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 GreatFire.org, 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

January 14, the anniversary of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 2011 ouster, is a now a national holiday in Tunisia. It is also a moment to examine how things are going in the country that ignited “the Arab Spring”—the only country whose uprising did not go off the rails.

This year’s anniversary coincided with a landmark in Tunisia’s transition: its truth commission is completing its four-year mission.  In the next few weeks, the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC), an independent state body mandated by the 2013 Law on Transitional Justice, will publish its mammoth report on government repression from independence in 1956 to 2013, and recommend institutional reforms to prevent backsliding to dictatorship. The commission has referred cases to “special courts” that the law established to try the accused. It will recommend reparations for the thousands of victims of torture, political imprisonment, and other grave abuses, though the funds to pay for them are not yet in place.

But the commission’s work, far from being heralded as a milestone to consolidate democracy, has met with ambivalence about how to deal with the traumatic past, leaving in doubt the future of transitional justice.

Truth commissions take many shapes but all start from the axiom that a collective reckoning with a nation’s dark past will heal wounds and contribute to a more just future. Tunisia’s was the only national truth commission born of the Arab uprisings, and only the second in the Middle East and North Africa. The first was Morocco’s Equity and Reconciliation Commission (ERC)establishedby King Mohammed VI in 2004, to investigate abuses committed during the brutal reign of his late father, Hassan II. 

The ERC was anomalous among truth commissions in that it operated in the context of regime continuity rather regime change.  While it documented and acknowledged atrocities under the previous monarch and set terms for compensation, its mandate prohibited it from naming perpetrators or recommending their prosecution. The ERC’s recommendations on governance, implemented only half-heartedly by the state, did little to restrain its repressive reflexes.

Tunisia’s truth commission, by contrast, grew out of genuine regime change, one that brought democratic rule, a progressive new constitution, and a flourishing of free speech. Another factor that worked in favor of Tunisia’s effort was that the political movement whose members constituted the bulk of the victims of past repression—the Islamist Nahdha party—was part of the ruling coalition that drafted the transitional justice law.

The commission, headed by the renowned human rights activist Sihem Ben Sedrine, conducted nearly 50,000 private interviews with victims, and referred dozens of cases to the special courts. It convened public hearings for victims that were broadcast live on national television.

But following the 2014 elections, the TDC faced a drumbeat of criticism from politicians and officials, mainly those affiliated with Nidaa Tounes, the senior party in the new governing coalition. Nidaa’s ranks include many former members of the ruling party under Ben Ali who harbored, at best, mixed feelings toward a commission mandated to expose ugly truths about the past, including corruption.

During his successful election campaign in 2014, Tunisian President Béji Caid Essebsi, who held high posts under both Ben Ali and founding president Habib Bourguiba, declared: “I’m against settling scores of the past. I believe Tunisia must move forward.” Soon after taking office, Essebsi introduced legislation that would in effect remove some economic crimes from the commission’s purview and ensure amnesty for some corrupt former officials. His so-called Economic Reconciliation Law passed in modified form in 2017. 

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, like Essebsi, shunned the commission’s concluding session in December. He declared that the commission had failed in its mission, criticized the special courts trials in progress, and promised to introduce a new transitional justice law.

Even the Nahdha Party has blown hot and cold, amid political calculations and jockeying, say political observers, especially in anticipation of legislative and presidential elections this year. Nahdha’s leadership joined Nidaa Tounes in supporting the contentious amnesty law for economic crimes, ensuring its passage despite dissent from some Nahdha deputies. The party chief, Rachid Ghannouchi, has come out in favor of a general amnesty for people who acknowledge and apologize for their misdeeds. 

The TDC had flaws, especially of internal management. But for most of Tunisian civil society, supporting the commission in the face of efforts to undercut it has been a no-brainer. The commission winds down in January. It will present its final report to the government, including recommendations on reparations, and on reforming the security sector and other state institutions.

The transitional Justice law requires the government to devise a program to enact those recommendations and submit it to parliament. Will it? It has already manifested its reluctance to abolish repressive laws that remain in force, including those punishing speech.

The TDC will transfer the wealth of historical material it gathered either to the national archives or another specially created repository. The final destination for this chunk of Tunisia’s patrimony, and how it will be preserved and made available to the public, are yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, the criminal trials set in motion by TDC referrals confront numerous obstacles, including an effective inability to compel the accused and witnesses to appear. In the first special court case, involving a death in detention under torture, none of the fourteen defendants have shown up.  At least one police syndicate denounced the tribunals as “denigrating” the security services and urged its members to shun them. 

Transitional justice, in a country that once seemed a propitious setting for it, is at risk of petering out amid indifference or worse from leading politicians.  If Tunisia’s citizenry wants to see a more robust second act for the transitional justice process, one that provides a fuller reckoning of the past, including accountability in some form for perpetrators and stronger safeguards for the future, they will have to make their demands known during the approaching election campaign.

