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

(New York) – The Bangladesh government has embarked upon intensive and intrusive surveillance and monitoring of social media ahead of national elections, raising concern over a chilling effect on speech, Human Rights Watch said today. Draconian new laws and policies are being used to target political opponents, journalists, internet commentators, and broadcasters.

Police in Bangladesh have registered hundreds of complaints under the Information and Communication Technology Act, including against authors of social media posts and journalists criticizing the political leadership and the ruling Awami League party.

© 2018 David Bergman

National elections are due in Bangladesh by January 2019. Opposition parties and independent observers fear that the increasing crackdown on privacy and free expression is an attempt to limit speech and criticism of the government in the election period. The government claims these efforts are to stem harmful rumors, false information, or objectionable content to maintain law and order.

 “Bangladesh is using claims about public security to silence opponents and critics,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government’s surveillance practices are violating the rights to privacy and freedom of expression ahead of the elections.”

Bangladesh has 28 million Facebook users. Since social media emerged as a key tool to express dissent and organize protests, the authorities have monitored various platforms and internet-based communication. This has already led to arrests for using social media to criticize the government.

Enhanced Surveillance

On October 9, 2018, the government announced the formation of a nine-member monitoring cell to “detect rumors” on social media, including Facebook. The state minister for post and telecommunication, Tarana Halim, said that content that threatens communal harmony, disturbs state security, or embarrasses the state would be considered rumors and sent to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission for filtering or blocking. The intention was not to police content, but to ensure people have the “right information only,” she said.

Bangladesh is using claims about public security to silence opponents and critics.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

The government has also ordered security agencies to intensify their surveillance of online expression. The agencies include the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a paramilitary force implicated in serious human rights violations including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. “Besides maintaining law and order in the country, we will implement this [project] to monitor the evil propaganda and militant activities on the social media and bring the people behind these to justice,” a RAB spokesperson said.

The government had previously announced its Cyber Threat Detection and Response project of installing mass monitoring equipment at key points on Bangladesh’s networks to bolster widespread telecom and internet surveillance. The project, designed to allow the authorities to track criminal activities, provides enormous power to monitor internet usage, raising concerns over violations of privacy rights on a mass scale.

Crackdown on Dissent

Television networks, already under government pressure, will face increased restrictions under the proposed National Broadcast Act 2018. The law, which the cabinet approved on October 15, provides sentences of up to three years in prison for “going against the spirit” of the 1971 liberation war, or airing “misleading or false” information.

On October 11, a police complaint known as a General Diary was filed against Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, a well-known public health activist who is also involved in opposition politics, over his criticism of the army chief on a television talk show. The Detective Branch is investigating him for treason.

On October 10, a new law governing online speech, the Digital Security Act (DSA), came into force. It replaced the controversial section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT Act) with provisions that are in several respects more broadly drawn and carry even harsher sentences. It grants law enforcement authorities wide-ranging powers to remove or block online information that “harms the unity of the country or any part of it, economic activities, security, defense, religious values or public order or spreads communal hostility and hatred.”

The government rejected journalists’ calls for amendments to nine sections of the act. At an October 3 news conference, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said, “Only those journalists who have piled up false news against us and are waiting for releasing those one after another after the announcement of the election schedule, should be worried about the law.”

Journalists, however, do have cause for concern because of the recent history of the use of existing laws covering sedition and criminal defamation to threaten and detain journalists for exercising free expression and peaceful speech. A journalist, who asked not to be named, told Human Rights Watch, “There is a blanket of fear spreading over this country, and I don’t know when we are going to be freed.”

There is a blanket of fear spreading over this country, and I don’t know when we are going to be freed.

Journalist, Bangladesh

There are also concerns that the Digital Security Act will be used, as section 57 of the ICT Act was earlier, to crack down on peaceful social media content.

On the night of August 4, police arrested Nusrat Jahan Sonia, a 25-year-old primary school teacher in a rural area of Patuakali district, south of Dhaka, who was seven months pregnant. They held her for over two weeks under section 57. Sonia’s alleged offense was “spreading rumors.” However, a member of her family said that Sonia had merely shared a Facebook post that reportedly appealed for caution and peace during a student protest over road safety. She has been suspended from her job at a government school until her case is cleared, which may take years.

In a similar case, a Chittagong university professor, Maidul Islam, has been in custody since September, charged under section 57 with making “defamatory” remarks against the prime minister on social media.

On August 5, Shahidul Alam, an internationally renowned photographer, was detained in Dhaka, accused of “provoking” unrest for Facebook comments criticizing a crackdown on student protesters and journalists covering the protests. Alam remains in custody.

At a bail hearing, the attorney general, Mahbubey Alam, told the court: “Shahidul made his comment like a political leader. His statement was false and wicked.… The next parliamentary election is knocking at the door. Shahidul’s statement consists of many elements that can make the situation in the country volatile. So he cannot get bail.” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has accused Shahidul Alam of spreading “false news” and being “mentally sick.”

Bangladesh is obliged under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to protect its citizens from arbitrary arrest (article 9), from arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy and correspondence (article 17), and their freedom of expression (article 19). Any interference with the rights to privacy and free expression should be based on clear law, for a legitimate reason, and be proportionate – that is, the minimal interference necessary. Peaceful criticism of the government and state authorities should always be permitted.

Recent policies directing security agencies to monitor social media and prosecute users who offend the government, as well as the draconian provisions of the new Digital Security Act, violate those rights.

“There is a chilling atmosphere for journalism and free speech in Bangladesh right now, with even those sharing innocuous social media posts at risk of arrest and harassment,” Adams said. “The government should immediately end this assault on fundamental political rights, and instead create an environment conducive to ensuring that Bangladeshis are able to elect their leaders without fear.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The graduation ceremony at Middle Eastern Technical University, Ankara, July 6. 2018. The banner carried by students accused of insulting Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is among the hundreds laid out at the ceremony.

