“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

Still image from a video provided to Human Rights Watch by a Sinai activist and captured on February 27, showing one closed gas station in al-Arish.

© 2018 Private

(Beirut) – The Egyptian government campaign against an affiliate of the Islamic State group in North Sinai has left up to 420,000 residents in four northeastern cities in urgent need of humanitarian aid since February 9, 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should provide sufficient food for all residents and allow relief organizations such as the Egyptian Red Crescent to immediately provide resources to address local residents’ critical needs.

The military campaign against the Islamic State-affiliate in North Sinai has included imposing severe restrictions on the movement of people and goods in almost all of the governorate. Residents say they have experienced sharply diminished supplies of available food, medicine, cooking gas, and other essential commercial goods. The authorities have also banned the sale or use of gasoline for vehicle use in the area and cut telecommunication services for several days at a time. The government has cut water and electricity almost entirely in the most eastern areas of North Sinai, including Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed.

“A counterterrorism operation that imperils the flow of essential goods to hundreds of thousands of civilians is unlawful and unlikely to stem violence,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Egyptian army’s actions border on collective punishment and reveal the gap between what President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claims to be doing on behalf of the citizenry and the shameful reality.”

The authorities prohibit independent reporting from the affected areas. Human Rights Watch interviewed two media workers living in North Sinai and 13 North Sinai residents or their relatives, including two activists, and reviewed footage, satellite images, official statements, media reports, and social media posts. Human Rights Watch concluded that if the current level of movement restrictions continues, it could lead to a wider humanitarian crisis in an already economically marginalized area that continues to suffer from ongoing military operations and home demolitions.

Still image from a video provided to Human Rights Watch by a Sinai activist and recorded on February 24, showing completely shut markets in al-Arish. Some food delivered more recently allowed markets to partially re-open. 

© 2018 Private

On February 9, the government announced the beginning of “Sinai 2018,” a new phase of the military campaign against Islamist militants that started in 2013. Most of the militants belong to an Islamic State affiliate that calls itself “Sinai Province.” The government plan came shortly before the end of a three-month deadline to the army from al-Sisi to “restore stability and security” in the region using “all brute force.” The deadline followed a November 24, 2017 attack by gunmen on a Sufi Mosque in North Sinai that killed 305 civilians. No group claimed responsibility, but survivors told prosecutors that the attackers brandished the Islamic State flag.

Witnesses interviewed in the affected areas said the operation has included closing roads, isolating cities from each other, and isolating the North Sinai governate from Egypt’s mainland, severely affecting the flow of goods from the mainland. The army has become the main source of food, giving some away and selling the rest. But local people said the quantities distributed do not meet existing needs. The crisis is most serious in the eastern cities of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed where road closures are stricter, security restrictions have long existed, and private markets have near-completely run out of goods.

The army restrictions have also badly interrupted economic activities and sources of income for most residents. Since February 9, North Sinai’s Governor General Abd al-Fattah Harhor announced that all schools and universities in the governorate would be closed “until further notice.”

Human Rights Watch analysis of satellite imagery recorded after the start of operation “Sinai 2018” between February 22 and April 14, 2018, suggests local civilian road traffic has fallen dramatically as a consequence of the military operation in the area. This is consistent with witness testimony. The city of Sheikh Zuwayed in particular is effectively surrounded by a network of military bases and posts, and physical access appears highly restricted. All main roads entering and leaving the city are either physically closed or controlled with military checkpoints.

The absence of sufficient government measures to deal with the food crisis has stirred fears and led to incidents of violence. On March 9 in al-Arish, the army fired gunshots to disperse a crowd of residents who gathered to buy food, and resulting shrapnel wounded several, news reports said. In a separate incident in Rafah on March 20, soldiers’ gunfire killed two children and injured other people in a crowd that had gathered to obtain food, a source from Sheikh Zuwayed, who requested anonymity, told Human Rights Watch.

Officials have denied that there is a food crisis. On March 11, the army spokesperson said that the army continued to “provide food convoys and open several facilities to sell food and goods and other life necessities at discounted prices.” On March 30, Harhor said in a media statement that food “sufficient for six months” was delivered for sale to Sinai markets. But residents and activists said the situation is a humanitarian crisis and that traders should not be allowed to take advantage of the food shortage to increase profits. Human Rights Watch emailed the Egyptian Red Crescent on March 19 and April 15 to inquire whether it was carrying out humanitarian operations in the province but received no response.

The Egyptian army’s actions border on collective punishment and reveal the gap between what President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claims to be doing on behalf of the citizenry and the shameful reality.

Sarah Leah Whitson

Middle East and North Africa director

The army’s failure to allow free movement and to allow sufficient food and other life essentials to reach residents violates rights enshrined in Egypt’s constitution and in its binding obligations under international treaties, especially the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In particular, they amount to severe violations of the right to food, as defined in UN criteria that explain Article 11 of the ICESCR, including that the state needs to ensure the availability, accessibility, and adequacy of food. The military has also violated the right to food by destroying farmland that residents relied on for food, apparently using an indiscriminate, blanket security justification that farms hide militants, and without ensuring residents have alternative access to adequate food.

The right to food is strongly linked to other rights such as the rights to life, health, and education – and government obligations to ensure all have sufficient food is particularly important during times of crisis. The army actions in North Sinai most likely amounts to collective punishment of local residents and discrimination against the Bedouin community.

Human Rights Watch said in 2015 that the situation in Sinai could amount to a non-international armed conflict. In armed conflicts, under international humanitarian law, all parties must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need.

The army has not announced a detailed justification for the near-complete isolation of the neighborhoods and the cities in the governorate, but army statements mentioned “cutting supplies” to armed groups and preventing militants from escaping to Egypt’s mainland. Under humanitarian law, all parties are requested to ensure the unimpeded flow of humanitarian aid and to ensure that civilians can flee unsafe zones.

“Instead of unleashing its usual propaganda machine to claim that criticizing Egyptian security forces undermines its counterterrorism efforts, the government should adhere to the law and stop punishing an entire community,” Whitson said.

Human Rights Watch interviewed two media workers who live in North Sinai; eight families who live in the cities of al-Arish, Sheikh Zuwayed, and Rafah; and two people who live outside Egypt but are in frequent contact with their families in Sinai. Three additional interviews focused on home demolitions that have likely intensified since February 9. Human Rights Watch is still investigating the issue of home demolitions. Human Rights Watch used pseudonyms for all of the interviewees, except one activist, for their protection. Human Rights Watch also reviewed scores of news articles, social media posts, satellite imagery, and videos, as well as footage broadcast on the official army spokesperson’s Facebook page.

Severe Restrictions

On January 19, President al-Sisi said “we made a decision to use extreme violence and truly brute force [in Sinai] … We haven’t started yet.”

Since February 9, the army spokesperson has issued frequent updates on military operations, sometimes with accompanying video footage, while the near-absolute government-imposed blackout on independent media in North Sinai since late 2013 has continued. On March 8, the spokesperson said at a news conference that the army had killed 105 militants and arrested 2,829 people in the month since the new operation began, but had released “a big number of those” after legal procedures. He said that 16 army officers and soldiers were killed and 19 injured in the same period. On March 19, the army said it had killed another 36 militants and arrested 345 suspects over five days, while 1 army officer and 3 soldiers were killed. The Interior Ministry said in a video statement on March 15 that the police and army had raided over 17,600 houses, 1,930 “shacks” and 760 farms and “destroyed those that proved to belong to terrorists.”

Witnesses and media reports indicate that the army and the police have most likely arbitrarily arrested hundreds of people, including women, but released some of them.

Ashraf Hefny, a local activist and coordinator of the People’s Committee in al-Arish, an independent gathering of family clan leaders and activists, told Human Rights Watch that residents were not warned about what he called a “siege.” Automobile service stations closed suddenly on the evening of February 8, and then “commodities began to disappear gradually and [then] quickly.”

Witnesses said that since February 9 the army has sent troops to “besiege” neighborhoods, conducting thorough house-by-house searches in each. Police forces are also involved, mainly in al-Arish. The witnesses said that security forces seized all mobile phones, and sometimes laptops, computers, and other electronic devices, and did not return them.

Human Rights Watch analyzed a detailed time series of satellite imagery recorded between 2016 and 2018 and identified an extensive network of security architecture constructed by the Egyptian army in the Northern Sinai governorate.

Security Analysis © 2018 Human Rights Watch

Road Data: 2018 OSM

This network includes dozens of military bases, observation posts, road checkpoints, heavy artillery batteries and munition depots, as well as hundreds of kilometers of earthen berms and security trenches.

These security structures are located along primary and secondary roads surrounding main cities and towns in the governorate, with the heaviest concentration in the east between Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed. The latter is completely surrounded by military posts.

The People’s Committee in al-Arish criticized al-Sisi’s statement on January 20 and said in a statement posted on its Facebook page that, “Sinai residents are threatened by the head of state,” and that the residents lived an “almost a non-existent life … Water doesn’t meet minimal needs and [they are] without electricity. North Sinai cities are dark most of the time.”

A local political activist said that “even the governor has no power.” Instead, he said, “the Defense Ministry and those who represent it are the only decision makers.” He said that the situation required aid organizations to intervene.

The North Sinai governorate has suffered from state marginalization for decades, but some unofficial statements estimate that unemployment rates might have surged to 60 percent in the governorate because of the military campaign and interruption of economic activity, particularly affecting farming.

Demolitions, Restrictions on Movement

In January al-Sisi announced a plan to forcibly evict and demolish all farms and houses within a five-kilometer circle around al-Arish airport to create an airport security buffer zone. The demolitions started soon afterward, media reports said, but no official decrees were published in the Official Gazette to lawfully frame the decision or establish a clear way for affected citizens to claim compensation. The People’s Committee said in a statement that “there are several other ways to secure the airport” and that the decision was “a pretext” to evict residents from other parts of Sinai.

Ongoing home demolitions and forced evictions in different cities have left many families with limited options. Many who could not afford to move to another city or received no compensation live in rudimentary shacks – which the army frequently calls “terrorists’ hideouts” – in the villages around Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed. Most of North Sinai is under a state of emergency, and an evening and early morning curfew has been in effect since October 2014.

Since the restrictions began, people who were outside Sinai have not been able to return to their homes on regular routes, as the army controls al-Salam Bridge and the nearby ferry, the main transportation links between North Sinai and Egypt’s mainland. Some families have been separated for more than two months. Small numbers were allowed to return on a bus provided by the government in the nearby Ismailiya governorate.

