“This bill will be the last one. The first and the last one.” That is how Emmanuel Macron answered the question I had just asked him: “What would happen, Mr. President, if France were hit by another terrorist attack in the coming months? Would you propose yet another bill?”

French police and anti-crime brigade (BAC) members secure a street as they carried out a counter-terrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris, France, July 21, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters/Charles Platiau

The exchange took place last Friday, in the late afternoon. I was in the Elysée as part of a delegation of leading human rights organizations, lawyers and magistrates to meet President Macron and two of his advisors. We had come to express our concerns and criticisms of two bills drafted by the government and submitted to Parliament: a sixth extension of the state of emergency until November, and a counterterrorism bill directly inspired by the provisions of the state of emergency. This bill would make permanent special powers which were supposed to be temporary, introduced as necessary only for the extraordinary circumstances of a time-limited state of emergency.

For over an hour and a half, we set out methodically the abuses committed against ordinary citizens when those powers were used under the state of emergency. We warned the President that the counterterrorism bill would entrench what were exceptional powers into regular law and pose grave dangers for fundamental rights and the rule of law. We denounced the lack of evaluation of the effectiveness of state of emergency measures and of the existing legal arsenal for counterterrorism. We lamented the choice of an accelerated procedure for the parliamentary review of these two proposed bills, depriving the country of what ought to be a meaningful democratic debate about the concept of liberty, one of France’s founding values.

But despite this discussion, President Macron did not waver.

Far from reinforcing freedoms, as the President claimed this past Monday in his speech to Parliament, the new bill would entrench in regular law abusive powers introduced under the state of emergency. It would normalize the considerable powers awarded by the state of emergency to the Ministry of the Interior and the administrative police. The drastic weakening of judicial safeguards, which are the foundation of the rule of law and an essential defense against abuse, would become permanent. In effect it treats France as if it is always in a state of emergency. By authorizing “assigned residence orders”, whereby individuals’ freedom of movement is severely limited even though they have not been accused of a crime, this new bill also confirms a dangerous shift towards so-called preventive justice. Just this week we’ve learned that since the state of emergency was declared in November 2015, there have been 708 assigned residence orders. More than one a day. This is a trend, not a small set of isolated actions. The “logic of suspicion”, on which these orders are predicated, opens the door to significant abuse.

During the meeting, the President admitted that the state of emergency can foster “arbitrary behaviors” and has led to « excesses ». Emmanuel Macron, then a candidate, had himself expressed in his book, Revolution “that reducing the freedoms of all, and the dignity of each citizen, has never anywhere led to an increase in security.” Despite that, Emmanuel Macron chose to follow in the footsteps of governments that, over the last two decades, have responded to the threat of terrorism with ever harsher laws, turning France into the country with the most expansive counterterrorism laws in Europe. Members of Parliament, a large majority of whom are supportive of the President, will most likely adopt the bill without much opposition. Macron may well say this is his “first and last law” on security; but recent history in France and elsewhere teaches us that once states start down this legislative slope, more repressive laws follow.

If we refer to the past 18 months, France may well be addicted to emergency powers. As a responsible leader, however, the French President’s job is to break that dependency and resist the temptation to react to the fear of another attack with laws that do more harm to rights than they do good to security. As activists, lawyers, and voices of civil society, that is what we will keep telling the President and our elected representatives. End the state of emergency, don’t simply inject a dose of it into ordinary law. 

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

French soldiers from Operation Barkhane stand outside their armored personnel carrier during a sandstorm in Inat, Mali, May 26, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters
“The jihadists are the law now,” an elder from central Mali told me. “The very day the French-supported operation finished, the Islamists were back in the villages,” confided another villager last week, referring to a military operation near the Mali-Burkina Faso border in April.

The endurance of the jihadist recruitment success and their appeal to many villagers suggests that military operations on their own will not be sufficient to defeat the threat. President Emmanuel Macron should keep this in mind when he visits the country this Friday.

Hailed as a military success, the 2013 French-led military intervention in northern Mali ended the region’s occupation by ethnic Tuareg separatists and armed Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda. But since 2015, attacks against Malian forces and abuses by Al-Qaeda-linked groups have moved southward to Mali’s previously stable central regions and, last year, spread into neighboring Burkina Faso.

Since 2015, I’ve interviewed scores of witnesses and victims to abuses in central Mali. They described how, in recent months, groups of up to 50 Islamist fighters closed down schools, banned women from riding on motorcycles driven by men other than their husbands, and imposed their version of Sharia (Islamic law). “We used to spend days celebrating a marriage or baptism, dancing and singing together,” one man said. “Not anymore.”

Men accused of being informants for the Malian government often turn up dead. Since 2015, Islamists have executed at least 40 men in their custody, including village chiefs and local officials. Some were murdered in front of their families. Several people said they felt pressured to send one of their sons to join the Islamists.

However, an equal number of villagers told me they welcomed the presence of the Islamist groups in central Mali; they saw them as a benevolent alternative to a state they associate with predatory and abusive governance. Many seethed as they described Malian army abuses during counterterrorism operations, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and executions.

Since late 2016, I have documented the alleged extrajudicial killing by soldiers of 12 detainees, the most recent in early May, and the forced disappearance of several others. Villagers described how soldiers detained and executed three family members in January. “We heard gunshots in the distance,” one witness said. “I followed the tracks of the army truck and found our people in a shallow grave.” This week, I received a desperate email from the brother of a man forced into a white pickup by men in uniform on February 3. “We have heard nothing; we have searched everywhere,” he said.

While the behavior of the state security services has improved in recent years, Malian authorities have made no meaningful  effort to investigate those implicated in violations.

The jihadists speak a lot about corruption… how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us. Honestly, they don’t need to try very hard to recruit the youth.

Villagers said the Islamists are recruiting by exploiting frustrations over poverty, abusive security services, rampant banditry, local Peuhl clan rivalries, and, especially, corruption.

“The jihadists speak a lot about corruption… how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us,” one elder said. “Honestly, they don’t need to try very hard to recruit the youth…”

Villagers also said the Islamists are increasingly filling the governance vacuum. They welcomed Islamist efforts to investigate and punish livestock thieves, including by executions. Others praised Sharia rulings in favor of victims of domestic violence or spousal abandonment. Elders from both the sedentary Bambara and pastoral Peuhl communities credited the Islamists’ efforts in late 2016 to resolve deadly land disputes. This meaningfully reduced communal violence in some regions, they said.

“We are fed up with paying bribes every time you meet a man in uniform or government official,” one villager said. “The Islamists get all this done without asking for taxes, money, or one of our cows.”

It was corruption, poor governance, and abusive security force conduct that significantly contributed  to Mali’s spectacular collapse in 2012. The burden to resolve this situation lies first and foremost with the Malian government. But the French strategy in Mali and the wider Sahel won’t succeed without helping Mali to address the issues underlying decades of insecurity and the growing support for abusive armed Islamist groups. Military operations, including those supported by the French, are not enough to pull Mali from this deepening quagmire.

When President Macron visits Mali on Friday, he should urge the government to professionalize the security forces and hold them accountable, to support the chronically neglected judiciary, and to take concrete action against rampant corruption. Strengthening Mali’s weak rule of law institutions is complicated work, but no counterterrorism strategy can succeed without it.

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

Like an addict, France does not know how to quit its state of emergency even though it has become clear that maintaining it erodes the rule of law and fosters human rights abuses while not keeping the country safer. The February 22 report by the parliamentary commission tasked with monitoring the state of emergency provided yet another reminder that it no longer serves any meaningful purpose.

French police and anti-crime brigade (BAC) secure a street they carried out a counter-terrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris, France, July 21, 2016.

REUTERS/Charles Platiau

The commission president, Dominique Raimbourg, from the governing Socialist Party, noted that activity under the state of emergency has been “greatly reduced” since the last extension. His fellow commission member, Jean-Frédéric Poisson, from the main opposition party Les Republicains, noted that “time that passes erodes the efficiency and nature of the state of emergency.” A French commission of inquiry into the Paris attacks had already concluded back in July 2016 that  the state of emergency had “limited impact” on improving security and any effect it may have had “quickly dissipated.”

Human Rights Watch’s own research has found repeated abuses against ordinary people during policing operations under emergency powers.

So why is France maintaining the state of emergency despite repeated warnings by its own oversight mechanisms?

It is mainly due to confusion by politicians about the purpose of a state of emergency. Many have said that it is justified by an ongoing terrorist risk. This was clearly displayed in December 2016 when Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux justified his request for a fifth extension by saying that “the terrorist threat was at its highest.” Under this reasoning, a state of emergency is needed as long as there is a high security risk.

This reasoning is dangerous on many levels. By suggesting that regular laws, procedures, and oversight mechanisms are not sufficient to counter threats, it weakens the premise of the rule of law and relegates it to a luxury for “normal” times. But it also sets the stage for the trap in which France finds itself. French leaders have implied that they will only lift the state of emergency when the security risk has subsided but since they can’t predict the risk of future terrorist attacks, they prefer to maintain it rather than pay a political price if a subsequent attack takes place.

So lifting the state of emergency becomes less dependent on security considerations and more on political calculations. This would explain why France’s latest extension was driven by the electoral calendar, punting the issue to the next president and legislature. Call it political procrastination, or perhaps more aptly, political cowardice.

This disconnect between its initial purpose and current raison d’être was captured nicely by Sébastien Pietrasanta, a parliamentarian and rapporteur for the commission investigating the state’s response to the November 2015 attacks, who recently noted that “the effect of the state of emergency is fading and yet we extend it…even though the link with terrorism is quite tenuous.”