© 2018 Batuhan Dereli
(Berlin) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has chosen to drop a complaint against four Ankara students he accused of “insulting the president” for holding up a satirical banner, Human Rights Watch said today. The students’ trial is due to begin on October 22, but the prosecutor is likely to seek their acquittal following the announcement that the president has withdrawn his complaint. While the move is a positive and welcome development for the four students scheduled for trial, it does not address the wider problem of thousands of similar ongoing cases in the courts which blatantly violate freedom of expression, the organization said.

“‘Insulting the president’ should not be a crime, and students holding up a satirical banner obviously should never have faced prosecution,” said Benjamin Ward, Europe and Central Asia acting director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkish courts have convicted thousands of people in the past four years simply for speaking out against the president. The government should stop this mockery of human rights and respect people in Turkey’s right to peaceful free expression.”

The case is one of many such prosecutions for the same offense over the past four years and relies on article 299 of Turkey’s penal code, a provision rarely used before Erdoğan was elected president in 2014. Human Rights Watch first reported a rising number of prosecutions for “insulting the president” in 2015, and the numbers are increasing.

The students, D.C.Y., B.A., F.E.D., and Ö.K., identified only by initials for their protection, were detained after their July 6 graduation ceremony at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. There is a university tradition that graduating students mark the ceremony by holding up humorous and satirical banners, many of them reflecting current developments in Turkey. Among the hundreds of banners, three students carried a banner with the caption “Now it’s ….Kingdom of the Tayyips,” depicting animals drawn with the president’s face. The caricature was based on a 2005 cover image from Turkey’s satirical magazine Penguen.

Police detained the students at their homes following a complaint by a lawyer acting for Erdoğan. On July 11, 2018, an Ankara court ordered they be placed in pretrial detention pending trial. A fourth student, Ö.K., who helped the others transport the banner to the campus, was also charged with the same offense and remanded to custody a day later. The court ordered the four released on August 10. Ş.D., manager of the stationery shop that printed the banner, was charged with the same offense and faces trial with the students on October 22.

Prosecutions under article 299 of the Turkish penal code for “insulting the president” require the Minister of Justice’s permission and carry potential prison sentences of one to four years. They have risen dramatically from 132 in 2014 to more than 6,000 in 2017. Courts have often suspended sentences or converted them to fines. Using the article to prosecute journalists, academics, juveniles, and ordinary people for social media postings, a phenomenon since Erdoğan became president, is a direct assault on freedom of expression and critical speech devoid of advocacy or incitement to violence.

When the images were first published by Penguen on February 24, 2005, Erdoğan, then prime minister, lodged a complaint of defamation and sought damages from the magazine of 40 thousand Turkish Lira (approximately US$31,000). An Istanbul court rejected the law suit and ruled that the caricature fell within the boundaries of freedom of expression and was not defamatory.

On July 17, 2018, the chair of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu tweeted the “Kingdom of Tayyips” caricature, saying, “You must tolerate criticism and humour, you have to! You cannot stop criticism and humour by putting them in prison.” The next day, the Ankara prosecutor’s office initiated a preliminary investigation against him for insulting the president. Other CHP parliamentarians also shared the caricature on Twitter to support the students. Erdoğan’s lawyers have filed a criminal complaint against 72 CHP parliamentarians for insulting the president because they tweeted the banner image. Members of parliament enjoy immunity and cannot be questioned by the prosecutor’s office while they are serving parliamentarians, unless that immunity is stripped in accordance with the law.

Turkey is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and legally bound under both to respect freedom of expression. The European Court of Human Rights has made clear that any efforts to protect a head of state “cannot justify conferring on him or her a privilege or special protection vis-à-vis the right to … express opinions about him or her.” Satirical speech enjoys special protection as a form of artistic expression and social commentary, and the court routinely finds that charges of “insulting the president” violate the Convention, noting that criminalization of satire would have a deterrent effect on free debate of questions of general interest. United Nations and regional experts on freedom of expression have called for repeal of all laws that provide special protection for public figures.

 “Turkey should stop throttling free speech through misuse of the criminal law and behave like a democratic society based on rule of law and respect for human rights,” Ward said “Decisions by prosecutors and courts to start or drop cases should not rest on the word of the president.”

For more details on specific cases, please see below.


A Sharp, Ongoing Rise in Prosecutions Under Article 299

According to the Ministry of Justice’s General Directorate of Judicial Records and Statistics, the number of people prosecuted for article 299 has rapidly increased since 2014. The records reveal that 132 people (including 1 minor) were prosecuted in 2014, that there was a sharp increase to 1,953 (including 76 minors) in 2015, and that in 2016, the number of cases more than doubled, with 4,187 persons (including 148 minors) prosecuted. In 2016, 54 of the minors prosecuted were aged between 12 and 15. A further huge leap occurred in 2017, when prosecutions rose to 6,033, with 340 cases concerning minors (42 aged between 12 and 15). According to the ministry’s statistics, the number of convictions also rose over the same period. While 40 persons were convicted for insulting the president in 2014, 238 were convicted in 2015, the number almost quadrupled to 884 in 2016, and jumped to a staggering 2,099 convictions in 2017.

According to a report by Bianet, a media monitoring and online news organization, at least eight journalists were convicted for insulting the president in the first three months of 2018.

Among the recent prosecutions and convictions under article 299, the following cases against well-known public figures stand out. Numerous other cases against ordinary people are never reported in the media and are therefore difficult to document. 

Ahmet Yıldırım, former member of parliament for the Peoples’ Democratic Party
On September 12, 2015, Yıldırım gave a press conference in the eastern town of Muş regarding a blanket curfew in the city of Cizre. In his speech, he referred to the president as “that would-be sultan in the palace.” Yıldırım’s parliamentary immunity was lifted in May 2016 along with other MPs from his party, and he was convicted of insulting the president by a court in Muş. An appeal court in Erzurum confirmed his conviction on January 22, 2018, and on February 27, Yıldırım was stripped of his parliamentary seat because of the conviction. He is the first parliamentarian in Turkey to have been stripped of his seat for insulting the president.

