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

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

© 2016 Reuters/Charles Platiau

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

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

But despite this discussion, President Macron did not waver.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REUTERS/Charles Platiau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nadim Houry

Director, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program

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

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

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

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

General Shavendra Silva is seen at the Ampara Air Force camp in eastern Sri Lanka August 24, 2009. 

© 2009 Reuters/Stringer/Files
(New York) – The Sri Lankan government should abide by its commitments to replace the abusive Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with legislation that respects its international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said today. The cabinet of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced on January 4, 2020 that it would withdraw a proposed replacement law, reneging on pledges to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the European Union.

Rajapaksa, who took office on November 18, 2019, has also taken other steps that threaten human rights protections in Sri Lanka. He appointed army commanders implicated by the UN in attacks on civilians and other grave abuses during the civil war to defense secretary and other senior positions. He placed the police and other civilian agencies under the Defense Ministry. In addition, he appointed a military officer as the head of the civilian intelligence agency without requiring him to resign from the armed forces, and repeatedly said he would place the intelligence agencies at the heart of his administration.

“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and senior appointees linked to wartime abuses are wasting no time dismantling the human rights gains of recent years,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “The EU, which offers Sri Lanka preferential trading terms in return for human rights guarantees, should demand the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.”

The PTA, introduced in 1978 as a temporary measure, has resulted in countless arbitrary detentions and facilitated torture of detainees. In 2017, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism found that the law “has fostered the endemic and systematic use of torture. Entire communities have been stigmatized and targeted for harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention.”

In 2015, then-President Maithripala Sirisena joined a unanimous resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that committed Sri Lanka to a series of measures to uphold human rights that included replacing the PTA with counterterrorism legislation that respects international legal standards. Many of these undertakings were never met, but in early 2019 the government and UNHRC renewed the commitment.

In 2018, an alternative counterterrorism law, the Counter-Terrorism Act, was submitted to parliament. Despite shortcomings, the draft act would have replaced many of the most abused provisions of the PTA, but it was never passed into law. The new Rajapaksa government has declared its intention to keep the PTA in force. The cabinet spokesman, Minister Bandula Gunawardana, said: “The PTA is back in the statute book, empowering the police and armed forces to face any threat posed to national security from any quarter.”

In 2010, the EU withdrew Sri Lanka’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+), its preferential trading arrangement, due to “significant shortcomings in the country’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions.” The arrangement gives Sri Lanka largely tariff-free access in exchange for undertakings to ratify and put into effect international human rights conventions. During the Sirisena government, the EU restored the preferential trading arrangement.

However, the scheme includes a monitoring component to ensure that human rights obligations are effectively met. At the annual meeting of the EU and Sri Lanka in February 2019, the joint communique stated that “the EU reiterated the need to repeal and replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in order to bring counterterrorism legislation in line with international standards.”

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was defense secretary from 2005 to 2015, under the administration of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was appointed prime minister in November. The UN, Human Rights Watch, and other human rights groups, and the media, found that under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration, the Sri Lankan army shelled civilians and hospitals, and raped and executed prisoners during the final months of the civil war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The UN found repeatedly in its reports that some military abuses during the conflict amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The previous Rajapaksa government was also implicated in numerous human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. In a number of cases, including the 2008 abduction of Keith Noyahr, the 2009 murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, and the 2010 enforced disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda, evidence produced in court implicated military intelligence officers under the authority of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as the defense secretary. There has been no final verdict in any of these cases.

Human Rights Watch recognizes Sri Lanka’s international legal obligation to protect everyone on its territory. However, any counterterrorism measures should reflect international best practice and uphold basic principles of the rule of law.

“For decades, Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act provided a legal fig leaf for grotesque human rights abuses and the suppression of peaceful dissent,” Ganguly said. “The new Rajapaksa government’s embrace of this abusive law is just one of many signs that the rights of Sri Lankans are at grave risk.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A campaign poster showing environmental activists Taher Ghadirian, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Houman Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Sepideh Kashani, Morad Tahbaz and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, who have been detained since early 2018 in Iran. An Iranian court in November 2019 sentenced Bayani, Tahbaz, Jokar, Ghadirian, Khaleghi and Kashani to prison terms of 6 to 10 years. 

