Click to expand Image Hassan Bouba Ali (R) with Ali Darassa (C) surrounded by other UPC leaders, during a meeting at their headquarters in Alindao, October 2017. © 2017 Alexis Huguet

(Nairobi) – The Central African Republic government should coordinate with United Nations peacekeepers to ensure that war crimes suspect Hassan Bouba, who was released from detention in defiance of court orders and escorted home by national gendarmes on November 26, 2021, is returned to custody, Human Rights Watch said today.

Bouba – a minister and former rebel group leader in the Central African Republic – was arrested on November 19 on war crimes and crimes against humanity charges brought by the country’s war crimes court, the Special Criminal Court (SCC). On November 26, according to a press release published by the SCC, national gendarmes escorted Bouba out of the Camp de Roux prison where he was detained and took him to his home. Bouba was scheduled to appear before the SCC on November 26 for a custody hearing but did not do so.

“If the Central African Republic wants to address impunity for atrocities, the government needs to support the Special Criminal Court and Bouba’s immediate re-arrest,” said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “Allowing Bouba to be released in defiance of the Special Criminal Court’s orders undermines efforts to advance justice and increases the possibility that he could flee. International partners – including the US and French governments, the European Union, and the UN peacekeeping forces – should insist the court’s orders are followed and that Bouba is taken back into custody as soon as possible, to face due process.”
 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 28, 2021, 5:45 pm
Click to expand Image A group of people thought to be migrants crossing the Channel in a small boat headed in the direction of Dover, Kent, United Kingdom, August 10, 2020. © 2020 Gareth Fuller/Press Association via AP Images

At least 27 people, including a young girl, died in the frigid waters off France this week while trying to cross to the United Kingdom in an inflatable dinghy. The tragedy has intensified a dispute between British and French officials over who bears responsibility for these crossings.

Both governments blame smugglers while disregarding their own role in fueling irregular Channel crossings, which have exceeded 25,000 this year alone.

Small boat crossings increased dramatically in 2018, as the UK increasingly restricted – and, after Brexit, eliminated – the few available legal options for migrants seeking to come to the UK from northern France. Border agreements between the two countries included significant UK government funding for a security and surveillance arsenal to stop irregular migration, rather than identify and support people needing protection.

French authorities have pursued a strategy of enforced misery for people in migrant camps in northern France. Routine evictions, confiscation of personal belongings, restricted access to food and water, and harassment of aid workers are used to deter people from gathering in the region.

A flawed European Union approach that requires most people to seek asylum in the first EU country they reach is also partly to blame. That often means Greece, where people have faced dire living conditions in overcrowded camps and unaccompanied children were regularly locked up in police cells until last year. Or Croatia, where border police have forcibly pushed people back into Bosnia, beating them with batons and destroying their possessions.

It’s not surprising that many people don’t see these countries as safe places to settle. And even if EU and UK rules were not so problematic, people driven to exhaustion often can’t make considered decisions.

It’s time for officials on both sides of the Channel to admit that their deterrence strategy has spectacularly failed and instead inflicted enormous suffering.

French authorities should offer alternative accommodation that gives people stability and time to decide whether and where to seek asylum or if it would be better to return home.

The UK government should drop its proposal to push boats back – which would endanger more lives – and instead provide regular routes for migrants to travel to the UK to seek safe haven or reunify with family members.

Both governments should ensure that tragedies like this never happen again.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 25, 2021, 1:56 pm
Click to expand Image Khurram Parvez, a prominent human rights activist, left, in the office of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society in Srinagar, India, August 25, 2020. © AP Photo/Dar Yasin, File, 2020.

(New York) – Indian authorities have detained the prominent Kashmiri human rights activist Khurram Parvez under an abusive counterterrorism law that is increasingly used against activists and critics of the government, six human rights groups said today. The Indian government should immediately end violations of the rights to liberty and a fair trial under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), and uphold domestic and international human rights law obligations.

The groups are Front Line Defenders, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), the International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.

On November 22, 2021, officials of the National Investigation Agency, India’s federal counterterrorism agency, raided Parvez’s home and office, seized several electronic devices and documents, and arrested him on allegations of terrorism funding, being a member of a terrorist organization, criminal conspiracy, and waging war against the state. The action against Parvez was apparently politically motivated.

Parvez, 44, is the program coordinator of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society and the chair of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances. He has documented cases of enforced disappearances and investigated unmarked graves in Kashmir, and as a result, the Indian authorities have repeatedly targeted him for his human rights work.

He was detained for over two months in 2016 and blocked from traveling to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. He was among those targeted in counterterrorism raids in October 2020 when several nongovernmental organizations, activists, and a newspaper faced investigations for their work or for being outspoken about government abuses.

Parvez’s arbitrary arrest and detention is the latest in a long list of human rights violations by Indian authorities against civil society groups, human rights activists, and media outlets in Jammu and Kashmir. The authorities have not ensured accountability for extrajudicial killings and other grave abuses by security forces in Kashmir but have instead arrested those who speak out for justice and human rights. Journalists and activists have expressed fear that they can be summoned or arrested at any time. Over 40 people have been placed on lists instructing immigration authorities to stop them from traveling abroad, a news report said.

Parvez’s arrest comes amid a growing nationwide crackdown by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government on civil society groups and media, and particularly in Jammu and Kashmir since the government revoked the state’s special autonomous status in August 2019 and split it into two federally governed territories.

The authorities are increasingly using the counterterrorism law against activists, journalists, peaceful protesters, and critics to silence dissent. The law contains a vague and overbroad definition of terrorism that encompasses a wide range of nonviolent political activity, including political protest by minority populations and civil society groups. In 2019, the government further amended the law, granting officials the authority to designate an individual as a “terrorist” without charge or a trial.

In October 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights raised concerns over the mounting use of the law against human rights defenders and peaceful protesters and urged the authorities to release people arrested “for simply exercising basic human rights that India is obligated to protect.”

Since August 2019, the Indian authorities have clamped down on media freedom in Kashmir. The authorities have shut down the internet more often than anywhere else in the world. The majority of the shutdowns are in Kashmir, and are aimed at silencing protests and also curbing access to information and violating fundamental rights including freedom of speech and association.

Journalists in Kashmir face increasing harassment by the authorities, including raids and arrests on terrorism charges. In September, the police raided the homes of four Kashmiri journalists and confiscated their phones and laptops. In June, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention expressed concerns over “alleged arbitrary detention and intimidation of journalists covering the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.”

Since 2019, the security forces have been implicated in numerous abuses while enforcing restrictions on movement including routine harassment and ill-treatment at checkpoints, arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial killings. On November 15, four people were killed in an alleged gunfight with security forces in Srinagar’s Hyderpora area and the police hurriedly buried their bodies. The families of two victims said they were businessmen and were used by the police as “human shields.” When the families protested the killings, the police arrested them and temporarily detained several. After widespread protests, including by two former chief ministers, the police exhumed the two bodies and handed them over to their families, and the administration ordered a magisterial inquiry into the deaths.

Earlier in November, police arrested an activist and politician, Talib Hussain, for publicly questioning the security forces’ killing of a Kashmiri man in October. The authorities did not investigate Hussain’s allegations, but instead accused him of “promoting enmity between different groups” and “spreading rumors or fake news.”

In March, five UN expert mandates wrote to the Indian government seeking information about the detention of a Kashmiri politician, Waheed Para; the alleged custodial killing of a shopkeeper, Irfan Ahmad Dar; and the enforced disappearance of Naseer Ahmad Wani, a resident of Shopian district. They raised concerns about “the repressive measures and broader pattern of systematic infringements of fundamental rights used against the local population, as well as of intimidations, searches and confiscations committed by national security agents.”

In December 2020, security forces killed two men and a teenager in the outskirts of Srinagar, claiming they were militants. The families disputed the claims, and the teenager’s father said he was a secondary school student. In February, the police reportedly filed a criminal case, including under the counterterrorism law, against the teenager’s father, who had demanded his son’s body and sought an investigation into the killing.

There has been no accountability for security force abuses, in part because of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which gives the security forces effective immunity from prosecution. Since the law came into force in Jammu and Kashmir in 1990, the Indian government has not granted permission to prosecute any security force personnel in civilian courts. Rights groups have long documented that the law has become a tool of state abuse, oppression, and discrimination, and called for its repeal. Affected residents, activists, government-appointed committees, politicians, and UN human rights bodies have also criticized the law.

As India’s crackdown on human rights has unfolded, its international partners, including the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia remain reluctant to publicly denounce Indian government abuses, let alone take measures to address them. This unwillingness to criticize heightening abuses raises concerns that the government will feel emboldened to take further repressive measures.

The Indian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release Parvez and others arrested in politically motivated cases and drop all charges against them, the groups said. The government should also amend the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to bring it in line with international human rights law and standards and pending its amendment, it should stop using it to target human rights defenders, critics of the government, and others exercising their basic human rights.
 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 25, 2021, 1:00 pm
Click to expand Image Plastic waste among other items at an illegal garbage dump near Alibeykoy Dam on the outskirts of Istanbul, Wednesday, May 19, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Mucahit Yapici

Last week, the European Commission proposed new rules governing waste shipments from EU countries. The regulation could be good news for communities around the world impacted by European plastic waste exports.

Currently, many EU governments ship their waste, including plastic waste, to countries with weak environmental regulations and little government oversight for environmental, health, and labor rights violations. Although plastic waste is ostensibly exported for recycling, only 9 percent of all plastic made has been recycled. Instead, it is often dumped or burned, exposing nearby communities and workers to toxic chemicals.

The consequences for human rights can be disastrous. Research has linked exposure to toxins in plastic to increased rates of cancer, neurological damage, and reproductive harms. Earlier this year, Greenpeace found illegally dumped and burned German plastic waste near communities in Turkey, the largest importer of EU plastic waste in 2020. People living near illegal plastic recycling facilities in Malaysia, another large importer of EU waste, reported respiratory problems and skin rashes when exposed to burning plastic. Plastic also contributes to climate change, which further threatens human rights, as fossil fuels are a major component of plastics.

The Commission’s proposal would create stricter rules on exports to non-OECD countries by requiring importing countries to treat waste in “an environmentally sound manner.” For OECD countries, like Turkey, the new regulation would ask importing governments to improve monitoring of recycling facilities and enforcement of trade rules. The regulation also seeks to ramp up penalties on illegal waste shipments and investigate waste trafficking.

However, the proposed new rules fail to meet the EU and its states’ treaty obligation to reduce waste exports. Exporting waste is also not aligned with the EU Circular Economy Action Plan, which calls for waste prevention and minimizing exports outside of the EU. Environmental groups are calling on EU states to go further and take full responsibility for their waste – and the resulting environmental, social, and health risks – by banning all waste exports from the EU and reducing waste.

It is now up to the European Parliament and EU countries to further strengthen and finalize the regulation. They should make use of this opportunity by pushing for more ambitious rules in line with international and regional mandates and protect the rights to health and a healthy environment for communities around the world.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 25, 2021, 7:00 am
Click to expand Image Screenshot from an animation by Justice Initiative Project on “the custom of taking children away from mothers in Chechnya and Ingushetia.”  © Justice Initiative Project

This week, the European Court on Human Rights ruled that Luisa Tapayeva, a Chechen woman, should be reunited with her four daughters who were taken from her after their father died. Under local customs, children are “owned” by the father and his family.

The ruling means the world to Tapayeva and to many other women in Russia’s North Caucasus who are struggling to regain custody of or at least visit with their children. Finding Russia in violation of Tapayeva’s right to family life and the prohibition of discrimination, the Court noted that sex-based discrimination was systemic in the region. In addition to paying Tapayeva compensation and ensuring she is reunited with her children, the Russian government will now have to take concrete steps to end discrimination against women, in custody matters and beyond.

Tapayeva, her husband, and their four daughters, born in 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2013, lived with the husband’s family in Goyty, a small village in Chechnya. When her husband died, Tapayeva and the children moved to her parents’ house, in that same village. Then, in April 2016, Tapayeva’s father-in-law took the girls to his home and refused to return them, claiming they “belonged” with him.

Tapayeva lost access to her daughters. Her in-laws would not let her see or communicate with them. For years, she fought a legal battle and, increasingly desperate, sought justice in Strasbourg. Lawyers from Stichting Justice Initiative, an independent group that has helped abuse victims win close to 300 cases at the European Court of Human Rights, filed the application on behalf of Tapayeva and the children.

In its ruling, the Court notes that it had “previously examined” several similar cases from the Northern Caucasus. It further references conclusions adopted by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women urging Russia to “to modify or eliminate traditional practices and stereotypes that discriminate against women” and specifically, to “take the legislative measures necessary to eliminate the concept of ‘ownership’ of the father over his children in the northern Caucasus, and ensure equal parental rights to women in all cases.” The Court also quotes two reports by Human Rights Watch “documenting gender discrimination” in Chechnya.