The Turkish singer known as Suavi
In a speech on October 29, 2016, Suavi said, “there is no difference between Fethullah Gülen and Tayyip Erdoğan.” Suavi was tried before the Izmir Criminal Court of First Instance for insulting the president. On April 17, the court convicted Suavi, sentencing him to 11 months and 20 days in prison. The sentence was converted to a fine of 14,000 Turkish Liras (US$3,410) and 2,180 Turkish Liras ($531) for the president’s legal fees. The case is on appeal.

Abdullatif Şener, Justice and Development Party founding member and deputy prime minister from 2002-07
Abdullatif Şener was indicted for insulting the president in March 2018 for several Twitter posts. In his testimony, Şener said that his account was hacked and that he did not write the tweets in question. The case continues. 

Adnan Keskin, former Republican People’s Party parliamentarian
On February 13, 2018, an Antalya court convicted Adnan Keskin of insulting the president. He was sentenced to 11 months and 20 days in jail, suspended on condition he does not commit a similar offense in the next 5 years. The case concerned a speech by Keskin made at the opening of a party office in 2016 including the words “fascist” and “thief.” A lower court had acquitted him, but the prosecutor appealed the acquittal.

The singer Zuhal Olcay
During a concert in Istanbul on August 5, 2016, Zuhal Olcay inserted Erdoğan’s name in a song entitled “I have given up on this world,” and someone lodged a complaint. After examining video of her performance, the Anadolu Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office prosecuted the singer for publicly insulting the president. On July 12, 2018, an Istanbul court convicted the singer and handed down a suspended prison sentence of 11 months and 20 days. Erdoğans’s lawyers appealed the decision to suspend the sentence, arguing that the singer should serve the prison sentence. The appeal is pending at the Court of Cassation. 

Writer Ahmet Altan
Altan, currently imprisoned, has faced many cases, including a February 28, 2018 conviction for “insulting the president.” Altan criticized the government and the president in a June 14, 2016 article he wrote about government policy in the mainly Kurdish southeast and military operations in the region. He was given 2 years and 11 months, in addition to 3 years for spreading terrorist propaganda, for which he was convicted at the same trial. In another case on April 26, 2018, Altan was acquitted of insulting the president. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Bangkok, October 17, 2018) – Vietnam should reverse the draconian sentence imposed on a veteran environment and democracy activist, Le Dinh Luong, and release him, Human Rights Watch said today. The appeals court is scheduled to hear his case on October 18, 2018, in Nghe An province.

“Le Dinh Luong’s 20-year sentence is one of the harshest in the government’s crackdown on peaceful activists,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “This is an opportunity for the court to right this wrong, distinguish between criticism of the government and actual threats to national security, and defend everyone’s right to free expression.”

The government arrested Le Dinh Luong, 53, in July 2017 and charged him with “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration” under article 79 of the 1999 Penal Code. The People’s Court of Nghe An province originally scheduled Luong’s trial for July 30, 2018, but postponed the hearing at the last minute. Though the trial was supposed to be open to the public, only Le Dinh Luong’s wife and younger brother were allowed into the courtroom. Foreign diplomats who tried to attend were barred. 

On August 16, the People’s Court convicted him and gave him an extraordinarily long prison sentence of 20 years, to be followed by an additional five years of probation with severe restrictions on his movements. In an unusual move, the court imposed a longer sentence than the 17 years the Nghe An prosecutors office recommended. 

Le Dinh Luong has participated in various activities that the Vietnamese authorities consider politically unacceptable, including religious and environmental protests. He has joined various environmental demonstrations, including against Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a Taiwanese company that has dumped toxic waste in the ocean and polluted Vietnam’s central coast, causing massive fish deaths and an environmental disaster. 

Police and army newspapers repeatedly accused Le Dinh Luong of being a “dangerous reactionary” connected to the Viet Tan, a US-based political party. His case has raised many fair trial concerns.

In August 2017, the police rejected a request to have Ha Huy Son serve as Le Dinh Luong’s defense lawyer. The police claimed that a person suspected of serious national security violations would not be allowed to have a lawyer until the investigation was completed under then-article 58 (now article 74) of the Criminal Procedure Code. He was not given permission to be represented by defense lawyers until early July. On July 17, his daughter-in-law, Nguyen Thi Xoan, told a reporter for Defend the Defenders that the family had been given no information about him since his arrest. 

Freedom of expression and the right to be represented by counsel are guaranteed by the Vietnamese Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Vietnam is a party. The appeals court should immediately release Luong and other activists who have been wrongly imprisoned and allow them to peacefully express their views. 

The US State Department, the European Union, and various non-governmental organizations have urged the Vietnamese government to ensure that Le Dinh Luong and other human rights defenders obtain a fair trial as guaranteed by Vietnamese and international law. 

“A 20-year prison sentence for peaceful protest is outrageous,” Robertson said. “It should not matter if someone is protesting in favor or against the government’s preferred position. Vietnam’s actions, in this case, will show its real attitude toward the rule of law.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Men praying at the protest rally in Magas, Ingushetia

© Tanya Lokshina/HRW

As the call to prayer rolls over of Magas, the capital of Ingushetia, Russia’s smallest North Caucasus republic, hundreds of men busily unroll plastic mats, turning the central square into an open-air prayer ground. “Allahu Akbar!” The men kneel, get up, and kneel again — a sea of kneeling men stretching out in front of me. Done with the prayer, they roll back the mats. Then they continue with the rally that has gathered them here out on the square. to call for the annulment of a recent agreement on the demarcation of Ingushetia’s administrative border with neighboring Chechnya that will see Ingushetia lose territory.

Estimates vary on how much territory would be lost to Chechnya. Official estimates put it at five per cent of Ingushetia’s entire current territory, totaling 1,240 square miles. Independent experts estimate seven per cent, and some of the protest organisers say the loss is up to 10 percent.

During the Soviet era, Chechnya and Ingushetia were one republic. An interim agreement on the border reached in the early 1990s, after Chechnya sought independence from Russia while Ingushetia chose in a referendum to remain in Russia, was revised on several occasions, but the demarcation was never finalised.

As many as 10,000 people have joined the rally on some days. This is unprecedented for Ingushetia, with its population of just over 450,000.