© 2018 #anyhopefornature Campaign
Protecting the endangered Asiatic cheetah. Tweeting a satirical poem. Attending a climate conference. Campaigning against a power plant. These actions hardly conjure images of suicide bombers or coup plotters. Yet, they have been labelled “eco-terrorism,” “extremism,” or “threats to national security” by governments and businesses that seek to block the work of environmental activists.

As young people around the world gather for a global climate strike on Friday, and as the 25th Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25) begins in Madrid on Monday, conference delegates would do well to consider that one important way to protect the environment is to protect environmental defenders.

Activists from mining communities protesting at the Pietermaritzburg High Court on August 24, 2018, KwaZulu-Natal.

© 2018 Rob Symons
To be sure, environmentalists face dangers beyond being labelled security threats. From the Amazon rainforest to South African mining communities, activists defending ecosystems and ancestral lands are threatened, attacked and even killed with near-total impunity. But the unjust labelling of environmentalists as dangerous criminals or threats to national security is often more insidious, as it is generally carried out under the aegis of the law.

Authorities have an obligation to prosecute criminal acts. But typically, environmental defenders peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of speech, association, and assembly. Only in exceptional cases would their acts meet a generally-accepted definition of terrorism. And when environmentalists engage in civil disobedience, they do not usually aim to undermine the rule of law. Yet, we should consider the following:

  • In Poland, days before hosting the COP24 in December 2018, authorities issued a terrorism alert and denied entry to at least 13 foreign climate activists registered to attend, calling them security threats. Poland also empowered the police to collect data about conference participants without judicial oversight or participants’ knowledge.
  • In France, days before hosting the COP21 in November 2015, authorities placed at least 24 climate activists under house arrest using emergency counterterrorism measures enacted after the deadly Paris attacks that month. The activists were accused of flouting a ban on COP21 protests.
  • In Iran, eight members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, imprisoned since early 2018, were just handed prison terms of up to 10 years for allegedly spying for the US. During a flawed trial, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards accused them of using their work protecting the endangered Asiatic cheetah as a cover. The group’s founder, also arrested in 2018, died in custody under suspicious circumstances.
  • In Kenya, authorities have unjustly accused environmental activists opposing a mega-infrastructure project of ties to the extremist armed group al-Shabab and threatened, beat, and arbitrarily detained them. In July, a court suspended the project’s coal-fired power plant. Activists contend the development will still destroy forests, kill fish, and displace communities.
  • In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte in 2018 placed 600 civil society activists, including environmentalists, on a list of alleged members of the country’s communist party and its armed wing, which he declared to be a terrorist organisation. Until a court intervened, the list included Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, an indigenous Filipina who is the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and has protested Philippines mining projects.
  • In Ecuador, eight years passed before environmental activist José “Pepe” Acacho was cleared of “terrorism” charges for opposing mining and oil exploration in the Amazon.
  • In the US in 2018, the then-interior secretary blamed wildfires on “environmental terrorist groups” that opposed logging. In 2017, a pipeline operator sued Greenpeace and other environmental groups for a “rogue eco-terrorist” campaign against an oil pipeline. A court dismissed the lawsuit in February. Largely peaceful protesters said the underground pipeline threatened Native American sacred sites and drinking water.
  • In Russia, since 2012, at least 14 environmental organisations have had their work curtailed and in June, the head of the group Ecodefence!, fled the country to avoid being targeted under an abusive “foreign agents” law. In April, a court fined an environmental activist for “mass distribution of extremist materials” for posting a satirical poem about mining oligarchs.

During the COP25, participating governments should encourage activists to air their concerns about the climate crisis and their own safety, and draw on their combined expertise to help identify solutions.

They should also commit to rigorously implementing treaties that protect environmental defenders. One is the Aarhus Convention, which the European Union and Poland have been criticised for flouting. Another is Latin America’s Escazu Agreement, which requires just five additional ratifications to enter into force. Chile, which will preside over the COP25, should lead by example and ratify it.

