21-year-old man from Shashemene described the atmosphere at the 2016 festival:

When we arrived, what we used to know and what we saw now was so different. Military vehicles and machines were everywhere. As I approached a checkpoint near the stage some plain clothes security personnel, some in Oromo cultural clothes, were arresting a few people. I don’t know why. The whole feeling [of Irreecha] was different. It felt like a political event, not a cultural and religious event.[21]

One long-time attendee further explained:

Local police and regional police usually take responsibility for most of the policing. They speak our language, they know how important this [Irreecha] is, and they know the trench, they know the area. This year there were many federal security forces, speaking a language I do not know. They were heavily armed, whereas the Oromo police are not usually armed. They made it look like a military operation.[22]

All witnesses described seeing the presence of military helicopters – for the first time at Irreecha -- flying low overhead in the lead up to the ceremony beginning, dropping pamphlets to welcome people to Irreecha.[23] One witness said:

We could feel the wind and some leaves from trees would fall. [The helicopter] was very low. This was done to intimidate. It dropped some papers into the crowd. It was the first time I had seen a helicopter up close and was scared but believed in such a large population they would not attack us. We all crossed our arms in defiance against the helicopter.[24]

Attendees also said that people sang and chanted while crossing their hands above their heads, a popular symbol of the Oromo protest movement. One elder and long-time participant described to Human Rights Watch the presence of far more young people “who seemed more interested in making anti-government gestures and songs than participating in Irreecha itself.”[25]

Irreecha Morning of October 2, 2016

As the ceremony began, on the morning of October 2, 2016, tensions within the massive crowd built when government officials from the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) appeared on stage with Nagasa Nagawo, a former Abaa Gadaa who is perceived to be closely aligned with the government.[26] According to interviewees, normally the current elected Abaa Gadaa would appear and give a traditional blessing to begin Irreecha. Nagasa took to the stage and spoke briefly. The crowd grew more angry and restless. Some participants jumped on stage. As the master of ceremony (MC) pleaded for calm, a man, Gemada Wariyo, got on stage, grabbed the microphone from the MC and led the crowd in anti-government chants.[27]

Unarmed security officials between the stage and the crowd, believed by attendees to be Oromia regional police,[28] tried unsuccessfully to prevent members of the crowd from getting on stage. In the meantime, armed security forces were standing behind and next to the stage. The ceremony was disrupted while some of the dignitaries left the stage,[29] while some people who got on stage crossed their arms above their heads in a sign of protest.

What appears to have been tear gas was fired from an unknown source near the stage triggering panic in the crowd. A number of witnesses told Human Rights Watch they believed they heard a gunshot.[30] Several more tear gas canisters were fired over the next 15 seconds, including one within 10 meters of the trench.[31] Ten interviewees said they saw tear gas canisters being dropped from helicopters, although it is not likely this was the initial tear gas that that was fired.[32]

As one man who was close to the front of the crowd described:

People got on stage after previously being pushed back by the police. So even more felt emboldened and moved towards the stage. That was when things got out of control. We heard what sounded like a gunshot and teargas fired. After the teargas we heard many gunshots but don’t know from where as we were blinded by teargas, dust and the chaos.[33]

The Stampede

While there is no evidence that security forces on stage fired into the crowd, attendees report hearing “many gunshots” during the stampede. This is backed up by several videos of 2016’s Irreecha in which numerous gunshots and firing of teargas can be heard.[34] In multiple videos, over the next minute a series of single rifle shots including at least one burst of three shots can be heard.[35] Human Rights Watch was not able to ascertain whether these gunshots were live ammunition or rubber bullets.[36] In some videos, security forces are pointing weapons into the air but for some of the audible gunshots, no video footage is available. As Human Rights Watch has documented in many of the protests preceding Irreecha 2016, hundreds of people have been killed by security forces’ use of live ammunition,[37] so when the pattern seemed to be repeating itself at Irreecha, panic very quickly set in.

Based on available evidence, people ran in various directions immediately after the tear gas was fired. In video footage, attendees appear blinded by dust and teargas and unaware of which direction to run for safety. Some people said that they couldn’t determine the origin of the gunshots although most told Human Rights Watch they believed they were coming from the armed security forces that were stationed next to the stage.[38]

As people ran, some fell into a very deep trench nearby and were suffocated when other people fell on top of them. [39] Others were trampled in the ensuing chaos. According to interviewees, some also drowned in nearby Lake Hora.[40] Armed security forces, previously either offsite or behind the stage moved forward closer to the festival site and onto the stage. People who had fled toward the exit road at the back of the festival site found armed security forces there and quickly fled back into the festival site. Numerous witnesses report the security forces that were blocking exits pointing weapons at the fleeing crowd.[41]

Human Rights Watch interviewed eight people, none of whom knew each other, who were caught in the stampede and described seeing people with gunshot wounds. One student from East Wollega zone said:

I saw three young men who had been hit with bullets. Everyone was saying ‘they’ve been shot, who are they?’ I had crawled to the edge of the site and lay there. I was close to those three bodies. I saw a government vehicle come and quickly load those bodies and take them away. There were many other bodies lying down not moving. It was all very confusing. I didn’t know who had shot them or from which direction just that they had been shot and were not moving. The exits were closed. They were open before the stampede and then as the stampede happened they [security forces] were standing at the exits. I saw them pointing guns at the crowd but don’t know if they were shooting. It was confusing and I heard many shots.[42]

Another businessman described:

I was running with the crowd and was nearing the road and the person in front of me fell over. I tripped over him. I got up but he didn’t. I looked at him and he had been shot and blood was pouring out of his neck. I was very scared. There were soldiers running around and shooting on the road and I saw other people with small guns [pistols] but I don’t know who specifically shot him.[43]

Another student described:

I saw several plain clothes men shooting and killing people at close range. For example, I saw one plain clothed man shoot and kill [name withheld] who was a lecturer at Tepi University. He was very famous and I knew him. I saw him fall down but I could not assist him because I was also running for my life. A number of people I know were killed that day by the bullets. I saw their bodies, they were all hit by bullets. I know them because we are from the same village.[44]

Four of those individuals said family members next to them were shot and killed.[45] It was not clear who had shot them. Each showed videos and photos from the funerals that were held in the days following the festival. A body had been returned to the family in just one of those four incidents.[46]

Four individuals described some people in the crowd who they believed were security officials dressed in Oromo cultural clothes, who pulled out pistols.[47]

Four witnesses described various military vehicles coming to the festival site and quickly loading bodies in the vehicles, both those who had been injured or those who had been killed from being trampled or shot.[48] Videos show a military vehicle arriving several minutes after the stampede.[49]

Once most of the people had been cleared from the festival site, festival goers along with some security forces who had been near the stage helped people who were trying to climb out of the trench.

One young boy who fled the stampede and ran into the lake described the scene at
the shore:

I, like everyone, was looking for somewhere to run. I could see many people had fallen into the ditch [trench]. It scared me. When I got to the lake there were many people in the lake - some had clearly drowned. I could swim but I know many people cannot. I waded alongside the edge of the shore and stayed there until it was safe to go into town.[50]

The Death Toll and Aftermath of Irreecha

Many people went to Bishoftu hospital or nearby health facilities to find out the whereabouts of their loved ones who had either been killed or had disappeared. It is not clear where those who had drowned or been shot were taken although several people whose relatives had not returned from Irreecha told Human Rights Watch that sympathetic local security officials had told them that those who had been shot had been taken to the federal police hospital near Mexico Square in Addis Ababa.[51]

There were sporadic protests in Bishoftu that day and evening with many reports of security forces, both Oromia police and military, firing munitions into the air and live ammunition into crowds.[52] One person told Human Rights Watch: “At the circle I saw someone shot in front of me. We managed to take him [name withheld] to his family. The next day the funeral was held in their village [name withheld] which was just outside of Bishoftu.”[53]

Another person described coming into town after being separated from his friends during the event:

I think it was about one hour after the stampede. Gunshots had slowed down by this time. I went back into town on the main road. The Agazi [military] were in town and I heard gunshots everywhere. Some were clearly shooting in the air but many people were shot too. They [security forces] seemed to be trying to clear the streets but were doing it through bullets. In the middle of town, there was another protest. Oromia police were also armed and shot some people there.[54]

Another woman described the growing frustration over the lack of information about missing relatives and the continuing protest the next day:

The next day I went back to hospital and there were many people in front of the hospital crying and screaming “where have you taken the bodies of our children?” I and many of those people protested that day at the circle in Bishoftu. The soldiers were shooting into the crowd. I saw four people [names withheld] killed during that protest. Those bodies were taken to the hospital but don’t know what happened to them from there.[55]

Some family members whose relatives had been killed by gunshots either during the stampede or during protests in Bishoftu had bodies returned to their home communities within several days, but four family members told Human Rights Watch that while different people had seen them shot and killed, their bodies have not been returned to their families. Months later, at the time they spoke to Human Rights Watch, their whereabouts were still unknown.[56]

While there were some reports of arrests in and around Bishoftu the day of Irreecha, based on available evidence, the scale of arrests appears relatively minor.[57]

Many people described general chaos, many security checkpoints, and abuses by security forces on their way home. One person from Shashemene describes:

We were taking a bus back home. The road was blocked near Ziway. Military made all those who had attended Irreecha get out and we lay on the ground and they hit us with sticks and walked over our backs. Only those wearing cultural clothes were pulled out. This was at 8pm between Negelle and Ziway.[58]

The government stated initially that 52 people had died during Irreecha, eventually rising to 55 several days later.[59] The opposition political party Oromo Federalist Congress said 678 died.[60] It is not clear how either group determined these figures.

The government limits independent media and restricts nongovernmental organizations, both domestic and international, so that currently no one has had the access, expertise or impartiality necessary to determine a precise, credible death toll. Based on estimates from health care workers, reports of funerals and missing persons, and incidents that were documented, it is clear that the death toll is much higher than government estimates, but without independent investigators being given open access, and witnesses and health workers being free to speak without the fear of reprisal, the exact number will not be known. The government has shown little willingness to meaningfully investigate the conduct of the security forces.

The government put forward staff at Bishoftu hospital to lend credibility to its claims that the death toll was 55 and that the cause of death was the stampede and nothing else.[61] But three health workers who worked in health facilities where the dead and injured were brought told Human Rights Watch that they had been instructed by Ethiopian security forces or government cadres not to speak to journalists or anyone about the numbers of people killed or how people had been killed.[62]

Information health workers shared indicated a much higher number of people that died. During the year-long protests, Human Rights Watch documented harassment and arrests of medical staff for speaking out about killings and beatings by security forces, or in some cases for treating injured protesters.[63] The government’s effort to immediately try to convince the public that the stampede was the cause of death was in part to counter the narrative that had already taken root in many Oromo communities that large numbers of attendees were shot and that it was a deliberate massacre by the government.

Reprisals for Attending Irreecha

15 individuals from 10 of the 17 zones in Oromia told Human Rights Watch that when they returned from Irreecha in 2016 they had been told by various local contacts that lists had been prepared by local intelligence and security officials of those who had been to Irreecha and that they were to be arrested in the coming days.[64] Ten of those festival goers were then arrested. One in Bale was taken to a local police station and questioned for three days. He was asked about why he went to Irreecha, who he went with, and was accused of “starting violence.” [65] Two other people were taken to Tolay military camp. They told Human Rights Watch that soldiers beat them both badly.[66] One said he was strung up by his wrists, beaten and accused of causing the unrest at Irreecha.[67]

He recalled:

They were accusing me of shooting at security forces, of throwing stones on stage - things that didn’t happen. It was clear they wanted me to admit I started problems. I went there to my first Irreecha to celebrate being Oromo. They were targeting those who went to Irreecha but I had never even been to a protest before.[68]

One person described being arrested in Arsi Zone on October 4, 2016 and taken to the local police station where someone from the local administration questioned him. “He was accusing me of starting anti-government chants. The only time I had seen him previously was at Irreecha. He was on the small bus we had taken from our village.” [69]

All of those who told Human Rights Watch that they had been detained said they had never been to court. They all described being beaten by security forces in detention.[70] It is difficult to know the scale of these arrests across Oromia in part because of mass arrests that were being carried out in connection with the destruction of government buildings/private properties. However Human Rights Watch has received numerous reports of arrests of Irreecha festival participants from 16 out of 17 zones in Oromia.