Why such great numbers? People in Ingushetia generally view the land as sacred and the loss of every square inch is painful. Particularly so because Ingushetia lost land after the trauma of deportation of the Ingush during the Stalin era and the brief but fierce armed conflict with the neighbouring region of Ossetia in the early 1990s.

However, Ingushetia’s leadership did not inform the public that the negotiations were taking place until the outcome was already a done deal. The protest, which has been on-going for close to two weeks, was largely triggered by this stark lack of transparency in decision-making on an issue of great public importance.

As I walk through the protest site talking to people at random, this is precisely what I hear being repeated, passionately. “They decided on our behalf without even letting us know!” – “No one bothered asking our opinion!” – “It is as if we did not exist.” – “We are here to show them that our voices matter!”

The words I heard are strikingly similar to what I heard in Moscow in autumn 2011 when mass peaceful protests broke out after then-prime minister Vladimir Putin announced that he and then- president Dmitry Medvedev had decided “several years ago” that they would swap places in the next presidential election.

Magas protest rally, Ingushetia, October 2018. 

© 2018 Tanya Lokshina/HRW

Thousands of people have come together in Ingushetia to make their voices heard. While the older people, in full accordance with local traditions, are given the place of honour and priority at the microphone, the younger ones are handling all the logistics. The square is meticulously clean, a small field kitchen operates in the back, with food, water and hot drinks available to everyone. Local Red Cross volunteers are at the ready with medical assistance. With official media either ignoring the protest or attempting to smear the organizers, volunteer cameramen work around the clock, posting their videos online. Mobile internet was cut off in Magas at the start of the protest, as the local authorities strove to limit social media coverage in real time, but the younger bloggers have long found ways to get around it.

Students, academics, public servants, members of Ingushetia’s parliament, civic activists, opposition politicians, members of the council of the elders, and local religious leaders have united to make clear to federal authorities that the people of Ingushetia want the agreement suspended and expect to be part of the decision-making processes. Local police join the protesters for regular prayers and say quietly that they won’t use force against the demonstrators even if ordered to.

On 6 October, the third day of the rally, with thousands of people already protesting, men who claimed they were security officials kidnapped a researcher from Amnesty International who was in Ingushetia to monitor the protest. They drove him to a deserted area, beat him, forced him to strip, subjected him to mock executions, and finally released him late at night, telling him “never come back, and don’t write filth about Ingushetia.” Most likely, the kidnappers intended to use his example to discourage other “outsiders” from traveling to Ingushetia and reporting on the rally, but their depraved intimidation tactics have not seemed to work. Interest in the dramatic developments in Magas is rising, and an increasing number of journalists and other observers are coming to report on the protest.

Whatever the outcome, the protesters clearly made federal authorities pay attention. This week, the organisers will have their second meeting with President Putin’s emissary in the North Caucasus federal district. Putin also spoke to Ingushetia’s governor, Yunusbek Evkurov, stressing that no force should be used against the protesters and the government should be talking to them. The protest now continues with official authorization.

The scale of this protracted protest is unprecedented for Ingushetia, but also striking for contemporary Russia, where peaceful protests are routinely dispersed. In that context, Putin’s advice to Evkurov to “talk to people” and to use “methods… of democracy” comes across as quite ironic.

One thing is clear. The Kremlin is surprised by this popular movement. It has taken a pause and for once, at least for now, it’s listening.

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

Thousands take part in the Justice for All March and Rally on Pennsylvania Avenue to the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on December 13, 2014. 

© 2014 SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Mr. Brian Joyner 
Chief of Staff, National Mall and Memorial Parks 
National Park Service 
900 Ohio Drive SW 
Washington, DC 20024
Dear Mr. Joyner: 
We write to express our deep concern over proposed rulemaking RIN 1024-AE45, issued August 7, 2018, which would revise the National Park Service’s protest permitting process regarding demonstrations at the National Mall, Memorial Parks, and President’s Park.  
This proposal would infringe on Americans’ rights to free speech and assembly. Forcing Americans to pay to lawfully assemble at our most iconic and politically significant sites places a financial barrier that precludes equal opportunity and access, dissuading and prohibiting Americans from demonstrating. The ability to afford fees for permits must not be a factor in who gets the opportunity to protest on these public lands. Introducing fees for First Amendment demonstrations would represent an overwhelming departure from American values.  
We strongly urge you to revise the proposed rule and maintain access to vibrant, participatory democracy for all Americans regardless of socioeconomic status or support from wealthy donors. Protesting is a cornerstone of American democracy. The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech … or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  
Over centuries, Americans have come together from near and far and lifted their voices, from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech advancing the civil rights movement to the 2017 Women’s March, the largest demonstration in American history. Americans have cried out signifying ardent diversity of thought on a wide variety of issues spanning from war and peace to the economy, the environment, civil rights, human rights, and more. There is a fundamental personal dignity in protest—the insistence that one’s voice matters. Protesting is also a patriotic act, as Americans show up to help steer the path of our country. As we work to fulfill the promise of this country, we must never restrict access to the public lands surrounding its halls of power. 
Thank you for your commitment to preserving our cultural history and natural resources. As you work to manage an increase in requests for permits and maintain your commitment to preserving visitor experience, resource protection, and public safety, we trust you will reconsider this proposal and ensure that the right of all Americans to express their beliefs in our nation’s capital will be safeguarded.
American Hiking Society
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Women's March
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban shows a document during a debate concerning Hungary's situation as part of a plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France on September 11, 2018.

© 2018 FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images

(Budapest) – European Union (EU) foreign ministers should adopt a clear roadmap to declaring Hungary in serious breach of EU values, Human Rights Watch said today. Ministers meeting in the General Affairs Council session on October 16, 2018, are expected to discuss the situation in Hungary following a European Parliament resolution in September calling for political sanctions against Hungary.

“EU foreign ministers should seize this opportunity to send a clear signal opposing Hungary’s slide into authoritarianism,” said Lydia Gall, Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Hungarian government’s childish response, including vitriolic attacks on members of the European Parliament, just confirms the need for a strong rebuke.”