COP25 delegates should recognize that to genuinely protect the environment, they also need to protect its defenders—including those unjustly targeted in the name of security.

Also check out this web essay by Letta ,Cara, and Katharina Rall.

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

On November 29, 2019, young people will gather at locations around the world for a Fridays for Future Global Climate Strike. On December 2, United Nations delegates, world leaders, business executives, and activists will meet at the 25th Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25) in Madrid to discuss ways to protect the environment. Participants in these events should also discuss ways to protect the protectors: the individuals and groups targeted around the world for their efforts on behalf of the planet.

The dangers facing environmental defenders do not stop at accusations that they are national security risks. From the Amazon rainforest to South African mining communities, activists seeking to preserve ecosystems and ancestral lands are being threatened, attacked, and even killed with near total impunity, Human Rights Watch has found. But in contrast to many of these illegal acts, the unjust labeling of environmentalists as security threats is often more insidious, as it is generally carried out under the color of law.

And while not all environmental activism is peaceful, only in exceptional cases would the actions of environmental activists meet a generally recognized definition of terrorism – actions aimed at terrorizing populations by causing or threatening death or serious physical harm to others to advance an ideological or political agenda. Nor, in nearly all cases, do their actions aim to undermine the rule of law. Typically, these individuals and groups are peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of speech, association, and assembly. When they engage in civil disobedience, their aim is usually to strengthen – and improve the enforcement of – existing environmental protection measures. Here are a few examples where environmental activists have been smeared as terrorists or other national security threats:

  • In Poland, the authorities denied entry in December 2018 to at least 13 foreign climate activists who were registered to attend COP24 in the southern city of Katowice, contending they posed a threat to public order and national security. Along with other individuals and groups, the activists had planned to press COP24 participants for rapid action to address climate change.

    Protesters march during the United Nations COP24 climate change summit in Katowice, Poland, on December 8, 2018.

    © 2018 SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images/Damian Klamka)

    The authorities had previously passed a special law empowering the police to collect data about conference participants without judicial oversight or the participants’ knowledge and consent and ban spontaneous protests during COP24. They also issued a terrorism alert that authorized increased vehicle checks and other security controls for Katowice and surrounding areas for the duration of the summit. Border officials detained and questioned several activists for hours, in some cases without allowing them to communicate their location or contact a lawyer.

  • In November 2015, French police used a sweeping counterterrorism emergency law enacted in response to the deadly Paris attacks earlier that month to place at least 24 climate activists under house arrest without judicial warrant, raid activists’ homes, and seize computers and personal belongings.

    Police raid a building suspected of housing climate activists in Paris on November 27, 2015, prior to the UN COP21 climate change summit. 

    © 2015 AFP/Laurent Emmanuel
    The activists were accused of flouting a ban on organizing protests related to COP21, which was being held in France the following week to sign the Paris Agreement on reducing emissions that contribute to global warming.

  • In Iran, six members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), imprisoned since early 2018, were handed prison terms of up to 10 years in November for allegedly spying for the United States. During a deeply flawed trial, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards said the environmentalists used their work to protect the Asiatic cheetah – one of the world’s most endangered species – as a cover. A charge against four of the accused of “spreading corruption on Earth,” a crime that can carry the death penalty, was reportedly dropped in October. Two other PWHF members also detained in early 2018 were awaiting judgment. A ninth environmentalist, PWHF founder Kavous Seyed Emami, died a few weeks after his arrest under suspicious circumstances in what the Iranian authorities alleged to be a suicide.

    A campaign poster showing environmental activists Taher Ghadirian, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Houman Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Sepideh Kashani, Morad Tahbaz and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, who have been detained since early 2018 in Iran. An Iranian court in November 2019 sentenced Bayani, Tahbaz, Jokar, Ghadirian, Khaleghi and Kashani to prison terms of 6 to 10 years. 

    © 2018 #anyhopefornature Campaign

    Issa Kalantari, the head of Iran’s Department of Environment, said there was no evidence that the detained environmentalists were spies. He said the arrests have had a chilling effect on environmental groups in the country.