I have seen this logic at play in the Middle East. Egypt and Syria, countries I have worked on for years, maintained their states of emergency for 31 and 48 years respectively. Every time the state of emergency was up for renewal, the country’s rulers argued that the risk was still there or that the timing was not right to lift it. France is not a tin-pot autocracy and its rulers are not despots, but there is a cautionary tale in these experiences.

It is time to reframe the debate in France. A continuing state of emergency should not be dependent on the existence of risk – an exogenous measure that cannot be controlled by political calculations. It should be restricted to situations where there is an exceptional need for exceptional measures at an exceptional moment. It may have been justified for a few days immediately after the November 2015 attacks as the country’s security forces were caught unprepared. But it should have been lifted as soon as the institutions resumed their normal functioning – regardless of whether the underlying security threat has been addressed.

It is time to reframe the debate in France. A continuing state of emergency should not be dependent on the existence of risk, it should be restricted to situations where there is an exceptional need for exceptional measures at an exceptional moment.

Nadim Houry

Director, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program

The French government’s own website on the fight against terrorism noted in August 2016 that the government has “completed its legal arsenal and put in place an unprecedented reinforcement of its means in the police, justice, army and intelligence services.” France already has a raft of laws under the non-emergency regime that permit the authorities to investigate, detain, and prosecute terrorism suspects. Judicial controls in no way impede their effectiveness.

France needs to adopt a clear path out of the state of emergency. The parliamentary commission monitoring the state of emergency suggested in December setting an upper limit on the extension of a state of emergency but parliament ignored it and voted a fifth extension with almost no debate. Candidates in the upcoming presidential election have largely avoided talking about the issue, perpetuating the procrastination strategy by the political class, and journalists have not pushed them on the issue.

It is no longer enough to wait and hope that the security threat will simply vanish or that the future president or legislature will finally decide to tackle the issue. The debate about lifting the state of emergency should become a priority topic in this presidential election. Like any addict hoping to recover, France needs to start by recognizing the problem and begin a serious conversation on how to quit.

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

Zagidat Abakarova, 33, and her one-year-old daughter Mariam, returned to Dagestan, Russia, from northern Syria in October 2018

© Tanya Lokshina

“I thought she was in Turkey, close to the Syrian border, but still in Turkey… and then they told me she was in Iraq.” Galina’s eyes fill with tears as she picks at her salad in a Grozny cafeteria. “She is in prison in Baghdad.”

Galina Pratsak, 59, arrived in Chechnya from Bryansk, central Russia, hours before we met, hoping to retrieve her grandchildren from Baghdad with the help of a program for returning Russian women and children from Iraq and Syria. The program was started about a year ago by Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya, with the Kremlin’s support.

Between August 2017 and February 2018, over 90 children and women arrived in Russia under its auspices, on special “humanitarian” flights to Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. Among those already returned are Russian nationals from Chechnya, Dagestan, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Oryol, and Moscow, as well as several from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and other countries of the former Soviet Union. Most of the returnees are children. The few women who have returned are those the authorities in the areas of their capture chose not to prosecute. But now the program seems to have been suspended, without explanation.

Most of the foreign women and children currently in detention in Iraq belong to a group of more than 1,400 foreigners detained by Iraqi forces last August after the battle for the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) stronghold of Tal Afar ended. Since January, Iraq has proceeded with rushed trials against foreign women on charges of illegal entry and membership in or assistance to IS without sufficiently taking into account the individual circumstances of each case and sentencing most to life in prison or death by execution. Over 20 women of Russian origin already tried have all received life sentences.

Globally, Russia had the most active program to return detainees from Iraq and Syria, notably women and children. In fact, with Indonesia, Russia was the only country to take back women and children—until the US recently took back one American woman and her children. Some EU countries have taken nationals from Iraq but none from Syria so far (at least not publicly). All in all, when Russia’s returns program was launched in 2017, it represented a good practice. However, it is no longer active.

A Life Sentence in Iraq

In July, an Iraqi criminal court handed Galina’s daughter, 31-year-old Elena, a life sentence for illegal entry into Iraq and for supporting IS. She is in prison in Baghdad with her four children. The two older ones, Lilya and Rustam, were born in Bryansk, in 2008 and 2013 respectively. The younger ones are two-and-a-half-year-old Sakina and 16-month-old Djafar. Their grandmother said she found out only in December that they had been born in Iraq, in areas under IS control.

“We had video chats all the time,” she told me. “But it was always from inside the house. Her place was comfortable, and she and the kids seemed happy. And then toward the end of August last year, she sent me several messages saying things weren’t good any longer and she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t share any details, wouldn’t answer my questions, wouldn’t put the video on. I didn’t know what she was talking about. Then, they just disappeared. Months went by before I found out she and the kids were jailed in Baghdad, with other [captured] women and children.”

Galina is Russian Orthodox. Her daughter married a man of Tajik origin who was not religious but didn’t mind when Galina baptized Lilya. He was naturalized in Russia and joined the Russian army when Lilya was a baby. Instead of returning home after two years of service, he travelled to Tajikistan. Elena and Lilya stayed with Galina. Lilya was two-and-a-half when Galina realized, while giving her a bath, that the girl’s little cross was missing. She asked Elena about it, and her daughter said she and Lilya had embraced Islam.

“A few weeks later, she started wearing a long skirt and full sleeves. Eventually, she donned a hijab. Then, she told me her husband had moved to Turkey and she and Lilya will join him there. So, they left,” Galina said.

Elena kept in touch with her mother, and in early 2013 returned to Bryansk, five months pregnant. She gave birth to Rustam and stayed at her mother’s home with the children until he was 14 months old before returning, supposedly to Turkey. Soon afterward, Elena told Galina during one of their frequent chats that the children’s father died and that Elena had remarried.

She gave birth to Sakina and Djafar with her second husband and kept reassuring Galina that he was a good man and treated the children from her first marriage just like his own. Galina enjoyed her video sessions with Elena and the kids. She would have preferred to have them close by, but at least it seemed her daughter had a beautiful family and kept a good house.

Elena was last in contact with Galina on August 26, 2017. As time went by with no updates from her daughter, Galina did not know where to turn. Finally, on December 20, the human rights ombudsman for Bryansk shocked her with the news that Elena and the children were in an Iraqi jail, and that Elena was awaiting trial on charges of membership in IS.

Human Rights Watch cannot determine what Elena’s role was during the time she lived in IS-controlled territory. Her mother, however, is adamant.

“Yes, I understand, it’s a terrorist organization and my daughter lived under their auspices.” Galina looks up from her barely touched plate of food. “But she is no terrorist! The pregnancies, the births, the nursing, the household—that’s all she did. And they [Iraqi authorities] are saying that as long as she lived with one of those men, cooked, cleaned, it makes her a participant and she will spend the rest of her life in jail. I just cannot wrap my brain around it…”

Human Rights Watch has interviewed close relatives of four of these women in Russia and they all emphasized, like Galina, that the women’s activities in IS were limited to having children and taking care of the household.

Respecting Due Process

Although Human Rights Watch cannot verify the claims about any particular woman’s role under IS, there have been well-publicized reports indicating that under IS many women were limited to homemaking and most were subject to restrictions on their movement. Basic due process requires that any prosecutions guarantee women the opportunities to raise defenses, including whether they were coerced or did not knowingly engage in criminal conduct. Courts should examine evidence regarding each woman’s actions and issue convictions and sentences only where they are supported by evidence of individual culpability.

Iraq should change its approach and consider alternatives to criminal prosecution for those against whom there is no evidence that they were combatants or involved in committing serious crimes. Russia should consider repeated requests by the relatives of already sentenced women to discuss with the Iraqi government the possibility of transferring the women to Russia to serve their sentences on Russian soil.

With respect to foreign children, their well being should be a priority for all parties involved. In December 2017, just a few days before Galina found out about the fate of her daughter and grandchildren, President Putin said in a news conference, “Children, when taken to armed conflict zones, did not make a decision to go there and we have no right to abandon them there.” He commended Kadyrov on his work on returns.

Many families desperate to bring their loved ones back from Syria and Iraq took his words as a sign that the returns program would be further developed and many more flights with returnees would follow. Instead, the program appears to have been suspended in early 2018, with no explanation. The families knock on all doors, but their increasingly desperate questions remain unanswered.

Russia should resume the returns of children, either under the auspices of the so-called Kadyrov program or by other means. In carrying out the returns, Russian authorities should not discriminate between children born on Russian soil and children born to a parent of Russian origin, as long as the best interests of the children are being served and parental consent for the children’s return is sought.

Galina came to Grozny to hand over her grandchildren’s birth certificates and give power of attorney to a leading representative of Kadyrov’s returns program, who promised to bring the children back to Russia if the circumstances allow.

“They don’t know when, but they will try… Though I thought all the four kids could be brought back but they’re now saying it’s only about the two elder ones because the littlest ones weren’t born here. So, at least those two… But what about the other two? What will happen to them? And my daughter, will she die there in jail? Couldn’t she serve her sentence in Russia? I’d bring the children to visit her as often as possible. If I get the children back, that is,” Galina sighs looking at me for answers, answers I don’t have.

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

A Lebanese soldier at an army post in the hills above the Lebanese town of Arsal

© 2016 Reuters

(New York) – The United States should ensure no foreign Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects held by local allies in Syria are transferred to a country where they are at risk of torture or unfair trials, Human Rights Watch said today.