An Oromo elder who had attended each of the five previous Irreecha festivals described his arrest:

When I returned to the kebele I was registered by them [kebele administrators] because I went to Irreecha. They said it was to help identify those missing. The next morning, I was arrested. We were sitting in a group mourning the death of our family members. The security man [plain clothes] came with several local police to us and said “Why are you sitting in a crowd mourning for your family? No one died, you should not mourn.” Then they said, “Why did you start the violence at Irreecha?” We were all arrested and taken to the police station. I was beaten there by the agazi [military].[71]

A 14-year-old boy from Negelle Borana told Human Rights Watch that his parents had gone to Irreecha in 2016 and they had never returned. As he looked for them in hospitals he found that three of his classmates who had been protesting had been arrested. Five other classmates had disappeared. He later fled Ethiopia with two friends to avoid arrest.[72]

A number of individuals reported reprisals against family members of those who attended Irreecha. One young man from Wollega zone said: “I did not go back to my village but got a call from family that they were arresting all those who went to Irreecha. Then they came to my house. Since I wasn’t there they arrested my 78-year-old father. He was arrested until I was produced.” [73] He did not know his father’s current whereabouts.

In other communities, individuals had been pre-warned by local police or local party officials not to attend Irreecha. A 24-year-old Grade 11 student told Human Rights Watch: “We were told there would be serious consequences should we go or should others from our class go. I went, and when I returned from Irreecha local security forces arrested me. They beat me seriously for two weeks accusing me of ignoring their orders and starting Irreecha violence. I was forced to do strenuous exercise and was released after two weeks.”[74]

Several other individuals who were at Irreecha described being arrested after they had told their friends or communities about what had happened at Irreecha. Each of those was interrogated and asked questions including “why are you spreading lies about the government?”, “why are you exaggerating what happened?”[75]

In the days following Irreecha, protests swept throughout Oromia and other parts of Ethiopia. In sharp contrast to previous protests, protesters targeted government buildings and private investors that were perceived to be close to the government. Buildings were looted and destroyed, there were numerous jailbreaks, and police stations were overrun.[76]

One man who said he was part of a mob that destroyed local government buildings near Ziway two days after Irreecha encapsulated the shift in attitude:

It was always important to us that we [protesters] do not engage in violence. We knew that the only way we would gain support from the world is if we spoke about issues in a peaceful manner. But every time we would go out we face bullets, we face arrests and beatings. After a while, we started to debate the limits of our non-violent action. When you are bereft of options and the government and the world ignores your concerns, it is inevitable there would be violence. The fire was already there, it was smoldering, killing us at Irreecha poured fuel on the fire. The violence started sooner than any of us thought.[77]

The State of Emergency

On October 9, 2016 the government announced a country wide six-month state of emergency.[78] It was renewed again for another four months in April 2017. It was lifted on August 4, 2017.[79]

Measures under the state of emergency were overly broad. The implementing directive prescribed draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly that went far beyond what is permissible under international law and signaled an increasingly militarized response to the situation.[80]

The directive included far-reaching restrictions on sharing information on social media, watching diaspora television stations, and closing businesses as a gesture of protest, as well as curtailing opposition parties’ ability to communicate with the media. It specifically banned writing or sharing material via any platform that “could create misunderstanding between people or unrest.”[81]

It banned all protests without government permission and permitted arrest without court order in “a place assigned by the command post until the end of the state of emergency.” It also permits “rehabilitation” – a euphemism for short-term detention that often involves physical exercise. During the state of emergency, over 21,000 people were arrested according to government figures, many of them in these “rehabilitation camps.” As of August 4, 2017 around 8,000 remained in detention.[82] Major opposition figures like Dr Merera Gudina were arrested and charged under the criminal code.[83]

The state of emergency could have provided an opportunity for the government to embark on the “deep reform” it promised in response to the year-long protests. The reforms it ended up implementing included tackling corruption, cabinet reshuffles, and a dialogue with what was left of opposition political parties. The government also pledged youth job creation and good governance. Crucially, these are not the fundamental issues that protesters raised during the hundreds of rallies between November 2015 and October 2016. The government largely redefined protester grievances in its own terms, ignoring more fundamental demands to open up political space, allow dissent, and tolerate the free expression of perspectives that are critical in such a large and ethnically diverse country.

III. Government Response

In the wake of Irreecha, the government expressed condolences and declared three days of mourning, labeling the incident as an unfortunate accident.[84]

At the same time, government officials repeatedly and publicly blamed “anti-peace elements” for the deaths. For example, Prime Minister Hailemariam, in an address on national television blamed the deaths on the “violent forces who have a hidden political agenda who tried to disrupt the celebration and turn the situation into chaos.” He also thanked security forces for their “great efforts to maintain peace and order.”[85] Eshetu Dessie, the then vice president of Oromia regional state said “The innocent participants of the Irreecha died due to the violence caused by the anti-peace forces during the celebration.”[86]

The government vehemently insisted that the only people who were killed at Irreecha died in the stampede, and insisted that security forces did not use live ammunition.[87] Then federal government communications minister Getachew Reda said “of the people's bodies who were collected, they do not have any bullet wounds whatsoever. They were killed in the stampede. The security forces were mostly unarmed. There was no force involved on the part of the security forces."[88] This was reiterated in a strong statement from then foreign minister Dr Tedros Adhanom who said that “it is quite clear from the videos that there was no shooting and the police were unarmed.[89]

Despite promises to investigate[90] no transparent or credible investigation has been undertaken. In April, the government-affiliated Ethiopian Human Rights Commission presented orally to parliament the results of its investigations into protests between June and September 2016.[91] It included reference to October’s Irreecha concluding that “security forces did not use force against the crowd except firing tear gas and this measure was proportionate.”[92] No official written version is publicly available and the Commission has not commented on the methodology they employed to make such conclusions – conclusions that largely replicate the government’s narrative.

IV. International Law and Appropriate Use of Force

The United Nations’ Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials offer guidance as to how law enforcement agencies should limit and control the use of force so as to ensure respect for human rights. The Principles make clear that law enforcement officers should:

  • “as far as possible, employ non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms” and use force or firearms “only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result;”
  • Where the use of force is unavoidable, “exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved” and “minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life;”
  • Ensure that the development and deployment of non-lethal weapons are “carefully evaluated in order to minimize the risk of endangering uninvolved persons,” and that the use of such weapons is “carefully controlled;”
  • Equip law enforcement officers with defensive equipment, “in order to decrease the need to use weapons of any kind.” [93]

Police should exercise particular restraint when using teargas or other non-lethal weaponry in situations when its use could cause death or serious injury.

The Principles also stipulate that law enforcement shall not use force to disperse lawful and peaceful assemblies; that the use of force should be “avoided or, where that is not practicable, restricted to the minimum extent necessary” in dispersing unlawful but non-violent assemblies; and that in dispersing violent, unlawful assemblies, law enforcement shall only use firearms “when less dangerous means are not practicable and only to the minimum extent necessary.” More generally, “Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life…and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives.[94]

While tensions in the crowd were high and many people were clearly protesting against the government, available evidence indicates that the crowds did not appear to pose a direct threat to security forces.

Firing tear gas and discharging firearms exacerbated an already tense situation, causing widespread panic and triggering the stampede. Any discharge of live ammunition at members of the crowd was clearly disproportionate, and the use of tear gas and non-lethal munitions appears to have been as well. Blocking main roads out of the site through the presence of armed security forces caused people to turn back into the crowds caused further casualties. At best this was a disastrous mishandling of a complex crowd control situation. At worst, it was a deliberate use of disproportionate force that led to scores—or more likely hundreds—of needless deaths.

If force was used to disperse the crowd rather than in response to a perceived threat posed by them, it may also have constituted a violation of the rights to free expression and assembly.

V. 2017 Irreecha

Irreecha is about peace, unity, and our culture. It is not about politics. And the government changed all that last year. We do not want problems this year. This government just needs to allow us to celebrate Irreecha and not try to take it over again. They don’t need to be there and nor do the soldiers. There were never problems before. Just let us practice our traditional culture.

75-year-old elder from Ambo, Oromia, Ethiopia, August 2017

The lack of space in Ethiopia for open critical debate, including the decimation of the Oromo Federalist Congress and long-standing limitations on independent media and civil society, meant there are few independent voices in-country that are deemed credible to protesters to challenge the narrative that has taken root among many Oromo that the deaths at Irreecha resulted from an intentional and planned act by the government. Restrictions under the state of emergency further decreased space for any critical discussion about the events of Irreecha 2016. Devoid of fora for open dialogue about sensitive issues, including security force handling of Irreecha, the narrative of deliberate massacre remains a strong one within Oromo communities.

While there has been little mention from senior government officials about 2016 Irreecha since the state of emergency was called on October 9, 2016, there continues to be considerable anger within many Oromo communities about the events that day. This is critical to understand when assessing the potential for the 2017 Irreecha to be problematic and underscores the deep mistrust that exists between the Oromo people and the government, and the lack of avenues available to seek redress.

It is likely that tensions and frustrations will be very high at the 2017 Irreecha, and that there will be more protests and anti-government songs and chants. Ethiopia’s government should develop an approach that aims to de-escalate tensions and prevent any unnecessary and disproportionate use of force by security forces. Security forces should tolerate expressions of dissent, and government, in particular the federal government, should consider whether it would be wise to limit the security forces’ involvement in the event.


This report was written by Felix Horne, Africa researcher in the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, based on research carried out by Felix Horne and Abdullahi Abdi, research assistant in the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. It was edited by Maria Burnett, associate Africa director. Chris Albin-Lackey, senior legal advisor, and Babatunde Olugboji, deputy program director, provided legal and program review respectively.

Abdullahi Abdi, research assistant in the Africa division, provided production assistance and support. Josh Lyons, in the emergencies division assisted with satellite imagery analysis. The report was prepared for publication by Olivia Hunter, publications coordinator; Jose Martinez, senior coordinator; and Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager.

Human Rights Watch would like to thank the fixers and translators in Ethiopia and elsewhere who cannot be named for security reasons but whose contribution made this report possible.


[1] Government officials often cite Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) presence, activities, and links to justify acts of repression of Oromo individuals. In the years before the 2015/2016 protests, tens of thousands of Oromo individuals have been targeted for arbitrary detention, torture and other abuses even when there is no evidence linking them to the OLF. See Human Rights Watch, “Suppressing Dissent: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in Ethiopia’s Oromia Region,” Vol. 17, No. 7 (A), May 10, 2005, and Amnesty International, “’Because I am Oromo’, Sweeping Repression in the Oromia Region” of Ethiopia. October 10, 2014 (accessed May 19, 2016).

[2] Similar protests over the Master Plan and a resultant crack-down occurred in Oromia in April and May 2014. See Amnesty International, “Because I am Oromo’, Sweeping Repression in the Oromia Region” of Ethiopia. October 10, 2014 (accessed August 25, 2017) and “Ethiopia: Brutal Crackdown on Protests,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 5, 2014, for more information on the 2014 protests. See “Such a Brutal Crackdown: Killings and Arrests in response to Ethiopia’s Oromo Protests,” Human Rights Watch report, June 15, 2016, (accessed August 23, 2017) which covers the first six months of the 2015-2016 protests.

[3] “State of Emergency Ends in Ethiopia,“ Human Rights Watch dispatch,, August 7, 2017 (accessed August 29, 2017). For details on the first six months of the protest see “Such a Brutal Crackdown: Killings and Arrests in response to Ethiopia’s Oromo Protests,” Human Rights Watch report, June 15, 2016, (accessed August 23, 2017).