    The arrests appear to be motivated both by Iran’s “paranoia” about foreign countries using environmentalists as cover and its recognition that anger over environmental degradation can unite populations against government policies, said Kaveh Madani, the country’s former deputy environmental director. Madani returned to his native Iran from London in 2017 to take up the post, but said he was immediately detained and questioned by Revolutionary Guards, who broke into his phone, computer, emails, and social media accounts, and called him a “bioterrorist,” a “water terrorist,” and a spy. He left Iran after seven months, alleging repeated harassment including for his criticism of dam projects, which are constructed by the Revolutionary Guards.

  • In Kenya, the police and military have frequently labeled environmental activists opposing a mega-infrastructure project in the Lamu coastal region, including a coal-fired power plant, as “terrorists” while subjecting them to threats, beatings, and arbitrary arrests and detentions. In 15 cases documented by Human Rights Watch between 2013 and 2016, the authorities accused environmental defenders of membership in, or links to, the extremist armed group al-Shabab but provided no compelling evidence.

    Residents and environmental activists on Lamu island, Kenya, protest the proposed Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia (LAPSSET) project on March 1, 2012.

    © 2012 Reuters/Joseph Okanga

    The activists are protesting construction of the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor, the biggest infrastructure project in Central and East Africa, which is to include a 32-berth seaport, three international airports, a road and railway network, and three resort cities. They contend that LAPSSET will pollute the air and water, destroy mangrove forests and breeding grounds for fish, and take farmland without just compensation, displacing communities and destroying their livelihoods.

    In July, Kenya’s environmental tribunal blocked approval of the power plant absent a new environmental impact study, finding the China-backed developers’ original assessment and public consultation process inadequate. The rest of the LAPSSET project continues. So does the intimidation campaign, activists protesting LAPSSET told Human Rights Watch.

  • In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte in 2018 placed 600 civil society members, including environmentalists and indigenous rights defenders, on a list of alleged members of the country’s communist party and its armed wing, which he declared to be a terrorist organization. Duterte’s “terrorist list” included Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, an indigenous Filipina who is the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and a climate change activist.

    Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, at UN headquarters in New York in April 2018. 

    © 2018 New York Times/Annie Ling
    In late 2017, Tauli-Corpuz had criticized the government for attacks and other abuses against indigenous communities that opposed coal and diamond mining on ancestral lands. Although a Manila court months later ordered the government to remove Tauli-Corpuz from the list, a Philippines military official in 2019 renewed the campaign against her, accusing her of “infiltrating” the UN for the communist insurgents. Several UN human rights experts condemned Tauli-Corpuz’s listing.

  • In Ecuador, eight years passed before the prominent environmental activist José “Pepe” Acacho, a Shuar indigenous leader, was able to clear himself of “terrorism” charges for his activities opposing mining and oil exploration in the Amazon. Acacho was charged with terrorism in 2010 for allegedly inciting violence during Shuar protests against a mining law.

    Pepe Acacho, second from left, leaves a courtroom in Quito, Ecuador, on February 8, 2011, after a judge granted his habeas corpus petition.

    © 2011 AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa
    He was convicted in 2013 and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Human Rights Watch reviewed the trial documents and found no credible evidence of terrorism-related crimes. In 2018, Ecuador’s highest court threw out the terrorism conviction but instead sentenced him to eight months in prison for “public services obstruction” – a charge for which he was never tried and hence never had the opportunity to contest. Acacho spent 17 days in jail before receiving a presidential pardon in October 2018.

  • In the US in August 2018, then-US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blamed “environmental terrorist groups” that opposed logging for wildfires on the West Coast – a proposition immediately attacked by leading environmental organizations including the Sierra Club. In 2017, 84 members of the US Congress, most of them Republicans, asked the Justice Department if activists mobilizing against the construction of oil pipelines could be prosecuted as terrorists. (The department’s response was that in some cases, yes.)

    Native Americans protest construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota on September 4, 2019. 

