(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.”


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.


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.  


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

Khaled Hassan, an Egyptian-American citizen, claimed authorities disappeared him on January 8 and severely abused him.

© Private


(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities forcibly disappeared an Egyptian-American limousine driver, who said authorities also tortured him and held him secretly for four months, Human Rights Watch said today. The man, Khaled Hassan, 41, provided detailed allegations of torture, including two allegations of rape, to Human Rights Watch.

National Security agents arrested and disappeared Hassan on January 8, 2018, in Alexandria, Egypt. Despite immediate requests from his family to the authorities for information on his whereabouts, his arrest was not publicly acknowledged until he appeared before a military prosecutor for the first time on May 3. Egyptian authorities, in a letter on October 2 responding to Human Rights Watch inquiries, claimed that he was only arrested on May 3 and denied that he had been tortured. But independent forensic experts who reviewed footage of Hassan’s leg wounds found them consistent with his account of torture.

Egyptian prosecutors should immediately open an investigation into his torture claims and have him examined by a forensic medical specialist, Human Rights Watch said. A civilian judge should review his detention and release him unless there is a credible evidence of a recognizable crime.

“Hassan’s disappearance and detailed allegations of torture and the government’s denials reinforce the reality that Egyptian security forces operate with impunity,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Khaled Hassan has been able to bring the gruesome details of his treatment to light, but thousands of others held in Egypt’s prisons have not been able to tell their stories.”

Mohamed Soltan, a former prisoner in Egypt and a human rights advocate of the independent group Freedom Initiative in the United States, alerted Human Rights Watch to the case in September. In interviews conducted remotely, Hassan told Human Rights Watch that in the weeks following his detention on January 8, security forces severely beat him, gave him electric shocks, including on his genitals, and anally raped him in at least two incidents, once with a wooden stick and once by another man.

Human Rights Watch was able to interview two members of Hassan’s family and to review their communications to the authorities seeking information about his whereabouts. Forensic experts also reviewed photos of his wounds taken by Hassan recently in prison. Family members said that Egyptian officials had ordered Hassan’s wife and children to leave the country and offered them no legal recourse. They are now in the US.

Hassan said military prosecutors who saw him for the first time on May 3 ignored his account of torture and ordered him detained pending investigations. They accused him, along with hundreds of other defendants, of involvement in a case related to an ISIS-affiliated group in Egypt. Hassan denied those accusations. He has been in pretrial detention in Istiqbal Tora Prison in Cairo since then, where he said he has had insufficient food and health care. He has not been brought before a civilian court or allowed to know the official charges against him, and no date has been set for his trial.

Hassan, who had immigrated to the US years earlier, was living in New York City and spent weeks every year with his wife and children, who lived in Egypt, a family member said. He was never stopped or questioned before, the relative said.

Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern of systematic torture of detainees in secret National Security Agency detention centers and police stations to collect information about suspected dissidents and prepare often fabricated cases against them. Torture techniques usually included stress positions, electric shocks, and threats of rape and sometimes rape.

Local rights organizations have documented hundreds of disappearances in the past five years. Although Egypt’s National Security Agency is responsible for the most flagrant abuses against prisoners, no agency officer has been convicted of these crimes in a final court verdict in Egypt’s recent history.

The Convention Against Torture defines torture as the deliberate infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering, by a public official or equivalent, for a specific purpose such as punishment. An enforced disappearance occurs when someone is deprived of their liberty by state agents or people acting with the state’s authorization, support, or acquiescence, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.

Enforced disappearances and torture are absolutely prohibited under international law in all circumstances. They violate a range of human rights obligations and those responsible can in certain circumstances be prosecuted in other countries.

The use of military courts to try civilians violates Egypt’s obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which guarantees the right to fair trial. Governments should never use military trials for civilians when normal courts can still function.

Despite an intensifying crackdown on human rights by the Egyptian authorities, President Donald Trump’s administration restored US$195 million in military aid to Egypt in July.

Hassan said that US embassy officials have visited him, but he expressed frustration that the US administration has had little to say about the abuses in Egypt under the rule of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Human Rights Watch has said previously that, given authorities’ continued apparent systematic use of torture, Egypt’s allies should stop all security assistance and training and condition their military and security aid on concrete improvement of human rights and accountability of torturers.

“The continuous recklessness of Egyptian authorities in crushing the rule of law should be of serious concern to Egypt’s allies,” Page added. “US authorities should raise Hassan’s case with the Egyptian authorities and should make it clear that torture and abuse are no way to ensure Egypt’s security.”

Arrest, Torture, and Rape

Hassan said that men in civilian clothes, who introduced themselves as belonging to the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency, arrested him in Alexandria as he went to meet his brother in the afternoon of January 8. They took him to the agency’s office in al-Ma’moura area, then transferred him to the agency headquarters in Smouha, Alexandria.

There, he said security agents severely physically abused him for eight days, then moved him to their headquarters in Abbassiya, Cairo, where they held him for another month or more. After forcing him to confess crimes under torture, they sent him back to Smouha for three more months until most of his visible wounds had healed, and then they finally presented him to military prosecutors on May 3, who registered that date as his arrest date and ordered him detained without investigating his account of torture.

In incommunicado detention, he said, National Security Agents severely beat him, cutting his chin and bloodying his nose. They usually stripped him naked during the abuse. They hung him from his arms for days, dislocating both his shoulders. They repeatedly gave him electric shocks to the head, tongue, the anus, the testicles, and his groin area. In Smouha, they used wires and in Abbassiya, they mostly used electric shock devices, which he sometimes saw being charged. Sometimes, he said, they placed him on a wet sheet to increase the effect of electric shocks.

He said that agents used a taser on his leg, causing an open wound that became infected. His leg became swollen and inflamed and the pain and infection made him faint repeatedly. They operated on the wound without anesthesia and while an officer was standing over his chest, he said.

He said that the agents raped him on one occasion with a wooden stick. On another occasion, Hassan said, after he insulted an officer who threatened to arrest his wife, the officer ordered another man to rape Hassan anally. “When they did this, I was ready to say [give any confessions] what they wanted,” he said.

“The worst part was electrocution,” he said, breaking into tears. At the end of each session, they would have to carry him back to his detention cell because he could not walk, he said. He added the agents tried to “fix” his most visible injuries on his body before sending him to military prosecutors on May 3.

Human Rights Watch obtained recent pictures and a video of Hassan’s wounds. Experts said the wounds reviewed are consistent with Hassan’s account of abuse.

© Private

While in Abbassiya, Hassan said, he was placed in a “very narrow” cell with 15 other detainees, where they had to sleep “on top of one another.” He said he was allowed to use the toilet once or twice a day and to shower once a month. Authorities told him that he was “a spy.” 

Photos of Torture Wounds

Human Rights Watch reviewed recent photos and a video of what Hassan said were marks of wounds on both of his legs caused by electric shocks. Several experts from the Independent Forensic Expert Group, facilitated by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, reviewed these materials and found that the lesions are consistent with – and in one instance, highly consistent with – application of an electric shock device, such as a taser-like instrument used in stun or angled-stun mode, in the manner that Hassan described.

Human Rights Watch obtained recent pictures and a video of Hassan’s wounds. Experts said the wounds reviewed are consistent with Hassan’s account of abuse.

© Private

Government Response

Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the Egyptian authorities explaining the initial findings of Hassan’s case on September 23, followed by another letter with more details and corrections on September 25. In its written response to Human Rights Watch, the State Information Service, a government body that oversees foreign correspondents, denied that Hassan had been forcibly disappeared or tortured. It also said his lawyers had not filed an official request for him to be examined by forensic doctors.

But Hassan said he told military prosecutors, who saw him on May 3, that he had been forcibly disappeared and tortured since January and that they did not order an investigation of his torture claims. He said that he and his lawyers did not file an official request for an examination because fellow detainees told him it would not lead to anything and might actually prolong his stay in incommunicado detention. “They [security agents] know what they are doing,” Hassan said.

One of Hassan’s brothers said that the family filed a police report about Hassan’s disappearance the day after his disappearance. Human Rights Watch reviewed copies of the complaints the family sent to the prosecutors in Alexandria on February 15, to which the authorities did not respond. The State Information Service response, the first official response in years to a Human Rights Watch inquiry, did not clarify why the authorities failed to respond to the family’s complaints.

Human Rights Watch reviewed complaints the family filed to authorities on February 15 inquiring about Hassan’s whereabouts but authorities never responded.

© Private

Military prosecutors included Hassan in military prosecution case 137 of 2018, known as the “Sinai Province Case II,” in which hundreds of defendants are accused of joining the Egyptian ISIS-affiliate and aiding its goals through spying on the army and plotting violent attacks.

Hassan denied any involvement with the group and said he knows only one person accused in this case who was also severely abused and needed surgery afterward. Hassan’s lawyers were unable to obtain a copy of the prosecution file. In recent years, prosecutors in Egypt have sent large numbers of political dissidents for prolonged pretrial detention. In the vast majority of cases of political dissent, whether violent or peaceful, lawyers are usually not allowed to obtain a copy of the prosecution file until the trial begins and so are unable to review the evidence or challenge it. The State Information Service confirmed that Hassan was accused in that case but did not cite any specific charges.

Family’s Deportation

One of Hassan’s brothers said that several days following his disappearance, on January 19, men in civilian clothes broke into Hassan’s home in Alexandria, where his Peruvian wife and his three Egyptian-American children lived.

The men broke down the door and violently searched the house, saying they were looking for weapons, said Hassan’s wife, Liuba Skateeff, and another brother, who was there. The men refused to show any judicial orders or prosecutors’ permission for the house search. They destroyed the apartment’s library and told Skateeff, who had been living in Egypt for over 11 years, that she had to leave the country immediately. Officers stayed in her apartment for four hours and left police informants in front of her building, she said.

Frightened, she and the couple’s three children, ages 4 to 10, left for the US less than a week after arranging for the ticket money, she said. The officer had threatened to arrest her, she added.

Human Rights Watch reviewed copies of her passport that showed travel dates and stamps and her residence permit in Egypt, which is valid until June 2020. When she tried to return to Egypt in June to visit Hassan in jail, Egyptian airport officers denied her entry, detained her and her 4-year-old child for two days in the airport, and then ordered her deported to the US where she has a green card. The State Information Service acknowledged in its response that Skateeff was deported and said in its response to Human Rights Watch that she could have legally challenged her deportation. But Skateeff said that the airport officers who detained her offered her no explanation and no legal recourse for an appeal. They also seized her phone and refused to allow her to contact the Peruvian embassy, she said.

She also said that the couple’s two young daughters have had panic attacks since the raid, when armed men pointed guns at the children’s heads.

Prison Conditions

The family managed to first see Hassan in prison on May 9. “When he saw us he collapsed,” one brother said. “He cried like a baby… He showed us signs of torture and electrocution.”

Hassan said prison authorities denied him proper medical care and he was not able to obtain medicine he used to take before his arrest.

© Private

Hassan said that US embassy officials have visited him in prison three or four times since May, but that prison authorities seized books that the embassy officials sent him. Hassan also said he had been seeing a psychiatrist before his detention, but that prison officials would not let him obtain his prescribed medicines. Human Rights Watch obtained copies of labels for prescription medicines that he had been taking. Prison authorities have not offered him any proper psychiatric consultation and did not allow him to see an outside doctor, he said.

