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

Student leaders Nathan Law and Joshua Wong walk into the high court in Hong Kong, August 17, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

As Alex Chow, Nathan Law, and Joshua Wong emerged from a Hong Kong courtroom yesterday, they were surrounded by visibly upset supporters, many of them young. The trio had just been sentenced to between six and eight months of prison for “unlawful assembly” and “incitement.”

The image of teary-eyed youth probably pleased mainland Chinese authorities, who had wanted them punished harshly. In vehemently worded essays during and after the 2014 Umbrella Movement—and in stark contrast to the protesters’ peaceful rhetoric—Chinese state media has characterized the protesters as “traitors” and “trouble-makers” who must be “thoroughly eliminated.”

In the three years since, the Beijing and Hong Kong governments have tried to break—and discipline—pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong, particularly those involved with the Umbrella Movement. Some have been subjected to politically motivated prosecutions and official harassments. Others have been followed, intimidated, and assaulted by suspected mainland security police, particularly during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Hong Kong in July this year.  

In face of Beijing’s relentless pressure, the Umbrella Movement trio and others in Hong Kong have adhered to peaceful political activism. They established a new political party, Demosistō, injected new ideas into the debate for Hong Kong’s fight for democracy, supported dissidents and activists in the mainland, and forged alliances with young pro-democracy leaders opposing authoritarianism across Asia.  

Many Hong Kongers, accustomed to a flawed but functioning semi-democratic system, are despairing to find their justice system being used for blatant political purposes and their government increasingly mimicking the mainland administration. This government has failed to meet its international legal obligations to amend a domestic law, the Public Order Ordinance, that allows peaceful protesters like the trio to be jailed, or abide by its own functional constitution, the Basic Law, which requires moves towards genuine universal suffrage.

The government has also increasingly allowed Beijing to dictate its domestic political process, to carve out a part of Hong Kong where mainland laws will apply, and to kidnap Hong Kong residents to across the border where they are detained and forcibly disappeared. It is also the same government whose refusal to seriously discuss electoral reform with pro-democracy student leaders that prompted thousands to take to the streets in 2014.

Despite these serious setbacks, the trio—together with their fellow protesters—have helped raise political consciousness in Hong Kong, especially of young people, who are unwilling to give up their basic rights and liberties – and demand much more.

That genie is out of the bottle, and nobody can lock it up.

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

Journalists at Turan News Agency in Azerbaijan while tax police raided their office earlier this month. 

© Azadliq Radiosu (RFE/RL)

Just last month, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev gave more than 200 apartments away free to journalists and accepted a “friend of journalists” award in return. He claimed that thousands of press agencies operate in Azerbaijan.

But in fact, Azerbaijan has a long record of state antagonism toward independent and opposition media. The most recent victim is the country’s last remaining independent news agency – Turan. It’s now under investigation and could face closure.  

On August 7, Azerbaijani authorities launched a tax-evasion investigation against Turan, alleging it owes more than US$ 21,000 in taxes for the 2014-2016 period. Turan’s director, Mehman Aliyev (no relation to Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev), denies the allegations, and considers the investigation politically motivated. Nevertheless, the agency vowed to cooperate fully with the investigation and was preparing documents requested by tax authorities to meet the August 17 deadline. But on August 16, the tax police raided Turan’s office, searched the premises and computers of its journalists, and confiscated all financial documents and the accountant’s computer.

Using bogus tax-related charges to jail critical journalists is nothing new for Azerbaijan. Just last month, authorities sentenced Faig Amirli, financial director of the already closed pro-opposition Azadlig newspaper, to three years and three months in prison. Aziz Orujov, head of the recently -closed Kanal 13 online TV, has been awaiting trial on tax-related charges since June. A number of non-governmental groups also had to close following spurious tax audits and criminal investigations.

Mehman Aliyev told local media he fears the same fate awaits his popular agency, which has been operating in Azerbaijan since 1990, cooperating with leading international agencies, and providing independent news and analysis in three languages.

The investigation is the latest in a vicious crackdown on critical media in the country. Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan 162 among 180 countries for press freedom. At least eight journalists and bloggers are currently in prison on politically-motivated charges. Among them is Mehman Huseynov, one of the country’s most popular journalists and bloggers, who’s serving two years in prison on bogus defamation charges.

Azerbaijani authorities permanently blocked the websites of some major media outlets critical of the government, and in March 2017 amended laws to tighten control over online media.

Gifting flats to the journalists has nothing to do with respecting Azerbaijan’s international obligations on media freedom; Not unjustly jailing journalists and making sure that Turan news agency can operate without undue government interference, has. 

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

Thai authorities charge Professor Chayan Vaddhanaphuti and four participants of the 2017 International Conference on Thai Studies at Chiang Mai University with violating the junta's ban on public assembly. 

© 2017 Private

(New York) – Thai authorities should immediately drop charges against a prominent academic and four conference participants for violating the military junta’s ban on public assembly at a conference at Chiang Mai University in July 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The International Conference on Thai Studies included discussions and other activities that the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta deemed critical of military rule.

Professor Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, who faces up to one year in prison if convicted, is scheduled to report to police in Chiang Mai province on August 23. Four conference attendees – Pakawadee Veerapatpong, Chaipong Samnieng, Nontawat Machai, and Thiramon Bua-ngam – have been charged for the same offense for holding posters saying “An academic forum is not a military barrack” to protest the military’s surveillance of participants during the July 15-18 conference. None are currently in custody.

“Government censorship and military surveillance have no place at an academic conference,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “By prosecuting a conference organizer and participants, the Thai junta is showing the world its utter contempt for academic freedom and other liberties.”

By prosecuting a conference organizer and participants, the Thai junta is showing the world its utter contempt for academic freedom and other liberties.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Since taking power after the May 2014 coup, Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha has asserted that the airing of differences in political opinions could undermine social stability. Thai authorities have frequently forced the cancellation of community meetings, academic panels, issue seminars, and public forums on political matters, and especially issues related to dissent towards NCPO policies or the state of human rights in Thailand.

Frequently, these repressive interventions are based on the NCPO’s ban on public gatherings of more than five people, and orders outlawing public criticisms of any aspect of military rule. The junta views people who repeatedly express dissenting views and opinions, or show support for the deposed civilian government, as posing a threat to national security, and frequently arrests and prosecutes them under various laws.

