(Hong Kong) – The Chinese government should immediately abolish a secretive detention system used to coerce confessions from corruption suspects. The Communist Party-run system, known as shuanggui, has no basis under Chinese law but is a key component of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.

“President Xi has built his anti-corruption campaign on an abusive and illegal detention system,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Torturing suspects to confess won’t bring an end to corruption, but will end any confidence in China’s judicial system.”

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Video: Rare Story From Inside China's Secret Detention System

The Chinese government should immediately abolish a secretive detention system used to coerce confessions from corruption suspects.

The 102-page report, “‘Special Measures’: Detention and Torture in Chinese Communist Party’s Shuanggui System,” details abuses against shuanggui detainees, including prolonged sleep deprivation, being forced into stress positions for extended periods of time, deprivation of water and food, and severe beatings. Detainees are also subject to solitary and incommunicado detention in unofficial detention facilities. After “confessing” to corruption, they are typically brought into the criminal justice system, convicted, and sentenced to often lengthy prison terms.

The report is based on 21 Human Rights Watch interviews with four former shuanggui detainees, as well as family members of detainees; 35 detailed accounts from detainees culled from over 200 Chinese media reports; and an analysis of 38 court verdicts from across the country. While there have been commentaries and analyses on the shuanggui system, the Human Rights Watch report is the first to contain firsthand accounts from detainees, as well as drawing on a wide variety of secondary, official sources.

Shuanggui not only further undermines China’s judiciary – it makes a mockery of it.

Sophie Richardson

China Director, Human Rights Watch

The Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) oversees the shuanggui system, to which all of the party’s 88 million members are subject. The CCDI and its lower-level offices, local Commissions for Discipline Inspection (CDIs), typically target government officials, but those detained also include bankers, university officials, and entertainment industry figures, among others. Bo Xilai, a former member of the party’s powerful Politburo, was reportedly held under shuanggui, where he said he confessed under “improper pressure” and was later sentenced to life in prison.

The start of a shuanggui investigation is often marked by an individual’s disappearance – family members are given no notification of the person’s detention or location, no information about the alleged infraction, or the length of detention. Detainees have no access to lawyers. Although there are time limits for shuanggui, CDI investigators can seek repeated extensions, permitting detainees to be held indefinitely, often until they confess. Shuanggui facilities are typically rooms in hostels with special features, such as padded walls or a lack of windows, to prevent suicides or escapes. Detainees are guarded round-the-clock by shifts of officials, often put together in an ad hoc fashion for this purpose, and subjected to interrogations by CDI officers.
 

© 2016 Human Rights Watch

A former shuanggui detainee told Human Rights Watch, “If you sit you have to sit for 12 hours straight, if you stand then you have to stand for 12 hours as well. My legs became swollen, and my buttocks were raw and started oozing pus.”

While President Xi has characterized the fight against corruption as a “matter of life and death” for the Communist Party, the same is true for shuanggui detainees: there have been at least 11 deaths in shuanggui custody reported by the media since 2010. In most cases, authorities claimed these were suicides, but family members often suspected mistreatment, and the lack of comprehensive, impartial investigations into these deaths deepens these suspicions. While former detainees reported that the harsh conditions in shuanggui prompted suicidal thoughts, they also said the constant surveillance and the room’s modifications, designed to prevent suicide attempts, made it difficult to put such thoughts into action.

Some CDIs, concerned about the reputational damage caused by deaths in custody, have partnered with hospitals and doctors to provide medical care for detainees whom the CDIs know will be subjected to torture and other ill-treatment.

CDIs are supposed to hand over evidence of crimes to the procuratorate, the state investigators and prosecutors who are responsible for investigating official crimes. Instead, Human Rights Watch found that procurators work together with CDI officers and participate directly in shuanggui. Such “joint investigations” extract confessions during shuanggui – where detainees have no procedural protections – and then use those confessions in formal legal proceedings. If in those proceedings detainees retract their confessions, claiming that they were made under duress, the procurators typically threaten to send them back to shuanggui. Judges commonly reject detainee objections in court on the grounds that shuanggui and its practices are outside of the scope of the judicial system.

“In shuanggui corruption cases, the courts function as rubber stamps, lending credibility to an utterly illegal Communist Party process,” Richardson said. “Shuanggui not only further undermines China’s judiciary – it makes a mockery of it.”

The shuanggui system has been a highly effective tool for Communist Party investigators: once they obtain a confession, there is little suspects can do to exonerate themselves. Acquittals are extremely rare, and, except in cases of detainee deaths, few investigators face punishments for abuses. Some interviewees told Human Rights Watch that those who tormented them and their families were promoted for their “effectiveness” in handling corruption cases.

China has a serious problem with corruption, but successfully combating it requires an independent judicial system, a free media, and robust protections for the rights of suspects, Human Rights Watch said. A crucial step is the abolition of shuanggui.

“Eradicating corruption won’t be possible so long as the shuanggui system exists,” Richardson said. “Every day this system threatens the lives of party members and underscores the abuses inherent in President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.”
 

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Dakar, September 4, 2015) – The trial of the former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture will begin in earnest on September 7, 2015.

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Act 1 of the Hissène Habré Trial

The long-awaited trial of Hissène Habré, was adjourned almost as soon as it was opened, as an outburst from the former dictator of Chad caused a scene in the courtroom.

When the landmark trial before the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegal court system formally opened on July 20, Habré had to be removed from court after an outburst. Habré’s lawyers then refused to appear and the trial was adjourned, giving new court-appointed lawyers time to study the case.  

“After 25 years of campaigning and 45 days waiting patiently, the survivors will finally get their day in court,” said Reed Brody, counsel at Human Rights Watch who has worked with the victims since 1999. “Hissène Habré may try to create more disturbances, but he does not get a veto on whether he should be tried, or if the victims get justice.”

Habré has refused to communicate with the court-appointed lawyers, and it is expected that he will try to have them taken off the case. The president of the court, Gberdao Gustave Kam, has made clear, however, that in keeping with Senegalese law and international practice, the lawyers are needed to safeguard the rights of the accused and the integrity of the proceedings.

Habre is accused of tens of thousands of political killings as well as systematic torture during his rule, from 1982 to 1990. The trial is the first in the world in which the courts of one country prosecute the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes.

Habré is standing trial before the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegal court system. The chambers were inaugurated by Senegal and the African Union in February 2013 to prosecute the “person or persons” most responsible for international crimes committed in Chad between 1982 and 1990, the period when Habré ruled Chad. Judge Kam, of Burkina Faso, president of the Trial Chamber, will hear the case along with two senior Senegalese judges.

The trial is expected to last two months, with about 100 witnesses and victims expected to testify.

“If I get a chance to look Hissène Habré in the face, I will do it without fear,” said Fatimé Sakine, 53, a secretary who was subjected to electroshocks and beatings during 15 months in prison from 1984 to 1986 and who is in Dakar for the trial. “I want to know why we were kept rotting, why so many of my friends were tortured and killed.”

“This case is a milestone in the fight to hold the perpetrators of atrocities accountable for their crimes, in Africa and in the world,” Brody said. “It's taken many years, and many twists and turns, but in the end a group of tenacious survivors have shown that it was possible to bring their dictator to justice.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Dakar, July 17, 2015) – The trial of Chad’s former dictator Hissène Habré is a victory for the victims of his government. The trial began in Senegal on July 20, 2015, almost 25 years after he was overthrown.  

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Hissène Habré Finally Facing Justice

The trial of Chad’s former dictator Hissène Habré is a victory for the victims of his government. The trial will begin on July 20, 2015, almost 25 years after he was overthrown.

 
“The opening of Hissène Habré’s trial, 25 years after he fled Chad, is a tribute to the survivors of his brutal rule who never gave up fighting for justice,” said Reed Brody, counsel at Human Rights Watch who has worked with the victims since 1999. “This case warns despots everywhere that if they engage in atrocities they will never be out of the reach of their victims.”

Habré is charged with crimes against humanity, torture, and war crimes. The trial will be the first in the world in which the courts of one country prosecute the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes.

 
Habré will stand trial before the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegal court system. The chambers were inaugurated by Senegal and the African Union in February 2013 to prosecute the “person or persons” most responsible for international crimes committed in Chad between 1982 and 1990, the period when Habré ruled Chad. Judge Gberdao Gustave Kam of Burkina Faso, president of the Trial Chamber, will hear the case along with two senior Senegalese judges.

The trial is expected to last three months, with about 100 witnesses and victims expected to testify.

Habré, through his lawyers, has said that he does not want to appear in court. Under Senegalese law, however, the court president can require his appearance. 

“I have been waiting for this day since I walked out of prison almost 25 years ago, “ said Souleymane Guengueng, who nearly died of mistreatment and disease in Habré’s prisons, and later founded the Association of Victims of Crimes of the Regime of Hissène Habré (AVCRHH). “I want to look Hissène Habré in the face and ask him why I was kept rotting in jail for three years, why my friends were tortured and killed.”

Habré is accused of thousands of political killings and systematic torture. After he was deposed by the current president, Idriss Déby Itno, in 1990, Habré fled to Senegal. Habré was first arrested in Senegal in February 2000, but Senegal refused to prosecute him then or to extradite him to Belgium in 2005. It was only in 2012, when Macky Sall became president of Senegal and the International Court of Justice, acting on a suit by Belgium, ordered Senegal to prosecute or extradite Habré that progress was made toward the trial with the creation of the Extraordinary African Chambers. The chambers indicted Habré in July 2013 and placed him in pretrial custody. After a 19-month investigation, judges of the chambers found that there was sufficient evidence for Habré to face trial.