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

People wait to cast their vote on September 1, 2018 outside a polling station in Nouakchott for the country's legislative, regional and local elections. 

© 2018 Ahmed Ould Mohamed Ould Elhadj/AFP/Getty Images

(Geneva) –Mauritanian authorities used a litany of harsh and overbroad laws on terrorism, cybercrime, apostasy, and criminal defamation to prosecute and jail human rights defenders, activists, bloggers, and political dissidents during 2018, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2019.

In the latest such case, a criminal court in September charged an activist, Abdallahi Salem Ould Yali, with incitement to violence and racial hatred for social media messages criticizing racial discrimination in the country. Yali has been in pre-charge detention since his arrest in January 2018.

“Mauritania’s authorities wield an array of repressive laws to silence activists and organizations that insist that slavery and ethnic discrimination are major issues facing the nation,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should urgently reform the penal code and other laws to prevent them from being used to punish peaceful speech.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

A court on December 31 freed Biram Bah Abeid, president of the anti-slavery association Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) and newly elected member of parliament, after imposing a sentence on him that included two months of actual prison time, which he had already served following his arrest in August 2018 . The court prosecuted Biram on charges of insulting and threatening a journalist. The authorities have refused to process IRA’s application for formal registration since the organization was founded in 2008 and have blocked its efforts to hold conferences and workshops. Two of its activists were freed from prison in 2018 after completing two-year terms following an unfair trial of 13 IRA activists.

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, a prominent blogger who was sentenced to death on apostasy charges in January 2014 over an article questioning the use of religion to legitimize ethnic and caste discrimination in Mauritania, has been held in an undisclosed location since November 2017, when an appeals’ court reduced his death sentence to two years in prison.

Mauritania should abolish a law adopted in April that made the death penalty mandatory for blasphemy, Human Rights Watch said.

The authorities in August 2017 charged a former senator and opposition figure, Mohamed Ould Ghadda, with dubious corruption charges, accusing him of accepting bribes from a government critic, just days after a public referendum in favor of the Mauritanian Senate’s dissolution, which Ghadda had opposed. Although Ghadda was freed in August after a year in pretrial detention, he remains under judicial control and is restricted from traveling.

Authorities have withheld recognition from several associations including Hands Off My Nationality, which focuses on institutional discrimination against black Mauritanians in the national civil registration process. These refusals are possible under the 1964 Law of Associations, which requires associations to obtain permission to operate. The law also grants the Interior Ministry power to refuse permission on vague grounds such as “anti-national propaganda” or “exercis[ing] an unwelcome influence on the minds of the people.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Demonstrations after the death of a young Bahraini after being shot outside the home of the Shiite leader in Bahrain on March 25, 2017. 

© 2017 Sayed Baqer AlKamel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

(Beirut) –Bahrain cracked down on peaceful dissent during 2018, virtually eliminating all opposition, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2019. No independent media were allowed to operate in the country in 2018, and ahead of parliamentary elections in November, parliament banned members of dissolved opposition parties from being able to run. Peaceful dissidents were arrested, prosecuted, ill-treated, and stripped of citizenship.

“The Bahraini authorities have demonstrated a zero tolerance policy when it comes to free media, independent political thought, and peaceful dissent,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Despite the stream of arrests and convictions of dissidents, Bahrain’s allies have failed to use their influence to improve Bahrain’s rights record at home or abroad.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

In the days leading up to the November parliamentary elections, the government detained a former member of parliament, Ali Rashed al-Asheeri, after he tweeted about boycotting the elections. He was released on bail three days after the election. On November 4, the Bahrain High Court of Appeals overturned the previous acquittal of a prominent opposition member, Sheikh Ali Salman, sentencing him to life in prison on espionage charges. Salman is the leader of Bahrain’s largest political opposition group, al-Wifaq, which was outlawed in 2016.

Nabeel Rajab, one of Bahrain’s preeminent human rights defenders, completed a two-year prison term for “spreading false news” in June. He then immediately began a five-year prison term for his tweets criticizing alleged torture in Bahrain’s Jaw Prison and the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. Duaa al-Wadaei, wife of a prominent exiled activist, Sayed Ahmed al-Wadaei, was sentenced to prison in absentia on March 21 for allegedly insulting an officer at the Manama airport in 2016.

In September, three female human rights defenders held in the Isa Town Prison, Hajer Mansoor Hasan, Najah Yusuf, and Medina Ali, said that prison officials assaulted them and restricted their family visits, phone calls, and time spent outside of their cells. The National Institution for Human Rights dismissed these allegations.

The oversight bodies that government set up in 2012 in response to a recommendation by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) once again in 2018 did not investigate credible allegations of prison abuse or hold officials who participated in and ordered widespread torture during interrogations since 2011 accountable.