Over the past three years, thousands of activists, politicians, journalists, and human rights defenders have been arrested and taken to military camps across Thailand for hostile interrogation aimed at stamping out dissident views and compelling a change in their political attitudes. Many of these cases took place in Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand, the hometown of former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra.

Most of those released from these interrogations, which the NCPO calls “attitude adjustment” programs, are forced to sign a written agreement that state they will cease making political comments, stop their involvement in political activities, or not undertake any actions to oppose military rule. Failure to comply with these written agreements can result in being detained again, or charged with the crime of disobeying the NCPO’s orders, which carries a sentence of up to two years in prison.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a party, protects the rights of individuals to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly. The UN committee that oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Thailand has also ratified, has advised governments that academic freedom, as an element of the right to education, includes: “the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the State or any other actor, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognized human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction.”

“Academics worldwide should call for the trumped-up charges against Professor Chayan and the four conference attendees to be dropped immediately,” Adams said. “Thailand faces a dim future if speech is censored, academic criticism is punished, and political discussions are banned even inside a university.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Phnom Penh, 14 August 2017 — Tep Vanny, one of Cambodia’s most prominent land activists and human rights defenders, will have spent one year in prison on 15 August for defending her community and exercising her human rights. We, the undersigned, condemn her arbitrary imprisonment. We call for her convictions to be overturned, for all ongoing politically motivated and unsubstantiated charges against her to be dropped, and for her immediate release from prison.

Tep Vanny has fought tirelessly to protect the rights of members of the Boeung Kak Lake community, following their forced eviction from their homes in Phnom Penh. More recently, she played a leading role in the so-called ‘Black Monday” campaign, challenging the arbitrary pre-trial detention of five human rights defenders, Lim Mony, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, Nay Vanda, and Ny Chakrya (the “Freethe5KH” detainees).

On 22 August 2016, following her arrest at a protest calling for the release of the five, she was convicted of ‘insulting of a public official’, and sentenced to six days in prison. However, instead of releasing her based on time served, the authorities reactivated dormant charges dating back to a 2013 protest and kept her in detention.

“It is clear that the authorities are using the courts to lock me up, silence my freedom of expression and break my spirit” said Tep Vanny. They want to stop me from advocating and seeking a solution for the remaining people from Boeung Kak Lake as well as other campaigns to demand justice in our society.”

On 19 September 2016, Tep Vanny was sentenced, along with three other Boeung Kak Lake community activists, to six months imprisonment for “insulting and obstructing public officials” in a reactivated case related to a 2011 peaceful protest calling for a resolution to the Boeung Kak Lake land dispute, despite the absence of credible inculpatory evidence. This conviction has since been upheld by the Court of Appeal on 27 February 2017. On 23 February 2017, following proceedings which fell short of fair trial standards,[1] Tep Vanny was convicted of “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances”, sentenced to a further 30 months in prison and fined more than 14 million riel (about US $3,500 – or twice the annual minimum wage in Cambodia) for having peacefully participated in protests calling for the release of her fellow activist Yorm Bopha, back in 2013.

While the #FreeThe5KH human rights defenders were released on bail on 29 June 2017, after having spent 427 days in arbitrary detention,[2] Tep Vanny remains in prison. She is currently on trial in a third reactivated case, facing charges of “public insult” and “death threats” brought by another member of the Boeung Kak Lake community, despite the complaint having been dropped by the community member.[3] On 8 August 2017, the Court of Appeal upheld her February 2017 conviction.

Human rights defenders, like any other person, should enjoy all the fundamental freedoms and rights guaranteed by international human rights law and the Constitution of Cambodia. This includes the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a State Party. The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders[4] affirms the right to promote and strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the duty of all states to allow them to work peacefully and safely, and to protect them from arrest, violence, threats, retaliation and any discrimination. In 2013, the UN General Assembly specifically recognized the valuable work of women human rights defenders, and the systemic and structural discrimination and violence they face, and called on States to ensure they can perform their important role.[5]

Human rights defenders are regularly subject to harassment through the criminal judicial system in Cambodia. Among the most commonly used tactics are suspended sentences and arbitrary resurrection of dormant charges which are used to intimidate human rights defenders and deter them from further activities. Tep Vanny’s current imprisonment is only the latest in a series of acts of harassment aimed at silencing her. It contributes to creating an atmosphere of fear for human rights defenders and other individuals throughout Cambodia. As a result of her imprisonment, Tep Vanny is prevented from carrying out her peaceful and valuable work as a woman human rights defender. Peaceful protest and expressions of dissent are not a crime, and human rights defenders should not be penalized for the exercise of their human rights.

“Tep Vanny is innocent. She is a woman who is greatly committed to fulfilling her duty as a citizen. Yet, she has been imprisoned three times already, because of the Cambodian judicial system” said Song Sreyleap, a fellow Boeung Kak Lake community activist. “Tep Vanny is the only woman activist in Cambodia who has been imprisoned and arrested so many times. This is very unjust for her; her children have to live without the mother’s care for one year. However, even with all the threats, her will remains unchanged.”

We call on the Cambodian authorities to quash the convictions of Tep Vanny, to release her from prison, and to cease their harassment of Tep Vanny and other Boeung Kak Lake activists through arrests, prosecution and imprisonment.

This joint statement is endorsed by:

1.     Adil Soz - International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech

2.     Amnesty International

3.     ARTICLE 19

4.     ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)

5.     Association of Caribbean Media Workers

6.     Boeung Bram community

7.     Boeung Chhouk Community

8.     Boeung Kak Community

9.     Boeung Trabek Community

10.  CamASEAN Youth’s Future

11.  Cambodia Development People Life Association (CDPLA)

12.  Cambodia Indigenous Youth Association (CIYA)

13.  Cambodian Alliance Trade Unions (CATU)

14.  Cambodian Center for Human Rights

15.  Cambodian Domestic Workers Network (CDWN)

16.  Cambodian Food and Service Workers' Federation (CFSWF)

17.  Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)

18.  Cambodian Independent Teacher Association (CITA)

19.  Cambodian Informal Economic Workers Association (CIEWA)

20.  Cambodian Labour Confederation (CLC)

21.  Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights           

22.  Canadian Journalists for Free Expression

23.  Cartoonists Rights Network International

24.  Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL)