“It was a miracle to bring a pillow to sleep on,” Hassan said.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented Egyptian prison authorities’ systematic mistreatment of prisoners, including lack of food and opportunity for exercise and denying prisoners hygiene products, mattresses, and beds.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Yemen: Houthi Officials Kidnap, Demand Ransom Money

The Houthi armed group in Yemen has frequently taken hostages and committed other serious abuses against people in their custody.

(Beirut)The Houthi armed group in Yemen has frequently taken hostages and committed other serious abuses against people in their custody, Human Rights Watch said today. Houthi officials should stop taking hostages, free everyone arbitrarily detained, end torture and enforced disappearances, and punish those responsible for abuses.

Human Rights Watch documented 16 cases in which Houthi authorities held people unlawfully, in large part to extort money from relatives or to exchange them for people held by opposing forces. Hostage-taking is a serious violation of the laws of war and a war crime. The United Nations Human Rights Council should renew the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, which has a mandate to investigate and identify those responsible for abuses.

“The Houthis have added profiteering to their long list of abuses and offenses against the people under their control in Yemen,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than treat detainees humanely, some Houthi officials are exploiting their power to turn a profit through detention, torture, and murder.”

Since late 2014, when Houthi forces occupied the capital, Sanaa, and much of Yemen, Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases of the Houthis and forces loyal to the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh carrying out arbitrary and abusive detention, as well as forced disappearances and torture. Yemeni rights groups have documented hundreds more cases. Human Rights Watch recently interviewed 14 former detainees and relatives of two other men detained or disappeared.

Houthi officials have treated detainees brutally, often amounting to torture, Human Rights Watch said. Former detainees described Houthi officers beating them with iron rods, wooden sticks, and assault rifles. Guards whipped prisoners, shackled them to walls, caned their feet, and threatened to rape them or their family members, former detainees said. Several people described being hung from a wall by their arms shackled behind them as one of the most painful techniques. In many cases, Houthi officials tortured them to obtain information or confessions.

Former detainees described Houthi officers beating them with iron rods, wooden sticks, and assault rifles. 

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

Former detainees said guards refused detainees medical assistance or treatment after abuse. Those released and their family members reported physical and psychological health complications from mistreatment.

Houthi officials regularly extort those detained and their relatives, said former detainees, family members, and Yemeni rights activists. In some cases, the Houthis ultimately released the detainee – often they have not.

The wife of a man arrested by unidentified men in late 2015 said: “At the beginning, I didn’t know that he was arrested. They kidnapped him, but my family and I were looking for him everywhere. We asked at hospitals, police stations.” They later learned he was held at the Houthi-controlled Political Security Office, a notorious intelligence agency, in Sanaa. “I was following up with Houthi mediators for five months, and they were taking money,” she said. “Every time they give me promises with no result. I spoke to many Houthis leaders …. They say they will do this and that, but they do nothing.”

She has paid Houthi officials about 1.5 million Yemeni riyals over the last three years. Her husband remains detained. The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen found that Political Security Office members were “profiting from detentions.”

The sister of a man who disappeared in Hajjah governorate while looking for a job in 2016 said it was more than six months before a friend told her he had been detained. She contacted a Houthi official, who asked for “guarantees.” The family paid 100,000 riyals and her brother was released a month later. She said her brother had changed after his detention: “He is not as he used to be. Signs of psychological disturbance appeared on him, he talks to himself, sometimes he keeps saying ‘Why do they beat me?’, talking to himself. I don’t know what he saw, or what they did to him, during his disappearance.”

Former detainees described terrible conditions in Houthi custody: poor hygiene; limited access to toilets, causing some to defecate on themselves; and lack of food and health care. Former detainees and family members said many formal and all informal detention facilities refused access to family members. Detainees had no defined process for challenging their detention or reporting mistreatment. In many cases documented, Houthi authorities moved detainees between facilities – both formal and informal – without notifying family members.

The Association of Mothers of Abductees, Yemeni women who advocate for their detained or disappeared civilian relatives, sent Human Rights Watch accounts from 10 cases in which Houthi officials had demanded money as a condition for release. Nine families paid. Houthi officials released only three of the men, including one in a prisoner exchange for Houthi fighters.

When committed in the context of an armed conflict, cruel treatment, torture, and humiliating or degrading treatment are war crimes. Taking hostages – seizing someone or detaining them and threatening to kill, injure, or continue to detain them to compel a third party to do or abstain from doing something as a condition of release or for the person’s safety – is a war crime under the statute of the International Criminal Court.

The United Arab Emirates, UAE proxies, and Yemeni government forces have also arbitrarily detained, tortured, and forcibly disappeared scores of people in the Yemeni conflict.

In 2018, the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen concluded the Houthis had “committed acts that may amount to war crimes, including cruel treatment and torture [and] outrages upon personal dignity.” The experts documented the Houthis detaining students, human rights defenders, journalists, perceived political opponents and members of the Baha’i community, and mistreating and torturing detainees, including at the National Security Bureau and Political Security Office. The experts also found Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and UAE forces credibly implicated in detainee-related abuse that might amount to war crimes.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the Sanaa-based Interior Ministry on September 12 regarding preliminary findings and requesting further information on what steps, if any, the ministry had taken to hold people implicated in abuse accountable. The ministry has not responded.

Houthi authorities should promptly release those held arbitrarily, end forced disappearances, and credibly investigate and punish those responsible for torture and hostage taking. Should they fail to do so, the UN Security Council should impose targeted sanctions on people who bear the greatest responsibility for detention-related abuses, including as a matter of command responsibility.

Yemen should urgently join the International Criminal Court, which would allow for possible prosecution of serious crimes by all parties to the conflict.

“Yemenis taken into custody are suffering terribly, whether at the hands of the Houthis, the UAE forces, or government forces,” Whitson said. “UN officials and influential governments should press the warring parties to treat detainees humanely and release anyone being held arbitrarily.”

Houthi Torture and Hostage-Taking

Judge Abdo al-Zubaidi, Sanaa
In early 2016, armed masked men in civilian clothes surrounded Judge Abdo al-Zubaidi, a military court judge in his late fifties, as he left his office with his 17-year-old son, who had come to pick him up. The men took al-Zubaidi’s phone and put him and his son in a car. Another man drove their car, al-Zubaidi said: “I saw the car going through the concrete security barriers of the PSO [Political Security Office].”

The men separated father and son. A guard later told al-Zubaidi his son “was out.” He thought his son had been released. He later learned the Political Security officials had detained and tortured him.

Interrogators told al-Zubaidi to confess that he was the head of the anti-Houthi resistance in Sanaa and was planning a coup. He refused. He said he was blindfolded, handcuffed, dragged down stairs, and pushed into a tiny dark room. A guard said he would be allowed to use the bathroom once a day and gave him an empty water bottle to use in the meantime. “I was shocked, I am a judge,” he said.  “I uphold the law... I put guilty people in jail…This is not even a prison. It is a grave.”

The second day, al-Zubaidi was again interrogated. He told his interrogators he had nothing to confess, and if they didn’t believe him they could check his phone and belongings:

I guess they didn’t like my answer, I was cuffed…and they whipped me with thick, cable wire on my legs, my hands and my back… They threw me down on the ground first, then over a table, then they brought a rigid cushion and put it between my hands where the cuffs are, and they start pulling it. Then they started to beat me with a wire over my fingers. They whipped me around 50 times until I didn’t feel my hands. I still suffer from that until now. All that was bearable. But then they took off the cuffs and handcuffed me behind my back, and they hung the cuffs to one of the windows, I think – something higher off the ground – and they start pulling my handcuffed hands away from the back, and up. That was the worst thing I felt in my life.

Al-Zubaidi said he thought his hands, arms, and shoulders were going to be ripped from his body.  He said he would write and sign whatever they wanted. It was only a few minutes, al-Zubaidi said, “but the most difficult minutes ever of my life.” He made up stories that he was working with the Yemeni president and senior officials, telling the Saudi-led coalition supporting the government where to strike. “When they hung me, I felt I will die, so I told them what they wanted.” They interrogated him for a week but did not torture him again.

Houthi officials have treated detainees brutally, often amounting to torture. Former detainees described being hung from a wall by their arms shackled behind them as one of the most painful techniques. 

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

At one point, al-Zubaidi gave them the name of a man he had read about who he thought was in Saudi Arabia. Ten days later, the guards brought al-Zubaidi to an interrogation room, where they had the man, who was blindfolded. The guards ordered Al-Zubaidi to talk about the man’s involvement in anti-Houthi efforts. When he refused, they threatened to kill him. A few days later, al-Zubaidi again denied his previous “confession.” The men hung him for hours from a metal window with his arms cuffed in front of him. He said the position was slightly more bearable.

A few weeks later, Yemen’s Specialized Criminal Court ordered al-Zubaidi’s release due to lack of evidence. But the intelligence officers continued holding him and about a week later, took him to the prosecutor’s office, where he was shown a video of himself confessing. He said his confession was a result of torture. The court again ordered his release. The intelligence officials refused.

In June 2017, al-Zubaidi was taken out of his cell to meet Maj. Gen. Abdul Qader al-Shami, then the acting Political Security Office chief and now the chief of the agency. Al-Zubaidi’s relatives had blocked the roads to protest his detention, including stopping commercial trucks traveling to Sanaa. The officials wanted them to stop. A few days later, a prosecutor again recommended Al-Zubaidi’s release and a judge approved it. Then, “after over 450 days in detention,” al-Zubaidi was released. “I went home, ate a meal, and immediately fled the city.”

“Dr. Marwan,” Hodeida
In 2015 “Dr. Marwan,” in his late twenties, whose real name and some others are withheld for their safety, treated a man outside the hospital where he worked. He said the man was a prisoner with gunshot wounds whom the Houthis had left at the side of the road after he was refused medical treatment elsewhere.

In mid-2016, armed men came to the hospital asking for Dr. Marwan. The men pulled him away from a patient he was treating, blindfolded him, and drove him away. They put him in a room that smelled of urine. He said an interrogator pulled his tie, slapped him, and accused him of being a “Da’ashi [terrorist] doctor.” He told the guards to “take good care of him.”

The guards accused him of working with the opposition because he had treated the patient in 2015 and hit him with iron rods on the soles of his feet. Marwan told them that treating the patient was his duty as a doctor. One of the guards “kicked me in my face while I was talking. I was still wearing the white coat.”

The second day, the guards hung him by his cuffed arms and with pliers began removing his fingernails... He kept losing consciousness, but they poured water over him and continued.

He remained there for 20 days, then was transferred to the Hodeida citadel, which the Houthis used as an informal detention facility. The guards took him to a tiny room containing what he called “an aggregation of waste,” and left him shackled to the wall for many days. Even the guards who came to feed him hurried because of the smell, he said.

The guards eventually moved Marwan to a new cell, then used electro-shock on him. After about a week, he was put in a room with other detainees, including a 13-year-old boy. He saw that one had an infected leg wound and asked a guard if he could treat the man. The guards beat him and put him back in the small room with the waste for a day as punishment.

One day guards took him to the small room to check on another prisoner. “He was shackled to the chain on the wall,” Marwan said. “It was obvious he had been dead for a long time.” The guards beat Marwan, saying they would kill him if he spoke about what he had seen.

The Houthis transferred all the prisoners to the Central Prison in Hodeida. Officers told them they would be released, but they remained detained. They began a hunger strike. A few days later, a Houthi official came and his men began shooting at the detainees after one resisted being taken with them. Marwan said four were wounded, and one never returned to the cell. The Houthis claimed they had released him.