According to one human rights group, in 2018, the courts stripped 305 people of their citizenship, bringing the total since 2012 to 810. The majority of Bahraini nationals stripped of their citizenship were left effectively stateless. As of November, Bahraini prisons held 14 people on death row.

Despite significant human rights concerns in Bahrain and its participation in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which is committing serious violations of international humanitarian law, the United States State Department approved five major weapons sales to Bahrain between January and November.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Armed forces allied to internationally recognized government fight with armed group in Tripoli, Libya September 22, 2018. 

© 2018 Hani Amara/Reuters

(Geneva) – Unaccountable and violent armed groups maintain a stranglehold on Libya, while civilians pay the price in the divided country, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. Libyan authorities should prioritize justice sector reform and establishing accountability, particularly for members of armed groups.

Seven years after the end of the 2011 revolution in Libya that ended the rule of the strongman Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has two competing governments that have been unable to reconcile. They contest control over territory, institutions and resources, while armed groups linked with them unlawfully kill, forcibly disappear, torture, and arbitrarily detain people and have forcibly displaced thousands. Government-aligned forces and militias have kept thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers in detention centers where conditions are inhumane and physical abuse is routine.

“Militias have been terrorizing both Libyans and migrants while no authority dares stand up to them and hold them to account,” said Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Until this changes, prospects remain dim for holding free and fair elections.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

Protracted armed conflicts have hobbled key institutions in Libya, such as the judiciary, which functions only partially due to threats, harassment and attacks against judges, lawyers and prosecutors by militias. Where courts function, there are serious due process violations. In August, in one example, a Tripoli court sentenced in one mass trial 45 suspected former Gaddafi supporters to death and 54 others to five years in prison for the killing of protesters in 2011 despite allegations of serious due process violations.

Despite a mandate to investigate war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Libya since 2011, the International Criminal Court has only issued one arrest warrant since 2011, against a Benghazi-based commander affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA) forces, allied with one of the competing governments, who remains at large.

As a result of the conflicts, 200,000 people remain internally displaced. Thousands of families who fled clashes in Benghazi since 2014, and armed confrontations in Derna since May 2018 are unable to return to their homes or to reclaim their properties and livelihoods for fear of reprisals by LNA-linked groups who accuse them of supporting terrorism. Representatives from the cities of Misrata and Tawergha signed a peace accord in June that should have paved the way for the return of 48,000 people unlawfully displaced from Tawergha. But, only a few hundred have returned, due to the massive destruction and looting and ongoing security concerns and fear of reprisals.

Clashes between Tebu and Arab local militias in the south between February and June killed scores of civilians. In September, month-long clashes between rival militias in Tripoli left more than 100 people dead, including many civilians, according to the United Nations.

Although the extremist group Islamic State (ISIS) has controlled no territory in Libya since its ouster from Sirte in December 2016, it staged several deadly attacks that targeted civilians. In May, ISIS claimed an attack in Tripoli on the High National Elections Commission that resulted in the deaths of 12 people, some of them civilians.

Militias and government aligned armed groups harassed, detained, and attacked journalists and media professionals. Journalists reported that the Government of National Accord, the internationally recognized government, imposed restrictive measures against international journalists and TV networks, including by imposing government minders during visits to Libya and limiting access to officials and institutions, as well as migrant detention centers.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A picture taken on July 26, 2018 shows Egyptian policemen stand guarding a street in the North Sinai provincial capital of El-Arish. 

© 2018 Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

(Beirut, January 17) – Egyptian authorities increasingly relied on counterterrorism and state of emergency laws to crush peaceful dissent during 2018, including by prosecuting journalists and human rights activists, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi won a second term in March elections held in a largely unfree and unfair environment. And parliament issued a new set of severely restrictive media laws to silence the little remaining domestic criticism of his autocratic rule.

“Using counterterrorism as a guise to crush all forms of dissent could be Egypt’s hallmark of 2018,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “There’s simply not much room left to peacefully challenge the government without being detained and unfairly prosecuted as a ‘terrorist.’”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

The Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency and the police carried out systematic and widespread enforced disappearances and torture of detainees. The Stop Enforced Disappearance independent campaign has documented 230 cases of enforced disappearance between August 2017 and August 2018.

Authorities placed hundreds of people and entities on the country’s terrorism list and seized their assets for alleged terrorism links without any hearing or proper due process.

In late January and February, security forces carried out a series of arbitrary arrests in an escalating crackdown against al-Sisi’s peaceful political opponents ahead of the presidential vote. The arrests included those who called for boycotting the process, such as the 2012 presidential candidate and the head of the Strong Egypt Party, Abd al-Moneim Abu al-Fotouh. He remains in pretrial detention despite a heart condition.

A wave of arrests in May included Hazem Abd al-Azim, a political activist; Wael Abbas, a prominent rights defender; Shady al-Ghazaly Harb, a surgeon; Amal Fathy, an activist; and Shady Abu Zaid, a satirist. Another series of arrests in August included a former ambassador, Ma’soum Marzouk, who called for a public referendum on whether al-Sisi should resign. In October and November, authorities rounded up at least 40 human rights activists and volunteers, several of whom were involved with the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, an independent organization. Authorities have disappeared the head of the group, Ezzat Ghoniem, since September.