“This case is a milestone in the fight to hold the perpetrators of atrocities accountable for their crimes, in Africa and in the world,” Brody said. "It's taken many years, and many twists and turns, but in the end a group of tenacious survivors showed that even a dictator can be brought to justice." 

On March 25, a court in Chad convicted 20 top security agents of Habré’s government on torture and murder charges. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Ziad Itani, a Lebanese actor, who was exonerated of spying for Israel, is carried after he was released by Lebanese authorities. Itani has accused security officials of torturing him and has called on authorities to investigate.

© 2018 AP Photo/Hussein Malla

(Beirut) – Lebanon’s Council of Ministers on March 7, 2019 appointed the five members of the country’s National Preventative Mechanism against Torture, Human Rights Watch said today.

Lebanon’s parliament passed a law establishing the NPM, a body within the National Human Rights Institute (NHRI), on October 19, 2016. The NHRI is mandated to monitor the human rights situation in the country by reviewing laws, decrees, and administrative decisions and by investigating complaints of human rights violations and issuing periodic reports of its findings.

“Lebanon has taken a positive, if overdue, step toward eradicating the use of torture in the country through appointing the members of the National Preventative Mechanism against Torture,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Now, the government should allocate a sufficient budget so that the members can get to work.”

The five-member body will oversee the implementation of the anti-torture law adopted in September 2017. It will have the authority to conduct regular unannounced visits to all places of detention, investigate the use of torture, and issue recommendations to improve the treatment of detainees. The members will be able to interview detainees privately and outside the presence of guards. Lebanese authorities are legally obligated to cooperate with the unit and facilitate its work.

The appointments were mandated by Lebanon’s October 2016 law establishing the unit that also brought Lebanon one step closer to complying with its obligation under the international Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, which it ratified on December 22, 2008. The protocol requires Lebanon to create an independent national mechanism to prevent torture, including through regular visits to the country’s detention centers to examine the treatment of detainees.

The cabinet should submit a sufficient budget for both the National Human Rights Institute and the National Preventive Mechanism, and parliament should ratify the budget and related financial decrees to allow those bodies to fulfill their mandates, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch has routinely documented credible reports of torture in Lebanon. However, authorities have failed to properly investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment by security services, and justice for torture in detention remains illusive. Ziad Itani, a well-known actor exonerated of spying for Israel, has described in detail his forced disappearance and torture in detention at the hands of State Security in November 2017.

Human Rights Watch wrote to State Security and the office of the public prosecutor, raising these allegations and urging them to conduct a thorough investigation into the case. It has not received a substantive response.

Itani told Human Rights Watch that he filed a civil lawsuit against the individuals involved in his torture in November 2018. However, he said that the public prosecutor referred the case to the military prosecutor and that there has been no movement on his case. Under international law, torture cases should be heard by regular judicial courts, not military courts. While the preamble in Lebanon’s new torture law specifies that torture cases should be heard by regular judicial courts, this is not reflected in its operational text, leaving open the possibility that Lebanon’s military courts will continue to hear some cases.

In July 2017, at least four Syrians died in military custody within days of their arrest, amid evidence of torture. Although local media reported that the military concluded an investigation into the deaths on July 24, the military has not published the results.

Following Lebanon’s first appearance in 2017 before the Committee Against Torture, the international body charged with overseeing implementation of the convention, the committee noted in its concluding observations that it remained:

concerned at various consistent reports that security forces and military personnel continue to routinely use torture against suspects in custody, including children, who are often held incommunicado, primarily to extract confessions that are to be used in criminal proceedings or as a form of punishment for acts that the victim is believed to have committed.

Lebanon’s 2017 anti-torture law precludes any excuse or justification for the use of torture, prohibits the use of testimony extracted under torture as evidence except against a person accused of committing torture, and provides special procedures for investigating allegations of torture and witness protection.

The need to combat torture and ill-treatment lies at the heart of several international conventions, treaties, and declarations that Lebanon is obligated to uphold under international law and is bound to by the preamble of its constitution. These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the optional protocol.

Lebanon should accept the pending request of the Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit Lebanon, submitted on February 13, 2017. It should also make publicly available the last and only report issued by the Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture in 2010, as well as the state’s response submitted in 2012.

“Despite improvements in Lebanon’s anti-torture framework, we have yet to see concrete progress in holding those response for torture to account,” Fakih said. “Lebanon’s authorities should ensure that the institutions they set up to end torture have the resources they need to effect real change.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government authorities have charged hundreds of children with terrorism for alleged Islamic State (also known as ISIS) affiliation. The prosecutions are often based on dubious accusations and forced confessions obtained through torture. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Egyptian policemen secure Egypt’s national police academy. 

© 2015 AP Photo/Amr Nabil

(Beirut) – The Egyptian authorities’ failure to end or impartially investigate torture and mistreatment in detention facilities reinforces an urgent need for an independent international inquiry, Human Rights Watch said today. As a party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, Egypt should also allow the United Nations special rapporteur on torture and other relevant UN experts to visit the country, including detention sites.

On January 30, 2019, the Prosecutor General’s Office said that a Cairo prosecution official had led an investigation into several cases of abuse and torture that Human Rights Watch reported in 2017 but concluded that the findings were “untrue.”

“The prosecutor’s statement follows Egyptian authorities’ same old formula of denying abuses, ignoring victims’ pain, and voiding justice,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Prosecutors who are not independent, and who sometimes cover up abuses, can’t carry out credible and impartial investigations.”

In September 2017, Human Rights Watch published  a report about 20 cases of torture between 2014 and 2016. Human Rights Watch concluded that under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, the Interior Ministry’s regular police and its National Security Agency (NSA) have been involved in systematic, widespread enforced disappearances and torture that most likely amount to crimes against humanity.

Torture is carried out in police stations and unofficial security agency detention sites, and detainees are most vulnerable when lawyers and relatives are unable to find out their whereabouts. It involves beatings, stress positions, suspending people by their limbs, electric shocks, and sometimes rape or rape threats.

The statement from the Prosecutor General’s Office said that east Cairo prosecutors had interrogated several of the victims cited by Human Rights Watch who had “denied giving interviews for anyone working for Human Rights Watch” and “having been subject to torture or ill-treatment.” The statement did not mention other necessary elements of an investigation, such as interviewing security officers who might have participated in these abuses. Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have documented that in many torture incidents, police officers and prosecutors have intimidated  the victims, warning them  not to complain or talk about their torture.

Human Rights Watch had sent its findings to the Prosecutor General and the Interior Ministry four months before it published the report, but received no response. The prosecutor’s investigation, which allegedly began in late 2017, remained largely secretive and did not involve the government-sponsored National Council for Human Rights, independent legal experts, or human rights defenders.

Egypt does not allow any independent supervision of prisons and detention sites and has repeatedly refused to allow visits of regional and international entities that investigate torture claims, including the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Egypt is also the only country to be the subject of two public inquiries by the UN Committee Against Torture. The committee wrote in June 2017, its most recent report, that the facts it gathered “lead to the inescapable conclusion that torture is a systematic practice in Egypt.”

Torture has been endemic in Egypt for decades. But since the military unseated President Mohammed Morsy in July 2013, the authorities have cracked down on dissent, rounding up tens of thousands of opponents, many of whom were arbitrarily arrested. Local and international human rights organizations have documented hundreds of cases of enforced disappearance and torture under al-Sisi’s rule. Security forces have also killed hundreds of peaceful protesters and have probably extrajudicially executed detainees in several incidents.

Egypt needs to swiftly establish national independent torture prevention systems, including allowing independent organizations to inspect detention sites and prisons, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch found that the Interior Ministry has developed an “assembly line” of serious abuse to collect information about suspected dissidents and prepare often fabricated cases against them. Prosecutors often pressure suspects to confirm confessions obtained through torture and almost never investigate allegations of abuse. Few torture cases are referred to courts, and even fewer result in guilty verdicts.

Egypt, which has been elected as chair of the African Union in 2019, should also allow visits by the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) units such as the Working Group on the Prevention of Torture in Africa, and the special rapporteur on prisons, conditions of detention and policing in Africa.

On January 24, the African Commission wrote a Letter of Urgent appeal “concerning alleged arrest of a human rights defender for documenting the abusive use of force in military trials and the violation of the rights of detainees awaiting trial” in Egypt.

In modern Egypt’s history, it appears that no officer of the National Security Agency, formerly known as State Security, which appears to be responsible for the most flagrant abuses, has received a final guilty verdict for any abuse. In a recent example, in May 2018, a criminal court acquitted two National Security Agency officers, following their retrial, who were charged in the torture and murder of  Karim Hamdy, a lawyer, in Cairo’s Matariya Police Station in 2015. The officers were free for most of their trial after a brief initial detention despite the risk that they could abuse their authority to interfere with the evidence.

In October, Human Rights Watch documented the disappearance and alleged torture of Khaled Hassan, an Egyptian-American citizen whom authorities had recently referred to a criminal court. The government denied any wrongdoing.

Neither prosecutors nor the judge took any serious action when his lawyers requested an official investigation and forensic examination of his wounds.