25.  Center for Independent Journalism - Romania

26.  Centro de Reportes Informativos sobre Guatemala - CERIGUA

27.  Digital Rights Foundation

28.  Equitable Cambodia (EC)

29.  FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defender

30.  Foundation for Press Freedom - FLIP

31.  Free Media Movement

32.  Freedom Forum

33.  Gender and Development for Cambodia (GADC)

34.  Globe International Center

35.  Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF)

36.  Human Rights Watch

37.  Independent Journalism Center - Moldova

38.  Independent Monk Network for Social Justice (IMNSJ)

39.  Indigenous Youth at Brome Commune, Preah Vihear Province

40.  International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)

41.  International Press Centre (IPC)

42.  Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights and Development Association (KKKHRDA)

43.  Kuoy Ethnic Community, Prame Village, Preah Vihear Province

44.  Land Community, Prek Chik Village, Chikhor Kraom Commune, Koh Kong Province

45.  Land Conflict Community, Krenh Village, Pailin Province

46.  Land Conflict Community, Skun Village, Siem Reap

47.  Lor Peang community,Kampong Chhnang Province

48.  Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA)

49.  National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ)

50.  Norwegian PEN

51.  PEN American Center

52.  PEN Canada

53.  Ponlok Khmer

54.  Railway Station, Toul Sangkae A community

55.  Reach Sey Samaky Land Community Romchek Village, Battambang

56.  Samakum Teang Tnaut (STT)


58.  SOS International Airport Community

59.  Southeast Asian Press Alliance

60.  The Alliance for Conflict Transformation (ACT)

61.  The Asia Democracy Network

62.  The Building and Wood Workers Trade Union (BWTU)

63.  Vigilance pour la Démocratie et l’État Civique

64.  World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters - AMARC

65.  World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders


[1] Joint statement by civil society group, ‘Tep Vanny convicted again as para-police attacks supporters’ (23 Feb 2017),

[2] Press release by #Freethe5KH Campaign, welcoming their release and calling for all charges to be dropped (30 Jun 2017),

[3] Joint press release: ‘Cambodia: drop charges against land rights defenders’ (14 Jul 2017),

[4] United Nations General Assembly Resolution, ‘Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms’ (8 Mar 1999),

[5] United Nations General Assembly Resolution ‘Promotion of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: protecting women human rights defenders’, (18 Dec 2013),

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Add another category to the long list of people deemed a security threat to the Russian state: feminists.

Early this morning, a group of men broke into a tiny cottage near Dzhubga, a village in Russia’s southern Black Sea region of Krasnodar. The cottage was rented by five women who had traveled to the region for a feminist gathering.

Activists hoping to attend a gathering on feminism, instead harassed and brought to the Dzhubga police station in Krasnodar region, Russia, August 14, 2017.

© 2017 Private

One of the men identified himself as a police officer and told the women they were being brought to the Dzhubga police station for questioning about an alleged breach of public order. At the precinct, the women were forced to turn off their phones, searched, and required to file written statements explaining the purpose of their trip. When releasing the women without charge four hours later, officers wanted them to sign documents warning them against carrying out any “extremist activity.” The women refused.

The women – Lolita Agamalova, Lada Garina, Elena Ivanova, Taisia Simonova, and Oksana Vasyakina – had planned to spend a week in a small camp by the Black Sea to learn more about feminism and exchange best practices in a friendly environment free of “sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and any sort of xenophobia.” But a few days before the camp’s launch, Simonova and several others received hate messages on social networks from supposed Cossacks threatening to attack the camp because allegedly feminism runs contrary to “traditional values.” On August 12, another “Cossack” threatened Simonova, one of the organizers, on her cellphone. The organizers decided to cancel the camp for security reasons, but by that time, some of the participants were already on their way.

Cossacks, who identify themselves as a separate ethnic group in Russia, are known to maintain militia groups, especially in the south of the country, allegedly to help protect public order. They often harass and even physically attack civil society activists, at times appearing to act in collusion with local police authorities.

Once released from the Dzhubga police station, four of the women headed for a camping site near the town of Gelendzhik, where other feminist friends were staying. In the afternoon, a group of Cossacks confronted them and demanded to see their documents. Eventually, police showed up and suggested the women come with them. Fearing for their safety, the activists agreed. But once they arrived at the Divnomorskoe police station, the officers began treating them as suspects, asking intrusive questions about their trip and even trying to have them fingerprinted. Then, police brought in some of the women’s friends from the camping site and questioned them in turn. Instead of protecting the women from the Cossacks, the police played alongside them, seemingly also hoping to prevent feminists from gathering. The women and their friends were released well after dark. Each of them had to sign a paper saying she had been warned not to engage in “extremist activities.” 

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

(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities should immediately provide appropriate health care to the imprisoned journalist Hisham Gaafar, whose health, including his eyesight, is deteriorating in detention, Human Rights Watch said today. If prison authorities are unable to provide him necessary health care, they should allow him to seek care in private health facilities.

Egyptian journalist Hisham Gaafar before his detention in October 2015.

© Private

The Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency arrested Gaafar, director of the Mada Foundation for Media Development, a private media company, at his office in October 2015. Prosecutors have ordered Gaafar detained pending investigation on charges that include membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and illegally receiving foreign funds for his foundation, his lawyers told Human Rights Watch.

“Egypt’s Interior Ministry has shown contempt for Hisham Gaafar’s health and well-being,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that the Interior Ministry refuses to provide him his rightful care is a sad testament to Egyptian authorities’ disregard for detainees’ most basic rights.”

Gaafar, 53, has an eye condition – optic nerve atrophy – that requires ongoing specialist care or he may risk losing his sight altogether. He also suffers from a years-long prostate enlargement condition and risks complications if he does not receive the proper treatment. His eyesight is deteriorating and his health has worsened during his time in detention, in poor conditions, his family said.

Immediately following his arrest, police took Gaafar to his home, where officers seized his personal publications, work papers, computers, and phones, including those belonging to his wife and children. They detained his family inside the home for 17 hours. Security officers confiscated all his medical documents and reports and have not returned them to his family, despite their requests.

National Security officers then took Gaafar to an undisclosed location and held him for two days without access to his family or lawyers. His family heard of his whereabouts when a lawyer saw him by coincidence in the Supreme State Security Prosecution office in Cairo. Prosecutors have kept him in pretrial detention since then.

Under Egyptian law, prosecutors have broad power to hold those suspected of committing major offenses, including political and national security crimes, in pretrial detention for up to five months without regular judicial review, and judges can extend the detention for up to two years without requiring any substantive justification from prosecutors.