On March 9, one month after the beginning of the restrictions, the administration of North Sinai governorate posted a link on its Facebook page for residents “stuck” outside the governorate to fill in a form and wait for the administration to contact them.

A ban on traveling to mainland Egypt appears to apply to all residents, and the army did not announce clear procedures for exceptions on those restrictions for critical medical cases.

People who want to travel to mainland Egypt have to register at the governorate administration and wait for officials to contact them. Residents said personal “connections” with security officials can facilitate permission. Official statements on the governorate’s website say that only 113 people with medical needs and their escorting relatives and 420 students were allowed to travel to Egypt’s mainland from February 9 to 25.

In Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed, the army even seized donkeys that residents used for transportation after service stations were closed down. Al-Manassa independent news website said on March 20 that security measures were also restricting using donkeys for transportation.

Food and Water Crisis

The evidence gathered reveals that the army restrictions has exacerbated the suffering of residents already bearing the consequences of intensive military operations in their villages and cities over the past four years and caused a serious food shortage. This food crisis appears to be most serious in Sheikh Zuwayed and what remains of Rafah, a city almost entirely demolished after the government ordered almost all of its residents evicted to create a security buffer zone in 2014.

The army spokesperson released videos of women and children lining up to receive what seemed to be boxes of food distributed by the army. The same official statements, such as footage posted on April 8, show that the National Service Projects Organization, the Defense Ministry’s entity that owns and runs scores of commercial projects across the country, appears to be selling many of these supplies. The small quantities of goods that the government allowed since February might have allowed market to reopen briefly but did not resolve the crisis.

Hefny said that, “The government is dealing with an abnormal situation as if it was normal, although they themselves call it a war.” Some people had to wait for weeks to be allowed to travel and had to pay double the usual price [for the local bus], he said. “People would line up in very long lines in front of a shop without even knowing what [this shop] would be selling.”

Hefny and other witnesses said there was a bread shortage and that “exploitation by a few traders” in the absence of effective monitoring has meant that they have a monopoly on key items. He blamed the government for the crisis because the situation should be managed as in “a state of war,” he said.  

According to witnesses, there is also a severe shortage of drinking water east of al-Arish, as residents rely heavily on wells that need electricity or fuel to operate. Al-Manassa reported that many residents turned to collecting rainwater for essential needs. Media reports have said before that the army also restricted the use of big water trucks after militants had used them to make bombs.

Accounts of the situation in al-Arish and Baer al-Abd

“It’s a complete humiliation … There’s severe shortage of food,” said “Tawfik,” an employee from al-Arish whose wife and child were outside Sinai when the restrictions began and who has not been able to reunite with them.

Tawfik said that he needed to see a doctor for a minor medical condition, but that without transportation, it took him several days. “Transportation is rare and expensive,” he said. “Gas is [only] sold on the black market... and people pay ten pounds [0.56] instead of two [0.11] to ride in a pick-up car.”

Still image from a video posted on the Egyptian Army Official Spokesman Facebook Page on April 8, apparently showing army distributing boxes of free food to some residents in North Sinai. Witnesses said free food distributed was very limited and did not meet their needs. 

© 2018 Egyptian Army Official Spokesman Facebook Page

“My friends are struggling with [feeding] their kids because of the lack of dairy products and yogurt,” he said. “There are no eggs, no vegetables, no fruits, nothing.” Tawfik said that food is sold on army trucks and sometimes by associations that belong to the Supply and Internal Trading Ministry, the government entity that controls strategic goods. He said that the government charges the pre-restrictions market price but that the quantities are insufficient:

Quantities are limited and not available daily. The lines [of people waiting] have become very long and [the quantities] don’t suffice. I haven’t gone yet. I won’t humiliate myself for any reason.

On March 19, Mada Masr reported, citing witness accounts, that soldiers fired their guns in al-Arish to force people gathered to buy food to line up outside the distribution center, injuring four people by shrapnel. One injured woman lost her vision in one eye, but her family has not been able to take her outside Sinai for treatment because of the closure of roads.

Tawfik said that the restrictions on movement, goods, and food has interrupted local economic activities and the situation became “harsh for all business owners and workers as there isn’t considerable income. For example, who would buy clothes in such circumstances?”

Mada Masr quoted Khaled Mohamed, a man in his thirties from al-Arish, who said he waited hours for army trucks selling food to arrive two weeks after the restrictions began. The scene was “very absurd and frightening,” Mohamed said. “We were running after trucks to get food!” A few days later, people went to a vegetable market one night when they heard three trucks were arriving to sell food, Mada Masr said. A video published on Facebook by a resident in al-Arish, before he deleted it, showed dozens of al-Arish residents running after a truck that was reported to be distributing free vegetables.

Tawfik also said that the army sometimes provided free boxes of food. He said the boxes usually contained a quarter kilo of tea, as well as sugar, margarine, marmalade, and lentils. He said all of these were still available in the market except for the lentils.

Tawfik said he did not try to bring his family back to Sinai. “If the boy gets sick, I won’t find medicine or transportation to take him to a doctor.” He said there was also a shortage of some medicines. He said he met someone who was able to come back to North Sinai on the government bus: “It took them two and half days on the road instead of two and half hours.” Hospitals and medical centers in North Sinai had already been severely understaffed.

“Mahfouz,” 34, from al-Arish, said that “kids were screaming from hunger” and that “obtaining some vegetables has become a miracle.” He said that on one occasion he stood in line from 7 a.m. until 10 a.m. to buy bread. He said that now his family eats once a day, sometimes due to the lack of food, and that for the most part there was no baby formula.

Tawfik, Mahfouz, and Mohsen, another resident of al-Arish, said that the army allowed medicine companies to deliver medicine to pharmacies after initial shortages.

Residents of Baer al-Abd have faced some restrictions, but it is not as tightly controlled as other places in North Sinai. “Zaynab,” who lives close to Baer al-Abad, said that the army prevented farmers of the city from selling their vegetables, poultry, and other products in other cities in Sinai. This has led to the spoiling of crops and substantial financial losses.

Zaynab said that people in Baer al-Abd can move relatively freely, but that in al-Arish, the transportation “is almost non-existent … There are four or five buses run by the governorate administration that transport people [inside the city] for free … [but] these are very insufficient.”

Still images from a video posted on the Egyptian Army Official Spokesman Facebook Page on April 8, apparently showing army selling (above) and distributing (below) food to residents in North Sinai. 

© 2018 Egyptian Army Official Spokesman Facebook Page

The army has also prevented selling cooking gas cylinders in al-Arish, which had shortages even before the current campaign. But Zaynab said that the army allowed distributors to refill cylinders in Baer al-Abd and sell them in al-Arish five or four times since February 9. Two al-Arish residents said that they relied on electric appliances for cooking because they could not obtain cooking gas.

The government allowed more hours of telecommunications and electricity service during the presidential election days, from March 26 to 28. Mada Masr reported on March 29 that the government allowed the delivery of several food products at the al-Arish local markets, including eggs, fish, milk, and others that had not been available since February 9. Mada Masr said that people rushed to buy what was available.

Accounts of the situation in Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah

The two main cities east of al-Arish are Sheikh Zuwayed and what remains of Rafah, a city on the border with Gaza where the army evicted most of its 70,000 residents, apparently leaving only a few thousand. Residents in these cities and villages around them are suffering from much harsher conditions, as army restrictions on goods have long existed even before the February 9 campaign. The army has become the only source of food for many, and residents report that it is sold at higher prices than before the restrictions, sometimes double the cost. People rely on wood fires and face shortages of water, medicines, and medical services.

It is not the first time that the army has restricted the delivery of food in both cities, but it is the first time the restrictions lasted for weeks. Vehicle fuel sales have been banned in these cities for years, and residents were only allowed to buy fuel in al-Arish but since February 9 this has also been banned. For example, on March 16, 2017, the privately-owned al-Shorouk newspaper reported that “commerce was about to vanish in Sheikh Zuwayed” because of army restrictions on movement of all sorts of goods. In May 2015, closure of roads to Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah led to sharp shortages of food and medicine for almost two weeks before the army eased its restrictions. In the May 2015 crises, an unnamed official from the Supplies Ministry told the pro-government Dotmasr website that the crisis was “out of the ministry’s hands” and that army checkpoints were controlling the flow of goods. In November and December 2017, electricity was cut for three weeks.

“Mahmoud,” an Egyptian young man from who lives outside Sinai and has immediate family in Shaykh Zuwayed and Rafah, described his family’s life under the restrictions:

People come walking from all areas, [but] only those who have money. They have to pass all checkpoints and [suffer] humiliation and line up in long lines. Most of them are women because men are afraid of getting arrested. The line could be up to hundreds of people and they start lining up four hours before the [food] trucks arrive

Mahmoud said that family members described scenes in which the army would use gunfire to frighten people into lining up for food distributions:

[One time, soldiers] fired in the air. They started shouting at people “Sit! Stand! Sit! Stand!” to humiliate them. They said, “you don’t deserve to eat … you are sons of bastards.” The last time [the army came to sell food], they left people behind and moved without selling anything. The army sells food at double the price and not of a good quality.

He said that a relative of his has a small tract of land where he used to plant some vegetables, “but [now] the vegetables were finished.” Residents could not farm because “there’s no water,” Mahmoud said. He said that to bring water, people have to go to the “Abu Taweela” area, between Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed, passing several checkpoints, where there is a person who owns a well operated by generator. He said that his brother once bought 10 gallons, but on his way back army officers stopped him and took the water. “You are taking it to the terrorists,” the officers told Mahmoud’s brother.

“To carry water, you have to obtain permission from the army officers at the checkpoint,” he said. “It is valid for one time.” He said that people feel “humiliated,” especially when they think about their farming heritage:

Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah were the source of vegetables, tomatoes, potatoes, oranges, and clementines. We used to produce for ourselves and export the excess, and farming was the residents’ main job.

“Now, they all eat bread, onions, and khobbeizeh, greens that grow wild in their towns. Since the restrictions began, women started looking for this plant to cook it, he said.

Mahmoud said his mother stopped telling him the details of their lives because it made him cry: “My mother was a woman with dignity. Last week, she tried to find three eggs for ten pounds [0.56 USD] and could hardly find them.”