On September 12, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to adopt a report, authored by Dutch Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Judith Sargentini, outlining concerns with respect to rule of law in Hungary, including attacks on the judiciary, shrinking space for civil society, restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of association, and academic freedom, as well as abusive asylum laws.

The parliament asked governments to initiate proceedings to determine whether Hungary is in breach of founding EU values spelled out in Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union. Such a determination could lead to use of the political sanctions envisioned in Article 7 of the same treaty, including suspension of voting rights.

The hard-hitting parliamentary report echoed numerous expressions of concern by other institutions, including the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, as well as rights groups.

The Hungarian government of Prime Minister Victor Orbán vehemently denies any wrongdoing and instead has undertaken yet another distasteful publicly-funded smear campaign against Sargentini and other MEPs.

Action against Hungary under the EU Treaty is overdue, Human Rights Watch said. The European Commission has tried to address problematic laws and policies using its legal enforcement powers on a case-by-case basis, but the Orbán government has largely ignored the criticism and undertaken only minor, cosmetic changes that do not address core concerns. In contrast, the commission initiated Article 7 action against Poland in December 2017 for its attacks on the courts and other democratic checks and balances.

“Member states have a responsibility to stand up for fundamental rights and freedoms, and to speak out against member states flagrantly breaching those core values,” Gall said. “It’s time to tell Hungary and other member states they will pay a price for violating EU principles.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Moscow) – A well-known Tajik athlete faces possible torture or ill-treatment if he is forcibly returned from Belarus to Tajikistan, the Association for Central Asian Migrants, Human Rights Watch, and Norwegian Helsinki Committee said today. Belarus should not extradite or deport the athlete, Parviz Tursunov, or otherwise facilitate his forced return.

Belarusian migration police at Minsk International Airport detained Tursunov, a former professional soccer player in his country’s premier soccer league, under a Tajik extradition request on September 18, 2018, after he landed in Minsk. Tajik authorities had demanded that Tursunov shave his beard, which he wears as a manifestation of his religious belief. When he refused, in 2011, the Khayr team dismissed him.

Parviz Tursunov, a former defender with Tajikistan’s Khayr soccer team, was dismissed from team when he refused to shave his beard, a manifestation of his religious beliefs. Tajik authorities are now seeking his extradition from Belarus, where he was detained in September 2018.

© Radio Ozodi, Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

“Tajikistan’s long-running and severe crackdown on religious believers is taking increasingly absurd forms, such as labeling a person an extremist simply for wearing a beard,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Belarus has a legal obligation not to send Tursunov to anywhere he could face torture or ill-treatment, such as Tajikistan, and it should abide by those international commitments.”

Over the past decade, Tajikistan has imposed a de facto ban on men wearing beards and women wearing the hijab as part of a wide-ranging crackdown on independent Muslims, who practice Islam outside strict state controls. By labeling Tursunov an adherent of “extremist” Salafi Islam for wearing a beard, authorities have brought politically motivated charges of “mass calls to extremist activity” against him for the peaceful exercise of his religion.

Tajikistan intensified its severe, widespread crackdown on free expression and association, peaceful political opposition activity, the independent legal profession, and the independent exercise of religious faith in 2018. Well over 150 political activists, including a number of lawyers, remain unjustly jailed. Relatives of dissidents who peacefully criticize the government from outside the country have been subjected to retaliation, such as arbitrary detention, threats of rape, confiscation of passports and property, and vigilante justice at the hands of sometimes violent mobs.

Tajikistan severely restricts religious freedom, regulating religious worship, dress, and education, and imprisons numerous people on vague charges of religious extremism. Authorities also suppress unregistered Muslim education throughout the country, control the content of sermons, and have closed many unregistered mosques. Under the pretext of combating extremist threats, Tajikistan bans several peaceful minority Muslim groups.

Parviz Tursunov

© Radio Ozodi, Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Tursunov, 43, was a defender for the Khayr soccer team and popular in the team’s native city of Vahdat. The Tajik media outlet “Asia-Plus” reported in April 2011 that Khayr’s head coach, Tohir Muminov, had stated that Tursunov would be excluded from playing in games because “law enforcement bodies do not wish to see a soccer player on the field wearing a long beard, like a mullah.” Tursunov responded by saying that were he to be forced to choose between his beard and the sport, he would choose the former, citing the importance of his religious faith. The team ousted him the next day.

Tursunov and his family later left for the United Arab Emirates, and then Turkey, where they worked as migrant workers, cooking and selling Tajik traditional cuisine. In September 2018, the family decided to travel to Europe via Belarus.

Tursunov’s relatives told the rights groups that since his detention on September 18, Tursunov has been held in Minsk’s pre-trial detention center no. 1 pending possible extradition to Tajikistan. The Belarus Prosecutor-General confirmed that it is awaiting documentation on the extradition request and that Tajik authorities have charged Tursunov with “public calls for carrying out extremist activity” (art. 307(1)(2)) and “organizing an extremist community” (art. 307(2)(1)) of Tajikistan’s criminal code. Authorities routinely invoke article 307 charges in politically motivated cases.

Despite reforms to Tajikistan’s criminal code that outlaw torture, as defined under international standards, torture is an enduring problem in Tajikistan. Police and investigators often use it to coerce confessions, and human rights groups have received many credible reports of torture of people associated with political opposition groups. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly held that there is a serious risk that a person forcibly returned to face charges in Tajikistan would be tortured or subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment. The court also rejected as unreliable assurances from the Tajik government that it would not subject anyone sent back to prohibited treatment.

As a matter of international law, and specifically as a party to the Convention against Torture, Belarus is obliged to ensure that it does not forcibly send anyone to a place where they face a real risk of torture, or other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Although Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe, a decision to flout the prohibition on return to torture or inhuman treatment would damage its relationship with the council and future membership plans.