In its 2017 annual report, the Committee Against Torture said that in Egypt “perpetrators of torture almost universally enjoy impunity.” It said the impunity was “facilitated by the absence of an independent investigating authority for complaints of torture,” and “a lack of regular independent monitoring of places of detention.”

In its 2017 report, Human Rights Watch said the Egyptian government should establish an inquiry “consistent with the national mechanism provided in the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture” to investigate, prosecute, and maintain a public record of torture cases.

Egyptian laws that facilitate abuse through the lack of proper definition and prohibition of torture and enforced disappearance should be amended, Human Rights Watch said. In recent years, authorities have arrested, prosecuted, or intimidated several lawyers and activists who fight torture and enforced disappearance. The government prosecuted a prominent human rights lawyer and disciplined two judges who proposed an anti-torture law, and shut down the al-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, the most prominent anti-torture clinic in the country.

Egypt should allow UN and AU mechanisms such as the special rapporteurs concerned with torture, enforced disappearance, and detention conditions to visit the country and amend its laws to meet Egypt’s international obligations including under the African Guidelines and Measures for the Prohibition and Prevention of Torture, Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

“If Egyptian authorities want to rebuild their shredded credibility after decades spent covering up and denying heinous abuse of detainees, they should immediately end torture and welcome independent, international investigators from the AU and the UN rather than denying them access to the country,” Page said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The European Union’s ties with Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia’s only parliamentary democracy, are getting closer. Both parties are negotiating an enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, an upgraded, comprehensive agreement that covers the scope of their bilateral relationship. But the European Parliament is not ready to give it the green light just yet.

In a resolution adopted on 15 January, it called on the EU to “ensure a firm engagement from both sides to respect and advance democratic principles, human rights and the rule of law,” and listed key human rights issues that Kyrgyzstan still needs to address.

The human rights concerns the European Parliament highlighted include press freedom, torture, bans on certain journalists and human rights workers from entering Kyrgyzstan, and the need to uphold human rights in the country’s efforts to deal with terrorism and extremism.

Azimjan Askarov in an undated photograph before his imprisonment.

But most urgently, the European Parliament expressed “dissatisfaction…with the upholding of the life sentence handed down to human rights activist Azimjon Askarov,” and requested his “immediate release,” as well as quashing his conviction, rehabilitating him and providing him with reparations. Askarov is one of the country’s most courageous human rights activists, who was unfairly sentenced to life in prison over eight years ago.

The European Parliament resolution echoes the March 2016 UN Human Rights Committee decision on Askarov’s case, which found that he had been arbitrarily detained, tortured in custody and denied a fair trial.

Yet, Askarov – now a frail 68-year-old – remains wrongfully and unjustly serving a life sentence.

He was arrested in June 2010 following an outbreak of ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan that led to the killing of hundreds of people and the destruction of close to 2,000 homes. Askarov - who documented and wrote about police abuse - was arrested for allegedly participating in the killing of a police officer in the village of Bazar Kurgan. His trial was marred by procedural violations and violence. The court refused to investigate his credible allegations of torture in detention, before convicting him and imposing the longest possible sentence.

Many EU officials consider Kyrgyzstan the country in Central Asia with the greatest human rights potential. While it boasts a very active and engaged civil society, Askarov’s imprisonment, and the government’s abject failure to act on the UN Human Rights Committee’s decision in his case, along with other pressing rights issues the European Parliament noted in its resolution, should give EU officials considerable pause.

The text adopted on 15 January is the European Parliament’s response to the EU Commission’s negotiations on a stronger partnership deal with Kyrgyzstan. Since December 2017, when the EU and Kyrgyzstan began negotiating an enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, the EU has said that negotiations are “based on the shared values of democracy, the rule of law and good governance.” Yet it cannot be lost on EU officials that Kyrgyzstan flouts the very values the EU claims to share with Kyrgyzstan by keeping Askarov arbitrarily locked up, despite the UN Human Rights Committee ruling.

The European Parliament’s resolution should serve to renew the EU’s commitment to see Askarov free. The EU’s top diplomats, including Federica Mogherini, should make it clear that this needs to happen before any new deal is finalized. Kyrgyzstan should have no doubt that in order to demonstrate that its commitment to human rights values is meaningful and not for show, it has to end Azimjon Askarov’s unjust and unlawful imprisonment.

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

New fighters of the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham attend a mock battle in anticipation of an attack by Syrian government forces on northern Idlib province and the surrounding countryside, August 14, 2018.

© 2018 Omar Haj Kadour/Getty Images

(Beirut) – An armed group with links to al-Qaeda has in recent months arbitrarily arrested scores of residents in areas under their control in Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo governorates, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch documented 11 cases in which the group, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, detained Idlib residents, apparently because of their peaceful work documenting abuses or protesting the group’s rule. Six of those detained were apparently tortured. Syrian rights groups have documented hundreds of other cases of detention by the group in Aleppo and Idlib governorates, including at least 184 in the last three months, according to one organization.

“Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s crackdown on perceived opposition to their rule mirrors some of the same oppressive tactics used by the Syrian government,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “There is no legitimate excuse for rounding up opponents and arbitrarily detaining and torturing them.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed seven former detainees and relatives of four other men who are still detained by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, or whose whereabouts remain unknown. Eight of the men were detained between December 2017 and October 2018, while three others were arrested earlier, including a 16-year-old boy. Former detainees described being taken from their homes, at checkpoints, or at their workplace by men who identified themselves as members of or affiliated with Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham or who were recognized as members. They said they were taken to locations that served as detention facilities, where they were interrogated, and six of them, including the boy, were tortured.

Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham should immediately release all unlawfully held prisoners and stop arbitrarily arresting people and torturing and mistreating detainees, Human Rights Watch said. Turkey should use its leverage with the group to stop its abusive practices.

On September 17, 2018, Russia and Turkey brokered a cautious ceasefire. The agreement covered Idlib governorate and parts of Western Aleppo and Hama governorates still held by the anti-government groups. Following a ceasefire agreement between the anti-government armed groups on January 10, 2019, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham consolidated its control over the areas that remained outside its control in the governorate and surrounding areas. As Idlib remains under threat of attack by the Syrian-Russian military alliance, the presence of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham should not be used as pretext to conduct an offensive on the estimated 3 million other people under the group’s control, Human Rights Watch said.

On December 9, citing sources close to Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, news media reported that journalist Amjad al-Maleh had been sentenced to death for collaborating with enemies, including Israel and the US-led coalition, to disclose locations of several armed groups. Al-Maleh had been displaced to Idlib from his home in Madaya and was detained by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham in December 2017.

On December 20, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham and the civilian government affiliated with it, the Salvation Government, requesting a response to the claims made in this report and calling on the group to immediately halt plans to execute al-Maleh. On January 11, a representative of the group responded to Human Rights Watch on behalf of the Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham judicial committee. He denied that Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham had used the torture methods that Human Rights Watch documented and said that al-Maleh, whose whereabouts remain unknown, had not been sentenced to death.

The representative also shared a draft law on prisoners and detainees with Human Rights Watch.

Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham and the Salvation Government should reform detention and judicial processes to ensure that detainees are not mistreated and are guaranteed all rights essential to a fair trial, including that they can obtain legal representation and appeal their sentences in a timely manner, if the reason for their arrest is valid.

When committed in the context of an armed conflict, cruel treatment, torture, and humiliating or degrading treatment of detainees are war crimes. Under international law, non-state armed actors with de facto control must refrain from torture and mistreatment of detainees and must allow them due process. Authorities should bring a suspect before a judge within 48 hours of arrest to review the legality and necessity of the continued detention and to ensure that the detainee’s rights are respected. There should be a clear legal basis for all detentions, and detainees should promptly be taken before a judge to rule on the legality of their detention.

Under the laws of armed conflict and human rights law, no one may be convicted or sentenced except after a fair trial providing all essential judicial guarantees. These include that the courts should be independent, impartial, and “regularly constituted” according to the laws and procedures in force in the country.

“Solidifying power by spreading terror is never the answer,” Fakih said. “Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham should cease the panic-induced frenzy of arrests, and instead prioritize protecting civilians in areas under their control.”

Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham

Formed in January 2017, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham is a coalition of Islamist Sunni anti-government armed groups, led by the group previously known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham or Jabhat al-Nusra. In March 2017, the group claimed a twin bombing in Damascus that killed at least 40 people, the majority of them Iraqi Shia pilgrims. The US and Turkey in 2018 designated the group a foreign terrorist organization affiliated with al-Qaeda, while the United Nations sanctioned it the same year. Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham has denied affiliation with al-Qaeda.

Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham is widely acknowledged to be the main anti-government group operating in northwest Syria. The group defeated the other major anti-government group, Ahrar al-Sham, in July 2017, and thus cemented its territorial and military control over most of those parts of Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo governorates that had been under anti-government control. In January 2019, it established control over most remaining anti-government areas.

As of October 2018, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham had a fighting force of 12,000 to 15,000, one-third of them non-Syrian, according to the CSIS Transnational Threats Project. The group is led by Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, a Syrian who played a leading role in the creation and leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra.

Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham apparently funds its activities primarily through taxes and tariffs on residents in areas under its control. It has also applied tariffs on incoming arms and other weaponry provided to other non-state armed actors, according to the Counter Extremism Project. The project also reported that the group receives donations from private individuals in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, and has received millions of dollars for releasing prisoners through Qatar-mediated negotiations.