Mahmoud said that there was no milk at their home to feed his nephews and nieces and that a relative of his, who is pregnant, “keeps fainting as she cannot find food.” “My mother told me they didn’t know where to find a doctor and that they could not find milk.” He said that al-Sheikh Zuwayed Public Hospital, the city’s only medical facility, was barely functioning. “Only a couple of nurses and maybe a general practitioner [worked] sometimes. And you have to pass checkpoints and [face] humiliation and gunfire.”

He also said that a member of his relative’s family had been outside Sinai when the restrictions began and has not been able to come back since, so the relative’s family has lost its source of income. The army seized Mahmoud’s brother’s car in Shaykh Zuwayed without offering any legal reason. “Now my brother is at home [without work] feeling oppressed and can’t even buy yogurt for his daughter,” Mahmoud said.”

Cooking gas was hard to get in the beginning of the restrictions and later completely banned, Mahmoud said. “People use wood fires to cook.” He said that his family usually ate one meal every two days, depending on how much food they found.

“Laila,” who lives in the al-Hussaynat area, between Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed, said that she could not find enough food to feed her 10 children and grandchildren. She said she is a widow and that the army demolished their house and farm in Rafah as part of the forced evictions when they created the buffer zone. The farm was the only source of income for the family, but they received no compensation.

Laila walks dozens of kilometers to find food for her children and grandchildren and knocks on doors begging for food. Her family has also tried to hunt birds. They captured two birds in three days and made soup to feed the children.

The quasi-official Facebook page Electricity News in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed – a page that usually publishes news about power cuts, cable damages, and maintenance operations – published a call for help on March 5 for a three-month baby girl who needed baby formula, which her family could not find. The page said that the father, from al-Hussaynat area, was “crying and said he was feeding her cooked rice – otherwise she would die.” The page called on the army to provide milk for the baby, food, and yogurt.

It is very difficult for journalists to reach villages around Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed, but the conditions there are probably more severe, especially in al-Masoura village, south of Rafah. On April 7, the pro-government al-Watan newspaper said that the army finally “opened al-Masoura road” to allow residents, whose houses were being demolished, to leave to al-Arish and other areas in the governorate. The report quoted Khaled Kamal, the head of Rafah City Council, who said that they “received urgent help requests” from al-Masoura residents who wanted to leave. He rejected claims that residents were trapped or prevented from taking their possessions and furniture. However, he said that they rejected requests “from families of non-evicted areas to move them” because they only facilitate the move of residents of evicted areas.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Displaced Iraqi families pictured in a camp. © 2017 by Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – The United States government should not transfer a US citizen detained abroad to the custody of any country where he faces a substantial risk of torture, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 17, 2018, the US filed notice in US federal court indicating it plans to transfer the detainee to another government’s custody, which media reports suggest is Saudi Arabia or Iraq. 
The US should either prosecute the detainee in US federal court if there is evidence he committed a crime, or release him, Human Rights Watch said.

“The US should not be transferring anyone to a country where they face a risk of torture or ill-treatment,” said Laura Pitter, senior US national security counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The detainee has the right to contest his transfer to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or any other country where he might face torture.”

The US government has been holding the prisoner, a dual US and Saudi citizen identified only as “John Doe” in court papers, at an undisclosed military prison in Iraq since he surrendered to US-allied forces in Syria in September 2017. According to media reports and court filings, the US suspects the detainee of being a low-level fighter with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). In court filings the detainee disputes this, asserting he travelled to Syria to report on the conflict but was kidnapped and imprisoned by ISIS and tried numerous times to escape. The US has not publicly charged him with a criminal offense. The April 17 notice was filed in US Federal Court for the District of Columbia indicating that it intended to transfer him to an undisclosed country within the next 72 hours. 

The US initially contested attempts to permit the detainee access to a lawyer but after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued, a US federal court ordered the government to permit the ACLU access. The ACLU challenged his detention in court ever since, as well as the government’s ability to transfer him to another country. On January 23, US District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan ordered the US government to give the court 72 hours’ notice if it intended to transfer the prisoner, which would permit the ACLU to file an emergency motion to block the transfer, which it did on April 18

The United Nations Convention against Torture, which the US ratified in 1994, prohibits transferring anyone to the custody of another country where there are substantial grounds for believing that the individual would be in danger of being subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.  

In Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch has documented the use of torture in detention facilities. There have also been numerous cases in which criminal suspects alleged abuse in court. However, the courts, without investigating the claims, instead based convictions on allegedly coerced confessions. In Iraq, Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern of torture of captured extremist suspects, as well as sham trials followed by executions.

“It’s bad enough that the US has been detaining this individual for months, fighting his right to contest his detention and access to legal counsel,” Pitter said. “If the US now intends to transfer him to another country, it needs to make sure he won’t face a risk of torture and can challenge the transfer.”


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Numerous concerns have been raised about Mike Pompeo, President Trump’s nominee for secretary of state. Though the US Senate confirmed him as  the Central Intelligence Agency director, albeit with significant objection, his new role would be much different and raises a host of new concerns.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 13, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

One is the influence he could exert over US overseas “rendition” policy – how the US handles the transfer of people from US custody to the custody of other governments or non-state armed groups abroad. US rendition practices in the years following the September 2001 attacks resulted in numerous abuses. In addition to unlawfully detaining and torturing scores of men in US custody, the US also sent an unknown number to countries where they faced torture — and many indeed were tortured –, violating the Convention against Torture, to which the US is party.

The Obama administration refused to take as strong a position as it could have on whether the US is legally bound by that treaty’s  prohibition on transferring people to places where they face a substantial risk of torture when that transfer takes place outside of US territory. Its position remained shrouded in secrecy.

Only after it released an unclassified portion of US overseas transfer policy as part of a summary of its legal positions at the end Obama’s second term did it become clear that it had adopted the George W. Bush administration’s position that the US is not legally bound by the treaty’s transfer provisions when those transfers take place outside the US. However, it did state that the US applied convention obligations as a matter of policy to all transfers regardless of location.

The position is contrary to international law and went against the advice of many key senior Obama officials, including the State Department legal adviser, Harold Koh. In 2013 Koh wrote a 90-page memo urging the administration to reject the “untenable” legal position that the US is not legally bound by this treaty provision concerning a transfer outside of US borders.

Given the integral role the State Department plays in these transfers, along with Pompeo’s past expression of support for CIA torture and his apparent frustration with laws barring it, senators should make this issue a major focus of his confirmation hearings. Does he consider the US to be bound by the convention’s transfer provisions outside the US? If not, will he commit to apply the convention’s standards on transfer as a matter of policy as the prior administration did? If so, how will he ensure this policy is enforced? Will he ensure that the US never transfers anyone from US custody to a government or non-state armed group when they are likely to face torture?

Though senators questioned Pompeo about his attitudes on torture during his CIA confirmation hearing, those questions focused mostly on whether he would abide by a 2015 law enacted after he made his views in support of the CIA’s use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” known. During his confirmation hearing, he did recognize the validity of that 2015 law and promised to respect it but in written follow-up questions and during interviews while CIA director, said he would look at the possibility of revising that law or finding ways around it if he found that US interrogators were unduly constrained.

There are strong safeguards against revising the 2015 law, which requires US interrogators to use only those techniques listed in the US Army Field Manual. The manual, which has its flaws, explicitly bans many unlawful practices the CIA used in the past, such as waterboarding, and torture more generally. Any revisions would have to be approved by Defense Secretary James Mattis, an outspoken critic of the use of torture, who at one point seemed to have convinced Trump that using it was ineffective, if not necessarily wrong. This time around, senators should focus their questions on the US overseas transfer policy given how much influence on these matters Pompeo could exert at the State Department. According to former senior State Department and National Security Council officials, the State Department is deeply involved in negotiating these transfers, determining their legality and appropriateness, and ensuring certain safeguards are in place when they do occur.

These questions are more important than ever given the shifting dynamics of US military operations. The US is engaged in major military operations around the world yet it has drastically reduced its detention operations in these locations. It relies more than ever on partner forces that detain and interrogate people in their custody. Just days ago it was revealed that the US military is spending about $1 million to help detain thousands of Islamic State fighters and their family members in makeshift camps run by Kurdish militias in northern Syria.

The only new detainee the Trump administration says it is holding is an unnamed American citizen in Iraq. This detainee requested a lawyer but the US refused to provide one until a court ordered it months later, after the American Civil Liberties Union sued to represent him. It also sought to transfer him to Saudi Arabia even though it has a well-known record of torture. In Yemen, US interrogators have questioneddetainees in secret prisons run by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and UAE-backed Yemeni forces where torture is widespread, and in another undisclosed location where the detention conditions were not known.

In this environment, the line between where partner custody ends, and US custody begins, as well as what constitutes a transfer to another government’s custody, should be closely watched. Pompeo’s expressed frustration with laws banning torture, the leading role the State Department plays in overseas transfers, and the limited domestic legal constraints on them, should make these issues and questions an important focus of Pompeo’s upcoming nomination hearing.

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

Person waives an Islamic State of Iraq and Sham(ISIS) flag in Raqqa, Syria, on June 29, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recently gave journalists access to Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee el-Sheikh, both UK nationals in the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) reportedly implicated in the torture and beheading of several foreigners, including journalists and aid workers.

Detained foreign ISIS suspects interest the public and foreign journalists are often seeking ways to get them on camera. But here is the snag. The laws of war prohibit subjecting detainees to “public curiosity.” These prisoners – who have no lawyers – are in no position to freely answer questions before the cameras. They said they were not being mistreated in custody – but could they have safely given another answer before being returned to their captors? They were asked questions about their involvement in terrible crimes, but how to evaluate their answers knowing that a future prosecutor will make use of such recordings.

In the catalogue of horrors that has been the conflict in Syria, this may seem like a minor issue, but it goes to the heart of a broader question: despite ISIS’s ghastly record of cruelty and atrocity, can’t we treat these men similarly to prisoners from other wars?

Watching the two men on TV is not easy; they express no remorse or empathy for victims. When asked if he disagreed with some ISIS policies, el-Sheikh said he disagreed with “traffic tickets and other such things that have no basis in the law of Allah.” He refused to denounce enslaving Yezidis.

Both men appear to be challenging the world to provide them with a fair trial.

“I am not a democratic person, but I am being subjected to democratic law. So, it is only right for those who claim to uphold this to fully uphold it,” said el-Sheikh.