“Opposition members, lawyers, journalists, and human right activists have long been in the crosshairs of the Tajik government,” said Marius Fossum, regional representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in Central Asia. “That authorities are also targeting athletes for wearing beards shows even more clearly how cruel and absurd the crackdown has become.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

More than 50 attacks on activists and human rights defenders in Ukraine have been recorded by local human rights organizations in just the last nine months, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, and Frontline Defenders said today. Those under attack include people working to defend the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, protect the environment, and campaign against corruption.

The organizations criticized the lack of effective investigations into these incidents and of prosecutions of those responsible, which heightens the risk to human rights defenders and sends a message that the authorities tolerate such attacks and assaults. Recently, the prosecutor general suggested that civil society activists brought the attacks on themselves for criticizing the authorities, giving an impression that human rights defenders can be openly targeted.

In most cases, the attacks have targeted individuals or groups that campaign against corruption in the local community, shine a light on the operation of local government and businesses, or defend people’s rights. The purpose of such attacks is clear: to silence activists and human rights defenders and to discourage others from speaking out against injustice and standing up for human rights.

Two recent examples of the kind of vicious attacks that have yet to be effectively investigated took place on September 22, in Odessa and Kryvyi Rih. Oleh Mikhaylyk, an anti-corruption activist, was shot in Odessa, in southern Ukraine, and remains in the hospital. Mikhaylyk had campaigned with the Syla Lyudei (People’s Power) movement against illegal construction in Odessa. Three hundred kilometers away, in Kryvyi Rih, unidentified assailants broke into the home of Artem Moroka after he criticized the local police on Facebook. The assailants severely beat him, breaking his nose, Moroka told Ukrainian human rights monitors.

In June, an environmental activist, Mykola Bychko, was found dead under suspicious circumstances in a village in Kharkiv region. Villagers found Bychko hanged in the woods near the village of Eskhar on June 5. The local police initially started a suicide investigation but have yet to investigate the possibility that he was killed in connection with his activism. At the time, Bychko was documenting the pollution of a local river, allegedly caused by a nearby waste treatment plant.

A lawyer representing Bychko’s family questioned the conduct of the local police for ignoring the possibility that this was an intentional killing, and for allegedly intentionally delaying the investigation. The lawyer told Freedom House that police lost relevant evidence from the site where Bychko’s body was found, such as the rope from the improvised gallows. The authorities have also not pursued allegations that Bychko had received threats related to his documentation work, such as questioning people from the waste treatment plant.

On July 31, an unidentified assailant threw acid on Kateryna Handzyuk, a local council member who monitored police activities, in Kherson. Local police initially arrested a man and coerced him into signing a “confession”, allegedly promising in exchange to resolve existing issues he had with the police. His sister said, however, that the man was not in Kherson on the date of the attack and had several witnesses to back his alibi.

After he spent 19 days in detention, the police released him without charge and apologized. At the same time, the police arrested five other suspects, four of whom admitted their involvement in the attack. Initially, the police did not investigate the attack as a “contract murder” attempt but as an “attempted murder,” which Handzyuk’s lawyer said has caused a significant delay in establishing who ordered the attack.

The conduct of these investigations raises concerns that those responsible for the attacks, including those who ordered them, may not be brought to justice.

The Ukrainian authorities should take effective steps to prevent further threats and attacks against activists and human rights defenders, and ensure prompt, thorough, impartial, and independent investigations into such threats and attacks and bring those responsible to justice in fair trials.

The Interior Ministry, the National Police, the prosecutor general’s office, and other relevant institutions should explicitly recognize the important work of human rights defenders in protecting human rights and uncovering corruption. The authorities should publicly denounce any threats and attacks against human rights defenders. They should take decisive measures to ensure that government critics can work in a safe and enabling environment in which they can exercise the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and conduct their activities without fear of reprisals. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – Egyptian police have forcibly disappeared a prominent human rights defender and lawyer, Ezzat Ghoneim, Human Rights Watch said today. Ghoneim has been in custody since March 2018, and his release was ordered by a court on September 4.

Authorities have disappeared Ezzat Ghoneim since September 14, 2018. 

© 2018 Private

His wife, Rasha, was the last among his family, friends, and lawyers to see Ghoneim, the head of the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, an independent rights group. She saw Ghoneim in custody at al-Haram police station, south of Cairo, on September 13. Since then, his family and friends have been unable to contact him, and the authorities have refused to provide any information on his status or whereabouts

“Forcibly disappearing a lawyer in the face of a judge’s order explicitly authorizing his release reflects Egyptian security forces’ contempt for the rule of law,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Egyptian authorities should immediately reveal Ghoneim’s whereabouts, set him free, and investigate and punish those who disappeared him.”

The Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency officers had arrested Ghoneim as he was returning home from work on March 1 and initially also disappeared him for three days, refusing to disclose information on his whereabouts, until lawyers by chance saw him in the Supreme State Security Prosecutionoffice in Cairo. They learned that law enforcement officers had questioned him without a lawyer. Ghoneim was then sent for pretrial detention.

State security prosecutors questioned Ghoneim as a defendant in state security case 441 of 2018 in which a blogger, three journalists, and a doctoral student, together with Ghoneim, are accused of spreading false news and of “supporting a terrorist group.” Human Rights Watch has documented that this case is one of many cases in which authorities have wrongfully used emergency and terrorism laws to bring terrorism charges against peaceful activists.

A judge reviewing Ghoneim’s detention on September 4 ordered his release subject to a requirement for him to report to the police station twice a week. His wife told Human Rights Watch, however, that officers at al-Haram police station refused to release him and kept him in custody there, where she was able to visit and deliver food and clothes to him until September 13. The officers told her they were not going to release him until they received “instructions from the National Security Agency.”

A copy of a complaint filed by Ghoneim’s family and lawyers to prosecutors on September 15, 2018. 

© 2018 Private

When she went to see him on September 14, officers at the station told her he had been released, but neither she nor any of his acquaintances has seen him since. The next day, his lawyers filed complaints with the prosecutors inquiring about his whereabouts. His wife said that she had heard through “connections” that he is in National Security Agency custody.

Human Rights Watch contacted the authorities several times since September 24 to inquire about the disappeared lawyer. The State Information Service, a government agency dealing with foreign correspondents, said it was going to send a written response but Human Rights Watch received no responses.