[4] The Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) is Oromia’s main legally registered opposition party. Human Rights Watch has routinely interviewed individuals who have been harassed, fired from their jobs, or arrested for being members, supporters or campaigning for OFC. In December 2016, many senior members of the OFC were arrested and eventually charged with terrorism. Deputy-chairman Bekele Gerba is one of them. Dr Merera Gudina, Chairman of OFC, and one of the few senior OFC members not in detention was arrested in November 2016 and charged in February 2017 under the criminal code. They are still behind bars. See “Using Courts to Crush Dissent in Ethiopia,” Human Rights Watch dispatch, May 9, 2016, (accessed August 23, 2017).

[5] BBC, “Ethiopia's Oromo protests: PM Hailemariam Desalegn apologises,” March 10, 2016,
August 25, 2017) an Ethiopian News Agency, “Ethiopia Should Reinforce Efforts to Resist Anti-Peace Elements: President,” October 10, 2016, (accessed August 25, 2017).

[6] Human Rights Watch statement to European parliament, October 12, 2016, (accessed August 29, 2017).

[7] The first report was made public 10 months after it had been presented orally to parliament. First report is available at: The second report, presented to parliament in April 2017 is still not publicly available. Various draft versions have been seen by Human Rights Watch.

[8] Numerous sources list attendance at Irreecha at several million each year. In UNESCO nomination documents, the Ethiopian government states that Irreecha is “celebrated by millions annually at Lake Arsadi.” It also states that four million attended in 2015. It’s not clear how these numbers are determined but it is clear massive crowds attend each year. The Irreecha festival site where the stampede occurred is approximately 13,000 square meters making it unlikely that there was any more than a couple hundred thousand present at the location and time of the stampede. “Irreecha to be celebrated on Sunday,” Walta, September 29, 2016, (accessed August 23, 2017).

[9] Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, Eleventh session, Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia (accessed August 23, 2017); see also, The Colors, The Identity and The Pride of Oromo Nation,” Addis Standard, (accessed August 17, 2017).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Addis Standard, “Irreecha: a defining moment in hallowed land,” October 2016,, (accessed August 25, 2017).

[12] “Oromia’s Irreecha Festival - A Revival of an Ancient African Culture An Attempt to Understand and Explain,” Mekuria Bulcha, September 2015, (accessed August 23 2017).

[13] Gadaa is a traditional system of governance used by the Oromo people in Ethiopia, which functions in conjunction with the state. Gadaa regulates political, economic, social and religious activities of the community, dealing with issues such as conflict resolution, reparations and protecting women’s rights. It serves as a mechanism for enforcing moral conduct, building social cohesion, and expressing forms of community culture. For more information, please see, “Decision of the Intergovernmental Committee: 11.COM 10.B.11,” UNESCO, (accessed August 17, 2017) and UNESCO, Gada system, an indigenous democratic socio-political system of the Oromo, (accessed August 17, 2017).

[14] Efforts to inculcate Gadaa system on world heritage list yields results, Walta, August 10 2016, (accessed August 23, 2017).

[15] UNESCO, Gada system, an indigenous democratic socio-political system of the Oromo, accessed August 17, 2017).

[16] See Addis Standard special edition on Irreecha, November 8, 2016, (accessed August 24, 2017).

[17] For further information on the importance of Irreecha please see: “Irreecha – The Colors, The Identity and The Pride of Oromo Nation,” Addis Standard, (accessed August 17, 2017).

[18] See “Oromo Abba Gadaa leaders call for withdrawal of federal army from Oromia and release of political prisoners,” Opride, September 2, 2016 (accessed August 18, 2017).

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with #7, location withheld, April 2017.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with individuals #11, #43 who participated in meetings between government and Gadaa Council, location withheld, August 2017.

[21] Human Rights Watch interview with #21, location withheld, August 2017.

[22] Human Rights Watch Interview #6, location withheld, April 2017. Language was likely Amharic.

[23] Based on analysis of videos by Human Rights Watch, the helicopters appear to be Mi-8 medium transport helicopters sometimes called a “Hip”. It is a Soviet-designed and built machine that’s been around in some form since the early 1960s. Ethiopia’s military is known to possess these helicopters. While it can be armed with rockets, bombs, or machine guns, no such weapons are visible in the videos analyzed by Human Rights Watch.

[24] Human Rights Watch interview with #4, location withheld, December 2016. See video of one of the passes of the helicopter at

[25] Human Rights Watch interview with #12, location withheld, August 2017.

[26] The OPDO is the EPRDF ruling coalition’s affiliate in Oromia.

[27] Videos of this are available at: (accessed August 18, 2017). He chanted in English “Down, Down Woyane” and “Down, Down TPLF”. Woyane is slang for the Tigrayan-led government that has dominated Ethiopian politics since 1991. TPLF is the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, the main government party in the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. Gemada is currently in exile in Egypt and has given several interviews to media about Irreecha. However, the government charged Tufa Melka Hordofa on May 26, 2017 under Article 32/1/a/b, 35, and 38 of the criminal code and Article 31/1/2 of the Anti-Terrorism law accusing him of being the individual who grabbed the microphone. The charge sheet accuses him of belonging to the OLF. Tufa has been in detention since October 21, 2016. In an article published June 13, 2017 Gemada Wariyo told VOA “I took the microphone in a peaceful protest. I was the one who protested and I don’t know the men blamed for grabbing the microphone.” See Voice of America, “Ethiopia’s Civil Society Getting Squeezed,” (accessed August 25, 2017).

[28] A number of individuals present at the front of the crowd said that some of the police did not speak Afan Oromo, raising suspicions that not all of them were Oromia regional police as is commonly believed.

[29] Dignitaries leave stage at 0:36 of

[30] Heard at 0:50 of Tear gas can be seen at 01:08. Human Rights Watch interviews with #29, #5, #2, and #36, locations withheld, December 2016, April 2017, August 2017.

[31] Tear gas is visible close to the trench at 01:08. Firing of tear gas be heard between 0:50 and 01:12 of this publicly available video at

[32] Human Rights Watch did not view any videos that showed helicopters once the stampede started and no videos were viewed that showed helicopters dropping tear gas. On some of the videos of the stampede, sound of helicopters can be heard overhead.

[33] Human Rights Watch interview with #8, location withheld, June 2017.

[34] Human Rights Watch interviews #9, #11, #46, #47, locations withheld, August 2017. Publicly available videos include: (accessed August 25, 2017) and (accessed August 25, 2017).

[35] Gunshots can be heard from 01:10 onwards. Burst of gunfire can be heard at 0:121 of this publicly available video at

[36] Rubber bullets were retrieved at the scene. Photos on file with Human Rights Watch.

[37] See Human Rights Watch, “Such a Brutal Crackdown: Killings and Arrests in Response to Ethiopia’s Oromo Protests” June 15, 2016, (accessed August 18, 2017).

[38] Video footage shows soldiers with Kalashnikov-style assault rifles while other security forces in this area are unarmed.

[39] The trench is estimated to be around 5 meters wide, 10-20 meters long and approximately 4-8 meters deep. There are varying accounts of how the risk of the trench was handled in previous years. Some people said that local police were nearby to warn people about the trench, while others described preventing children from climbing a nearby tree that was close to the trench. Others suggest that there is little risk of the trench under normal circumstances. Larger crowds in that area than in previous years may have exacerbated the risks. This video at shows some of the first moments after people fell into the trench as many tried to climb out.

[40] Human Rights Watch interviews #8, #13, #27, location withheld, June and August 2017. Lake Hora is approximately 200m from the stage.

[41] Human Rights Watch interviews with #26, #3, #9, #34, locations withheld, December 2016 and August 2017.

[42] Human Rights Watch interview with #2, location withheld, December 2016.

[43] Human Rights Watch interview with #44, location withheld, August 2017.

[44] Human Rights Watch interview with #24, location withheld, August 2017.

[45] Human Rights Watch interviews with #8, 13, 18 and 32, locations withheld, June and August 2017.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview with #32, location withheld, August 2017.

[47] Human Rights Watch interviews with #18, #16, #48, and #49, locations withheld, August 2017.

[48] Human Rights Watch interviews with #35,20,5,16, locations withheld, April and August 2017.

[49] Video at: (accessed August 24, 2017).

[50] Human Rights Watch interview with #9, location withheld, August 2017.

[51] Human Rights Watch interviews with #45 and #15, locations withheld, August 2017.

[52] Human Rights Watch interviews with #3, #17, #21, #32, and #46, locations withheld, December 2016 and August 2017.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview with #17, location withheld, August 2017.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview with #19, location withheld, August 2017.

[55] Human Rights Watch interview with #22, location withheld, August 2017.

[56] Two of these individuals were interviewed in August 2017, and two were interviewed in December 2016.

[57] Human Rights Watch interviews with #35, 5, 20 and 26, locations withheld, April and August 2017.

[58] Human Rights Watch interview with #23, location withheld, August 2017.

[59] “State gov’t pledges support for families of stampede victims, ”Ethiopian News Agency, October 4, 2016, (accessed August 20, 2017). Various government statements initially put the number at 52.

[60] “AHRE condemns the violent act of security forces that causes the death of dozens at festival”, Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia, October 4, 2016, (accessed August 16, 2017).

[61] “Bishoftu Hospital confirms stampede, suffocation caused Irreecha deaths”, Ethiopian News Agency, October 3, 2016, (accessed August 18, 2017).

[62] Human Rights Watch interviews with #30, #51, #42, locations withheld, August 2017.

[63] See pages 41-43 in See Human Rights Watch, “Such a Brutal Crackdown: Killings and Arrests in Response to Ethiopia’s Oromo Protests” June 15, 2016, (accessed August 18, 2017).

[64] A zone is an administrative unit in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is made of 11 regions. Regions are made up of zones. Zones are made up of woredas. Woredas are made up of kebeles. There are 17 zones in Oromia.

[65] Human Rights Watch interview with #14, location withheld, August 2017.

[66] Human Rights Watch interviews with #33 and 36, location withheld, August 2017.

[67] Human Rights Watch interview with #36, location withheld, August 2017.

[68] Human Rights Watch interview with #31, location withheld, August 2017.

[69] Human Rights Watch interview with #6, location withheld, April 2017.

[70] All were arrested before the October 9 state of emergency, but were released during the state of emergency.

[71] Human Rights Watch interview with #1, location withheld, December 2016.

[72] Human Rights Watch interview with #25, location withheld, August 2017.

[73] Human Rights Watch interview with #28, location withheld, August 2017.

[74] Human Rights Watch interview with #26, location withheld, August 2017.

[75] Human Rights Watch interview with #20, location withheld, August 2017.

[76] See “Anger Boiling Over in Ethiopia,” Human Rights Watch, October 11, 2016 (accessed August 23, 2017).

[77] Human Rights Watch interview with #29, location withheld, August 2017.

[78] “Ethiopia: State of Emergency Risks New Abuses,” Human Rights Watch, October 31, 2016, (accessed August 18, 2017). Six months is the maximum allowed under Ethiopian law. Four months is the maximum extension permitted under Ethiopian law.

[79] “Ethiopia lifts state of emergency imposed in October,” Al Jazeera, August 5, 2017
(accessed August 18, 2017).

[80] “Legal Analysis of Ethiopia’s State of Emergency,” Human Rights Watch, October 30, 2016, (accessed August 18, 2017).

[81] Under international law, during a state of emergency a government may only suspend certain rights to the extent permitted by the “exigencies of the situation.” Many of the measures, including the restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, and association go far beyond what is permitted under international law. For legal analysis of Ethiopia’s state of emergency, please see; “Legal Analysis of Ethiopia’s State of Emergency,” Human Rights Watch, October 30, 2016, (accessed August 18, 2017).