The US handed over eight Lebanese detainees from northern Syria to Lebanese Military Intelligence, the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar reported on August 2, 2018. Military Intelligence held them for over a month without any communication with their families or judicial authorities, al-Akhbar said. Lebanon’s military confirmed on August 1 that Military Intelligence was holding the men and indicated they had been referred to judicial authorities. This is the first public account of an evident transfer by the US of detainees from northern Syria to their home countries.

“The US should create a transparent process with strong safeguards to ensure that no ISIS suspect is transferred to a country where they are at risk of torture or an unfair trial,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism/counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “Transferring detainees in total secrecy without basic legal protections is a recipe for abuse.”

Human Rights Watch has no information on the treatment of the eight men in Lebanese custody. However, Human Rights Watch and Lebanese human rights organizations have routinely documented credible reports of torture in Lebanon, including by Military Intelligence, in some cases leading to the death of detainees. The authorities have failed to properly investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment by security services, and accountability for torture in detention remains elusive.

The US has assisted the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria to detain hundreds of foreign ISIS suspects. No country has sought to take back its nationals and the US, concerned by instability in northern Syria, has begun returning suspected fighters to their country of origin, the Wall Street Journal reported on July 19. The Journal quoted a senior US Defense Department official saying about two dozen men had been returned while “another 100 or so are in the process of being sent back to their countries.” The official did not provide specifics about the countries involved.

The SDF, with US assistance, is holding an estimated 593 men from 47 countries accused of being ISIS fighters or members – many from Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey, and Russia, the New York Times reported. About 80 are reported to be from Europe, including about 10 to 15 each from France and Germany. Al-Akhbar has reported that prior to the transfer, at least 13 Lebanese were in custody in northern Syria.

The US plays a key role in the detention of these men by helping the SDF run and secure its detention facilities, Human Rights Watch said. The New York Times reported that US Special Operations forces visit the prisons multiple times a week to offer expertise on running them, train guards, and help process new detainees using biometrics and interrogation. On a visit to one detention facility, a New York Times journalist reported, a US military official denied his request to speak with a detainee.

The United Nations Convention against Torture, to which the US is a party, as well as international humanitarian law, prohibits the transfer of detainees to a country where “there are substantial grounds for believing” they would be in danger of being tortured or would otherwise face mistreatment. Anyone taken into custody in Syria should at a minimum have the opportunity to contest the basis for their detention before an independent adjudicator and have the assistance of counsel. They should also be able to contest their transfer to another country because of risk of torture or an unfair trial.

The autonomous administration in Northern Syria, which is not a sovereign government, has set up local ad-hoc counterterrorism courts, but has only tried Syrian and Iraqi nationals. Local officials told Human Rights Watch they preferred not to prosecute foreigners and hoped countries would take back their nationals and “reduce the burden on them.” But foreign governments have expressed reluctance to take back ISIS suspects, citing fears that they represent a security threat. Some countries have also indicated concern about evidentiary and legal challenges that would prevent them from prosecuting these ISIS suspects.

The future of foreign ISIS members held in northern Syria was discussed at a meeting of key defense ministers of the International Coalition to Defeat ISIS in Rome in February, but no agreement was reached. In addition to the almost 600 foreign men, the SDF is also holding about 2,000 women and children who are affiliated with ISIS in three camps for the displaced. These women and children come from over 40 countries. The SDF says they are holding them temporarily until their countries take them back, but so far, only Russia, Indonesia, and more recently the US are publicly known to have taken some of their nationals back from these camps.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for increased international cooperation to ensure justice for ISIS’s horrific crimes. Given the uncertainty in northern Syria and in the absence of credible options to prosecute ISIS suspects fairly in local trials, Human Rights Watch has supported calls for prosecutions by other countries that have jurisdiction and can provide fair trials. This has meant opposing any transfer to the US detention facility at Guantanamo, where they would be subject to military commissions, which do not meet international fair trial standards, or to home countries that practice torture or cannot provide fair trials.

The US has not publicly disclosed the countries where foreign nationals have been transferred, making it impossible to determine the risks those returned might face. The Journal reported that a US defense official said the US is monitoring the transfer agreements to ensure the detainees will be securely held and “treated humanely.” Nothing about the content of these agreements has become known, so it has not been possible to assess their effectiveness or whether the US has sought agreements from countries that are known to torture detainees.

The recent transfer to Lebanon raises human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said. The handover occurred only through coordination with Lebanese Military Intelligence and for weeks the detainees had no access to judicial authorities or their families, al-Akhbar reported. The Lebanese army issued a statement only several weeks after the alleged transfer, indicating that Military Intelligence had handed judicial authorities eight Lebanese accused of ISIS membership who had fought in Syria and Iraq and who had been “delivered to Military Intelligence by friendly security agencies…and in coordination with Lebanese judicial authorities.” The Army did not specify when it took custody of them.

Human Rights Watch has also previously raised concerns about the independence, impartiality, and competence of Lebanon’s Military Tribunal, whose judges often do not have legal training and are subordinate to the defense minister, and where trials take place behind closed doors.

“The US transfers of ISIS suspects to Lebanon became known because of the country’s vibrant press,” Houry said. “Dealing with these cases and ISIS atrocities presents no easy solution, but without a transparent process that permits suspects to raise torture concerns and clarity about US detention policy in northern Syrian, there is a risk that new crimes will just be piled on top of past ones.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

© 2015 Human Rights Watch

In the last few weeks, hundreds of Syrian families learned that their loved ones who had disappeared in government detention facilities had died. Many said that they found out as they requested routine records from the Syrian administration and were stunned to find that the authorities had recently registered their relatives as dead. The authorities generally specified no cause of death, just a date, in many cases years ago. Most of those that listed a cause said “heart attack” with no further explanation.

Each new confirmation of death has rippled through social media, spreading heartache to Syrian families displaced by repression and conflict. My Facebook timeline, populated by Syrian friends and activists I have met working on the country over the last decade, currently reads like an unfolding digital eulogy for many of the country’s leading activists who had been held and disappeared by government forces.

For years, many of the families of these activists had sought information about their fate, often spending their entire savings bribing security officials in the hope of receiving an update. To no avail. Since 2011, Syrian authorities have consistently denied having any information on those detained or last seen in their custody even though Syria’s security services have meticulous records for everything, including those they kill in detention.

This bureaucracy of death was exposed in early 2014, when a defector code-named Caesar, whose job in the military police was to photograph the bodies of dead detainees, smuggled out thousands of photos and internal documents, exposing how every detainee death was recorded, indexed, and photographed. There were even written instructions for burials. The authorities knew who died but decided to withhold this information from the families – until now.

A disappearance, in law, is when a person is last seen in the custody of state forces, and the state authorities refuse to admit they have detained the person or to say where they are being detained. Why the systematic reliance on disappearances I once asked a defector in 2014. “Detaining someone limits their ability to act, but disappearing them, paralyzes the entire family,” he said. “The family will divert all their energies to finding them. As a tool for control, it can hardly be beaten.”

For years, the relatives of detainees, Syria’s opposition, and human rights groups have campaigned to place the issue of the detainees at the forefront, advocating for families’ right to know, access for international monitors, and accountability for widespread torture and mistreatment in Syrian detention facilities. The Syrian government repeatedly obstructed the efforts.

So why has the government decided to start releasing this information after years of denials?

Despite the government’s obstruction, the issue has not gone away. With so many detainees whose fate is unknown, it is simply too big an issue to ignore. Some groups, among them the Syrian Network for Human Rights, estimate that the Syrian government is responsible for the disappearance of over 80,000 people.

A working group to examine the fate of detainees was created in December 2017 as part of the eighth round of de-escalation talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. Composed of members from the three Astana guarantor states – Iran, Turkey, and Russia – as well as the United Nations, the working group held a second meeting on the sidelines of the following round of Astana talks in May. The next meeting is to be hosted by Turkey. There is little transparency about the working group’s discussions, but notably the Syrian government began updating personal records shortly after the group was established. Coincidental? Possibly.

It is always hard to know what motivates decisions by the Syrian authorities. But their decisions are never random. I suspect that the government hopes to preempt having to answer questions about the fate of the thousands believed to be in government detention by stating that those missing are dead and that their families have been informed.

This is exactly how the Syrian authorities handled the issue of those it detained and later disappeared from Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s during its military presence in the country. After years of denying requests by Lebanese families for information about missing relatives, Syria agreed in May 2005 to a joint Syrian-Lebanese committee to look into cases. Families hoping for a breakthrough were quickly disappointed. No investigation was opened.

Most cases remained without answers but in a handful of cases, the Syrian government acknowledged that some detainees died or had been executed following summary trials. No bodies were ever returned, no details provided, no one was held accountable, and no family got closure. But for the Syrian government, the file had been closed.

The Syrian government should not be allowed to get away with mass disappearances and murder again. Families of the disappeared have a right to know what happened to their loved ones. If they are dead, the families should be able to recover the remains and learn about the circumstances of the death through an independent investigation. There also needs to be accountability for the enforced disappearances and deaths in detention. For those who remain in detention, access to detention facilities for international monitors remains imperative.

A mere update of the records, which may or may not be accurate, does not do this, nor does it absolve the Syrian government of its responsibility for the mass disappearances, torture, and death of thousands of Syrians.

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

Home Secretary Sajid Javid walks out of the Home Office on April 30, 2018 in London, England.