“The American administration or British government – if they decided they wanted to be champions of the Sharia and apply Islamic law upon myself and Shaf [el-Sheikh], then by all means. If not, then they should adhere to that which they claim to be champions of,” said Kotey.

Watching them, I would lose no sleep if they were denied a fair hearing. But choosing revenge over justice would be a mistake. Fair trials speak to our commitment to due process and the rule of law in the face of despicable acts. It is also about remembering the victims of ISIS and their relatives – many of whom have refused to fall into the trap of revenge.

Diane Foley, the mother of American journalist James Foley, who was executed by ISIS, said she hopes to see Kotey and el-Sheikh given a fair trial and receive life sentences. She doesn’t want the men sent to the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay: “It would perpetuate the hatred. … We need to show them what real justice looks like.”

Antoine Leiris, the spouse of one of the victims of the 2015 Bataclan attack in Paris, wrote a moving Facebook post directed at the perpetrators of the attack, saying, among other things, “I will not give you the gift of hating you.”

Watching the interviews with the two men, it is easy to hate them. But we should not give them this gift. Let’s show them what real justice looks like, not the one meted out to their victims.

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

Gina Haspel, a veteran CIA clandestine officer picked by U.S. President Donald Trump to head the Central Intelligence Agency, is shown in this handout photograph released on March 13, 2018.

© 2018 CIA handout
(Washington, DC) – The US Senate should oppose the nomination of Gina Haspel to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the Senate leadership and Select Committee on Intelligence. She was closely involved in the torture of detainees under the CIA’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation (RDI) program, and the destruction of related evidence.

The government should disclose more information about Haspel’s role in the RDI program, but what is already known should disqualify her from serving as CIA director and other senior government positions.

“President Donald Trump’s decision to nominate someone directly involved in overseeing the US torture of detainees and destroying evidence of it makes a mockery of laws prohibiting torture,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the US program at Human Rights Watch. “Haspel’s confirmation at a time when the US president himself has endorsed torture would send a message that violations of fundamental rights will not only be tolerated but rewarded.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Gina Haspel, a veteran CIA clandestine officer picked by U.S. President Donald Trump to head the Central Intelligence Agency, is shown in this handout photograph released on March 13, 2018.

© 2018 CIA handout


March 23, 2018

The Honorable Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader, US Senate

The Honorable Chuck Schumer
Senate Minority Leader, US Senate

The Honorable Richard Burr
Chairman, US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

The Honorable Mark Warner
Vice Chairman, US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

Re: Nomination of Gina Haspel to be CIA Director

Dear Majority Leader McConnell, Minority Leader Schumer, Chairman Burr, and Vice Chairman Warner:

We write on behalf of Human Rights Watch to express our opposition to the impending nomination of Gina Haspel to be Central Intelligence Agency director.

President Donald Trump’s decision to nominate as CIA director someone closely involved in the torture of detainees under the CIA’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation (RDI) program,[1] and the destruction of related evidence, demonstrates contempt for the prohibition against torture under US and international law. It sends a message to the American people and the world that acting without regard for rights protections and the rule of law will be rewarded.

Much of Haspel’s role in the RDI program is not publicly known because the government has classified extensive information related to that program. Information on her role should be declassified and released publicly prior to her hearing so that both senators and the American public have a clear and full understanding of her record. However, what is already known should disqualify her from this critical cabinet-level position.

Ran CIA “Black Site,” Oversaw Torture

Haspel is credibly reported to have run a CIA “black site” in Thailand from late October 2002 until late December 2002 where at least two detainees, Abu Zubaydah, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, were held.[2]

Though Haspel appears to have physically arrived at the Thai site toward the end of Abu Zubaydah’s most aggressive interrogation period, she would have known or should have learned that Abu Zubaydah had been subject to extensive torture and ill-treatment. This included being stripped naked, hit, slammed into walls, shackled into extremely painful stress positions, subjected to extreme cold, and waterboarded 83 times—on at least one occasion to the point of near death.[3]

Within weeks of her arrival, Haspel supervised the interrogation of al-Nashiri, a new detainee brought to the site. Interrogators used many of the same unlawful techniques used on Abu Zubaydah, including waterboarding.[4]

Role in Other Aspects of the RDI Program

By the end of December 2002, Haspel reportedly returned to the CIA Counterterrorism Center outside Washington as an operations officer.[5] No public record exists of the role she played in the RDI program between then and the time that she became chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, who headed the CIA’s National Clandestine Service from 2004 or 2005 until 2007.[6] But credible, public accounts suggest that during this time she played a leading, supervisory role.

In his book, former CIA General Counsel John Rizzo describes Haspel as having “run the [CIA] interrogation program.”[7] Glenn Carle, a former undercover CIA operative involved in interrogating a detainee in CIA custody described her as “one of the architects, designers, implementers and one of the top two managers of the [CIA interrogation program].”[8]

In addition to using so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the CIA also held detainees in long-term incommunicado detention in unsanitary conditions, forced detainees to be naked or wear diapers, and deprived them of food, and fed at least five detainees through their rectums.[9] The agency also unlawfully rendered numerous men to various countries, many of whom were then tortured by US partner forces.[10]

Haspel should publicly explain which aspects of the CIA program she was involved in during this time, if any, and her role. The CIA has admitted to a number of “management failures” during the time that she was in charge of the Thailand CIA “black cite.”[11] This included a failure to discipline for detainee abuse. The agency also admitted to inflating the value of intelligence gathered from detainees to continue justifying the program.[12] 

Destruction of Videotapes

In 2005 Haspel was involved in destroying 96 videotapes of some of the most violent images of CIA torture, mostly depicting the torture of Abu Zubaydah.[13] During one waterboarding session likely recorded, a CIA cable describes Abu Zubaydah having become “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”[14] John McPhearson, a CIA lawyer who reviewed the tapes, said they showed Abu Zubaydah, “crying” and “gagging” and that they were “very unpleasant to look at.”[15] 

In November 2005, Haspel drafted the order to destroy the tapes and Rodriguez signed it though Rizzo had instructed Rodriguez not to do so without his and further White House approval.[16] According to Rizzo, Rodriguez and Haspel were “the staunchest advocates inside the [CIA] for destroying the tapes,”[17] and Rodriguez said in his book that destroying the tapes was something that he and Haspel had been trying to do for a long time.[18]


The US Senate is charged with scrupulously examining the administration’s nominee for CIA director. Given her record, confirming Haspel would not only erode US respect for the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment but would undermine US commitments to human rights at home and abroad. For these reasons, we urge you to oppose her nomination.


Nicole Austin-Hillery
Executive Director, US Program
Human Rights Watch

Sarah Margon
Washington Director
Human Rights Watch


[1] Human Rights Watch, No More Excuses: A Roadmap to Justice for CIA Torture, December 2015, https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/12/01/no-more-excuses/roadmap-justice-cia-torture.

[2] Adam Goldman, “Gina Haspel, Trump’s Choice for C.I.A., Played Role in Torture Program,” New York Times, March 13, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/13/us/politics/gina-haspel-cia-director-nominee-trump-torture-waterboarding.html?smid=tw-share (accessed March 18, 2018).

[3] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program,” Executive Summary, December 13, 2012, https://www.feinstein.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/7/c/7c85429a-ec38-4bb5-968f-289799bf6d0e/D87288C34A6D9FF736F9459ABCF83210.sscistudy1.pdf (accessed March 18, 2018)(hereinafter “Senate Summary”), pp. 31-47.

[4] Senate Summary, p. 67.

[5] Goldman, New York Times, March 13, 2018.

[6] Jose Rodriguez, “A CIA veteran on what ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ gets wrong about the bin Laden Manhunt,” Washington Post, January 3, 2013,  https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-cia-veteran-on-what-zero-dark-thirty-gets-wrong-about-the-bin-laden-manhunt/2013/01/03/4a76f1b8-52cc-11e2-a613- ec8d394535c6_story.html?utm_term=.e33121c5e84a (accessed March 19, 2018).

[7] John Rizzo, A Company Man, Scribner: New York 2014, p. 14.

[8] Natasha Bertrand, “A Controversial Record of Torture, but Maybe Not a Deal-Breaker for Democrats,” The Atlantic, March 13, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/03/democrats-may-look-past-a-cia-nominees-record-on-torture/555554/ (accessed March 19, 2018).

[9] See generally, Senate Summary. See also: Human Rights Watch, No More Excuses: A Roadmap to Justice for CIA Torture

[10] See Human Rights Watch, Delivered Into Enemy Hands: US-Led Renditions to Gaddafi’s Libya, September 5, 2012, https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/09/05/delivered-enemy-hands/us-led-abuse-and-rendition-opponents-gaddafis-libya; See also, Globalization of Torture Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition,” February 2013, http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/globalizing-torture-20120205.pdf (accessed March 20, 2018).

[11] See U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, “Comments on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Former Detention and Interrogation Program,” June 27, 2013, https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/CIAs_June2013_Response_to_the_SSCI_Study_on_the_Former_Detention_and_Interrogation_Program.pdf (accessed March 22, 2018).

[12] Ali Watkins, “CIA Strikes Back At Senate: Torture Program Was Poorly Run, But It Worked,” The Huffington Post, December 9, 2014, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/09/cia-torture-program_n_6272220.html (accessed March 22, 2018).

[13] The exact number of tapes destroyed varies by source. In his book, “A Company Man, former CIA General Counsel John Rizzo who has a first-hand account of the episode, says there were 100 hours of recordings on 96 tapes. See Rizzo, A Company Man, p. 7. Many media reports say 92 tapes were destroyed. See e.g., Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, “Lawyers Left Off Memo to Destroy CIA Terror Tapes,” Associated Press, July 26, 2010, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/38416094/ns/us_news-security/t/lawyers-left-memo-destroy-cia-terror-tapes/#.WquUY6jwY2x (accessed March 20, 2-018).

[14] Annabelle Timsit, “What Happened at the Thailand 'Black Site' Run by Trump's CIA Pick,” The Atlantic, March 14, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/03/gina-haspel-black-site-torture-cia/555539/?utm_source=poltw (accessed March 22, 2018).

[15] Rizzo, A Company Man, p. 8.

[16] Ibid,. pp. 16-17.

[17] Ibid., p. 14.

