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

(Beirut) – Authorities in the United Arab Emirates should immediately release leading human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, Human Rights Watch said today. He was arrested in the early morning hours of March 20, 2017, and accused of alleged crimes that appear to violate freedom of expression.

The UAE authorities have not revealed where they are holding Mansoor or allowed him access to his family or a lawyer. Mansoor is the 2015 Laureate for the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders and a member of the Middle East and North Africa advisory committee at Human Rights Watch.

Ahmed Mansoor speaks to Reuters in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, November 30, 2011.

© 2011 Reuters

“The charges against Ahmed Mansoor clearly violate his right to free expression, and if the UAE has any concern about its reputation it will release him immediately,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Arresting a prominent rights defender on these charges is yet another demonstration of the UAE’s complete intolerance for peaceful dissent.”

A March 20 statement by WAM, the UAE’s official news agency, stated that authorities detained Mansoor on suspicion of using social media sites to publish “flawed information” and “false news” to “incite sectarian strife and hatred” and “harm the reputation of the state.”

A source close to the situation told Human Rights Watch that at about 12 a.m. on March 20, a group of 10 uniformed police officers came to Mansoor’s home in the city of Ajman and conducted an extensive search for electronic devices. At about 3 a.m., the officers took Mansoor away, along with all the family’s mobile phones and laptops, even those belonging to Mansoor’s children, the source said.

It was unclear whether officials had a warrant to search Mansoor’s home or detain him, or which social media activity led to the accusations against him. On March 20, Gulf News cited official statements and reported that Mansoor had used social media “to publish false information, rumors and lies about the UAE and promoted sectarian feelings and hatred that would  damage the UAE’s social harmony and unity…published false information to damage UAE’s reputation abroad and encouraged his followers on social media not to follow the UAE laws and portrayed the UAE as a lawless land.”

The report classified these as “cybercrimes,” indicating that the charges against him will be based on alleged violations of the UAE’s 2012 cybercrime decree, which provides for long prison sentences and severe financial penalties for individuals who criticize the country’s rulers.

In the days leading up to his detention, Mansoor had posted numerous links covering a range of topics to his Twitter feed. These included articles criticizing the UAE’s failure to release Osama al-Najjer, an Emirati who has served a three-year sentence on charges that included “communicating with external organizations to provide misleading information,” articles critical of the Saudi-led coalition’s use of force in Yemen and its impact on the Yemeni population, and an article that derided the Egyptian government.

UAE authorities should immediately reveal Mansoor’s whereabouts and allow him access to family members and a lawyer, Human Rights Watch said.

The UAE is on an unrelenting campaign to stamp out any and every semblance of dissent. Just how many Emiratis does the government intend to jail for expressing peaceful political opinions?

Joe Stork

Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director, Human Rights Watch

UAE authorities have harassed Mansoor for six years. In April 2011, UAE authorities detained him over his peaceful calls for reform. Before that arrest, Mansoor was one of 133 signatories to a petition for universal and direct elections in the UAE and for the Federal National Council, a government advisory board, to have legislative powers. Mansoor also administered an online forum called Al-Hewar al-Emarati that criticized UAE government policy and leaders.

In November 2011, the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi sentenced Mansoor to three years in prison for insulting the country’s top officials in a trial deemed unfair and marred by legal and procedural flaws. Authorities also accused Mansoor of using Al-Hewar Al-Emarati to “conspire against the safety and security of the State,” inciting others to break the law, and calling for an election boycott and anti-government demonstrations.

Although the UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, pardoned Mansoor on November 28, 2011, authorities never returned his passport, subjecting him to a de facto travel ban. He has also been subjected to physical assaults, death threats, government surveillance, and a sophisticated spyware attack.

In August 2016, the Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab reported that Mansoor received suspicious text messages on his iPhone promising information about detainees tortured in UAE jails and urging him to click on an included link. Citizen Lab discovered that clicking on the link would have installed sophisticated spyware on his iPhone produced by an Israeli spyware company that allows an outside operator to control his iPhone’s telephone and camera, monitor his chat applications, and track his movements. Similar methods for breaking into iPhones have been valued at US$1 million, leading Citizen Lab to call Mansoor “the million dollar dissident.” Mansoor is the 2015 Laureate for the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, but authorities did not allow him to travel to Geneva to collect his award.

Article 14 of the Arab Charter for Human Rights, to which the UAE is a party, prohibits arbitrary arrest. In line with the mandate of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, detentions are arbitrary if there is no clear legal basis for the arrest or if the person is arrested for exercising the human rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, among others.

Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights also guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression and to impart news to others by any means. The only restrictions allowed on the practice of this right are those imposed for “respect for the rights of others, their reputation, or the protection of national security, public order, public health, or public morals.” Article 13(2) of the charter also requires that judicial hearings be “public other than in exceptional cases where the interests of justice so require in a democratic society which respects freedom and human rights.”

On January 16, authorities detained Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati academic and vocal supporter of the government, for 10 days after he posted a tweet that praised the UAE as the “Emirates of tolerance” but bemoaned the authorities’ lack of respect for freedom of expression and political liberties.

“The UAE is on an unrelenting campaign to stamp out any and every semblance of dissent,” Stork said. “Just how many Emiratis does the government intend to jail for expressing peaceful political opinions?”


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(New York) – Thai authorities should immediately and transparently investigate the shooting death of a teenage ethnic Lahu activist who had been detained by the military, Human Rights Watch said today. Chaiyaphum Pa-sae, 17, was shot to death on March 17, 2017 after soldiers apprehended him for alleged drug possession in Chiang Dao district of Thailand’s northern Chiang Mai province.

Prominent ethnic Lahu activist Chaiyaphum Pa-sae, 17, was shot dead by Thai soldiers during an anti-drug operation on March 17, 2017. 

© 2017 Private

Soldiers from the army’s 5th Cavalry Regiment Task Force and the Pha Muang Task Force reported to the district police that they stopped a car at Ban Rin Luang village checkpoint in which Chaiyaphum was a passenger. Soldiers claimed that a search found 2,800 methamphetamine pills hidden in the car’s air filter. Chaiyaphum and the driver, Pongsanai Saengtala, were detained while the soldiers continued to search the car.

The soldiers said that Chaiyaphum escaped from the soldiers, pulled a knife out of the car’s trunk, fought his way past them, and ran into the nearby jungle. Soldiers claimed that they pursued him and when Chaiyaphum was about to throw a hand grenade at them, shot him in self-defense. They have not explained how a detained person obtained the knife or grenade. The coroner confirmed that Chaiyaphum was struck by an M16 assault rifle round that pierced his left arm and struck his heart.

“The claim that soldiers killed an outspoken young ethnic activist in self-defense after he had been held by soldiers sets the alarm bells ringing,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Instead of accepting at face value the account of the soldiers who shot Chaiyaphum, the authorities need to thoroughly and impartially investigate this case and make their findings public.”

Chaiyaphum was a well-known activist from the Young Seedlings Network Camp in Chiang Dao district. He was involved in numerous campaigns to promote the rights of ethnic Lahu and other vulnerable ethnic minorities in northern Thailand to gain citizenship, health care, and access to education. He also spoke out against abuses by Thai security forces against his community during anti-drug operations. In addition, Chaiyaphum was a documentary producer and music composer. Several of his short films, including “A Comb and A Buckle,” were shown on the Thai PBS channel.

Ethnic minorities in Thailand will never have full equality so long as those acting on their behalf face grave risks every day and killings such as this are not investigated properly.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which apply to soldiers acting in a law enforcement capacity, state that security forces shall as far as possible apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, the authorities should use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life. In cases of death or serious injury, a detailed report shall be sent promptly to the competent authorities responsible for administrative review and judicial control.

In addition, the Thai government has an obligation under the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders to ensure that any individual or group working to protect and promote human rights is able to work in a safe and enabling environment.

The Thai army has a longstanding practice of dismissing allegations of serious abuses committed by its troops. Despite numerous complaints about human rights violations by soldiers and army-affiliated militia groups during anti-drug operations, the army has rarely prosecuted military personnel for such offenses.

Human Rights Watch documented numerous extrajudicial killings and other serious human rights violations during then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s “war on drugs” in 2003 and 2004. Abusive anti-drug operations by the armed forces and police continued across Thailand under successive governments after Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006. Many of those killed were members of ethnic populations in northern provinces who were known to have disputes with local authorities and who had consequently been blacklisted as suspected drug traffickers. Many of them were killed at checkpoints or soon after being summoned to report to local military bases or police stations for questioning.

Human Rights Watch’s findings were echoed by the 2007 Independent Committee for the Investigation, Study and Analysis of the Formation and Implementation of Drug Suppression Policy (ICID), chaired by former Attorney General Khanit na Nakhon, and in National Human Rights Commission reports.

The government should immediately direct the Department of Special Investigation to investigate Chaiyaphum’s death, and also request the National Human Rights Commission to investigate the case. Human Rights Watch also urged the government to ensure the safety of witnesses in this case, including the driver of the car, Pongsanai, who is now detained at Mae Taeng Prison in Chiang Mai province.