    © 2019 AFP via Getty Images/Robyn Peck

    That same year, a major pipeline operator, Energy Transfer Partners LP, filed a lawsuit against Greenpeace and other environmental groups, accusing them of launching a “rogue eco-terrorist” campaign against the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline. Environmental activists and Native American tribes had tried to block construction of the 1,172-mile-long, underground pipeline through North Dakota during a protracted standoff with the authorities in 2016, saying it threatened sacred sites and drinking water. A federal court dismissed the lawsuit earlier this year.

    Although the protesters were largely peaceful, some resorted to violence and were convicted of protest-related crimes, but none for offenses that even remotely approximated terrorism. UN experts condemned security force responses to the protests as “excessive,” including their use of rubber bullets, teargas, compression grenades, mace, and “inhuman and degrading” detention conditions.

  • In Russia, at least 14 environmental groups have stopped work in recent years, and the head of the prominent group Ekozaschita! (Ecodefense!), Alexandra Koroleva, fled the country in June to avoid prosecution under the draconian Law on Foreign Agents. The 2012 law requires any Russian group accepting foreign funding and carrying out activities deemed to be “political” to register as a “foreign agent,” a term that in Russia implies “spy” or “traitor.” Authorities have used the law to silence groups that opposed state-sanctioned development projects and petitioned authorities for the release of imprisoned environmental activists, a Human Rights Watch investigation found.

    Alexandra Koroleva, the head of the Russian nongovernmental organization Ecodefense, fled to Germany in June 2019 to avoid being targeted under the abusive Russian “foreign agents” law. 

    © 2019 Ecodefense

    Russian officials including the special envoy for environmental protection, Sergey Ivanov, have applied the “extremist” label to Greenpeace Russia. An activist with Stop GOK, a Russian group seeking to block mining and enrichment plants, was fined in April 2019 for “mass distribution of extremist materials” because he published a poem on the organization’s social media page that the government had banned as extremist in 2012. The Russian nongovernmental organization SOVA Center, which analyzes counter-extremism trends, found that the poem, “Last Wish to the Ivans,” is a satirical address to destitute, alcohol and drug-addicted Russians from oligarchs and authorities profiting from extracting natural resources.

    Stop GOK and Greenpeace Russia were among groups named in a 2018 report by pro-government technologists as “environmental extremists” working for “influential forces in the West” bent on sabotaging strategic industries. The report was widely covered by state-controlled media.

Civil society participation will be crucial to ambitious outcomes at COP25. Parties to the summit, which include all UN member countries and the European Union, should allow activists ample opportunity to air their concerns about the climate crisis and use their combined expertise to help identify solutions. They should also provide activists with a safe space to speak out about the threats they face for carrying out their work.

In addition, parties should publicly commit to robustly carrying out international and regional treaties that protect environmental defenders. One of these treaties is the Escazu Agreement (the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean), the world’s first covenant to include specific provisions promoting and protecting environmental defenders. Twenty-one countries have signed the 2018 agreement. But only six countries have ratified it – five shy of the ratifications needed to enter it into force. Chile, which stepped down as COP25 host because of protests stemming from economic grievances, but will still preside over the negotiations in Madrid, should lead by example and ratify the agreement.

COP25 participants should also commit to upholding the Aarhus Convention (the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters), to which Spain is a signatory. The convention – an environmental pact for Europe, the European Union, and Central Asia – grants the public, including environmental groups, an array of rights including public participation and access to information and justice in governmental decisions on the environment, without harassment or persecution. Parties to the treaty, including the EU, and Poland for its crackdown at COP24, have been criticized – including in some cases by the Aarhus Convention’s own oversight body – for flouting these provisions.

COP25 delegates should recognize that to genuinely protect the environment, they also need to protect its defenders – including those unjustly targeted in the name of security.

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

Malaysia's national flag flies in front of the Federal Court on a hazy day in Putrajaya, Malaysia, October 6, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters
(Bangkok) – The Malaysian government should urgently repeal the draconian 2012 Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA), Human Rights Watch said today. The detention of 12 people, including two ruling coalition politicians, for more than two weeks in October 2019 for alleged links to a defunct Sri Lankan armed group highlights due process violations under the law.