© 2018 Getty/Chris J. Ratcliffe

Like a dripping corrosive liquid, ISIS and the response it provokes from governments are slowly eating away at key human rights principles. Driven by a desire to appear tough on the extremist group, Western democracies are compromising on principles they have defended for years. Each compromise, on its own, may appear small or limited to exceptional cases, but together, these compromises are eroding the edifice of key protections that have been built over the last half century.

The latest casualty is the United Kingdom’s long-standing opposition to the death penalty and its corollary refusal to extradite or share evidence in cases in which the death penalty could be exercised. The Daily Telegraph has published extracts from a letter from UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in which he agrees to hand over intelligence to help prosecute captured ISIS members Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee el-Sheikh, both members of ISIS’ infamous cell of British jihadists knows as the “Beatles.” This in itself is unexceptional. What is exceptional is that Javid says in the letter that the UK will not seek any “assurances” that the pair will not face the death penalty in the US.

The British government, like other European governments, has for decades refused to extradite people alleged to have committed serious criminal offenses, including acts of terrorism, to the US and other countries without an assurance that they would not be subject to the death penalty. This policy is based on firm human rights norms, which prohibit transfer of an individual to somewhere that they may risk inhuman treatment (as may happen on death row in the US), and opposition to the death penalty, long abolished in the UK and across most of the European continent.

The British policy also extends to refusing to provide evidence or cooperation in trials where the death penalty is being sought or where there is a risk of torture or ill-treatment. The UK maintained this position even in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Indeed, the UK government has refused to extend legal cooperation to prosecution of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, and instead supports calls for the prison’s closure.

Javid’s letter acknowledges this policy. He notes in his letter that “it is the long-held position of the UK to seek death penalty assurances, and our decision in this case does not reflect a change in our policy on assistance in US death penalty cases generally, nor the UK Government’s stance on the global abolition of the death penalty.” If that’s the case, why did he find that “there are strong reasons for not requiring a death penalty assurance in this specific case”?

Javid provides no details. Is it because he thinks that the US will not pursue the death penalty? The US has not said anything to suggest that and it seems unlikely given these men have been publicly accused of kidnapping, torturing and murdering US and UK citizens. Or is it because the UK revoked their citizenship, as has been widely reported, but not yet officially confirmed by the UK government? Nowhere in the published excerpts does Javid make this argument and in the past, the UK has not limited its policy of no collaboration in death penalty cases to British nationals. Nor can simply revoking citizenship with the stroke of a pen absolve the UK from its duty to avoid exposing them to the risk of capital punishment or other serious human rights abuse.

The answer may actually lie in another UK government document from which the Telegraph also quoted in its report. Issued on the same day as the letter and circulated to key civil servants, a government briefing reportedly notes that Javid and Boris Johnson, then UK foreign secretary, decided to share evidence with the US on the two ISIS members “without seeking death penalty assurance” as “they concluded that the risks associated with no prosecution being brought against Kotey and El-Sheikh if UK evidence is not shared, outweigh the risks of direct UK assistance to a conviction that could lead to execution and the implications for the UK’s wider death penalty policy.”

Take the time and reread the sentence. This is not language that defends a longstanding principle of British policy and fundamental human rights norms, but rather the language of competing policy interests and compromises.

Moreover, the second document referenced in the Telegraph’s exposé says that the UK government “will not lobby the US not to send them to” Guantanamo despite its preference for federal trials and a desire to see that prison closed. And so, it appears that standards on fair trial, due process and adherence to the rule of law – all undermined at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp – are also up for compromise. But they don’t have to be.

The prosecution of these two men, like other ISIS members suspected of committing heinous crimes, is important and is something that Human Rights Watch has long called for. But why shouldn’t the UK insist on the same guarantees from the US that it has sought in cases of other suspected terrorists? Why compromise on a key principle when it is possible to articulate support for US prosecutions in federal courts while insisting on the same assurances usually sought from the US that the death penalty will not be applied?

The UK’s position is particularly troubling given that the parents of the US hostages, which these men are accused of torturing and killing, have opposed the death penalty for them. In a powerful joint op-ed in February, the parents of four American ISIS victims wrote that they “agree with the longstanding British government position that it would be a mistake to send killers like these to the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, or to seek the death penalty in court. Either path would make them martyrs in the eyes of their fanatic, misled comrades in arms – the worst outcome.”

British officials may try to present its position in these cases as a compromise of necessity to get the US to prosecute these men. But US authorities are perfectly capable of prosecuting people alleged to have committed terrorism offenses without recourse to the death penalty.

The leaked letter is a stain on the moral authority of the UK government as it seeks to promote human rights around the world. It represents a massive step backward in building and promoting a criminal justice system in which the death penalty has no place. And it can be viewed as a victory for countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, which have been fervent proponents of the death penalty.

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

(Beirut) – Iraq’s National Security Service (NSS), an Iraqi intelligence agency reporting to Iraq’s prime minister, has acknowledged for the first time that it is detaining individuals for prolonged periods of time, despite not having a clear mandate to do so, Human Rights Watch said today. NSS is holding more than 400 detainees in a detention facility in east Mosul. As of July 4, 2018, 427 men were there, some of whom had been held for more than seven months.

A blank NSS arrest warrant provided to Human Rights Watch. 

© 2018 Private

One person held there briefly in April described horrendous conditions, and said that detainees had no access to lawyers, family visits, or medical care. He described one prisoner dying in April after being tortured for months. Human Rights Watch was granted access to the facility on July 4. The detention conditions appeared improved but remained overcrowded.

“National Security Service officials in Baghdad told us that the intelligence agency has no authority to hold prisoners, but changed their line once we were able to see the prisoners for ourselves,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Baghdad needs to publicly clarify which authorities have the right to hold and interrogate detainees.”

On April 17 a senior NSS official in Baghdad denied operating any detention facilities and claimed that the agency only holds small numbers of people for up to 48 hours before transferring them to places of formal detention. But researchers were granted access to the facility, where officials said 427 prisoners were being held at the time. A subsequent written response from the Baghdad office confirmed the NSS is holding prisoners in one facility in Mosul, but then proceeded to speak about detention facilities in the plural form. Given the serious contradiction in statements and facts on the ground, the NSS should clarify the number of prisoners it is detaining and the number and location of facilities it is using to detain them. Iraqi authorities should declare the number of detention facilities across Iraq. Judicial authorities should investigate the allegations presented in this report.

On May 16, Human Rights Watch interviewed Faisal Jeber, 47, an archaeologist, who said that on April 3 a group of three Ministry of Interior Intelligence officers in uniform and two armed men in civilian dress, one of who told Jeber he was “from the Prime Minister’s Office” arrested him at an archaeological site in east Mosul, claiming he had no permission to be there and accusing him of illegal excavations at a public heritage site. They first took him to an intelligence office, before turning him over to NSS officers who called a judge to endorse the arrest, Jeber said. Jeber was not given an opportunity to speak to the judge. NSS then brought him to a two-story house next to the NSS office in al-Shurta neighborhood in Mosul. Jeber said that on the ground floor of the house he saw four rooms being used as cells to hold prisoners and estimated that at least 450 prisoners were held with him based on a daily head count.

Jeber said he was taken before an investigative judge at Mosul’s criminal court on April 4, and then returned to the prison for a second night and released the following day pending trial. Upon arrival at the prison, he said guards confiscated his glasses and watch, and other personal items. When he was released, Jeber said guards did not give him his shoes or socks back, sending him out barefoot, and kept his belt, keychain, and headphones.

While Jeber was only held for 48 hours, he said he spoke with six men and one boy detained in the cell with him who told him NSS held them for between four months to two years, some being transferred to several NSS facilities before arriving at this one. Human Rights Watch researchers visited the facility on July 4, and the head of the NSS in Mosul showed them a brand new prison block that had been built next to the house where Jeber had been held. The new facility had three rooms and held 427 adult male prisoners, according to the NSS official. He said they transferred all prisoners under the age of 18 to another facility. He said some had been at the prison for up to seven months.

Another NSS officer who spoke to researchers on condition of anonymity said that some had been held for over one year, having been transferred from Qayyarah to Bartalla and on to Mosul when the detention site opened there seven months ago. The second officer said they had been holding the prisoners in a house next door, but after “pressure from Baghdad,” a few months ago they built the new prison block and transferred the prisoners there to improve conditions. The three rooms were clean, with air-conditioning, but like other prisons in Iraq extremely overcrowded.

The head of the NSS in Mosul said all the prisoners were wanted for ISIS affiliation, and were interrogated before they were either brought before an investigative judge or handed over to another security entity if that entity had the person on one of their “wanted” databases, including the Ministry of Interior’s intelligence branch, or military intelligence. He said they only arrested people after obtaining a warrant, and that all detainees had access to a judge and a lawyer within 24 hours of their arrest. Human Rights Watch did not interview any of the detainees at the facility.

Two Mosul lawyers who defend ISIS suspects said that in their experience, many prisoners are seeing an investigative judge within 24 hours, but have no government-appointed lawyer present then, nor later when the NSS interrogates them further. While the seven detainees told Jeber they had been brought before an investigative judge, none of them had access to a lawyer and they did not know if a lawyer was present to provide them with a defense during their hearing.

Iraq’s Criminal Code of Procedure allows police and “crime scene officers” to detain and interrogate criminal suspects if they have a warrant. It defines crime scene officers broadly, making it impossible to ascertain which forces are included. The NSS head in Mosul said that the NSS was authorized to arrest, hold, and interrogate prisoners.