A judge should immediately review the necessity and legality of Gaafar’s detention and either send him to trial without further delays or release him, Human Rights Watch said.

During Gaafar’s time in detention, most of it spent in the maximum security Scorpion Prison in Cairo, the Interior Ministry’s Prisons Authority has not provided needed medicine but has intermittently allowed Gaafar to receive the eye vitamins and prostate medicine he required, after completely banning such supplies for the first two months of his detention. During those two months, his wife, Manar, told Human Right Watch, prison authorities kept Gaafar alone in a cell that, in his words, resembled a “tomb” without sunlight.

Later, they allowed his family very short and irregular visits, with no chance to verify whether he had received the medicine they had given to prison guards for him. Since March 2017, prison authorities have again denied him visits from relatives and his lawyer.

Before he was detained, Gaafar used special optic tools to read and glasses for everyday life. He also needed some assistance in his daily routine, his wife said. Prison authorities allowed his wife to deliver the glasses several months after his detention, but when they reached him, they were broken. The way the glasses were broken suggested it had been deliberate, his wife said. She delivered new ones, but he has not had a new eye examination. His wife said that he recently told her he was not seeing as well as before, even with the glasses, suggesting his eyesight may have deteriorated.

Gaafar has had optic nerve atrophy in both eyes since he was a teenager, according to his wife. Medical documents and reports from 2012, which she provided to Human Rights Watch after she retrieved them from a hospital, stated that at the time he had only 10 percent of his vision remaining in his left eye. Optic nerve atrophy has no cure, but it can be slowed by exposure to sunlight, medicine, and a healthy diet, his wife said doctors had told them. These are not available in adequate amounts to inmates at Scorpion Prison and many other Egyptian detention facilities.

A Human Rights Watch report on Scorpion Prison, published in 2016, documented cruel and inhuman treatment by officers of the Interior Ministry’s Prisons Authority that probably amounted to torture, including preventing food and medicine deliveries and other interference in medical care that may have contributed to prisoners’ deaths.

Hisham Gaafar sits on his bed in detention. His health has rapidly worsened while in detention, including marked weight loss, deteriorating eyesight, and a chronic prostate condition. 

© Private

Gaafar’s wife said he appeared weak and to have lost significant weight during her March 2017 visit. She said she saw bite marks all over his body, which he said were from insects that had infested his cell due to a sewage leak. He told her he had suffered pain for weeks because he was sleeping on the concrete floor without a mattress. Human Rights Watch previously documented that Scorpion Prison authorities deny inmates a wide variety of basic necessities for hygiene and comfort, including beds, pillows, and mattresses. 

In late February 2016, after a public outcry and growing criticism from the Journalists’ Syndicate, human rights organizations, and public figures, the authorities transferred Gaafar to the Tora Prison Hospital after he began suffering from urinary retention – the inability to fully empty his bladder. Prison authorities then transferred him to al-Manial University Hospital, which is affiliated with Cairo University. Doctors who examined him there on March 4, and again on March 10, 2016, asked prison officials to allow him to be kept at Cairo University hospitals to prepare for more tests, including diagnostic surgery on his enlarged prostate, the apparent cause of the urinary retention.

Gaafar spent five months at the prisoners’ ward at Qasr al-Aini Hospital, where ill inmates who are hospitalized are usually held, but the authorities repeatedly failed to give Gaafar timely permission to go for needed tests. Human Rights Watch has previously documented that prison authorities pressure hospitals not to admit inmates or to return them without necessary treatment.

Gaafar told his wife that he received very little medical care there. In August 2016, the authorities sent Gaafar back to Scorpion Prison before he had undergone the examinations that he was told he needed. Prison authorities and Cairo University hospitals have not allowed Gaafar’s family to read or obtain a copy of the medical reports issued during his detention, his wife said.

The family managed to obtain the hospital discharge report through unofficial means, however, and provided a copy to Human Rights Watch. The report contained no detailed information on any tests Gaafar may have undergone or treatment received but stated that he suffers from “mild prostate enlargement" and that "the patient needed no surgical intervention.” The report did not state what caused the enlargement or whether it was benign or cancerous – a primary concern for the family. 

A couple of days after returning to prison, Gaafar found blood in his urine, and officers transferred him again to Tora Prison Hospital. But the facilities there lack a urology specialist, his wife said, and the prison authorities have refused to arrange for Gaafar to be seen by one. He appeared before a court in August 2016 carrying a urinary catheter, his lawyers said.

His wife said that after filing several complaints, a National Security officer visited Gaafar in detention in November 2016, and told him, “don’t worry, we will treat you.” But Gaafar’s request to seek treatment in a private health facility was ignored.

One of his lawyers and his wife both told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors never allowed them to obtain a copy of the official charges against him or the rest of his case file. However, Hossam al-Sayed, another Mada Foundation journalist who was arrested with Gaafar on the same day, was released without bail in March 2016, said the lawyer Karim Abd al-Rady of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (an independent rights group).

Under an amendment to the penal code decreed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in September 2014, Gaafar could face a 25-year sentence if convicted of receiving foreign funds illegally.

Prisoners have the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health guaranteed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Egypt ratified in 1982.

The Committee Against Torture, the monitoring body of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – ratified by Egypt in 1986 – has found that failure to provide adequate medical care can violate the treaty’s prohibition of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

“It is deeply concerning that Egypt’s judiciary has become complicit in human rights violations by cruelly detaining people like Gaafar for years without justification, exposing them to serious abuse and harm,” Whitson said.

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

Pravit Rojanaphruk, a veteran journalist, faces sedition and computer crime charges for Facebook commentary critical of Thailand's military junta. 

© 2017 Pravit Rojanaphruk

(New York) – Thailand’s military government has charged a journalist and two prominent political critics with sedition and computer crimes for Facebook commentary critical of the junta, Human Rights Watch said today.

The criminal cases against Pravit Rojanaphruk, a veteran journalist at the online news website Khaosod English, Pichai Naripthaphan, former energy minister, and Watana Muangsook, former social development and human security minister, are the latest examples of the Thai government’s contempt for the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful dissent.

“The Thai junta’s dictatorial reach has expanded well beyond traditional sources to social media like Facebook,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “These dubious charges for peaceful Facebook commentary should be dropped immediately.”