Authorities also continued to prosecute scores of the country’s leading human rights activists and organizations in case 173 of 2011, known as the “foreign funding” case. The UN special rapporteur on the right to housing, who visited Egypt in September said that the government carried out home demolitions, arrests, to retaliate against citizens who cooperated with her team.

Egyptian courts sentenced scores of people to death in flawed mass trials during 2018 over alleged cases of political violence and terrorism links. Civilian and military appeals courts have upheld at least 51 of the death sentences. Additionally, authorities carried out at least 46 executions in different cases. The authorities prosecuted hundreds of civilians before both state security and military courts, neither of which meet minimum due process standards.

The restrictive Law 80 of 2016 on the construction of churches allowed, in 2018, for conditionally legalizing a small number of the churches that were operating without an official permit, but restrictions on church construction remain largely in place. The authorities forced 14 churches to close in 2018, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights found.

Authorities held the first trade union elections in Egypt in 12 years in May, leaving the government-affiliated Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) effectively in control of the unions. Rights group said that the government excluded hundreds of candidates not aligned with the government.

In North Sinai, where government forces have been fighting an Islamic State-affiliated group called Sinai Province (Wilayat Sinai), the army committed flagrant abuses that amount in certain cases to collective punishment. Beginning in January, the army began the most intensive wave of home demolitions in Sinai in years, demolishing at least 3,600 homes and other buildings.

Egypt’s international allies continue to focus on cooperation on the issues of terrorism and migration, while rarely offer public criticism. United States President Donald Trump, during al-Sisi’s September visit to New York, said that al-Sisi has done “an outstanding job” in fighting terrorism.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Women assembled in Istanbul on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women are blocked by police, November 25, 2018.

© 2018 Dilara Şenkaya/Bianet
(Berlin) –Ending the state of emergency in Turkey has not ended repressive rule under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. Prolonged and arbitrary jailing of critics on bogus terrorism charges has become the norm in Turkey.

Turkey’s parliamentary and presidential elections in June 2018 took place in a climate of media censorship and with some members of parliament and one presidential candidate jailed. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) retained control of a weakened parliament through a coalition. And with the election, in which Erdoğan was reelected, Turkey’s presidential system of governance, approved in a 2017 constitutional referendum, entered fully into force.

“Any hope that the end of the state of emergency six month ago would mark a return to respect for human rights has been dashed,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Erdoğan government’s hounding of its critics and opponents has dismantled Turkey’s rule of law framework and turned justice on its head.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

Turkey’s courts lack independence and have no compunction about locking up government critics or opponents while authorities subject them to bogus investigation and trials for terrorism. Widespread misuse of counterterrorism laws against government opponents has undermined legitimate efforts to prosecute those responsible for the 2016 military coup attempt.

Several politically motivated trials of journalists concluded in 2018 with convictions. A court sentenced Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, and Nazlı Ilıcak, prominent writers, to life in prison without parole for political commentary that did not advocate violence but that the court rules was an attempt to overthrow the government.

The authorities stepped up the targeting of human rights defenders, including a new investigation focused on the 2013 mass anti-government demonstrations in Istanbul known as the Gezi protests. Chief among those under investigation was an unjustly jailed businessman and leader of a cultural organization, Osman Kavala.

The government defied a European Court ruling for the release of opposition politician Selahattin Demirtaş, who has been arbitrarily jailed for over two years, along with other former parliament members and elected mayors from pro-Kurdish parties. With local elections scheduled for March 2019, local democracy in the southeastern part of the country remains suspended. The government controls 94 municipalities in the region after ousting the representatives the Kurdish population elected.

World Report 2019 also looks at restrictions on the right to peaceful protest and assembly in Turkey, attacks on academic freedom, and a failure to investigate allegations of torture in police custody. Turkey remains host to the highest number of refugees in the world.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Pakistani transgender people and civil society activists in Peshawar condemn the August 16, 2018 fatal shooting of a transgender woman,  August 20, 2018. 

©2018 Muhammad Sajjad/AP Images

(New York) – Pakistani authorities have muzzled dissenting voices of activists and journalists on the pretext of national security, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. The government has also failed to ensure the protection of the country’s religious minorities from wrongful prosecution and attacks by militant groups.

“The appeasement of extremist groups by successive Pakistani governments has led to a climate of fear for religious minorities and for those who question the use of the blasphemy law,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The new government needs to summon the courage to stand up to extremists and hold those responsible for violence to account.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party won the highest number of seats in parliamentary elections in July 2018, and its leader, Imran Khan, took office as prime minister in August. This was the second consecutive constitutional transfer of power from one civilian government to another in Pakistan. In the campaign, Khan pledged to make economic development and social justice a priority.