After about 15 months, Marwan was released in late 2017 after his family paid 3 million riyals to Houthi officials. His family only learned he was alive about five months after he disappeared, after another recently released detainee told them he had been held with Marwan. Marwan said he had stopped practicing medicine and joined the Yemeni government army.

“Saleem,” Hodeida and Sanaa
In early 2015, “Saleem,” a 45-year-old teacher, father of eight, and imam at a local mosque, went with his eldest son to pray. At least five vehicles, including three military trucks, surrounded the mosque. Two dozen men entered. One told Saleem the Houthis wanted to see him. He refused to leave. The men in the mosque and Houthi forces began fighting. The armed men beat people with the rifle butts. He said the men hit him in the back of the head and he fell unconscious.

His family did not know where he was. “We were very scared,” his wife said. After three days, the family learned he was at the Political Security Office in Hodeida. Guards initially refused to let his family visit, but later allowed them to visit twice a week.

At one point, an officer told them Saleem was very sick and was in a hospital. About 10 days later, armed men burst into the hospital room at night. His wife, who was with him, said:

I asked the hospital to call for the doctor to come urgently. The doctor came. He said to them the patient can’t tolerate being outside the hospital, it is risky. But the armed men said, “We are going to move [him] to another, better hospital.” They took him in a wheelchair, and we didn’t know where.

Hospital staff later told his wife the hospital had been surrounded by at least four military trucks and many armed men. A few days later, Saleem was moved back to the Political Security Office. In 2017, his wife said, “We paid money to mediators to speak to some Houthi leaders… We go from Abu Something to Abu Something … and we pay here and there, and all of it is debts… I have eight kids.” In early 2018, Saleem was released after his family paid 10 million riyals to the Houthis, a lawyer following the case said.

“Nasser,” Sanaa

Houthis arrested Nasser in late 2015.  He said he was mistreated and held at multiple locations but was never charged. He was first held at a military camp in Sanaa, where the guards beat him every day: 

I remember this way of beating, they tied my legs, and my hands, then they pulled me hanging from my hands, then three to four men started beating me. They used the cables and rubber pipe to lash me, [while] others used their fists and kicked with their feet.

The men ordered him to say where a prominent family he had worked for before the war had stored money and weapons. They tied him to a tree exposed to airstrikes and told him if he died, they would blame it on the Saudi-led coalition. They moved him to four more locations, one of which was hit by an airstrike. He ended up at al-Thawra pretrial detention center and was freed in early 2018, after his family paid one million riyals to Houthi mediators.

“Sahar,” Sanaa
“Sahar,” who worked with two aid groups in Sanaa during the conflict, said the Houthis often interfered with humanitarian assistance, including adding names to beneficiary lists, asking for hundreds of baskets of goods for officers or the families of deceased fighters, and occasionally trying to change “the entire program” of work. In 2017, a National Security Bureau officer summoned her to a meeting. 

She went because she did not “want to make them angry.” The officers took her to a largely destroyed building in Sanaa’s old city and took her cell phone and questioned her more and more aggressively about her organization’s activities.

They kept her there for three hours, telling her they wanted her to be an informant about aid agencies, threatening her and citing specific details about her family members. “I was sick and shivering on the floor,” she said.

The men finally made her sign a blank piece of paper: “Of course I signed, I wanted to go home.” She said the officers told her, “Everything is permitted. We can take you from your house at any point. It takes only one car [to take you away].” She fled Sanaa.

Yahiya al-Hayeg, Hodeida
In late 2016, armed Houthis arrested Yahiya al-Hayeg, a high-school teacher, in Hodeida. He said he was handcuffed, blindfolded, and taken to the Officer’s Club, a damaged building once used for social events. He was held for about a month and a half in solitary confinement while he was interrogated.

He said the interrogator would order him to do painful exercises and beat him when he couldn’t continue and shackle him and hang him by his arms for extended periods “until my arms and body were extended to the roof, and my toes barely touched the ground.” The interrogators accused him of working with the Saudi-led coalition and anti-Houthi forces.

At the third interrogation session, he said, “I surrendered” and told them he would sign any statement they wrote. But the mistreatment and threats to kill him and harm his family continued. One time, a guard put a gun to his head while another said, “No, don’t kill him. He will talk.” He said that, “Those 15 days were the worst days of my life.”

A month later he was transferred to another Houthi informal detention center in the Hodeida citadel, but had to be carried there because of his injuries. A detained doctor came to examine him and said he needed medical treatment – he was wounded, malnourished, and dehydrated. The guards refused to let him leave the prison but brought in some fluids to treat him.

Al-Hayeg was not mistreated in the citadel, but he provided names of others who were. He saw guards beat people with cables and pull fingernails off. He saw one of his students, who had disappeared during his last year of high school, among the detainees.

In mid-2017, the Houthis took all the prisoners – about 140, according to two former detainees – from the citadel, releasing a few dozen and transferring the remainder. Al-Hayeg was in the last group and was taken to the Central Prison. A few days after guards opened fire on detainees, he was transferred to Sanaa Central Prison, where he remained for about five months, then was released in a prisoner swap. His family had no word of his whereabouts until he reached Sanaa, when he was allowed to call them.

No Justice for Mistreatment
The Houthi armed group, led by Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, has controlled the capital, Sanaa, and much of Yemen’s northwest since September 2014. Former president Saleh was allied with the Houthis, and forces loyal to him and members of his General People’s Congress shared responsibility for governance in these territories.

Houthi-Saleh joint control over Sanaa and other areas was formalized on July 28, 2016, when the Houthis and the General People’s Congress announced the formation of the Supreme Political Council to run the country. The council oversaw the Sanaa-based Interior Ministry, which in turn oversaw formal detention facilities in Houthi-Saleh-controlled Yemen.

In December 2017, fighting broke out between Houthi and Saleh forces, with the Houthis killing Saleh on December 4. The Houthis quickly consolidated control over Sanaa and surrounding governorates.

In late 2017, the Supreme Political Council appointed Maj. Gen. Abdulhakim Ahmed al-Mawri interior minister. The Vice Minister of Interior, reportedly responsible for detention facilities, is Maj. Gen. Abdulhakem Hashim al-Khaiwani, also known as Abu al-Karar. Formal detention facilities under Interior Ministry control in the cases Human Rights Watch documented include, in Sanaa: The Central Prison, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), and al-Thawra and Habra pretrial detention facilities, and, in Hodeida: the Central Prison.

Former detainees, their relatives, and their lawyers have identified a number of informal detention facilities where people are detained, disappeared, mistreated, and tortured, including sites where Human Rights Watch has documented abuse: in Sanaa, the National Security Bureau, the Political Security Office, and Zain al-Abideen mosque; and in Hodeida, the Political Security Office, the Officer’s Club, and the Citadel. Some of these have since been shut down. The exact number of facilities or people detained in them remains unknown.

Houthi prison directors and guards use noms-de-guerre, making identification difficult. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented abusive detention by the Political Security Office and National Security Bureau, Yemen’s primary intelligence agencies, both of which had poor human rights records prior to the current conflict. A former detainee and a Sanaa-based lawyer identified the head of the PSO prison in Sanaa as “Abu Aqeel.” In January, the Supreme Political Council appointed Abdul Qader al-Shami, who served as acting director of the agency since late 2015, as the director. A Sanaa-based lawyer and a former detainee said that detainees at the NSB are overseen by “Abu Emad.”

In 2017, the UN Security Council Panel of Experts identified 11 members of the two agencies who either committed or held command responsibility in the Houthi-Saleh forces for arbitrary arrest and deprivation of liberty, torture (including of a child), denial of timely medical assistance, prolonged enforced disappearances, lack of due process, and three deaths in custody. The panel named “Abu Emad,” identified as Motlaq Amer al-Marrani, as involved in all 16 violations investigated.


Students in the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, including Zeineb Bouraoui, Danesha Grady, Tarek Zeidan, and Canem Ozyildirim, made valuable contributions to this research.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

To the Astana Working Group on Detentions and Abductions in the Syrian Conflict

We write to you to express concern at the failure of the Syrian government to disclose more information about the deaths of arbitrarily detained and disappeared people in conjunction with government’s update of the civil registries records and, in some cases, issuance of death notices that state the cause of death, and to urge you to take immediate steps to address the continuing government policies of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and enforced disappearances in a comprehensive and just manner.

Since the start of the conflict, human rights organizations have investigated and documented violations of international humanitarian law committed in official and unofficial detention facilities by the parties to the conflict, including the Syrian government and armed opposition groups. We found that government forces have been responsible for the majority of abuses, subjecting tens of thousands to arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, and enforced disappearances amounting to crimes against humanity and war crimes. We have extensively documented the arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearances of dozens of peaceful activists, human rights defenders, journalists, doctors, and humanitarian aid workers by the Syrian government during the crisis, and, alongside their families, advocated for their release.

Armed groups opposing the Syrian government have also committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including abductions, torture and summary killings. To date, the fate of more than 20 civilians, men, women, and children, from Kefraya and Foua, two predominantly Shia towns in Idlib formerly besieged by armed opposition groups, remains unknown following their abduction during the car bombing that targeted the evacuation convoy transiting in Aleppo city before heading to government-controlled areas. Moreover, local sources in Afrin reported at least 86 abuses that appear to amount to instances of arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearance of civilians by pro-Turkey armed groups.

The Syrian government has recently updated civil registries in several parts of the country, including the Damascus countryside, Hama, Aleppo, and Sweida governorates to show individuals known to have been previously detained and disappeared by the Syrian government as dead. In some cases, families were provided with death certificates reflecting dates of death as far back as 2013 and indicating cause of death as ‘heart attack.’

It is estimated that hundreds of families have discovered the fate of their missing relatives in this manner. However, the government has not responded to the relatives’ request to obtain the remains of their loved ones and information on, the circumstances of the death and enforced disappearance. Many were too scared to request the additional information. As things stand, there is no way to verify the deaths without the government returning the remains to the families, and without the launch of an independent investigation into the cause of death. The government’s response, or lack thereof, is contrary to its duty to conduct prompt, independent and impartial investigations into enforced disappearances and to uphold relatives of the disappeared right to truth and reparation.

Moreover, the government continues to detain tens of thousands in official and unofficial detention facilities. The government denies international monitors access to nearly all of these facilities, and there are no due process or fair trial guarantees for these detainees.

We seek an understanding from the eminent members of the working group on what your priorities are with regards to addressing the fate and whereabouts of those the government continues to arbitrarily detain and those it has forcibly disappeared, and those who have died in detention; and specifically:

  • Will the working group request clarification from the Syrian government with regards to the process and purpose behind updating the registries and will it press the government to inform the families of the victims of the whereabouts of the remains, and return the remains to the families?
  • Will the working group push for independent and impartial investigations into the deaths that occurred in detention, given previous findings that ill-treatment and torture of detainees was widespread in these facilities?
  • What steps will the working group take to ensure that the Syrian government and armed opposition groups disclose the names and locations of people who were arbitrarily detained, subjected to enforced disappearance and abducted and provide answers to the families in a manner that respects the rights of victims and their families and their security? 
  • What steps will the working group take to ensure the release of all arbitrarily detained persons, including human rights defenders, journalists, doctors, and humanitarian aid workers who remain in government and armed groups detention centers?
  • Will the working group prioritize negotiating immediate and unhindered access for recognized international detention monitors to all detention facilities, official and unofficial?
  • Will the working group cooperate with the United Nations, and the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism to pursue justice for violations committed in the context of detentions and disappearances by the Syrian government, and other parties to the conflict, in order to enable a sustainable political transition to take place?