The ruling speaks for itself. A pattern of discrimination is in place, and Russia needs to end it.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 25, 2021, 6:00 am
Click to expand Image Supporters of Omar Radi in front of the Casablanca Courthouse, Morocco, September 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar

(New York) – Omar Radi, an investigative journalist in Morocco, was denied a fair trial and sentenced to six years in prison on espionage and rape charges, Human Rights Watch said today, after an extensive review of the case. An appeals session in his case is scheduled for November 25, 2021.

Radi, a target of ongoing State harassment, has denied all the charges against him. The lower-court trial by the Casablanca Court of First Instance was marred with violations of fair trial standards, including the court’s unjustified refusal to examine evidence and hear witnesses in favor of Radi, and allow his lawyers to examine a witness in favor of the prosecution. The court’s written judgment, which Human Rights Watch has read, relies heavily on speculative arguments.

“After years of police harassment capped by a mockery of a trial, Omar Radi is now in his second year behind bars instead of reporting on government corruption,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Moroccan authorities are trying to make this a case about ‘espionage’ rather than about silencing one of the country’s last critical journalists, but the authorities aren’t fooling anyone.”

Radi, an award-winning investigative reporter and human rights activist, has published articles about land grabs by speculators and broke the so-called “servants of the State” corruption scandal, which exposed about 100 people, including high-level officials, who allegedly acquired state land at a fraction of market value. In a talk show in 2018, Radi lambasted a top security official by name and said that the Interior Ministry had harbored Morocco’s “biggest corruption scheme ever” and “should be dissolved.”

Before he was arrested and prosecuted for espionage and rape, Radi was detained, tried, and convicted for a tweet; had spyware intrusion on his smartphone; and experienced a pervasive defamation campaign against him on websites linked to security services, and a suspicious physical assault.

Human Rights Watch interviewed Radi before he was arrested in July 2020, as well as his parents, eight of his lawyers, four of his colleagues, and five witnesses to two of the events for which he was prosecuted. Human Rights Watch also attended five sessions of his trial and read the more than 500 pages of his case file, including the 239-page written judgment detailing the court’s reasoning behind his conviction, and dozens of news reports about his case.

Radi spent one year in pretrial detention, the maximum under Moroccan law. The investigative judge examining his case and, later, the trial judge, refused at least 12 requests to provisionally release Radi, without ever providing individualized and substantive reasons, as international human rights standards require.

Radi was convicted of harming the State’s internal and external security through acts of “espionage” on behalf of foreign firms, organizations, and states, including the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The guilty verdict was based primarily on text exchanges Radi had with a Dutch diplomat, and contracts he signed with British corporate consulting firms to conduct research on Morocco’s private economic sector.

Developing journalistic contacts or collecting and sharing non-classified information are protected activities under international law. In its review of the case file, Human Rights Watch found no evidence that Radi did anything except carry out ordinary journalistic or corporate due diligence work and maintain contact with diplomats, as many journalists and researchers do routinely. The file contains no evidence that he provided classified information to anyone, or that he ever obtained such information in the first place.

During the trial, one of the men the prosecutor claimed was a “foreign spy” tasked with “extracting classified information” from Radi, denied the accusation in a letter to the court and asked to testify in Radi’s defense. The judge ignored the denial and request without justification.

The tribunal’s written judgment featured several dubious arguments to justify a guilty verdict of espionage.

These included that communicating exclusively via text messages with a contact at the Netherlands embassy was a “security precaution” that “proves [Radi] was well aware of the suspicious nature of the activities” he engaged in with foreign diplomats. The judgment also argued that Radi’s failure to publish articles after contacts with Dutch diplomats was “evidence” that the contacts “had no relation with journalistic work … but consisted in fact of espionage activities.”

Radi was also convicted for the alleged rape of a female colleague in Le Desk, the news site that employed him. Radi denies the charge and says the relationship was consensual. Although the alleged offenses of rape and espionage are unrelated, the court tried them together.

Authorities’ prosecution of sexual violence in Morocco is low. All sexual assault allegations should be properly investigated, and those responsible brought to justice, with a trial that is fair for both the complainant and the accused.

However, the court denied Radi the “equality of arms” in which both parties have the same opportunities to present their case, a prerequisite for a fair trial under international standards. The authorities denied Radi access to his own case file for 10 months. They excluded the testimony of the key defense witness for “participation in rape,” even though the complainant did not accuse the witness of taking part, and no evidence against him was presented to the court. The court also refused to allow examination of the prosecution’s witness and rejected a key defense witness in the espionage case.

Radi’s case is part of a pattern of Moroccan authorities arresting, trying, or imprisoning independent journalists, activists, or politicians because of their critical writings and work, on questionable charges including sexual misconduct, money laundering, or “serving a foreign agenda,” Human Rights Watch said.

“Rape and sexual assault are serious crimes that deserve serious investigations and fair proceedings,” Goldstein said. “If the authorities wish to show that Morocco’s courts are holding Omar Radi accountable like any other citizen rather than being instrumentalized to lock away a dissident on dubious charges, they need to give him the fair and impartial justice that has been denied him so far.”

On July 19, 2021, the Casablanca Court of First Instance convicted Omar Radi both of rape and espionage charges, and sentenced him to six years in prison. Radi was also fined 200,000 dirhams (US$20,000) in damages for the rape complainant. Imad Stitou, a fellow journalist tried with him as a “participant” in the rape case, was sentenced to one year, including six months suspended. Both men appealed the verdict.

Stitou remains free pending an appeals verdict. Radi, who has been in Casablanca’s Oukacha Prison since his arrest on July 29, 2020, appeared before the Casablanca Court of Appeals on November 4, the session was postponed until November 25.

Evidence of unfair trial

Defendant Denied Access to the Case File
Prison authorities repeatedly prohibited Radi’s lawyers from passing on a copy of his case file to their client, thus depriving him of his right to prepare his defense from his prison cell. Prison authorities gave him full access only after the judge, responding to two complaints from his lawyers, ordered that prison authorities give him full access to his own file on June 3, 2021, ten months after Radi’s arrest and two months after the trial started. This prevented him having adequate time to prepare his defense.

While Radi had to fight for months to get his case file, Barlamane.com, a website closely tied with security services, published a lengthy analysis of the case against Radi four days after his arrest, on July 29, 2020. The Barlamane article was clearly informed by extensive access to the case file, and strongly suggested that Radi was guilty as charged.

Key Defense Witness Disqualified
The authorities charged Radi with rape and indecent assault after a female colleague, Hafsa Boutahar, from the Moroccan news website Le Desk filed charges on July 23, 2020, against him.

The accusation was based on events in the early hours of July 13, 2020, at a house owned by the Le Desk director where staff sometimes worked. Radi denied the charge and said he and the complainant had engaged in consensual sex.

Imad Stitou, another Le Desk journalist and a friend of Radi’s, testified before the gendarmerie and investigative judge that he was also staying that night in the same large living room on a different couch. His testimony was consistent with Radi’s account.

However, on March 18, 2021, Stitou was charged with “participation in the rape,” even though the complainant had not accused him of taking part in the alleged assault, neither physically nor verbally.

In their statements to the gendarmerie, the prosecutor, the investigative judge in charge of the case, and in court, both Radi and the complainant supported Stitou’s assertion that he never rose that night from his couch. Both Radi and the complainant said that they thought Stitou was asleep before he told the authorities that he had been awake.

After the court charged Stitou for “participation in rape,” it discarded his testimony. In its written judgment, the court wrote, “The statements of [Stitou] according to which [he heard the two people have consensual sex] cannot be taken into consideration because he is accused of participation, and denying the charge is in his interest.”

In a joint statement released on April 5, 2021, 11 international rights groups said that “by charging Mr. Stitou, authorities have in effect nullified the evidentiary value of his testimony as a defense witness,” and remarked that the court should “enable those charged with crimes all adequate means to defend themselves.”

Under international human rights law those charged with crimes should be allowed to have witnesses testify on their behalf before the court on the same basis as witnesses against them, Human Rights Watch said.

Evidence Ignored, Defense Witness Rejected
With regard to the espionage charges, the case file makes clear that the prosecutor relied heavily on a statement Radi made to the police, in which he said he had been in contact in 2013 with Arnaud Simons, whom he identified as a former employee at the Dutch Embassy in Morocco.

According to the police report on the case, the fact that the (incorrectly spelled) name “Arnauld Simon” was not featured in the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s list of registered diplomats in Morocco, “strongly confirmed the hypothesis” that this name did not point to a real person. They alleged that it was an undercover Dutch intelligence agent’s pseudonym and that the person was extracting classified information from Radi about the 2017 Rif protests. The written judgment indicates that during the trial, the prosecutor endorsed that conclusion and “concluded” that Simons was the “nom de guerre” (in Arabic: “ismoun haraki”) of a Dutch undercover agent.

Simons contacted Human Rights Watch in early 2021, and provided images of identity documents and other documents that Arnaud Simons is his name and that he is a Belgian citizen who worked as a contractor for the Dutch Embassy in Morocco between 2013 and 2015.

In communications with Human Rights Watch, and in an open letter he published later online, Simons stated that his contacts with Radi were limited to discussing cultural matters, consistent with Simons’ job as cultural attaché at the embassy. By the time of the Rif protests, in 2017, Simons added, he had been gone from Morocco for two years and had not been in touch with Radi since leaving.

In a letter one of Radi’s lawyers gave to the judge during a court session held on June 29, which Human Rights Watch attended, Simons provided the documentation and asked to be a defense witness. The judge added the letter to the case file, but rejected Simons’ request to be a witness because hearing him in court would “prolong the trial.”

The judgment’s explanation of the court’s reasoning for convicting Radi of espionage does not mention Simons’ letter. It instead repeats that the court’s “deduction” is that “Arnauld Simon” is a “nom de guerre used by a person who used to work in the Dutch Embassy in Rabat.”

Examination of Prosecution Witness Denied
In a letter dated August 10, 2020, and sent to the investigative judge, one of the complainant’s lawyers requested that Hassan Ait Braim, a Moroccan-American dual national living in the United States but “currently visiting Morocco,” be heard as a witness in the Radi case.

The request was accompanied by a short letter from Ait Braim in which he said he was having a video call with the complainant on July 13, 2020, when he saw “a man dressed in boxer shorts pass behind the sofa, at which point the conversation ended abruptly.” Ait Braim said in the letter that he “does not know the truth of what happened [next].”

On August 12, 2020, the day that he received the complainant’s lawyer’s request for Ait Braim to testify, the investigating judge wrote a letter to the prosecutor to consult with him about it. After the prosecutor approved the request in writing, the investigating judge sent a written summons to Ait Braim. These letters were sent, received, and processed on August 12; the same day Ait Braim came to testify in the investigative judge’s office.

Several Moroccan lawyers told Human Rights Watch they were “perplexed” by such swiftness, which they said is extremely uncommon if not unprecedented in Moroccan courts, especially in August, when the Moroccan justice administration is on summer recess. Because of that recess, Radi’s defense lawyers told the court that they had been unable to find anyone in the justice system, in August 2020, to file a request to provisionally release their client. That was the same month Ait Braim’s hearing process was being expedited.

Radi’s defense lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they were not notified about Ait Braim’s testimony until several months later, at which point the witness had returned to the United States, where he reportedly lives.

During the trial, Radi’s defense team asked the judge to summon Ait Braim for examination, but the request was denied on spurious grounds. The written judgment, which relied partly on Ait Braim’s statement, says: “The judge [does not have to summon a witness] as long as he believes in the sincerity of [his] testimony.” To ensure a fair trial according to international standards, the defense has the right to question a witness whose testimony is being used by the prosecution.

Speculative Court Reasoning
Several aspects of the court’s reasoning behind its guilty verdict against Radi appear to rely on speculative “conclusions” or “deductions” rather than facts.

On the accusation of espionage, the judgment does not identify any classified material that Radi would have knowingly conveyed to a foreign agent, thus constituting the crime of espionage. Instead, it weaves together a series of speculations to reach a guilty verdict.

For example, it says on page 230: “The security precautions [Radi] took [in his contacts] with the Dutch embassy diplomat prove that he was well aware of the suspicious nature of the activities [the diplomat] was tasked with, as demonstrated by the fact that his communications with [the diplomat] were conducted exclusively via text messages […]”

The fact that a person relies on text messages as a primary channel of communication does not appear to be evidence of any secret activity or evidence of guilt.

The judgment adds in page 232: “[It can be concluded] that the accused’s contacts with secret agents from the Dutch Embassy in Morocco had no relation with his journalistic work, as evidenced by the fact that he never published any article or other journalistic work [in reference to those contacts], but consisted by deduction of espionage activities.”

Discussing various topics with various people, including diplomats, without necessarily publishing articles based on those conversations, is routine work for journalists. The court’s “conclusion” is speculative and does not appear to be evidence of guilt.

On the accusation of rape, the judgment says in page 224: “Omar Radi’s allegation that he had consensual sex with [the complainant] does not stand to reason because if the victim had really wanted to have sex with the accuser, she would have planned it carefully and in an appropriate setting; whereas [doing it] in her employer’s house and in the presence of a colleague who would witness the assault is absurd and cannot be the doing of a sane mind.”

The court’s reasoning about how a “sane mind” would plan a sexual encounter is speculative, and of dubious value in proving the charge. It is also based on gender stereotypes.