“The Malaysian government has not only failed to fulfill its campaign promise to repeal the draconian provisions in SOSMA, but it’s still arresting people under this deeply flawed law,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government should also implement the pledges in its election manifesto to repeal other legislation allowing for indefinite detention without trial, notably the Prevention of Crime Act 1959 and the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015.”

Under SOSMA, certain offenses under the Penal Code are categorized as “security offenses” for which different rules of evidence and trial procedure apply. Many of these provisions violate international human rights standards on the right to a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said. For instance, those charged with SOSMA security offenses cannot be granted bail. Even after a suspect has been acquitted, the public prosecutor can apply under SOSMA for the accused to remain detained pending an appeal, which the courts must grant.

SOSMA also allows for “protected witnesses,” whose identity is concealed from the accused and their counsel, to give evidence. This violation of international fair trial standards makes it difficult for the accused to challenge the credibility of witnesses and mount an adequate defense of the charges. Furthermore, SOSMA provides that “any statement by an accused whether orally or in writing to any person at any time” can be admitted into evidence, with no exception for evidence obtained under duress. This provision, coupled with provisions permitting the police to detain suspects for up to 28 days without any judicial oversight, increases the risks of torture and other ill-treatment in custody.

Procedural rules that jeopardize basic human rights and fair trial guarantees not only increase the likelihood of rights violations, they decrease the likelihood that those responsible will be discovered and punished, Human Rights Watch said. Those accused of terrorist acts should be charged and tried according to the regular rules of evidence and procedure to ensure their right to a fair trial. As the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy of 2006 notes, violations of human rights are among the conditions “conducive to the spread of terrorism,” even though they can never excuse or justify terrorist acts.

The Protection of Crime Act (POCA) 1959 and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) 2015 also need urgent revision. Under the Prevention of Crime Act, police can detain suspects for up to 59 days with no judicial oversight. A government-appointed board can impose detention without trial for up to two years, renewable indefinitely, order electronic monitoring, and impose other severe restrictions on freedom of movement and association, without judicial review.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act empowers an unaccountable Prevention of Terrorism Board to order detention without trial. Suspects brought before the board are not entitled to be represented by legal counsel. The Board’s decisions are final and not subject to judicial review except on procedural grounds.

“Eighteen months after assuming office, the Pakatan Harapan government is outrageously still using the abusive SOSMA to violate people’s rights,” Robertson said. “Efforts to bring an end to police abuse are unlikely to be successful so long as the authorities have an array of legal tools that permit denial of fair trial rights.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

24 October 2019

UNGA: Protect Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism


Our organisations urge your delegation to categorically reject the approach expected to be adopted in a draft resolution at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) Third Committee on “terrorism and human rights”, led by Egypt and Mexico. This is essential to prevent the further erosion of international human rights law relating to counter-terrorism and to the rights of victims of terrorism, and to safeguard the integrity of the UN system and UN Global Counter Terrorism Strategy (GCTS). We urge you to instead support the restoration of the approach and text of the Mexico-led UNGA resolution 72/180 (2017) on “protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism”, which was the culmination of 16 years of considered and consensus-based normative progress.

UNGA resolution 73/174 (2018) on “terrorism and human rights” merged two previously separate initiatives, and followed a similar merger at the Human Rights Council (HRC) in resolution 37/27 (2018). Both mergers resulted in the loss of crucial language on States’ human rights obligations in the context of countering terrorism. Consensus-based commitments from the previous Mexican-led UNGA resolution were removed, including on, inter alia, derogation in emergencies, non-refoulement, the right to privacy, deprivation of liberty, the rights of minorities and the rights of children, as well as reference to important international treaties, including the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture.[1] Extensive language on the “negative effects of terrorism”, taken from recent Egypt-led resolutions, was added. The promotion of this overbroad and misleading concept shifts focus away from human rights to the macro- economic impacts of terrorism as harm to the State, providing justification for excessive counter-terrorism measures.

We note that many delegations presented the 2018 mergers at the HRC and UNGA as necessary to maintaining consensus on an issue of global importance, and to containing the advancement of the damaging “effects of terrorism” agenda, of which Egypt was the architect. Developments over the last twelve months demonstrate that this strategy of containment is failing, instead empowering Egypt to reverse normative human rights progress and prevent institutional strengthening through continually escalating demands.