On September 7, Turkey, Russia, and Iran will be meeting to discuss the conflict in Syria. It is an opportunity for a concerted effort by the three to effectively and justly resolve the issue of the detained, disappeared and abducted.

We urge the working group to treat this issue with the care it demands and look forward to receiving your response to the queries posed above after the meeting.


  1. Amnesty International
  2. Dawlaty
  3. The Day After
  4. Families for Freedom
  5. The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
  6. Human Rights Watch
  7. Hurras Network
  8. Just Foreign Policy
  9. The Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies
  10. Syrian Association for Missing and Conscience Detainees
  11. The Syrian Center for Statistics and Research
  12. Syrians for Truth and Justice
  13. The Syrian Network for Human Rights
  14. Rethink Rebuild Society
  15. Urnammu for Justice and Human Rights
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lock hands during a group photo in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, April 4, 2018. 

© 2018 Tolga Bozoglu/Pool Photo via AP

(Beirut) – The Astana working group on detentions and abductions in the Syrian conflict should take immediate steps to address the Syrian government’s arbitrary detentions, torture of detainees, and enforced disappearances, 11 human rights organizations said in a joint letter today. The group was set up by Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

On September 7, 2018, the presidents of Turkey, Russia, and Iran will hold their third meeting to discuss the Syrian conflict, according to media reports. The working group, which includes representatives from the three foreign ministries, should ensure that detentions and abductions are on the agenda of the meeting, the groups said.

The letter, signed by 11 organizations, expresses concern at the Syrian government’s failure to disclose more information about the deaths of arbitrarily detained and disappeared persons after it updated civil registries records to reflect their deaths.

The letter asks the working group to clarify the steps it will take to ensure the government and anti-government armed groups provide more information on the fates of those disappeared, detained and abducted; deliver the remains of those declared dead to the families; and allow access for international monitors to formal and informal detention facilities where thousands remain detained and at risk of torture and ill-treatment.

“The Astana guarantors have promised to address the enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions that have marked the Syrian conflict for seven years,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “They can address these horrors on September 7 by demanding justice for the disappeared and wrongly detained, and their families.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

US Senator John McCain

© Private
John S. McCain III, the senior Republican senator from Arizona who died of brain cancer on August 25, 2018, left behind a strong record of commitment to the bipartisan promotion and defense of human rights in the United States and abroad. He was 81.

“Senator McCain was for decades a compassionate voice for US foreign and national security policy,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “He was never shy about his commitment to basic rights and frequently confronted global leaders directly about their repression and abuse.”

McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war for five years during the Vietnam War informed his strong views against the use of torture. “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence,” McCain said, speaking on the Senate floor in support of releasing a groundbreaking Senate Intelligence Committee report condemning the US use of torture. “Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.”

McCain was instrumental in passing legislation strengthening existing bans on torture, such as the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, and other anti-torture legislation, and spoke out frequently against torture’s use.

McCain and his staff championed a number of important human rights issues, including restricting aid to authoritarian governments, such as Egypt and Bahrain; authorizing targeted sanctions on abusive foreign officials; and pressing for accountability in support of civilians under attack in conflict zones, notably in Syria and Burma.

McCain worked tirelessly to help improve US foreign and national security policy to ensure it addressed both interests and values – a theme that very much guided his own approach to policy. His support for human rights were central to his world view and an inspiration to many activists around the world. There were certainly times when McCain didn’t live up to his own aspirations. Nonetheless, he was often a dignified voice for those who were unjustly detained, abused, tortured, or even just silenced for speaking out. His willingness to meet with political dissidents, civil society activists, and even victims of US torture were all indicative of his deep commitment to human rights and his belief that these universal rights should be reflected in US foreign and national security policy.

Human Rights Watch sends its deepest condolences to the McCain family, as well as current and former members of the senator’s staff.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Rohingya refugees gather behind a barbed-wire fence in the “no-man’s land” border zone between Myanmar and Bangladesh, April 25, 2018.

© 2018 Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

(Bangkok) – Myanmar authorities have tortured and imprisoned Rohingya refugees who returned to Rakhine State from Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch said today. The mistreatment reinforces the need for international protection, including United Nations monitors on the ground, before Rohingya will be able to return safely to Myanmar.

“The torture of Rohingya returnees puts the lie to Myanmar government promises that refugees who return will be safe and protected,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Despite Myanmar’s rhetoric guaranteeing a safe and dignified return, the reality is that Rohingya who go back still face the persecution and abuses they were forced to flee.”

Six Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh in 2017 to escape the Myanmar army’s ethnic cleansing campaign told Human Rights Watch that Border Guard Police (BGP) apprehended them at different times when they returned to Rakhine State to earn money before going back to Bangladesh. Security forces tortured them during pretrial detention, they said. Each was summarily tried and sentenced to four years in prison, apparently for illegally crossing the border.

The treatment of these Rohingya refugees should be a warning sign to those who believe the Myanmar authorities are ready to ensure safe returns.

Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

About a month later, the government pardoned them along with several dozen others. On June 1, 2018, the authorities presented them to visiting journalists in an attempt to show that they were treating Rohingya well and that it was safe to return. Following the visit, the six fled to Bangladesh.

Human Rights Watch interviewed three Rohingya men and three boys, the youngest 16, who were taken into custody at different times and in different locations in Maungdaw township. They said that BGP officers repeatedly interrogated them at gunpoint about the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group. The officers used stress positions; beatings with fists, sticks, and rods; and burning and electric shock to force them to confess to an affiliation with ARSA. They said that while detained, they received inadequate clean water and food.

The six said that they were then transferred to pretrial detention facilities in Maungdaw town. Plainclothes military intelligence officers beat them with sticks and punched and kicked them during interrogations. The six described poor detention conditions, no access to legal counsel, and proceedings conducted in Burmese, a language they barely understand. After a court sentenced them in groups to four-year prison terms, the authorities transferred them to Buthidaung prison in Maungdaw town, along with hundreds of other mostly Rohingya prisoners.

On May 23, the Maungdaw district administrator announced to dozens of lined-up Rohingya prisoners that President Win Myint had pardoned them and that they would be given a National Verification Card (NVC) and released. The NVC is an identity document many Rohingya reject because they see it as undermining their claim to Myanmar citizenship. The State Counsellor’s Office, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, released a statement on May 27 confirming the president’s pardon of 58 Rohingya returnees. Four more Rohingya whose cases had been dropped were later added to the group.

Officials took the 62 Rohingya to the BGP compound in the village tract of Nga Khu Ya. There, officers said the Rohingya had to accept the NVC and threatened them with re-arrest if they tried to leave the compound. The group was then transferred to Hla Poe Kaung transit camp, where on June 1 government officials led media organizations on an organized government trip to see the 62 recently processed Rohingya. Win Myat Aye, the minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement, told the returnees they would be provided with money to rebuild their homes and humanitarian aid, and would be able to bring their families from Bangladesh.

The six refugees told Human Rights Watch that they were told what to say to the media. One teenage boy said that a BGP official interrupted and ultimately halted an interview when the boy departed from these instructions. When the media delegation left, the BGP placed the Rohingya under guard and told them they were not allowed to leave Hla Poe Kaung. Fearing they would be re-arrested and tortured, two groups, including those Human Rights Watch interviewed, fled back to Bangladesh.

Human Rights Watch repeatedly telephoned the director general of the State Counsellor’s Office, Zaw Htay, who also acts as a government spokesperson, but was informed he was unavailable to comment.

“The treatment of these Rohingya refugees should be a warning sign to those who believe the Myanmar authorities are ready to ensure safe returns,” Robertson said. “Myanmar has a long way to go before it can demonstrate it is serious about making the necessary reforms for voluntary, safe, and dignified returns.”

Abuses Against the Six Rohingya Returnees

The six Rohingya returnees Human Rights Watch interviewed fled a Myanmar security force campaign of ethnic cleansing involving killings, rape, and mass arson in late 2017. More than 720,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch found these abuses amounted to crimes against humanity. The campaign followed a series of deadly, coordinated attacks on security force posts on August 25 in northern Rakhine State by militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

The following incidents took place in March and May 2018. Pseudonyms are used to protect the security of those interviewed and their relatives who remain in Myanmar.

Torture, Ill-Treatment by Security Forces

“Rahamat,” 17, described being repeatedly abused, including being burned, in Border Guard Police custody:

They burned a plastic bag and let the hot plastic drip onto my body. They also took a heated iron bar and branded my legs, pressed burning cigarettes to my skin, poured hot wax from a burning candle on my skin, scratched my body with blade, and hit me with rod and sticks.

“Ahmed,” 17, said he was hung upside down and beaten repeatedly by the interrogating officers who demanded that he confess to being a member of ARSA.

“Lokman,” 24, said:

At first, they kicked me in my chest and thigh and then they used electric shock to make me tell them I was an ARSA member, but they could not make me give a false confession.

Human Rights Watch observed scars and burns consistent with the described acts on the bodies of those interviewed.

Inadequate Food, Water, Sanitation

The detainees said that throughout their detention they endured abysmal conditions, including lack of adequate food and access to clean water.

In a BGP compound in Nga Khu Ya, where three of the Rohingya returnees spent four days in custody, each was given two servings of fish paste (ngapi) per day and approximately 250 milliliters of dirty water. In pretrial detention in Maungdaw town, the authorities provided no food or clean water, leaving them to rely on donations from Rohingya in the nearby community who occasionally had to bribe police officers to provide for them. Three of those interviewed spent over two weeks in these conditions.

Those detained also described inadequate access to food in Buthidaung prison following sentencing. Lokman said:

In Buthidaung prison the food we were served was like food for the dog. At 10:30 a.m. we were given rice and lentils, but you can say the lentils were like boiled water and we couldn’t tell that lentils were in it. At around 5 p.m. we were given food for dinner that was rice and boiled spinach.

Lokman also said that the Rohingya prisoners’ access to water was limited by both officials and prisoners from other ethnic groups in Buthidaung prison:

In my building, there were 500 prisoners. Every day 90 liters of water were provided for drinking purposes. But the problem was among the 500 – there were 35 Buddhist prisoners, some of whom were Rakhine Buddhist. They were so aggressive that every day they seized those 90 liters of water so that the Rohingya people mostly used the water reserved for the bath. There were very few days we were able to drink some water from that 90 liters.

Toilet facilities were also inadequate. “We had to defecate in a bucket as there was no toilet inside the BGP base,” Lokman said. “We were never given water to clean.”

Arbitrary Detention, Unfair Trials

In late March, the authorities brought the Rohingya detainees before a court in Maungdaw town, where they were summarily convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. While the government has not publicly specified the charges against the detainees, a police officer who spoke the Rohingya language at one of the proceedings summarized the judge saying that they were charged for illegally crossing the border. None of the six men and boys had legal counsel present during these proceedings or prior interrogations.

“Amir,” 33, described the lack of fair trial rights, including not having the proceedings translated into a language he could understand:

The judge who gave us four years in prison was a Buddhist guy and he announced the verdict in Burmese. One police official who could understand the Rohingya language translated the verdict by saying that we acknowledged entering Myanmar by crossing the border illegally and would be given five years in jail. But actually we were given four years, and the judge forgave the additional year.