The judgment also flatly misrepresents Stitou’s statements in a way prejudicial to both himself and Radi. On page 237, the judgment states that Stitou “does not deny” hearing Radi make a particular comment to the complainant, a comment that suggested Radi’s guilt and Stitou’s complicity. In fact, as shown in the official minutes of his statements to the gendarmerie and the investigative judge, Stitou strongly denied that he heard Radi making such a comment. He also denied it in a court session Human Rights Watch attended, and again in an interview with Human Rights Watch in October 2021.

Earlier Harassment of Radi

Before his arrest in this case, Morocco’s police and judicial authorities harassed Radi for years and in multiple ways. He was briefly jailed for a tweet critical of a judge, his smartphone was reportedly infected by a potent spyware that is only sold to governments, and he was relentlessly defamed by websites closely aligned with Moroccan security services.

A Human Rights Watch report published in September 2020 presented several details on those previous incidents.

After a spat with other persons outside a bar in Casablanca in July 2020, Radi and Stitou were prosecuted for insults and public drunkenness. On August 5, 2021, the first instance tribunal of Ain Sebaa, in Casablanca, sentenced the pair to three suspended months in prison. This case was tried without any of the defendants ever appearing in court. Stitou’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that his client never received notification of the trial sessions during which he was marked absent. Radi, who by that time had spent more than a year in prison, was never notified either and the police did not take him from his cell to the courtroom.

Physical Aggression

On July 7, 2019, around midnight, a motorcyclist blocked Radi’s car in Ain Sebaa, a suburb of Casablanca. As Radi tried to drive around him, a dozen more men emerged from the shadows and started smashing his car with sticks, stones, and bricks, Radi told Human Rights Watch. The attackers broke the front passenger window before Radi was able to drive away and flee the scene. Radi’s mother later provided photos of the damage to the vehicle to Human Rights Watch.

The next morning, Radi went to a police station in Ain Sebaa and pressed charges. A police officer promised an investigation, provided Radi with a receipt with a police stamp and a file number, and told him to use that number to track his complaint’s status at the Ain Sebaa tribunal. Months later, after Radi was arrested over a tweet, his lawyer went to the tribunal to check the status of the complaint. He told Human Rights Watch that the serial number indicated on the receipt was false and did not correspond to any existing judicial file.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 25, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image View of the Catholic Church in Hrodna, Belarus.  © Tanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch

This October, my colleague and I spent a few days in Hrodna, Belarus’s fifth largest city and a key cultural hub, documenting abuses against migrants, mainly from the Middle East, who came through there on their way to the Polish border.

Central Hrodna is charming, with beautiful churches, coffee shops, and terraces. It might have once been bustling with tourists. But no more. A young woman overheard us speaking English and asked, wide-eyed, “What are you doing here?”, “We’re visiting,” I said, vaguely.

“We still have foreign tourists?” the woman whispered breathlessly, then wilted. “Between you and your friend, I guess we have two.”

It’s no news that Belarusian authorities are effectively eviscerating civil society. Dozens of activists and journalists are behind bars, and many more have been forced to flee the country for fear of prosecution. The government has shut down over 300 independent groups and media outlets. Thousands of peaceful protesters have suffered arbitrary detention and other abuses.

One may think that if you’re not an activist or a journalist, you can go about your business unaffected by the crackdown. Wrong.

The woman who approached us on the street, a local English teacher, used to supplement her income by taking foreigners on guided tours. “We had tourists coming from Poland, Lithuania, and other European countries; many of them, every day,” she sighed. “But now, obviously, no Europeans come here …”

Our landlord made similar comments when handing over the apartment keys. “When tourism was flourishing, I and quite a few others took out mortgages, invested in interior design… but now our livelihood is pretty much destroyed.”

A souvenir shop owner on a little square whispered that not only was business almost at a standstill, but she actually had to remove from display all merchandise with the red-and-white stripe pattern of the now banned, inter-war Belarusian nationalist flag. The pattern became one of the key symbols of the 2020 public protests, so the authorities view it as a manifestation of dissent, and retaliate against those who dare to wear or exhibit it.

“Police detained my husband for having the pattern on his socks, imagine that! So, having that stuff on display is off limits, to say the least. I only wish you could see my shop before the purge,” the shopkeeper smiled sadly. “This is no life.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 25, 2021, 5:00 am

Tied to a bed at night, forced to wear a makeshift straitjacket, strapped to a chair with insulation tape and cargo straps for several hours a day. This, for many years, was the daily reality for Noah (pseudonym), a boy with autism living in a privately run care home in Finland.

Click to expand Image At night, staff tied a boy with autism to this bed in a care home in Finland. © 2021 MOT/Yle

According to an investigation by Finland’s Yle TV1 MOT program, which recently exposed the case, the facility’s management instructed staff members to tie down the boy to prevent him from hitting his head and hurting himself. Employees at the care home interviewed by MOT said that two staff members hit and physically abused the boy on several occasions.

According to MOT’s sources, over the years staff in the institution reported the abuse to senior management as well as to local authorities. However, the abuses reportedly continued for about five years, and stopped only following a monitoring visit to the facility in 2019. Although the abuse ended two years ago, it was never made public until now.

No child or adult should be treated like that. Yet Human Rights Watch research has found that globally hundreds of thousands of people with real or perceived disabilities have been shackled – chained, tied, or locked in confined spaces – at least once in their lives. Men, women, and children, some as young as 10, have been shackled for weeks, months, and even years, in more than 60 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. That this inhumane practice persists is often linked to inadequate community-based services, as well as widespread beliefs that stigmatize people with disabilities. 

Noah’s case is a devastating reminder that too many people with disabilities continue to be locked up and abused behind the closed doors of institutions, care homes, and psychiatric hospitals around the world. This includes Europe, with similar cases reported in Bulgaria, Russia, and Sweden.

People with disabilities should not be locked away and governments should ban shackling and invest in rights-based community services that support people with disabilities to live independent lives. Governments, including Finland, should also ensure regular, effective monitoring including inspections of all institutions for people with disabilities and take appropriate action against abusive facilities. It’s time to act to ensure no one else goes through what Noah endured.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 25, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image A truck searches for victims under the rubble. The house was destroyed by a Houthi missile in Al-Amoud in al-Jubah district, Marib governorate pictured on October 29, 2021. © 2021 Eyad Almsqry

(Beirut) – The Houthi armed group has fired artillery and ballistic missiles indiscriminately into populated areas of Yemen’s Marib governorate resulting in civilian casualties, including women and children, and causing a new wave of civilian displacement since September, Human Rights Watch said today.

The attacks are part of the intensified fighting between the Houthi forces and the Yemeni government and its allied forces around Marib. The fighting is contributing to the worsening of the humanitarian conditions for millions of civilians and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the area.

“Civilians and displaced people in Marib have been caught in the crosshairs for nearly two years, some suffering severe deprivation,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, “The Houthis’ repeated indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas and blocking humanitarian aid have become a shameful pattern and add to the group’s dismal human rights record.”

Houthi forces’ major military advance to seize Marib governorate, the natural resource-rich governorate 170 kilometers east of Sanaa, one the last strongholds of Yemeni government forces, began in 2020 and has intensified since February. Since October, Houthi forces have taken control of Al-Abdiyah and Harib districts in southern Marib governorate while fighting continues in al-Jubah and Jabal Murad districts, forcing 93,000 civilians to flee their homes and seek safety in Marib city, to the north, which is already hosting two million displaced people.

Fighting on the ground between the Houthi armed group and the Yemeni government forces continues, as Houthi forces are circling the governorate from three fronts: from the al-Jawf in the north, from al-Baydah in the south, and from Sirwah and Nehem in the West.

Click to expand Image Remnants of a Houthi missile that attacked the house of Abdulatif al-Qabli Nimran, located in Al-Amoud in al-Jubah district, Marib governorate, Yemen pictured on October 29, 2021. © 2021 Eyad Almsqry   

Witnesses say that Houthi forces besieged 35,000 inhabitants of al-Abdiyah district for at least three weeks in October, blocking civilians from leaving or entering and denying entry to food, fuel, and other commodities. The Mothers of Abductees Association (MAA), a group formed in 2017 by Yemeni women whose relatives were arrested and often forcibly disappeared, said that Houthi forces also detained 47 people, including children. Their relatives have heard nothing about them since their arrest.

Human Rights Watch interviewed three witnesses to the aftermath of the attacks, five Marib-based Yemeni aid workers, and four Marib-based journalists. The sources said that Houthi forces fired artillery indiscriminately into Al-Abdiyah and al-Jubah districts and fired ballistic missiles into Marib city in October. In March 2021, Human Rights Watch documented previous Houthi unlawful attacks on Marib city and its outskirts.

Under international humanitarian law, indiscriminate attacks are not directed at a military objective, or employ a method or means of combat that cannot be directed at a military objective, and therefore are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.

October was the deadliest month in years in the governate, with more than 100 civilians including children killed or wounded. On October 3, Yemeni government authorities said that three Houthi missiles struck al-Rawdah neighborhood in Marib city, killing 2 children and wounding 33 people, including children.

A brother of a 14-year-old boy whose hand was wounded in the attack told Human Rights Watch: “My brother was playing with others in the neighborhood, at the heart of Marib city, when the missile hit and destroyed at least 10 houses that were in a residential area far away from the fighting front lines.” In March 2021, Human Rights Watch documented previous Houthi unlawful attacks on Marib city and its outskirts.

Four journalists told Human Rights Watch that on October 13 Houthi forces fired a missile that hit a hospital in al-Abdiyah, the only major health facility in the area that was clearly marked as a hospital, which was 10 kilometers away from the front line. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) condemned the attack in a tweet a few days later. The Yemeni government health office in Marib said in a statement that the Houthi attack severely damaged the hospital and forced authorities to evacuate the patients, including injured Houthi fighters. No casualties were reported.

Click to expand Image A tent belonging to an attacked house showing the impact of the Houthi missile attack in Al-Amoud in al-Jubah district, Marib governorate, Yemen pictured on October 29, 2021. © 2021 Eyad Almsqry  

Human Rights Watch spoke to one man who fled Yaara, a village in al-Jubah district, with his family on October 27 as heavy Houthi artillery shelling was nearing to their house. He said that his village was 10 kilometers from the front line when he fled to al-Amoud village, 20 kilometers from the fighting. “The night we decided to flee Yaara to al-Amoud village in al-Jubah, shrapnel from the shelling hit and wounded my son,” he said. “In al-Amoud we stayed at a relatives’ home. On October 28, a missile hit al-Amoud in the evening, killing 12 of my cousins and their friends. I miraculously wasn’t there that evening.”

Human Rights Watch reviewed 12 photographs sent directly to researchers that show the aftermath of the attack, damage to at least one building, and rescue workers digging through the debris. According to the metadata attached to the photographs, they were taken on October 29.

Three videos posted on Twitter on October 29 and October 30 by journalists show similar scenes. By matching the mountains, houses, and trees in the photographs and videos, Human Rights Watch confirmed that the videos and photographs were taken in al-Amoud village, 20 kilometers south of the city of Marib. No military targets can be seen in the area in the videos and photographs reviewed.

Local media reported that a Houthi munition attack killed a child and wounded three others on October 24 in al-Abdiyah and that another Houthi missile killed a civilian and destroyed four homes and one mosque in al-Jubah on October 27. The BBC reported that a Houthi ballistic missile hit a religious school and mosque on October 31 in al-Jouba, killing 29 civilians who were sheltering there from the fighting.

Aid workers said that civilians who fled al-Abdiyah district at the end of October for Marib city described a three-week siege by Houthi forces in which civilians were trapped and essential commodities were blocked from entering. The aid workers said that the villages said there were no military equipment or fighters in their village, but that Houthi forces seized them to compel people to join the Houthi forces. The aid workers said that the displaced people were malnourished, sick, and penniless, and that some women were in desperate need of reproductive health services.

Telecommunication via phones and the internet was heavily disrupted in Marib governorate during September and October, and a Houthi drone strike reportedly destroyed telecommunication cables in Marib.

An aid worker with the Executive Unit for the Management of Displaced Persons Camps, a Yemeni government agency, said that thousands of families are still trapped in villages in southern Marib, with Houthi forces blocking roads, restricting transportation, and attacking civilians fleeing north. He said that more than 90,000 people had been displaced, 93 percent of whom have not received shelter, while 70 percent have not received food. He said that 96 percent of them do not have access to drinking or usable water, and 98 percent do not have access to water tanks, bathrooms, or classrooms.

International aid agencies on November 3 raised concerns over the humanitarian situation in and around Marib, saying in a statement: “Humanitarian needs in Marib city far outstrip current humanitarian capacity on the ground. The city hosts hugely crowded IDP camps, an over-stretched public service and healthcare system, fragile city infrastructure and an increasingly vulnerable host community.”

Yemen has the fourth-largest internally displaced population in the world due to conflict, with more than four million people internally displaced. While Marib hosts Yemen’s largest number of the country’s displaced people, the fighting in Marib is creating another displacement movement to the south in Abyan governorate, an aid worker told Human Rights Watch.