The Thai junta’s dictatorial reach has expanded well beyond traditional sources to social media like Facebook.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

On August 8, 2017, the Police Technology Crime Suppression Division charged Pravit with sedition and computer crimes for posting comments on his Facebook page criticizing military rule and the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta’s slow response to flooding in northeastern provinces.

Last week, the police charged former government ministers Pichai and Watana with sedition and computer crime charges for their Facebook commentary about Thailand’s political and economic problems under Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha. Watana was also charged with sedition for using his Facebook page to express support for the deposed former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Prior to these arrests, the authorities had repeatedly called all three men to military camps to undergo interrogations aimed at “adjusting their political attitude” to conform with the demands of the junta. None are currently in custody.

Sedition, which carries up to a seven-year prison sentence, is broadly defined under article 116 of Thailand’s Criminal Code as:

Whoever makes apparent to the public by words, writing or any other means anything which is not an act within the purpose of the constitution or which is not the expression of an honest opinion or criticism (a) in order to bring about a change in the laws or the government by the use of coercion or violence, (b) in order to raise confusion or disaffection amongst the people to the point of causing unrest in the kingdom, or (c) have people violate the law.

The junta regularly considers persons who repeatedly express dissenting views and opinions, or show support for the previous Yingluck government as posing a threat to national security and therefore culpable under the sedition statute.

Thailand’s Computer-Related Crime Act gives broad powers to the authorities to restrict online speech and enforce surveillance and censorship. The government considers posting critical commentary on the internet about the NCPO and the government as an offense under article 14 of the law regarding “distorted” and “false” information, with violators facing up to five years in prison.

Since the military coup in May 2014, at least 40 people have been charged with sedition. These include former education minister Chaturon Chaisaeng for a speech at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand criticizing military rule; “Red Shirt” activist Sombat Boongamanong for Facebook and Twitter posts, calling people to join peaceful anti-coup rallies; activist Pansak Srithep for calling on the military to be held accountable for the 2010 political violence and to end military trials of civilians; 14 activists from the New Democracy Movement for staging a peaceful rally demanding a transition to democratic civilian rule; housewife Theerawan Charoensuk for posting photos on Facebook of her holding a plastic bowl inscribed with Thai new year greetings from former prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra; human rights lawyer Sirikan Charoensiri for providing legal assistance to anti-coup activists during peaceful protests; and, “Yellow Shirt” activist Veera Somkwamkid for posting a satirical questionnaire on Facebook taunting General Prayut’s claims of achievement.

Thailand has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which prohibits restrictions on freedom of expression on national security grounds unless they are provided by law, strictly construed, and necessary and proportionate to address a legitimate security threat. Laws that impose criminal penalties for peaceful expression are especially problematic because they have chilling effects on free speech that go well beyond the particular individuals who are charged.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that monitors compliance with the ICCPR, stated in a general comment on freedom expression that:

[T]he mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties.… Moreover, all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition. Accordingly, the Committee expresses concern regarding laws on such matters as … disrespect for authority, … and the protection of the honor of public officials. [Governments] should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.

In March 2017, Thailand’s delegation told the Human Rights Committee during the review of Thailand’s compliance with the ICCPR that the government respected freedom of expression. However, the junta’s record on free expression has been poor since authorities have repeatedly harassed and prosecuted people for their speech, writings, and internet postings critical of the government.

“After more than three years in power, the Thai junta has failed to show any real commitment to reversing its abusive rights practices or protecting fundamental freedoms,” Adams said. “Governments around the world should call out Thailand for claiming to respect rights while willfully violating them.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Vu Minh Khanh (C) holds an image of her husband Nguyen Van Dai as Catholics hold candles and images of Dai's assistant Le Thu Ha during a mass prayer for Dai and Ha at Thai Ha church in Hanoi, December 27, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters/Kham

(Sydney) – Australia should press for significant progress on human rights at its August 10, 2017 bilateral human rights dialogue with Vietnam in Canberra in light of sharply worsening conditions, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch made a submission covering key areas for improvement, such as political prisoners and detainees, ending harassment and violence against activists and dissidents, and respecting freedom of expression and religion.

“Vietnam is making an all-out effort to repress criticism online in 2017,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “Australia and other countries need to have a uniform approach in holding the Vietnamese government accountable, and this means being more vocal about the worsening crackdown on bloggers and activists.”

Australia and other countries need to have a uniform approach in holding the Vietnamese government accountable, and this means being more vocal about the worsening crackdown on bloggers and activists.

Elaine Pearson

Australia Director

The government of Vietnam has a long record of limiting freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly for groups that criticize the government. Those brave enough to speak out often face multiple forms of police harassment, including intimidation of family members, arbitrary prohibitions on travel within Vietnam or abroad, brutal physical assaults, and fines.

Authorities also arbitrarily detain and hold people incommunicado for long periods without access to legal counsel or family visits. Courts impose long prison terms for violating vague national security provisions that criminalize speech and activism critical of the government. Police frequently torture suspects to elicit confessions and sometimes respond to public protests with excessive use of force.

Vietnam cracks down on bloggers and activists who post critical opinions on social media, charging many under article 88 of the penal code for “conducting propaganda against the state.” More than 100 activists are in prison for exercising their basic freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and religion.

Vietnamese bloggers and rights activists are being beaten, threatened and intimidated with impunity. 

In June, Human Rights Watch released a report that documented 36 recent attacks on human rights activists, including beatings by people in civilian clothes who appeared to be acting at the behest of the authorities, or with their permission. Police usually fail to act on complaints against such assailants. In some cases, the assaults took place in plain view of uniformed police officers who did not intervene, even when the beatings took place in a police station.

Most recently, Tran Thi Nga, also known as Thuy Nga, was sentenced to nine years in prison under article 88 in a one-day trial after sharing articles and videos online that highlighted ongoing rights abuses tied to environmental crises and political corruption. Reports in state media said she was indicted for “defaming the administration” and “spreading reactionary ideas.” A month earlier, blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, also known as Mother Mushroom, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, also under article 88.

Rights activists and bloggers are not the only ones susceptible to criminal charges under Vietnam’s draconian penal code. On January 1, 2018, a revised penal code comes into force that will hold defense lawyers criminally responsible for not reporting their clients to the authorities for a number of crimes, including “national security” crimes as defined under article 88. Human Rights Watch has protested that such a law will eviscerate the right to a defense.