[18] Jose Rodriguez, Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives, Threshold Editions: New York, 2012, p. 193.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

March 16, 2018

Dear Senator,

We write to express our grave concerns regarding the nomination of Gina Haspel for Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and to ask that you not advance her nomination until all of the records on her past involvement in the CIA torture program are declassified and released to the public.  Senators should be concerned not only by Ms. Haspel’s reported role overseeing the torture of detainees at a secret CIA detention site in Thailand, but also by her participation in a deliberate attempt to avoid accountability by destroying video evidence of CIA torture.

Ms. Haspel joined the CIA in 1985, and has held several leadership roles in the agency’s clandestine operations. She was named Deputy Director of the CIA in 2017, despite the objections of senators who urged President Trump to reconsider her nomination in light of her past connection to torture.[1] Amid similar controversy in 2013, Haspel was denied a promotion to lead the CIA’s National Clandestine Service.[2]

We have strong concerns about Ms. Haspel’s reported role overseeing the torture of detainees at a clandestine detention site in Thailand, and her subsequent role in the destruction of evidence of those torture crimes. Detainees at the Thailand “black site” were waterboarded, slammed against walls, subjected to enforced sleeplessness, and confined to coffin-shaped boxes, among other criminal practices.[3] Ms. Haspel reportedly was in a supervisory position over the Thailand “black site” during this period—including an on-site leadership role when at least one detainee was brutally tortured—and knew about, reported on, and was otherwise involved in other cases of torture and detainee abuse.[4] But the full extent of her involvement is impossible to confirm because the CIA continues to insist that information about the full extent of her role remain classified. Executive Order 13526 prohibits the classification of records to “conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error” or “prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency,” so there is no reason for the torture program, or Ms. Haspel’s role in it, to remain classified.  Senators and the American people must be able to read these documents in assessing her nomination to be CIA Director.[5]

In addition to her role overseeing the use of torture, Ms. Haspel’s participation in the destruction of videotapes of the torture program, over objections of White House counsel and CIA General Counsel among others, is alarming. In November 2005, amid increasing public outrage over revelations of torture at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention facility, the CIA destroyed 92 videotapes of interrogations at clandestine facilities elsewhere.[6]  While the CIA maintains that the decision to destroy the tapes was made by then-Director of the National Clandestine Service Jose Rodriguez, Rodriguez says in his 2013 book that Haspel drafted the order herself.[7] Former CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo says Haspel and Rodriguez were the “staunchest advocates inside the building for destroying the tapes.”[8]

Destruction of the tapes appears to constitute a concerted effort to escape embarrassment and legal consequences. In 2004, in a Freedom of Information Act suit filed by the ACLU, a judge had ordered the government to preserve all records related to abuse of detainees overseas, which clearly applied to the videotapes.[9] The incident was also a clear violation of the Federal Records Act, and indicates that Ms. Haspel does not believe she has an obligation to follow the law or a court order.[10]  The destruction of the videotapes even prompted then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the destruction.

The Senate’s constitutional obligation to “advise and consent” on any nomination requires that it have full access to relevant information on the nominees before it. In Ms. Haspel’s case, the precise details of her role in the torture program remain classified. All senators should demand that those records be declassified and made public—before her nomination moves any further—so that they can actually discuss Ms. Haspel’s deeply disturbing background in open session, and so that the public can glean a more detailed picture of her role in one of the darkest chapters in U.S. history.

Ms. Haspel was a central figure in the torture program and the destruction of evidence of torture. Based on already available records and public reporting, it is clear by her wrongdoing that she demonstrated disregard for the rule of law and fundamental human rights.


American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
American Civil Liberties Union
Arab American Institute
Brennan Center for Justice
Campaign for Liberty
Center for Constitutional Rights
Center for Victims of Torture
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington
Defending Rights & Dissent
Demand Progress Action
Free Press
Government Accountability Project
Government Information Watch
Herd on the Hill
Human Rights First
Human Rights Watch
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
National Security Archive
No More Guantanamos
North Carolina Stop Torture Now
Open the Government
PEN America
Physicians for Human Rights
Project On Government Oversight
Restore The Fourth
Sunlight Foundation
Win Without War

[1] See: “Wyden, Heinrich Express Concern on Selection of Gina Haspel to be Deputy Director of the CIA,” February 2, 2017, available at: https://www.wyden.senate.gov/news/press-releases/wyden-heinrich-express-...

[2] Greg Miller, “CIA selects new head of clandestine service, passing over female officer,” Washington Post, May 7, 2013, available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/cia-selects-new-h...

[3] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program,” Executive Summary, December 13, 2012, available at: https://www.feinstein.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/7/c/7c85429a-ec38-4...

[4] Adam Goldman, “Gina Haspel, Trump’s Choice for C.I.A., Played Role in Torture Program,” New York Times, March 13, 2018, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/13/us/politics/gina-haspel-cia-director-...

[5] See: “Heinrich, Wyden Urge CIA to Declassify Information About Deputy Director Haspel’s Background,” February 23, 2017, available at: https://www.heinrich.senate.gov/press-releases/heinrich-wyden-urge-cia-t...

[6] Mark Mazetti, “U.S. Says C.I.A. Destroyed 92 Tapes of Interrogations,” New York Times, March 2, 2009, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/washington/03web-intel.html

[7] Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives, Threshold Editions, 2013, pg. 193.

[8] John Rizzo, Company Man: 30 Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA, Scribner, 2014, pg. 14.

[9] See: ACLU v. Department of Defense, available at: https://www.aclu.org/cases/aclu-v-department-defense

[10] Federal Records Act, 44 U.S.C. Chapter 31.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) testifies before a Senate Intelligence hearing on his nomination to head the CIA on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 12, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

(Washington, DC) – In response to President Donald Trump’s nomination of Mike Pompeo to be Secretary of State and Gina Haspel as CIA Director please find the following response from Sarah Margon, Washington Director at Human Rights Watch:

“US President Donald Trump’s decision to nominate Mike Pompeo to be Secretary of State and Gina Haspel to succeed him as CIA Director is deeply troubling because of their past endorsements of torture.

“During his CIA confirmation hearing on January 12, 2017, Pompeo failed to unequivocally disavow the US government’s use of torture and mass surveillance. In a January 2018 speech on interrogation methods, Pompeo again missed an opportunity to reject torture and suggested coercive methods were acceptable. If Pompeo is confirmed to be the global face of the US government, his views on torture would harm the standing of the US abroad.

“Haspel is credibly reported to have run a CIA “black site” in Thailand as part of a US program that used torture after the 9/11 attacks. She later served as chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, who led the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center from approximately 2002 to 2004. In these positions she would have been directly involved in the CIA’s notorious and unlawful rendition, detention, and interrogation program. The government should investigate Haspel for past violations, not nominate her for higher office.

“Given their histories, the potential for Pompeo and Haspel to endorse abusive practices and lend support for their use abroad should convince the Senate to reject both nominations.”

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

On March 20 of last year, an aircraft of the US-led coalition struck a boarding school in Mansourah, near Raqqa, Syria. The building was completely destroyed. What was hit and who died in this strike has been a subject of contention ever since. The coalition has maintained that the building was an Islamic State (also known as ISIS) intelligence headquarters and weapons storage facility where more than 30 ISIS militants typically stayed and that no civilians were harmed.

Last July, I visited the school as part of a Human Rights Watch investigation and we came to a very different conclusion. After interviewing a dozen witnesses, including two survivors, we found that far from being a military base, the school had been housing large numbers of displaced civilians. While witnesses said that some of the civilians were relatives of ISIS fighters who had fled Iraq, they said that the school was also used by many other civilians who had no ties to ISIS members. We collected the names of 40 people, including 15 women and 16 children, who died in the strike. The total number of civilian casualties, people who buried the dead told us, was much higher.

We shared our findings with the coalition, including the names of many of the victims, but the coalition has not investigated further or changed its assessment of the strike. It has maintained the position that it articulated last July, when it said that “after review of available information and strike video it was assessed that there is insufficient evidence to find that civilians were harmed in this strike.” We never found out how the coalition collected its information or why it decided there is insufficient evidence.

The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria, set up to investigate violations of international law in Syria since 2011, issued its latest periodic report on March 6 and came to a conclusion similar to ours about civilians being harmed in the Mansourah strike. After interviewing 20 witnesses, they found that the information they collected “does not support the claim that 30 ISIL [Islamic State] fighters were in the school at the time of the strike, nor that the school was otherwise being used by ISIL.” The commission found that out of 200 residents in the school, 150 were killed and identified 12 survivors, including 4 women and 6 children.

In light of these additional findings, the US-led coalition should revisit its assessment and agree to conduct a full and transparent investigation of its Mansourah strike. The coalition should use the full range of investigative tools, including interviews with victims and their families, as well as local residents. Such an investigation is not only important for the victims but is also essential to better understand what precautions the coalition took to protect civilians in its anti-ISIS campaign in Syria and Iraq.

We still do not know the civilian death toll of the anti-ISIS campaign, but the information gathered by independent on-the-ground investigations, including the New York Times report “The Uncounted,” suggest that the numbers of victims in Iraq are far higher than the Pentagon has estimated or reported. On a recent visit to the city of Raqqa, local residents told me that hundreds of bodies of civilians killed by coalition airstrikes still lay under the city’s rubble.

The fact that the fate of civilians in the Mansourah strike – and in many other strikes – continues to be shrouded in a “fog of war” and bureaucratic denials almost a year after the attack is striking given that the coalition’s partner forces have been in control of these areas for months. Witnesses are available for interviews, bodies are accessible to be counted. The ongoing denials show, at best, an indifference to the plight of the civilian population.

This attitude by the coalition is shortsighted. The fact that the coalition is more transparent than the Syrian or Russian air force should not be a source of comfort. The Pentagon does have procedures in place that it could activate to look more closely at what happened in Mansourah. The question is whether US officials are willing to revisit the case to take into account the new available information.

I heard US officials repeatedly mention the importance of winning hearts and minds in the battle against ISIS. Opening a full investigation into the Mansourah strike before the anniversary of the attack would be a step in the right direction.

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

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces removes an Islamic State flag in the town of Tabqa, west of Raqqa city, Syria, April 30, 2017.