Turkey has engaged with Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham on stabilizing the northwestern part of Syria. Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham has accepted observation points set up by Turkey near areas the group controls.

In addition to its militant front, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham has attempted to create several civilian bodies, including the Syrian Salvation Government, a governance body formed in November 2017 that is responsible for its civilian functions. Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham also has an extensive prison system and has created its own court system.

By October 2017, in parallel with its military successes, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham had taken control of all other courts in the region. Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s court system applies Sharia law. The judges who operate these courts do not have formal legal training, and in some cases may not even be trained in the application of Sharia law.

Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s Response to Human Rights Watch’s Letter

In the response to Human Rights Watch’s letter, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s representative said that no one is sentenced without evidence, and that the security services and the Interior Ministry are not allowed to sentence prisoners, but instead are required to transfer them to the Justice Ministry. If there is no evidence of a crime, then the individual is acquitted, the representative said. If a judge issues a sentence, then that sentence is verified and confirmed by a committee of experts in law and Sharia.

The draft law that Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham provided to Human Rights Watch prohibits arrests without a judicial warrant, except where “a suspect is almost certainly guilty and there is no time to retrieve an arrest warrant.” It also requires taking a suspect before a judge within 48 hours of arrest, prohibits torture and mistreatment, and asserts that all prisoners should have access to health care, sufficient food, and family visits. It does not provide a prisoner with a right to legal representation nor does it refer to a right of appeal. It does not provide any special consideration or treatment for individuals under the age of 18. The draft law is based on Islamic law, according to the text.

Accounts by Detainees and Their Families

According to the detainees Human Rights Watch spoke to, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham is known to control five or six detention facilities, including Okab, Harem, Idlib Central, Sinjar, and Aleppo. Media reports and activists say that there are several other unofficial detention facilities.

Of the detainees Human Rights Watch spoke to, four spent time in Okab prison, a notorious facility where detainees described worse conditions and more aggressive torture or mistreatment than elsewhere. Three of the detainees were in Idlib central prison, and two in Harem prison. Investigators were either Syrian or Tunisian, three of the detainees said.

None of the detainees were able to see or consult a lawyer, and only two saw a sharia judge in one of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s courts. It is unlikely that these courts meet the test required under humanitarian law that no one should be convicted or sentenced except after a fair trial before courts that are “regularly constituted” by the laws in the country. All but one of the detainees interviewed said that prison officials had beaten, or otherwise physically mistreated them. In many cases the abuse amounted to torture.

One man described being hung from a pole upside down for hours during interrogation. Another described being taken into a very tight coffin-like, steel room for three hours. A third said that the interrogators would squeeze his entire body through a tire and beat him incessantly, a torture method called dulab, which Syrian security services have also used:

At night, they would begin beating me. They used dulab. These torture moments, I remember them in detail, every day. I have a hatred towards them and want to expose what they did. People died in front of my eyes. The maximum you can do is move your shoulders a bit. And scream for help. But on several occasions, they stuffed things in my mouth so I can’t scream, like a ball. This happened six or seven times. Two or three days of rest in between. I used to lose my consciousness a lot.

A video shared on social media showed a man being tortured, reportedly in Harem prison, a detention facility under the control of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham near the city of Harem, in Idlib governorate. While Human Rights Watch was unable to verify whether the video was taken in Harem prison, the torture practices shown, and information from activists, who said they could identify the man being tortured, matched statements from the people interviewed about of torture methods used by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib.

Three of those released said that their families or the public had to apply pressure or use a connection close to Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham to get them released. In four cases, the detainees had to sign or record declarations promising that they would not film or report on Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham or in their area anymore. Of the 11 cases investigated, four remain missing or in detention.

Analysts have stated that parts of the population have resisted several attempts by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham to translate its military dominance in parts of Idlib governorate and surrounding areas into political and governance power over the 3 million people living there. Former detainees and Syria analysts say that this is primarily due to the abusive tactics it has employed in silencing dissent, including arbitrary detention, abduction, and in some cases, assassinations. Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham has also restricted humanitarian aid and access to civilians living in areas it controls.

Accusations Leveled by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham

Most of the eight former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they believed from the accusations their interrogators leveled at them that they were arrested due to their criticism of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s rule. Seven of the eight were media activists or journalists who had participated in or covered protests or were working with foreign media outlets.

They said Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham appeared to equate criticism of their rule with collaboration with the Syrian government, the Turkish government, the US-led coalition, or other Syrian non-state armed actors such as Ahrar al-Sham or the National Liberation Front. All except one denied any affiliation to such entities.

All those interviewed said detainees were accused of multiple crimes during interrogation, including adultery, drinking alcohol, being members of the Islamic State group (also known as ISIS), being double-agents for the Syrian government, and working for “apostate” countries.

One detainee said Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham accessed his phone and found out he was a journalist: “I couldn’t deny it – so they started asking me questions: ‘Who is pushing you to cover us? Who are you providing information to? If they didn’t like the answer, they would beat me. At one point, they accused me of using a drone for Turkish intelligence.”

Another said Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham accused him of being with the FBI: “I kept telling them, you have the initials wrong, it is AFP (Agence France Press) not FBI (the US Federal Bureau of Investigations) [in Arabic, the initials are interchangeable].”

Detainee Accounts

All detainees’ names have been changed for their protection. All interviewees were informed of the purpose of the interview and its voluntary nature, including their right to stop the interview at any point, and gave informed consent to be interviewed.

Samy S.

Samy S. told Human Rights Watch he was arrested by seven armed men whom he later found out were affiliated with Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham. He is a journalist and a peaceful activist, who moved to Idlib after the government re-took his hometown. He said he had no other choice.

In Idlib, he resumed his work as a journalist. A few months after he arrived, while filming with a friend, a group of armed men ambushed him. They took him to Idlib Central Prison, which he said is under the control of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham.

His arrest came as part of a wave of arrests at that time.

He said he spent six months in detention and that investigators affiliated with Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham interrogated him over 10 times. At first the interrogations were about his camera and his phone. The interrogator, a Syrian, told him there was nothing on him and that he would be released in a few days, Samy S. said.

Three months into his captivity, the interrogator changed, and the captors’ behavior toward Samy S. changed: “They beat me. They would place me upside down for hours, beat me, and interrogate me. It became tougher – physically and emotionally.”

Samy S. said he thought from the accent that the new investigator was Tunisian. Six months after he was detained, the prison authorities forced him to write a statement that he would not return to his work as a journalist. They also required a friend of his to guarantee that he would not return to work. If he did, both would be arrested.

“I am still under surveillance,” Samy S. said. “I tried to leave to Turkey twice already since I was released, but no luck. This is not my country anymore.”

Jamil J.

Jamil J., a journalist, said he was detained by four masked men on April 27, 2018, in Jisr al-Shugour, Idlib. He said he was with a friend, filming a water spring in the area for a report on nature in Idlib governorate.

He said the four masked men cuffed them and covered their heads, telling them that they would take them to inspect the footage. The men confiscated his phone and found out he was a reporter.

While the masked men never indicated who they were, Jamil J. said he knew they were from Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham once they took him to Harem Prison, which is under their control. He said that in the 40 days he was detained, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham transferred him from Harem to Okab prison, where they interrogated him, placed him in solitary confinement, and beat him with a water pipe. He said the interrogator told him that the main accusation against him was that he covered a protest in Ma'ret al-Nu'man, a town in Idlib.

He said that his parents were not allowed to visit, but that he was allowed to let them know where he was:

We spoke with the warden begging him to let us inform our parents, send them a message just so they are relieved. We told him we’ll just tell them you’re investigating us. As much as it was dangerous to end up with them [HTS], it was better for our parents to know, given all the assassinations and all the kidnappings taking place in the area. We just wanted to reassure our parents. And he let us.

Jamil J. said he was released after his parents used their connections to get him out.

“Most people in their prisons were detained arbitrarily. I got to know people who were there for two or three, even six months, without being questioned,” he said. “When you end up in their prison, it’s as if you’re forgotten.”

Mounir M.

His friends and relatives said that Mounir M., a media activist, was arrested in October 2018. On the day of his arrest, his friend said, he and Mounir M. were attending one of the many anti-Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham protests, in a town under the control of another anti-government group in Aleppo governorate. His friend said that there was shelling, and the day before, two members of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham had been killed “so tensions were high.”

Four hours later, the friend said Mounir M. and his uncle were taken from their home by a group of armed men in vehicles. His parents, the friend said, recognized a few of the men as being affiliated with Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham. Both Mounir’s friends and his relatives believe that the reason for his arrest was a perceived association with the National Liberation Front because his cousins were members, but said that they did not believe he was a member. Mounir remains detained, and his family does not know his whereabouts.

Yahya Y.

Yahya Y. said he was taken from his home in Jabal al-Zawiya, Idlib, in front of his parents by a group of masked men at dawn in January 2016. He was 16 at the time and working as a freelance reporter. Yahya said the men who arrested him did not identify themselves but said that he was transported to a detention facility where the interrogator told him he was in Okab prison. For a week after that, Yahya said, no one spoke to him:

They used to pull me out [of the cell], beat me, and return me. No one asked me a single question. No one asked me what my name was. 