The Saudi and UAE-led coalition said that it carried out attacks against Houthi forces in al-Jubah, al-Kasara, and al-Abdiyah in recent months killing hundreds of Houthi forces. The Yemen Data Project reported in mid-October that there had been an average of 27 airstrikes a day in the region, the highest number of individual airstrikes by the coalition in a single month since July 2020, with al-Jouba district receiving 34 airstrikes alone.

In November, the UN Security Council released a statement urging de-escalation by all parties, including an immediate end to the Houthi escalation in Marib.

“With winter setting in, newly displaced people desperately need an immediate comprehensive response by aid agencies,” Nasser said, “Houthi forces need to immediately end their indiscriminate attacks and allow humanitarian access to civilians across Marib.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 24, 2021, 10:00 pm
Click to expand Image Celebrating the life of Marsha P. Johnson on what would have been her 75th Birthday, members of the LGBTQI+ community and their allies assembled in Washington Square Park in New York City on August 24, 2020. © 2020 Gabriele Holtermann/Sipa via AP Images

To commemorate the Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20, the Biden administration issued a report on violence and discrimination against transgender people in the United States. The report outlines positive steps the administration is taking to address the root causes of violence – but progress will be limited unless lawmakers enact laws that support them.

Over the past two years, Human Rights Watch spoke with dozens of transgender survivors of violence, advocates, and service providers in the states of Florida, Ohio, and Texas about the forms anti-transgender violence takes. One of the key findings of that research was that socioeconomic marginalization, such as unemployment, housing insecurity, and a lack of reliable transportation keeps many transgender people in unsafe situations. The most marginalized, particularly Black transgender women, are especially at risk.

The Biden administration’s roadmap, created with input from transgender people and advocates, identifies key concerns and outlines steps the administration has been taking to advance transgender rights. Among these are support for inclusive employment opportunities, health services, housing and homeless shelters, and antiviolence services, which are all badly needed.

Recognizing these factors is laudable, but state and federal lawmakers also need to take concrete steps to address them if meaningful progress is to be achieved.

At a minimum, lawmakers should stop demonizing transgender people and attempting to restrict their rights, and instead enact laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity. They should decriminalize sex work, making it easier for transgender sex workers to keep themselves safe and report violence when it occurs. They should explicitly cover gender-affirming care in state Medicaid policies and remove barriers to legal gender recognition to avoid instances in which people are publicly outed as transgender.

To improve support when violence occurs, lawmakers should reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, enact the Family Violence Prevention and Services Improvement Act, and provide training and support to ensure shelters and anti-violence services are truly inclusive. And they should ban the “trans panic” defense, which allows perpetrators of anti-transgender violence to use their own fear or dislike of transgender people as a legal defense to minimize culpability in criminal proceedings when they have harmed or even killed a transgender person.

The Biden administration has identified some ways it can act to curb anti-transgender violence. To do that effectively, federal and state lawmakers will need to demonstrate the same commitment.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 24, 2021, 8:08 pm
Click to expand Image A general view of the Al Thumama Stadium is seen in Doha, Qatar, October 22, 2021. The stadium will be one of the venues for the 2022 World Cup. © 2021 AP Photo/Hussein Sayed

As Qatar prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the government has assured prospective visitors it will welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) tourists and that fans will be free to fly the rainbow flag at the games. But for LGBT Qataris like Mohammed, openly expressing his sexuality as a gay man is not an option. Doing so, he fears, would land him back in jail. 

Mohammed was arrested in 2014 for alleged same-sex conduct, punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment under article 285 of Qatar’s penal code. While in detention, officers searched his phone, identified a man he’d been messaging, and attempted to contact this person to target him as well. Mohammed was detained for weeks, enduring verbal abuse and sexual harassment by police. Officers even shaved his head.

Seven years later, Mohammed has resigned himself to a life of discretion: he dresses in a masculine style, refrains from posting about his sexuality online, and no longer meets men from dating apps.

Mohammed’s seclusion is not out of choice, but of necessity. Individuals have told Human Rights Watch that the Qatari government surveils and arrests LGBT people based on their online activity. Authorities also censor traditional media related to sexual orientation and gender identity, including people who show support for LGBT individuals. They have effectively excluded LGBT content from the public sphere.

“There is zero freedom [to post anything related to sexuality online],” Mohammed said.

As Qatar advances its surveillance capabilities, including inside football stadiums, the possibility of LGBT Qataris being persecuted for publicly supporting LGBT rights will remain long after the international fans have gone.

Physical and virtual spaces free from surveillance are vanishing in Qatar as data protection law allows broad exemptions that undermine the right to privacy. When digital surveillance is combined with laws that target individuals based on consensual sexual conduct outside of marriage, there is nowhere left to hide.

The Qatari government should repeal article 285 and all other laws that criminalize consensual sexual relations outside of marriage and leave people like Mohammed living in fear in the shadows. Freedom of expression and nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity should be guaranteed for all Qataris, not just spectators and tourists flocking to Qatar for the World Cup.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 24, 2021, 7:16 pm
Click to expand Image Hassan Bouba Ali (R) with Ali Darassa (C) surrounded by other UPC leaders, during a meeting at their headquarters in Alindao, October 2017. © 2017 Alexis Huguet

(Nairobi) – The Special Criminal Court (SCC) in the Central African Republic has arrested and brought charges against a government minister for war crimes and crimes against humanity in an important step for justice, Human Rights Watch said today. A detention hearing for the minister, a former armed group leader, Hassan Bouba Ali, known as Hassan Bouba, will be held on November 26, 2021, based on a court order seen by Human Rights Watch.

Bouba was a leader of the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (Unité pour la Paix en Centrafrique, UPC), a rebel group that emerged out of the fractured Seleka coalition. In 2017 he was named a special councilor to the president, then named the minister of livestock and animal health in December 2020.

“The UPC is responsible for many serious crimes in the Central African Republic since 2014,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Bouba’s arrest sends a strong message that even the most powerful can find themselves subject to the reach of the law and gives hope to the many victims of UPC crimes that they may one day see justice.”

The UPC started committing serious abuses in the Ouaka province in 2014, before it split from the rebel Seleka faction. From 2014 to 2017, Human Rights Watch documented at least 246 civilians killed, dozens of cases of rape and sexual slavery, and 2,046 homes burned by the UPC in the Ouaka province. In 2017 the UPC started to expand into the Basse-Kotto and Mbomou provinces.

In 2017 Human Rights Watch documented that at least 188 civilians had been killed in fighting between the UPC and anti-balaka fighters in the Basse-Kotto province, the majority killed by the UPC. The cases Human Rights Watch documented involving the UPC are most likely only a fraction of the total.

Bouba was expelled from the rebel group in January, after a surge in violence in the country when a new rebellion, of which the UPC was a member, began in December 2020. He was arrested at his office on November 19.

The Special Criminal Court issued a news release on November 22, saying that Bouba had been arrested, but it does not include any details on the crimes against humanity and war crimes that are charged. Bouba is being held at a military camp outside of Bangui.

The SCC is a novel court established to help limit widespread impunity for serious crimes in the Central African Republic. The court is staffed by both international and national judges and prosecutors, and benefits from international assistance. It has the authority to try grave crimes committed during the country’s armed conflicts since 2003. Internationally accepted standards for fair trials, including the presumption of innocence and the requirement that guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, are enshrined in the court’s rules of procedure and evidence.

The law to establish the court was adopted in 2015, but the court did not officially begin operations until 2018. The SCC was established after national consultations in 2015, known as the Bangui Forum, had prioritized justice, and stated that “no amnesty” would be tolerated for those responsible for and acting as accomplices in international crimes.

Bouba’s charges come two months after another high-profile arrest by the SCC. Capt. Eugène Ngaïkosset – known within the country as “The Butcher of Paoua” – whose arrest was confirmed on September 4, is charged with crimes against humanity. Ngaïkosset led a presidential guard unit implicated in numerous crimes, including the killing of at least dozens of civilians and the burning of thousands of homes in the country’s northwest and northeast between 2005 and 2007.

Bouba is regarded as having moved up to the number two position in the UPC in October 2015 after his predecessor, Hamat Nejad, was killed in an ambush in Bangui. Human Rights Watch spoke and met with Bouba several times between 2015 and 2021, and shared research the organization had conducted on crimes that were committed by the UPC.

The UPC lobbied for a general amnesty during 18 months of peace talks negotiated by the African Union. The peace accord, finalized in Khartoum, Sudan, in February 2019, is vague on steps needed to ensure post-conflict justice and did not mention specific judicial processes, but it recognized the role impunity played in entrenching violence. While the accord did not mention amnesty, Bouba told Human Rights Watch in February 2019 that for the UPC, the peace deal means a general amnesty. “If the government arrests a member of an armed group, then there is no more accord,” he said.

On September 8 the SCC’s substitute prosecutor, Alain Tolmo, announced that the court intends to begin its first trials before the end of the year, and that the court has multiple cases under investigation. The court is based in Bangui, which will help Central Africans affected by the crimes to more easily follow and interact with efforts to ensure that suspects face criminal accountability, Human Rights Watch said. The SCC’s judicial efforts operate in tandem with International Criminal Court investigations and prosecutions of serious crimes committed in the country, along with some cases dealing with lesser conflict-related crimes before the country’s ordinary criminal courts.

The SCC faces funding challenges and needs further support to continue to advance its important work, Human Rights Watch said. Organizations, including Human Rights Watch, wrote to members of the US Congress on November 18 to urge renewal of the US government’s important $3 million 2021 contribution to the court.

“The Special Criminal Court is playing a vital role in helping to puncture pervasive impunity in the Central African Republic,” Mudge said. “When Bouba was promoted to minister many felt it could be yet another example of how it can pay to commit serious crimes in the Central African Republic. His arrest is a warning to other suspects in positions of power that the reign of impunity in the country may be running short.”
 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 24, 2021, 4:00 pm
Click to expand Image General view during the Gender-Based Violence (GBV) protest march organized by the Office of The Premier in collaboration with Phepha Foundation on April 26, 2021 in Durban, South Africa. © 2021 Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images

(Johannesburg) – The South African government has taken important steps but did not provide adequate funding for shelters and other services for gender-based violence survivors during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many survivors have been made more vulnerable in the context of Covid-19.

The South African government has acknowledged high rates of gender-based violence both during and before the pandemic. But South African experts told Human Rights Watch that despite promises – including in a National Strategic Plan – to address gender-based violence and femicide, the government has still failed to provide necessary funding for shelters and other services. Efforts should be made to improve access for marginalized people, including sex workers; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people; and undocumented survivors.

“South Africa is facing a situation in which survivors have been locked down with abusers, and they need economic security to free themselves from their abusers, all during a very tight job market and a period of food insecurity,” said Wendy Isaack, LGBT researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Key services such as shelters have been under huge stress for months because of pandemic-related problems and costs and long-standing difficulties like late payment of funds in some places and patchy government support.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed staff at seven shelters spread across the country and six other frontline organizations working directly with victims to prevent gender-based violence or provide emergency support to survivors. Human Rights Watch also interviewed activists and other experts from 12 organizations working to end this violence. Human Rights Watch made unsuccessful attempts to interview or obtain feedback from South Africa’s Department of Social Development (DSD), which oversees shelter services.

Those interviewed said that the biggest problem was a lack of adequate government funding to help overwhelmed nongovernmental organizations providing direct support to victims, including shelters, cope with the pandemic.

The DSD should finalize its draft Intersectoral Shelter Policy as a matter of urgency, and all government agencies involved should carry out planned improvements.

Immediate-, medium- and long-term impacts from South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdowns have increased the risk for women and girls of domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence. Human Rights Watch research with frontline workers in South Africa suggests that this risk may be greater for additionally marginalized people like black lesbians, transgender men and women, sex workers, and older women, as well as refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented migrants.

Those interviewed said that domestic violence victims living under lockdown were cut off from others who might help them, giving them no respite from partners or family members beating, raping, or psychologically or verbally abusing them.

Government support to shelters during the Covid-19 pandemic appeared to vary enormously among provinces. Some shelters described firm relationships and public health guidance and other support from the provincial DSD staff. Shelters in the Western Cape, for example, said that the agency provided guidance, solidarity, and personal protective equipment (PPE) and that funding for shelters arrived on time.

In other places, though, funding was late. The National Shelter Movement of South Africa, a nonprofit organization with about 78 shelters under its umbrella, said that some staff even had to take personal loans to pay expenses. The South African government did promote a hotline for victims it had set up in 2014, but civil society members said it sometimes provided confusing or out-of-date information and that it was hard for some victims to use because they were afraid their abuser would hear them.

Commentators have said that the South African government worked to keep services open for the survivors. But experts criticized the South African government, saying it was too late to acknowledge the impact of strict lockdowns and had not provided adequate public information about shelters and services to make clear that domestic violence victims could leave their homes to get help.

Frontline workers said that many people, perhaps especially among vulnerable populations, were further endangered by the sudden loss of jobs, incomes, or housing. Sex workers, in particular, were forced to leave brothels and to take greater risks to make ends meet as the work dried up, sex worker rights groups said. Research by Human Rights Watch in 2018 found that female sex workers are especially vulnerable to violence in South Africa, in part because their work is criminalized.