After the Rohingya were sentenced, the authorities transferred the detainees in groups to Buthidaung prison, where they spent nearly a month before receiving a presidential pardon.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


Mahmoud said he was hung in the “bazoona” position at least six times while in detention, for hours. He said that at least four of those times, he lost consciousness before being taken down. Sometimes officers threw water at him before beating his back with a metal cable, he said.

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Two former detainees and the father of a man who died in detention have provided details of ill-treatment, torture, and death in facilities run by the Iraqi Interior Ministry in the Mosul area, Human Rights Watch said today.

A detainee held by the ministry’s Intelligence and Counter Terrorism Office in an east Mosul prison from January to May 2018 said he witnessed and experienced repeated torture during interrogations, and saw nine men die there, at least two from the abuse. Another man from Mosul, arrested in March by local police, died during police interrogation in the Mosul police station, his father said. And a man who was held in the Intelligence and Counter Terrorism prison in Qayyarah said he saw other men returning from interrogations with signs of abuse on their bodies.

“These latest allegations reflect not only the brutal treatment of Interior Ministry detainees in the Mosul area, but also the failure of law enforcement and the judiciary to provide justice when there is evidence of torture,” Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said. “The government’s failure to investigate torture and death in detention is a green light to security forces that they can inflict torture without any consequences.

Because of the relatively low release rate from the facilities the men were held in and the exceptional fear former detainees have expressed, researchers were unable to find other former detainees who were willing to speak. However, the torture methods described are consistent with torture practices by other Interior Ministry forces that have been described to researchers by other former detainees and captured in photos and videos released by a photojournalist, Ali Arkady, in May 2017.

Under the Convention Against Torture, which Iraq joined in 2011, torture is defined as the deliberate infliction of severe pain or suffering, physical or mental, by a public official for a specific purpose such as obtaining information or confession or as punishment.

Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed the former detainees and the father of the detainee killed in detention in July and August in person and by phone. They each provided either physical, documentary, or photographic evidence to corroborate their statements. The men detained and released did not tell judges they were abused or had witnessed abuse, for fear of reprisals from their guards, and said they would take no steps to report the abuse. One said he had bruises all over his arms, which were visible to the judge, but the judge failed to inquire about them or to investigate the possible use of torture. The father who lost his son said he lodged an official complaint with police but had yet to receive a response.

Salam Abeed Abdullah said that Mosul police arrested his son Dawud Salam Abeed, a laborer, on March 22 saying they were taking him in for questioning. Abdullah was told two days later that his son had died from a heart attack during interrogation. But when the family got the body a month later, it showed bruises and wounds.

“Mahmoud,” 35, who asked to remain anonymous, said he turned himself in to intelligence officials in Mosul in January after his employer told him that the Intelligence and Counter Terrorism Office had issued an arrest warrant for him. He was held for four months, during which he was tortured repeatedly, because he was suspected of affiliation with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). He described torture methods used on him and other detainees and said he saw two people die from torture.

Mahmoud was released in May, after four months, by an investigative judge at the Nineveh counterterrorism court who found there was no evidence linking Mahmoud to ISIS. When Mahmoud appeared before the judge in his first hearing, the judge did not raise questions about his treatment, though his arms were visibly bruised, he said. He said he did not tell the judge he had been abused, because he was afraid of the guards’ response. Mahmoud named to Human Rights Watch four officers who tortured him.

“Most nights I have nightmares where I think I am still in prison,” he said. “I wake up sweating and am only able to catch my breath once I look around and see I am in my own home, lying next to my wife.” He said he was too fearful of retribution by the forces that held him to seek redress for the abuse.

“Karim” was held for 11 months, first at the Intelligence and Counter Terrorism prison in Qayyarah, 60 kilometers south of Mosul, and then in the Faisaliya prison where Mahmoud was held. He told Human Rights Watch in July that he was not interrogated or tortured but that he saw signs of torture on five men in the Qayyarah prison.

A judge found in May 2017, shortly after he was detained, that there was no clear evidence against him and ordered a security check to clear him for release. But he was held until May 2018, when his lawyer was able to locate him and demonstrate to the judge there was no evidence against him.

Iraq’s constitution prohibits “all forms of psychological and physical torture and inhumane treatment.” It says that, “any confession made under force, threat, or torture shall not be relied on, and the victim shall have the right to seek compensation for material and moral damages incurred in accordance with the law.” The Criminal Procedure Code also prohibits the use of “mistreatment, threats, injury, enticement, promises, psychological influence or use of drugs or intoxicants” to extract a confession.

However, Iraq’s criminal justice system relies heavily on a confession as the sole evidence in a trial, including in particular the current trials of thousands of ISIS suspects. Judges in Iraq rarely respond to allegations of torture in the courtroom appropriately. Most ignore the allegations, or, in some cases, they order a retrial without investigating the officer implicated in the abuse.

On August 12, Human Rights Watch wrote to Haidar al-Agaili, a representative of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council, requesting a response to the interviewees’ allegations. Al-Agaili stated in an initial reply email on August 14, that he was committed to investigating the death of Dawud Salam Abeed, but unable to investigate the other allegations so long as the subjects remained anonymous. Human Rights Watch pointed out in a subsequent letter that it had furnished sufficient information, including time periods, locations, and the individuals involved, to investigate the allegations of torture and multiple deaths in detention. Al-Agaili stated in a later email that same day, referring to the request for his office to launch an investigation:

I would like to say that we are in agreement, because we will surely do this. However, opening an investigation based on the “account” of an unknown person is difficult. Nonetheless, we will do everything we can.


Human Rights Watch also provided the information to the Interior Ministry’s inspector general. The inspector general should conduct a transparent investigation into torture practices and deaths at the Mosul police station and the prison in Faisaliya and publish his findings publicly. He should ensure any commanders implicated in the abuses reported are sanctioned appropriately, including through criminal charges, and ensure Mahmoud and others who suffered abuse obtain reparations.

Any country providing support to the Interior Ministry’s security forces should investigate whether their assistance contributed to the violations Human Rights Watch documented and consider suspending their support until the abuses stop. They should ensure further assistance to these security forces does not contribute to torture and other serious abuses, including assessing whether the Iraqi authorities are taking genuine steps to investigate and prosecute allegations of serious violations, including torture in custody.

They should ensure any ongoing or future training of military, security, or intelligence forces includes thorough instruction on the principles and application of the laws of war and human rights, particularly with regard to detainee rights.

“Detainees and their families are putting forward concrete evidence of abuse in Ministry of Interior facilities,” Fakih said. “Now it is up to the authorities to show they have the right structures in place to investigate, prosecute, and compensate.”

Salam Abeed Abdullah said that the police arrested his son at 11:30 p.m. on March 22. The police provided no reason for the arrest, but said they wanted to interrogate his son at the local police station. Two days later via personal contacts, Abdullah said he finally confirmed the station in which his son was being held. An officer at the station informed him that Abeed had died that morning during an interrogation, allegedly because of a heart attack. Abdullah said he demanded a forensic medical examination, but the officer said they would need to wait for a medical investigative team to come from Baghdad.

On April 23, police returned Abeed’s body to his family saying the team had conducted an examination but would need to issue the report from Baghdad. The family has never received the report. Abdullah showed researchers three photos of Abeed’s body, which show wounds on Abeed’s forehead and the back of his head, bruising and burn marks to both of his legs, bruising to his shoulders, and dried blood in both ears and his nose.

He said he turned himself in at the Intelligence and Counter Terrorism Office and prison compound in Faisaliya, east Mosul, in January and was released in late May. He said he was held in an overcrowded cell with other detainees who were all held for alleged ISIS affiliation. Prison officers would not let him contact his family or a lawyer, and no independent prison monitors visited the area of the prison he was held in, he said. He said he had no access to medical care and was only allowed to use the bathroom twice a day, with guards beating detainees if they took too long in the toilet.

Mahmoud said he was beaten on the soles of his feet many times while in detention as a form of punishment, including for requesting to call and speak to his family.

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

Mahmoud said he saw two cellmates die from torture during interrogation sessions. He detailed a number of torture techniques interrogators also used on him, including being hung from his hands bound behind his back in a technique called the “bazoona” at least six times, and being beaten multiple times, including on the soles of his feet, a technique internationally referred to as “falaka.”

He showed researchers scars consistent with his allegations of torture, including on his back from a beating with a metal cable, and marks to his penis and testicles, where officers burned him with a hot metal ruler. He said he also witnessed officers torture other inmates, including by hanging them from a hook and tying a one-liter water bottle to their penis, causing inflammation. He showed researchers the medications a doctor had prescribed to him upon his release. He was losing his nails at the time of the interview because of a lack of calcium, he said.

In May, an investigative judge at the Nineveh counterterrorism court released Mahmoud after two court sessions after finding there was no evidence linking Mahmoud to ISIS. He said guards at the courthouse forced him to sign a paper after his first hearing but did not allow him to read it. He did not know whether he had a state-appointed lawyer in the hearing but said that no one spoke on his behalf. His wife hired a private lawyer who was able to petition the judge to hold a second hearing for Mahmoud and was able to secure his release. Mahmoud said the private lawyer was unable to meet with him privately before the second hearing.

Diagram of the cells where Mahmoud said he was held in Faisaliya Prison from January until May, 2018

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

Mahmoud’s Cell
Mahmoud said he was held in a cell of about 2 by 3 meters, with 50 to 70 men, many of whom had been held for as long as a year, and all were being detained on terror charges. He said there were three cells, including one for female detainees, he determined, based on their voices, with cameras in each. The detainees were prohibited from speaking among themselves. He said they were allowed out of their cell twice a day, in the morning and evening, to use the bathroom, but were beaten if they took more than two minutes each to use the toilet.

Mahmoud’s Torture Sessions

Mahmoud said that on his first night in prison, an officer, whom he named to researchers, blindfolded him, bound his hands, and took him from his cell into an area the detainees called the “maidan” or square. He said, “I could hear the voices of three officers.” They uncovered his eyes and began interrogating him, at which point he started pleading that he had done nothing wrong. They kicked him and warned, “Tomorrow we will start the initial phase of the interrogation,” he said.

Mahmoud said he was hung in the “bazoona” position at least six times while in detention, for hours. He said that at least four of those times, he lost consciousness before being taken down. Sometimes officers threw water at him before beating his back with a metal cable, he said.

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

The next morning, he said, a guard took him to the square again, where he saw the same three officers:

For 15 minutes they beat me with plastic and metal pipes and cables, without saying anything. Then they took my hands, bound them behind my back, and hung me by the hands, in a position called the “bazoona,” with my feet off the ground, and they said, “You will stay like this until your shoulders get dislocated.” They left me like this for an hour and then they threw water at me. After that I blacked out.


He said that when he regained consciousness he was lying on the floor, and saw another two detainees, both naked, kneeling in the “scorpion” position with their hands tied together behind their back.

He said he also recognized a fourth officer who was in the room and gave the officer’s name to Human Rights Watch.

Mahmoud described seeing at least one detainee in the “scorpion” position. He said that in order to cause more pain, at times an officer would kick the detainee to the ground, onto their back, and then stand on their shoulders, crushing their arms and hands beneath them.

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

He said that at this point officers gave him some water, then one started beating his legs and waist with a plastic pipe. Then they hung him in the “bazoona” position again, with one officer tugging on his feet, while the others threw water at him and beat his back with a metal cable.