[82] “Ethiopia life state of emergency imposed in October,” al Jazeera, August 4, 2016,
(accessed August 17, 2017).

[83] See, “Ethiopia prosecutors bring multiple criminal charges against opposition leader Dr. Merera Gudina, two others” Addis Standard, February 23, 2017 (accessed August 18, 2017).

[84] Elias Meseret, “52 confirmed dead in stampede at Ethiopia religious event,” AP, October 3, 2016,, (accessed August 18, 2017).

[85] Prime Minister Hailemariam speech, Ethiopian broadcasting Corporation (EBC), October 2, 2016. Translated from Amharic. Accessed (August 20, 2017).

[86] Ibid.

[87] “Hospital confirms stampede, suffocation caused Irreecha deaths,” Walta, October 4, 2016, (accessed August 18, 2017). Cover photo clearly shows armed security forces next to the stage.

[88] “Ethiopia declares state of emergency after months of protests,” CNN, October 11, 2016, (accessed August 20, 2017).

[89] “Human Rights Watch encourages opposition violence”, The Official Blog of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, October 22, 2016, (accessed August 17, 2017).

[90] Ibid.

[91] Human Rights Commission Publicizes Findings about the Recent Sporadic Disturbances, Ethiopian News Agency, April 18, 2017, (accessed August 25, 2017).

[92] “Rights commission say security measures that killed hundreds of civilians during recent protests mostly proportional,” Addis Standard, April 18, 2017, (accessed August 18, 2017).

[93] “Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials: Adopted by the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, Havana, Cuba, 27 August to 7 September 1990,” (accessed August 18, 2017).

[94] Ibid.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Washington, DC) – Equatorial Guinean authorities arrested a political cartoonist and activist on September 16, 2017, Human Rights Watch and EG Justice said today. He has been held in detention since then and authorities may be preparing to file criminal defamation charges against him.
The arrest of the cartoonist, Ramón Nsé Esono Ebalé, is the latest episode of government retaliation against artists who have used their work to criticize the government. EG authorities should repeal the country’s colonial-era defamation statute, which allows for the criminal prosecution of people who criticize the president and top government officials. They should abandon any plans to charge Ebalé under that law and, if he is accused of no other crime, release him immediately and without charge.
“The Equatorial Guinea government has again demonstrated its hostility to any form of critical expression that escapes its heavy-handed censorship,” said Tutu Alicante, executive director of EG Justice, which monitors human rights violations in Equatorial Guinea.
Three state security officers detained Ebalé outside a restaurant in the capital, Malabo, at about 7 p.m. on September 16, along with two Spanish nationals who were with him. All three men were taken to the Office Against Terrorism and Dangerous Activities in the Central Police Station. The Spanish nationals were interrogated about their connection to Ebalé and freed after several hours.
Authorities continue to hold Ebalé without charge, exceeding the 72-hour period allowed under Equatoguinean law. Interrogators reportedly questioned him about his political cartoons, which often lewdly caricature President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and other government officials, and repeatedly told him that people may only participate in politics if they are associated with an official party.
Ebalé has lived outside of Equatorial Guinea for several years and had returned to the country to renew his passport. He has not been taken before a judge, which Equatoguinean law requires within 24 hours. Family members were allowed to see him on September 18 and 19, though prison guards refused to allow his sisters to visit on September 17 or to confirm he was being held there.
Based on the interrogators’ apparent questions, EG Justice and Human Rights Watch are concerned that Ebalé may be charged with violating Equatorial Guinea’s criminal defamation statute. In Human Rights Watch’s view, such laws are incompatible with the right to free expression and Equatorial Guinea’s statute should be repealed.
The arts have traditionally served as a safe space for independent voices to provoke public debate on social issues in Equatorial Guinea, a country with little tolerance for political dissent. But EG Justice and Human Rights Watch have documented an increasing number of incidents over the past two years in which the government has retaliated against artists and cultural groups.
In one recent incident, in July, authorities arbitrarily detained Benjamin Ndong, known as Jamin Dogg, after he released a song in support of taxi drivers protesting an increase in licensing fees. In August 2016, authorities suspended a UNICEF-funded theater production raising awareness about HIV after a comment from the audience questioning why the government hadn’t done more to stop the spread of the disease. And in August 2015, the interior minister closed an independent cultural center in Rebola after an artist performed a rap song critical of the government.
“Prosecuting a cartoonist for unflattering satirical drawings is incompatible with free speech and only highlights the power of the pen,” said Sarah Saadoun, researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

In July 2016, the United States Department of Justice released a legislative proposal that could vastly increase surveillance by other governments with the direct assistance of Silicon Valley. The unprecedented proposal would allow certain governments to demand the contents of Internet communications such as e-mails and chats directly from US companies, rather than going through cross-border law enforcement treaties that have long been in place to protect rights. The US has already negotiated the outlines of such a deal with the United Kingdom and the Justice Department proposal would extend it to other governments.

This development should raise alarm bells for any user of US-based Internet companies such as Google or Facebook. If enacted, privacy safeguards will get much weaker, collection much broader, and private information potentially more widely shared since governments will have increased access to user communications. While the legislative proposal generally conditions this access on a government’s general respect for human rights, it falls short of ensuring that rights will be adequately protected.

The proposal was introduced on September 14 in the US Congress as an amendment to a defense spending bill, and may be introduced in stand-alone legislation later this year.

The Rationale

Under current US law, Internet companies are prohibited from turning over the contents of communications directly to foreign governments, even for investigating crime. Instead, law enforcement agencies outside the US must make requests through Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLATs), with the Justice Department and US judges serving as intermediaries between the requesting government and the company that holds the information.

As a byproduct of this process, the US extends the same strong constitutional privacy protections enjoyed by US citizens to surveillance targets outside the US. These protections have long promoted respect for rights in criminal investigations, despite the US reputation for excessive surveillance in the intelligence context.

Under this system, the requesting authority must convince a judge that there is “probable cause” the search will elicit evidence of a crime. This is a high standard. The requesting government has to put forward specific facts—and not just a hunch or belief—that demonstrate the communications sought are likely to be evidence of criminal activity. The request must also specifically describe the evidence sought, preventing governments from speculative “fishing” for evidence of crime. An impartial and independent judge must authorize the warrant and the US government also strips out communications that aren’t relevant to the request, all prior to disclosure. Finally, some treaties limit how the information may be used. While the MLAT process isn’t as transparent as it should be, it is rigorous and protective of rights—often more so than the domestic law of requesting governments.

Law enforcement agencies in the UK and elsewhere have become increasingly frustrated with this process, which can be slow. One 2013 review found that it takes an average of 10 months to fulfill a government request. This tortoise-like pace is not intrinsic to the process, which can be very quick for US authorities seeking warrants. The US has devoted insufficient resources to the process, leading to a large backlog, with the number of requests only increasing. Also, with US standards more rigorous than those in many requesting countries, requesting authorities must often devote more resources to gather evidence to meet them.

In response, the UK has claimed that they can extend their surveillance orders “extraterritorially” to Internet companies outside their borders to bypass this process. This places companies in the awkward position of deciding whether to comply with UK warrants in violation of US law. Major US Internet companies have also said that foreign governments’ frustration with the process is leading to calls for data localization worldwide, which would force companies to store user data locally in territories where they offer services, or even arrest of employees.

US companies believe that the Justice Department proposal would prevent this parade of horribles and are actively supporting the government’s move. Whether it would do so is an open question. But the proposal also means eliminating rights protections for many users outside the US.

The Proposal

The proposal would allow qualifying countries to request the contents of communications directly from US companies, bypassing the MLAT process, for the investigation of undefined “serious crime.” The proposal actually goes beyond the existing system since it would allow governments to demand real-time wiretapping from US tech companies for the first time. But the requirements governments would have to meet fall well short of what international human rights law requires of the US and its partners—that an independent authority consider whether, in each individual case, the request is necessary and proportionate and subject to challenge and redress.

For a government to qualify, the US would have to negotiate a bilateral agreement with the country and certify that it has “robust substantive and procedural protections for privacy and civil liberties.” But the proposal only lists “factors to be considered,” not firm requirements. The factors include whether the country generally has respect for the rule of law and human rights and “sufficient mechanisms to provide accountability and appropriate transparency” for surveillance.

This blanket determination is far weaker than the case-by-case judicial authorization that the current process requires, and it overlooks the fact that the authorities of any country—no matter how well intentioned—may make mistakes or overreach. It also makes the certification process vulnerable to politics, where the US might ignore serious abuses to certify key allies.

Once a country is certified and an agreement is in place, its law enforcement agencies could request stored communications or real-time wiretaps directly from US companies. Generally, those requests would be subject to the country’s own domestic procedures and standards, although the proposal would require them to ensure there is a “reasonable justification based on articulable and credible facts.” The meaning of that standard remains unclear, though it appears to be less than “probable cause.” The proposal doesn’t compel companies to comply, though the requesting government may try to do so. If a company denies a request, the government can resubmit its order through the usual MLAT process.

Under the proposal, requesting governments would have to subject requests to undefined “review or oversight” by an independent authority, but officials would not have to seek prior judicial authorization. Such review could also be generalized rather than specific to each request. This is a major weakness since the current system requires an independent examination by a US judge of the justification for the request (and the potential impact on rights) before disclosure.

Many of the proposal’s terms are undefined, and it is unclear how they will be interpreted and applied under vastly different legal systems. For example, the proposal requires requesting governments to specify a “person, account, address, or personal device” to target, which in theory might deter some sweeping data requests. In practice, however, a single request could involve disproportionate amounts of data, depending on how specific provisions are defined. For example, an “address” could be interpreted to include an “Internet Protocol address,” which could be shared by thousands of computers. The onus will be on the requesting government to “segregate” non-relevant information.

Finally, the proposal does not require governments to provide notice to surveillance targets. Yet notice is a critical human rights protection that enables individuals to seek redress for surveillance abuses. Participating countries are also allowed to share information collected under this regime with the US and other governments in some circumstances.

Impact on User Rights

Agreements negotiated under the proposed framework would undoubtedly lead to far more user information flowing from US Internet companies to the UK and other governments than under the current process. The proposal would protect US companies from liability for complying with requests made in “good faith.” This removes incentives for companies to scrutinize or deny such requests, given other legal or political pressures they may face from requesting governments.

For users outside the US, the proposal’s shift of human rights scrutiny from US courts back to the institutions of the requesting country means the impact on privacy and other rights depends first and foremost on whether their country’s laws are more protective than the current MLAT system. In the UK, the protections are weaker.

The US government contends that the new system would encourage other countries to reform their own surveillance laws to qualify for speedier access to data held by US firms. But whether that is likely depends on political interests of both the US and the participating government. What countries may qualify—or could qualify with some reforms—is uncertain. The draft agreement appears designed to require no changes to UK law, which Edward Snowden described as legalizing “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy.” From conversations with companies and other stakeholders, Brazil and India may also be on a desired short list for data sharing under the proposal.

People in countries like Brazil or India should decide whether they are willing to trade privacy protections provided by the current MLAT system for some hazy incentive to improve domestic laws. The proposal’s criteria fall short of international human rights law, including the Necessary and Proportionate Principles, which would likely limit any reforms, even if a government were willing to change its laws.

Finally, there is a question of accountability. The MLAT system subjects users’ rights to standards their own governments did not enact, under a process they cannot contest. This is not ideal, yet it manages to provide strong protections for people outside the US. The new proposal would simply remove many of these protections and defer to the participating government’s domestic processes, which may be even more opaque and unaccountable.

Internet users should assess whether their domestic system would adequately prevent their government from abusing the arrangement, and whether local law enforcement can be held accountable, given how much more data would be available to them under the deal.

What Alternative?

The US should adequately fund the current process so that government requests can be properly reviewed in a timely way. The US could also streamline the MLAT process, for example, creating a standardized online system for requests that would not require weakening rights protections. Both technology companies and the US should prioritize these solutions before pursuing a proposal that could allow a potentially vast expansion of surveillance, with lower safeguards.