Frontline workers also said that loss of income and lack of food security made undocumented migrants even more dependent on abusive partners and less likely to leave them. Human Rights Watch research found that the government’s Covid-19 aid programs, including food parcels during national lockdown, overlooked people with disabilities, refugees and asylum seekers, and many LGBT people.

Shelters vary in whether they accept undocumented migrant survivors. South African law prohibits sheltering immigrants without documentation but allows for emergency humanitarian support for undocumented people. The exception is not clearly defined, and some shelters fear liability for violating the law. South Africa has one shelter designed for LGBT survivors, the Pride Shelter in Cape Town. Though other shelters accept them in theory, experts said that more funding, training, and skills building is needed to counter discrimination and bias in the shelter space, provide tailored services, and raise awareness about availability of shelter services among marginalized populations.

The pandemic and lockdowns temporarily affected or made impossible some important in-house services in shelters, such as some forms of counseling and job training, Human Rights Watch found. Job opportunities for clients evaporated. Shelters were unable to carry out normal in-person outreach activities to raise awareness about their services as well as fundraising activities to support themselves or supplement government grants.

Perhaps because of uncertainty and isolation, several shelter workers said they felt that anxiety and depression among clients increased. Staff also had to make significant changes to how they worked, they and experts said, for example, working week-long shifts rather than going home every day, and there were many reports of burnout among shelter staff.

Inconsistent government support for the shelters is not a new problem. The Heinrich Böll Foundation for example, together with the National Shelter Movement, has long noted that shelters are “chronically underfunded,” and that funding is also highly variable between and within provinces. A 2019 report on the state of shelters by the Commission for Gender Equality, an independent government watchdog body, found “grossly inadequate and misaligned” funding for shelters from the agency and late payments in some provinces.

Ongoing sensitization and skills training for shelter staff to prevent discrimination against LGBT people, sex workers, or undocumented African non-nationals and to ensure tailored services are available is important, Human Rights Watch said. The DSD should also ensure that all shelters accept undocumented survivors and know how to assist them with immigration procedures.

“The government of South Africa has been addressing gender-based violence during the crisis over the past year,” Isaack said. “But a large-scale and fully resourced effort will be needed to ensure the Covid-19 crisis and its fallout over the next years doesn’t result in South Africa’s rates for gender-based violence worsening further.”

For more information about gender-based violence in South Africa and the impact on shelter services, please see below.

Gender-Based Violence in South Africa

South Africa’s president has characterized gender-based violence in South Africa as a “second pandemic,” after the coronavirus. Statistics, including police reports, are worrying but incomplete, both because of problems with data collection and because victims often do not report abuse. Despite the lack of accurate statistics, it is evident that the rates are high, both for women and for LGBT people.

It is also not yet clear to what extent gender-based violence increased during the Covid-19 lockdowns. An analysis by the Heinrich Böll Foundation released in August 2021 found that various data, including police reporting, a government helpline, and hospitals, did not provide a clear indication that rates had increased, but said that more research was needed. Several people interviewed said that they thought rates increased, and experts and frontline workers widely agreed that the pandemic created additional vulnerabilities.

The South African government has ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and passed national laws to carry out its obligations imposed by those treaties in domestic law. These include the 1998 Domestic Violence Act, the 2012 Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, the 1998 Maintenance Act, and the 2011 Protection from Harassment Act.

In September 2021 parliament passed three linked bills amending relevant laws. One, the Domestic Violence Amendment Act, should make it easier for victims to get protection orders.

There is political will to address the crisis, but adequate funding has long been a problem, Human Rights Watch found. The National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide attributed the high rates of gender-based violence to South Africa’s history of violence and apartheid, but also to government underinvestment in solving the problem. Others have also concluded that budgetary constraints and lack of cooperation among government departments have undermined progress. Victims lack support when attempting to report violence and lack adequate access to courts and to shelters. The experts interviewed said that the pandemic worsened these problems.

The Commission on Gender Equality’s March 2020 submission to the United Nations committee that oversees states’ compliance with Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women detailed the situation just prior to the pandemic and lockdown. It said that while there was “political willingness to lead national efforts to deal with gender-based violence”, in practice, funding and implementation of a pre-Covid-19-era Emergency Response Action Plan was “still unfolding.” Despite promises of more support, the commission said that even before the pandemic, a lack of government funding had meant the shelters were forced to close, police were undertrained, and medical services for rape survivors were lacking.

The National Strategic Plan is the result of years of activism by South African civil society, including demonstrations in August 2018 that triggered a Presidential Summit Against Gender-Based Violence. Drafted by government and activists, the South African cabinet has also approved the plan. However, it is difficult to track how the plan is being funded. In February 2021 in response to government efforts, the private sector pledged a total of 128 million South African Rand (R, about US$8.1 million) to fight gender-based violence.

Government financial support to shelters and services for survivors is an important part of meeting human rights obligations to address gender-based violence. The National Plan’s Pillar 4, “Response, Care Support and Healing,” and Pillar 5, “Economic Empowerment” tasks the DSD with increasing funding for shelters and services at shelters, and to increase access to shelters and interim housing for all victims, including LGBT people, sex workers, undocumented immigrants, older women, and women with older children.

Covid-19 and Economic Insecurity

The abrupt change in economic activity caused by the pandemic and response had a profound impact on many South African’s economic security. Interviewees said that certain marginalized populations, in particular, African LGBT asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, and sex workers, already more at risk of violence, experienced a significant drop in food security and loss of income. This compounded their risk, especially for those who were forced into homelessness.

Human Rights Watch analysis showed that the authorities did not take steps to facilitate support, including from donors, for refugees and asylum seekers whose access to food and other basic necessities were limited during the nationwide lockdown. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to ascertain, the government did not consult with people from vulnerable and marginalized groups, such as people with disabilities, leaving many at serious risk of Covid-19 infection, hunger, and other harm.

“Things were very bad to be honest – migrant sex workers were told to move out of brothels and safe houses,” a sex worker peer advocate said about her efforts to assist sex workers in a small town in Gauteng province. “We intervened and made agreements [with the owners] like [in one place] – as long as the sex workers were able to pay electricity the owner allowed them to stay. In another brothel [the owner] gave them a few days after we intervened, but eventually they had to go.”

Dudu Dlamini, a sex worker activist, said that “Sex workers had no cash, no income, they were chased out of houses by landlords”. She said that the loss of income often affected three or four dependents. “They couldn't go home without bringing money, (couldn’t) visit their children.”

August 7, 2019 Why Sex Work Should be Decriminalised in South Africa

Sex work remains criminalized in South Africa, and as a result, the South African Police Service in some places perpetuates abuse by profiling and harassing sex workers. “Lockdown amplified the challenges for sex workers,” said Nosipho Vidima, a sex workers’ rights advocate. “You can imagine if you’re trying to work and there’s no one else in the street because of curfew… sex workers were harassed and arrested by police for being out, because they were known to be sex workers.”

A social worker at People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression, and Poverty (PASSOP), a community-based organization working to defend the rights of asylum seekers, refugees, and non-nationals in Cape Town, said economic insecurity because of the pandemic made it even less likely that their clients, mostly undocumented immigrant LGBT survivors of gender-based violence, would leave abusive partners or report violence. “The majority [of our clients] have lost their jobs [and the need for food and shelter have been those most faced during Covid-19,” he said, adding that the group’s programming had been replaced by proving food parcels and other emergency relief.

“[Even under better times] our clients can’t get work and struggle because they don’t have documents and so have to rely on partners even if they are ill-treated,” he said. He said that at least nine clients were doing sex work to survive, and some had faced police harassment and others violence, and all were more likely to have unsafe sex.

“We did an announcement about our food parcels on the radio as well as our evacuation services and our line blew up,” the codirector from Rise Up Against Gender-Based Violence said. “[Newly homeless people needed] things like buckets to go get water and plastic bags to keep their things in. Especially during the hard lockdown, we had a lot of LGBTIQ people we needed to assist because their families had thrown them out of homes [and] we also did a lot of parcels for non-nationals because there was no assistance for undocumented people.”

Covid-19 Impacts on Gender-Based Violence Shelters

Human Rights Watch found that the pandemic had a significant impact on gender-based violence shelters. The shelters provide refuge from violence and include safe houses that offer temporary accommodation. Crises centers typically offer accommodation for three to six months, and most interviewed by Human Rights Watch also provide counseling, psychosocial and emotional assistance, and life planning, skills building and job training, as well as connections to courts or other government services such as help with protection orders or divorces.

Human Rights Watch did not receive any reports about major Covid-19 outbreaks in shelters, but protecting clients and staff from Covid-19 infection and managing lockdowns strained shelters in many ways. Several shelter workers said that stress and anxiety were greatly heightened for both clients and staff. “We probably worked harder than ever before,” said a senior social worker from a Durban shelter in KwaZulu-Natal. “We had greater levels of anxiety than before among the clients.”

One social worker said that a client and a worker, a cleaner at her shelter, had died of Covid-19, causing anxiety and distress among both staff and clients. “It was a roller coaster,” she said.

Clients at shelters had to self-isolate, especially new arrivals, meaning they lost out on solidarity and community, made worse by restrictions against visitors or making trips outside of the shelter. At one Gauteng shelter, for example, new clients had to self-isolate for 14 days. “It was a very traumatic time,” said a social worker at the shelter. “I’ve never spoken or debriefed about it, but it was frustrating and depressing and not just for the clients here but also for the staff.”

Two other senior shelter workers said that they and their staff had not had a chance to talk about the impact of the pandemic on their wellbeing, and a few people said that the work and sacrifices of shelter staff had not been acknowledged, and that burnout was increasingly a problem. “Everyone just put their heads down and did the work, but now we’re seeing the impact on staff,” said a senior social worker at a 120-bed shelter, Saartjie Bartman Centre, in Cape Town. At least two shelters moved employees from daily shifts, going home at night, to working a week at a time to reduce exposure.

Protections against Covid-19 also created additional costs. “We spent huge amounts of money on PPE in the first months, some R60,000 [about $3,800],” said a senior social worker at the Saartjie Bartman Centre. Like others, this shelter also spent precious funds on private car services to reduce staff exposure on public transport. Fundraising events were canceled and at least some shelters decided to stop in-kind deliveries of food and other support that they usually depend on to reduce opportunities for virus transmission. In-person outreach work in communities also stopped, potentially reducing people’s access and knowledge about sheltering.

Covid-19 Impacts on Services for Survivors

Shelter workers said that perhaps the most worrying loss for shelter residents from the pandemic has been job opportunities. “Women can't find jobs now, some have been with us for six months now and have no follow-up plan because of that,” a KwaZulu-Natal social worker at a shelter said in February. “I refuse to send a client back to an abusive situation.”

“Our clients have been disappointed,” said a senior social worker from the Sahara Shelter. “A lot come here unemployed, and we try to work as much as possible with local businesses and people who can give our clients jobs, so they have income, but that's not been possible under Covid-19.” Another social worker said that “We have 15 women [clients] with us now, and only two are employed – it's terrible.”

Government services were harder to get, including some lifesaving services. “Some government officials were working from home and it was hard to reach them”, a social worker from a shelter in the Eastern Cape Province said. “[This] led to a delay in service delivery to our clients and also added strain on them with regard to their cases. In the beginning of the lockdown, cases were postponed in court and protection orders could not be granted on the date set.”

“We faced huge problems in getting protection orders,” another social worker said.

Others said that health services were affected, with some hospitals shutting down or canceling normal services their clients depended on, some medications being harder to get, and general anxiety and uncertainty as to when taking a client to a hospital or clinic was worth the risk of exposure to Covid-19. “Access to mental [health services] and other health care has proved to be extremely inaccessible during lockdown, even more so than before,” a domestic violence worker in the Cape Flats said.

Shelters struggled to keep essential services such as psychosocial – mental health – support and counseling ongoing, and these essential services were halted in some places for at least a period. Some shelters lost at least some programming. “We also had to stop all our extra services,” said one social worker.

Organizations like SWEAT, the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce, and Mothers for the Future, a SWEAT offshoot, who work to support sex workers including protecting them against gender-based violence, struggled with major programming losses, especially in the early days of the pandemic. “We had to stop support group meetings,” Dlamini said. “We moved over to a WhatsApp group so we could provide a little support.”

“We even saw places that had provided condoms for free had shut down,” said a sex worker activist, Megan Lessing. “Some sex workers were earning R50 a day [about $3.20] and paying R20 [about $1.30] for condoms.”

Access to Shelters for Marginalized Survivors

Human Rights Watch found that shelters differed in whom they accepted as clients. Undocumented migrants, LGBT people, and women with older male children were sometimes excluded, for reasons that range from lack of private family facilities to concern about running afoul of the immigration law, or not being able to pay expenses the government would not reimburse for non-nationals. Older women, people who use drugs, and women with severe illnesses were sometimes excluded as well, with many facilities lacking the resources to provide specialized health or services, such as personal care and other support, to people with disabilities, including older people with disabilities.