He said that after a while they took him down, unbound his hands, laid him on his chest, and an officer stepped on his shoulders, claiming it would help put the shoulders back into their sockets:

While I lay there, guards brought in three more prisoners, and the officers started beating two of them, and then hung them up from their hands, bound behind their heads on two hooks next to the two small windows in the room. As they did this, one officer said to me, “Look at those two, that will be you soon.” Both were covered in bruises. One was in his underwear, the other naked. After a while, I am not sure how long because it was so hard to get a sense of time in there, the senior officer in the room ordered the other officers to tie a full one-liter bottle of water to a string and hang it from each of their penises.

He said that a guard took him to his cell for a few hours, but then took him back to the square. “Right when I walked in [the officers] started kicking and hitting me, and one officer told me to raise my head, and then slapped me so hard I almost fell over.” He said the officers started interrogating him about the role his brother had held in a Mosul government office before and during the time of ISIS rule. When he entered the square that second time, he saw that the two men hanging near the windows were still in the same position.

Over the next months of his detention, he said, officers hung him in the “bazoona” position at least six times, four of which led to him blacking out, and beat him many times, including 15 lashes with a cable for asking if he could call his family. “I am ashamed to admit that I started to get excited whenever I saw new prisoners arrive, as it meant the officers would be busy with them, and leave me alone,” he said.

On one occasion, about a week into his detention, he said, he was caught talking inside his cell, so officers started beating him, saying he would get 20 lashes. He said he challenged them by saying, “You are beating me like ISIS beat people, what is the difference between you and ISIS?” which led them to beat him more. He was screaming so much that they then laid him down on his chest, lifted his legs at the knee, and beat the soles of his feet many times with plastic pipes. They stopped four times, forced him to stand up and jump around in a puddle of water before continuing, to get the blood to flow back into his feet and increase the pain, he said.

Three months into his detention, he said, a guard caught him and six other prisoners speaking together on camera and took them into the square. There, officers forced them down on their chests and started beating the soles of their feet, Mahmoud said. He and one other detainee were screaming and moving their legs, so officers turned the two of them around:

One officer pinned my shoulders down, another held down my legs, and a third who was wearing gloves grabbed a small metal ruler that was being heated on the tea stove and held it against the length of my penis. I flinched from the pain and so the officer burned me a second time on my testicles. They burned the other detainee once on his penis too. I went to the doctor after I got out because I am still in so much pain, I can’t have sex or do anything with my penis, and I am not sure if it will get better.

He said that throughout his time in detention officers allowed him no medical treatment or medication, but did provide some pills and creams to cellmates who appeared to act as prison snitches.

Deaths in Custody

While he was in detention, Mahmoud said, nine men died in his cell, two after returning from interrogations and the rest in the cell for unclear reasons. One died two-and-a-half months into Mahmoud’s detention, he said. The detainee, “Ammar,” confessed to ISIS affiliation and gave the officers the names of five cousins who he said also were ISIS supporters, he later told Mahmoud. The next day the officers started detaining the cousins. Mahmoud said:

At 2 a.m., I heard screaming coming from the square and one of his cousins was insisting to the officers that he did nothing wrong. After a bit, the officers carried the cousin into our cell and threw him on the ground right next to me, covered in a wet blanket. He was completely unconscious. We changed his clothes, so he was dry. We tried to revive him with food and juice, but he could barely speak. Ammar stayed far away, he was scared that if he tried to help him, the officers would beat him.

The next morning guards came and took Ammar away to court with five other detainees, and that evening the guard came back for his cousin. We heard screams all night, and the guard only brought him back in the early morning unconscious. We took off his clothes and saw he had two big bruises to his waist on either side, green bruises on his arms, and a long red burn down the length of his penis. We tried to clean the burn wound and he didn’t even flinch. His face looked almost blue. He started to revive, and tried to stand up and gasp for air, but fell to the ground. He then defecated on himself, so we cleaned him up, and changed his clothes.

A few hours later, I heard him start whispering the names of his wife and children, and then he fell silent. I was screaming for the guard, yelling that he was dying, but the guard said he could not open the cell door without an order from his officer. The cousin drew in a sharp breath and then was dead. When we realized that he was dead, we did something that made us feel like we are not humans anymore, we stripped him and took his clothing, because we were all desperate for clothes.

As Mahmoud broke down crying, he said that as the day wore on, the man’s body began to smell. Finally, in the evening a guard opened the cell to collect another detainee for interrogation. Mahmoud said:

I told him the man had died, and he responded, “Let him die, it is a dog that died. It doesn’t matter if 10 or 20 more die, they are ISIS and deserve to die.”

The officer told a group of the detainees to carry the body out into the hallway and leave it covered by a blanket near the bathroom. Mahmoud said that night when they were taken to the bathroom, and the next morning, he still saw the body there, before it was taken away. While they went to the bathroom, guards were covering their noses because of the stench.

Mahmoud said a second man died in his cell within four days of arriving at the prison. He said he heard the man telling officers he had no link to ISIS, but that he had remarried a second wife and his first wife got angry and made the report. Mahmoud said he saw officers hanging the man through a window in the hallway that looked into the square and later saw him on the ground in the square every day being interrogated, as Mahmoud passed by to go to the bathroom. “On the fourth night a guard brought him back to the cell, and in the morning he didn’t wake up and we realized he had died,” he said. “That morning the guard had us carry his body into the hallway, after which they must have removed it.”

On July 10, researchers interviewed “Karim,” who was held for 11 months after his arrest in May 2017, first in the Qayyarah prison, but after 11 months, officers closed the Qayarrah facility, a group of three abandoned and dilapidated houses, and transferred the detainees to Faisaliya.

While in Qayyarah, Karim said, he was held in overcrowded conditions and forbidden from speaking to other detainees. He said no one interrogated him, but that he saw other men returning from interrogations with signs of torture on their bodies.

He said he saw five men from his cell taken for interrogations and they were returned 7 to 12 hours later crying and unable to move their arms or shoulders. “They could not eat or drink,” he said. “We had to feed them. We even had to help them go to the bathroom.” They told him they had been held in the “bazoona” position. He said Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF) staff visited the hospital and took one detainee out of his cell, because he had such visible signs of torture through beatings by metal cables.

He said that a judge found in May 2017 that there was no clear evidence against him and ordered the National Security Service and intelligence service to run a check on him to clear him for release. But he remained in custody, and in April 2018, authorities transferred him and the other detainees to Faisaliya. In Faisaliya he described a large hanger where he was held with at least 70 other men for a month, until his lawyer was able to locate him and demonstrate to the judge that there was no evidence against him.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Washington, DC) - The United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC) has found the Turkmen government responsible for the torture and death of a human rights activist, the Prove They are Alive Campaign! said today. The activist, Ogulsapar Muradova, died in state custody in 2006, after her arrest and trial on politically motivated charges. Human Rights Watch is a member of the campaign.

Ogulsapar Muradova in the mid-1990s 

© Annadurdy Khajiev
“Finally, there’s an authoritative acknowledgment of the Turkmen government’s responsibility for the monstrous torture and death of Ogulsapar Muradova,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, of the Prove they Are Alive! campaign. “Now the government should identify all those responsible for her death, hold them to account to her family. It’s been 12 years, but it’s never too late for justice.”

The government should also immediately end the forced disappearances of dozens of other people being held in Turkmen prisons, the campaign said.

Muradova was an activist with the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation, an independent human rights group that works on Turkmenistan from exile in Bulgaria, and a regular contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In June 2006, police in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, arrested Muradova and two other activists, her brother, Sapardurdy Khajiev, and Annakurban Amanklychev, and also her three adult children.

Just before the activists’ arrest, two of them had been assisting with a documentary about human rights and related issues in Turkmenistan.

Muradova’s children were released a few weeks later. In August 2006, following a rushed, closed trial, a court convicted Muradova, Amanklychev, and Khajiev on bogus charges related to alleged possession of bullets, and sentenced Muradova to six years in prison, and Amanklychev and Khajiev to seven years.

The circumstances of the activists’ arrest left no doubt they were targeted in retaliation for their human rights work, the campaign said. For example, then-President Saparmurat Niyazov, in a televised speech, condemned Muradova for assisting foreign journalists in “gathering slanderous information to show discontent among the population,” and other statements in the state media called her and the other activists “traitors.”

Muradova was held incommunicado the entire time she was in custody. On September 13, 2006, just weeks after her closed trial, her family was informed that she had died. Morgue staff allowed her family to see her body only after diplomatic intervention. A family member who viewed the body said he saw a deep cut in on her forehead, a dark mark around her neck which could be consistent with strangulation, open wounds on her hands, and severe bruising on her legs.

According to unconfirmed information received in December 2006 from a law enforcement official, Muradova died from torture during an interrogation by National Security Ministry officers. Another source later said a “suicide” was staged to conceal the real circumstances of her death.

The government claimed Muradova died of natural causes and did not investigate her death. In its response to the HRC in December 2016, the government said Muradova had been kept in Ovadan-Depe (prison AH-T/2) and claimed that on September 13, 2006, she “committed suicide” by hanging herself.

The HRC, responding to a complaint filed by Muradova’s brother, Annadurdy Khajiev, found the Turkmen government responsible for violating Muradova’s right to life, in an opinion issued in April 2018. The committee made the decision public in August.

The committee found that Turkmen authorities arrested Muradova for her journalism and human rights work, and that they did not conduct a prompt investigation into allegations of torture and her death in custody. It also found that the government’s failure to provide any information about her death caused mental stress to Khajiev that amounted to inhuman treatment.

The committee said the Turkmen government should conduct an impartial investigation into the circumstances of Muradova’s death; provide the family with a full account of its investigations, including the autopsy report, copies of trial transcripts, and the court verdict; and provide a remedy to Muradova’s family, including compensation and rehabilitation of her name.

Muradova was included in the Prove They Are Alive! campaign’s List of the Disappeared in Turkmenistan’s Prisons. The campaign said that like Muradova, dozens and most likely hundreds of other people have been subjected to lengthy periods of incommunicado detention, following rushed, closed, and unfair trials. Their families have been deprived of any information about their loved ones, in many cases for as long as 16 years. A list compiled by the Prove They Are Alive! campaign includes 112 confirmed cases of enforced disappearances in Turkmenistan. Dozens of their family members live in a constant state of distress tantamount to torture, not knowing their loved ones’ whereabouts, or whether they are dead or alive.

The Turkmen government should promptly reply to the HRC and take immediate steps to remedy the violations of Muradova’s and her family’s rights, the Prove They Are Alive! campaign and Human Rights Watch said. It should immediately end the practice of incommunicado detention and make a concerted effort to provide information to family members and relevant international bodies about the fate and whereabouts of people in custody.

“Ending enforced disappearances is an important step toward ensuring that no one suffers the same fate as Olgusapar Muradova,” said Vitali Ponomarev, Central Asia program director at the Memorial Human Rights Center, a partner in the campaign. “It’s time for the Turkmen government to end the suffering of the disappeared and their many families who are denied information about their loved ones.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Risafa Central Criminal Court in Baghdad, where Human Rights Watch sat in on 18 felony trials in June and July, 2018.

© 2018 Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo

(Beirut) – Iraq’s judges routinely fail to investigate security forces credibly alleged to have tortured terrorism suspects, Human Rights Watch said today. Judges also frequently ignore allegations of torture and convict defendants based on confessions that defendants credibly allege were coerced.

Concern around the use of torture by the Iraqi security forces has increased considerably since the government’s mass arrests of thousands of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects. Although Iraq is a party to the United Nations Convention against Torture, it has no laws or guidelines directing judicial action when defendants allege torture or mistreatment. 