© 2017 Getty Images

(Beirut) – The capture of two British men suspected of involvement in the Islamic State’s (also known as ISIS) torture and execution of Western hostages highlights the need to provide trials for ISIS suspects that respect due process and permit genuine victim participation, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recently detained Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee el-Sheikh, the last two members of a four-person group of UK nationals in ISIS implicated in the torture and beheading of a number of foreigners, including prominent journalists and aid workers. Mohammed Emwazi, another one of the four, was killed in an airstrike in Syria in 2015, according to the Pentagon and ISIS media outlets, and Aine Davis, the fourth member, was imprisoned on terrorism charges in Turkey. Since Kotey and el-Sheikh’s capture, victims’ relatives and former hostages have publicly called for the two to face justice in trials that they can attend.

“The capture of two ISIS suspects should jump-start international discussions on ensuring justice for ISIS’s horrific crimes,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism/counterterrorism program director at Human Rights Watch. “This means trials that respect due process and encourage victim participation in foreign countries with jurisdiction over the suspects.”

The two ISIS suspects should be prosecuted by foreign countries that have jurisdiction and can provide fair trials, Human Rights Watch said. While Human Rights Watch is not in principle opposed to local trials, locally set-up courts in northern Syria are currently not able to ensure basic due process. No country, including the United Kingdom, has said that it would try the two. The future of these men, as well as of the other foreign ISIS members held in northern Syria, is on the agenda of the meeting in Rome of key defense ministers of the International Coalition to Defeat ISIS on February 13, 2018, where US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is expected to raise the issue, according to multiple media reports.

Britain’s defense secretary said on February 10 that the two men “should never be allowed to return to the UK” and media reports have indicated that the UK may have already stripped them of their citizenship. The foreign minister of France, the home country of at least two journalists who were tortured by the ISIS group, indicated on February 7 that the foreign ISIS members should be tried in northern Syria.

The US government has urged the UK and other members of the coalition fighting ISIS to help address the growing number of foreign fighters being held by the SDF. Kathryn Wheelbarger, the principal deputy assistant defense secretary for international security affairs said, “We're working with the coalition on foreign fighter detainees, and generally expect these detainees to return to their country of origin for disposition.”

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that the US was in talks with the UK about ISIS detainees but there were no plans to bring them to the US or the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Should the US take custody of the two alleged ISIS members, they should be prosecuted in US federal court and not sent to Guantanamo, where they would be subject to military commissions that do not meet international due process standards, Human Rights Watch said.

The SDF have detained thousands of ISIS members in northern Syria, including hundreds of foreigners. The Democratic Union Party (PYD)-led autonomous administration in northern Syria has set up local counterterrorism courts, known as the People’s Defense Court, but so far have only tried Syrian and Iraqi nationals.

These courts apply a counterterrorism law that was locally enacted in 2014 and rejects the application of the death penalty. Human Rights Watch visited these local counterterrorism courts in July 2017 and again in January 2018. A number of serious due process concerns prevented trials before the court from meeting basic international standards, Human Rights Watch found.

Key issues include the absence of any role for a defense lawyer and the lack of any formal appeals process. Local critics also noted that the courts are not fully independent from the local authorities and lack adequately trained prosecutors and judges. Some of the judges were not officially trained as lawyers or judges, but local authorities said that they went through a four-month training program.

Local officials in charge of the court system in northern Syria told Human Rights Watch that they had hoped that foreign countries would take back their foreign nationals and reduce the burden on them. If that was not possible, they said, they would consider trying some of them, but recognized that this would require improving their judicial system and laws at a time of mounting challenges for the local administration.

Families of the victims have expressed their interest in fair trials that they can attend for ISIS group members. Diane Foley, the mother of the US journalist James Foley, who was executed by the ISIS group, said she hopes to see Kotey and el-Sheikh given a fair and transparent criminal trial and receive life sentences. She told the media she did not want the men sent to Guantanamo Bay: “It would perpetuate the hatred. They [the victims] were executed in orange jumpsuits, like they have to wear in Guantanamo. We need to be above that. We need to show them what real justice looks like.”

Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who survived brutal detention by the ISIS group, told the media that he wants his former jailers to face a fair trial for their crimes. “What I want is a trial and a trial potentially that I can attend, so rather, a trial in London rather than one in Kobani in northern Syria,” he told the media. “Guantanamo Bay wouldn’t be a satisfying solution either, as it is a denial of justice.” He added:

What I want is an incontestable trial, as fair as possible, where my captors would have all the chances to defend themselves…We must absolutely prevent them reversing the situation by depicting them as victims. We were the victims, not them. If they don’t get justice, they will use it to fuel their propaganda.

“Officials meeting in Rome should find ways to provide fair trials that respect due process and provide the victims and their families – be they Syrian, Iraqis, or foreign – their day in court,” Houry said. “It’s important for the members of the international coalition to agree on these basic principles.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

New evidence suggests that between August 28 and September 3, 2017, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Asayish security forces from the West of the Tigris branch carried out mass executions of alleged Islamic State (also known as ISIS) fighters in their custody, which constitutes a war crime.

(Erbil) – New evidence suggests that between August 28 and September 3, 2017, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Asayish security forces from the West of the Tigris branch carried out mass executions of alleged Islamic State (also known as ISIS) fighters in their custody, which constitutes a war crime, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Peshmerga military forces detained the men, both foreign and Iraqi, in a school in Sahil al-Maliha, a village 70 kilometers northwest of Mosul. Asayish forces bused them to a prison in Shilgia, a village 45 kilometers away, according to a now retired security force member, and from there they took them to two sites in the vicinity of the town of Zummar, where they executed them. Human Rights Watch located an apparent mass grave site where Asayish buried at least some of the bodies after the executions, according to the retired security force member and six residents of the neighboring village. KRG criminal justice authorities should investigate the apparent war crimes and prosecute those implicated up to the highest levels of responsibility.
“The evidence suggests that Asayish security forces conducted mass executions of captured ISIS suspects night after night for a week, perhaps killing scores or even hundreds of male detainees,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iraqi and KRG authorities should urgently and transparently investigate the allegations of mass executions and hold those responsible to account.”

Because the mass grave site is located within the flood zone of the Mosul Dam reservoir, it is critically important to urgently allow international forensic experts to conduct a detailed exhumation of the site before seasonal rains fill the reservoir again later this year and submerge the grave site, complicating the identification of bodies, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch was not able to speak with witnesses to the executions. But other evidence suggest that Asayish forces executed the ISIS suspects. Human Rights Watch spoke to a now-retired security force member, “Nadim,” who was regularly in contact with the Asayish members who told him they participated in the executions. Researchers also analyzed video and photographic evidence, including geotagged photos of bodies and satellite imagery showing the apparent mass grave was created sometime between July 5 and September 3 by bulldozer, and interviewed residents of a neighboring village.

Nadim went to one of the execution sites on August 29, where he said he saw approximately 30 bodies hours after the first group of men are believed to have been executed. Human Rights Watch visited a mass grave site where Nadim and local villagers said bodies were buried on January 30, 2018, and a second time on February 6.

Nadim said that on August 29, a friend of his in the Asayish said that he and other Asayish members, all part of the West of the Tigris Asayish branch, had taken about 80 detainees suspected of ISIS affiliation from Shilgia prison the night before and had executed about 50 of them outside the village of Tal Ahmed Agha al-Kabir, and the others outside Bardiya village, which researchers visited.

Nadim said that a few hours later he traveled to the site near Bardiya, which he located based on information from locals who told him they discovered bodies there. There, he counted about 30 unburied bodies, all shot in the head, and took three photographs of them and two short videos. Human Rights Watch reviewed the photos and videos and was able to confirm based on their metadata that they were taken on August 29, 460 meters from a mass grave which was later created. In total, the photos and videos show at least 20 bodies of men. The bodies did not have visible injuries consistent with battle wounds or suicide attacks, were dressed in civilian clothing, and did not appear to have their hands bound or eyes blindfolded.

Photo C: Mass grave site near Bardiya village visited by Human Rights Watch on January 30. 

© 2018 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

Nadim said that an Asayish security member also told him that in the evening of August 30, and through the early hours of the following morning, he and a group of other Asayish members loaded between 100 and 150 men into a large refrigerator truck, keeping them there, in freezing temperatures, for seven hours. They transported the men to the site of the previous executions near Bardiya, dumped the bodies of the men who had died in the truck from the cold or asphyxiation in a ditch, and shot and buried alongside them any who were still alive, he said.

Nadim’s statements were partially corroborated by photographic evidence posted on social media and another witness statement. A photo of what appears to be the truck that transported the detainees surfaced on Twitter on September 2 on at least two Twitter accounts, one of which has been suspended. One of the tweets states that Kurdish Peshmerga forces executed 375 ISIS members captured since August 27, northwest of Tal Afar. The other states that between August 27 and September 1, 375 ISIS fugitives from Tal Afar to Zummar and northwest al-A'yadhia were executed.

The photo shows a white truck and a pile of bodies underneath, in a ditch. A Bardiya villager also told Human Rights Watch that on an evening at the end of August, he saw Kurdish forces drive through the area with two large white refrigerator trucks.

The two tweets also included two other photos. One shows a man in what appears to be an Asayish uniform, his face painted over to hide his identity, standing over a pile of bloody bodies. The second shows over 15 bloodied bodies in a pile in an open grave. In both photos, the hands of some of the men appear to be bound.

Local residents and foreign women married to ISIS suspects, who last saw their male relatives in custody at the Sahil al-Maliha school, raised concerns that some of those executed may have been children as young as 13. The family members of one 17-year-old showed Human Rights Watch a video of him surrendering to Peshmerga forces for screening alongside other foreign and Iraqi male suspects. The video was posted on various media outlets on August 30. The relatives said that they have not been able to find him in any Iraqi detention facilities since.

Nadim said that on the days that followed, three Asayish members told him they were executing groups of men from Shilgia prison in the same area, temporarily burying them before later unearthing them and finally burying all of the bodies together in one mass grave using large digging equipment. The Asayish members told him that over seven days, they executed between 80 and 150 people each day.

About 20 days after the last executions, Nadim’s Asayish friends told him that a very senior security officer made a high-level visit to the Asayish office in Zummar, he said. He said that several senior local Asayish officers have not been seen in Zummar since the meeting, and his contacts in the Asayish have told him they have been detained. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify if any officers were punished, and for what.