“Abusive officials have long used anti-drug operations to cover their attacks on activists who exposed official wrongdoing or defended minority rights,” Adams said. “Ethnic minorities in Thailand will never have full equality so long as those acting on their behalf face grave risks every day and killings such as this are not investigated properly.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

French journalists Jean Frank Pierre and Basille Marie Longchamp learned firsthand last week the Indonesian authorities’ contempt for media freedom in its “Forbidden Island” provinces of Papua and West Papua (commonly referred to as “Papua”).

Indonesia's President-elect Joko Widodo (C) speaks with journalists at city hall in Jakarta, August 12, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

Indonesian police detained and then deported the two reporters, who were filming a documentary for Indonesia’s Garuda Airlines, for lacking “necessary documents from related institutions,” without elaborating. The authorities have barred the two journalists from returning to Indonesia for at least six months to ensure they get the message.

The message is that there’s a glaring gap between the rhetoric of Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s announced opening of Papua to foreign media, and the grim reality that journalists are still blocked from reporting there. In May 2015, President Jokowi said he would be lifting of the 25-year de facto ban on foreign media access to Papua. That policy change was supposed to end the farce of placing foreign journalists in legal limbo by denying or failing to approve their reporting applications for Papua.

But abuses of media freedom for foreign journalists in Papua, along with visa denial and blacklisting of reporters who challenge the official chokehold on Papua access, has continued unabated. That’s mainly because Jokowi has singularly failed to issue a formal written directive instructing Indonesia’s bureaucracy and security forces to lift these restrictions. But it’s also due to the deeply rooted perception among many government and security agency officials that foreign media access to Papua is a recipe for instability in a region already troubled by widespread public dissatisfaction with Jakarta, and a small but persistent armed independence movement.

That reflexive official paranoia extends beyond journalists and also impedes access to Papua for international development agencies, United Nations officials and foreign academics that Indonesian authorities perceive as hostile.

The government needs to understand that blocking media access on overbroad security grounds doesn’t just deter foreign news reporting about Papua, it raises troubling questions about what the government might be hiding there. It’s time for Jokowi to issue his long-delayed written directive lifting restrictions on foreign media access to Papua, and appropriately punish government officials who refuse to comply.

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

With only three months gone, populism looks like a shoo-in for word of year. Headlines warn that populism is a threat to Europe, perhaps even an existential one. Populist radical right parties have the wind in their sails, the argument goes, boosted by Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections.

But how big a threat are radical populists really?

In the first big test in 2017, the Dutch general elections, the xenophobic Party of Freedoms (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, secured 20 seats and 13 percent of the vote.  That’s a lot but don’t forget that in 2010 (when populism was not on most people’s radar), the party won 24 seats and almost 16 percent of the vote. And even before the vote, the other parties had ruled out going into coalition with the PVV.

Germany's Alternative for Germany (AfD) leader Frauke Petry, France's National Front leader Marine Le Pen, Italian Matteo Salvini of the Northern League, Netherlands' Party for Freedom (PVV) leader Geert Wilders, Harald Vilimsky of Austria's Freedom Party (FPOe) and Marcus Pretzell, ENF group member of the European Parliament pose on stage after a European far-right leaders meeting in Koblenz, Germany on January 21, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

The next big test for Europe comes in April with the first round of France’s presidential election. Polls suggest that Marine Le Pen will get through to the second round in May, possibly even coming out on top in the first round. But the same polls suggest she will be defeated by a significant margin in the second round, whoever her opponent is. And that is despite a much more sophisticated campaign—disavowing racism and anti-Semitism—than her father when he reached the second round of the presidential elections in 2002.

And let’s not forget Austria, where the race for the presidency was twice won in 2016 by a Green party candidate, defeating the candidate from the xenophobic Freedom Party.

True, the long-term trends point to a growth in support for radical right populist parties in Europe. That is especially true in the European Parliament, where in the 2014 elections populists won most seats in France, the UK, and Denmark and a quarter of the seats in the Parliament overall.

And in Hungary and Poland we can see the risks of a populist approach to government, in which the “will of the people” reflected in majority support is more important than democratic institutions themselves. Those governments pursue abusive and stigmatizing policies toward migrants, the homeless and women – often in the sphere of reproductive rights -- and show disdain for checks and balances, the rule of law and supranational authority.

Yet the biggest risk to Europe today is arguably not the prospect of radical right populists in power, which has so far been limited, but their outsize influence on mainstream policymakers. Instead of courageously confronting the flawed arguments of insurgent populist parties and defending policies based on rights, mainstream parties have aped their agenda for fear of losing votes. 

That fear is arguably the biggest policy consideration for many European governments today.  At recent meetings in Brussels trying to convince the EU to do a better job of protecting refugees and asylum seekers, I was repeatedly told that the risk of ceding ground to populists stood in the way of rights-respecting policy.

Council President Donald Tusk has effectively argued that the EU needs to set aside core values to combat migration and terrorism -- so as to preserve the EU and the values it embodies in the long term.

This attitude and position from mainstream political leaders represents as much of a challenge and threat to human rights values as do the populists themselves.  It legitimizes and normalizes the hateful agenda of the xenophobic, anti-Islam, anti-refugee populists, with none of the costs that go along with being in power and held to account. It means that even if the populists lose at the ballot box they still win.

The Dutch elections provide a clear example of this. In January, Prime Minister Mark Rutte, leader of the ruling People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, took out a full page ad in Dutch newspapers, telling the country’s inhabitants that those who “refuse to adapt, and criticize our values” should “behave normally, or leave.”

While there is a legitimate debate to be had about tolerance and integration, Rutte’s dog-whistle message was clearly designed to appeal to those who believe that the best solution is to deport people even if they are citizens who have lived in the country for their entire lives. It was not a defence of values but a betrayal of them.

France’s presidential contenders face a similar choice. They can adopt the approach of Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round of the 2012 presidential race, taking up a strong anti-Islam and anti-immigration stance in the hope of attracting National Front voters (and ultimately losing, even while normalizing those ideas). Or they can stand up for foundational European values and offer real leadership, in tackling society’s challenges in ways that preserve basic human rights.

There are risks in Italy too, with snap elections a possibility this year. The electoral challenge from the populist Five Star Movement, as well as the xenophobic Northern League, helps explain why the ruling Democratic Party is taking a much tougher line on migration.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The winning candidate in the Austrian presidential elections refused to follow the government’s pale embrace of his opponent’s xenophobic anti-refugee agenda. Instead he offered a positive agenda and won comfortably.

Populism matters. But how Europe’s mainstream parties respond matters even more. 

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

Iran’s presidential elections, as well as those for town and village councils, are scheduled for May 19. Yet even before registration opens for candidates, a string of journalists have been arrested. If they have been arrested simply for speaking out peacefully, it would violate the right of free expression and possibly threaten the fairness of the elections.

This week, intelligence authorities ramped up detentions of peaceful critics, arresting journalists Hengameh Shahidi, Ehsan Mazandarani, and Morad Saghafi. Authorities told Mazandarani, who had been released from prison just a month earlier after serving his sentence for vaguely defined national security charges, that his release had been “a mistake.”

A woman lets her child cast her ballot during the parliamentary election, at a mosque in southern Tehran March 2, 2012.

© 2012 Reuters

More concerning, though, appears to be the arrest of administrators who manage popular news channels within Telegram, a messaging application widely used in Iran. These administrators all ran channels linked to reformist groups, and some maintain channels with hundreds of thousands of followers.

On March 15, Ali Motahari, a member of parliament from Tehran, told ISNA News agency that he had been informed about the arrests of some 12 Telegram channel administrators by a “military intelligence organization.” Motahari emphasized that he had asked the Minister of Intelligence to provide information about which agency arrested them.

Mahmoud Sadeghi, another Tehran parliamentarian, tweeted on March 16 that he had been unsuccessful in finding information on who made the arrests. Sadeghi also shared a screenshot of a complaint he received from a constituent. She described how her husband was arrested by authorities who at first claimed to be representatives of the prosecutors’ office, but then showed an ID card from Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps – a branch of Iran’s military with broad power. Sadeghi called on President Hassan Rouhani and the judiciary’s head to not be bystanders when citizens’ rights are violated.

With widespread censorship and long-standing legal restrictions on free expression in Iran, Telegram has become a vital tool for activism and communication in Iran in recent years. For instance, in February 2016 parliamentary elections, Telegram served as a “must-have” application for politicians to engage with voters.

Arresting citizens for peacefully expressing their views is normally a violation of human rights, but in times like this, it can infringe not on only this fundamental freedom, but also genuine participation in the political process.


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

(Beirut) – A United Arab Emirates court sentenced a Jordanian journalist on March 15, 2017, to prison and a large fine for “insulting the state’s symbols,” Human Rights Watch said today. The sentence against Tayseer al-Najjar was related to Facebook posts in which he criticized Egypt, Israel, and Gulf countries.

Tayseer al-Najjar.

© Private

UAE authorities held al-Najjar without access to a lawyer for more than a year before bringing him to trial in January. WAM, the UAE’s official news agency, reported that the Abu Dhabi Federal Appeals Court convicted al-Najjar under article 29 of the country’s cybercrime law, sentencing him to three years in prison and a fine of 500,000 UAE Dirhams (US$136,000).