While sex workers, transwomen, transmen, and lesbians, were usually accepted in theory, people working with these vulnerable groups said that particular group often did not feel welcome and that more needed to be done to help them access shelters.

“Vulnerable groups struggle to find or use shelters mainly because of stigma,” a shelter social worker said. “They are often discriminated against by the public and by staff at shelters … and they're coming from a place where there's a lack of acceptance to start with from family members.”

Citing security concerns, about half of the shelters contacted would not take older boys, usually any male over 12. Two shelters said that they did not take older women, in one case because of fears that they would never find another home for them. “We can't [discharge] them because other support structures [like [older] people’s homes] are not working,” said one social worker. More commonly shelters said that they would not take women using drugs, because they are not set up to safely provide necessary services.

“Some shelters won't take foreign nationals, especially undocumented people, [and] we spent a lot of time trying to place foreign nationals,” said one person who had helped more than 50 women leave domestic violence in Johannesburg. “We will assist, we won't judge them if they've got papers and have been referred to us and have a right to be in the country,” one shelter social worker said. Others said that they would take undocumented survivors, but it was “problematic … we then have to refer them to the correct institutions handling their cases.”

The Creighton Shelter in KwaZulu-Natal said that they had recently taken in a transwoman. “It was very hard for her to find a shelter because in her ID she's still a man," the manager said. Other shelters said that staff can feel reluctant to accept transwomen in the facility, especially if there are no private rooms and bathrooms, or training for staff. Another shelter manager and National Shelter Movement executive committee member, Bernadine Bachar, said that the shelter serves transwomen, but that generally, “there’s a lot of reluctance to take transwomen. Staff feel that they’re not equipped to deal with issues.”

Sex workers experience barriers to accessing shelters, including assumptions about their drug use, on whether they can remain working and not violate shelter rules, or whether they have immigration documentation. One shelter worker said: “Sex workers are sometimes [dependent on] drugs; we have a zero-tolerance policy on that.” She also said that female sex workers often “disregard” the shelter’s 5 p.m. curfew, along with the government’s Covid-19 regulations.

“Sex workers … often do not stay long because they have to leave to do their work and so they violate the shelter rules as well as Covid lockdown regulation,” another person interviewed said.

“I put one sex worker in a shelter and the staff there saw her working and told us to take her to another shelter,” Dlamini said. “And there was another case where a sex worker tested positive for drugs and so was not allowed to stay.”

Sex workers usually do not even consider a shelter an option, a sex worker peer said. “The general feeling is that without a South African ID you can't access anything.”

Government Support During the Pandemic

Unlike many other governments in the region, South Africa does provide support to shelters, and the pandemic has placed many strains on government institutions and services, Human Rights Watch said. It is apparently difficult to calculate government spending on gender-based violence, but experts agree that more funding and focus is needed.

Experts said that the government was too slow to publicly note that the pandemic and the stringent lockdowns had increased the risks of gender-based violence. They said that national and local officials have never acknowledged the added dangers to some groups like sex workers, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants as well as LGBT people. The experts also said that it was not made clear from the beginning that shelters and other services were essential services that would remain open and that survivors could leave their houses to get help even during curfew or the various levels of lockdown. “Women didn’t know what was going on,” Bachar said. “It was unconscionable.”

South African authorities’ enforcement of curfews and lockdowns has been strict, and sometimes violent, which may have affected victims’ ability to seek help. In June 2020 a report by the Atlantic Council noted that, “Since South Africa instituted a country-wide lockdown on March 27, the number of violent incidents by police against civilians has reportedly more than doubled, with poor and vulnerable populations most affected.”

For many shelters, work with local government officials and police continued during the pandemic even if it was bumpy. Some said they got some additional assistance like funds, PPE including masks and sanitizers, and advice from the government, although more commonly from the National Shelter Movement.

A social worker at the Sahara Shelter in Durban said: “we got masks and sanitizer … whenever there was stuff available (DSD) would drop it off and they helped with deep cleaning two or three times.”

“DSD worked with us from the beginning to prepare, even before lockdown, they sent an epidemiologist to consult with shelters,” a senior worker at a large shelter of 120 beds in Cape Town said. Other shelters said that they did not get any additional support from the government and instead were dependent on the National Shelter Movement for PPE and other resources as well as guidance on how to handle social distancing for example.

The biggest problem was when funding arrived late, those interviewed said. But the overall lack of funding for shelters, even when on time was also consistently mentioned as a problem. “A lack of funding means many shelter workers earn a minimum wage even though they are essential and the work they do is so important,” said Claudia Lopes from the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Lopes and Kailash Bhana, who are doing research for the Heinrich Böll Foundation on the impact of Covid-19 on shelters, and Lisa Vetten, another expert, said that two shelters in the Eastern Cape had to halt their operations because they could not afford to pay for food as they had not received government funding during the pandemic. They said that at least one shelter in the Northwest province, struggled to feed about 80 clients, some of them children, and came close to collapse because of significantly delayed government funding.

Experts also expressed concerns about the quality of a government hotline set up during the pandemic for victims. “We were shocked by the GBV [gender-based violence] hotline,” the codirector at Rise Up Against Gender-Based Violence said. “[Victims are] trapped in their homes with their abuser and you're giving them a telephone line. Many people have no phone, and [even if they do] the abuser is within earshot.”

Even when survivors could call, said Lopes, hotline workers were sometimes giving callers inappropriate advice and “deciding for themselves whether someone was eligible for shelters or not” rather than just doing referrals. In one example, she said, “the victim’s partner was a gangster, and she was needing urgent escape from the situation and the community that she lives in, but the command center told her that she was not eligible for sheltering as she could be accommodated elsewhere, essentially with her mom in the same community she had to leave for her own safety. They simply didn’t understand the dynamics.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 24, 2021, 10:00 am
Click to expand Image Two women and a child huddle in sleeping bags on the forest floor after crossing the Polish-Belarusian border near Michalowo on October 6, 2021. © 2021 Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via AP

(Brussels) – The crisis at the Belarus-Poland border is leading to serious human rights violations against migrants and asylum seekers by both governments, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 26-page report, “‘Die Here or Go to Poland’: Belarus’ and Poland’s Shared Responsibility for Border Abuses,” documents serious abuses on both sides of the border. People trapped on the Belarus border with Poland said that they had been pushed back, sometimes violently, by Polish border guards to Belarus despite pleading for asylum. On the Belarusian side, accounts of violence, inhuman and degrading treatment and coercion by Belarusian border guards were commonplace.

“While Belarus manufactured this situation without regard for the human consequences, Poland shares responsibility for the acute suffering in the border area,” said Lydia Gall, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Men, women, and children have been ping-ponged across the border for days or weeks in freezing weather, desperately needing humanitarian assistance that is being blocked on both sides.

Human Rights Watch went to both countries in October 2021 and conducted in-depth interviews with 19 people, including single men, families with children, and women traveling alone.

Trapped on the Belarusian side, stranded or lost on the Polish side, people told harrowing stories of trudging through forests, swamps, marshlands, and rivers in freezing temperatures for days and even weeks without food or water. Some said they were forced to drink swamp water or collect rain water in leaves to drink. At least 13 people have died as a result of inhumane conditions, including a 1-year-old Syrian boy.

A 35-year-old man from the Democratic Republic of Congo, traveling with his wife and 3 children, all under 7, said his family was pushed back twice by Polish border guards in October. During the second incident, he said he pleaded with the Polish guards for asylum but that they would not listen: “They said, ‘There’s no asylum, there’s nothing, go back to where you came from!’ They [took us by vans] and made us go back to Belarus, to the neutral zone.”

The mid-November standoff at the Bruzgi border crossing, where thousands of people were trapped, is the culimination of developments since last May following the state hijacking by Belarus of a Ryanair airplane to arrest a passenger. His arrest triggered European Union sanctions against Belarus, to which Belarus president Aleksandr Lukashenko responded by stating that he would open Belarus’ border to migrants by facilitating visas.

Since August, thousands of people, mainly from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, have traveled to the capital Minsk in Belarus, through Middle East-based holiday tour operators making false claims of easy EU entry.

Three people told Human Rights Watch that Polish border guards separated their families, including parents from their children, when they took those in need of medical care to the hospital, but pushed the other family members back to Belarus. A Syrian woman whom the Polish border guards decided needed medical care was separated from her 5-year-old son in late October, who, together with other family members, was pushed back to Belarus. Still in Poland, she had had no contact with her family since being separated from them.

In response to a letter from Human Rights Watch, Polish authorities denied that they engaged in pushbacks, separating families, or refusing to consider asylum claims. However, citing a recent amendment to the law in Poland, they said border officials were authorized to immediately return people who crossed the border illegally and, as of November 16, 2021, border officials had prevented 29, 921 from crossing illegally this year.

Following Polish pushbacks, interviewees said, Belarusian border guards detained and abused them in “collection sites,” open spaces where migrants were gathered and trapped, without food, water, or shelter and prevented from going back to Minsk or their own countries. Belarusian authorities have not responded to a request from Human Rights Watch to comment on the findings

Until November 18, thousands of people on the Belarusian side were sleeping in a makeshift camp at Bruzgi, one of the major border crossings. Belarusian authorities have dismantled the camp and reportedly accommodated at least some of the people in a warehouse nearby, although the situation and whereabouts of those who had been in the makeshift camp is unknown.

Belarusian and Polish authorities have an obligation to prevent further deaths by ensuring regular humanitarian access to the people stuck in the border area, Human Rights Watch said. Both countries should also immediately halt ping-pong pushbacks and allow independent observers, including journalists and human rights workers, access to currently restricted border areas. In August and September, the European Court of Human Rights instructed Poland to provide food, water, clothing, adequate medical care, and if possible temporary shelter to persons on the border. The European Court does not have jurisdiction over Belarus.

Belarus’ abuse of people at its border amounts at least to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and may in some cases constitute torture, in violation of Belarus’ international legal obligations. The authorities should immediately halt the abusive practices and hold those responsible for abuses to account.

Pushback practices by Polish border guards violate the right to asylum under EU law including the charter of fundamental rights, create a risk of chain refoulement contrary to international refugee law, and expose people to inhuman and degrading conditions, in violation of Polish and EU law.

European Commission has failed to speak publicly about Poland’s responsibility for the abuses and the human crisis at its border, or to clearly call on Poland to stop banning media and humanitarian groups from areas where abuses are taking place.

“The European Commission should start showing solidarity with the victims at the border on both sides who are suffering and dying,” Gall said. “Belarus may have orchestrated the crisis but that doesn’t absolve Poland and EU institutions of their human rights obligations. Brussels should push Warsaw to put preservation of human life at the core of its response.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 24, 2021, 5:01 am
Click to expand Image French President Emmanuel Macron, left, greets Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi before a conference with several world leaders in Paris, November 12, 2021.  © 2021 AP Photo/Francois Mori

A media investigation has alleged that classified documents show that a secret French military intelligence operation may have supported the Egyptian Air Force in targeting civilians under the guise of fighting terrorism. The documents appear to expose how the French government knew about the operation along Egypt’s western border with Libya but failed to investigate.

Disclose, an investigative news site, reported on November 21 that the previously undisclosed French operation in Egypt began in February 2016 when a team of ten active French military and ex-military personnel were sent to Egypt’s western desert equipped with light surveillance aircraft with the mission of identifying terrorist activity originating in Libya.

The mission reportedly followed an Egyptian request in 2015 for aerial intelligence assistance along the Libyan border. France’s then defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, agreed to set up “operational and immediate cooperation” with Egypt as part of the global fight against terrorism.

According to the report, reconnaissance of terrorist activity quickly mutated into a mission that effectively assisted the Egyptian government’s extrajudicial executions in the region against alleged traffickers. The French team purportedly provided a stream of surveillance information to the Egyptian Air Force, which may have led to at least 19 airstrikes with casualties between 2016 and 2018.

Reports sent to the Élysée Palace appear to detail concerns that the proper identification of pick-up trucks in the area could not be made “without a separate element of surveillance other than the initial overflight of which they were the subject.” According to the documents published by Disclose, the military intelligence informed French armed forces minister Florence Parly that “known cases of the destruction of targets detected by the aircraft are established.”

On November 22 an investigation “into the information disseminated by Disclose” was announced by the French Ministry of Armed Forces. However, it was unclear whether the investigation would focus on the origins of the leaks themselves or the allegations contained therein.

France has previously aided the Egyptian government’s appalling human rights record. Egypt is among France’s top arms clients and France continues to sign major arms deals with Sisi’s government – also under a pretext of security and fighting terrorism – despite evidence that some of these weapons had been used to violently suppress protests and commit other human rights violations.

France should immediately investigate the allegations made by Disclose into the reconnaissance mission in Egypt’s western desert and suspend all sales of security-related assistance to the Egyptian government.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 23, 2021, 3:48 pm
Click to expand Image Rohingya refugees board a ship while being moved to Bhasan Char, Bangladesh, December 29, 2020. © 2020 Kazi Salahuddin Razu/NurPhoto via AP

(New York) – Bangladesh authorities should halt relocations to Bhasan Char island until freedom of movement and other rights of Rohingya refugees are protected, Human Rights Watch said today. Refugees and humanitarian workers said the authorities have already identified hundreds of families in the mainland camps to be relocated, starting imminently.