Soon after taking office, however, Khan’s government continued the cracked down on international groups, including Save the Children and the Open Society Foundation, ordering 18 of them to end operations in Pakistan. The government also imposed restrictions on foreign funding for local organizations, many of which work with at-risk groups. The authorities pressured media outlets not to report on certain issues, including criticism of government institutions, the military, and the judiciary.

Women, religious minorities, and transgender people faced violent attacks, discrimination, and government persecution.

In October, Pakistan’s Supreme Court quashed the conviction and ordered the release of 47-year-old Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman from a village in Punjab province who had been on death row for eight years. Groups supporting the blasphemy law took to the streets to protest the decision to release her, damaged public and private property, and threatened Supreme Court judges, government officials, and the military leadership with violence.

Blasphemy allegations and similar rhetoric from both private individuals and government officials increased in 2018. However, the government did not amend the law, and instead encouraged discriminatory prosecutions and other abuses against vulnerable groups.

“Prime Minister Imran Khan has an important opportunity to create a rights-respecting government that abides by the rule of law,” Adams said. “As a first step, the Pakistani government should repeal discriminatory laws that encourage and enable discrimination and persecution of its most marginalized citizens.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Chinese President Xi Jinping gives a speech for the 40th Anniversary of Reform and Opening Up at The Great Hall Of The People on December 18, 2018 in Beijing, China. 

© 2018 Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images
(New York) – China’s government tightened its grip on all aspects of society in 2018, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. President Xi Jinping’s abusive rule deepened, as evidenced by the constitutional amendment removing presidential term limits, and the oppression of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

“China under President Xi has been a threat to human rights both at home and abroad,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Countries and international institutions will need to push back against the repressive policies of a rising superpower.”

China under President Xi has been a threat to human rights both at home and abroad.

Sophie Richardson

China Director

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

The Chinese government dramatically stepped up repression against the 13 million Turkic Muslims in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. Authorities have carried out mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment. About 1 million Turkic Muslims are being held indefinitely in “political education” camps, where they are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese and praise the government and Communist Party. Outside the detention facilities, authorities severely restrict movement, politically indoctrinate people, and have over a million officials to monitor residents by regularly staying in their homes.

In 2018, authorities continued politically motivated prosecutions of human rights lawyers and activists. Lawyer Wang Quanzhang has been detained for “subversion of state power” since August 2015 amid a national crackdown on rights lawyers. In July, a court sentenced veteran democracy activist Qin Yongmin to 13 years in prison for “subversion of state power.” Huang Qi, a longtime activist detained since November 2016 on charges of “leaking state secrets,” suffers from serious health conditions without adequate treatment.

Authorities also expanded their assault on the freedom of expression, detaining journalists for covering human rights issues, tightening ideological control over universities, and expanding the internet censorship regime to suppress political information and ostensible “vulgar” content. As the #MeToo movement gained momentum in China in 2018, censors deleted social media posts exposing sexual harassment linked to prominent men. In August, the media reported that Google had been developing a censored search engine app for the Chinese market.

Central and Hong Kong government authorities sought to limit rights in the territory. The government disqualified further pro-democracy figures from running for seats on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, or Legco. In September, it took the unprecedented step of banning the nonviolent, pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, saying the group’s political stance “poses a real threat to national security.” In October, authorities rejected without explanation a Financial Times journalist’s application to renew his work visa after he hosted a talk by a pro-independence activist.

China’s growing global power makes it an exporter of human rights violations, including at the United Nations, where in 2018 it sought to block critics. In March, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution proposed by China that focused on China’s vision for “win-win cooperation” and omitted any mention of accountability for rights violations. China’s “One Belt, One Road” development initiative pressed ahead without safeguards or respect for human rights in many participating countries. Major Chinese technology companies, including Huawei, iFlytek, and ZTE, which have close relations with the government and contribute to police mass surveillance efforts, sought to expand abroad in 2018.

In one of its only human rights concessions all year, Chinese authorities allowed Liu Xia, an artist and the widow of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, to leave for Germany in July after eight years of legally baseless house arrest.

“More than ever, protecting human rights inside and outside China requires governments and institutions working together to end Xi’s abuses,” Richardson said. “No one should be giving a green light to China’s rampant violations.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Protesters march near Thammasat University in Bangkok on May 22, 2018, the fourth anniversary of the Thai junta's 2014 coup, demanding that a general election be held this year. 

© 2018 Kyodo News via Getty Images
(New York) – Thailand’s junta did little in 2018 to address the country’s mounting human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. The ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has promised general elections in February 2019, but took no steps to ensure they will lead to genuine civilian democratic rule.

“With an election approaching, Thailand’s junta should fully restore democratic freedoms so that all political parties can fully and fairly participate in the electoral process,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “But so far the junta just keeps persecuting critics, banning peaceful protests, and censoring the media.”