Human Rights Watch requested a comment from the KRG on the executions and in an email to Human Rights Watch on February 5, Dr. Dindar Zebari, the KRG coordinator for international advocacy, denied that the executions took place. He stated that according to the chief of the Asayish forces, Peshmerga forces were fighting on a 71-kilometer frontline with ISIS, as the group’s members attempted to escape to Syria. In the process of the battle many ISIS members were killed, along with many Peshmerga forces, “and the corpses of the killed ISIS members in this fighting were probably brought in one place to be buried.”  The stretch of frontline that the response refers to is at its closest 40 kilometers from the site where researchers found the mass grave.

This explanation does not match the state the bodies were found in – shot in the head, in clusters, in a solitary desert area, far from where any fighting had occurred – according to Nadim and three Bardiya villagers.

The photos posted on social media on September 2 also show the hands of some of the men bound. The Zummar and Bardiya areas were occupied by ISIS for less than one month during late 2014, and there was no fighting there after that date, according to numerous security and military officers researchers interviewed.

According to the statement, the individuals at the school were considered internally displaced persons, not detainees, and were all transferred from there to camps for the displaced. International organizations present in the reception centers of the camps that the displaced families were bused to confirmed that no foreign adult men were among the arrivals and there were few Iraqi men.

KRG criminal justice authorities should investigate all alleged crimes, including unlawful killings, committed by any party in the conflict in a prompt, transparent, and effective manner, up to the highest levels of responsibility. Those credibly implicated should be appropriately prosecuted. Extrajudicial executions and torture during an armed conflict are war crimes. Authorities should also investigate the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared, Human Rights Watch said.

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“There have been months of silence, but the Kurdistan Regional Government needs to be transparent about these deaths and punish anyone responsible for unlawful killings,” Fakih said.

From Sahil al-Maliha to Shilgia Prison

Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of Iraqi families and 27 foreign women who said that between August 22 and 29, they and thousands of other Iraqis and foreigners approached Peshmerga forces near Sahil al-Maliha for screening. A video posted on various media outlets on August 30 shows Peshmerga forces lining up men, foreign and local, and gathering women and children to the side in a desert area.

Nadim and the families said that after the people approached, Peshmerga forces moved everyone to a school in Sahil al-Maliha and detained them there. The witnesses said the Peshmerga forces put the women, children, and elderly in one of the 12 rooms in the schoolhouse, and kept the men and boys over age 12 in the yard.

An image posted on social media shows about 150 men sitting in the schoolyard. Nadim confirmed that the image was taken at the Sahil al-Maliha school. In addition, he showed researchers a clip of a video at the school, showing a group of men, several of them wounded, sitting against a wall in a yard and a photo of the same scene that was geotagged, verifying the date, August 29, and location.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the photograph and identified uniquely matching features in satellite imagery recorded on August 30 and 31, 2017, further confirming both the approximate date and precise location of the photograph. Human Rights Watch also found in a time series of satellite imagery recorded between August 23 and September 5, evidence consistent with the temporary detention of potentially hundreds of people within the schoolyard. It included the accumulation of extensive debris on the ground, heavy vehicle movement, and the presence of seven large passenger buses parked immediately outside the school on the morning of August 31.

Nadim said that once at the school, Asayish forces from the nearby town of Zummar carried out daily security checks on the men, and then bused groups of them away in large trucks each day. The families also described the daily security checks and the busing, which they said they observed through the classroom windows. Nadim said he saw Asayish forces bus some of the detainees first to the Asayish center in Zummar, for another round of security checks, and then on to another location. He said his Asayish contacts told him that they were busing the men from Zummar to an Asayish prison in Shilgia. They told him that in some instances they bused the men from the school directly to the Shilgia prison.

Nadim showed Human Rights Watch researchers four photos that he said he received from Asayish members on August 31. Two of the photos show trucks arriving at a destination with the detainees disembarking. Nadim said he recognized the trucks as the same ones he saw the Asayish using at the Sahil al-Maliha school to transport the detainees by the writing on the sides of the trucks. The other two photos show a large group of men being held in the yard of the prison, which Nadim said he recognized based on a previous visit to the prison.

Buses at Sahil al-Maliha school used to transport mostly women and children to a camp for displaced on August 31, 2017. 

© DigitalGlobe 2018

The Shilgia prison is the largest prison facility in the area and it is under the same area of command as the Zummar Asayish branch.

The Mass Grave Site

Several sources, including Nadim, a Federal Police officer, and six Bardiya villagers told Human Rights Watch the location of the mass grave. On January 30, researchers traveled to the site, where they found large piles of dirt in a long row, with marks of excavation equipment on the side of some of the piles. Human Rights Watch interviewed a shepherd next to the site who said he saw Kurdish security forces bury the bodies there in early September.

Satellite images taken on the mornings of September 3 and 29, 2017 showing ongoing digging activity at the Bardiya mass grave site. © CNES 2018 - Airbus DS 2018

Human Rights Watch analyzed a time series of satellite imagery of this site recorded between July 5 and September 29 and identified evidence of the movement of earth with heavy machinery on the dry lake bed consistent with the construction of a large mass grave as alleged by local witnesses.
Because the site was fully submerged under the seasonal lake water in early July according to satellite imagery, digging could not have started until the water had receded later in July or August. Satellite imagery recorded on the morning of September 3 shows ongoing digging activity along two linear sections of raised earth, approximately 35 and 40 meters in length. Satellite imagery recorded on the morning of September 29 shows evidence of continued digging activity at the site, including extensive parallel vehicle tracks consistent with the use of a wheeled or tracked bulldozer to pile additional soil onto the two earthen mounds.

A comparison of photographs Human Rights Watch took on January 30, 2018 with satellite imagery recorded on September 29, 2017 suggests the site has been undisturbed since.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A detainee paces around a cell block while being held in Joint Task Force Guantanamo's Camp VI at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba March 22, 2016.

© 2017 Reuters

UPDATE: This Q&A was originally published on May 4, 2017. It was updated by adding the final two questions on February 1, 2018 after Trump issued an executive order about Guantanamo. 

On January 11, 2002, the United States brought 20 prisoners to the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the beginning of the long-term detention of hundreds of individuals apprehended in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld labeled Guantanamo’s first detainees “unlawful combatants” who “do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention.” By holding detainees outside of the US, the administration of President George W. Bush reportedly hoped to avoid US court jurisdiction, though ultimately the US Supreme Court rejected the administration’s attempts to deny Guantanamo detainees access to US courts.

As part of the detainees’ interrogation, the US military subjected them to torture and other ill-treatment, including placing them in painful stress positions and in extended solitary confinement; threatening them with torture, death, and military dogs; depriving them of sleep; and exposing them for prolonged periods to extreme heat, cold, and noise.

At least 780 people have been held at Guantanamo, the vast majority without charge or trial. Nine detainees have died there, six from suspected suicide. The US has transferred 731 to home or third countries, 533 during the Bush administration and 144 during the administration of President Barack Obama. On his second day in office Obama promised to close Guantanamo, but by the end of his term in office, 41 detainees remained, including five that his administration designated for release.

Donald Trump has said that as president he would keep the Guantanamo Bay detention facility open and add to the inmate population there. On January 30, 2018, Trump signed an executive order about US detention practices at Guantanamo and discussed the facility during his State of the Union address. The two final questions below refer to the January 30 order. 

Human Rights Watch has long called for the US government to charge Guantanamo detainees in US federal courts or release them to safe home or third countries.

The following questions and answers look at current issues regarding detentions at Guantanamo and those that may arise under the Trump administration.

What’s wrong with detaining people at Guantanamo?

Who has been held at Guantanamo?

Who is currently detained at Guantanamo?

What’s wrong with the Guantanamo military commissions?

Have released Guantanamo detainees engaged in terrorism?

Should future detainees be sent to Guantanamo?

How should US forces treat people apprehended in military operations abroad?

Should current Guantanamo detainees be transferred to the US?

What does Trump’s executive order on Guantanamo mean?

How will the executive order affect existing Trump administration practices at Guantanamo?

What’s wrong with detaining people at Guantanamo?

The military detention facilities created at Guantanamo Bay were designed from the outset to be outside the regular US justice system. Nearly all of those detained at Guantanamo since its inception have, for one reason or another, been held in violation of applicable international humanitarian law or international human rights law. Detainees were held without regard for their legal status under the laws of war. Very few were charged with a criminal offense. Many were tortured or otherwise ill-treated, were held based on inaccurate evidence or analysis, or on misinformation, or were cases of mistaken identity, and were not provided with adequate means to challenge their detention. These violations have damaged the US human rights record and undermined the fight against extremist armed groups by feeding into terrorist propaganda and providing them a powerful recruitment tool.

Guantanamo detainees who were charged have faced military commissions – a judicial system created at Guantanamo that does not meet international fair trial standards.

Who has been held at Guantanamo?

Most of the 780 men sent to Guantanamo were turned over by Afghan militias or Pakistani forces to US forces after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Afghans made up the largest number of those captured, but many came from dozens of other countries, drawn to the region to support various forces fighting in Afghanistan’s civil war at the time, or for other reasons. A large but unknown number were turned over to the US for bounties; as one offer stated, the bounty would provide “enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life.”

A smaller number were apprehended far from Afghanistan, in places like Azerbaijan, Kenya, Thailand, and Turkey, and then transferred to US custody and sent to Guantanamo. According to Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side, a former top military commander at Guantanamo, Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey, estimated that at least half of those held at Guantanamo were held by mistake. An academic study by Seton Hall University Law School concludes that according to US documentation, at least 55 percent of the detainees at Guantanamo never engaged in any hostile acts against the US and only 8 percent had any association with the militant group Al-Qaeda.

People held at Guantanamo include:

Mohamedou Ould Slahi at Guantánamo in 2009. 

© 2009 International Committee of the Red Cross

Mohamedeou Ould Slahi, who was held for more than 14 years without charge or trial before his release in October 2016 and return to his native Mauritania. While still detained and after years of battling US government censors, he published a memoir about his time at Guantanamo. In Guantanamo Diary, Slahi details years of torture and abuse. The US intended to press charges against Slahi but a military prosecutor refused to do so after learning that Slahi’s most incriminating statements were obtained through torture.

Omar Khadr, a Canadian, who was 15 when he was apprehended by the US during a firefight in Afghanistan. US forces treated him abusively in Afghanistan and sent him to Guantanamo, where, he said, he was put in stress positions and threatened with rape, among other abuses. The US never treated him in accordance with its international obligations toward children used in armed conflict. Two years after pleading guilty to crimes before the fundamentally flawed US military commissions in 2010, he was transferred to a detention facility in Canada. He was released on bail in 2015, and is currently appealing his US military commission conviction.