The government has released political prisoners following foreign pressure. On July 28, 2017, a religious activist, Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh, was released and, following a meeting with United States officials, sent to the US after being sentenced to 11 years of imprisonment for “undermining national unity policy” under penal code article 87. His wife was harassed and beaten after meeting with the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, David Saperstein, in March 2016.

However, two days after Nguyen’s release, on July 30, 2017, police arrested four prominent rights activists and former political prisoners – Nguyen Bac Truyen, Nguyen Trung Ton, Pham Van Troi, and Truong Minh Duc – for allegedly carrying out “activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration,” according to article 79 of the penal code.

Police have also announced that prominent lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, and his fellow activist, Le Thu Ha, will be charged under article 79 for conducting propaganda against the state rather than article 88 and linked their cases with the recent arrests. Authorities arrested both in December 2015, and have detained them ever since. At least 14 other rights activists have been arrested and charged with vaguely defined national security violations since November 2016, pending investigation.

“Vietnamese bloggers and activists face daily harassment, intimidation, violence, and imprisonment,” Pearson said. “Australia needs to unequivocally pressure Vietnam to stop these abuses.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Filep Karma, a former Papuan political prisoner, at a seaport in Cilacap to visit Moluccan political prisoners on Nusa Kambangan prison island.

© 2016 Andreas Harsono/Human Rights Watch

The Indonesian government has been doing something remarkable over the past year with its political prisoners in Papua and West Papua provinces: Releasing them.

There are currently only between one and five Papuan political prisoners behind bars compared to a tally of 37 at the end of August 2016, according to Human Rights Watch sources. The exact number of Papuan political prisoners still in prison is uncertain because the Ministry of Law and Human Rights has declined to respond to a Human Rights Watch request for an official total of those prisoners.

The Ministry’s reticence to confirm that reduction is curious, not just because it means freedom for dozens of Papuans unfairly prosecuted and imprisoned for merely exercising their rights of freedom of expression and association. It also indicates that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is making good on a pledge to release Papuan political prisoners as a means “to stop the stigma of conflict in Papua.”

In May 2015 Jokowi took the unprecedented step for an Indonesian head of state to personally present clemency documents authorising the release of five Papuan political prisoners at Abepura prison in Papua’s provincial capital of Jayapura. At that ceremony, he announced that the release of those prisoners was “just the beginning” of an official effort to empty Papua’s prisons of political prisoners, with an aim to “create a sense of peace in Papua.”

Six months later, the government released Filep Karma, a Papuan political prisoner who became an international symbol of the Indonesian government’s abuse of Papuans’ rights of freedom of expression and association. Karma has noted that the release of Papuan political prisoners is the result of targeted legal mechanisms, including clemency and sentence reductions, that previous Indonesian administrations had generally denied Papuan political prisoners.

The Indonesian government has legitimate security concerns in Papua stemming from the ongoing, low-intensity conflict with the armed separatist Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka or OPM). But the government’s disproportionate response to that threat has included decades-long restrictions on access to Papua by foreign media, academics, and observers as well as a failure by security forces to distinguish between violent acts and peaceful expression of political views.

Unfortunately, Jokowi’s moves to purge Indonesia’s prisons of Papuan political prisoners will prove short-lived unless the government abolishes the abusive laws against makar, or treason, that put those prisoners behind bars in the first place. The government has long wielded Articles 106 and 110 of the Indonesian Criminal Code to impose multi-decade prison terms on peaceful protesters advocating independence or other political change. Many such arrests and prosecutions are of activists who peacefully raise banned symbols, such as the Papuan Morning Star and the South Moluccan RMS flags. (Human Rights Watch takes no position on the right to self-determination, but opposes imprisonment of people who peacefully express support for self-determination.)

Moluccan political prisoners at Nusa Kambangan Prison Island.

And Papuans have a lot to complain about in terms of a lack of accountability for decades of abuses by the security forces. Heavy-handed responses to peaceful activities have resulted in numerous human rights violations.

Over the past decade, Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases in which police, military, intelligence officers, and prison guards have used unnecessary or excessive force when dealing with Papuans exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and association. Although the government announced in April 2016 the creation of a task force to develop a roadmap to investigate and resolve more than a dozen Papua’s most serious past human rights abuses, it has failed to provide it with the authority and funding to do so.

And the Jokowi government has itself failed miserably to provide accountability for more recent abuses. Exhibit A is the December 8, 2014 killing by security forces of five Papuan youths in Enarotali in Paniai regency of Papua. Despite three separate official investigations into the shootings—bolstered by Jokowi’s December 2014 pledge to thoroughly investigate and punish security forces implicated in those deaths—there has to date been zero accountability. And despite official pledges of a thorough probe into the August 1, 2017 police killing of 28-year-old Yulius Pigai of West Papua’s remote Deiyai regency, we will likewise probably never know the circumstances of his death.

Meanwhile, Jokowi is turning a blind eye to the plight of Indonesia’s other political prisoners, from Ambon in the Moluccas (Maluku) archipelago. A total of 13 Moluccan political prisoners, the last of 28 prisoners convicted for treason for performing a protest dance in June 2007, remain behind bars in the prisons of Nusa Kambangan and Porong on Java, roughly 3,000 kilometres from Ambon. That distance, and the onerous financial expense of travel between Ambon and those prisons, mean that those 13 men, mostly farmers and fishermen, have not seen any family members since their 2009 transfer. The isolation has inflicted profound emotional, psychological, and emotional stress on both the prisoners and their families.

In April 2016, Indonesia’s Minister of Law and Human Rights Yasonna Laoly orally committed to a visiting Human Rights Watch delegation in Jakarta to arrange those prisoners’ transfer to detention facilities in Ambon. But more than a year later, they remain behind bars, far from their loved ones, with no hope of seeing their families until their sentences elapse in 2027.

Jokowi’s efforts to release political prisoners are a long overdue positive change, but Indonesia can’t claim to be a democratic, progressive state while still locking up citizens for merely expressing their rights of freedom of expression and association.

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

(Beirut) – Omani authorities should quash the conviction of an editor at Azamn newspaper who was arrested nearly a year ago, free him immediately, and allow the paper to reopen, Human Rights Watch said today. Charges against the editor and the reason given for shutting down the newspaper were so vague as to be arbitrary. Given that the case criminalized criticism of the judiciary, they also amounted to violations of freedom of expression.

Yusuf al-Haj. 