With an election approaching, Thailand’s junta should fully restore democratic freedoms so that all political parties can fully and fairly participate in the electoral process.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, as head of the NCPO, has ruled unhindered by administrative, legislative, or judicial oversight or accountability, including for serious human rights violations. The military is authorized to arrest, detain, and interrogate civilians without safeguards against abuse. At least 1,800 civilians face prosecution in military courts, which fall far short of international fair trial standards.

Hundreds of activists and dissidents have been prosecuted on criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for the peaceful expression of their views. Public gatherings of more than five people and pro-democracy activities remain prohibited. More than 100 activists recently faced illegal assembly charges, and some were accused of sedition for peacefully demanding elections without further delay and the lifting of restrictions on fundamental freedoms.

The junta has routinely enforced censorship and blocked public discussions about human rights and democracy in Thailand. In December, Thai authorities blocked access to the Human Rights Watch’s Thailand web page.

The junta disregards Thailand’s obligation to ensure that all human rights defenders can carry out their work in a safe and enabling environment. Government agencies and private companies have frequently retaliated against people who report allegations of abuse, filing criminal defamation and computer crimes lawsuits against them.

The junta has not acted to provide justice for past serious violations, notably the 2003 “war on drugs” killings and the 2010 deadly dispersal of street protests. Nor has it prosecuted any security personnel for abusive counterinsurgency operations in the southern border provinces, where separatist insurgents have also committed numerous abuses against civilians.

After the May 2014 coup, the United States, European Union, Australia, Japan, and many other countries said they would not fully restore bilateral relations until Thailand held free and fair elections to establish a democratic civilian government and improved respect for human rights. These governments should press the junta to immediately end repression, respect fundamental rights, and restore democratic civilian rule.

“General Prayuth’s empty promises should not be accepted at face value nor be an excuse to return to business as usual with Thailand,” Adams said. “Thailand’s allies should publicly state that they’ll only recognize an election that fully respects the will of the Thai people.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Activists hold a candle light vigil for victims of the extra judicial killings in the drug war of the government in front of a church in Manila on September 16, 2016.

© 2016 TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images
(New York) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration heightened its repression in 2018, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019.

The government’s murderous “war on drugs” expanded to cities outside Manila. Attacks escalated against activists, journalists, and critics of the government. Donor governments should intensify pressure on Duterte to end targeted killings and to drop politically motivated criminal cases.

“President Duterte has used the killing of thousands of largely poor drug suspects as a tool to bolster his popularity,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “He’s also targeting anyone who might undermine that popularity, from outspoken senators to journalists documenting his abuses.”

President Duterte has used the killing of thousands of largely poor drug suspects as a tool to bolster his popularity.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

The extrajudicial killings of drug suspects expanded to urban areas outside the capital in 2018. Nationwide, the Philippine National Police (PNP) said, nearly 5,000 drug suspects were killed between July 2016 and November 2018 during anti-drug operations, although domestic rights groups assert that police and alleged police agents killed thousands more.

The administration stepped up its attacks against “drug war” critics, including activist groups, the Catholic church, opposition politicians, and the media. In December the authorities brought politically motivated charges for tax evasion against the critical news website Rappler and its editor, Maria Ressa.

Duterte targeted the Catholic church, which has criticized the “drug war,” accusing bishops of corruption and labeling most Filipino priests homosexuals. In December, he urged the public to kill “useless bishops” because “all they do is criticize” the government.

The government vilified activist groups, calling them communists, and terrorists. In March, the foreign affairs secretary accused human rights groups of being “unwitting tools” of drug syndicates. In November, gunmen killed a rights lawyer, Benjamin Ramos, in Negros Occidental. Ramos represented the families of victims of a recent massacre of peasants in the province. There were violent attacks against human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, environmentalists, indigenous group members, peasants, and farmers.

Senator Leila de Lima, Duterte’s most prominent critic, has remained in jail since her arrest in February 2017 on trumped-up drug charges. Another senator, Antonio Trillanes IV, was also threatened with arrest in September for criticizing Duterte. In May, acting on a petition by the government, the Supreme Court ousted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno for her criticism of the “drug war” and other policies of the Duterte administration.

There were two rare triumphs of accountability in the Philippines in 2018. One was the conviction in September of retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan and two others for the 2006 kidnapping and illegal detention of two student activists. In November, three police officers were convicted for the August 2017 “drug war” murder of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos.

“President Duterte has provided no indication of any letup in his murderous drug war,” Adams said. “Foreign donors should support efforts by Philippine institutions, groups and the media who are pressing the government to stop the killings and bring those responsible to justice.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Attendees hold up smartphones and wave Malaysian national flags and People's Justice Party flags at a Pakatan Harapan alliance event in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia, on Wednesday, May 16, 2018. 