“Jailing a journalist on spurious charges does far more to ‘insult’ the UAE and its symbols than anything Tayseer al-Najjar ever wrote,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The UAE’s president should immediately vacate this senseless sentence and allow al-Najjar to return to his wife and family in Jordan.”

On December 3, 2015, UAE authorities at Abu Dhabi airport prevented al-Najjar from boarding a flight to Jordan to visit his wife and children, al-Najjar’s wife, Majida Hourani, told Human Rights Watch. On December 13, the UAE authorities summoned al-Najjar to a police station in Abu Dhabi and detained him.

Al-Najjar’s wife said he had been a journalist for more than 15 years, and had been working in the UAE since April 2015, when he became a culture reporter for the UAE-based newspaper Dar.

Hourani said that during al-Najjar’s detention, authorities questioned him about comments he made on Facebook during Israeli military operations in Gaza in 2014, before he had moved to the UAE. He expressed support for “Gazan resistance” and criticized the UAE and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt. She said that investigators also questioned him over two 2012 Facebook posts in which he apparently criticized the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, but al-Najjar denied writing those comments. The comments were the evidence against al-Najjar at his trial, she said.

The Jordan Press Association (JPA), which appointed al-Najjar’s lawyer, said that it would work to appeal the verdict. Tariq Momani, the head of the group, told the AFP that “[the JPA] truly believed he would be found innocent.”

Article 29 of the UAE’s 2012 cybercrime law provides for prison sentences of between three and 15 years for publishing information online with the “intent to make sarcasm or damage the reputation, prestige or stature of the State or any of its institutions.”

The UAE has ratified the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which in article 32 protects the right to freedom of expression and in article 13 protects the right to a fair trial.

“There’s no chance at a fair trial when vague charges are designed specifically to limit free speech and harshly punish peaceful criticism,” Stork said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(New York) ­– The Chinese authorities’ failure to release details about terrorism convictions heightens concerns that the country’s counterterrorism law is being used to prosecute nonviolent activity, Human Rights Watch said today. The 2017 Supreme People’s Court (SPC) report, presented on March 12, 2017, departs from past practice by excluding details on 2016 terrorism cases, such as the number of individuals convicted. China’s new Counterterrorism Law took effect in January 2016.

Human Rights Watch said that China’s terrorism prosecutions, primarily in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, are subject to politically motivated abuse because of the expansive definition of terrorism, lack of transparency, and violations of fair trial rights.

Zhou Qiang, president of China’s Supreme People’s Court, gives a speech during the National People’s Congress in Beijing on March 12, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

“The Chinese government claims it’s combating terrorism threats, particularly in Xinjiang, but gives scarce details about these incidents while strictly controlling access of journalists and other independent monitors,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “By refusing to provide information on terrorism cases, Beijing can easily suppress rights to peaceful criticism and religious identity.”

The 2016 SPC’s annual report to the National People’s Congress stated that in 2015, Chinese courts convicted 1,419 people for threatening state security, inciting “splittism,” and taking part in terrorism – nearly double the numbers of the previous year’s report. But the court’s 2015 and 2016 reports did not disclose a breakdown of these numbers, so it is unclear how many people were convicted for terrorism and precisely for which offense.

Human Rights Watch examined available data from China Court Net, a general news site run by the SPC, and the Peking University Law Database for information on terrorism-related cases in 2016. Only four court verdicts related to terrorism prosecutions from 2016 are publicly available. These two sources may only contain a small percentage of terrorism-related verdicts in 2016. The SPC decision that required court verdicts be posted online provides exemptions for cases that involve state secrets or personal privacy, and cases that are otherwise “not suitable for making public,” which gives the courts wide latitude to withhold information.

The four cases involved seven people – all but one ethnic Uyghurs from Xinjiang. Five received prison sentences from eight months to three years, while one was given a suspended sentence and one was exempted from criminal penalties.

In all four cases, the individuals were convicted of possessing, accessing, and distributing terrorism-related videos or audios. Three of the verdicts gave details about these materials:

  • Yu was convicted for clicking on weblinks that contained images of flags of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and of jihad, masked men with guns, and masked women, as well as essays “that encouraged people to join jihad.” Yu forwarded some of these materials to a relative.
  • Duo was convicted for distributing to a WeChat public group of 62 people a short video of a beheading by two masked men.
  • Abdusemet Halik (阿卜杜塞麦提•哈力克), one of a group of four convicted, possessed over 100 e-books, 100 audio clips, and 346 videos, most of them produced by ETIM and focusing on waging jihad in China, including on how to make bombs. Memet Rishit (麦麦提•热西提) possessed 11 news videos about Rebiya Kadeer, leader of exiled Uyghurs; 3 videos by ETIM promoting a holy war against “the blood-sucking atheist Communists” who “have occupied the East Turkestan and call it Xinjiang”; and 53 e-books on “religious extremism.” Yunus (玉奴斯) had 16 videos and audio recordings produced by ETIM on “religious extremism.” In addition to possessing and distributing these videos to their classmates, the three – plus the fourth defendant, Rizwangul Halik (热孜宛古丽•哈力克) – were also convicted of organizing others and participating in “physical training in imitation of the violent videos” in a park in Changchun City, Jilin Province, and of attempting to travel via Hong Kong to join Al-Qaeda, according to the verdict. During the trial, three of the four defendants told the court that they were tortured to confess.

In addition to these cases, Human Rights Watch learned about a dozen other individuals who were punished with days of detention and fines under administrative laws for watching, downloading, or storing audio, videos, and pictures related to extremism and terrorism during this period, but which were not severe enough to constitute criminal acts.

State media reports about the implementation of the new Counterterrorism Law, in effect since January 1, 2016, show a similar focus of the authorities to punish, through fines or days of administrative detention, possession or distribution of materials that the authorities consider as “terrorist” or “extremist” in nature, as well as distributing “fake terrorism information.” The Counterterrorism Law gives expansive definitions of “terrorism” and “extremism,” and does not clearly articulate what constitutes “fake terrorism information.”

Governments may prosecute speech that incites criminal acts – speech that directly encourages the commission of a crime, is intended to result in criminal action, or is likely to result in criminal action – whether or not criminal action does, in fact, result. But laws that impose criminal punishment for what has been called “indirect incitement” – for example, justifying or glorifying terrorism – encroach on expression protected under international human rights law.

The implementation of China’s Counterterrorism Law has also focused on punishing hotels and courier services for failure to comply with the government’s “real name registration” requirements, in which individuals staying in hotels or sending courier posts must use their identification cards.

None of the publicly available information about the people who received administrative or criminal punishments on terrorism-related charges in 2016 indicates they perpetrated or were linked to violent acts. The last two state reports about violence in Xinjiang, for example, suggested that those who committed violent acts were killed at the scene by security forces.

China’s terrorism convictions will generate disbelief as long as the criminal process remains opaque and so little information reaches the public.

Sophie Richardson

China Director

Xinjiang, home to 10 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, is a site of pervasive discrimination, repression, and restriction on fundamental human rights including freedom of religion. Opposition to central and local policies has been expressed in peaceful protests, but also through bombings and other acts of violence.

A 2015 report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project documented more than 600 casualties in violent incidents in Xinjiang between 2013 and 2014, which included people killed by criminal offenders and state security forces.

The Chinese government has often blamed attacks on “foreign” forces including ETIM, an alleged separatist organization founded by Uyghurs which has been on the United Nations list of terrorist organizations since 2002, though the group’s existence has been debated. The government has not offered invitations to independent monitors to investigate such incidents, including the UN special rapporteur on torture and the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

“China’s terrorism convictions will generate disbelief as long as the criminal process remains opaque and so little information reaches the public,” Richardson said. “The government needs to open up the system to independent monitors from China and abroad, including the UN.”

Abuses of Individuals Suspected of Terrorism, Extremism

China’s laws on terrorism and extremism open the door to abusive treatment of suspects accused of such crimes.

Under the Counterterrorism Law, police are empowered to impose far-reaching restrictions on individuals they merely suspect of being involved in terrorism, even if they have little or no evidence (articles 39, 53). If police “receive a report of suspected terrorist activity, or discover suspected terrorist activity,” they can “order” the suspects to comply with “one or more of these restrictive measures” (article 53).

The restrictions include bans on traveling outside the suspect’s area of residence or the country without police approval, bans on taking public transportation or entering specified venues without police approval, as well as ID and passport confiscation.

The decision to impose these restrictions is an entirely internal procedure within the police system. Because there are no clear criteria in the Counterterrorism Law on imposing or withdrawing any of the restrictions, they can be imposed arbitrarily and, for some of the restrictions, indefinitely. Moreover, these restrictions apply prior to the stage of a police investigation, effectively giving police the power of preventive detention before a decision is made whether to file a case (ch: li’an). This means that the legal guarantee of the right to legal counsel, or any procedural rights stipulated in China’s Criminal Procedure Law, do not apply throughout this process.