Yahya said he was detained for 100 days. He said Jabhat al-Nusra, which had operated the facility at first, and then Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham tortured him using a number of techniques. They included shabah (hung upside down from his feet, then beaten and sprayed with water), the “steel bed” (tied to a freezing metal bed with cold water thrown on him), dulab, or “tire” (body squeezed into a tire and then beaten), and beit al-kalb, or “dog house” (forced to spend hours inside a 1-by-1-by-1.5-meter cell).

He also described torture methods he saw or heard used against the foreigners inside the prison, including electric shocks and al-tabout, or “coffin,” in which the interrogators would put the detainee in an electronically-controlled, vertical steel coffin-shaped box and then press on their chests, causing some people to lose consciousness and in other cases breaking their bones.

Yahya said the main allegation Jabhat al-Nusra/Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham made against him was collaboration with foreign entities and that before they released him they forced him to read a pre-written false confession on video, admitting that he worked with the US-led coalition.

While Yahya said his family was not initially aware of his whereabouts, through personal connections and help from his friends, they managed to exert pressure to arrange a visit to see him and eventually to secure his release. “When I think about it today, I wonder how it happened that I was released,” he said. “I knew that whoever ends up in Okab, never leaves.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities should immediately allow independent international monitors to enter Saudi Arabia and meet with detainees, including those who have alleged torture, Human Rights Watch said today. The detainees should include the prominent princes and business leaders held as part of a so-called corruption probe, and the prominent women’s rights advocates detained since May 2018.

Media outlets have reported that Saudi authorities opened two investigations into the torture allegations by women’s rights advocates, one by Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission, a government agency, and one by Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor, which reports directly to the royal court. Neither agency has the independence necessary to conduct a credible, transparent investigation that would hold those responsible for torture accountable.

“Saudi Arabia’s internal investigations have little chance of getting at the truth of the treatment of detainees, including prominent citizens, or of holding anyone responsible for crimes accountable,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Saudi Arabia truly wants to get to the bottom of what happened and hold abusers accountable, it needs to allow independent access to these detainees.”

On January 2, 2019, a panel of British parliament members and international lawyers sent an official request to Saudi authorities for access to the country and to detained women’s rights advocates, but the request has not received a response.

On December 17, 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported that members of Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission had interviewed prominent women’s rights advocates in detention and recorded their allegations of torture, which included electric shocks, whippings, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. It is unclear whether the commission will issue a public report or recommendations based on these allegations, but informed sources told Human Rights Watch that a member of the Human Rights Commission told one of the detained women the commission could not help them.

On January 13, Bloomberg reported that Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor had opened an investigation into the torture allegations by the women’s rights advocates. The Saudi Public Prosecution was created in June 2018 and reports directly to the Saudi royal court.

The announcement of the investigation came after Saudi Arabia’s media ministry on November 23 denied evidence of torture published by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

In addition to the women’s rights advocates, independent monitors should also be allowed access to other detainees, including human rights activists and independent clerics held since September 2017, as well as prominent royal family members, businessmen, and current and former government officials held on suspicion of corruption since November 2017.

A March 12, 2018 New York Times report said that 17 detainees among these held at the five-star Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh required hospitalization for physical abuse. They included one who later died in custody, the report said, “with a neck that appeared twisted [and] a badly swollen body and other signs of abuse.”

The New York Times identified Bakr bin Laden, chairman of the Saudi Binladin Group, and Prince Turki bin Abdullah, former Riyadh governor and son of the late King Abdullah, as two of the men who remain in detention. It identified Maj. Gen. Ali al-Qahtani, an aide to Prince Turki, as the man who later died in detention. The report cited a person who saw the body, which had signs of physical abuse including a twisted neck and burns that appeared to be from electric shocks.

The report indicated that in addition to Prince Turki, the corruption probe targeted several other sons of the late King Abdullah. Another son, Prince Mishaal bin Abdullah, was reported to have been briefly detained after he complained privately about Qahtani’s treatment. On November 17, Middle East Eye reported that another son of the late king, Prince Miteb, the longtime head of the country’s National Guard, was one of the 17 people who required hospitalization.

The detention conditions and legal status of Prince Turki, former economy and planning minister Adel Fakieh, and others are unknown.

“Independent monitors can help confirm what has happened to people detained during these operations and find out about their current wellbeing,” Page said. “Without such scrutiny, there is every reason to believe that the Saudi authorities may still be treating them with unspeakable cruelty.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – Iranian authorities on January 20, 2019 arrested two activists who had alleged that authorities tortured them in detention, Human Rights Watch said today. The arrests of Ismael Bakhshi, a prominent labor rights activist, and Sepideh Gholian, a journalist and labor rights activist, came the day after Iranian state television broadcast confessions that they said they were forced to make in detention. 

Screen shot from Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) Channel 2 of likely coerced confession of Sepideh Gholian and  Esmael Bakhshi.

© Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) Channel 2

On January 4, Bakhshi, a leading representative for the workers at the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company in Shush, Khuzistan Province, posted on his Instagram account that he had been severely beaten during his 25-day detention in November 2018 by the Intelligence Ministry in Khuzistan province. On January 9, Gholian said on her Twitter account that she had witnessed authorities severely beating Bakhshi at the time of his first arrest on November 18, when they were peacefully protesting unpaid wages for fellow Haft Tappeh workers and authorities arrested them.

“Iran’s security agencies are using smear campaigns, torture, and forced confessions against activists like Ismael Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian, who have the temerity to defend workers’ rights,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Broadcasting activists’ ‘confessions’ on State TV only raises more concerns about torture and mistreatment in detention.”

Despite initial promises, the authorities have failed to conduct any credible investigations into the torture allegations. On January 19, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) Channel 2 broadcasted a program that include confessions by Bakhshi and Gholian in detention. The video also accused the activists of being connected to Iran’s banned Worker Communist Party.

On January 21, Khodarahm Gholian,  Gholian’s father, told the Radio Farda website that authorities did not show an arrest warrant when they arrested his daughter. When his son Mehdi tried to prevent authorities from entering the house, they beat him and arrested him as well. The authorities told his daughter that they would “destroy her” if she spoke out after being released, the father added. On January 21, after the authorities rearrested Gholian, BBC Persian TV channel broadcasted a video of Gholian recorded before her most recent arrest in which she says that during her detention in November, authorities beat her with a cable to force her to confess that she was “after overthrowing the government and hijacking the demands of the laborers in Iran.”

Several parliament members demanded clarification from the Intelligence Ministry after Bakhshi’s January 4 post. The parliament, Rouhani administration, and the judiciary subsequently announced a committee to investigate Bakhshi’s torture allegations. However, on January 8, after Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, met with parliament members, Ali Najafi Khoshroodi, the spokesperson for the parliament national security commission, told reporters that the Intelligence Ministry denied the torture allegations. On January 9, Farzaneh Zilabi, Bakhshi’s lawyer, told Rouydad 24 news website that her client has been under pressure to retract his torture claim.

On January 14, Hojatoleslam Montazeri, the prosecutor general, told reporters that the investigative committee’s report said that Bakhshi had not been tortured and “by making such claim, he was pursing political goals.”

Torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are banned at all times, and evidence obtained by torture or other coercion may not be submitted as evidence in a trial. Torture is also a crime of universal jurisdiction, meaning states are required to arrest and investigate anyone on their territory credibly suspected of involvement in torture anywhere and to prosecute them or extradite them to face justice.

The United Nations Principles on Torture Investigations state that “alleged victims of torture or ill-treatment, witnesses, those conducting the investigation, and their families shall be protected from violence, threats of violence, or any other form of intimidation that may arise pursuant to the investigation.

Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented abuses and torture in Iranian prisons, as well as persistent impunity for these serious violations. On January 10, 2010, a parliamentary panel investigating detentions after the disputed 2009 presidential election determined that Saeed Mortazavi, the former Tehran prosecutor general, was directly responsible for the ill-treatment of detainees in Kahrizak prison. On November 26, 2017, the Appeals Court of Tehran sentenced Mortazavi to two years in prison for complicity in the murder of Mohsen Ruholamini in Kahrizak detention center after the 2009 crackdown.

Iran’s government-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) has a long history of parading Iran’s critics and their family members on national TV, where they are forced to make so-called “confessions” or public statements meant to discredit them and their causes. Human rights groups have documented several instances in which dissidents, activists, and journalists were featured in pseudo-documentary videos intended to “prove” their “guilt,” though it was very likely they were coerced to participate in them.

“Iranian authorities’ announcements that they actually investigate torture claims are still rarely true, and the arrest of Bakhshi and Gholian looks like a response after they bravely spoke out about Iran’s bankrupt ‘justice’ system,” Page said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The first public hearing held by the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC), at Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia on November 17, 2016.

© Eric Goldstein/Human Rights Watch
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2014 Nicolas Fauqu/Corbis via Getty Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia should immediately allow independent international monitors to access Saudi women’s rights advocates detained since May 2018 to ensure their safety and well-being, Human Rights Watch said today. 

On November 23, Saudi Arabia’s media ministry denied evidence published by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that Saudi authorities had tortured and sexually harassed and assaulted at least three detained activists. On November 28, Human Rights Watch received a report from an informed source indicating that Saudi authorities had tortured a fourth woman activist. Sources said the torture of Saudi women activists may be ongoing. Saudi Arabia should immediately and credibly investigate the allegations of abuse in detention, hold accountable any individuals found complicit in torture and mistreatment of detainees, and provide redress for activists abused during this prolonged pretrial detention.