Omar Khadr before being imprisoned at Guantanamo in 2002 at the age of 15, left, and photographed in 2009, right.

© 2009 CNS

Mustafa al Shamiri, a Yemeni detainee once deemed “too dangerous to release,” whose detention proved to be a case of mistaken identity. Shamiri, who was 16 or 17 at the time of his detention, spent more than 14 years imprisoned at Guantanamo before a US inter-agency review board found that the original intelligence about him being a trainer at an Al-Qaeda camp was wrong.

Only 16 of those held at Guantanamo were ever charged with criminal offenses. Ten of them remain at Guantanamo, along with 31 others being held without charge. Seven, including five men accused in the September 11, 2001 attacks, currently face charges before the military commissions, and three others were convicted after trial or plea bargain. The US has maintained that it could continue to hold detainees who still pose a security risk even after they finished serving their sentences.

Five of the 16 who were charged, including Khadr, have since been released. One of the 16, Ahmed Ghailani, was transferred to US federal court in New York, where he was convicted of conspiracy in 2010 and later sentenced to life in prison. He is the only Guantanamo detainee transferred to federal court for prosecution. At least three of the military commission convictions were thrown out and others partially overturned after a US appellate court found that material support for terrorism and solicitation were not war crimes and, therefore, could not be charged in the military commissions.

Numerous current and former national security policymakers have called for closing Guantanamo. The UN Committee against Torture and other UN rights officials and many government leaders in other countries have called on the US to end detention at Guantanamo and close the facility.

Who is currently detained at Guantanamo?

Most of the 41 men held in Guantanamo as of May 2, 2017, have been detained by the US for nearly 15 years without charge or trial. They fit within three broad categories:

Five were cleared for release during the Obama administration but were not transferred to home or third countries by the end of Obama’s term. It is not yet clear if the Trump administration will act on Obama’s decision.

There are 26 detainees whom the US asserts it can detain indefinitely for security reasons. The government made these determinations about these men after reviews largely conducted in secret and without adequate process. In 2008, the US Supreme Court ruled that Guantanamo detainees could challenge their detention in federal habeas corpus proceedings. However, not all detainees obtained these hearings and when they did, the courts ultimately sided with the government, ruling that the US can hold them even with very little evidence, weighed in the government’s favor, of connection to terrorist groups until the end of hostilities. The courts have not determined what constitutes the “end of hostilities,” so those held are effectively detained indefinitely.

Seven of the 41 face charges, and three more remain imprisoned after trial or accepting plea agreements with Guantanamo’s military commissions.

Human Rights Watch has said that all Guantanamo detainees should either be charged in a court that meets international fair trial standards – such as US federal courts – or released to safe home or third countries.

What’s wrong with the Guantanamo military commissions?

The military commissions at Guantanamo do not meet international fair trial standards and should be disbanded. The military commissions are, among other things, mired in excessive secrecy, fail to adequately protect attorney-client privileged communications, and permit the introduction of coerced evidence.

Current cases in the commissions are plagued by procedural problems and questions over the applicable law. The case against the five suspects in the September 11, 2001 attacks is headed into its fifth year of pretrial hearings, with a trial date still years away. That is bad for the defendants, for the families of the victims, and for justice generally. The slow progress is the result of government secrecy about the defendants’ torture in CIA custody, the novel nature of the commission’s untested rules and procedures, and logistical difficulties associated with holding hearings on an island several hundred miles from the United States.

During the last hearing, the military judge in the case, Col. James Pohl, refused to set a trial date because the prosecution remains behind in turning over classified evidence to the defense, and court facilities are inadequate. Meanwhile federal courts, though not without their flaws, have, since 9/11, prosecuted several hundred terrorism cases much more effectively and with respect for due process.

Only eight verdicts have been obtained in the military commissions. Three of them have been completely overturned by US court decisions, and others partially. They were overturned on the grounds that the charges did not amount to recognized laws of war violations that Congress authorized to be tried in the Guantanamo Bay military commissions. As a result of these cases, charges of material support for terrorism and solicitation were ruled outside the commissions’ jurisdiction, and charges of conspiracy are in question.

Have released Guantanamo detainees engaged in terrorism?

US government reporting on alleged terrorism by former Guantanamo detainees has been controversial. While some former detainees are reported to have engaged in, or been associated with, violent acts, the vast majority of the more than 731 detainees released from Guantanamo are not reported to have been involved in any such activity.

The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has reported that about 118, or 17 percent, of former detainees have become involved in terrorism since their release. These figures are based on a definition of terrorism that broadly includes “insurgent attack[s]” not necessarily against US forces but rather “coalition or host-nation forces.” Moreover, the DNI uses a preponderance of the evidence standard for “confirmed” acts of terrorism, meaning it believes it is “more likely than not” the individual has engaged in the reported acts, rather than a more reliable standard.

The overwhelming majority of these reported cases of violence predate 2009, when many detainees were released without very effective post-release monitoring and reporting mechanisms in place. Since 2009, when these mechanisms improved, the DNI reports that only seven former detainees are “confirmed” to have engaged in what it defines as terrorism.

The credibility of the DNI figures has been contested based on publicly available information about terrorist attacks. The DNI has released inadequate information about former detainees allegedly involved in attacks, and about the attacks themselves.

The government has used its claims of connections to violence by former Guantanamo detainees to deny release to current detainees, particularly those from the same country. But decisions to release detainees should be based on individualized assessments about whether they can be prosecuted for a criminal offense, not on the actions of former detainees released years before. Detaining someone because of the actions of others amounts to collective punishment and denies detainees due process.

Should future detainees be sent to Guantanamo?

Sending new detainees to Guantanamo would compound the detention facility’s history of injustice, and might repeat past violations of international law. Doing so would also be counterproductive to US counterterrorism efforts by providing fuel to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Al-Qaeda, and other Islamist armed groups that are seeking to discredit the US.

Such armed groups have routinely used the situation at Guantanamo in their propaganda materials to recruit fighters globally. For instance, many non-Iraqis who took up arms against the US in Iraq did so because of US abuses at Guantanamo as well as at the US military prison at Abu Ghraib.

Sending future detainees to Guantanamo is also unnecessary – the US has other options for holding those apprehended and accused of alleged crimes committed abroad.

How should US forces treat people apprehended in military operations abroad?

US forces abroad that apprehend people suspected of war crimes and other crimes under US law should promptly transfer the suspects to the United States for prosecution in US federal courts. Otherwise, the US should, wherever possible, transfer captured combatants and civilians posing a serious security threat to national authorities in the country of capture for possible prosecution. In circumstances in which such transfers cannot lawfully be made, such as if the detainee would face likely torture or if the US is acting without the permission of the national authorities, such as in Syria, continued detention must meet basic due process standards.

Anyone being transferred out of a country by US forces, including someone turned over by non-state armed groups, should be able to contest the transfer in that country’s courts. This would not be required during a so-called international armed conflict between governments, such as between the US government and the Syrian government. Every detainee must be treated humanely at all times. Places of detention should not be near combat zones though to the extent possible they should be close to detainees’ homes. Visits from family members must be allowed if practicable. Children being detained must be held separately from adults, unless they are detained with their family.

People taken into custody during an armed conflict are entitled to basic protections. These include being promptly brought before an independent authority, such as a judge. The detainee must be provided specific reasons for their detention and have the ability to contest the detention. Where feasible the detainee should have access to a lawyer or other counsel. Individuals who are not being prosecuted for a criminal offense may only be held for exceptional reasons of security and must be released as soon as the reasons for their deprivation of their liberty cease to exist. Detention under such circumstances should be reviewed at least every six months.

Regular soldiers and civilians captured in fighting between two government forces would be protected under the rules for prisoners-of-war and security detainees under the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions.

Should current Guantanamo detainees be transferred to the US?

Human Rights Watch supports closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, but not by detaining individuals currently held there in US prisons without charge or trial. Moving them to the US would not end the rights violation of detention without trial, just transfer people whose rights are being violated to a new location.

However, those who can be charged with a criminal offense should be, and should be brought to the US and prosecuted in US federal courts. Those who cannot be charged should be released to a safe home country or third country.

Currently, US law bars the transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo to the US for continued detention or trial. Any revision of the law should not permit the transfer to super-maximum security (“supermax”) prisons in the US, which are designed for convicted prisoners deemed extremely dangerous. The use of extremely harsh supermax prisons raises grave human rights concerns generally. They should not be used to hold people who have not been convicted of an offense, such as those being held without trial at Guantanamo.

What does Trump’s executive order on Guantanamo mean?

On January 30, 2018, President Trump signed an executive order to keep the Guantanamo Bay detention facility open. The order revokes former President Barack Obama’s 2009 executive order that mandated the facility’s closure and pledged to do so within one year of signing—a goal Obama did not achieve. While the language of Trump’s order merely continues many of the same policies that were in place during the Obama administration, it rejects the broader policy aim to close Guantanamo and suggests that future detainees may be sent to Guantanamo, which Obama did not do.

The order directs the defense secretary to re-examine US detention policy and provide recommendations for handling detainees captured by the US in connection with an armed conflict, including an option of sending them to Guantanamo. The order also states that newly captured suspects can be prosecuted in federal court. Interagency review boards will continue to examine the cases of Guantanamo detainees, and they could be released if cleared by a review board or a court.

How will the executive order affect existing Trump administration practices at Guantanamo?

Though the executive order largely reaffirms existing US government policies, the Trump administration has thus far not shown a strong commitment to enforcing them. For example, though Guantanamo detainees’ can seek to have interagency boards review their cases, Trump has said there should be no further releases from Guantanamo and detainee lawyers contend that the any review process will not will not be genuine. The order preserves the option to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo, but Trump has not transferred out any detainees since taking office in January 2017.

Some Justice Department attorneys do not want terrorism suspects apprehended abroad sent to Guantanamo because the federal courts have been much more effective at prosecuting terrorism cases than the military commissions at Guantanamo. Moreover, many countries that would normally work with the US on counterterrorism efforts will not extradite suspects to the US if they could be sent to Guantanamo. While Trump himself has recognized that the military commissions have been ineffectual in prosecuting terrorism cases, the executive order raises concerns that under certain circumstances he intends to send future detainees there. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am