Some of the suspects subjected to this preventive detention will proceed to pretrial proceedings under the Criminal Procedure Law, but pretrial proceedings in terrorism cases are opaque: the Criminal Procedure Law denies terrorism suspects basic defense protections, including access to family members and lawyers, and allows suspects to be held for months in undisclosed locations. The Counterterrorism Law states that terrorism suspects and prisoners “may be” subjected to solitary confinement (article 29); the Xinjiang Implementing Measures state those who are “major ringleaders” will always be subjected to solitary confinement because of their crime (article 40). The same applies to those who commit or incite others to commit crimes while in confinement, or refuse to be “re-educated” and show “violent tendencies.” The Implementing Measures do not outline any review mechanisms for imposing solitary confinement, or conditions for lifting it. This is contrary to the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules), which prohibit the use of indefinite solitary confinement as it amounts to torture. China is a party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which it ratified in 1988.

Under the Counterterrorism Law, prior to release, prisons or detention centers are empowered to conduct an assessment of the “danger … posed to society” by these individuals when they complete their sentences (article 30). The assessment is sent to the intermediate people’s court of the region where the sentence was served.

If the court finds that the convict is a “danger to society,” it should “order” the person to receive an “educational placement” (ch: jiaoyu anzhi), a measure undertaken by provincial governments, even after a sentence is completed. Yet there are no clear criteria for such an assessment, or clear explanation whether this “educational placement” involves deprivation of liberty. The Counterterrorism Law also does not provide a time limit for this “educational placement” measure. The Implementing Measures state that it is the “education placement” institutions that can make a recommendation to the local court to remove such measures, but do not explain how the individual being subjected to the measure can apply to have it removed.

These provisions mean that even after someone has served a full sentence they can remain effectively indefinitely detained, with little or no recourse.

Vague, Overbroad Definitions of Terrorism in Chinese Law

Since 2014, the Chinese government has revised or drafted new legislation to combat terrorism. Taken together, these laws criminalize a wide range of activities. They restrict participating, abetting, organizing, or funding terrorism, as well as possessing, publishing, printing, or distributing content that contains terrorism, including digital content. They encourage “the masses” to report on terrorists and terrorism activities, and they set out penalties for those who withhold such information.

Xinjiang is the only region in China that has a set of Implementing Measures on the Counterterrorism Law (Xinjiang Implementing Measures), which have been in effect since August 1, 2016. Two recently revised regional regulations – one on religious affairs and one on prevention of juvenile crimes – also mention prohibitions against terrorism. The National People’s Congress is also drafting a new Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Anti-Religious Extremism Law, according to state media.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised human rights concerns in China’s approach to terrorism and extremism. Chinese laws define terrorism in an overly broad and vague manner, and do not necessarily require actual action or violence to prompt prosecution, deprivation of liberty, or other restrictions:

  • Article 3 of the Counterterrorism Law includes in the definition of “terrorism,” “advocacy” (ch: zhuzhang) or “behavior” (ch: xingwei) that “elicit panic in society, endanger public security, infringe upon personal and property rights, or threaten state agencies or international organizations through violence, destruction, intimidation, or other means to achieve its political aims.” The term “advocacy” could apply to proposed policy changes or criticism of government policy, or conduct that is within the boundaries of freedom of expression as set out under international human rights law. This article also notes that mere possession of “terror publicity materials” is considered a “behavior” that constitutes “terrorism,” yet there is no clear definition of “materials that promote terrorism.” This article also defines “terrorist incident” (ch: kongbu shijian) as an episode that is “in the process of occurring or which has already occurred and which has caused or may cause significant harm to society.” The open-ended nature of the last clause provides authorities with a legal basis to abuse their power on occasions they deem as constituting a “terrorist incident.” The Chinese government has, in the past, labeled the Dalai Lama’s prayers for self-immolations as “terrorism in disguise,” and Tibetans who self-immolate in protests against Chinese government rule as “terrorists.”
  • Article 4 of the Counterterrorism Law defines “extremism” as “the ideological basis of terrorism,” and elaborates by saying that “the state opposes all forms of extremism, such as inciting hatred, discrimination, or agitating violence through distorting religious doctrines or other means.” This vague and overly broad definition provides the authorities with a legal basis to violate freedom of religion; allegations of “religious extremism” have been routinely employed to limit and often prosecute religious activities that merely take place outside state-controlled religious institutions.

Under these expansive definitions of terrorism and extremism, a large range of activity relevant to ethnic and religious expression and custom are punishable and are being prohibited, including:

  • “Exploiting religious teaching, sermons, exegesis, study, weddings, funerals, gathering and cultural or recreational activities and so forth to advocate terrorism or extremism” (article 50(1), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Making, downloading, storing, reproducing, reviewing, or copying audio, video, images or print materials or network links with terrorist, extremist or other such contents” (article 50(2), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Illegally possessing printed or electronic products with terrorist, extremist or other such content” (article 50(3), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Designing, making, distributing, mailing, selling, or displaying clothing, symbols, flags, badges, utensils, souvenirs and so forth that have terrorist or extremist content (article 50(4), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Using clothing, symbols, and so forth to advocate terrorism or extremism in a public place or compelling others to wear or don terrorist or extremist clothing or symbols (article 50(5), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Organizing, forcing, instigating, encouraging or enticing a minor to participate in religious activities” (article 51(2), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Exploiting religion to obstruct or interfere with others’ activities such as weddings and funerals or inheritances” (article 51(3), Xinjiang Implementing Measures)
  • “Distorting the concept of ‘halal,’ or generalizing the concept of ‘halal,’ expanding and mutating it into social life and other areas” (article 51(4), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Intimidating or inducing others to boycott national policy measures, or destroy state documents prescribed for by law, such as resident identity cards, household registration books, and marriage certificates, or currency” (article 51(5), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Deliberately sensationalizing, fabricating or distorting socially sensitive cases (incidents), or intentionally starting rumors or spreading false information, undermining the implementation of social management” (article 51(6), Xinjiang Implementing Measures);
  • “Using extremism to incite or coerce the masses to undermine the implementation of legally established systems such as for marriage, justice, education or social management” (article 120(4), Chinese Criminal Law); and
  • “Where methods such as violence or coercion are used to compel others to wear or adorn themselves with apparel or emblems promoting terrorism or extremism” (article 120(5), Chinese Criminal Law).
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Over the past week, two human rights colleagues of mine received rape and death threats over social media. One, who works with refugees, was sent a Facebook message saying, “I am gonna rape you to death fuckin darkies lover fucking traitor!” The other, who works on extrajudicial killings in the Philippines’ “war on drugs,” found the message “bullet in ur head!” on her Facebook page.

Receiving death threats is nothing new for human rights activists. But the rise of ultra-nationalistic populist leaders coupled with armies of social media trolls who spew venom at any critics has increased the hostility and dangers human rights activists face in many parts of the world.

Such threats are often not spontaneous: President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has a well-organized campaign spanning millions of social media accounts that endlessly repeat his incendiary messages. Just yesterday, Duterte told his police to go kill anyone who accused them of unlawful killings, and promised to pardon them for such crimes.

Death threats and other violent messaging on social media are not just vile words: they often amount to incitement or other unlawful acts, and can sometimes lead to actual violence. This is particularly true if the threats are against local activists whose governments portray them as enemies and lackeys of foreign powers.

Everyone can play a part in standing up against social media threats against activists.

First, preserve a record of any threat before it disappears – take a screengrab on your mobile device or computer.

Second, inform the activist who is the target of the threat, since many of us are often bombarded by social media messages and may not be aware of it.

Third, report the threat to the social media platform and ask them to take action. Many platforms prohibit such behavior by their users.

Finally, consider reporting the threat to authorities, or help the activist do so. Death threats are criminal conduct in many jurisdictions, and the police should investigate.

Our social media platforms are important communities, and we all have a responsibility to help uphold standards of decency and stand up against abusive and threatening conduct.

And it works. Just minutes after the person working on the Philippines received the death threat, I let the person posting it know that his conduct was illegal in Italy, where he appeared to live, and that I would report him to the Italian authorities. He immediately took down his threat. Others posting threats also should realize the potential consequences of their actions.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Athens) – The EU-Turkey deal has trapped thousands of people in abysmal conditions on the Greek islands for the past year, while denying most access to asylum procedures and refugee protection, Human Rights Watch said today. This assessment of conditions is released ahead of the first anniversary of the agreement, signed on March 18, 2016.

A refugee squat in an abandoned factory on Lesbos, Greece, where dozens of asylum seekers are living in fear of being forcibly returned to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal. 

© 2017 Arash Hampay for Human Rights Watch

To carry out the deal, the Greek government has adopted a containment policy, keeping asylum seekers confined to the islands, including in the so-called refugee hotspots and other reception facilities, to facilitate speedy processing and return to Turkey. But continued arrivals, the mismanagement of aid funding, and the slow pace of decision-making, as well as the positive decisions of Greek appeals committees rejecting summary returns to Turkey as unsafe, have led to overcrowded and abysmal conditions on the Greek islands. These factors, combined with the Greek authorities’ failure to properly identify vulnerable asylum seekers for transfer to the mainland, have resulted in deteriorating security conditions, unnecessary suffering, and despair.