Letter to Ambassadors Re: Humanitarian response for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh Letter to Ambassadors Re: Humanitarian response for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

These relocations would contravene the October 2021 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) signed with the Bangladesh government establishing a framework for UN support for refugee operations on Bhasan Char. The government should ensure that the UN refugee agency can fully support and protect Rohingya refugees living on Bhasan Char island, Human Rights Watch said in a recent letter to donors. Donors should insist that Bangladesh fully halt relocations until UNHCR has developed a process for ensuring free and informed consent.

“Bangladesh’s October agreement with the UN doesn’t provide a free ticket to forcibly relocate Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch. “On the contrary, donor governments will now be scrutinizing Bhasan Char to ensure their assistance doesn’t contribute to abuses.”

Bangladesh authorities have already moved nearly 20,000 Rohingya refugees to the remote, flood-prone island, claiming that the relocations were necessary to ease the overcrowding in the Cox’s Bazar camps. Many refugees were transferred to the island without full, informed consent, and have been prevented from returning to the mainland.

While the agreement permits the UN to have a presence on Bhasan Char, serious concerns remain regarding the island’s safety, as well as the processes through which fundamental principles such as informed consent and freedom of movement will be upheld.

In mid-November, Human Rights Watch interviewed 18 refugees, community leaders, and humanitarian workers in the Cox’s Bazar camps on the mainland. They said that camp officials and government security agencies are coercing Rohingya community leaders, called majhis, to persuade other refugees to relocate, including by confiscating their identity documents. One majhi told Human Rights Watch:

“During the meeting, the CiC [camp-in-charge, a Bangladeshi official] specifically asked us to select big families, families who were affected by the landslides or floods or recent fires, and submit the list. He said he will do a lottery. The families that come out of the lottery, they will need to go [to Bhasan Char]. No option, no mercy.”

He said he didn’t agree with such policies but felt bound to enforce them due to his role:

“People in my block or camp trust me. Even though the authorities are kicking my community around for nothing, I can’t say anything or protest. It feels bad. But there is nothing I can do.”

Another majhi said that he had been told to mislead the refugees: “We are told not to mention anything about Bhasan Char if we are asked by the refugees, and instead say that good news is awaiting them.”

Another said he did not tell anyone why he was collecting their family data card:

“Later, the families reached out to me saying that if their names will be on the list for relocation to Bhasan Char, they would not go, and would rather die in the camp. We have fallen into a situation where we have to follow the instructions from the CiCs, but we know for sure these people have not agreed to relocate to Bhasan Char, as now most of them have already heard about the conditions on that island.”

Eleven refugees told Human Rights Watch that they had already given their family attestation number or been asked to do so. One man said they were threatened: “If families resisted, the majhis became angry and threatened stern action. He warned that the CiC had said that those who refused to hand over their FCN [family counting number] cards would face problems. We don’t know what sort of problems we’d have to face.”

At least three officials with international humanitarian agencies confirmed that the majhis have been collecting FCN cards, and in some cases their smart cards, for possible relocation to Bhasan Char. Some majhis and Bangladeshi intelligence officials had even threatened people or demanded bribes.

The 20,000 refugees on Bhasan Char have faced severe movement restrictions, food shortages, abuses by security forces, and inadequate education, health care, and livelihood opportunities. Hundreds have attempted to escape, some even drowning in the process, while those caught have been detained and beaten.

The agreement with UNHCR does not indicate how refugees will be identified for relocation or the measures to be taken to ensure that their decisions are fully informed and voluntary.

Governments should condition any funding for Bhasan Char on the Bangladesh government meeting specific benchmarks, including ensuring free and informed consent; freedom of movement on Bhasan Char and off the island; a technical assessment of safety and habitability; and access to health care, education, and livelihoods, Human Rights Watch said.

The agreement indicates that movement between Bhasan Char and the mainland camps will be restricted on an unspecified “needs basis,” raising concerns that the status quo policy, which has already had deadly impact, will continue. Refugees currently require a series of extensive permissions to leave the island, even in case of medical emergency, a lengthy process that has in some instances delayed access to urgent care and led to preventable deaths.

Rohingya on Bhasan Char have reported increasing health concerns that have gone untreated or inadequately treated, including an outbreak of pneumonia among children. With growing numbers of Rohingya attempting to leave the island, even since the agreement was signed, the authorities are allegedly refusing permission to leave for serious health conditions, despite inadequate facilities and care. Refugees on Bhasan Char said that over the last two months, five Rohingya have died after being denied permission to get treatment on the mainland.

Donors should urge the Bangladesh government to end existing movement restrictions and ensure full freedom of movement around the island and between the island and mainland. A system should be developed to provide effective remedy to the 20,000 Rohingya refugees who have been moved to Bhasan Char, including by urgently allowing any who wish to return to the camps in Cox’s Bazar to do so and by providing restitution to those who were forcibly relocated.

The UN, other implementing agencies, and donors should have full access to monitor the situation, to ensure that the agreement is being carried out and provide transparency and accountability by publicly reporting on progress made under the agreement, Human Rights Watch said.

“If Rohingya refugees aren’t allowed to freely travel from Bhasan Char to the mainland, even for medical emergencies, the island will effectively remain a prison,” Frelick said. “Donors should weigh in at this critical juncture to ensure that the Rohingya are protected, and their rights upheld.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 23, 2021, 2:00 pm
Click to expand Image Protestors clash with police in Khartoum, Sudan during a protest against the October military takeover of the transitional government, November 17, 2021 © 2021 AP Photo/Marwan Ali

(Nairobi) – Security forces have repeatedly used excessive force, including lethal force, against demonstrators in and around Khartoum, Human Rights said today. Sixteen people were shot dead on November 17, 2021, alone, including a woman and a child, the deadliest response to date. Protesters again took to the streets on November 21, despite the announcement that the prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, had been released and had signed a deal with the military.

“The ruthless killing of 16 people on November 17, many shot in the head, shows clearly that Sudan’s security forces had no intention of exercising restraint, but are bent on silencing Sudanese voices,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Sudan’s backers should not, in the name of political expediency, let these crimes go unanswered nor those responsible get away with them.”

The November 21 deal with Hamdok reinstates him as prime minister and allows him to form a technocratic government. The deal also calls for the release of “political detainees,” and national investigations into abuses. The deal was immediately rejected by protesters and the Freedom and Change Forces (FFC), the political alliance that once represented the civilian component in the transitional government, which was overthrown.

Since the October 25 military coup, groups have organized multiple large-scale demonstrations during which security forces have repeatedly used lethal force. While the prime minister was signing the deal with the military leadership, security forces used teargas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition to disperse protesters outside. Human Rights Watch spoke to 10 protesters and 3 doctors, and reviewed 7 video clips posted online. The Sudanese Archive, an independent rights organization that archives, verifies, and investigates open-source documentation in Sudan, verified the videos.

According to doctors’ groups, 41 people have been killed since the protests began, including 5 children and a woman. The military has deployed joint forces including Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), Rapid Support Forces (RSF), regular police, riot police, and Central Reserve Police (CRP), a militarized police unit, at protests in Khartoum and its outskirts.

According to forensic reports seen by Human Rights Watch, 6 of 12 people on whom autopsies were carried out after November 17 had been shot in the head, one in the neck, and five in the chest. Medical reports said that 107 were wounded, including 48 reportedly due to live ammunitions.

On November 18 the police denied that their forces had used live ammunition. Human Rights Watch examined reports filed by families of the killed at police stations for eight protesters killed on November 17, citing live ammunition injuries as the cause of death. Lt. General al-Burhan, the military chief, denied in a televised interview on November 7 that the army was involved in previous killings. However, evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch, including witness accounts, forensic reports, and video footage, point to the use of live ammunition by security forces in SAF, RSF, CRP, and regular police uniforms.

Bahri, a town within Khartoum, had the highest toll, with at least 11 killed and over 77 injured on November 17. A 31-year-old protester said that protesters gathered around noon along Bahri’s main street near al-Mo’assa intersection where police units were already stationed.

He said the police suddenly fired teargas canisters without warning: “Some protesters started throwing rocks at the police, but we asked them to stop. Then the situation changed. Around 1:30 to 2 p.m. the police opened fire. Again, without warning. We thought they were shooting in the air until I started feeling bullets flying at my body level. I saw one protester hit and fall bleeding.”

Three witnesses said they saw members of both regular and anti-riot police, as well CRP, directing their guns at the protesters, some kneeling or taking a shooting position before opening fire.

A 41-year-old journalist at the same location reported seeing police forces use teargas at first, including firing canisters directly at protesters. Mid-afternoon, he saw police and CRP shooting live ammunition and saw three protesters killed: “they [police[ directed their guns at us. They did not shoot to scare off only – they wanted to kill us.”

Two witnesses near al-Sha’abia area in Bahri said the use of live ammunition intensified between 3 and 4 p.m. as some protesters remained on the streets. “There was more deployment of Central Reserve Police at that time,” one said. “I even saw one of them carrying a big machine gun and shooting at protesters. It felt like a war zone. I saw two protesters near me hit and bleeding a lot.”

Four said that police repeatedly fired teargas canisters at protesters without warning: “Sometimes they use teargas as a weapon. At some points, we were maybe 10 meters away from them, and I saw police officers directing their teargas guns at us. I saw two hit: one in the head and one in the shoulder.”

According to doctors’ groups, 13 were transferred to hospitals with wounds from direct hits from teargas canisters.

On October 30, the first large-scale protest, six witnesses described a heavy build-up of security forces, including CRP, Riot Police, SAF, and RSF in Omdurman. Three witnesses in al-Mawrada street said between noon and 1 p.m. security forces initially fired live ammunition in the air and then began to fire large amounts of teargas. Two witnesses said that riot police directed canisters directly at the protesters.

A 30-year-old protester said security forces also used live ammunition: "I saw one protester hit in his head. I carried him with others to a raksha [rickshaw] nearby. He was already not breathing, and he died later in the hospital.” According to a report a medical source provided to Human Rights Watch, three were killed that day and two others on later days; 175 were injured on October 30 and treated in hospitals in the capital, 11 had gunshots in the upper parts of their bodies, 36 were injured by teargas canisters.

Security forces have also targeted health care facilities, harassed medical personnel, and disrupted medical care to wounded protesters at least twice.

On November 13, police prevented wounded protesters from receiving medical care, harassed medical staff in East Nile hospital in Bahri and in Al-Arbaeen hospital in Omdurman.

One doctor said anti-riot police stationed themselves outside the East Nile hospital, then raided the hospital: “they] police forces [said they saw some people inside the hospital taking pictures of them. They arrested one doctor for a short period and searched other medical staff’s mobiles looking for videos and pictures before leaving. They made us feel unsafe doing our work.”

Abusive security force operations in health care facilities and harassment of providers was also documented during the 2018-2019 protests, and following the dispersal of the sit-in on June 3, 2019.

Human Rights Watch has also documented  internet and telephone communications slowdowns and shutdowns since the protests began, hampering reporting and restricting people’s access to vital information at this critical time, especially outside of the capital. On November 17, local telecommunication services were also cut for most of that day. Internet services were restored on November 18, activists said.

Only four detainees have been released despite commitments in the November 21 deal to release more.

Dozens of protesters arrested in the last month by the security forces are still detained, with some transferred to a prison in Khartoum, reportedly waiting to appear before emergency tribunals.

While the use of teargas for crowd control when a protest has turned violent is permissible, forces should only use teargas when necessary to prevent further physical harm; where possible, they should issue warnings before firing. The deliberate use of lethal force is permissible only when it is strictly necessary to protect life, Human Rights Watch said. Even if some protesters sought to repel the forces by throwing rocks at them, use of live ammunition would not be justified.

Human Rights Watch had found that a handful of killings of protesters were investigated and prosecuted prior to the coup, but impunity for serious crimes has remained largely the norm. Obstacles such as lack of cooperation from security forces in lifting immunity for suspects or providing access to evidence continued to challenge existing efforts, said prosecutors, victims’ families, and lawyers.

Sudan should cooperate with the new expert on Sudan designated by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Joint Human Rights Office in Sudan, to allow for credible investigations into events of the last month. Sudan’s international and regional partners should continue to call for an end to abuses against protesters and perceived dissent and press for the release of all persons detained in connection to their free and peaceful exercise of their rights.

“With so many Sudanese reeling from the ruthless clampdown of the last month, this is not the time for a return to business as usual,” Bader said. “Sudan’s partners, regional and further afield, should meaningfully support and help the Sudanese achieve their aspirations to build a fairer, rights-respecting country.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 23, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Peng Shuai waves at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia on January 15, 2019.  © AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File

(New York) – The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) collaboration with Chinese authorities on tennis star Peng Shuai’s reappearance undermines its expressed commitment to human rights, including the rights and safety of athletes, Human Rights Watch said today.