To be truly viewed as an improvement, any cross-border data request proposal should strengthen privacy protections and improve human rights accountability, not merely shift the burden to systems that have fewer protections. The current proposal doesn’t come close to achieving this.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Beirut) – Saudi authorities have arrested dozens of people, including prominent clerics, in what appears to be a coordinated crackdown on dissent, Human Rights Watch said today. The campaign comes three months after Mohammad bin Salman became crown prince in June 2017.

The reported arrests of Salman al-Awda, Awad al-Qarni, and more than a dozen others since September 10 are the latest in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing repression campaign against dissidents including peaceful activists, journalists, and writers. A prominent writer, Jamal Khashoggi, announced that his publication, al-Hayat, had banned him from writing regular opinion columns.

Saudi authorities arrested Salman al-Awda and over a dozen others in what appears to be a coordinated crackdown on dissent. 

© 2009 Marwan Almuraisy (Wikimedia Commons)

“These apparently politically motivated arrests are another sign that Mohammad bin Salman has no real interest in improving his country’s record on free speech and the rule of law,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudis’ alleged efforts to tackle extremism are all for show if all the government does is jail people for their political views.”

A September 12 Saudi Press Agency announcement appeared to confirm the arrests, stating that the Presidency of State Security, the country’s new counterterrorism agency, had worked “to monitor the intelligence activities of a group of people for the benefit of foreign parties against the security of the kingdom and its interests, methodology, capabilities, and social peace in order to stir up sedition and prejudice national unity.” It said the group included Saudis and foreigners.

Al-Awda and al-Qarni were prominent members of the “Sahwa Movement” in the early 1990s, which criticized Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow the US military into the country to protect it from a potential Iraqi invasion. The authorities imprisoned al-Awda from 1994-1999. Since 2011 al-Awda has advocated greater democracy and social tolerance. Al-Qarni announced in March that authorities had banned him from writing following a conviction for harming public order.

Reuters reported that the clerics failed to sufficiently back Saudi policies, including the isolation of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. The Wall Street Journal reported that the arrests may be related to Saudi authorities’ preparation for an abdication by King Salman in favor of Mohammad bin Salman, the king’s son.

While Saudi authorities have not disclosed the specific reasons for the detentions, they fit a pattern of human rights violations against peaceful advocates and dissidents, including harassment, intimidation, smear campaigns, travel bans, detention, and prosecution.

Khashoggi has faced writing bans in the past. The most recent came in November 2016, after the Saudi Press Agency stated that Khashoggi does not represent the government of Saudi Arabia after he criticized Donald Trump at a presentation in Washington, DC, on November 10.

Saudi courts have convicted at least 25 prominent activists and dissidents since 2011. Many faced sentences as long as 10 or 15 years and most faced broad, catch-all charges designed to criminalize peaceful dissent. They include “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “sowing discord,” “inciting public opinion,” “setting up an unlicensed organization,” and vague provisions from the 2007 cybercrime law.

Since 2014, Saudi authorities have tried nearly all peaceful dissidents in the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal.

Authorities have arrested and prosecuted nearly all activists associated with the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), one of Saudi Arabia’s first civic organizations, which called for broad political reform in interpretations of Islamic law. A Saudi court formally dissolved and banned the group in March 2013. The members faced similar vague charges, including disparaging and insulting judicial authorities, inciting public opinion, insulting religious leaders, participating in setting up an unlicensed organization, and violating the cybercrime law.

Saudi activists and dissidents currently serving long prison terms based solely on their peaceful activism include Waleed Abu al-Khair, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Abdullah al-Hamid, Fadhil al-Manasif, Sulaiman al-Rashoodi, Abdulkareem al-Khodr, Fowzan al-Harbi, Raif Badawi, Saleh al-Ashwan, Abdulrahman al-Hamid, Zuhair Kutbi, Alaa Brinji, and Nadhir al-Majed. Activists Issa al-Nukheifi and Essam Koshak are currently on trial. In late July, a Saudi appeals court upheld an eight-year prison sentence against Abdulaziz al-Shubaily. Mohammed al-Oteibi and Abdullah Attawi are currently on trial for forming a human rights organization in 2013.

“Outlandish sentences against peaceful activists and dissidents demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s complete intolerance toward citizens who speak out for human rights and reform,” Whitson said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s school religious studies curriculum contains hateful and incendiary language toward religions and Islamic traditions that do not adhere to its interpretation of Sunni Islam, Human Rights Watch said today. The texts disparage Sufi and Shia religious practices and label Jews and Christians “unbelievers” with whom Muslims should not associate.

A comprehensive Human Rights Watch review of the Education Ministry-produced school religion books for the 2016-17 school year found that some of the content that first provoked widespread controversy for violent and intolerant teachings in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks remains in the texts today, despite Saudi officials’ promises to eliminate the intolerant language.

“As early as first grade, students in Saudi schools are being taught hatred toward all those perceived to be of a different faith or school of thought,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The lessons in hate are reinforced with each following year.”

This research was part of a broader investigation into Saudi officials and religious clerics’ use of hate speech and incitement to violence for an upcoming Human Rights Watch report. The reviewed curriculum, entitled al-tawhid, or “Monotheism,” consisted of 45 textbooks and student workbooks for the primary, middle, and secondary education levels. Human Rights Watch did not review additional religion texts dealing with Islamic law, Islamic culture, Islamic commentary, or Qur’an recitation.

The United States Department of State first designated Saudi Arabia a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations in 2004. It has continued to do so every year since. The designation should trigger penalties, including economic sanctions, arms embargoes, and travel and visa restrictions. But the US government has had a waiver on penalties in place since 2006. The waiver allows the US to continue economic and security cooperation with Saudi Arabia unencumbered.

Saudi Arabia has faced pressure to reform its school religion curriculum since the September 11 attacks, particularly from the US, after it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. Saudi officials have said repeatedly they will carry out these reforms, although past reviews of the curriculum over the last dozen years have shown these promises to be hollow. In February 2017, Saudi’s education minister admitted that a “broader curriculum overhaul” was still necessary, but did not offer a target date for when this overhaul should be completed.

Saudi Arabia does not allow public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam. Its public school religious textbooks are but one aspect of an entire system of discrimination that promotes intolerance toward those perceived as “other.”

As Saudi Arabia moves towards implementing its Vision 2030 goals to transform the country culturally and economically, it should address the hostile rhetoric that nonconforming Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and non-Muslim expatriate workers face in Saudi Arabia, said Human Rights Watch.

Saudi Arabia’s al-tawhid, “Monotheism,” curriculum harshly criticizes practices and traditions closely associated with both Shia Islam and Sufism. In many cases, the curriculum labels practices, such as visiting the graves of prominent religious figures, and the act of intercession, by which Shias and Sufis supplicate to God through intermediaries, as evidence of shirk, or polytheism, that will result in the removal from Islam and eternal damnation.

The curriculum repeatedly condemns building mosques or shrines on top of graves, a clear reference to Shia or Sufi pilgrimage sites. The third book in the five-part secondary level curriculum, for example, contains a section, entitled, “People’s Violation of the Teachings of the Prophet with Graves,” stating that “many people have violated what the prophet forbade in terms of bida’ or ‘illicit innovations’ with graves and committed what he prohibited and because of that fell into illicit innovations or the greatest polytheism” by “building mosques and shrines on top of graves.” The text also states that people use shrines as a place to commit other acts of illicit innovations or polytheism, including: “praying at them, reading at them, sacrificing to them and those [interred] in them, seeking help from them, or making vows by them…”.

Ministry of Education, Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Semester Program, Level Three, 2016-17, p. 104

The second semester of the seventh-grade text expresses similar sentiment, saying that “those who make the graves of prophets and the righteous into mosques are evil-natured.”

Toward the end of one chapter, “The Role of Reformers in Declaring and Defending the Correct Doctrine,” in a secondary-level textbook, a short glossary lists practices of those who have deviated from correct religious practice. It describes Sufism as “a perverse path that began with the claim of asceticism, or severe self-discipline, then entered into illicit innovation, misguidedness, and exaggeration in reverence to the righteous.”

Saudi Ministry of Education, Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Semester Program, Level One, 2016-17, p. 40

The curriculum reserves its harshest criticisms for Jews, Christians, and people of other faiths, often describing them as kuffar, or “unbelievers.”

In one fifth-grade second semester textbook, the curriculum calls Jews, Christians, and Al Wathaniyeen, or “pagans,” the “original unbelievers” and declares that it is the duty of Muslims to excommunicate them: “For whoever does not [excommunicate them], or whoever doubts their religious infidelity is himself an unbeliever.”

Saudi Ministry of Education, Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Fifth Grade, Second Semester, 2016-17, p. 55

In a chapter listing markers by which one can recognize the approach of the Day of Resurrection, one passage states: “The Hour will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews, and Muslims will kill the Jews.”

Saudi Ministry of Education, Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Course, Level Two, 2016-17, p. 102.

A recurring and alarming lesson in the curriculum warns against imitating, associating with, or joining the “unbelievers” in their traditions and practices. One passage rejects and denounces the Sufi practice of celebrating the birth of the prophet, accusing Sufis of imitating Christians, i.e. “unbelievers,” in their celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Fifth Grade, Second Semester, 2016-17, p. 279

[Translation: Celebrating the prophet’s birth in the spring of every year is prohibited; for it is a new innovation and is in imitation of the Christian celebration of what is known as the birth of Christ.]

In another chapter, “Loyalty to Unbelievers,” the text explicitly calls on Muslims to reserve loyalty to God, the prophet, and other believers and to express hostility and antagonism toward “unbelievers.” It warns Muslims that by imitating “unbelievers” or even joining them in their celebrations, one is at risk of expressing loyalty to them, and worse even, becoming one of them.

Saudi Ministry of Education, Al-Tawhid, Student Book, Secondary Course, Level One, 2016-17, p. 165


The Saudi government’s official denigration of other religious groups, combined with its ban on public practice of other religions, could amount to incitement to hatred or discrimination. International human rights law requires countries to prohibit “[a]ny advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”

Article 18 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest his religion or relief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

“Saudi Arabia’s officials should stop denigrating other people’s personal beliefs,” Whitson said. “After years of reform promises there is apparently still little room for tolerance in the country’s schools.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Amman) – Jordanian authorities have threatened a regional media freedom organization based in Jordan over its receipt of foreign funding, Human Rights Watch said today.

Jordanian authorities told the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) that its registration category prohibits it from receiving foreign funding under government rules. But prior to 2017 the organization operated without incident or official complaint for 19 years. The group works on behalf of journalists detained across the region and hosts annual workshops and events on media freedom.

“Broadsiding a media freedom watchdog is the latest example of Jordan’s threats against foreign funding for local organizations working on rights issues,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Jordanian authorities’ treatment of this media freedom group indicates that they view some nongovernmental organizations as enemies that must be controlled rather than as partners in improving the country’s human rights situation.”

On August 28, 2017, Jordan’s Companies Control Department issued memos both to the organization and to the attorney general stating that the group had violated the country’s 1997 Law on Companies by receiving foreign funding while registered as a “civil company” rather than a “nonprofit company.” The journalism group says, however, that the regulation does not specifically prohibit civil companies from receiving foreign funds. The semi-governmental al-Dustour daily newspaper published the memo and a front-page article criticizing the journalism group on September 10, before it received the memo.

The memo orders the group to halt reception of any foreign or domestic funding and to refrain from stating that the organization is a nonprofit company.

The group’s executive director, Nidal Mansour, told Human Rights Watch that he was surprised to read about the Companies Control Department memo in the newspaper before receiving it himself, stating that his organization had been cooperating with the department since it opened an inquiry into the group’s operations in March. He said that the organization has never attempted to hide the fact that it receives foreign funding for its projects, and that prominent government officials have participated in these events over the years. The journalism group denied all allegations of wrongdoing in a statement published on September 11.