However, Hamid al-Zerjawi, deputy National Security Service chief, told Human Rights Watch on April 17, that the NSS has no functional detention facilities in the country, and only one facility in Baghdad that is not yet operational. He conceded that the NSS held small numbers of people for up to 24 hours after their arrest at one of their offices, before bringing them before a judge, who could allow them an extra 24 hours of detention, before they needed to transfer the detainee to a formal detention facility. He said the NSS never held any detainee for over 48 hours.

On July 11, the NSS’s Baghdad office responded to Human Rights Watch inquiries into the facility. The written response acknowledged that the NSS is holding detainees at a single facility in Mosul with the consent of the High Judicial Council in Nineveh, that all detainees are held under judicial arrest warrants, see a judge within 24 hours of arrest, and are transferred to Ministry of Justice prisons upon being sentenced. The response did not provide any numbers of detainees nor details into the length of time they are being held at the facility, but stated that detainees are allowed to retain a lawyer, or have one appointed by the court, but added: “most lawyers in the governorate of Nineveh abstain from arguing terrorism cases.” It said there were no detainees under the age of 18.

The Iraqi authorities should publicly clarify which forces have a legal mandate to arrest, hold, and interrogate suspects, and provide a list of all official detention facilities. They should transfer all detainees to prisons run by authorities with a legal mandate to detain people. Such sites should be built to accommodate detainees, and equipped to meet basic international standards, even if this requires transferring the detainees outside of the Nineveh governorate, where Mosul is located. All detainees should have a medical screening upon arrival and be ensured access to medical care. Judges should only order detention in locations, and under the authority of forces, legally authorised to hold detainees, and order the immediate release of detainees or prisoners being held in inhuman or degrading conditions or otherwise detained unlawfully.

The authorities should also ensure that there is a clear legal basis for detention, that all detainees have access to legal counsel including during interrogation, and that detainees are moved to facilities accessible to government inspection, independent monitors, relatives, and lawyers, with regular and unimpeded access. The authorities should immediately notify families of the detention of their loved ones and which authority is detaining them and promptly take detainees before a judge to rule on the legality of their detention. They should immediately comply with any order by judges to release detainees.

Children alleged to have committed illegal acts should be treated in accordance with international juvenile justice standards. International law allows authorities to detain children pretrial in limited situations, but only if formally charged with committing a crime, not merely as suspects. The authorities should release all children not yet formally charged.

“Authorities should be doing whatever it takes to make sure that families know where their loved ones are,” Fakih said. “The government should crack down on forces with no legal mandate that are holding detainees for months on end without seeing a judge.”

The Former Detainee’s Account
Faisal Jeber, the archeologist, told Human Rights Watch that the detainees he spoke to said they were being held on suspicion of ISIS affiliation and alleged that during interrogations NSS officers had beaten them with plastic or electrical cables, electrocuted them, beaten the soles of their feet, and hung them with their hands bound behind their backs.

Jeber said that at 3 a.m. on his first night at the prison, an argument broke out between two prisoners in his room. He said two guards came in, took the two men out, and in front of the window Jeber saw each guard beat one of the men with plastic cables and pipes for about 20 minutes, cursing and shouting at them before returning them to the room.

He said that first night in detention he was told that a man had died after being tortured: 

My first night it was the time when we all get to use the bathroom. As we were getting ready to leave our room in a line, we heard voices coming out of the room and it was chaos; the guards were saying someone had died. One prisoner with me said that he had been in the cell with the man who died, and said he was in his thirties, had been at the prison for some time, and had been tortured to the point that he had been half paralyzed.

The NSS July 11 response acknowledged deaths at the prison, stating, “There have been very limited cases of death, which were judicially documented,” without providing any further detail. The response also stated,


There has been no use of torture inside detention centers, and no signs of torture or ill-treatment have been found, knowing that there is a department within the NSS that is specialized in these cases if they occur.

Jeber described the conditions in the facility, raising concerns about overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and unreasonable restrictions on using the bathroom. He said that the room he was held in had a single window and small ventilator and was about 4 by 5 meters:

As I walked in I saw that half the prisoners were standing and the other half sitting because there wasn’t enough room for all of us to sit at the same time. My fellow inmates told me that I was the 79th person in the room. All around me on the walls were plastic bags hanging as well as plastic bottles holding a dark yellow liquid. The prisoners told me that was the only way that I could use the bathroom- urinate into the bottle or defecate into the bag- because the NSS guards only allowed prisoners to use the bathroom once every two days.

He said that at night the prisoners slept in shifts in the scabies-infested room because there was not enough room for all of them to lie down, with some standing until 6 a.m., before it was their turn to lie down with their heads between the legs of other prisoners.

Jeber also raised concerns about the absence of medical care for the detainees. He said that the first night of his detention one man in his cell suffered an epileptic seizure but received no medical attention. Other prisoners told him the guards had said that a doctor would only come if someone died and the body needed to be removed.

The NSS head in Mosul told Human Rights Watch that a representative from the Health Ministry visited there regularly to provide medical assistance, something Human Rights Watch was unable to verify.

The conditions the NSS held Jeber and others in, before the transfer to the new facility, are similar to the dire conditions at other prisons in the towns of Qayyarah and Hammam al-Alil, that Human Rights Watch visited in 2017.

Most of the prisoners Jeber spoke to said they had been able to bribe the guards to allow them to communicate with their families indirectly but none had been allowed a family visit. One gave Jeber his uncle’s phone number. Jeber said, “After I was released I called his uncle, who was surprised that he was still alive and said the family had no news of him since he had disappeared during the Mosul battle in early 2017.” The anonymous officer said that they forbade prisoners to have any visits or contact with their families or the outside world. The NSS July 11 response stated that detainees were only allowed to contact their families after the interrogation period ends.

Jaber believed that there were at least 450 prisoners in the home at the time he was held, because on the two days he was held there he said guards at the facility did a headcount and he overheard them counting at least 450 prisoners.

The NSS response

The NSS officer who spoke to researchers on the condition of anonymity said that officers know some prisoners are innocent. He said the NSS held many of them for months because Nineveh only has one counterterrorism judge hearing cases of detainees held by the NSS, leading to long delays. He said in cases where a defendant does not confess to a crime, the judge needs to order a range of investigations to be carried out by various security actors which also takes a long time to complete.

The NSS head in Mosul stated that the detention site has many prisoners they would like to transfer to other authorities, with a judge’s order, but that there is no room available in other prisons. The prohibition against arbitrary detention is enshrined in Iraq’s constitution and civil code. Under international criminal law, widespread or systematic use of arbitrary detention can be considered a crime against humanity if it is applied as part of a state policy.

Iraq’s penal code says that arbitrary detention is a criminal act if, among other conditions, the person who commits the offense issues a false arrest or detention order, threatens the person with death or torture, and holds the person for more than 15 days.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

In this file photo, Egyptian security forces stand guard outside a court in Cairo, Egypt, January 3, 2018.

© Reuters

(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities are increasingly using counterterrorism and state-of-emergency laws and courts to unjustly prosecute journalists, activists, and critics for their peaceful criticism, Human Rights Watch said today.

These abusive practices and distortion of counterterrorism measures have taken place at the same time as Egypt was chairing one of the key United Nations committees to ensure compliance with counterterrorism resolutions and while the UN’s most senior counterterrorism official was visiting the country.

“While Egypt faces security threats, the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has exploited these threats cynically as a cover to prosecute peaceful critics and to revive the infamous Mubarak-era state security courts,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism/counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt is combining a bad law with unjust courts and the outcome has been predictably disastrous, as al-Sisi’s Western allies look the other way.”

In the period before the March 2018 presidential elections, Egyptian police and National Security Agency forces carried out a wave of arrests of critics of al-Sisi. The crackdown continued after the election with the detention of prominent activists and journalists and their prosecution under Egypt’s 2015 counterterrorism law. The law criminalizes a wide range of acts, including publishing or promoting news about terrorism if it contradicts official statements.

Some cases have been transferred to the Emergency State Security Courts, a parallel judicial system operating since October 2017, under the state of emergency that the government claims is being used only against terrorists and drug traffickers. These courts do not guarantee a fair trial and their decisions are not subject to appeal. 

Human Rights Watch has documented the detention of scores of activists and journalists (see Annex) since 2015, when the new counterterrorism law was issued, who have been referred for prosecution under terrorism-related charges. In each case, the charges are apparently based on peaceful criticism or opposition to the authorities. Some of those prosecuted are affiliated with opposition parties and movements such as Strong Egypt Party and April 6 Youth Movement, while others are journalists and human rights activists.

Those recently arrested include a well-known blogger and rights defender, Wael Abbas. Security forces detained him on May 23, 2018, and kept him for almost 36 hours in an undisclosed location before taking him before prosecutors. Other recent detainees include Amal Fathy, a political activist and the wife of the head of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, a human rights organization, and Shady Abu Zaid, a comic known for a 2016 viral video in which he inflated condoms and handed them to security forces guarding Tahrir Square on the anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

Authorities have referred these cases to Supreme State Security Prosecution, the branch of general prosecution that usually oversees terrorism cases. Lawyers are frequently prevented from accompanying their clients to interrogations. The prosecutors charged several activists under the counterterrorism law with “aiding a terrorist group in achieving its aims,” or “spreading false news,” or joining a “banned group” and referred them to Emergency State Security Courts.