On November 21, 2021, the IOC said in a statement that its president, Thomas Bach, had a 30-minute video call with three-time Olympian Peng Shuai, joined by a Chinese sports official and an IOC official. The statement said that, during the call, Peng appeared to be “doing fine” and “relaxed,” and said she “would like to have her privacy respected.” The IOC did not explain how the video call with Peng had been organized, given the difficulties other concerned parties have had reaching her.

“The IOC has vaulted itself from silence about Beijing’s abysmal human rights record to active collaboration with Chinese authorities in undermining freedom of speech and disregarding alleged sexual assault,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The IOC appears to prize its relationship with a major human rights violator over the rights and safety of Olympic athletes.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities have continued to impose a media and internet blackout of discussions of Peng’s case. Even words such as “tennis” and the surname “Peng” have been censored or shadow banned online.

Peng, 35, went missing on November 2 after she said on Chinese social media that she had been sexually assaulted and forced into a sexual relationship with Zhang Gaoli, 75, who was China’s vice premier from 2013 to 2018.

On November 18 the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) received a statement purporting to be from Peng, recanting her abuse claim. In response, the IOC said that it was “encouraged by assurance that she is safe.” On November 19 and 20, photos and videos of Peng appearing in her home, in a restaurant, and at a youth tennis event in Beijing emerged on Twitter accounts affiliated with government-run media. At the same time, Peng has not spoken directly with the media or the WTA.

The authorities do not appear to have initiated an investigation into Peng’s complaint against Zhang. The IOC claims to be “actively taking steps to protect athletes from all forms of harassment and abuse in sport.” However, it has not said whether it has offered support to Peng concerning her sexual assault allegations.

Since the #MeToo movement took off in China in early 2019, the authorities have censored victims of sexual harassment and harassed women’s rights activists. In September, Guangzhou police detained journalist and #MeToo activist Huang Xueqin on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.”

The Chinese government forcibly disappears individuals whose views or conduct it sees as problematic, employs extralegal forms of detention and torture, and publishes forced confessions to make dubious cases appear legitimate. Chinese authorities have gone to great lengths to silence critics, including human rights lawyers, journalists, Nobel Peace Prize laureates, and Hong Kong publishers such as Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai. Other prominent people such as billionaire businessman Jack Ma, movie star Fan Bingbing, and Interpol chief Meng Hongwei have also been forcibly disappeared after running afoul of the authorities. After fleeing China or being released from detention, some former detainees recanted statements they were forced to make on camera.

In contrast to the IOC’s response to Peng’s case, the WTA has repeatedly expressed concerns about Peng’s health and safety, called for an investigation into her complaint, and said it is prepared to pull tournaments out of China if it does not get an appropriate response. Reacting to the online videos of Peng and the IOC’s call, the WTA said “they don’t alleviate or address the WTA's concern about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion.” World tennis champions including Novak Djokovic, Martina Navratilova, Naomi Osaka, and Serena Williams have also voiced concern about Peng’s safety.

By cooperating with Chinese authorities in this video call, the IOC failed to adhere to its own human rights commitments and to protect the free expression rights of Olympic athletes, Human Rights Watch said. The IOC’s conduct also undermined the efforts by the WTA and other international sports organizations and individuals to secure Peng’s safety and freedom, and hold the Chinese government to account for human rights violations.

In light of the Bach-Peng call, Human Rights Watch calls on the IOC to:

Retract its statement regarding the video call; Explain publicly the circumstances surrounding the call and the statement, including any details of Chinese government involvement; Urge the Chinese government to open an independent and transparent investigation into Peng’s allegations; Urge the Chinese government to cease all censorship of reporting and discussions of Peng’s case; and Urge the Chinese government to allow Peng to leave China if she so desires, and not retaliate against family members remaining in China.

Human Rights Watch has previously called for the IOC to carry out human rights due diligence for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games. However, the IOC has given no indication that it has conducted or plans to publish a human rights risk assessment. The IOC has also not challenged Chinese authorities over their poor human rights record, including violations linked to the Olympics and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.

“If the IOC wants to credibly claim it’s a ‘force for good,’ it needs to stop participating in the Chinese government’s repressive practices,” Wang said. “The IOC should instead be standing up for human rights and the freedom and safety of athletes.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 22, 2021, 10:15 pm
Click to expand Image Texas Governor Greg Abbott talks about Operation Lone Star during a press conference at the Texas Department of Public Safety Weslaco Regional Office on April 1, 2021, in Weslaco, Texas. © 2021 Joel Martinez/The Monitor via AP

(Washington, DC) – Texas has arrested more than 1,500 migrants since March 2021 under a discriminatory and abusive operation that targets suspected migrants for arrest, prosecution, and incarceration on state misdemeanor offenses, Human Rights Watch said today. The United States Justice Department should act swiftly to stop this program.

Operation Lone Star, initiated by Governor Greg Abbott, is based on a xenophobic narrative that associates migrants with crime and insecurity. Its aim is to “confront ... the crisis at the southern border,” due to migration. Thousands of members of the Texas National Guard, an element of the US military reserve, and Texas state police have been deployed to deter and detain migrants along the US-Mexico border.

“Operation Lone Star has led to serious due process and civil rights abuses, made a mockery of the Texas judicial system, and fomented dangerous xenophobia,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US Program executive director at Human Rights Watch. “The Justice Department should urgently investigate and take all available measures to stop these abuses and ensure accountability for violations of migrants’ rights.”

The policy has led to Texas law enforcement officials arresting migrants on false allegations of low-level trespassing violations or inducing migrants to step on private property, then arresting them. Those arrested have been imprisoned, in several cases in abusive conditions, for weeks or months without charges or access to attorneys. The vast majority of charges have ended up being dropped or dismissed. The operation has increased the state’s pretrial detention population, undermining criminal legal system reforms.

The use of some 2,500 members of the Texas National Guard to conduct arrests, a highly militarized response by a force that is not trained to conduct criminal law enforcement, raises serious human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said. Neither National Guard members nor state police officers are authorized under federal law or properly trained to enforce federal immigration laws, and using state trespassing laws against border crossers appears to be a thinly veiled attempt by Texas to overstep this federal authority.

Many of the more than 1,500 migrants who have been arrested are asylum seekers who thought they had finally reached a place of safety. The arrests have been marked by frequent violations of due process rights. Only 3 percent of those charged have been convicted, and in all of those cases, the person had pleaded guilty.

Media reports indicate that some of the arrests under the operation were questionable, leading to charges against migrants being dropped or dismissed. For example, with Border Patrol collusion, police reportedly marched a group of 11 migrants onto private property and then arrested them for trespassing. In another case, a prosecutor said, body camera footage shows that state troopers standing in front of a gate onto private property stood aside as if to allow migrants to pass and then quickly arrested them for trespassing once they crossed the property line.

“Operation Lone Star appears designed to further criminalize Latinx, Black, and other immigrant communities by arresting and detaining them on trumped up charges that often fail to pass legal muster,” said Carolina Canizales, of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “The operation has led to unlawful activity by government and law enforcement on a systemic basis. The Department of Justice should act immediately to block the policy.”

Many of those arrested have been held for weeks or months without having any charges filed against them and without bail, court hearings, or access to counsel. Attorneys told Human Rights Watch they have needed to file habeas petitions to get Texas officials to follow the law and release them. Additionally, Texas authorities have engaged in the discriminatory practice of detaining migrants in state prisons instead of local jails where people accused of a crime are normally held prior to sentencing.

Attorneys representing detained migrants said they are aware of at least six children who are currently imprisoned under the policy. Though Texas law permits trying 17-year-olds as adults, under US law, important special protections are supposed to apply to children who are unaccompanied migrants.

Attorneys also said their clients faced inhumane detention conditions, including food contaminated with feces or bugs, meals provided so infrequently that they lost weight, and a lack of access to recreation time outdoors for several days at a time. While detained, some have been compelled to sign official documents in English, which they could not understand, some of which falsely stated that the migrants had waived their right to an attorney, one Texas advocacy group reported.

Governor Abbott and his lieutenant governor have used alarmist, xenophobic messaging to justify the operation, including rhetoric that links migrants to criminal activity and insecurity, as well as claims of “invasion.” In a June speech Abbott made clear that the policy’s goal is to “begin the … arrest process of people coming across the border” and that the state government aims to “have [migrants] prosecuted, to be put in jail, to stay in jail, to create an environment where people will choose they don’t want to come across the border into the state of Texas … it’s not the red carpet that the federal administration rolled out.”

Some of this rhetoric appears to have attracted militia groups – armed civilians who are attempting to conduct immigration enforcement with no oversight, accountability, or training. Immigrant rights organizations in Texas have expressed serious concern about the possibility of white supremacist violence. In 2019, after the El Paso Walmart shooting in which a man who said he wanted “to stop the Hispanic invasion of Texas” killed 23 people, nearly all of Mexican descent, Governor Abbott called for confronting “the rise of extremist groups and hateful ideologies.” But his administration’s rhetoric and actions are instead further fueling anti-immigrant hysteria.  

“Texas has a history of irresponsibly exploiting anti-immigrant sentiments to carry out policies that attack migrants,” said Claudia Muñoz, co-executive director at Grassroots Leadership based in Austin, Texas. “Operation Lone Star, a policy driven by racism, is the latest attempt to appeal to anti-immigrant extremism, placing border crossers and border communities at risk.”

Some officials in Kinney County, one of two counties carrying out Operation Lone Star arrests so far, have appeared to endorse the presence in the county of these anti-immigrant militia groups, including “Patriots for America,” according to media reports cited in a public information request by the American Civil Liberties Union-Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project.

The leader of “Patriots for America” has claimed it is coordinating with law enforcement. The Texas Department of Public Safety subsequently warned that it would pull resources from Kinney County if the militia group was allowed to operate there, and underscored that detentions of migrants by private citizens could constitute kidnapping.

Border communities have been subjected to abusive racial profiling for decades. Operation Lone Star gives state police and state military reserve more incentive and opportunity to do so, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Department of Justice is admirably defending reproductive freedom and voting rights in Texas but is disturbingly absent when it comes to these state abuses of migrants,” Austin-Hillery said. “Texas’ abusive treatment of migrants and asylum seekers demands urgent federal intervention.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 22, 2021, 6:45 pm
Click to expand Image Taliban fighters stand guard at the entrance to the former Ministry of Women Affairs, which the Taliban has replaced with the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, which oversees the implementation of hardline Islamic rules in Afghanistan.  © 2021 Oliver Weiken/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(New York) – Taliban authorities in Afghanistan are threatening journalists and imposing strict new media guidelines that especially harm women, Human Rights Watch said today.

Taliban intelligence officials have made death threats against journalists who have criticized Taliban officials and have required journalists to submit all reports for approval before publication. New guidelines from the Vice and Virtue Ministry dictate the dress of female journalists on television and prohibit soap operas and entertainment programs featuring female actors.

“The Taliban’s new media regulations and threats against journalists reflect broader efforts to silence all criticism of Taliban rule,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The disappearance of any space for dissent and worsening restrictions for women in the media and arts is devastating.”

Several journalists said that they have been summoned by local officials immediately after publishing reports on Taliban abuses. One journalist who had reported complaints about Taliban searching houses and beating people said that the deputy governor called him into his office and told him that if he broadcast anything like that again, “He would hang me in the town square.”

Other media staff have reported that heavily armed Taliban intelligence officials visited their offices and warned journalists not to use the word “Taliban” in their reporting but to refer to the “Islamic Emirate” in all publications. In one province, intelligence officials ordered local media to replace the word for suicide bomber with the word for martyr after a published report mentioned that Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani had honored the families of suicide bombers.

In a directive issued November 21, 2021, the Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice prohibited broadcasting any films deemed to be “against Islamic or Afghan values,” along with soap operas and dramas featuring women actors, and made the hijab – a head covering exposing the face – compulsory for women television journalists.

Editors and journalists have complained about the restrictive climate for the media. The chief editor for a provincial media outlet said that most of his colleagues had stopped working for their safety. “Access to information has become very limited,” he said. “Taliban local officials have instructed us to share our reports with them before publication.”

The Taliban have also pressed the media, especially in the provinces, to publish the reports they want and have ordered journalists in some instances to interview them. One journalist said: “After they threatened us with death, we published what they said. Now we broadcast Quranic verses at the beginning of the programs and naat [Islamic songs] because we fear for our safety.”

Many media outlets have closed their offices out of fear and are publishing only online. The chief editor for a women-led media office said that her staff use pseudonyms to hide their identities because the Taliban accuse them “of promoting Western values.”

“I used to produce reports on virginity testing and violence against women, which no one can cover anymore,” said a woman who had been a journalist in Herat. “No program covers women’s issues, especially on TV channels. The educational and entertainment programs have all stopped.”

The atmosphere of fear has left people afraid to share information on incidents, such as forced evictions or violent attacks by the Taliban. Journalists said that the Taliban authorities routinely ignore their requests for information, or simply deny reported incidents.

“Despite the Taliban’s promises to allow media that ‘respected Islamic values’ to function, the reality for Afghanistan is that journalists live in fear of a knock on the door or a summons from the authorities,” Gossman said. “This is contributing to an information blackout in which Taliban abuses increasingly happen in secret and without accountability.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: November 22, 2021, 4:02 pm