The al-Dustour daily followed its initial article with an editorial on September 11 under the byline “national affairs editor” that said that organizations that receive foreign funding are disloyal to Jordan and a threat to the country. It states, “It is certain that some of these centers receive funding from foreign embassies or external foundations in order to serve their goals or programs, which represent a clear intervention into the affairs of our country and a threat to its political and social security.”

The move against the journalism group could place dozens of organizations registered as companies at risk of similar treatment, Human Rights Watch said. The laws require organizations registered as associations under the country’s 2008 Law on Associations or nonprofit companies under the Law on Companies to seek high-level government approval before receiving any foreign funding.

These restrictions became more onerous in October 2015, when Jordan’s council of ministers implemented a foreign funding control mechanism. Under this system, nongovernmental groups are required to submit foreign funding approval requests to the Social Development Ministry. The groups must provide extensive information about the project to be supported by the funding, demonstrating how it accords with Jordan’s national and developmental goals, and how it connects to the Jordan Response Plan for Syrian refugees. Authorities are not required to provide any justification for rejecting such funding.

Jordanian authorities have justified the new measures by saying they needed to better organize the country’s nongovernmental sector and avoid duplication of work by various groups. The foreign funding control mechanism, however, effectively gives Jordanian authorities the ability to choose what projects groups are permitted to carry out, undermining their ability to function free of disproportionate government interference.

Since the imposition of the foreign funding mechanism, local groups told Human Rights Watch, in practice all foreign funding must be approved by the Social Development Ministry, the Council of Ministers, the Planning and International Cooperation Ministry, and any other ministry linked with a project. The groups said that the approvals can take weeks or months, and that if any government body in the chain of approval rejects the project the funding is rejected.

The Social Development Ministry proposed further amendments to the Law on Associations in 2016 that would have further restricted receipt of foreign funding. The amendments would have required associations that receive foreign funding to submit a separate report and budget for each approved grant in addition to other reporting requirements.

The amendments also would have required depositing any foreign funds for which groups are seeking approval in a “safe account” under the “associations fund,” to be administered by the Social Development Ministry. It is unclear whether a foreign donor would be able to recover a grant if the authorities turned down a funding request. Jordanian authorities have yet to take the amendments forward.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Jordan is obligated to uphold the right to freedom of association. Selective application of vague laws regulating nongovernmental groups, as in the media freedom group’s case, violates this obligation and restricts the work of these groups in Jordan, Human Rights Watch said.

In his 2014 annual report to the UN secretary-general, the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association criticized increasing restrictions around the world on foreign funds for nongovernmental groups. The special rapporteur said that countries “do not generally object to corporations investing capital from foreign sources in their jurisdictions in the same way they do if civil society organizations receive foreign funding.”

“Jordan should stop using foreign funding as a cudgel to punish organizations working to strengthen human rights and basic freedoms,” Whitson said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Last week, the rights group Derechos Digitales released the text of a worrying draft decree, signed by President Michelle Bachelet in June, that could greatly increase intrusive government access to personal data. The decree, which still needs to be approved by the Comptroller General’s Office to take force, would run counter to Chileans’ right to privacy and emulates some of the worst such policies around the globe.

The decree would require telecommunication companies to retain, for at least two years, data on electronic and mobile communications of everyone in the country, including phone calls, e-mail, and messaging cellphone applications. It greatly expands the types of data companies must store, while extending the retention period from one year to two. While it does not mandate retaining the content of the communications, it covers information like the location data and the phone numbers called that can provide a detailed portrait of the user’s intimate life, especially when collected at large scale or combined with other data. If the government knows that someone placed a call to a labor union representative or a suicide hotline, it can potentially draw conclusions about the caller, even without knowing what they said. Cellphone location data can provide authorities a detailed map of a person’s movements for years.

This is a grossly disproportionate intrusion on Chileans’ privacy. It is, of course, reasonable to demand disclosure of specific data to prevent or investigate crimes, subject to safeguards. But data retention under the decree would go much farther, affecting all users, regardless of whether they are suspected of a crime. The European Union’s top court, its Court of Justice, has twice struck down similar blanket data retention laws, noting that they impose an unjustifiably broad infringement of the right to privacy. The UK ignored the ruling and passed an expanded data retention law last year, but overall the rulings have fostered an encouraging trend in the EU. In contrast, such authoritarian countries as China and Russia have recently expanded their data retention laws to increase surveillance over their citizens.  

Worse, while Chile’s decree would require a court order to intercept phone and other communications, it does not include such a requirement to access data already retained. Without judicial control, the decree could virtually turn the Chilean government into a “big brother” capable of knowing where everyone is, and whom they are contacting, all the time.  

The draft also forbids companies from incorporating technology or equipment that can hinder the interception or recording of communications. If this provision is interpreted broadly to forbid encryption, it would set a troubling precedent. In the digital age, encryption is a cornerstone of security for vulnerable activists and journalists working in repressive regimes around the globe. It also protects millions of ordinary users from cybercriminals and malicious hackers. Even in the US, one of the most intrusive countries, lawmakers have not move forward with proposals to restrict encryption, acknowledging its key role to impede cybercrime. The Chilean government should set a positive example by promoting encryption as essential to security, rather than following the lead of countries like Russia, Ethiopia, and Turkey that have restricted it.    

When it reviews the decree in coming days, the Comptroller General’s Office will decide whether it will protect Chileans’ right to privacy or allow the government to emulate authoritarian countries. There should be no doubt about its decision.

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

Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA center, February 2017 © 2017 Private archive

(Moscow) – A prominent Russian think tank, the SOVA Center, and its director are facing charges for violating the country’s draconian law on “undesirable organizations,” Human Rights Watch said today. SOVA Center is known for its research on nationalism, religious freedoms, and political radicalism, and has been monitoring the Russian authorities’ abuse of vague and overly broad anti-extremism legislation. The Russian authorities should drop the charges.

“The outrageous charges against SOVA Center offer a stark example of how the Russian government is using the law on ‘undesirable organizations’ to squeeze the life out of civil society and stifle free expression,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

SOVA’s director, Alexander Verkhovsky, told Human Rights Watch that on September 7, 2017, the Moscow city prosecutor’s office informed him that the organization and he, as director, were in violation of Article 20.33 of Russia’s Code of Administrative Offences, which prohibits participation in activities of foreign organizations designated as “undesirable.” The officials told Verkhovsky that the charges stemmed from hyperlinks on the SOVA website to sites of two donor organizations that had supported the center’s work in the past: The National Endowment for Democracy and Open Society Foundations. Russian authorities had banned both organizations from Russia as “undesirable” in 2015.

Verkhovsky told Human Rights Watch that the SOVA center views these charges as the authorities’ attempt to put pressure on the organization.

The law on “undesirable organizations,” adopted by parliament in May 2015, authorizes the prosecutor general’s office to ban from the country any foreign or international organization that allegedly undermines Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. Eleven groups have been placed on Russia’s blacklist, mainly American donor institutions and capacity building organizations.

Once designated “undesirable,” an organization can no longer arrange or participate in any projects or other activities in Russia. The law provides for administrative and criminal sanctions for Russian organizations and nationals that engage in “continued involvement” with “undesirable organizations.”

This offense is punishable by a fine of up to 15,000 rubles (approximately US$250) for individuals, up to 50,000 rubles (US$845) for officials and up to 100,000 rubles (US$1,690) for organizations. Russian nationals who continue to “be involved” with undesirable organizations, if sanctioned twice in a year, risk criminal prosecution, with fines of up to 500,000 rubles (US$8,500), restrictions on activities and movement, or a jail sentence of up to six years.

The European Commission for Democracy Through Law (the Venice Commission) found that the law on “undesirable” organizations interferes with freedom of expression, and should be significantly amended.

“Once again it is painfully clear that the real target of the ‘undesirables law’ is not foreign organizations, but Russian independent groups” Williamson said. “The law runs contrary to Russia’s international human rights obligations and should be repealed without delay.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Zhanbolat Mamay © Inga Imanbay

(Berlin) – An Almaty court on September 7, 2017, convicted the editor of one of Kazakhstan’s few remaining critical newspapers in a politically motivated money laundering trial, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Medeu District Court barred the editor, Zhanbolat Mamay, from journalism, and restricted his freedom of movement for three years, and ordered him to perform 120 hours of community service. Mamay, who has been in detention since his arrest in February, was freed following the trial.

“While it’s wonderful that Mamay is home with his family, his prosecution was an example of the authorities’ blatant efforts to silence what remains of Kazakhstan’s independent media,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “In prosecuting yet another journalist, the Kazakh government is making clear its contempt for free speech and critical expression.”

Kazakhstan’s international partners should challenge Mamay’s prosecution and call on the government to allow independent and critical media outlets to carry out their important work without retaliation or undue interference, Human Rights Watch said.

Mamay, 29, worked as editor-in-chief of Sayasy Kalam: Tribuna, an opposition newspaper in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. Mamay had previously been an activist and the leader of an opposition youth group, Rukh Pen Til (Spirit and Language). In early 2012, authorities charged Mamay with “inciting social discord” following violent clashes between striking oil workers, other people, and law enforcement in Zhanaozen, an oil town in western Kazakhstan, in December 2011. After several months in detention, Mamay was released, and charges against him were not pursued.

Authorities arrested Mamay on February 10, 2017, on suspicion of using Tribuna to launder approximately US$110,000 over a three-to-four-year period.

Mamay was arrested the day the government’s anti-corruption agency released a statement claiming that in the course of its embezzlement investigation into former top officials of the Kazakhstan bank, BTA Bank, Mukhtar Ablyazov, Zhaksylyk Zharymbetov, and others, the agency identified “Ablyazov’s accomplice in Kazakhstan [as] Zhanbolat Mamayuly Mamay.”

The prosecution claimed that in 2011 Ablyazov and Zharymbetov involved Mamay in their efforts to whitewash embezzled BTA bank money, and that, from 2011 to 2014, they gave Mamay a total of US$110,000 in incremental amounts. According to the indictment, this sum is alleged to be just a part of a total of over US$7 billion in embezzled funds.

In June, an Almaty court convicted Ablyazov and several of his colleagues, including Zharymbetov, on multiple criminal charges, including membership of a criminal group, and large-scale embezzlement. Ablyazov was tried in absentia and sentenced to 20 years in prison, while Zharymbetov, who had been extradited to Kazakhstan from Turkey in January 2017, was given a five-year suspended sentence.

Zharymbetov testified in court that Ablyazov initially directed him to give money to Mamay in 2011, and that he asked his sister in Almaty to give Mamay the money. Zharymbetov said that after he and Ablyazov parted ways in 2012, Zharymbetov also provided funds to Mamay on his own. Both Zharymbetov’s sister and her former husband testified they helped facilitate getting cash to Mamay.

Given that Zharymbetov gave this testimony after he was extradited from Turkey, and as he faced heavy criminal charges, it cannot be ruled out that he testified under duress, Human Rights Watch said.

Mamay acknowledged to the court that Zharymbetov supported his newspaper, but rejected the accusation that in accepting the financial donation from Zharymbetov, he helped launder money.

Mamay’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the prosecution relied on Zharymbetov’s testimony to seek to establish Mamay’s guilt, and produced no evidence that Mamay himself ever knowingly took part in any illegal or criminal activity. Mamay denies having ever met Ablyazov.

Many domestic and international media and human rights watchdogs expressed concern about the charges brought against Mamay and his arrest. In February 2017, Reporters Without Borders called on Kazakh authorities to drop the charges and release Mamay. In March, following worrying reports that Mamay had been beaten in custody, IFEX, the global free speech network, called on authorities to “stop the persecution of Zhanbolat Mamay and ensure his fair trial” and to “investigate thoroughly Mamay’s beating in the detention center.”