“Saudi Arabia’s consistent lies about senior officials’ role in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder mean that the government’s denials that it tortured these women activists are not nearly good enough,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless independent monitors are able to confirm the women activists’ well-being, there is every reason to believe that the Saudi authorities have treated them with unspeakable cruelty.”

The sources for the allegations of torture were concerned that they and the activists would suffer reprisals if the women were identified publicly. Media outlets including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal also reported the torture allegations. 

Saudi authorities should also allow the detained women unfettered access to lawyers and family members and release all of those jailed solely for peacefully advocating reform. 

The new source indicated that authorities tortured the fourth activist with electric shocks and tied them down to a steel bed and whipped them with an “egal,” the black cord used in traditional dress by Arab men to keep their head covering in place. The source said that the fourth activist was also sexually harassed. 

All the women activists are in Dhahban Mabahith (intelligence) Prison north of Jeddah, but sources described most of the torture as taking place at an unofficial detention facility they called a “hotel” prior to moving the women to Dhahban in August. The new source indicated that the women are taken to a room called an “officer’s guesthouse” for torture, but the location of this room is unclear.

The new source also told Human Rights Watch that the men responsible for mistreating the women were from “cyber security,” a probable reference to officers working under the authority of the former royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani, who was fired, according to a royal decree, for his role in the Khashoggi murder plot. Al-Qahtani, who was known as Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s enforcer, previously served as head of the royal court’s Center for Studies and Media Affairs, as well as the Saudi Union for Cyber Security and Programming. According to media reports, al-Qahtani directed online campaigns against Saudi critics, and developed a “black list” of critics to target. He is known in diplomatic circles as the “prince of darkness.” 

According to multiple informed sources, Saudi interrogators tortured the women during the initial stages of interrogation, primarily between May and August 2018. The torture included electric shocks and whippings. 

At least three women were subjected to sexual harassment and assault, including forced hugging and kissing and exposure to sexually suggestive gestures. One source said that one of the detained women’s rights advocates said that a senior official attended several of her torture sessions wearing a mask. According to the source, he told her during an interrogation “the next electrocution will be on your head” and threatened to rape her but did not carry out the threat. He also asked her whether she preferred the death penalty or life in prison for her “treason.” 

One source said that interrogators attempted to terrify and intimidate one of the detained women by telling her that they had murdered one of her colleagues in detention. At least one of the women attempted suicide multiple times, the sources said.

Following the interrogations, sources said, the women showed physical signs of torture, including difficulty walking, uncontrolled shaking of the hands, bruises on their thighs, and red marks and scratches on their faces and necks. 

The sources said that members of Saudi Arabia’s governmental Human Rights Commission (HRC) visited the women in detention at Dhahban. One of the women told the HRC that the women were tortured at another site and submitted to them all the details of their treatment. The HRC indicated to her that they did not know about the other site. A source told Human Rights Watch that another activist told a HRC representative everything that had happened to her and asked if the HRC could protect her, but the representative said it could not.

The crackdown on women's rights activists began just weeks ahead of the much-anticipated lifting of the driving ban on women on June 24, a cause for which many of the detained activists had campaigned. While some were quickly released, others remain detained without charge. They include Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Saada, and Hatoon al-Fassi, all women’s rights activists, as well as male supporters of the movement, including Ibrahim al-Modaimeegh, a lawyer; Abdulaziz Meshaal, a philanthropist, and Mohammed Rabea, a social activist.

Authorities accused several of those detained of serious crimes, including “suspicious contact with foreign parties.” Government-aligned media outlets have carried out a smear campaign against them, branding them “traitors.” The Saudi newspaper Okaz reported that nine of those detained will be referred for trial to the Specialized Criminal Court, originally established for terrorism offenses. If convicted, they could face up to 20 years in prison.

The public media campaign against the women contravened Saudi Arabia’s longstanding policy of not publishing names of criminal suspects in pre-trial detention. At the same time, pro-government media have not identified the people arrested for their alleged involvement in Khashoggi’s murder.

Dr. al-Fassi, a renowned scholar and associate professor of women’s history at King Saud University, was one of the first women to acquire a Saudi driver’s license. Saudi authorities arrested her just days before lifting the ban. Numerous other women’s rights activists have since been placed under travel bans. On November 17, the Middle East Studies Association of North America awarded al-Fassi the MESA Academic Freedom Award for 2018.

Saudi women’s rights activists have petitioned government authorities to reform discriminatory laws and policies and have sought to change societal attitudes. While the government has recently introduced limited reforms, including allowing women to enter some professions previously closed to them and lifting the driving ban, the male guardianship system, the main impediment to the realization of women’s rights, remains intact.

Under this system, women must obtain permission from a male guardian – a father, brother, husband, or even a son – to travel abroad, obtain a passport, enroll in higher education, get a life-saving abortion, be released from a prison or shelter, or marry.

Saudi authorities have repeatedly made false statements in denying serious allegations of rights abuses, including in the case of Saudi agents’ murder of journalist Khashoggi on October 2 in the Saudi consulate. For instance, Saudi authorities initially claimed Khashoggi left the Saudi consulate alive, but later evidence found that Saudi agents had pre-planned a “body double” to leave the consulate to attempt to hide the fact that agents had murdered Khashoggi in the consulate.

“World leaders should urgently act based on new evidence of Saudi Arabia’s brutal torture of women’s rights advocates and publicly demand that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and his government release all of these peaceful activists immediately,” Page said. “They should make clear that unless these peaceful rights advocates are freed, the Saudi government will face further isolation.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, attends a bilateral meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in the Executive Suite at UN Headquarters in New York.

© 2018 Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
As the G20 Summit approaches and world leaders get ready to meet in Buenos Aires on Friday, a cloud of suspicion looms over Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. His visit to Argentina was supposed to help him rebuild his shattered reputation after the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But Argentine judicial authorities have turned back that effort as they take steps toward investigating the crown prince’s connection with alleged war crimes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and torture by Saudi officials.

The crown prince, known as MBS, seems to understand that. He was scheduled to stay with his 400-member delegation at the Four Seasons hotel, one of the fanciest in Buenos Aires. Instead he has moved into the Saudi embassy, which has turned into a fortress with metal barricades and bullet-proof windows added this week, the Argentine media reported. He was reportedly planning to visit the city on Thursday but did not leave the embassy all day.

On November 26, Human Rights Watch filed a submission with an Argentine federal prosecutor, asking him to examine the crown prince’s possible responsibility for torture of Saudi citizens in government custody and violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen. The violations include carrying out indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes that killed thousands of civilians and maintaining a blockade that has contributed to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Two days later, the federal prosecutor who was assigned the case endorsed the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows judicial authorities to investigate and prosecute international crimes no matter where they were committed, and regardless of the nationality of the suspects or their victims. He and an investigating federal judge moved forward toward an investigation. They requested information from other governments on the status of investigations elsewhere into these allegations, and from Argentina’s Foreign Ministry on the crown prince’s diplomatic and immunity status in Argentina.

If a formal investigation is opened, it will take time. The crown prince is going to be in Buenos Aires only for a few days, so there is little chance that he will be vulnerable to questioning or arrest while he is in Argentina. But the fact that justice officials are already taking steps toward an investigation sends a powerful message.

We can’t be sure why Mohammed bin Salman moved into the embassy. But if he’s smart, he would have sought legal advice about the prospects of a future criminal investigation and his potential liability. He might want to have such a conversation every time he plans to leave Saudi Arabia, because this week’s developments show that even the most powerful are not above the law.

Meanwhile, in Buenos Aires, global leaders should think twice before rubbing shoulders with someone who may end up under investigation for war crimes and torture.

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

Rabat, Morocco, July 15, 2018: demonstrators protest heavy jail sentences on imprisoned activists by wearing masks showing their faces. 

© 2018 Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images

(New York) – The Casablanca Court of Appeals should weigh evidence that the police tortured the defendants when it reviews the convictions of protesters and activists from the Rif region, Human Rights Watch said today. The appeals case began on November 14, 2018.

A lower court convicted all 53 defendants on June 26, sentencing them to up to 20 years in prison after admitting their “confessions” into evidence and dismissing their allegations of torture and repudiation of their statements. The lower court, in its 3,100-page judgment, did not explain why it had discounted medical reports suggesting that at least some of the defendants had been subjected to police violence upon or after arrest.

“A court shouldn’t just ignore evidence of torture,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, Middle East and North Africa communications and advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The appeals court needs to examine and discard any tainted confessions and ensure that no one is convicted except for real crimes.”

The Hirak, a socioeconomic protest movement in Morocco’s northern Rif region that started in 2016, staged several peaceful mass demonstrations until a police crackdown in May 2017 led to the arrest of more than 400 activists. Of them, 53, including the movement’s leaders, were transferred to Casablanca, where they faced a mass trial that lasted over a year. The Casablanca Court of First Instance convicted all of them on June 26, 2018, on various charges including harming the state’s internal security, criminal arson, rebellion, attacking police agents while performing their duty, damaging public property, and staging unauthorized protests, and sentenced them to prison terms from one year to 20 years.

In August, King Mohammed VI pardoned 116 sentenced Hirak activists, including 11 of the Casablanca group, but none of the leaders.