Prosecutors indicted Abbas on claims that he was part of the “media wing of the Muslim Brotherhood,” the political group of the ousted elected President Mohamed Morsy. Several journalists and activists have been indicted in this case, case 441 of 2018, over the past weeks, including some who are actually critical of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Sisi’s government, assisted by a mainstream media that Reporters Without Borders says is under increasing control of the intelligence services, has sought to portray a broad conspiracy against the security of Egypt that includes human rights and labor activists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, journalists, and rights lawyers. In March 2018, the Interior Ministry published a video, “The Spider’s Web,” which portrayed diverse groups ranging from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) to the Muslim Brotherhood, to human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, as part of a plot against Egypt’s security.

Since 2013, Egypt has banned a wide range of groups as “terrorist organizations,” including the Muslim Brotherhood; April 6 Youth Movement, an activist group that played a key role in the protests organized against Mubarak in 2011; and football Ultras, hardcore fan groups. The Cairo Court for Urgent Matters, a non-specialized court, issued most of these decisions.

The reliance on the emergency courts adds to a broader legal arsenal that security forces have used in the name of fighting terrorism, including terrorism courts and expedited legal proceedings.

In March 2018, the head of the newly established UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, Under-Secretary-General Vladimir Voronkov, visited Egypt. Voronkov’s office was established in June 2017 to provide leadership in carrying out the General Assembly counterterrorism mandates. These include, as one of four “pillars” of counterterrorism strategy, “ensuring human rights and rule of law.” While the exact nature of discussions was not disclosed, no criticism was publicly voiced about Egypt’s abuse of one of the UN’s key pillars to fighting terrorism.

From January 2016 to January 2018, while Egypt was using its counterterrorism courts to silence dissent, Egypt was chair of the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC), a subsidiary body composed of all 15 Council members that monitors member states’ implementation of the various Security Council resolutions and decisions dealing with counterterrorism. Security Council resolution 1624 (2005), which addresses incitement to commit terrorist acts, stresses that countries must ensure that any measures they take to carry out the resolution comply with all their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights law.

“Egypt is proud of presenting itself as a key international actor in the fight against terrorism, but its domestic record shows that it is fighting peaceful critics and dissidents under the cover of countering ‘terrorism,’” Houry said. “And the most worrying part is that international actors in charge of ensuring an effective and human rights compliant counterterrorism strategy have been completely silent about this crackdown.”

For more information on the use of emergency courts and terrorism laws, please see below.

The Emergency State Security Courts are exceptional courts grounded in Egypt’s State of Emergency Law No. 162 of 1958. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a nationwide state of emergency in April 2017, which has been renewed and in effect ever since. Former Prime Minister Sherif Ismail issued a decree in October 2017 placing numerous crimes, including those related to protest, assembly, terrorism, and labor law, under the jurisdiction of the State Security Courts.

Egyptian authorities have not released any information on the number of people who have been referred to these courts since that time, but they have been used against large numbers of peaceful activists, including indigenous rights activists. In November 2017, authorities referred 32 indigenous-rights activists in Nubia to these courts for participating in an unlicensed protest. The activists were protesting land policies that deprive Nubian people, an ethnic minority in the south of Egypt, from returning to their original lands, from which they were displaced in the 1960s.

The government’s use of these courts violates many international standards, including article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees to every defendant the right to trial before a competent, independent, and impartial court, as well as the right to appeal and receive a judicial review of verdicts. The president has sweeping powers over these courts, as he or the prime minister, as his delegate, can appoint the judges and determine which offenses should be referred to those courts.

There is no appeal process for the courts’ decisions, and they are considered final when the president ratifies them. This is particularly problematic given that Egypt’s counterterrorism law punishes many crimes with death. Under international standards, proceedings in death penalty cases must conform to the highest standards of judicial independence, competence, and impartiality and must strictly comply with all fair trial rights. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all cases.

The UN special rapporteur on “the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism” noted following his visit to Egypt in 2009 that trials before these courts raise “concerns about the impartial and independent administration of justice and furthermore does not comply with the right to have a conviction and sentence fully reviewed by a higher court.” The current special rapporteur has identified Egypt among the 26 countries she wishes to visit during her mandate, but Egypt has not responded to her request, according to her most recent report in September 2017.

The emergency courts earned their infamous reputation during the administration of former President Hosni Mubarak. He made extensive use of the courts in prosecuting students, human rights defenders, political activists, union members, and those suspected of opposing the government during Egypt’s long spell under the state of emergency.

Despite Article 97 of the 2014 Constitution, which provides that “individuals may only be tried before their natural judge” and “extraordinary courts are forbidden,” the emergency courts have resumed their work. In August 2017 and April 2018, several lawyers filed suits challenging the constitutionality of the emergency courts before the Supreme Constitutional Court. However, the court has yet to make a decision.

Before the government reintroduced emergency courts in October 2017, Human Rights Watch documented that authorities referred peaceful activists, often rounded up in peaceful protests, to trial before “terrorism courts,” specialized chambers of the criminal courts that the government created in December 2013 to oversee terrorism cases.

Unlike emergency courts, terrorism courts are part of the criminal justice system and accordingly are bound by the procedures outlined under the country’s criminal procedural code.

The authorities set up those courts and assigned a few specific judges to them shortly after President Mohamed Morsy’s forced ouster in July 2013. The designation of specific judges was seen at the time as an attempt to circumvent judges who had recused themselves from judging certain cases that they considered politically motivated. The terrorism courts were then used to prosecute thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and Morsy supporters in mass trials that violated due process and often ended up in death sentences.

The authorities also used these courts to prosecute activists protesting other government actions. Human Rights Watch documented that these “terrorism courts” tried and convicted scores of protesters who took to the streets in 2016 and 2017 to oppose al-Sisi’s decision to relinquish two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. 

In the past, the Cassation Court, Egypt’s highest appellate court, which reviews criminal court decisions, has annulled many terrorism courts’ judgments and often ordered retrial. Several Egyptian officials, including al-Sisi, have criticized what they considered “slow” judicial processes and expressed their wish for “swifter justice.”

In April 2017, the Parliament issued several amendments to expedite criminal proceedings in terrorism cases and to reduce appeal opportunities before the Cassation Court. Al-Sisi has also issued laws that allow him more control over the appointment of the head of the Cassation Court and the Supreme Administrative Court.

The reliance on the emergency courts is further marginalizing the regular judiciary, especially the Cassation Court. 

In parallel to its emergency courts, Egypt maintains an overbroad legal arsenal in the name of countering terrorism. Al-Sisi issued Law 8 of 2015 for Organizing Lists of Terrorist Entities and Terrorists that allowed the prosecutor general to request designated Cairo criminal courts to add individuals or groups to “terrorism lists.” The court has seven days to consider the request. Thousands of individuals and groups have been listed without any hearing or proper due process.

In addition, al-Sisi issued a decree in October 2014 that expanded the jurisprudence of military courts. Since that time, about 15,000 civilians including hundreds of children, have been referred to military prosecutors.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The organizations listed below welcome the adoption on June 26th, 2018 of UN General Assembly Resolution 72/284 reviewing the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which reaffirms states' commitment to global responses to terrorism. The UN’s Global Counterterrorism Strategy, first adopted in 2006, sets out a plan of action for the UN and member states at the global, regional, and national level to counter-terrorism.

Our organizations recognize the value of a global counter-terrorism strategy where human rights are an essential component. The resolution importantly reaffirms states' obligations to comply with international law, including international human rights law, while countering terrorism and that human rights are the “fundamental basis of the fight against terrorism.”

We are, however, concerned at member states’ failure to adequately address human rights abuses and the increased militarisation of counter-terrorism approaches.  We are also concerned about member states’ failure to provide an enabling environment for civil society entities, including those relating to women, to be meaningfully engaged in the Strategy review.

In particular, this 6th review of the UN’s Global Counterterrorism Strategy failed to sufficiently address the spread of human rights violations perpetrated while countering terrorism and the erosion of international humanitarian law in armed conflict.

The review missed the opportunity to bolster the Strategy’s too often neglected 4th Pillar that requires the mainstreaming of human rights in all counter-terrorism activity and underscores that the promotion and protection of human rights for all and the rule of law is essential to all components of the Strategy. As successive UN Special Rapporteurs on counter-terrorism and human rights have noted, the mainstreaming and resourcing of an integrated human rights infrastructure in countering terrorism is an urgent priority within the UN system.

Furthermore, references to the inclusion of women have remained unchanged since 2016, limiting an opportunity to strengthen gender analysis. There is a strong need to integrate a gender analysis of power and question systems and practices that deepen traditional gendered roles facilitating conflict and militarised security. Without a gender analysis of discrimination, violence, and lack of access to resources in relation to women and to different groups within societies, efforts to counter terrorism cannot be effective. Indeed, measures developed without gender analysis often prove counterproductive.

These omissions not only erode the protection and promotion of human rights globally, but ultimately are self-defeating in ensuring sustainable long term responses to terrorism. 

Finally, at a time when civic space is being systematically eroded around the world under the pretext of countering terrorism, we are deeply disappointed that the review does not recognize the essential role that civil society plays in guarding against abusive counter-terrorism practices and responding to and preventing the conditions conducive to terrorism. Fundamental rights underpinning the work of civil society must be protected. States can and should do better, and make sure the UN does too.

On a positive note, we welcome the review’s emphasis on the role of the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) to share information with relevant United Nations counter-terrorism bodies and relevant international, regional and subregional organizations. However, this sharing can only take place with the permission of those member states under CTED assessment; though we recall, as CTED itself has emphasized, that information may only be shared in a manner consistent with human rights, we urge these states to not require the Directorate to keep such information confidential.