Kazakhstan is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and as such, has an obligation to respect the right to freedom of expression and media freedom. The use of questionable financial charges to bar Mamay from working as a journalist – a sanction not directly provided for money laundering in the Kazakh Criminal Code – indicates the authorities’ primary intent was to silence free speech in violation of those obligations.

“Kazakhstan’s concerted crackdown on critical media has been going on for several years, but it is never too late for the authorities to reverse course, uphold the country’s international obligations, and support press freedom,” Rittmann said. “Acknowledging that Mamay’s prosecution was designed to remove him from journalism, and cancelling the penalties imposed on him would be a great place to start.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The door of the campaign office in Saint-Petersburg after it was set on fire on March 25, 2017 © 2017 David Frenkel 

(Berlin) – Russian police have systematically interfered with the presidential campaign of Russia’s leading political opposition figure Alexei Navalny, Human Rights Watch said today. Police across Russia have raided Navalny’s campaign offices, arbitrarily detained campaign volunteers, and carried out other actions that unjustifiably interfere with campaigning. In addition, radical nationalists and pro-Putin groups have physically attacked and threatened campaigners, and official investigations into these incidents have not been effective.

“The pattern of harassment and intimidation against Navalny’s campaign is undeniable,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Russian authorities should let Navalny’s campaigners work without undue interference and properly investigate attacks against them by ultra-nationalists and pro-government groups.”

In December 2016, Navalny announced he would run in Russia’s March 2018 presidential election. To date, he has opened more than 60 campaign offices in different regions of Russia. The extensive police harassment, and attacks on the local offices and campaigners by radical nationalist and pro-Putin groups in spring and summer this year clearly aim to intimidate campaigners and stifle the campaign, Human Rights Watch said.

Navalny, an anti-corruption activist, is formally disqualified from the presidential race due to an outstanding criminal conviction, the result of a politicized, unfair trial.

Human Rights Watch interviewed Navalny campaigners in Kazan, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, Kaliningrad, Irkutsk, Khabarovsk, St. Petersburg and Moscow and reviewed official documents related to the authorities’ actions and complaints to the police, as well as relevant public information including social media postings and videos.

The campaigners described a wide range of methods used to interfere with the campaign. Police have searched campaign offices, seized campaign materials or equipment, and intercepted and confiscated shipments of campaign materials under vague pretexts of “extremism” allegations. Authorities have refused to authorize Navalny’s campaign sidewalk displays, and have detained campaigners on groundless charges of holding unauthorized public gatherings, and for alleged unlawful campaigning activity.

Authorities have also launched criminal inquiries into campaigners’ activities, including for arbitrary violation of lease agreements and other contracts, and distribution of extremist materials. They have also raided the homes of local campaigners and their relatives, seizing equipment, campaigning materials, and other documents. Russia’s specialized anti-extremism police units appear to play an important role in the crackdown.

“The use of specialist police and the label of ‘extremism’ as a pretext for raids, confiscations, and detentions suggests that authorities think it’s ‘extremist’ just to challenge President Vladimir Putin,” Williamson said.

Navalny campaigners and offices across Russia have also faced an increasing number of attacks by ultra-nationalist groups and activists. The attacks range from vandalizing campaign offices or campaigners’ homes, storming into meetings, destroying equipment, blocking the entrance to campaign events, and severely damaging or even burning campaigners’ cars. Attackers have also physically assaulted campaigners, pushing them, beating them, and throwing eggs and other objects at them. They have also carried out bomb scares and thrown a Molotov cocktail at the campaign office in the Stavropol. In some cases the attackers seek to hide their identities, while in other cases the assailants do not hide their identity but rather boast about their actions on social media.

In some of the mob attacks, police merely stood by and did nothing or arrived too late to catch the attackers. When campaigners filed complaints, authorities dutifully registered them, but typically failed to carry out an effective investigation, and in at least one case accused the campaigners of staging the attack for self-promotion.

“Navalny’s campaigners are getting hit from two sides – the ultra-nationalist and pro-government thugs who openly attack them with impunity, and officials, who use lame pretexts to detain and harass them,” Williamson said. “The message is not subtle and the result is the further elimination of any real alternatives in Russia’s political system.”

Navalny’s Campaign

Alexei Navalny’s platform focuses on such issues as ending corruption and inequality, accountability for law enforcement and security agencies, and reversing Russia’s alleged growing isolation. In February 2017, Navalny opened his first campaign office in St. Petersburg. By August, 62 campaign offices were operating in different regions of Russia, with another 15 expected to open later in 2017. On March 20, when Navalny attended the opening of his office in Barnaul, the capital of Russia’s Altai region, unidentified men pelted him with capsules of bright green antiseptic solution.

Throughout the spring, anti-Navalny activists attacked him in other cities, pelting him with eggs and cake. In April 27, when he was leaving his office in Moscow, three men threw a harsh solution in his face, burning of one of his eyes and resulting in a temporary partial loss of vision. Though video footage enabled Navalny to identify the attackers, police suspended the investigation in June, claiming they could not establish the perpetrators’ identity.

Graffiti saying “Navalny is a fascist” on the door of the campaign office in Kaliningrad, July 6, 2017 © 2017 Private

On June 23, Russia’s Central Election Commission stated that Navalny could not be a presidential candidate due to his criminal conviction. In 2013, Navalny was found guilty of embezzlement and handed a five-year suspended sentence. The case involved allegations that in 2009, while he was an advisor to the governor of Russia’s Kirov region, he used his position to arrange for a company owned by the regional government to sell timber to another company, which resold it at a higher price. In 2016, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the case violated Navalny’s right to a fair trial, and that his actions did not amount to embezzlement. Russia’s Supreme Court then sent the case for a re-trial, and in February 2017 a district court in Kirov once again delivered a guilty verdict.

The head of Navalny’s countrywide campaign, Leonid Volkov, stated on social media that the conviction will not stop Navalny running for president. Volkov also said that Navalny was planning to bring further cases to the ECtHR and explore other legal avenues to enable him to run.

Regional Campaigners: Harassment by Officials

Navalny’s campaign has faced harassment and interference by police and other officials in Moscow; the far east, including Vladivostok and Khabarovsk; in Oryol and other areas in central Russia; in Siberia, including Novosibirsk and Irkutsk; in Russia’s northwest, including St. Petersburg and Vologda; in the Volga region, including Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan; and in the south, including Krasnodar and Rostov-on-Don.

Police Raids and Confiscation of Campaign Materials

Navalny’s campaign coordinator in Kaliningrad, Egor Chernyuk, told Human Rights Watch that police raided the campaign office when it opened in July:

The day after we opened the office [July 7], police searched [it]… they seized all [our] campaign materials, except the posters and the banners, to check them for extremism… It’s been weeks [close to six weeks] and they still haven’t returned them.

Chernyuk said that when he went to the Kaliningrad airport in early July to pick up a shipment of campaign newspapers, which report on corruption and also on  Navalny’s program, an airport representative and a police officer informed him that the police had seized the shipment to examine it for extremist or other prohibited content. The officer did not provide a receipt, and the newspapers remain confiscated. In late August, Volkov​ published an allegedly leaked order by a high-level official from the Interior Ministry’s transportation department. The order, dated June 4, called on local police to seize, “under one pretext or another,” a large shipment of Navalny’s campaign materials en route to Chernyuk.

Elvira Dmitrieva, the campaign coordinator in Kazan, told Human Rights Watch that on July 7, police arrived at the local campaign office for what they called an “inspection” and seized 10,000 campaign flyers, alleging that some “information needed to be verified,” but otherwise providing no grounds for their actions. The materials are still with the police.

Also, on July 12, Delovaya Liniya, a private postal company, informed Dmitrieva that on July 4, the police had seized a large shipment of campaign newspapers that she was expecting. The company provided no further information. At about the same time, media reported similar developments in Ufa, Saratov, and Nizhny Novgorod. A spokesman for Delovaya Liniya told the press that “in several cities, cargo [meant for Navalny’s local campaign offices] was seized by police officials” and “Delovaya Liniya staff are obligated to comply with demands by state authorities.”

Miroslav Valkovich, the campaign coordinator in Krasnodar, told Human Rights Watch that police searched the campaign office there on July 7 and seized 940 campaign newspapers. Valkovich said that when asked about the reasons for their actions, police officials vaguely referred to a “complaint” they had supposedly received but refused to provide any detail. The police have not returned the newspapers.

On July 11, police raided the campaign office in Khabarovsk. They told the regional coordinator, Alexei Vorsin, that they were looking into allegations of “unlawful campaigning activities” and seized 2,000 flyers for further examination. Vorsin told Human Rights Watch that police have not returned the flyers.

Sergei Bespalov, the campaign coordinator in Irkutsk, told Human Rights Watch that in July the police had searched the office three times, alleging “unlawful campaign activity,” and seized 22,200 flyers and 12 campaign street displays. Bespalov said that police sent the materials for linguistic review. On August 7, police seized 3,000 newspapers from a shipment Bespalov was picking up at the airport. The officers claimed that the police had received two phone calls from “concerned citizens” warning them that the shipment contained extremist materials and dangerous objects. The newspapers, the displays, and the flyers are still with the police.

When police raided Navalny’s headquarters in Moscow in July, they forcibly detained a volunteer and hit him in the face, according to media reports. The man had to be hospitalized for treatment.

Arbitrary Detentions and Other Interference

All the campaign regional coordinators interviewed by Human Rights Watch described official interference with their work, including through arbitrary detention, administrative penalties, and arbitrary refusals to approve setting up campaign displays.

Bespalov told Human Rights Watch that police in Irkutsk regularly detain volunteers when they hand out flyers, and mostly release them quickly without charge, but refuse to return the flyers. One had to pay a fine of 1,500 rubles (approximately US$25) for supposedly “unlawful campaigning activity.” Bespalov said police also put pressure on the parents of Navalny’s teenage supporters, phoning them, inviting them for informational “conversations,” insinuating that their children could get into trouble, and urging the parents to discourage them from any involvement with the campaign and anti-corruption protests.

The campaign’s St. Petersburg coordinator, Polina Kostylyova, told Human Rights Watch that setting up a campaign sidewalk display in the city center is “next to impossible,” and that municipal authorities authorize them only in the outskirts (sidewalk displays, typically large signboards, with campaigners nearby handing out leaflets, are generally registered as pickets and require authorization by local authorities).

From February through to mid-August, St. Petersburg authorities rejected 10 notifications by Navalny’s local campaigners to set up campaign displays in the city center. In four instances, Kostylyova appealed the decision to a court and lost. One case, involving a display that would have been 200 meters from a church, was particularly absurd, she said:

In early July, we were planning to set up a campaign display in the city center, not far from the metro. We wanted to have the display at the entrance to a garden, which [in turn] led to a church. So, the municipality argued that having a public event anywhere near a Russian Orthodox church could result in offending religious feelings of believers [a criminal offense under Russian law].

The municipality also noted that there were several major roads nearby and the display could distract drivers and pedestrians.

Kostylyova and Valkovich said police often detain campaigners handing out flyers in St. Petersburg and Krasnodar respectively, hold them in custody for several hours without explanation and then release them without charge.

In Krasnodar, the municipality allows campaign displays to be set up only “in the open fields” outside the city, Valkovich said.

In Kazan, police detained five campaign volunteers as they were setting up a display on May 14 in the city center. According to Dmitrieva, police officers ordered the volunteers to remove the display because the municipality had not authorized it. They tried to cooperate, but police had seized the tools needed to dismantle it. When they told police this, they were taken to the station for the night. The next day, a local court sentenced one to 10 days detention for disobeying police orders. Two weeks later, the others were sentenced to 10 to 12 days’ detention for disobeying police orders and/or violating regulations on public gatherings.

Kazan police detained two more volunteers on July 8 as they were handing out campaign flyers while standing at a significant distance from one another, and charged them with violating regulations on public gatherings, “the distance between them being less than 30 meters.” A local court sentenced one to 30 hours of community service and the other to 15 days’ detention.