“Torture is rampant in Iraq’s justice system, yet judges lack instructions for responding to torture allegations,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Defendants, including ISIS suspects, won’t be able to get a fair trial so long as the security forces can freely torture people into confessing.”

Human Rights Watch reviewed files of 30 cases tried by Baghdad courts between 2009 and 2018 in which defendants alleged torture, and in June and July 2018, sat in on 18 felony trials of ISIS suspects in Baghdad. All of the cases but one were brought under Iraq’s counterterrorism law, which can carry a death sentence. In 22 of the cases, judges refused to respond in any way to the allegations of torture. In several cases, the judge ordered a forensic medical examination and found signs of torture, but did not necessarily order a retrial or investigation and prosecution of the abusive officers. 

Iraqi authorities have long relied on confessions obtained through torture to achieve convictions. In 2014, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) reported that “judges regularly fail to take any action when defendants raised allegations before the court that they had been subjected to torture in order to force confessions in relation to the crimes for which they were standing trial.”

Iraq’s Constitution prohibits “all forms of psychological and physical torture and inhumane treatment.” Furthermore, “any confession made under force, threat, or torture shall not be relied on, and the victim shall have the right to seek compensation for material and moral damages incurred in accordance with the law.” The Criminal Procedure Code also prohibits the use of “mistreatment, threats, injury, enticement, promises, psychological influence or use of drugs or intoxicants” to extract a confession.

However, the Criminal Procedure Code gives judges full discretion to determine whether a defendant’s confession is admissible, even if the defendant repudiates it. The procedure code also gives officials effective immunity from prosecution, by requiring approval from the “responsible minister” to refer the accused official for trial.

Human Rights Watch spoke with three senior judges and five private defense lawyers in Baghdad. The lawyers said that, in the absence of laws or guidelines regarding allegations of torture, under the constitutional ban on torture, the judge should order a forensic medical examination to determine whether the defendant was tortured. If so, the judge should transfer the defendant from the custody of the offending officer, dismiss the confession, and order a retrial, as required under Iraq’s 2016 Amnesty Law.

But judges rarely ordered forensic medical examinations to investigate torture, the lawyers said. And when judges ordered a forensic report, they rarely ordered a retrial.

Lawyers also said that they rarely had any success when they tried to invoke the amnesty law in terrorism cases to obtain a retrial when suspects alleged torture. In an exceptional case, a lawyer said he was able to get a detainee released using the amnesty law because the victim’s family testified on behalf of the defendant that security forces had arrested the wrong man.

Judges have also failed to transfer defendants from the custody of accused officers, the lawyers said. Any defendant who testifies in court that their interrogators tortured them is at risk of being tortured again when returned to prison to face the same guards.

Article 123 of the Criminal Procedure Code provides that a detained suspect has the right to a lawyer within 24 hours of their arrest. But the security forces do not bring suspects before an investigative judge within 24 hours of arrest, as required by law, lawyers said, increasing the likelihood of torture. They estimated that terrorism suspects in Baghdad typically only saw a judge between 10 and 20 days after arrest, but that some detainees waited months or even years to be brought to court. The lawyers interviewed also said that they had never been allowed to attend a client’s interrogation in a terrorism case, increasing detainees’ susceptibility to torture.

One consequence of the significant delays in appearance in court is that a forensic medical report, which a judge orders, may be unable to document the torture. In a 2014 case, a forensic report noted nine scars on the detainee’s body, but concluded that, “The scars were inflicted more than six months ago and therefore cannot be identified.”

Concerns that judges ignore claims of torture extend beyond Baghdad courts, Human Rights Watch said. In Nineveh governorate, which contains the city of Mosul, a judge told Human Rights Watch in July 2017 that “many” ISIS suspects alleged torture in court and that he ordered a medical examination in each case – though he provided no details on the outcomes and conceded he never investigated or sanctioned their interrogators. In July 2018, six lawyers at the Nineveh counterterrorism court told Human Rights Watch that while allegations of torture by defendants were common, they knew of no case in which an interrogator had been investigated.

Judicial authorities should investigate all credible allegations of torture and the security forces responsible, Human Rights Watch said. Judges should order transfers of detainees to different facilities immediately after they allege torture or ill-treatment, to protect them from retaliation.

Iraq’s High Judicial Council should issue guidelines on the steps judges are obliged to take when a defendant alleges being tortured in custody. Parliament should pass the draft Anti-Torture Law, which would require judges to order a medical examination of any detainee alleging torture within 24 hours of learning of the allegation. As it currently stands, the draft law provides criminal sanctions for the torturer as well as their commander; says that judges should dismiss all evidence obtained through torture; removes the torturer from the case; and requires officials to allow detainees to have their lawyer present throughout the investigative period. 

“When judges convict based on coerced confessions and disregard allegations of torture, they are sending a message to the security forces that torture is a valid investigative tool,” Fakih said. “The Iraqi government needs to do much more to ensure that criminal investigations are genuine and impartial and that officers who torture detainees are appropriately prosecuted.”

Access to a Lawyer During Interrogations, Investigative Hearings
Lawyers said that in terrorism cases, they were not allowed to attend a client’s interrogations with security officers, unlike for clients accused of other types of crimes. This limited their ability to plead on behalf of their clients, including making allegations of torture. They said that getting access to terrorism suspects was nearly impossible except during court hearings, though it varied by the security force and the location. They noted a few cases in which lawyers or wealthy families were able to bribe officers to allow communication with detainees.

The lawyers said that in terrorism cases they never seek permission to represent their clients at the initial investigative hearing out of concern that security forces and judges at the investigative court would label them “ISIS lawyers,” subjecting them to arrest. They instead wait for the court to appoint a lawyer and only step in after the case is transferred to the felony court, where the risk of harassment and threats is significantly lower. In the 18 felony trials Human Rights Watch observed in Baghdad and Nineveh, private lawyers did not represent any of the terrorism defendants and the state-appointed lawyers did not actively mount a defense or seek investigations into torture claims.

Detainees who rely on state-appointed lawyers face difficulties obtaining proper legal representation. A member of Iraq’s Bar Association in Baghdad said that the state pays state-appointed lawyers 25,000 IQD or US$20 per case, regardless of the amount of time they spend. As a result, he said, lawyers have no incentive to meet their client before their investigative hearing, study the case file, or to continue to represent them in subsequent hearings. This lack of representation leaves defendants more vulnerable to abuse, lawyers said.

Irregularities in Investigative Process
Article 128 of the Criminal Procedure Code stipulates that within 24 hours after arrest, an interrogator is to obtain a primary confession from the defendant, which the defendant signs and which the interrogator hands over to the judge in the case file. The judge should then interview the defendant to obtain a second confession, confirming the information in the case file and the charges. The defendant and judge should both sign the confession.

Lawyers said that this procedure is not followed. In some cases the interrogator takes the primary confession directly to the judge, or the judge visits the prison and signs the primary confession. In other instances, officers bring the defendant to court, and before entering the courtroom, force the person to sign a blank paper. They then have a hearing in front of the judge, after which guards takes the defendant out of the room, and the judge signs a confession written by the court scribe or the judge, which may not reflect what was revealed at the hearing.

One lawyer said he had represented a 30-year-old client who had been arrested at his home in Baghdad in August 2015 by the army’s 54th Brigade. The defendant later told his lawyer that soldiers held him in Muthana Airport Prison and waterboarded him until he confessed to three alleged terrorist attacks in 2007. Once he confessed and his case was transferred from Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court in Kirkh to the Central Criminal Court in Risafa, six months later, the lawyer requested a forensic medical exam.

He knew the report would be too late to be accurate but told the judge about the waterboarding. The lawyer said the judge ignored the information. The lawyer contacted Baghdad police regarding the incidents his client had confessed to, and said the police responded that only one of them had occurred. The lawyer said he was able to demonstrate to the judge that two of the attacks had never taken place, and that the one that had occurred, in March 2007, took place while his client had been in prison. He secured his client’s release.

In a 2009 judgment, the judge referred to a forensic report that found scarring consistent with torture, but upheld the conviction by relying on what the case file said was other evidence. The court found that: 

The statements of the defendants were recorded, and they pled guilty to the charges before the investigative officer and judge. They later withdrew their confession to the charges before this court, claiming that they were tortured. The court reviewed the medical report of the defendants … regarding their claims that they were tortured. The court also reviewed the blueprint of the crime scene and decided that the evidence against the defendants was enough to convict them according to the plaintiff’s statements, backed by the statements of the witnesses.

The lawyer said he argued successfully that the two defendants should be sentenced to 15 years instead of life because of the use of torture.

Lawyers said that bribery was commonplace in the judicial system and admitted to bribing security officers and judges to secure their clients’ release or better treatment. At the investigative stage the prosecution controls all the case documents, including any forensic medical examination report. The lawyers said they have to request access to the documents from the investigative judge. Sometimes the judge refuses and even if a judge allows access to the documents, it is usually only for a limited period. The lawyers said that generally they are only able to obtain copies of key documents needed to mount a defense, including a forensic medical report, by being “well connected or paying a bribe,” as one put it. This makes it significantly harder for them to use forensic medical examinations in their client’s defense.

Refusal to Acknowledge Torture Allegations
In 16 of the 18 trials of ISIS suspects in Baghdad Human Rights Watch monitored over the last year, defendants alleged that they had been tortured, including to extract confessions. In no instance did the judge take action base on the claim, although in some instances the judge asked the defendant in the courtroom to reveal any marks of torture. One lawyer said he observed at least four trials in the past year in which the judge said the alleged torture allegation was not credible because a coerced confession would have described a much more significant role with ISIS.

Human Rights Watch monitored a trial at the Baghdad Central Criminal Court in June in which a 35-year-old defendant, detained in 2017 for an alleged improvised bomb attack in Baghdad, told the judge his confession was false and that his interrogator had broken both his hands. The judge ignored the defendant’s request to examine his hands, but later ordered his release when his lawyer presented a police report proving the purported attack had never occurred.

In July 2018, in Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court, a defendant told the judge he had been tortured to extract a confession, but the judge ignored the allegations, independent court observers said. The defendant said that the officer who had tortured him had forced him to sign the confession blindfolded, with his hands bound. The judge rejected his request to let him demonstrate that his actual signature was very different. “The judge didn’t even react to the plea, he just convicted him, and sentenced him to death,” one observer said.

One lawyer said that his client, 30, had been detained by the army’s 54th Brigade in Baghdad in December 2015. The man, a local municipality employee, believed he was targeted because he objected to the culture of corruption and refused to accept bribes. He told his lawyer that when he was arrested, soldiers put a plastic bag over his head, took him to Muthana Airport Prison, and beat him and hung him from a rope for 10 hours. His lawyer said that after 10 days he was brought before the investigative judge:

A friend of mine working at the court alerted me to the hearing, but I was scared to represent him there and end up myself getting threatened, so I attended the trial but as an observer. My client, who had a state-appointed lawyer, told the judge he had confessed under torture. The judge completely ignored this, and even worse, after reviewing the file, ordered a “deeper investigation.”

The lawyer said that he understood the order to conduct a “deeper investigation” as a green light to the interrogators to use torture. Several lawyers said this was a common phrase judges use in court if there is no significant evidence on the defendant, and if they want interrogators to exert more pressure. One lawyer said that a judge had ordered a “deeper investigation” by scribbling the phrase on one of his case files.