“The EU-Turkey deal has been an unmitigated disaster for the very people it is supposed to protect – the asylum seekers trapped in appalling conditions on Greek islands,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greek authorities should ensure that people landing on Greece’s shores have meaningful access to asylum and put an end to the containment policy for asylum seekers.”

Asylum seekers from Algeria at a refugee squat on Lesbos. People of certain nationalities presumptively considered “economic migrants,” such as Algerians, are treated as having manifestly unfounded claims, and are often detained on that basis. 

© 2017 Arash Hampay for Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch has made repeated visits to official and informal reception facilities on the Greek islands since the EU-Turkey deal came into effect, most recently to Lesbos in late February 2017. Dozens of interviews with asylum seekers and migrants trapped on the islands show the detrimental impact of the deal on their human rights. Human Rights Watch has also found abysmal conditions in official reception facilities on the Greek mainland, but with more prospects for improving reception conditions and asylum processing procedures there compared to the islands.

According to figures from UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, the maximum official reception capacity at official and informal reception facilities on the five main islands receiving asylum seekers and migrants is 8,759, compared with the 12,963 asylum seekers on the islands as of March 14. Facilities with almost twice as many people as they are meant to serve are not able to cope with the continuing arrivals of small numbers of people fleeing conflict zones such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Conditions in some facilities on the mainland are also poor, and require improvement to bring them up to humanitarian standards, in line with Greece’s obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

While Greece has received significant assistance from European Union institutions and member states, the European Commission has also pressured Greece to weaken procedural safeguards and protections for vulnerable groups and to speed up operations under the deal to facilitate transfers to Turkey.

The deal’s flawed assumption that Turkey is a safe country for asylum seekers would allow Greece to transfer them back to Turkey without considering the merits of their asylum claims. But in the months after the deal was completed, Greek asylum appeals committees have rightly ruled in many instances that Turkey does not provide effective protection for refugees and that asylum applications should be admitted for regular examination on their merits in Greece.

Following EU pressure, however, Athens changed the composition of the appeals committees in June, and the restructured committees have ruled in at least 20 cases that Turkey was a safe country, even though it excludes non-Europeans from its refugee protection. That finding was challenged by two Syrian asylum seekers at Greece’s highest court, the Council of State, which heard their case on March 10.

No one has yet been forcibly returned to Turkey on the grounds that their asylum application was inadmissible because they could obtain effective protection in Turkey. But if the Council of State turns down the appeal, it could pave the way for mass returns of asylum seekers to Turkey.


A makeshift shelter at a squat in an abandoned building, on Lesbos, where Syrian asylum seekers live. Since the EU-Turkey deal entered into force, in March 2016, thousands of people have been trapped in abysmal conditions on the Greek islands. 

© 2017 Arash Hampay for Human Rights Watch

In an Action Plan published in December 2016, the European Commission recommended tougher measures aimed at increasing the number of returns to Turkey, including ending exemptions for vulnerable groups and people eligible for family reunification from the requirement to remain on the islands and go through the fast-track admissibility process that could result in a return to Turkey. The commission also recommended expanding detention on the islands and curbing appeal rights. The Greek parliament was to consider legal changes to carry out those recommendations during the week of March 13, 2017.

Greece should resist EU pressure to weaken protections for vulnerable asylum seekers, to expand detention on the islands, to weaken appeal rights, and to send asylum seekers back to Turkey without first determining their protection needs, Human Rights Watch said.

While the EU-Turkey statement does not explicitly require keeping asylum seekers on the islands, EU and Greek officials cite implementation of the deal as a justification for the containment policy. Even if transferring asylum seekers to the mainland would complicate possible returns to Turkey, this is an unacceptable excuse for condemning people to conditions that threaten their health and cause huge anxiety, Human Rights Watch said.

“If the EU is serious about preserving the right to seek asylum, it needs to take a hard look at how the failings of the EU-Turkey deal apply in practice,” Cossé said. “A better-managed and rights-oriented approach by the EU would have put less of a burden on Greece and resulted in better protection and less suffering for thousands of people fleeing war and persecution.”

For more information on flaws in Greece’s current asylum system under the EU-Turkey deal and accounts from asylum seekers and migrants trapped in abusive conditions on the Greek islands, please see below.

Greece’s Flawed Asylum System
Despite significant financial and technical assistance to Greece, there are serious shortcomings in access to asylum for those on the islands. An April 2016 law to facilitate the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal creates a fast-track procedure to examine eligibility and admissibility for international protection claims on the islands within 15 days, including appeal. The law does not guarantee free legal assistance for the initial procedure and limits the possibility for an oral hearing during an appeal, undermining the effective exercise of asylum seekers’ rights.

In practice, the decisions are taking far longer, leaving people in limbo. Human Rights Watch has also documented discrepancies between the periods that people of different nationalities have had to wait to register their asylum claims or to have them examined. People of certain nationalities presumptively considered “economic migrants” are treated as having manifestly unfounded claims, and are often detained at police stations and detention facilities inside the hotspots on that basis, raising concerns about the use of arbitrary detention on the basis of nationality. This differential treatment and frustration at delayed procedures has led in some cases to unrest in detention centers. Other problems include poor or no interpretation during interviews in some cases, and serious gaps in access to information and legal assistance.

Asylum seekers who arrived on the islands after the EU-Turkey deal came into effect are considered ineligible for relocation to other EU countries under a September 2015 EU relocation plan designed to alleviate pressure on Greece and Italy, even if asylum seekers meet other criteria.

Human Rights Watch has also documented failure to carry out the first reception process, which under Greek law provides for transferring “vulnerable groups” into the regular asylum system on the mainland with easier access to services. Instead, many members of  “vulnerable” groups – including pregnant women, unaccompanied children, single parents with children, victims of torture, and people with disabilities – have remained trapped on the islands, especially people with less apparent “vulnerabilities,” such as people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities or torture victims.

According to the European Commission, since the deal entered into effect, 916 third-country nationals have been returned to Turkey, either on a voluntary or involuntary basis. The commission said that some did not apply for asylum, others withdrew their asylum application after a negative decision on their first hearing, and others were rejected for asylum after an examination on the merits. Human Rights Watch, other nongovernmental organizations, and UNHCR have documented many irregularities in the forcible returns to Turkey of those the Greek authorities portray as not having applied for asylum.

The EU-Turkey agreement has set a dangerous precedent by putting at risk the very principle of the right to seek asylum in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, Human Rights Watch said. Turkey cannot be considered a safe country for non-European refugees and asylum seekers because it does not provide effective protection, including its geographical limitation to the 1951 Refugee Convention that excludes non-Europeans from consideration for refugee status. In Turkey, Syrian refugees face obstacles to registration, access to education, employment, and health care, despite having access to temporary protection status. Others, including Iraqis and Afghans, do not have temporary protection status. Finally, Turkey’s border with Syria remains effectively closed.

The European Union and its member states are currently exploring the idea of similar arrangements to the EU-Turkey deal with North African countries, as part of a wider effort to move legal and administrative responsibility for asylum seekers outside EU borders.


Trapped in Dire Conditions: Recent Accounts
Reza, 23, from Afghanistan, arrived on Lesbos in March 2016, right after the EU-Turkey deal entered into force. He said, in February 2017, that the conditions on the island and uncertainty about the future cause mental anguish:

I arrived on March 21 [2016] so I’m almost a year here. I don’t have a legal paper to leave the island and I don’t have money to pay a smuggler. I feel I am nothing and that I don’t have control over my life anymore. I can’t leave from the island and after such a long time here, I feel that nothing has a purpose anymore. You feel like ‘crazy,’ wandering around without knowing why.

Heavy snow, rain, and strong winds in January exacerbated the already dire conditions on the islands that are housing refugees. Mazar Ali, a 23-year-old man from Afghanistan on Lesbos, said in February:

Our tent was outside in the snow and it got destroyed [because of the snow]. We went to Eurorelief [an aid organization in charge of accommodations] to get a new tent but it took them three days to give us a new one so we slept outside. We’re not allowed to leave from the island. You feel like being in a big prison here on the island. Many times, I feel I can’t breathe freely.

43-year-old Dilshad, a Kurdish asylum seeker from Iraq who reached Lesbos in September, said in February:

They told me to go to Eurorelief, take a tent, find somewhere to put it and live there.... Since then I am living inside a [summer] tent. As you can see living conditions are not good. Food is not edible.

Three men died on Lesbos in the six days between January 24 and 30. Although there is no official statement on the cause of these deaths, they have been attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning from makeshift heating devices that refugees have been using to warm their freezing tents. In late 2016, a blast most likely caused by a cooking gas container killed an elderly Kurdish woman and her young grandchild at Moria.

Dilshad described the harsh conditions after the heavy snowfall in Lesbos, in January 2017:

My tent was coming down because of the snow. It was very hard and really, really cold. Once, a woman and a child died [inside the camp].... I want to be somewhere where I’m not in danger anymore. I am scared here.

A refugee tent at a squat in an abandoned factory on Lesbos, Greece, where dozens of asylum seekers are living. Due to the dire and dangerous conditions in official facilities, many chose to live in abandoned buildings around Mytilene. 