We also welcome the request in the review for the Secretary-General to report annually on the progress of the United Nations Office for Counter-Terrorism in increasing transparency in selection and funding of projects and their impact, as well as on the efficiency of shared funding arrangements. The aim of this request is to ensure meaningful assessment of the UN Counter-Terrorism Architecture at the 7th review of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. We urge the Secretary-General to prioritize this important task.


Amnesty International


Fair Trials

Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect

Global Center on Cooperative Security

Human Rights Clinic (Columbia Law School)

Human Rights Watch

International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL)

International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)

International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)

International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

Open Society Justice Initiative

Privacy International


Rights Watch UK

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The United Nations logo is pictured in front of the United Nations Headquarters building during the 71st United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., September 22, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

Last week was counterterrorism week at United Nations headquarters in New York. Conference rooms and the General Assembly hall were abuzz as national intelligence and security chiefs from around the globe met with UN officials on how to confront the scourge of transnational extremist armed groups such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, and al-Shabaab.

In one room, delegates from the African Union, France and Peru discussed freezing terrorist finances. In another, UN officials unveiled their action plan for imams to preach against violence. In a third, European Union and Saudi counterterrorism directors compared notes on prosecuting, rehabilitating and reintegrating nationals who had returned from fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Distressingly, however, few discussions delved into a core element of the UN’s official guide to member countries for countering terrorism. That guide, the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, lists human rights as its “fourth pillar.” Not only are violations of human rights unlawful, they can backfire and fuel further terrorism, according to the strategy, which entered into force in 2006 and was reaffirmed by the General Assembly just last week.

To his credit, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres highlighted the strategy in a keynote speech Thursday, which kicked off a two-day summit of national security and intelligence directors that capped last week’s proceedings.

“No one is born a terrorist, but we know that factors such as prolonged unresolved conflicts, lack of the rule of law, human rights abuses, poverty, lack of opportunities and socioeconomic marginalization can all play a part in transforming ideas and grievances into acts of terrorism,” Guterres said. “So, preventing and resolving conflicts and promoting the rule of law and social and economic progress are our first lines of defense.”

But there is an enormous disconnect between those lofty words and the reality on the ground. Around the world, countries are routinely rolling back human rights protections in the name of countering terrorism. Victims of heavy-handed policies include bloggers, peaceful protesters, civil society activists, and people targeted because of their religion, ethnicity or nationality.

In Australia, the government can strip citizenship from dual nationals as young as 14, without requiring a criminal conviction, if they are suspected of carrying out serious terrorism crimes abroad. In Spain and France, musicians, journalists and others have been prosecuted for “glorification of terrorism” or “apology for terrorism” even if their comments are not intended to incite violence or support an  extremist armed group. In Europe, governments are citing terrorism concerns to justify closing borders to immigrants and refugees.

In Iraq, thousands of suspects are being prosecuted in deeply flawed trials for membership in the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Even cooks, cleaners or supporters not involved in combat are receiving sentences of life in prison, or death.

In Syria, Iraq and Libya, some 3,000 foreign wives and children of ISIS members have been crowded into jails  or cordoned into de-facto detention camps for months. The children are victims of their parents’ decisions and many wives claim they unwillingly accompanied their husbands. Yet most of their governments aren’t lifting a finger to ensure fair trials or, if they aren’t being prosecuted, to help retrieve them from foreign detention.

In Somalia, security agents  are in some cases holding children incommunicado or  physically abusing them to extract confessions when they suspect them of links to al-Shabaab. In Nigeria, women and girls who survived the brutality of Boko Haram have reportedly been raped by security forces who claimed to be rescuing them.

Clearly, governments face enormous challenges in confronting terrorism. Rarely a week goes by without an armed extremist attack on ordinary people in one or more parts of the world, and governments have a responsibility to protect everyone under their jurisdiction from harm. But as the gatekeeper of world peace and security, the UN should be intervening to prevent serious counterterrorism violations of rights with the same urgency that it seeks to stem extremist attacks. Instead, if anything, the UN has been enabling member countries’ heavy-handed tactics in the 17 years since September 11, 2001.

The Security Council in particular has issued a string of binding resolutions that require UN member countries to criminalize an array of potentially terrorist activities but that largely fail to describe what constitutes a terrorist act. This gives governments a green light to concoct definitions that can be broadly used to designate individuals or groups as terrorists simply because they don’t like them or because they’re political opponents.

Much of the UN infrastructure to monitor member states’ compliance with these mandates has been dominated by countries with terrible human rights records, including Russia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt—although mature democracies such as the United States and the United Kingdom, which have their own histories of counterterrorism abuses, also have played influential roles.

Over at the General Assembly last week, delegates from human rights-respecting countries had to fight hard to keep protective language from being weakened in the June 26 resolution that reviewed and reaffirmed the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.

In one positive development, the June 26 statement calls for greater transparency from the UN’s year-old Office of Counterterrorism (OCT), which was established to bring coherence to the efforts of more than three dozen UN entities involved in counterterrorism efforts. The call was timely: the OCT’s dealings remain largely opaque.

The review also calls for the secretary-general to assess the OCT’s work, including its efforts to increase transparency, and to report on its progress next year. The aim is to start a meaningful review of the UN’s counterterrorism architecture. Guterres should take this task seriously.

Member states, in turn, should heed new guidelines drafted by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on responses to the phenomenon of foreign fighters. The guidelines were unveiled in one of last week’s few rights-related sessions. They fill in the blanks in overly broad Security Council mandates by spelling out what member countries need to do to ensure their laws and measures don’t sidestep human rights. As for the Security Council, it should define terrorism narrowly to make it harder for states to infringe on fundamental rights and target dissidents and political opponents.

Absent these efforts, last week’s flurry of UN meetings will end up being just another missed opportunity to transform respect for human rights from a rhetorical pillar into a national security imperative.

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

Entrance to the Badia school that was struck by coalition aircraft on March 20, 2017. 

© 2017 Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch

It finally admitted to it. After months of denying that any civilians died, the United States-led coalition in Syria has finally recognized that its strike on a boarding school in Mansourah, near Raqqa, Syria, on March 20, 2017, killed dozens of civilians.

In its latest “monthly civilian casualty report” issued on June 28, the coalition noted that its reporting of the attack “was reopened after the receipt of new evidence from Human Rights Watch. During a strike on Daesh (Islamic State, also known as ISIS) militant multifunctional center allegedly caused civilian casualties. Forty civilians were unintentionally killed.” The coalition also indicated that it would reopen investigations into other strikes following reports by Amnesty International and Airwars.

As the terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch, I have been working for the US to recognize the harm it caused civilians in the Mansourah strike for almost a year, following our July 2017 visit to the school, where we gathered overwhelming evidence that the coalition killed dozens of civilians when it bombed the site. For over a year, the coalition maintained that no civilians were harmed.

Yet, this moment does not feel like a victory or even sufficient recognition of what actually happened that day by the coalition.

While I appreciate that the coalition reviewed our evidence, we don’t know what sort of investigation it conducted that led them to finally change the findings. The coalition simply notes that “the investigation assessed that although all feasible precautions were taken and the decision to strike complied with the law of armed conflict, unintended civilian casualties regrettably occurred.”

It is hard to be convinced by their findings without more transparency around the process of investigation and the information available to them. If all feasible precautions had been taken – as the coalition alleges and as is required under international law – shouldn’t they have known that hundreds of displaced civilians had been living in this school?

In a May 2017 media briefing, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of US Air Force Central Command, explained how the coalition selects its targets: “Deliberate targeting involves an extensive development process to ensure each one is legitimate and meets established strike criteria. This process can take from days to weeks to develop, depending on the target and the time needed to observe daily patterns of life and behavior.” For each target, the military also conducts a Collateral Damage Estimation (CDE), a process to predict and mitigate harm to civilians or civilian property.

If these procedures were followed, then at best, there was a major – and deadly – blunder. All locals knew that displaced civilians had been living in the school since the early days of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Witness statements we collected suggest that aerial monitoring of the school over time would have shown civilian activity. For example, an 11-year-old survivor told us that children used to play in the school’s courtyard, which would have probably made them visible to any aerial surveillance. A more transparent investigation would shed light on what went terribly wrong that day and would help ensure that such mistakes do not occur in the future.

Other parts of the coalition’s reporting also raise questions about the seriousness of the investigation. It characterizes the school as “a Daesh militant multifunctional center” without explaining what other “functions” the school had. Local residents said that displaced civilians had been living in the school as early as 2012. In the period leading up to the strike, families of ISIS fighters fleeing Iraq also began living in the school. Witnesses told us that ISIS fighters would come to visit their families living there. One witness said that ISIS had set up a mosque inside the school compound. Is that what the coalition had in mind when it said it was a “multifunctional center” for ISIS fighters?

The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria, set up to investigate violations of international law in Syria since 2011, issued a report on March 6 and came to a conclusion similar to ours about civilians being harmed in the Mansourah strike. After interviewing 20 witnesses, the commission found that the information it collected “does not support the claim that 30 [ISIS] fighters were in the school at the time of the strike, nor that the school was otherwise being used by [ISIS].”

There are also questions about how the coalition arrived at the number of civilians killed, which it said was 40. Human Rights Watch listed the names of 40 civilians but indicated that those were the ones we were able to identify by name – an arduous task when dealing with victims who are displaced from other areas. We said we believed, based on the number of people buried, that the actual number killed was higher. The UN commission said that 150 of the 200 people living in the school were killed and identified 12 survivors, including four women and six children.