On August 4, the campaigners made another attempt to set up a display in Kazan, near a metro station. Anti-extremism police showed up, seized the display, and took the activists to the station. The campaigners were allowed to leave, but police kept the display for “expert analysis.” On August 6, the campaigners again tried to set up a display. While they were assembling it, anti-extremism police arrived and told them to take it down because it was identical to the one being examined for extremism. That month, anti-extremism police detained Ruslan Shaveddinov, Navalny’s campaign press secretary, when he was visiting the Kazan office. Police claimed that they had information regarding Shaveddinov making “public calls for engagement in extremist activities” – a crime under Russian law. Three hours later, they released Shaveddinov without charges.

On August 23, a court in Kazan sentenced Dmitrieva to 10 days’ detention for “repeated violation” of regulations on mass gatherings. The charges stemmed from an announcement on the Team Navalny-Kazan group page, on VK – the top social media platform for Russian-speakers – calling on all Navalny supporters in Kazan to stop by the campaign office, pick up campaign newspapers and flyers, and hand them out. The judge accepted the police argument that as the administrator of the Team Navalny-Kazan account on social media, Dmitrieva had aimed to encourage an “unlimited number of people… to take part in an unsanctioned public event.”

Vorsin, in Khabarovsk, told Human Rights Watch that local authorities closely monitor their campaign displays and threaten activists with detention and other sanctions. He said:

A representative of the municipality stands by the whole time and literally controls each and every step of our volunteers. One step to the left, one step to the right and they are up in arms, calling it an unlawful public action, saying they’d be calling the police to have charge sheets issued. 

Attacks by Radical Nationalist and Pro-Putin Groups

Some of the attackers appear to be part of organized groups, such as the South East Radical Block (SERB), Cossacks, the National Liberation Movement (NOD), and Putin’s Brigades.

Cossack members disrupting an event by Navalny’s campaigners in Rostov-on-Don, April 8, 2017  © 2017 Evgeniy Feldman for Navalny's Campaign

SERB is a small ultra-nationalist group that first emerged in 2014 in Ukraine, when it attempted to take over the Kharkiv city administration. To avoid criminal prosecution, some members fled to Russia, where they have attacked several pro-democracy activists and opposition figures, including Navalny in Moscow in April 2017.

Cossacks identify themselves as a separate ethnic group in Russia, supposedly several million strong. They are known to maintain militias, especially in the south of Russia, where in some places they have close ties to law enforcement. Cossacks have openly disrupted numerous events and gatherings by Russia’s political opposition and civic activists.

NOD is a pro-Kremlin organization seeking a strong authoritarian rule, and adhering to nationalist ideology. It has several hundred members and has violently attacked its opponents and human rights groups.

Putin’s Brigades is a movement in Krasnodar region that appears connected to a local politician and consists mostly of women past retirement age who supposedly desire to unite all Putin supporters against those who “undermine” Putin’s policies.

Violent Attacks on Campaigners and Those Cooperating with Them

Bespalov, in Irkutsk, told Human Rights Watch that on May 31 several men with clubs and baseball bats beat Vladilen Bugaev, 33, at the local campaign office. Bugaev’s father is the landlord of those premises. Bugaev and two witnesses to the attack said the assailants screamed, “We know everything about you – you’re renting this office to Navalny…” They also ordered Bugaev to break the lease.

Bugaev said he was in the office at 6:30 p.m. with two friends. The office door was unlocked, and three men walked in asking about a company that had relocated from the building. The visitors left and then returned with another three to four men. Several of them attacked Bugaev, kicking and punching him and beating him with baseball bats, while ordering him to evict Navalny. The others pushed his friends into a corner and held them there – asking their names and about their links to Navalny.

Bugaev described the assailants as “well trained” and said in a media interview that he saw a gun slip out of one man’s pocket. “When they beat you, they beat you, when they are out to kill, they kill, not talk. If they had wanted to kill me they would’ve killed me,” he said. Bugaev sustained multiple hematomas and abrasions and had to get six stitches and other medical treatment.

The police promptly opened an investigation. “There were several security cameras . . . and the men didn’t try to conceal their identity, hide their face... It was all out in the open,” Bespalov said. Bespalov said police questioned Bugaev, watched the surveillance videos with him, and supposedly established the identity of the main perpetrators. The case was then transferred to the Irkutsk regional police.

Bespalov and his fellow campaigners told Human Rights Watch they are now concerned that the investigation has stalled. Bespalov also flagged that prior to finally signing a lease agreement with Bugaev’s father, he tried renting six different properties for the campaign office. All the landlords seemed accommodating at first and then refused to sign the lease at the last moment. One told Bespalov that he changed his mind after some “bandits” paid him a visit and coerced him into pulling out.

Attacks on Campaign Offices and Campaigners’ Homes and Vehicles

Kostylyova, in St. Petersburg, told Human Rights Watch about an arson attack at the local campaign office before the March 26 countrywide anti-corruption protests initiated by Navalny. Early on the morning of March 23, the police called her saying that someone had set the office door on fire overnight, causing considerable damage. The police investigation into the attack has yielded no results.

Chernyuk in Kaliningrad told Human Rights Watch that on July 6, the day before the opening of the local office, an unknown individual painted “Navalny is a fascist” on the office door. On July 21, someone pelted the windows with small metal balls, apparently from a slingshot, breaking one. Chernyuk’s home and the homes of several volunteers sustained damage from similar attacks. Chernyuk said:

[Some people] repeatedly vandalize the lobbies of the buildings where our volunteers live – they paint obscene pictures on the walls and write threats and all sorts of offensive comments. Same goes for me. Also, on July 11, someone shot a paintball gun at my apartment window, splattering it with paint. And on August 1, they threw a brick into my apartment, shattering the window.

Graffiti saying “Navalny is a fascist” on the door to the residence of Navalny’s campaign coordinator in Kaliningrad, July 7, 2017 © 2017 Private

Chernyuk said police officials arrive when called, but have not conducted an effective investigation into any of the incidents. His appeal to the governor of Kaliningrad about the persistent attacks has received no response.

Anastasia Deyneka, campaign coordinator in Rostov-on-Don, told Human Rights Watch that her predecessor, Elena Kulikova, had her vehicle damaged by unidentified individuals on July 26. The assailants slashed the tires and splashed the car with ink. The police registered the complaints but otherwise the investigation has gone nowhere. Four weeks later, Kulikova resigned from her position citing a busy schedule.

Deyneka also described how local authorities, Cossacks, and NOD disrupted the opening of the campaign office in the city. On April 8, Navalny’s national campaign boss, Volkov, planned to mark the opening by holding a news conference and meeting with local supporters at the Railroad Workers’ Culture Palace. That morning, however, the venue suddenly canceled the reservation because of an ad hoc training organized by the Federal Security Service. The campaign decided to hold the events instead at the Ermitazh Hotel, where Volkov was staying. A large group of men dressed in Cossack attire, some armed with traditional Cossack whips, blocked the hotel’s entrance. They were soon joined by a group of NOD members with anti-Navalny posters.

Navalny’s supporters called the police. Although several police vehicles arrived, the officers watched as the Cossacks and their allies threatened the Navalny supporters with whips, yelled at volunteers, pushed and refused to let them through, and demanded that Volkov come out “to talk.” When Volkov eventually complied, the Cossacks and NOD members shouted abuse and demanded that he leave the city. Volkov returned to the hotel and met with volunteers who had snuck past the Cossacks.

Valkovich, in Krasnodar, also described to Human Rights Watch an attack on local campaigners. On April 20, a pro-Navalny Cossack activist, Evgeny Panchuk, gave a news conference at the local campaign office criticizing Russia’s government and expressing support for Navalny. Men in Cossack attire stormed into the room shouting abuse. They ransacked the premises, threw eggs and flour at Panchuk, punched him and several other Navalny supporters, and left. The office called the police, who arrived and questioned some of those present. The investigation has yielded no results.

Valkovich also said Putin’s Brigades engaged in frequent constant attacks against the Krasnodar campaign office. He said that since spring 2017, Putin’s Brigades activists – mostly women past retirement age – had raided the office 14 times, bursting in, ransacking the premises, throwing things, damaging office equipment, yelling, and stealing campaign newspapers and flyers. “At first, they just stopped by to talk to us… And then, they started stealing campaigning materials from the office and damaging our property. What they started doing was full blown hooliganism. Last time [on August 3] they broke the lower glass panel on the office door.”

Window pane shattered by a brick thrown at the apartment of Navalny's campaign coordinator in Kaliningrad © 2017 Private

With each raid, the campaigners called the police, but in some cases the attackers fled before police showed up and in others, the officers simply stood there, asked the women to leave, but did not physically remove them or take other action. Valkovich said the authorities registered his complaints after every incident, but not one has resulted in any penalty against the offenders, and the raids have continued.

Since it opened in April, Navalny’s campaign office in Stavropol, another region in southern Russia, has been reporting to media police interference and threats from non-state actors, including Cossacks. Late at night on June 10, unknown assailants threw a Molotov cocktail into the office, shattering a glass panel. The authorities opened an investigation, but are treating as possible suspects Yaroslav Sinyugin, who coordinated Navalny’s campaign in Stavropol, and several of his colleagues.

Sinyugin said, “The arson attempt is used by the investigation to put pressure [on the campaigners] … Law enforcement officials are attempting to make one of the activists testify against me.”

On August 19, Sinyugin resigned. Two days earlier, unidentified individuals had slashed the tires on his car. “For me, family comes first. I really like my job with the campaign but it entails particular risks,” he explained in an interview about his resignation

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A photo illustration interweaving the Russian flag with the Facebook and Twitter logos taken in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, May 22, 2015. Russia's media watchdog has warned that Google, Twitter and Facebook could be blocked if they do not comply with Russian Internet laws.

© 2015 Reuters

A Russian YouTuber recently noted that internet users in Russia today, “have one foot in jail.”

Less succinctly but with greater gravitas, the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination last week said that Russia needs to do something about its anti-extremism legislation, which in recent years has become a key instrument in the authorities’ crackdown on free expression, especially online.

The Committee has criticized Russia’s “anti-extremism” law in particular, recommending a more precise definition of “extremism” and suggesting that Russia bin its “Federal List of Extremist Materials,” an ambiguous and contradictory document which includes over 4,000 items.

It’s a welcome move. There currently seem to be no limits to how far Russian authorities are willing to stretch “anti-extremist” censorship, restrict access to information they deem sensitive, or use the law at will simply to punish critics. This law is the backbone of an array of legislation on extremism, which in recent years grew dramatically and continues to expand.

One example is the 2013 law that criminalized “insulting religious believers’ feelings.” Mocking the Orthodox Church – a move against Russia’s national ideology of “traditional values” – can therefore be considered act of extremism. Just a few weeks ago, a court in Sochi fined a man roughly US$850 for re-posting satirical images of Jesus on his social media page, even though he posted the images in 2014 and had since deleted them. Other examples include a researcher convicted for inciting extremism after sharing a statement of a far-right nationalist group on his social network page; a blogger, who got a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for “justification of terrorism” after he wrote a critical post about Russia’s foreign policy in Syria. The list goes on.

To be sure, all kinds of expression can still be found online; indeed it’s the only place in Russia where this can happen. But the authorities have been steadily picking away at it, at times casting even the mildest forms of criticism of the government or debate on certain topics, including Ukraine, religion, LGBT issues, and others, as threats to state security, and public stability. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of people who went to prison for “extremist” speech almost doubled.

The UN’s recommendations could not be more timely. Russia’s overly broad extremism legislation should be amended immediately. Politically motivated prosecutions for, “public calls for separatism,” “offending feelings of religious believers” or “incitement to hatred,” including for online statements, should end. Restrictions on online content should apply only to content that is truly harmful and inherently criminal in nature, not merely to views and opinions, even if they may be offensive to some, including the government.

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