© 2018 Sanjit Das/Bloomberg via Getty Images
(New York) – Malaysia’s human rights situation improved significantly in 2018 after the election of a new government that ran on a manifesto promising make the country’s rights record “respected by the world,” Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2019. The government’s commitment to reform is being tested, however, by political backlash from members of the former ruling coalition and conservative religious leaders determined to resist change.

The newly elected prime minister, Mahathir Mohammed, told the United Nations General Assembly in September that a “New Malaysia” would abide by “the principles of truth, human rights, the rule of law, justice, fairness, responsibility and accountability, as well as sustainability.” He also pledged to ratify all remaining core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights.

“Since the landmark election last May, Malaysia has been a bright spot for progress on human rights in Southeast Asia,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “But it will only remain that way if the government stops backtracking and follows through on its promises for human rights reforms.”

Since the landmark election last May, Malaysia has been a bright spot for progress on human rights in Southeast Asia.

Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

The new government announced plans to abolish the death penalty and established a moratorium on executions. It said that the much-abused Sedition Act will be revoked and announced a freeze on its use pending repeal. That freeze proved short-lived, however, with the government lifting it in December in the wake of an outbreak of violence at a Hindu temple. The government also announced that it would create an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Mechanism to end torture and killings of suspects in police custody, and excessive use of force by police when pursuing and apprehending suspects.

The government’s effort to repeal the Anti-Fake News Law passed by the previous Barisan Nasional government was blocked by the appointed Malaysian Senate. The Senate, controlled by allies of the former ruling coalition, could seek to block further reforms.

While the government has pledged to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18 under both civil and Sharia (Islamic law), progress has been slow and exceptions to the minimum marriage age remain even in those states where the law has been reformed. The new government has also committed to improve the situation for refugees and asylum seekers but has not yet taken concrete steps to do so.

The government backtracked on a commitment to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination in response to claims by opposition parties and Malay activists that doing so would undermine privileges for the Malay population that are enshrined in the Constitution.

Discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people remains pervasive even with the change in government. Federal law punishes “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” with up to 20 years in prison, while numerous state Sharia laws prohibit both same-sex relations and non-normative gender expression, resulting in frequent arrests of transgender people.

The new minister for religious affairs has called for an end to workplace discrimination against LGBT people. But he also made clear that any visible expression of an alternative sexuality or gender identity will be prosecuted under existing laws, and that he supports programs, broadly discredited, designed to change personal sexual orientation. On September 21, Prime Minister Mahathir stated that Malaysia “cannot accept LGBT culture.”

“The new government has made impressive commitments to improve the human rights situation in Malaysia, but too much is still only on paper,” Robertson said. “The government should act on those commitments in Parliament so that all communities in Malaysia benefit.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Jolovan Wham participates in a silent protest with eight other activists on an MRT train in Singapore, June 3, 2017.

© 2017 Private
(New York) – Singapore used broad laws in 2018 to intensify already severe restrictions on free speech and assembly, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. The government appears poised to introduce legislation on “deliberate online falsehoods” to further curtail political speech prior to possible elections in 2019.

“The Singapore government persists in treating those who express critical views or reporting on them as criminals,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government’s heavy-handed response to free expression showed no signs of relenting in 2018.”

The Singapore government persists in treating those who express critical views or reporting on them as criminals.

Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

In November 2018, authorities raided the home of the editor of alternative news site The Online Citizen, seizing computers and mobile phones. Editor Terry Xu was questioned for eight hours, and on December 13, charged with criminal defamation for a letter to the editor posted on the site. Prosecutors also charged the letter writer, Daniel De Costa, with defamation. The authorities also blocked online news site The States Times Review on the grounds the site had published “fake news.”

Earlier in the year, in April, the government Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) refused to permit the founders of the online news site New Naratif to register a private company to organize discussions and provide editorial services for the site, saying that to do so would be “contrary to national interests.” The agency said the decision was necessary to prevent foreigners from interfering in Singaporean affairs because the parent company received some funding from a foreign foundation.

The authorities have frequently prosecuted critics of Singapore’s judiciary under the country’s broad contempt law. In October, a court found activist Jolovan Wham and Singapore Democratic Party politician John Tan guilty of “scandalizing the judiciary” for their Facebook posts. Wham had shared an article about the constitutional challenge against the Anti-Fake News Act in Malaysia and commented that, “Malaysia’s judges are more independent than Singapore’s for cases with political implications.” Tan later posted on his Facebook page that, “[b]y charging Jolovan for scandalizing the judiciary, the [Attorney-General’s Chambers] only confirms what he said was true.” They face up to three years in prison under a law that Britain and other Commonwealth countries have scrapped as antiquated and undemocratic.

Draconian restrictions on public assemblies have long been used to prevent even peaceful protests by single individuals. Seelan Paley, a performance artist, was convicted of violating the Public Order Act by walking from Hong Lim Park to Parliament carrying a piece of art to commemorate the 32 years that Chia Thye Poh was detained under the Internal Security Act. Paley was sentenced to two weeks in prison after refusing to pay a fine of S$2,500 (US$1,800).