© 2017 Arash Hampay for Human Rights Watch

Lack of Identification of Vulnerable Groups
The Reception and Identification Service – supported by EU agencies such as Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), medical aid organizations, and the UNHCR – is responsible for identifying and registering people who belong to “vulnerable” groups upon their arrival. This should include torture victims, and people with disabilities, including mental health conditions. But this screening is not always effective.

Nearly all asylum seekers and migrants interviewed reported feeling that their current lives were meaningless. They said they were frightened, depressed, and in some cases, suicidal. Living on the islands perpetuates the trauma of displacement and despair and increases other threats to their safety, including physical violence and mental health concerns. Even people who do not have specific vulnerabilities should not be living under conditions that could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, Human Rights Watch said.

“Arash,” 30, from Iran, described how conditions in the Moria hotspot, the EU-sponsored screening center on Lesbos where he’s been living since September 2016, have affected his mental state:

I’m suffering a lot here because I’ve lost my dignity. I’ve attempted three times to kill myself…. The conditions here remind me of the prison in Iran, the nightmares, the threats and the torture. The situation brings me to a very desperate condition. The medical certificates say this is not a place fit for me, but for the authorities this means nothing. Five days ago, they transferred me and my brother from the tent to a container. For six months, I was living in a small summer tent.

Arash said that during the first medical screening with Doctors of the World, he was assessed as not belonging to one of the vulnerable groups exempted from the EU-Turkey deal and allowed to move to the mainland, even though victims of torture are a protected category:

I told them I was a political prisoner, that I’ve been tortured, and suffered mock executions three times.... They asked me why I wasn’t executed and I explained this is a form of torture. I described all the physical and psychological problems I have but they wrote ‘No’ on my paper. 

Human Rights Watch contacted a Doctors of the World representative in Greece about Arash’s case. The representative said that during his initial medical screening, Arash had no visible injuries on his body and declined when asked if he wanted to speak to a psychologist or social worker. Arash later did request psychological support from Doctors of the World, who then asked Greek authorities to give him “vulnerable” status as a possible victim of torture. The request was refused, the Doctors of the World representative said.

Arash said his mental health deteriorated while on Lesbos. He told us that three days before attempting to commit suicide, he tried to visit the camp’s psychologist and told them he was tortured in prison and still has nightmares. The camp reminded him of the prison. The psychologist’s response was that “there are 90 people ahead of you in the line and you have to wait.”

Earlier in 2017, Human Rights Watch documented the failure of Greek authorities and supporting partners to identify people with disabilities. Human Rights Watch also found a lack of access to mental health care and psychosocial support that is much-needed by asylum seekers and other migrants in Greece.

Ahmed and Fatima, an Iraqi couple in their late twenties, both have physical disabilities that make it very difficult for them to stand or walk. They told Human Rights Watch in October 2016 that they were not allowed to register their disabilities because they did not have a medical certificate for proof. “When we went to register [on Samos Island] they asked us for proof that we have disabilities even though they can see we do,” said Fatima, who now uses a wheelchair.

Seeking Asylum Under the Deal
“Ahmad,” a 36-year-old Syrian asylum seeker from Homs, arrived at Lesbos in July 2016. In February 2017, he described his interview under the EU-Turkey deal, in which the interviewer did not explain the purpose of the interview, would not consider his claim for asylum based on his persecution in Syria, and focused only on his time in Turkey, but did not adequately consider the lack of protection he experienced there:

When I got here they told me “either you apply for asylum or you go back to Turkey.” I applied for asylum, I got rejected, and now I am waiting for the appeal. They said “the court considered Turkey is a safe country for you so you are rejected.” I felt disappointment. They said I have to appeal or I’ll go to prison or be deported.

Ahmad said he had spent two months in Turkey, where he tried unsuccessfully to register for temporary protection. He said without registration he was denied access to health care for serious back pain because he lacked the necessary residence documents. In his interview in Lesbos, he said:

They didn’t explain the purpose of the interview but said I am not allowed to have a lawyer. They said, “if your application is rejected, then you are allowed to have a lawyer.” The most important thing during the interview was that the questions were all about Turkey. But I am not a Turkish man escaping Turkey. They should ask me about Syria instead. I always try to forget this interview. During the interview, they tried to avoid listening to what I had to say about Syria. It’s like a deal: “We need something on Turkey to reject you.”

“Willias,” a 27-year-old asylum seeker from Nigeria who arrived in Greece in June 2016, in February 2017 described his interview four months earlier:

During the interview, I was alone, I didn't have a lawyer and there was no translator. I spoke in English and I’m not good in English. I asked for a translator and the man who was in charge of the interview said the translator was not around. Then I got the negative answer. They gave me a lawyer and we asked for appeal. I don’t know what will happen, they don’t give details. I can’t go back to Turkey. I would rather die. I was in jail and I don’t like that. And the same goes for my country.

43-year-old Dilshad, the Kurdish asylum seeker from Iraq who reached Lesbos in September, gave a similar account in February:

I’ve done two interviews. Very simple questions. I don't know who they were. The interpreter was speaking Farsi. They told me there was no available interpreter for Kurdish. They didn’t explain to me what the interview was. They just told me to wait in my tent and that they will call me…. During the second interview they asked me: “If you go back to Turkey and have the possibility to get papers is it OK for you?” and I said no because I was imprisoned there.

Hussein Sherif, a 37-year-old man from Iraq who arrived in Greece at the end of August, said in February that he had not yet been interviewed: “They told me the closest date for an interview is March 23. But other people who came after me have received a closer date for an interview. I feel they treat people depending on their mood. They treat animals better than us humans.”

Hussein said he had been attacked and repeatedly stabbed on the belly by three Iraqi men, in Mytilene, Lesbos. He was hospitalized for 10 days and underwent surgery: “I went to the police to file a complaint and they told me I have to pay 100 euros and that it will take time. I left it and hid for two months in an apartment in Mytilene because I was afraid.”

An abandoned factory on the island of Mytilene, that has been turned into a squat and shelter for asylum seekers stranded there. 

© 2017 Arash Hampay for Human Rights Watch

Reza, the 23-year-old Afghan asylum seeker who arrived in Greece one day after the EU-Turkey deal entered into force, said that in the first two months on Lesbos, he had no information about the asylum process and what would happen to him: “Then, an NGO came and told us that borders have closed and that we have to apply for asylum. But I didn’t know how to do it.”

Reza said that six months after he expressed his wish to apply for asylum, he received an asylum seeker’s card, but he said he is one of the few Afghans who have been through an asylum interview:

In the beginning, only Syrians were going through an interview. I am one of the few who was interviewed, three months ago. But I don’t have an answer yet. There are people who’ve been here for 10 months and haven’t been through an interview and others who are 20 days here and have left for Athens.

Reza said that the purpose of the interview was not explained to him:

The man who was interviewing me was a foreigner, probably from the European Union, and there was also an interpreter. They said from the beginning that they don’t want to know if I had problems in my country and that they only care if I had problems on my way here. For many times, they asked me why I didn’t stay in Turkey, and explained to me that Turkey is a safe country. I explained to them that Turkey is not safe. It’s a harsh country and you don’t feel safe there. They’ve sent many people back in Afghanistan and when I was there authorities threatened me that they will deport me back.

Samir, 21, from Algeria, said in February that when he arrived on Lesbos, he was detained in a closed facility inside the Moria hotspot, though people of other nationalities were allowed to go in and out of the camp:

At sea [in the Aegean], Swedish coast guard caught us. After that, we were directly brought to Moria and put to prison. This is the problem. When they hear Algeria, they put us immediately into detention, even if we’ve done nothing. When I arrived, they told me that I will stay for 25 days in detention and after that, if I don’t get asylum I will be sent back to Turkey…. I stayed for eight days in prison and then I decided to escape, while going to the interview with EASO [European Asylum Support Office].

“Fezi,” a 23-year-old Pakistani man, said he fled the area he was living, in Peshawar, because of the high incidence of suicide bombings and drone attacks. He described in February what happened to him after he arrived in Lesbos:

I stayed in Moria for eight to nine months. During that period, they took me for two months to jail [immigration detention inside Moria]. I don’t know why. The police came, put me in handcuffs, and took me to jail inside Moria. They didn’t explain why. They took my papers and everything I had. After two months, they gave me my papers back and said, “You can go.” I was afraid because all Pakistanis go to the EASO interviews and they fail. Every single Pakistani is rejected except those who are Christian.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

On Sunday morning, Abdihamid Mohamed Osman, a technician and editor at Universal TV network, was driving to work in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, when a bomb planted in his car exploded. Abdihamid was taken to the hospital, where he is receiving treatment for serious wounds.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The blood stained camera of a photojournalist is seen after a secondary explosion in front of Dayah hotel in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, January 25, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

Somalia remains an incredibly dangerous place to be a journalist. Since 2014, at least 13 journalists have been killed in targeted attacks or while on reporting assignments. At least six journalists have survived assassination attempts. But only one survivor of the several I have spoken to was ever interviewed by the police afterwards, and none were aware of anyone being prosecuted for the attempts on their lives.