© 2016 Private

The Omani authorities closed Azamn newspaper on August 9, 2016, after it published an article titled, “Higher Authorities Tie the Hands of Justice,” on July 26 that alleged corruption within the judiciary. The authorities arrested three journalists – Ibrahim al-Ma’mari, the editor-in-chief; Zaher al-Abri, who oversees the newspaper’s local coverage; and Yousef al-Haj, the deputy editor, who remains in custody. The Oman authorities have taken action in recent months against several other journalists and authors who criticized the government.

“The Azamn newspaper case shows the extent of the threat against activists who seek to expose government corruption in Oman,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Oman should allow Azamn to start publishing again, free its deputy editor Yousef al-Haj immediately, and stop trying to silence critics of the government.”

Following the publication of the article, Oman authorities arrested al-Ma’mari on July 28, and al-Abri on August 3. On August 7, Azamn published an interview with Ali bin Salem al-No’mani, the vice president of the Omani Supreme Court, in which al-No’mani supported the allegations in the earlier article concerning officials’ actions that had undermined the judiciary’s independence. Hours later, the Information Ministry announced the immediate closure of Azamn. Oman’s Internal Security Service arrested al-Haj at a barber shop the same day.

In September, the Court of First Instance in Muscat charged al-Ma’mari and al-Haj with “disturbing public order,” “misusing the internet,” “publishing details of a civil case,” and “undermining the prestige of the state,” and al-Abri with using “an information network [the internet] for the dissemination of material that might be prejudicial to public order,” sentencing them to three years in prison and a fine of 3,000 Omani Rials (US$7,800). The court sentenced al-Abri to one year in prison and fined him 1,000 Omani Rials ($2,600).

On December 29, an appeal court acquitted al-Abri and reduced al-Ma’mari’s sentence to six months and al-Haj’s to a year. Al-Ma’mari was released from the Central Prison in Muscat on April 10, 2017, while al-Haj remains in custody.

Oman authorities have targeted Azamn and al-Haj before for their criticism. On September 21, 2011, a Muscat court convicted al-Haj of “defaming” and “insulting the dignity” of the justice minister and his deputy and sentenced him to five months in prison for the charges relating to each of the two officials. The judge also ordered the newspaper shut down for a month. The charges stemmed from an article al-Haj wrote on May 14, 2011, alleging that the justice minister and his deputy refused to grant a salary and grade increase to a longtime civil servant.

Omani authorities have also closed down other publications that have been critical of the government. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) reported that on May 3, 2017, Oman’s Internal Security Service (ISS) ordered the website of the local independent magazine Mowaten to be blocked throughout the country. Human Rights Watch reported in February that Omani authorities had barred the family of Mowaten’s editor-in-chief and founder, Mohammad al-Fazari, who currently lives in the United Kingdom, from traveling outside the country.

In February, the Omani Center for Human Rights reported that the management of Muscat’s annual International Book Fair withdrew two books that were critical of the government. One was a compilation of Mowaten articles and the other an anthology by the poet Ahmed al-Raimi titled, “To You No Loyalty.”

On May 23, the Court of First Instance in Muscat sentenced a writer and researcher, Mansour Bin Nasser al-Mahrazi, to three years in prison for his book, “Oman in the Square of Corruption,” which was published in 2016. The court issued the sentence despite the fact that the writer himself removed the book from the Omani book market, according to the Omani Center for Human Rights. On the same day, the court ordered the release of al-Mahrazi after he paid the bail, the human rights group reported.

The authorities restrict digital content and online criticism using article 61 of Oman’s 2002 Telecommunications Act, which penalizes “any person who sends, by means of telecommunications system, a message that violates public order or public morals.” Human Rights Watch has documented the spread of these legal restrictions on the right to free expression, particularly targeting social media, across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in its “140 Characters” report featuring activists who have been prosecuted for views they expressed online.

This spate of arrests and closures of independent media outlets violate international standards of freedom of expression, particularly the right to criticize government officials. The United Nations Human Rights Committee sets a high bar for restricting criticism against government officials and has emphasized that the “mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Tunis) – A Moroccan court on July 25, 2017, sentenced a prominent journalist to three months in prison on a charge that violates his right to peaceful speech, Human Rights Watch said today. The journalist, Hamid Mahdaoui, is in prison in Casablanca and is under investigation on other charges.

A court of first instance in Al Hoceima sentenced Mahdaoui, who directs the news website, to the prison term and a fine of 20,000 dirhams (US$2,000) for helping to organize and inciting people to participate in an unauthorized protest. The case was based on comments he made in a public square in Al Hoceima on July 19, supporting the “Hirak” protest movement over government neglect of the central Rif region and condemning the government’s decision to ban a Hirak demonstration planned for July 20.

Screenshot from a video of Hamid Mahdaoui, a Moroccan journalist and director of the news website, speaking on his Youtube channel. 

© 2017 Hamid Mahdaoui/Youtube

“Disagreeing with a state policy and applauding public protest shouldn’t land anyone in prison,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of banning protests and imprisoning journalists, Morocco should enforce its own constitution, which guarantees free speech and free assembly.”

Mahdaoui became popular in Morocco from the many videos on social media that feature him offering political and social commentary and interviewing public figures. He had previously been convicted for disseminating “false news” in cases involving the then-minister of justice, a governor, and the head of the national police. In the first two cases, the court sentenced Mahdaoui to suspended prison terms; those verdicts are still on appeal. The third case was settled after the plaintiff dropped the charges.

On the evening of July 19, while Mahdaoui was walking in one of Al Hoceima’s main squares, fans stopped him, asked to take selfies with him, and pressed him to comment on the Hirak movement, his lawyer, Lahbib Hajji, told Human Rights Watch. A video of the gathering filmed by a police officer was used as evidence in Mahdaoui’s trial. According to a transcript of the video, Mahdaoui criticized the government’s decision to ban the July 20 protest, saying, “It is our right to protest in a peaceful and civilized manner; (…) I am oppressed and looked down upon, it is my right to express myself and demonstrate.”

Human Rights Watch watched the video and read the transcript and found nothing in either that contains a direct incitement by Mahdaoui to others to participate in the banned July 20 protest. Hajji, the lawyer, said that the court did not provide any other evidence than the video and transcript.