But on a more fundamental level, the coalition’s statement misses a key element: It fails to address the victims. The US-led coalition should take responsibility when its attacks kill civilians. In the event of violations, international law requires compensation for civilian victims. But even in the absence of a determination of illegality, civilians will need assistance or redress and there are strong arguments to be made to try to address the harm caused. This can take the form of payments for loss of civilian life and property – often known as ex gratia payments that are made without legal obligation, as well as non-monetary acknowledgement of the harm done, such as apologies.

The coalition has not created any procedure for civilian victims of its attacks in Syria or their surviving relatives to obtain any form of redress. Two of the children who survived the Mansourah strike have been taken in by their aunt, who is herself a refugee, living in a cramped space in Beirut. She is an impressive woman, who has battled bureaucracies to get them into school. Yet, she is always one rent away from being kicked out of their housing.

These children deserve an explanation regarding the strike that decimated their family and the coalition should provide them with some form of redress. A two-line statement saying that “40 civilians were killed” is simply not enough.

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

Members of the First Responders Team in Raqqa city, Syria exhume a body from a mass grave at the al-Rashid playing field. 

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – A local group working to uncover mass graves in the area of northeastern Syria once controlled by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) needs international support and technical assistance to preserve evidence of possible crimes and identify the remains, Human Rights Watch said today.

With an unknown number of mass graves in the city of Raqqa and surrounding areas and thousands of bodies left to be recovered, local authorities affiliated with the Raqqa Civil Council are struggling to cope with the logistical challenges of collecting and organizing information about the bodies recovered and providing it to families searching for missing or dead relatives. Identifying missing people and preserving evidence for possible prosecutions will have implications for justice in Syria as a whole.

“Raqqa city has at least nine mass graves, each one estimated to have dozens, if not hundreds, of bodies, making exhumations a monumental task,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Without the right technical assistance, these exhumations may not provide families with the answers they have been waiting for and could damage or destroy evidence crucial to future justice efforts.”

Raqqa city has at least nine mass graves, each one estimated to have dozens, if not hundreds, of bodies, making exhumations a monumental task.

On June 12, 2018, the First Responders Team in Raqqa finished uncovering one mass grave containing 553 bodies and reburying them in a local graveyard after logging in their identifying information, and have begun work uncovering a second. The first grave, at al-Rashid playing field in Raqqa city, is the first of nine mass grave locations the team has identified, a team leader told Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch researchers visited the site in May. The team operates under the authority of the Raqqa Civil Council, a local governance unit created by the Syrian Democratic Council in April 2017.

ISIS detained thousands of people during its control of the area, from June 2014 to October 2017, when armed groups on the ground supported from the air by a US-led coalition retook the city. Relatives of some detainees who remain missing launched a campaign in late 2017, “Where are the kidnapped by ISIS?” to seek the coalition’s help in finding the fate and whereabouts of ISIS detainees. They have yet to receive a response. Local authorities estimate that thousands of others were killed during the battle to retake the city, many of whom were buried hastily, or whose bodies remain in the rubble.

Yasser al-Khamis, the head of the First Responders Team, told Human Rights Watch that the team believed, based on their observation of injuries and reports from family members who identified relatives’ remains, that the al-Rashid site contained a mix of airstrike victims and ISIS fighters, and that it may also have contained patients from a nearby hospital. Workers had identified women and children, as well as men, among the bodies, he said. Of the 106 bodies exhumed at the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit, the team had identified five that appeared to be ISIS fighters based on their clothing, and believed the rest to be civilians. Where possible, the team registered names of the deceased and any immediate family member who was able to identify them.

Human Rights Watch researchers observed the team logging basic details about the bodies found; for each body, a team member assigned the body a number and logged on a form the possible cause of death, injuries, sex, hair color and length, clothing, and approximate age, if it could be determined, as well as any items found on the body. They determined this information based on a visual assessment of the remains exhumed. They did not take photographs in accordance with international forensic standards, an important practice in working towards a more reliable record of the dead. Most team members were volunteers who do not have forensic expertise. The team’s forensic doctor had been a general practitioner before ISIS was driven from the area and had no prior experience or formal training in forensic analysis.

The team developed their protocol based on phone consultations with international organizations. But the lack of technical equipment and forensic expertise, combined with the fact that at least seven months had passed since initial burial, made the identification process inexact and subject to error.

Exhumations in Raqqa are further complicated by the presence of landmines. All the mass grave sites must be cleared of landmines planted by ISIS before the team can remove bodies, al-Khamis said. Human Rights Watch has previously documented the dangers civilians face from landmines planted in Raqqa and other parts of Syria and Iraq previously under ISIS control, including at other mass grave sites.

The recovery and analysis of skeletal remains from mass graves is a complex process that requires expertise in gathering information about missing persons, ability to conduct excavations, and skills in identifying the bodies and determining the cause of death. When the case involves violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, exhumations without forensic experts can destroy critical evidence and greatly complicate the identification of bodies.

Families of those who disappeared or died during the Raqqa battle also lack a centralized body or office where they can provide information about missing relatives or go to receive information about them, Human Rights Watch found. Some have come to the site of the mass grave, but many families are no longer living in the area. Even for those in the area, the team lacks capacity to systematically respond to queries.

Representatives of the Raqqa Civilian Council told Human Rights Watch that the local intelligence services were responsible for receiving and providing information about missing or disappeared persons to families, but the intelligence services do not make themselves readily available to civilian meeting requests. In some cases, civilians are not aware that they are the responsible entity.

Local authorities have also received little support from international organizations in the field. One of the issues reported is that some international organizations are unwilling or reluctant to support local authorities for fear of alienating Syrian government authorities in Damascus or to jeopardize their relations with Turkey, both of which are hostile to the local authorities.

Local authorities should designate a centralized civilian authority where families can collect or provide information on missing persons, and explore ways to communicate with families living in areas outside their control. Authorities should also create a digital database, including photographs in accordance with basic forensic standards, for those exhumed from mass grave sites.

Members of the international community now providing recovery and stabilization support, most prominently the United States, should support local authorities in developing and maintaining a more precise system for storing information on missing persons and identifying exhumed remains. While the US is providing funding to the Raqqa Civil Council and the team, the amounts are not public knowledge and the team noted that its work was temporarily affected by the March 2018 freeze of $200 million in US government stabilization funds for Syria. It was clear to Human Rights Watch that the team needs far more training and technical assistance in order to exhume the bodies and collect data without losing information crucial to identifying them.

International organizations with forensic expertise should provide technical support, including by sending in forensic experts to support the identification and exhumation processes, and local authorities should facilitate the process to the extent possible.

If workers continue to exhume the graves without adequate technical training, equipment, and support, families may lose the opportunity to accurately identify the remains of their loved ones. Evidence regarding crimes in the area, including ISIS crimes, may be lost.

“Families of those killed by ISIS deserve to know the fate of their loved ones and to have access to justice for those crimes, and preserving evidence from these mass graves is a key part of that,” Motaparthy said. “Local groups are doing what they can, but they need support to carry out their difficult and dangerous work in a way that fully supports families’ right to accurate information about those killed.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A local group working to uncover mass graves in the area of northeastern Syria once controlled by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) needs international support and technical assistance to preserve evidence of possible crimes and identify the remains.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A motorboat passes by the MI6 building in London August 25, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

Today, the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee confirmed that, while cooperating with US-led post-2001 counterterrorism operations, the UK took and tolerated actions that were “inexcusable”. For those unfamiliar with polite euphemisms in British English, some of the actions the report is talking about were torture and other ill-treatment, acts which are illegal under international law.

This is exactly what nongovernmental organizations and journalists have documented for years.

The Committee’s verdict came in two reports resulting from its inquiry into UK complicity in sending suspects to countries without due process, a practice called extraordinary rendition, despite the knowledge they risked torture, as well as UK complicity in the torture and ill-treatment of suspects outside the UK between 2001 and 2010.

The reports are excoriating. They reveal layer after layer of illegal behaviour and failure to stop the abuses. They also underscore the UK government’s unwillingness to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

The first report details a litany of failures by UK intelligence agents cooperating with other governments between 2001 and 2010 . While it found no evidence of direct “physical mistreatment” of detainees by UK officials, it did find two cases where UK personnel were “party to mistreatment administered by others”, 13 incidents where UK personnel witnessed detainee ill-treatment, 232 cases where the UK gave questions to other states’ intelligence services after they knew or suspected ill-treatment, and 3 cases where UK intelligence agencies offered financial benefit to others to conduct a rendition.

The second report, which examines UK policy since 2010, is if anything even more troubling. It concludes that the UK government and intelligence agencies somehow failed to see these patterns, identify risks, and revise policy quickly enough. Although the UK committed in 2010 to not make the same mistakes, it is not keeping good records about its policy on how detainees are treated by other intelligence agencies, nor is it making changes to its policy guidance as recommended by oversight bodies.

The UK has a duty under international law to prevent and punish torture. This means criminal investigations and prosecutions where evidence exists of criminal responsibility for torture.

Yet there is little in the committee’s findings to reassure us that if faced with a similar situation again, the UK’s response would be one that places human rights front and center. The government’s response to the committee has been guarded thus far. Until government decision-makers and intelligence agencies heads amend existing policies, ensure those in charge of oversight have the transparent data they need, and know they will face prosecution if they are responsible for crimes, there is real danger that UK agencies could be complicit in torture again.

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