While previous Somali governments regularly condemned attacks on journalists, credible investigations never materialized. Human Rights Watch found that between 2014 and 2016, the federal government only investigated and prosecuted attacks on journalists blamed on the Islamist armed group Al-Shabab. No government official is known to have been disciplined – much less prosecuted – for attacks, threats, mistreatment, or the unlawful detention of journalists, despite evidence that this is happening.

In attacks allegedly carried out by Al-Shabab, the government relied on the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) to investigate – an agency that has no law enforcement mandate and stands accused of mistreating detainees and relying on confessions as its main source of evidence. Moreover, the handful of prosecutions that the NISA brought took place before the country’s military court, whose trials do not meet international standards.

This lack of credible investigations into attacks on journalists in Somalia creates enduring fear and self-censorship among the country’s press.

But Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, recently elected by the legislature, has the chance to change direction.

His government should ensure that Somali police take threats and attacks against journalists seriously, and have the resources, political will, and the expertise to conduct credible and rights-respecting criminal investigations into these and other politically motivated attacks.

Somalia’s journalists have shown enormous bravery. Their new president should take concrete action to help keep them safe. 

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

Hundreds of Egyptian Coptic Christian families have fled their homes in the northern Sinai Peninsula since late February, fearing for their lives in the wake of seven murders between January 30 and February 23.

No group claimed responsibility for the killings, but families who abandoned the city of al-Arish for Ismailia west of the Suez Canal told Egyptian rights activists that these attacks – carried out by armed masked men in unmarked vehicles – fit the pattern of those claimed by Islamic State (also known as ISIS). On February 19, ISIS released a video featuring the suicide bomber who claimed responsibility for the December attack on an annex to Cairo’s St. Mark’s Cathedral that killed 29 worshippers.

A nun cries as she stands at the scene inside Cairo's Coptic cathedral, following a bombing, in Egypt December 11, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

Violence between Muslims and Christians is not new to Egypt. Historically, in areas like Minya and Assiut, which have large Coptic populations, violence erupts when personal feuds get out of hand or Muslim crowds respond violently to Christian construction (or reconstruction) of churches. In July and August 2013, Islamists torched and looted Christian buildings in response to perceived support by Coptic Christian clerical leaders for the overthrow of Mohamed Morsy, Egypt’s first democratically elected president and a Muslim Brotherhood leader.

The recent attacks in al-Arish – and earlier killings there and in northern Sinai towns such as Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayd – are not communal, or provoked by a particular incident. Gunmen targeted Christians apparently not for who they were – a veterinary surgeon, pharmacist, teacher, shoe merchant – but apparently to frighten the small Christian communities to flee en masse.
And in the context of protracted fighting between Egyptian security forces and ISIS, to demonstrate Egypt’s incapacity to protect lives and property.

Several families told Egyptian rights activists that they fled only after the “apathetic” response from Egyptian security officials. They say they want to return to their homes but are skeptical this will be possible.

Egyptian journalists and rights activists say some local families have opened their homes to the al-Arish families, and as many as 100 other al-Arish families are in Port Said and cities further west. Local Ministry of Social Solidarity and Coptic Church officials are coordinating relief efforts, the activists say, but a government promise to make five apartment buildings available remains unfulfilled.

The message from the displaced families is that Egyptian authorities need to respond to their calls for protection and provide people with adequate shelter.

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

(New York) – Authorities in Nepal should immediately investigate allegations of indiscriminate and excessive use of force by security forces that has led to four deaths, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also ensure proper protection for the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), whose officials, including commissioner Mohna Ansari and other staff members, recently came under physical assault while in their vehicle while investigating abuses southern Nepal.

Activists take part in a rally to support ethnic Madhesis and condemning killing protesters in Rajbiraj, during a demonstration in Kathmandu, Nepal March 9, 2017. 

© 2016 Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

Protests have flared up over government announcements of local elections, without the constitutional reforms demanded by the Terai-based political parties, who want more rights for the communities in the southern plains that have long suffered from multiple forms of discrimination. While the protesters have allegedly attacked a police station and other public buildings, and targeted police with stones, at least four have been killed and dozens injured after security forces used live ammunition to disperse the crowds.

“The Nepali government, sitting in Kathmandu, needs to deliver more than lip service to its Terai citizens who have faced systematic discrimination for years,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The violence against the NHRC on Thursday needs to be condemned unequivocally and the perpetrators brought to justice. It should also lead the government to understand and address the deep distrust among these communities.”

The Nepali government, sitting in Kathmandu, needs to deliver more than lip service to its Terai citizens who have faced systematic discrimination for years.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Commissioner Ansari was in Saptari district in Nepal’s southern Terai region visiting the families of those killed – allegedly by police – after recent violent protests. Ansari and her team were unhurt following the attack, which appeared to be committed by some of the victims’ family members, angered by the government’s failure to address their concerns.

The protesters are demanding changes to the country’s constitution to create what they deem to be more equitable power sharing under the proposed federal structure between the center and proposed new provinces. Shortly after the new constitution was passed in September 2015, political groups in the Terai region who opposed the constitution took to the streets, effectively creating a blockade along the border with India which stopped trade and transit into the landlocked country for months.

A Human Rights Watch report documented abuses, including killings, committed by both security forces and protesters during the five months of protests. Although the government set up a commission to inquire into these allegations, to date there has been no accountability for those abuses.

While protest organizers should encourage their supporters to abjure violence, the government of Nepal should ensure that security forces respect basic human rights standards on the use of force, including in dispersing both legal and illegal demonstrations.

The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require police to use nonviolent means, such as demands to vacate an area, before resorting to force and firearms. Police should adhere to a principle of measured escalation of force. When using force, law enforcement officials should exercise restraint and act proportionately to the threat posed, and seek to minimize damage and injury.

The NHRC should continue to investigate any allegations of violations.

“The NHRC is an independent institution which has been at the forefront of calls for an end to impunity and for redress to all victims, across all ethnicities,” said Adams. “The NHRC needs effective protection from abuse and threats, whoever they come from.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(São Paulo) – Brazilian authorities should reform laws that have been used to impose disproportionate punishments on military police officers who speak out publicly to advocate reform or voice complaints, Human Rights Watch said today.

“A country with close to 60,000 killings a year urgently needs to consider new approaches to public security,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “Those who fight crime every day on the streets have an invaluable perspective on security policy and police reform; and should be able to express their views without fear of being punished arbitrarily.”

Brazil’s 436,000 military police officers patrol the country’s streets, a purely civilian task, but are subject to military law because they are technically considered to be auxiliary forces of the Army. Brazil’s military criminal code and various state disciplinary codes include broad restrictions on the officers’ free speech rights.

Brazilian authorities should reform laws that have been used to impose disproportionate punishments on military police officers who speak out publicly to advocate reform or voice complaints. Brazil’s 436,000 military police officers patrol the country’s streets, a purely civilian task, but are subject to military law because they are technically considered to be auxiliary forces of the Army. Brazil’s military criminal code and various state disciplinary codes include broad restrictions on the officers’ free speech rights.

Police officers who transgress these limits can end up in prison under the military criminal code. Police commanders also have wide discretion to impose harsh penalties under the disciplinary codes. Under article 166 of the military criminal code, criticizing a superior officer or a government decision are crimes punishable with up to a year in prison. Inciting “indiscipline” is punishable with up to four years under article 155. State disciplinary codes that govern the conduct of military police officers, both on duty and off duty, and of retired military police officers contain similar infractions, punishable with up to 30 days in detention and expulsion from the force. These offenses are so broadly framed that they allow for harsh punishment out of all proportion to the severity of the offense, and in some cases this is precisely what happens.

International human rights law allows countries considerable – though limited – discretion to limit the free expression rights of security force personnel. It does not, however, allow authorities to impose punishments that are disproportionate to the severity of any offense.

Darlan Abrantes, a military police officer in the state of Ceará, was sentenced to two years in prison in July 2016 after he self-published a book saying that the police force should be demilitarized. The sentence was suspended, but he had already been expelled from the force in 2014 in connection with the matter, destroying his career. Police officers also told Human Rights Watch that they had been subject to arbitrary punishments in retaliation for speaking out in ways that angered superiors, without access to any effective remedy.

Former military police officer Abrantes holds his book.

© Cesar Munoz/HRW 2016

Brazilian authorities should reform laws to ensure that any punishments meted out to military police officers who transgress legal restrictions on their right to free expression are proportionate to the severity of any offense, Human Rights Watch said. They should ensure that all officers have access to an effective and impartial appeals process.

The authorities should also consider whether it is necessary and appropriate for police officers to be subject to the limits on free expression imposed under the military criminal code and state disciplinary codes, or whether a less restrictive legal framework is called for under international and regional human rights law.

Several reform efforts are under way that could achieve that purpose, and result in more accountable and effective policing. They include bills in Congress to delink the military police from the army and to abolish administrative detention, as well as proposals at the state level to reform disciplinary codes.

The unreasonably harsh punishments handed down to some police officers have a dramatic chilling effect on other members of the force, who often refrain from expressing opinions or suggestions about law enforcement reform for fear of reprisals, said Human Rights Watch.