Plainclothes police agents arrested Mahdaoui on July 20 in Al Hoceima, as described by a friend accompanying him. After Mahdaoui spent three days in pretrial detention, a prosecutor charged him with “inciting people to commit a serious or minor offense by means of speeches and shouting … in a public place” and “participating in the organization of an unauthorized protest” (article 299-1 of Morocco’s penal code and article 14 of the Law on Public Assemblies, respectively). The appeals trial has yet to begin.

Morocco’s 2011 constitution guarantees the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and peaceful protest. The Law on Public Assemblies requires organizers only to notify officials of an upcoming demonstration, rather than to obtain prior authorization. But the law allows local authorities to ban the event if they believe that it could disturb the public order.

Officials announced the ban on July 17, justifying it on the basis that the organizers of the march lacked the legal status that the Law on Public Assemblies requires of demonstration sponsors. The police dispersed the hundreds of people who attempted to demonstrate on July 20 despite the ban.

On July 28, authorities transferred Mahdaoui from Al Hoceima prison to Casablanca’s Oukacha prison, at the request of an investigative judge in Casablanca who was examining another case against him. The case is based on investigations into the Hirak protests conducted by the National Brigade of the Judiciary police, according to a communiqué issued July 28 by the office of the prosecutor attached to Casablanca’s Court of Appeals.

The second case is based on evidence collected from tapping Mahdaoui’s phone. On December 1, 2016, the president of Rabat’s Court of Appeals granted the Judiciary Police the authorization to tap 30 telephone lines, including Mahdaoui’s, as part of an investigation into the Hirak protests. Authorities produced a transcript, dated June 2, 2017, of a phone conversation between Mahdaoui and a man identified as “Noureddine,” purportedly a Moroccan anti-monarchy activist based in the Netherlands. 

According to the transcript, Noureddine mentioned that he and others intended to smuggle weapons in Morocco and “purchase tanks” to create armed strife in support of the Hirak movement. The transcript shows that Mahdaoui repeatedly urged Noureddine to abandon any such notion, highlighting that the Hirak protests were peaceful and should remain so.

According to the July 28 communiqué, the prosecutor asked the investigating judge to keep Mahdaoui in custody and look into whether he had failed to report an attempt to harm the state’s internal security, an offense that could bring up to five years in prison under article 209 of the penal code. The investigative judge accepted the prosecutor’s request.

The court rejected a petition for provisional release filed on August 2.

The Hirak protest movement in the Rif sprang from an incident in October 2016, in which a fishmonger was killed while trying to rescue his goods that authorities had just confiscated. The movement has staged mass protests to end what they consider to be the government’s discrimination against the region in terms of economic development.

“A journalist has the same right as any Moroccan citizen to criticize the prohibition of a protest rally without being sent to jail for incitement,” Whitson said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Soltan Achilova.

© 2011 (RFE/RL)
(Berlin) – An independent journalist, Soltan Achilova, has been the victim of harassment and a series of targeted attacks and death threats, Human Rights Watch and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) said today. With the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games to be hosted in Ashgabat from September 17 to 27, the leadership of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), the owner and organizer of the games, should urge the Turkmen government to ensure that all journalists can do their work without fear of retaliation ahead of, during, and after the games.
In an August 4, 2017 joint letter to the Olympic Council of Asia, TIHR, a Vienna-based nongovernmental organization, and Human Rights Watch urged the Olympic Council of Asia to speak out publicly and privately against the attacks and death threats, and to remind the government that the Olympic Charter demands respect for media freedom. The Olympic Council of Asia needs to address the Turkmen government’s clampdown on independent voices, call for the release of unjustly imprisoned journalists, and secure guarantees from the government that it will ensure full press freedom.
“The Olympic Council of Asia has a responsibility to apply and uphold the Olympic Charter, which includes principles of press freedoms and human dignity,” said Farid Tukhbatullin, director of TIHR. “It should press the Turkmen government to ensure that Achilova and other independent correspondents like her can carry out their work without reprisal or undue interference.”
Achilova, 67, is a journalist with Radio Azatlyk, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Turkmen service, the only independent media source on Turkmenistan that offers regular Turkmen-language news reporting. Her reporting covers a range of social issues, such as drinking water shortages, problems in the national healthcare system, and the like. In recent years, Achilova has repeatedly been intimidated and harassed for her work, as have her fellow Radio Azatlyk colleagues.
From July 27 to 31, men Achilova did not know severely harassed and intimidated her, including with death threats, demanding that she stop taking photographs, which is a routine part of her journalism work. In one incident, on July 31, a man in civilian clothes claimed that he was from the police and that he was instructed to prevent Achilova from taking any photographs. In three other episodes, the men physically prevented her from taking harmless photographs by grabbing and, at one point, twisting her arms. In one of the incidents, the assailant threatened to “destroy” Achilova and her camera and said she had “one foot in the grave,” and that she was “already dead.”
The Turkmen media operates in a very restrictive environment. There is absolutely no media independence or pluralism. Foreign media often cannot work in Turkmenistan, and local contributors to foreign outlets have been harassed, intimidated, and jailed, in an effort to silence them.
In one case, Gaspar Matalaev, an Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) activist, remains imprisoned on false charges of fraud that were brought in retaliation for his work monitoring state-sponsored forced labor in the cotton harvest. In another, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a freelance contributor to Radio Azatlyk, has been serving a three-year sentence since July 2015 on bogus drug charges, after he took photographs of an amusement park on the Caspian Sea coast.
Internet access in Turkmenistan remains limited and heavily state-controlled. For years, the government has waged a campaign to force people to dismantle their privately owned satellite dishes and subscribe to government-controlled cable television packages that cut them off entirely from alternative sources of information.
Turkmenistan’s history of severe restrictions on media freedoms and persistent harassment of independent correspondents and activists inside and outside Turkmenistan make it clear that the latest attacks against Achilova are part of the authorities’ efforts to silence critics, TIHR and Human Rights Watch said.
Turkmenistan’s failure to allow for media freedoms is a serious violation of its obligations under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects the right to freedom of expression. Turkmenistan has been a party to the ICCPR since 1997.
Human Rights Watch has written to the Olympic Council of Asia in December 2016 and February 2017, warning about repression in Turkmenistan, without response.
“The Olympic Council of Asia should act now to get the Turkmen government to change its miserable treatment of media and dire human rights situation ahead of the games,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If the OCA doesn’t send a clear message to the government to stop intimidation and harassment of critics, the games risk being overshadowed by severe human rights violations.”
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am