Singapore criminalizes consensual sexual relations between men, and systematically targets for censorship or severe restriction any positive media or public depiction of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons.

Foreign migrant workers also face a range of labor rights abuses and exploitation through debts owed to recruitment agents, non-payment of wages, restrictions on movement, confiscation of passports, and sometimes physical and sexual abuse.

“For all its purported sophistication and modernity, Singapore still criminalizes consensual sexual relations between men and censors positive public depictions of LGBT persons and their community,” Robertson said. “Migrant workers face a battery of rights violations from employers who can withdraw their legal status in Singapore at any time and force them on a plane home without justice or compensation.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Families of those killed during the 2011 Tunisian revolution protest light sentences issued by military tribunals against former high officials in Tunis, April 16, 2014.

© 2014 Nicolas Fauqu/Corbis via Getty Image

On Monday, Tunisians once again commemorate the anniversary of their 2011 revolution, which also inspired the broader Arab Spring uprisings around the Middle East and North Africa. This year, once again, Tunisians and others are reexamining these events, trying to tease out their larger meaning. Many still look to Tunisia as a potential model for a successful democratic transition, even as they recognize that it remains a fragile experiment. But as Tunisians mark the occasion this year, it is becoming apparent that the abuses that led to the revolution are being forgotten.

It’s not that Tunisians haven’t tried to investigate the past. In 2013, legislators passed a law setting up a transitional justice process aimed at exposing human rights abuses by the government and assigning responsibility for abuses, to seek redress and ultimately reconciliation. In 2014, the government established the Truth and Dignity Commission to carry out this process. Like in so many other truth commissions, such as in South Africa and Chile, its work throughout has fallen short of victims’ expectations.

Nevertheless, in four short years, the commission opened 62,720 files for victims and conducted 49,654 confidential interviews. They exposed crimes that had remained hidden for decades. Last May, the commission began to refer cases to 13 special courts across the country established under the transitional justice law. These special courts had jurisdiction to also hear cases against people who had already been judged in regular courts for the same crimes, given that courts that tried these cases earlier may not have been entirely independent or equipped to deal with command responsibility.

The crimes that the commission discovered hadn’t been hidden to the victims, of course. In the police state led by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was president from 1987 until his ouster in 2011, ordinary citizens could live next to the victims of torture, forced disappearance or rape by security agents and not know their neighbors’ agony. The government restricted all the avenues in which citizens might exchange “sensitive” information: freedom of expression, press, assembly and association.

Now, the commission’s mandate is coming to an end. But the government didn’t wait to read its final report before criticizing its work. The political background is clear: The last national election, in 2014, brought many members of the old regime back to power. Some of them had a vested interest in hobbling efforts to unmask those responsible for the repression and economic crimes. Today two current ministers have the same portfolios they did under Ben Ali in 2011, while at least two others served as ministers under Ben Ali in other capacities. This has contributed to a political climate extremely hostile to exhuming the past.

The most recent sign of the government’s aversion to exploring the state’s abusive history came in December, at the commission’s closing conference, to present its main findings. No government officials showed up. “We regret the absence of officials from our government, officials from our parliament, officials from the presidency of our republic,” said Sihem Ben Sedrine, the commission’s president, in her opening remarks.

This absence was not entirely surprising. Politicians affiliated with the ruling coalition have attempted to stop the commission’s work on many occasions. Unions representing security forces have fiercely criticized the transitional justice process and on one occasion urged members to strike until colleagues detained under accusation of torture were released. Almost all of those accused of taking part in past abuses have refused to cooperate with subpoenas to appear before the special courts.

This is a worrying sign for rule of law in Tunisia. Many Tunisians have lost faith in the state as a result of what they see as the failings of the transitional justice process. For such Tunisians, it is an open question whether the state actually represents the people, rather than merely abusing them or crushing them underfoot.

Today, sadly, the abuses of the past continue — torture, according to Tunisian nongovernmental groups, is still “widespread, in all its manifestations.” Although to a lesser degree than before, the state still restricts civil liberties — for example, by prosecuting and in some cases jailing bloggers and rappers for peaceful speech under laws that have not been reformed.

The persistence of past abuses is a predictable consequence of failing to grapple with that past. Fortunately, Tunisia’s 2013 law on transitional justice encompassed more than just the commission. It obliges authorities to continue the work of special courts and to provide reparations to victims. But in a televised interview in late December, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said his government is preparing a new draft law on transitional justice, an indication that the government may intend to sidestep the obligations laid out in the current law.

Which parts of a nation’s history get remembered and which ones are to be forgotten might seem an abstract question. But getting the official history right about people who were marginalized, abused, exploited or nearly wiped out is a prerequisite to building a pluralistic and democratic political system. Tunisia is eight years on from its revolution, but it’s still struggling with what came before that.

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