On June 17 and 18, 2017, forensic doctors commissioned by the National Human Rights Council (Conseil National des Droits de l’Homme, or CNDH), an independent state body, examined 34 detained Hirak protesters, including 19 of the Casablanca group. Their medical reports noted that the injuries sustained by some detainees had either a “high” or a “medium level of consistency” with the allegations of police abuse. On July 3, 2017, Moroccan media leaked those reports.

The National Human Rights Council said at the time that the reports had not been finalized and thus were unofficial. But a day later, Justice Minister Mohamed Aujjar announced that he had ordered copies forwarded to prosecutors at the Al Hoceima and Casablanca courts trying these defendants “to include these reports in the case files … [and] take necessary legal measures.”

Human Rights Watch reviewed relevant sections of the trial judgment, 41 forensic reports, including 19 by National Human Rights Council -appointed doctors and 22 comissioned by the Casablanca first instance court, attended 17 of the 86 trial sessions, examined 55 court documents, and interviewed 10 defense lawyers and six relatives of the imprisoned activists.

Based on the minutes of the hearings before the investigative judge assigned to the case, 50 of the 53 defendants said that police at the National Brigade of Judiciary Police (Brigade Nationale de la Police Judiciaire, or BNPJ) headquarters in Casablanca pressured them, one way or another, to sign self-incriminating confessions without reading their content. Twenty-one said that the police threatened to rape them or their wives or young daughters. Bouchra Rouissi, a defense lawyer, said that 17 of them told her that they had experienced physical violence during interrogation, including slapping, beating, and punching in the face while they were handcuffed, or that dirty rags were inserted in their mouths.

The defendants “confessed” to acts of violence against police officers, torching police cars and a police residence in Imzouren, a small town near El Hoceima, and organizing unauthorized protests. But all recanted before the investigative judge and later during the trial.

In its written judgment, the court stated that the defendants’ allegation of torture was “not serious and not well grounded” and thus the defense’s request to invalidate their confessions “should be rejected.” The court based this decision on 22 medical examinations ordered by the investigative judge and performed on June 6, 2017, and in some cases on examinations performed by a doctor working in Casablanca’s Oukacha prison. But the reports from the court-appointed doctor and the prison doctor deviate in key ways from those performed by the National Human Rights Council team.

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which Morocco has ratified, states that “any statement which is established to have been made as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceedings.” Morocco’s Code of Penal Procedure provides that "no statement obtained through violence or coercion shall be admitted into evidence."

The defense argued that the court violated the rights of the defense in other ways. It refused to hear witnesses whom the defense considered to be crucial in providing alibis for at least two defendants. The court did hear from three other alibi witnesses, but ruled that their testimony was unconvincing. It also denied the defendants access to dozens of videotapes and wiretap recordings, which the judgement considered key inculpatory evidence, leading defense lawyer Mohamed Messaoudi told Human Rights Watch.

“The first instance Hirak trial was tainted by a serious failure to grapple with evidence of torture and forced confessions and other grave due process violations,” Benchemsi said. “The appeals court has an opportunity to show us what this is all about: bringing about justice, or crushing social justice activism.”

Torture And Rape Threat Allegations

The forensic reports commissioned by the National Human Rights Council note the detainees’ accounts of what happened to them, including the ill-treatment they say they experienced, and assess their psychological states in detail. United Nations’ guidelines for documentation of torture and its consequences, also known as the Istanbul Protocol, require such detailed assessments. But the reports of the court-commissined forensic doctor provide little such information.

Jamal El Abbassi, the court-commissioned forensic doctor, found marks of violence on the bodies of 3 of the 22 detainees he examined, including Nasser Zefzafi, the leader of the Hirak movement. However, the doctor did not link those marks to the unlawful police violence that the three men said they had endured. The court denied a defense motion to invalidate the confessions of these three men.

In the judgment, the court determined, based on the assessment by the court-appointed doctor of Zefzafi’s injuries, that they were caused by his “violent resistance against police agents” during his arrest on May 29, 2017, rather than by any unlawful police violence. The judgment was silent on the causes of the injuries  Dr. El Abbassi found on the two other men.

Hicham Benyaïch and Abdallah Dami, the two Human Rights Council-commissioned forensic doctors, examined 34 Hirak prisoners. Of the 34, 16 had also been examined, 10 or 11 days earlier, by the court-commissioned forensic doctor. Dr. Benyaich and Dr. Dami found traces of violence on nine (of the above-mentioned 16) men that they said were consistent to various degrees with their accounts of police violence. They described the “acute stress” and “psychological distress” many detainees experienced, and stated that “certain allegations [of physical and psychological violence in custody] are credible because they are corroborated by many concurrent testimonies.”

Rabie Al Ablaq, 31

The official minutes of his hearing on July 17, 2017 before Investigative Judge Abdelwahed Majid said that Al Ablaq, a journalist, said that on the sixth day of his interrogation at the BNPJ headquarters in Casablanca, that an officer took him to a different room where five unidentified hooded men were standing who threatened to rape him with a bottle if he refused to sign a written statement presented to him by the police. He signed. Al Ablaq also told the judge that a police officer forced him to hold up a Moroccan flag and shout, “Long live the king.”

The report by a National Human Rights Council-mandated doctor states that Al Ablaq, when examined on June 15, 2017, alleged that while he was interrogated at the BNPJ headquarters in Casablanca, he was beaten on his face while handcuffed, and a policeman ordered him to take his shirt off and then put a filthy rag in his mouth and threatened to rape him. Although the forensic report concluded that “the medical examination did not show signs of violence on (his) body,” it found that Al Ablaq “suffers from deep depression and cries continuously,” and that his allegations of mistreatment are “generally credible due to their coherence and concordance.”

The investigative judge ordered a medical examination, which was performed on June 6, 2017, by a court-appointed forensic doctor, who concluded that “The [medical] examination on this day does not reveal signs of physical violence.” He did not comment on the defendant’s psychological state. In its written judgment, the court dismissed Al Ablaq’s allegations of mistreatment, noting that no mark was found on his body during the medical examinations. The judgment does not address the alleged threats and intimidation that he described to the investigative judge. The court sentenced Al Ablaq to 5 years in prison.

Mohamed Bouhnouch, 21

The minutes of the investigative judge’s additional hearing on June 28, 2017, say that while Mohamed Bouhnouch, an electrician, was being interrogated, police agents slapped him, hit him on the neck, and pulled his beard. When he refused to sign the statement the police presented to him, police agents threatened to rape him with a bottle and burn his beard with a lighter. He signed.

The forensic doctor appointed by the investigative judge examined Bouhnouch on June 6. He reported that Bouhnouch suffered from torpor and back pain and had difficulties in straightening his head. The report did not speculate on the causes of these symptoms, or correlate them with the mistreatement he said he endured.

The National Human Rights Council’s forensic doctor reported on June 14, 2017, that the physical marks he found on Bouhnouch’s body were consistent with his allegations, which, “if confirmed, constitute acts of torture and mistreatment.”

In its written judgment, the court rejected the allegations based on a third examination performed on July 6, 2017, by a doctor working in Casablanca’s Oukacha prison, who wrote that he found no traces of violence on Bouhnouch’s body. The court sentenced Bouhnouch to 15 years in prison.

Youssef El Hamdioui, 34

The minutes of his hearing on July 13, 2017 say that Youssef El Hamdioui, a teacher, told the investigative judge that while he was being interrogated, police officers slapped him on the face, pulled his hair, threatened to rape him with a bottle and to lock him in a closet, knowing that El Hamdioui suffers from claustrophobia. He told the investigative judge that he signed a self-incriminating statement without reading it.

The court ordered no medical examination and in its judgment did not address his allegations of physical abuse. The judgment noted, however, that the doctor working in Oukacha prison reported on July 6, 2017, that El Hamdioui suffered from psychiatric disorders. The court sentenced El Hamdioui to 3 years in prison.

Rachid Aamarouch, 28

The minutes of his July 19, 2017 additional hearing before the investigative judge say that Rachid Aamarouch, a street vendor, said that when he told the police officers interrogating him that he never participated in the Hirak protests, they forced him to shout, “Long live the king!” Police agents later presented him with a statement that he read and refused to sign. A police agent then banged his head on the table and asked, “Really? So, you don’t trust us?,” Aamarouch told the judge. He signed the statement.

The judge had ordered a medical examination during Aamarouch’s preliminary hearing. A court-appointed doctor examined him on June 6, 2017, noted that the prisoner stated having “not been subjected to violence,” and concluded that “The [medical] examination of this day does not reveal signs of physical violence.” Eleven days later, a forensic doctor appointed by the National Human Rights Council examined Aamarouch, noted his allegations that police officers slapped, punched, and kicked him during his interrogation, and observed that one of his fingers was out of joint.

In its written judgment, the court rejected the torture allegations based on the June 6 medical examination. It did not mention the National Human Rights Council report. The court sentenced Aamarouch to 2 years in prison.

Hussein El Idrissi, 27

The minutes of his additional hearing on July 19, 2017, before the investigative judge, say that Hussein El Idrissi, a journalist, said that a policeman smashed a stapler on his back, then another policeman slapped his face and punched him. They presented him with a 150-page statement and told him to sign it. He refused to sign it without reading it first. Then the officers threatened to rape him with a bottle. He signed.