This 30-year-old defendant sent for a “deeper investigation” later told his lawyer that over the next three months, the interrogators severely tortured him. They inserted a metal rod up his anus, electroshocked him, and beat him to obtain confessions to multiple crimes. The defendant was brought to court twice more during that time, first on charges of participation in two terrorist acts, where again he told the judge he had been tortured but was ignored, and then on charges of five terrorist acts. In that hearing, he confessed to all five acts, and then was transferred to another prison, the lawyer said. 

At this point the lawyer formally represented him and asked the judge to order a forensic medical report. The report confirmed broken bones and abuse, he said, but he was only allowed to see the report briefly in court and not allowed a copy. The lawyer contacted Baghdad police and obtained confirmation that the five alleged terrorist attacks that the defendant had confessed to had never occurred. In June 2017, upon reviewing the police report, a judge ordered the man’s release, stating there was not enough evidence to convict him. The judge did not take any steps to investigate the torture allegations, the lawyer said.

Investigations of Security Force Personnel
Judges in Baghdad have not adequately investigated security force personnel implicated in torture. In the 30 cases Human Rights Watch reviewed in which defendants alleged torture, judges ordered a retrial in only three because of the finding of torture, but took no measures to identify the wrongdoers.

In one case, in February in Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court, a defendant told the judge that his interrogator had tortured him to extract a confession, independent court observers said. He named the interrogator, to which the judge responded that he knew the officer because “there have been a lot of complaints against him, he has a history of treating prisoners roughly.” The judge then ordered a retrial. The observers said there was no indication that the judge had opened an investigation into the officer.

In another case, a judge was initially willing to dismiss defendants’ confessions because of torture allegations and seek a retrial, but in a later hearing accepted a second set of coerced confessions. The defendants were two farmers from Diyala who were arrested in late 2016 by military intelligence forces and taken to Muthana Airport Prison, their state-appointed lawyer said. His clients had a hearing soon after their arrest. With his support both told the judge they had been tortured, and denied the confession presented to the judge. The judge agreed to set it aside but called for a “deeper investigation” without taking steps to investigate the offending officers. The lawyer said:

Suddenly on Sunday, only four days after the first hearing, I heard from someone in the court that they were back for another hearing. I rushed to court and saw that they were being represented by a new state-appointed lawyer and were just finishing their hearing. The lawyer told me that they had admitted to “everything.” They both got 15 years for joining ISIS. I saw them as they left the courtroom, one had a huge bulging bruise on his left eye and later they told me they had been beaten with electrical cables and had been hung from the ceiling, but it was too late. There was nothing I could do.

In two cases, a judge investigated allegations of torture without bringing a criminal case against the officers despite credible evidence of torture. The only case in which an officer was sentenced for torture was one in which the officer had cut off a prisoner’s penis during an interrogation.

In one case, a member of the Interior Ministry’s intelligence service beat a 17-year-old boy with electrical cables, trying to extract a confession that the boy had stolen motorcycles in early 2018. A judge eventually released the boy without charge because of a lack of evidence and one month later, the family ordered a forensic medical report that confirmed the torture.

The officer was investigated but found not guilty at trial after his lawyer contended that the medical report was invalid because the examination was after the boy’s release, so there was no way of proving the source of the marks on his body. “Later the same officer contacted me,” the lawyer told Human Rights Watch. “He killed a prisoner during a recent interrogation and needs me to get him off again.”

In a second case, a lawyer said the defendant was accused of participating in an abduction in 2013. After months in which he refused to confess, the Interior Ministry’s intelligence forces, which had been holding the detainee at their office in Sha`b neighborhood, transferred him to the ministry’s intelligence forces in another Baghdad neighborhood. Soon after, he confessed and was brought to court.

The lawyer said he got the judge to order a forensic medical exam that found 14 signs of torture, including a swollen penis, a side effect of a common torture technique in which interrogators hang a full bottle of water from a string tied to a prisoner’s penis. Despite the evidence of torture and the lawyer’s complaint against one of the interrogators for torture, the defendant was found guilty and no one was convicted of torture. The lawyer said: 

If you can imagine, the judge released the officer on bail the same day we filed the complaint. He then delayed the case for a few months until the war with ISIS was in full force, and all officers were called to the front line including him. I realized then that we would not get anywhere with the officer, so I pushed for the release of my client, using the forensic medical report. The judge ignored it and gave him the death penalty and we have been appealing the case since then.

In the 2009 case in which an officer  cut off a detainee’s penis during an interrogation, the officer was sentenced to three years in prison. The lawyer did not know if the officer served all three years, or whether he returned to his old post. The torture victim was convicted in a second trial in which fake witnesses testified against him, the lawyer said.

In another case, the officers holding a detainee refused to comply with the judge’s order for a forensic medical exam, preventing any investigation of the alleged wrongdoer. The lawyer said that Federal Police forces had detained his client, 34, from Baghdad, in 2012 for a robbery and murder that left a woman and her three children dead. The case was prosecuted as terrorism. The defendant confessed to a judge, but the defendant’s wife told the lawyer her husband had told her he had been tortured – an officer allegedly raped him repeatedly with three dildos. The lawyer had the judge order a forensic medical exam but the implicated officer refused to take the defendant to the medical center for the examination.

At a hearing in December 2012, the judge said that he was dropping the request for the medical exam, because “the lawyer had not followed up to implement the request,” the court documents show. The lawyer said the judge told him later, “You did not pay the commander and now he is sick of you, so he will not take [the defendant] to get examined.”

Threats to Defense Lawyers
All the lawyers interviewed highlighted the serious risks to their careers and personal safety if they took on cases of ISIS suspects. One said that Interior Ministry intelligence forces held the lawyer’s client for three years, throughout which he maintained his innocence. After a hearing with an investigative judge, the judge ordered the defendant’s transfer to a special investigative committee under the authority of the prime minister’s secret service, and he was sent to Muthana Airport Prison in Baghdad, the lawyer said. Within months his client had confessed because of torture including electric shocks to his penis, the lawyer said, and was brought to Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court in Kirkh:

I got the judge to order a forensic report, which confirmed torture. I told the judge that because my client was tortured he should get a retrial. My client told the judge he was innocent. Before I knew it, the judge filed a complaint against me for “harassment of the court and interfering in the court’s work” and hospitalized me for two days before releasing me without charge. In the meantime, he sentenced my client to death.

The lawyer filed a complaint against the judge with his supervisor, but said no action was taken.

Copy of a forensic medical examination from 2014 detailing extensive scarring but concluding the scars were too old to identify the instrument used to inflict them. The defendant was convicted and the torture allegations were ignored, his lawyer said.

© 2018 Private
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

That torture is rampant in many Russian prisons and detention facilities, with little consequences for perpetrators, is widely known among Russia’s human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists. Last week the United Nation’s expert torture-monitoring body completed its periodic review of Russia, noting “there was reliable information that torture was practiced widely in the country.”

Irina Biryukova, a lawyer with Public Verdict representing Evgeny Makarov, Moscow, 2018. The hashtag reads, "#TogetherAgainstTorture".

© 2018 Public Verdict

But last week a scandal brought torture in prison to the public eye, leading to something extraordinary for Russia: a vigorous investigation, suspensions, and arrests for the perpetrators.

In June 2017, the Russian human rights group Public Verdict came into possession of a gruesome video showing 18 prison officials in penal colony No. 1 in Yaroslavl, northeast of Moscow, torturing an inmate, Evgeny Makarov. The video was recorded by a body-worn camera of an unidentified person present at the scene.

Irina Biryukova, a lawyer with Public Verdict representing Makarov, immediately reported it to the authorities. Makarov was then transferred to penal colony No. 8, where Public Verdict reports he continued to be tortured and  threatened with rape. No criminal case was launched. An official who reviewed the video said at the time that it showed no abuse of authority.

Russian authorities reacted very differently after the video was made public a year later, by Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which ran the story last week. The Federal Penitentiary Service initiated an internal investigation while Russia’s main investigative agency launched a criminal investigation into abuse of authority with the use of violence.  All 17 of the prison guards identified in the video were suspended; six are currently in pre-trial custody and one placed under house arrest. A criminal case was initiated against the official who concluded, after reviewing the video a year ago, that it contained nothing unlawful.  

Meanwhile the lawyer, Irina Biryukova, received death threats and had to flee Russia with her 16-year-old daughter. She told me that to date she has not received a commitment from Russian law enforcement or other authorities that they will give her protection if she returned home. And Makarov remains extremely vulnerable to further torture and retaliation in prison.  That needs to change – and soon. Both need effective guarantees of their safety. If Russia really intends to end torture, victims and individuals brave enough to expose it must be protected.

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

© 2015 Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethiopia's incoming Prime Minister Abiye Ahmed delivers his acceptance speech after taking his oath of office during a ceremony at the House of Peoples' Representatives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia April 2, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, will visit Minneapolis on Monday. Since taking office in April, Abiy has ushered in a new era of reform in Ethiopia. He released thousands of political prisoners, closed Makelawi detention center — known for torture and inhumane treatment — and opened up internet access to websites that had been blocked inside the country for years. Though the reforms he has introduced are promising, the prime minister has yet to tackle one of the biggest obstacles to lasting change — the lack of accountability for serious abuses, notably the widespread use of torture.

Abiy’s visit to Minneapolis — only a few months after taking office — illustrates how important the city’s large Ethiopian diaspora community is to his plans for Ethiopia’s future. Human Rights Watch researchers also have visited Minneapolis over the years, most often to interview scores of Ethiopian torture victims.

Torture has long been widespread in Ethiopia, driven by a pervasive culture of official impunity. Victims from all over the country have described brutal treatment at the hands of security officials over many years. In a recent report, we detailed torture in Jail Ogaden in Somali Regional State, where prisoners have endured a relentless routine of interrogation, torture, humiliation, hunger, sleep deprivation and rape.

With no access to health care, some prisoners died from their injuries, while female detainees gave birth inside their jail cells without any health care. Prisoners have had no access to lawyers or due process. In fact, many were not charged or convicted of any crime but were told that they had been suspected of membership in the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), an opposition group Ethiopia’s parliament recently legalized under the new prime minister’s leadership.

The Ethiopians who gather in Minneapolis to greet Prime Minister Abiy may well include survivors of human rights abuse in Jail Ogaden and many other detention facilities in other parts of the country. This is a rare opportunity to raise the importance of accountability for torture and other rights violations over the years — abuses that drove many Ethiopians to seek safety in the U.S. or elsewhere.

Since Abiy’s administration took office, the national dialogue has yet to include concrete discussions of pathways to accountability. In a speech before parliament in June, the prime minister admitted that torture in Ethiopia is comparable to “state terrorism.” After government media reported cases of severe beatings and genital torture at federal detention centers, the government dismissed a few prison administration officials.

These are good first steps, but given the complexity of the problem, dismissing a few staff members will not solve the culture of torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners in Ethiopia.

Making those responsible for this practice accountable, support for the victims and improving the administration of detention sites throughout the country are critical. The prime minister now has an excellent opportunity to assure the Minneapolis diaspora community that those responsible for torture and other rights abuses, regardless of rank, will be thoroughly investigated and held to account. He should also ensure that detention facilities have appropriate oversight and continued monitoring at both regional and federal levels.

The prime minister can also demonstrate a clear commitment to transparency by opening the country’s detention facilities to human rights monitors and unequivocally stating that his administration will have zero tolerance for torture by any law enforcement body.

The meeting in Minneapolis is an important opportunity for Ethiopia’s administration to build a bridge of trust with Ethiopians here in the U.S. and demonstrate that the old ways are over for Ethiopians all over the world.

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