During his initial detention, Ghoneim appeared in an Interior Ministry propaganda video released on March 15 called “the Spider Web.” Footage of Ghoneim, looking pale and exhausted, appeared in a section of the video that claimed that human rights organizations and activists contribute to terrorism.

Pro-government media have carried out a smear campaign against Ghoneim and his group for documenting and defending victims of torture and enforced disappearance.

An enforced disappearance occurs when someone is deprived of their liberty by agents of the state or people acting with the state’s authorization, support or acquiescence, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.

According to the Egyptian “Stop Enforced Disappearance” independent campaign, authorities disappeared at least 230 people from August 2017 to August 2018, and the practice increasingly targeted journalists and rights activists in recent months.

Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern of systematic torture of detainees in secret National Security Agency detention centers and police stations.

Egypt has not ratified the United Nations Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and its local laws do not properly define or criminalize enforced disappearance as a discrete offense. However, enforced disappearances are absolutely prohibited under international law in all circumstances, violate a range of existing human rights obligations, and can in certain circumstances be prosecuted as a crime against humanity.

Egypt is bound by its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture, which it has ratified, to investigate, prosecute, punish,provide remedies and reparation for the crimes of torture, ill-treatment, and enforced disappearances. Egyptian laws criminalize arbitrary arrests.

“When authorities view human rights lawyers as a threat rather than an asset to the rule of law and democracy, the government’s claims that they are improving rights are hollow and not worth the paper they’re printed on,” Page said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

© 2017 Reuters

Next year, the US Congress will grapple with whether to extend the USA Freedom Act, which currently imposes limits on the government’s powers to sweep up US telephone call records under Section 215 of USA Patriot Act. If history is any indication, the intelligence and law enforcement agencies will push hard for continued or even expanded monitoring powers – and they’ll do so by emphasizing threats they say are posed by Muslims.

What they probably won’t mention? Anything about whether they believe white supremacists present an international threat that’s relevant to surveillance or other intelligence powers.

Many US surveillance powers are already excessive and violate rights. The agencies therefore should not simply expand any existing spying authorities that are abusive to cover white supremacist groups.

However, for years, the agencies’ relative silence about white supremacist movements when promoting their surveillance desires has been striking. White power adherents in the US have been staging loud, public, and at times fatal shows of force. The radical right in Europe has become increasingly vociferous, too – and these movements may be increasingly connected across borders. Yet, available transcripts from hearings about surveillance by the congressional intelligence and judiciary committees during the past five years reveal little explicit discussion of white supremacy by executive branch officials. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has addressed white supremacist violence recently in other contexts – but not, it appears, in planned appeals to lawmakers for spying powers.

This silence about white power groups’ violence during the government’s public testimony about intelligence, national security, and surveillance matters. When the agencies argue to maintain or expand their snooping authorities by focusing heavily on Muslims without addressing global white supremacist violence, they not only reinforce stereotypes about Muslims, but also leave Congress and the public in the dark about whether they see white supremacist violence as an intelligence issue.

US Air Force training materials Human Rights Watch obtained in 2017 illustrate this point. In explaining a Defense Department “counterintelligence” policy change allowing the warrantless monitoring of US “homegrown violent extremists,” the presentation cites two shootings committed by Muslims as examples—and no deadly acts by proponents of white power, despite numerous killings in the US by white supremacists in recent years.

Everyone’s security matters, and officials should be more forthright regarding what they know about white supremacist violence and how it fits into the surveillance picture—and avoid feeding into bias against US minority groups. 

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

Loan Torondel, 21, worked with L’Auberge des Migrants in Calais for two years, helping to provide legal information and support and humanitarian assistance to migrants and asylum seekers in northern France.

© 2018 Loan Torondel

(Paris) — A humanitarian worker’s defamation conviction on September 25, 2018, for an ironic tweet represents a dangerous escalation in official harassment of groups providing crucial aid to migrants, Human Rights Watch said today. It is the first conviction of its kind in France.

A court in Boulogne-sur-Mer, northern France, found Loan Torondel guilty of criminal libel for a tweet he sent out at the beginning of January and sentenced him to pay a fine, which it suspended, and court costs. Under a picture showing two police officers standing over a young man seated in a field, Torondel imagines the young man protesting that police have confiscated his sleeping bag when the temperature is 2 degrees Celsius (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and an officer responding, “Maybe, but we are the French nation, sir.”

“This sentence sets a dangerous precedent and is symptomatic of the pernicious ways French authorities seek to obstruct the work of humanitarian volunteers working with migrants and asylum seekers,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch.

This police officer’s fictitious rejoinder was an allusion to a speech President Emmanuel Macron gave in late December 2017 in which he urged the public to overcome adversity, saying, “Never forget, we are the French nation.” The phrase quickly became a derisive meme, including among those who objected to the treatment of migrants and other homeless people during the bitterly cold winter.

Torondel, 21, spent two years with the nongovernmental organization L’Auberge des Migrants in Calais, initially as a volunteer and then as head of its operations there, until July 2018, when he left to resume his studies.

The use of defamation charges against humanitarian workers is unprecedented in France. In Torondel’s case, the police officers pictured in the tweet filed a defamation complaint with the public prosecutor’s office, which then requested an investigation by the court on behalf of one of the men.

Defamation is a criminal offense in France, carrying a maximum penalty of 45,000 euros (US$ 52,950). Torondel received a suspended fine of 1,500 euros and was also assessed 500 euros in damages and 475 euros in court costs, neither of which was suspended. He is appealing the conviction.

International human rights law allows for restrictions on freedom of expression to protect the reputations of others, but such restrictions must be necessary and narrowly drawn. Criminal defamation laws are a disproportionate and unnecessary restriction on free speech and create a “chilling effect” that effectively restricts legitimate as well as harmful speech.

For these reasons, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression and the representative on freedom of the media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), together with the Organization of American States special rapporteur for freedom of expression, have concluded that criminal defamation is “not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression” and have called for the abolition of such laws. In another joint statement, these authorities and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights special rapporteur on freedom of expression and access to information noted that criminal defamation laws are “a traditional threat to freedom of expression.”

The UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression has said that countries should take particular care to ensure that defamation laws – civil or criminal – “should never be used to prevent criticism of government” and “should reflect the principle that public figures are required to tolerate a greater degree of criticism than private citizens.”

Humanitarian workers in Calais have regularly reported harassment by police. Aid workers in Calais have told Human Rights Watch, the French Defender of Rights, and UN observers that police repeatedly fined them for minor infractions and parking violations and subjected them to repetitive identity checks. When aid workers photograph or film police – as they are permitted to do under French law – they say that some police have seized their phones temporarily to delete or look through the contents without permission. In some instances, humanitarian workers have said that police sprayed them with teargas, forced them to the ground, or pushed them.

In the period between November 2017 and July 2018, four aid groups working in Calais – Help Refugees, L’Auberge des Migrants, Utopia 56, and Refugee Info Bus – documented 600 instances of police intimidation against their staff and volunteers. They included excessive use of identity checks, arbitrary parking fines, pat-downs, threats, insults and other verbal abuse, and physical violence.

In July, the French Constitutional Council (Conseil Constitutionnel), the country’s highest court, ruled that helping others in need, including irregular migrants, is protected by the constitutional principle of fraternity.

“The court’s decision risks opening the door for authorities to circumvent the Constitutional Council’s ruling,” Jeannerod said. “Instead of criminalizing humanitarian workers who provide vital assistance to migrants and asylum seekers and expose abusive practices, the French authorities should put an end to these abuses and punish those responsible.”


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

From left to right: Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak.

© 2017 P24

Given the present state of human rights in Turkey, the German government has come in for criticism over the elaborate plans for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey’s upcoming visit on September 28 and 29, including a state banquet. But  President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Angela Merkel should use the opportunity  to raise numerous human rights concerns, most pressingly the plight of the many journalists, human rights defenders and politicians arbitrarily jailed in Turkey.

One of them is the well-known novelist and political commentator Ahmet Altan, whose newest book was published in German this week. Its  German title is  “Ich werde die Welt nie wiedersehen: Texte aus dem Gefaengnis”  -- “I will never see the world again: writings from prison.”

Altan, in prison for over two years, was among the first writers in Turkey to be sentenced to life without parole on the allegation that he encouraged the abortive coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016. The evidence against him? His commentary and writings critical of the government, which have never advocated violence, insurrection or any criminal act, and witnesses who signed incriminating statements against him but were never even heard in court. 

Human Rights Watch regards the case as entirely politically motivated and the charges without merit.  Altan and other defendants in the same trial should be freed and their charges dropped. The   verdict of the appeal in their case Is scheduled for October 2. Another jailed defendant in the same trial, also sentenced to life in prison, is 74-year-old veteran journalist Nazlı Ilıcak.  Mehmet Altan, Ahmet Altan’s brother, was given the same sentence but remains at liberty.

Both President Steinmeier and Chancellor Merkel have the opportunity to convey a clear message that it is not only German nationals in prison who matter but also the fate of many of Turkey’s own citizens who are arbitrarily detained on politically motivated charges.

An improvement in German-Turkish relations should require their release from prison and an end to the Turkish authorities’ systematic violation of basic human rights.

Germany should call for steps by Turkey to disprove Ahmet Altan’s words “ich werde die Welt nie wiedersehen.”   

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

© 2018 ADHOC

(New York) – Cambodian authorities should immediately quash the politically motivated convictions of five human rights defenders, Human Rights Watch said today. All five defendants, current and former staff members of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), were sentenced on September 26, 2018, to five years in prison minus the 14 months they spent in pretrial detention. The court then suspended imposition of the sentence.

“These baseless convictions show that Prime Minister Hun Sen intends to persecute human rights defenders even after cementing his power through July’s sham election,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “It’s clear Hun Sen’s pardon of political prisoners after the election was just a public relations effort to regain international legitimacy.”

Four defendants – Nay Vanda, Ny Sokha, Lim Mony, and Yi Soksan – are senior staff members at ADHOC. The fifth, Ny Chakrya, a former senior ADHOC staff member, is deputy secretary-general at the National Election Committee. In 2017, the five were nominated as finalists for the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

Now is the time to turn up the heat so that Hun Sen understands there will be significant costs if he doesn’t reverse course.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

The guilty verdicts followed a deeply flawed one-day trial on September 18 on a fabricated charge of “bribery of a witness.” All five spent 14 months in arbitrary pretrial detention pending a judicial investigation into the charge. The investigation aimed to implicate ADHOC in the politically motivated prosecution of Kem Sokha, opposition leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). On June 29, 2017, the investigating judge sent the case to trial, but released the five rights defenders on bail because several had serious health problems.

The case arose in 2016 from ADHOC’s provision of legal assistance to a victim of government harassment, Khem Chandaraty (also referred to as Srey Mom), whom the government alleged had an extramarital relationship with Kem Sokha. During the trial on September 18, 2018, the defense was denied the right to challenge testimony by Srey Mom and a key witness, Srey Mom’s lawyer. The prosecution failed to present any credible evidence to prove that a witness had in fact been given a bribe or to identify the alleged bribed witness.

In mid-2016, while in pretrial detention, Ny Chakrya was also convicted and sentenced to six months in prison on separate baseless defamation charges that arose from his human rights work at ADHOC. On September 26, 2018, the Supreme Court summoned him to court for the final appeal stage before enforcement of the sentence. The charges appear to have been filed to prevent him from carrying out his duties at the National Election Committee in an independent manner. The verdict is expected on October 1.

Cambodia has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which enshrines the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Trials in Cambodia’s government-controlled courts systematically fail to uphold the right of criminal suspects to a fair trial.

“Foreign governments and donors should react strongly to these convictions or they can expect more and more cases,” Adams said. “The recent pardons followed international pressure, so now is the time to turn up the heat so that Hun Sen understands there will be significant costs if he doesn’t reverse course.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am