Police took his saliva, fingerprints, and a video of him in his underwear without his consent, he told the investigative judge, who ordered a medical examination after El Idrissi’s preliminary hearing. That examination, on June 6, 2017, did “not reveal signs of physical violence,” according to the doctor’s report. Eleven days later, a National Human Rights Council-mandated doctor examined El Idrissi and reported marks of injuries on three fingers of his left hand, “consistent with the date when they allegedly occurred (…) reportedly due to blows by the pointy edge of a stapler.” In its written judgment, the court acknowleged El Idrissi’s allegations of police abuse, but rejected them based on the June 6 medical examination, and did not mention the other report. The court sentenced El Idrissi to 5 years in prison.

Zakaria Adahchour, 27

The official minutes of his additional hearing before the investigative judge on June 28, 2017, say that Zakaria Adahchour, a plasterer, said that when he refused to sign a statement that the police officers presented to him, they slapped his face, punched him, and flicked on a cigarette lighter near his beard, threatening to burn it. He signed. A forensic doctor commissioned by the investigative judge examined Adahchour on June 6, 2017, and noted that the examination “does not reveal signs of physical violence.”

Eleven days later, a National Human Rights Council-mandated doctor saw Adahchour, recorded his testimony, and reported irritation marks on his chin that he said corroborated both Adahchour’s account and the testimony of other detainees’ about the threat to burn his beard. In its written judgment, the court acknowleged Adahchour’s allegations of police abuse, but rejected them based on the June 6 medical examination, and did not mention the other report. The court sentenced Adahchour to 15 years in prison.

Omar Bouhras, 27

The minutes of his hearing before the investigative judge say that Omar Bouhras, a mechanic, told the judge on July 3, 2017, that during his arrest in Al Hoceima, the police hit him on his face and chipped two of his teeth. He said that during his interrogation in Casablanca, police punched him in the face, demanding that he give them “30 names of Hirak activists” and knocked out two teeth. When Bouhras refused to sign the statement police officers presented to him, they threatened to rape him with a bottle and slapped and punched him on the face several times, including while he was handcuffed, he told the judge. He signed.

The judge did not order a medical examination. The court’s  written judgment did not mention the alleged physical abuse, though it indicated that a dentist  “provided necessary care [to Bouhras] after he felt intense pain in his teeth” in Oukacha prison on June 6, 2017. The court sentenced Bouhras to 10 years in prison.

Mohamed Majaoui, 47

The minutes of his hearing before the investigative judge on July 18th, 2017, say that Mohamed Majaoui, a teacher, said that after interrogating him, police presented him a written statement and told him to sign it. After reading it, he said he realized that it included statements he didn’t make, such as incriminating Nasser Zefzafi, the Hirak leader. When Majaoui refused to sign, a police agent threatened to rape his wife and his young daughters, a photograph of whom sat on the agent’s desk. Majaoui signed. The investigative judge did not order any investigation into Majaoui’s allegations, and the court’s written judgment did not mention the alleged rape threats. The court sentenced Majaoui to five years in prison.

Abdel Khair Yasnari, 39

The minutes of Abdel Khair Yasnari’s hearing before the investigative judge on July 19, 2017, say that at the end of his interrogation sessions, Yasnari, a butcher, refused to sign a written statement the police agents presented to him, because it included declarations he did not make incriminating Zefazfi. Later that night, Yasnari told the investigative judge, a police agent threatened to rape him with a bottle, while another one started pulling down his clothing as if to execute the threat. Yasnari signed. He later repudiated its contents before the investigative judge, who ordered no investigation into his allegations. The court did not mention the allegations of rape threats in its written judgment and sentenced Yasnari to 2 years in prison.

Brahim Bouziane, 32, a salesman, and Karim Amghar, 34, a butcher told the investigative judge, said the minutes of their respective hearings on July 13 and July 17, 2017 that police threatened to rape them with a bottle if they refused to sign prepared written statements. They signed. The minutes of the hearing for Abdelaziz Khali, 33, a baker, on June 17, 2017, say that he told the investigative judge that police agents told him, after he refused to sign a written statement, “We will bring your wife here and you will see things that only happen in Syria.” Khali signed the statement without reading it. The court did not open an investigation into these rape threat allegations, nor did the court’s written judgment mention them. The court sentenced Bouziane to 3 years, Amghar to 10 years, and Khali to 2 years.

Human Rights Watch also consulted the minutes of the hearings of 10 other prisoners before the investigative judge: Wassime El Boustati, 25, a vendor; Salah Lachkhem, 27, a student; Samir Ighid, 31, a plasterer; Mohamed Haki, 32, a coffee shop manager; Abdelhak Sadik, 27, a vendor; Fouad Saidi, 32, a technician; Othman Bouziane, 29, a vendor; Soulaimane Fahili, 31, a security guard; Bilal Ahabad, 20, a student; and Jamal Bouhdou, 43, unemployed.

All ten men told the investigative judge that during their interrogation, police agents slapped them on their faces, punched and kicked them, and threatened them with rape when they refused to sign written statements. They all signed. The National Human Rights Council-mandated doctor who examined Ahabad, Fahili, Saidi and Sadik reported physical marks that he said “could be correlated to the (violence) allegations or could have happened in other contexts.”

Eleven days earlier, the forensic doctor commissioned by the investigative judge examined the same men, and concluded that Ahabad, Fahili, and Saidi had “no signs of physical violence,” while Sadik had an injury above his left eye, which, the report indicated, “could happen as a result of physical violence.” However, the report did not link the injury with Sadik’s allegations of torture. In its written judgement, the court rejected the mistreatment allegations of all 10 and sentenced them to between three and 20 years in prison.

Allegations of Pressure and Falsification

Nabil Ahamjiq, 34, a student; Mohamed Asrihi, 31, a journalist; Abdelmohsine Attari, 25, a construction worker; and Abdelali Houd, 29, a waiter, told the investigative judge that police agents deceived them into signing self-incriminating statements.

The hearing minutes say that Ahamjiq said on July 12, 2017, that after four days and nights of almost nonstop interrogation, police agents came to his cell at 2 a.m., awakened him, and took him in for interrogation again, then pressured him to sign a 200-page document despite his visible state of exhaustion. He signed.

Asrihi said on July 11, 2017 that police agents gave him many copies of his statement and pressured him to sign them quickly because of the approach of the ftour, the ritual moment, at dusk, when Muslims break the daytime fast during the month of Ramadan. He signed, and later discovered that the statement included self-incriminating statements that he had not made.

Attari on July 11, 2017 and Houd on June 28, 2017, described similar experiences. After several days and nights of nonstop interrogation, police agents presented them with written statements only minutes before ftour, or breaking the Ramadan fast. The defendants said they were exhausted and pressured to sign quickly, which they did, after reading only the first few pages.

Before the investigative judge, all four men repudiated the contents of their police statements. However, the court ordered no investigation into their allegations of pressure and falsification and did not mention them in the written judgment. The court sentenced Ahamjiq to 20 years in prison, Asrihi and Houd to 5 years each, and Attari to 2 years in prison.

Refusing to Allow Key Defense Witnesses to Testify

The prosecutor charged Bilal Ahabad, 20, a student, with setting fire to a police van and a building where families of police personnel lived in Imzouren, a small town near El Hoceima, on March 26, 2017. He charged Samir Ighid, 31, a plasterer, with attempted murder of a police officer, alleging that Ighid threw a concrete brick from the roof of a house in Al Hoceima on the officer on May 26, 2017.

Both defendants denied the accusations. Ighid said that at the time of the incident, he was attending the funeral of a relative. Ahabad said he was with two friends at the beach. The defense lawyers asked the court to summon Ighid’s relatives and Ahabad’s friends to testify. The court rejected both requests, providing no justification, and did not cite the requests in its written judgment. The court sentenced Ahabad to 10 years in prison and Ighid to 20 years.

Zakaria Adahchour, 27, a plasterer, was accused of criminal arson in Imzouren in the same circumstances as Ahabad, on March 26, 2017. During the trial, the defense summoned three co-workers, who testified that, at the time of the event, he was with them at their workplace in Al Hoceima, about 20 kilometers away from Imzouren. However, in its written judgment, the court rejected the witnesses’ testimony, saying “the fact that the witnesses […] were not present [at the crime scene] and did not see the [acts of arson] and have no knowledge of the persons who perpetrated these acts, makes their testimonies useless.” The court sentenced Adahchour to 15 years in prison. 

Denying Defendants Access to Evidence

The judgment indicates that the Casablanca Court of First Instance also based its guilty verdicts on dozens of videotapes and wiretap recordings. Some of these were played during court sessions. However, despite several requests by the defense, both orally during court sessions and in writing, the court refused to provide the audio and video files to the defense, Mohamed Messaoudi, one of the lead defense lawyers for the 53 Hirak prisoners, told Human Rights Watch. The judgment neither justified nor mentioned the court’s refusal to allow the defense to view this allegedly incriminating evidence.

The court allowed them to review only written transcripts of several taped phone conversations among Hirak activists, translated to Arabic from Tarifit, the variant of the Tamazight language spoken in the Rif region. Messaoudi said that several defendants including Zefzafi had told the investigative judge, the prosecutor, and the trial judge that the transcripts contained inaccurate translations into Arabic of the taped conversations. The transcripts were written and translated by police officers and not by sworn translators, as they should be to be considered admissible evidence in court, Messaoudi said.

Under the right to fair trial, as guaranteed in UN and African rights treaties, defendants have the right to have their key witnesses presented in court on the same basis as the prosecution. Defendants equally have the right to see and be able to examine and challenge all the key evidence and witnesses in the case against them.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am