“Officers can be imprisoned and their careers destroyed for expressing opinions about police reform that their commanders don’t like,” said Canineu. “These penalties are out of all proportion to whatever interest the government has in limiting their ability to speak out.”

Detailed Analysis

Darlan Abrantes, a military police officer in the state of Ceará, self-published Militarism--An Archaic Security System, in 2008, printing 300 copies. In the book, Abrantes asserts that Brazil has a “medieval” police system in which low-ranking police officers “are not allowed to think for themselves.” They are supposed to simply follow orders and if they criticize militarism they are detained, he wrote. Abrantes contends that transforming the military police into a civil police force would make it more efficient in fighting crime and would bring it closer to the population.

The Ceará state command expelled Abrantes from the force in 2014, under article 24 of the state’s disciplinary statute, concluding that the book contained “serious offenses” and that, in publishing it, Abrantes had demonstrated “absolute lack of discipline and insubordination.” At that time, his police record was “excellent,” Abrantes told Human Rights Watch.

A military court – made up of four high-ranking officers and a judge – sentenced Abrantes, in July 2016, to two years in prison, under article 155 of the military criminal code, for “inciting to disobedience, indiscipline or the practice of a military crime.” The prosecutor accused Abrantes of handing out his book in the police academy, which he denies.

The military criminal code does not define what actions may be considered to constitute incitement to disobedience, indiscipline, or the practice of a military crime. This gives military prosecutors ample leeway to criminalize the expression of opinions that are critical of the police command.

In Abrantes’ case, the judge imposed a suspended sentence, under which he will not spend time in prison as long as he complies with five probation conditions: not committing another crime, not drinking alcohol, not going into gambling locations, not carrying firearms or thrusting weapons, and appearing before the court once a month.

“They considered me a criminal because I dared to think differently – I dared to say that the military system is not working,” Abrantes told Human Rights Watch. “I am living proof that the military police do not respect either democracy or freedom of expression.”

Abrantes’ call for “demilitarization” is far from the fringe. More than 76 percent of military police officers polled nationwide in 2014 said that state military police forces should abandon their military structure and subordination to the army. Their link to the military, as auxiliary forces, subjects them to the military criminal code that was adopted during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985).

This issue is an important area of public debate that could have important human rights implications, given the prevalence of police abuses in Brazil. Some high-ranking and low-ranking police officers interviewed by Human Rights Watch criticized military training and structure. In their view, the military nature of the police forces perpetuates a vision of officers as heroes fighting an enemy – suspected criminals – that can lead to excessive use of force, especially in poor neighborhoods, and to high levels of stress among officers. Instead, police should focus on preventing crime and use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.

State disciplinary codes, some of which also date to the dictatorship, likewise contain broad restrictions on free speech and allow for disproportionate penalties for both active and retired military police officers.

The code of the state of São Paulo, for example, prohibits publishing or spreading information that may “discredit” the military police or harm hierarchy or discipline, without any further definition of what kinds of information may cause those effects.

The disciplinary codes of São Paulo and 14 other states also contain the same prohibition – not allowing officers “to discuss or incite the discussion, through any communications media, of political, military or military police matters, except for those exclusively technical when duly authorized.” This can be interpreted to subject military police officers to punishment for any public statement about policing or public security.

Many state disciplinary statutes also confer commanders the authority to determine the gravity of the administrative infraction, which gives them broad discretion to impose harsh or disproportionate punishment. Sanctions include up to 30 days in detention in the barracks or expulsion from the force.

One such case involves Pará state military police officer Luiz Fernando Passinho. Every year, on Brazilian Independence Day, nationwide demonstrations celebrate “The Shout of the Excluded,” in which people protest against social exclusion. Passinho took a microphone during such a demonstration on September 7, 2014, and in a two-minute speech, complained that military police officers and military firefighters are told during training that they have no rights. “That message distorts the nature of our mission, our sense of citizenship, and has a direct effect on our relationship to the community,” said Passinho, who was not in uniform. “We cannot accept that our freedom of expression should be considered a crime.”

The general commander of the Pará State military police decided that Passinho’s speech had “violated discipline and military hierarchy,” caused “disorder” within the force, and damaged the reputation of its command. The commander accused Passinho of having failed to exhibit a long list of values that every military police officer is required to respect, under articles 17 and 18 of the disciplinary statute of the state of Pará, including “professionalism,” “loyalty,” and “discipline.” The commander said Passinho had violated nine prohibitions, under article 37, including by exhibiting “inappropriate behavior in public” and by publishing information that could “discredit the force or harm discipline.” The commander ordered Passinho detained for 30 days in October 2016. Passinho has appealed the decision to the same commander who issued it, as the procedure in the state´s disciplinary code establishes.

Meanwhile, the command is persecuting him for speaking out, he told Human Rights Watch. In September, for example, the command ordered him detained for 15 days for a single instance of not wearing his hat while in uniform, he said, an infraction usually punished with a warning.

“The military command uses the disciplinary statute arbitrarily,” Passinho said. “Police officers who commit real crimes escape punishment.”

Dozens of low-ranking officers in Rio de Janeiro interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2015 and 2016 said they were afraid of being punished for expressing opinions. Almost all requested that their names not be published, for fear of reprisal, though the state military command had given Human Rights Watch written authorization to conduct the research.

Restrictions on free speech also stifle internal debate. A nationwide study published in 2016 by Brazil's federal government concluded that low-ranking officers believe they are rarely allowed to express an opinion different from that of a superior officer at work. They were frequently afraid to do so. More than 14,000 low-ranking military police officers participated in the study.

Many police officers are afraid not only of formal disciplinary action, but of broader retaliation they may face for speaking out. Leandro Bispo, a police officer in Pára State, faced disciplinary action in 2012, 2013, and 2014 in connection with three Facebook posts he wrote or shared. One said that police have inadequate working conditions. Another alleged corruption and abuse within the police. A third offered scathing criticism of public institutions in Brazil without mentioning the police by name.

The disciplinary proceedings against Bispo resulted in his demotion from corporal to soldier in 2016 and required him to return six months’ worth of a salary increase that he had already received, he told Human Rights Watch. He also said there had been informal retaliation against him, for which he had no effective recourse. His commander transferred him to the city of Porto de Moz, four hours away by car and speedboat from his home, which he believed was in response to the comments he wrote or shared on Facebook. When Bispo filed a petition to contest the transfer, he faced yet another disciplinary proceeding, in which the commander contended that Bispo had wrongly accused him of violating internal regulations.

In December, Bispo was expelled from the force altogether for various violations of the state disciplinary statute, including requirements to revere the symbols and traditions of the military police, to respect discipline and to avoid “inconvenient” comments about the police, discrediting a superior officer, and making anonymous comments. Bispo plans to appeal to a civil court.

Bispo, who has a daughter and a pregnant wife, borrowed money from his mother-in-law to make a down payment on the lawyer´s fees and needs to pay the rest in monthly installments. He said that losing his job in a time of economic crisis in Brazil is adding to the stress of the situation.

Brazil’s Federal Government issued recommendations in 2010 urging states to reform laws and disciplinary codes to respect the rights contemplated in the country’s Constitution. The recommendations called on states not only to guarantee the rights of police officers to free speech, especially over the internet, but to encourage their participation in public fora and initiatives, such as seminars, councils, research projects, and conferences, where public security policies “are debated, publicized, studied, reflected on and formulated.” Implementation of the recommendations, however, has been disappointing.

Human Rights Framework

Under international human rights law, the right to free expression can be limited by law only to the extent necessary for respect of the rights and reputations of others, or to protect national security, public order, public health or morals. This framework is applicable under both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights. Brazil is a state party to both.

In cases in 2005 and in 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found that government efforts to curtail the speech of former military officers were unlawful restrictions on their rights. However, it is generally accepted that governments have much broader leeway than in other contexts to restrict the free expression rights of security force personnel if considered necessary to protect national security or public order. This reflects, among other things, a recognition of the state’s legitimate interests in maintaining discipline and hierarchy within the ranks and ensuring that the police and military as institutions are not politicized.

This does not, however, obviate governments’ responsibility to ensure that restrictions on the free expression of security force members are in fact “necessary” to protect national security and public order, and no more restrictive than necessary to achieve those aims. As the special rapporteur for freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights stated in 2009, members of the armed forces are “entitled to freedom of expression and are legitimately able to exercise this right, and the limits imposed upon them must be respectful of the conditions established in the American Convention.” Limitations to that right “can be neither excessive nor unnecessary, and they must in every case meet the requirements set forth in article 13.2 of the Convention.”

In December 2016, a second-instance civil judge in the state of Rio Grande do Norte ordered an end to disciplinary proceedings against an active-duty military police officer, João Figueiredo, whom the state military police command had ordered detained for 15 days for “offending” the force in a comment he posted online. The judge issued her ruling on the basis of “the violation of the defendant’s human rights, the violation of the Constitution regarding freedom of expression and thought, and also because of the legal flaws in the proceedings, the very clear restrictions placed upon the defense by the authority, and the disproportionality of the punishment.” The military police command did not appeal the decision.

Even where laws that restrict the right to free expression are acceptable, the punishments must be proportionate to the seriousness of the offense.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am