Throughout 2019 at the HRC, Egypt undermined assurances underpinning the 2018 mergers. In particular, Egypt has sought to dilute and distort the scope of the mandate of UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, and distract its work, under the constant threat of creating a competing mandate on “effects of terrorism”. While Egypt’s attempts to take shared control of the mandate renewal at the 40th HRC Session in March were ultimately unsuccessful, Mexico and other States then partially acquiesced as a result of Egyptian threats at the 42nd HRC Session in September, resulting in another deeply problematic merged HRC resolution 42/18 on “terrorism and human rights.” Concessions in the resolution gave further prominence to the Egyptian approach, “inviting” the Special Rapporteur to report on the “negative effects” of terrorism.

These concessions were made notwithstanding the present mandate-holder outlining her concerns that the “effects of terrorism” initiative has a history of “instrumentalising the victims of terrorism in order to bolster the need for greater counter-terrorism measures and thus weaken the international system as a whole.” Even with a stronger focus on the rights’ of victims of terrorism in the mandate renewal resolution, Egypt expressed dissatisfaction, making clear that their focus is not on victims or on human rights, but on broader economic issues outside of the human rights mandates of either the HRC or Third Committee.

Egypt’s international campaign must be understood in the context of President Sisi’s egregious and continuing abuse of counter-terrorism measures at home to suppress civil society and dissenting voices. In a statement on 18 October, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights raised concerns at the detention and mistreatment of human rights defenders Esraa Abdelfattah, Mohammed El-Baqer, and Alaa Abdel Fattah, accused of “terrorism” solely for the exercise of their rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression. Their cases are emblematic of Egypt’s frequent abuse of counter-terrorism charges and measures against human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, peaceful protesters and political opponents, free media, including online, civil society, and others, including prolonged arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment including by rape, and extrajudicial or arbitrary executions, including mass killings of peaceful protesters. Egypt has legislated to facilitate impunity to military officers for these crimes, some of which may even constitute crimes against humanity. The UN Secretary General’s 2019 report on cooperation with the UN system contain numerous allegations that the Egyptian government engaged in reprisals, including through the abuse of counter- terrorism laws. Moreover, reprisals relating to a 2018 UN expert country visit prompted special procedures to publicly proclaim that Egypt is not ready to receive further visits.

Egypt has a clear vested interest in undermining international human rights law and accountability mechanisms relating to violations committed in the context of counter-terrorism measures. For States to treat Egypt as a reliable partner in leading this resolution only helps to provide cover for and perpetuate this egregious pattern, with serious consequences on the lives and dignity of Egyptians seeking to exercise their fundamental rights.

States must also consider the unique position the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights while countering terrorism occupies, and therefore the significance of Egypt’s efforts to dilute or otherwise undermine its work. Within the rapidly expanding United Nations Counter-Terrorism architecture, the mandate is the sole entity dedicated exclusively to ensuring counter- terrorism measures and the treatment of victims of terrorism are consistent with the protection and promotion of human rights. We recall that the United Nations has long recognised that the protection of human rights is essential to effective counter-terrorism strategies, making this the fourth pillar of the GCTS. Both the GCTS and the Secretary General have recognised that human rights violations perpetrated in the name of countering-terrorism can drive individuals to violence. Undermining the mandate therefore has potentially global consequences.

This discussion comes at a crucial time. The GCTS will be reviewed in July 2020, which is an important opportunity for States and other stakeholders to address both the rights of victims of terrorism and those whose rights are violated by counter-terrorism measures. States should be mindful of the consequences of adopting a resolution weaker than resolution A/72/180 during this UNGA, given that resolutions reviewing the GCTS contain limited focus on its fourth pillar, and attention to human rights is mostly through reference to the work of the Third Committee. The Special Rapporteur specifically urged in her March report that the Assembly must address the deficits of this merger, and restore key human rights aspects from the 2017 resolution. Whatever the risks of Egypt reinstating its separate resolution, States should consider the longer-term costs of accommodating Egypt’s escalating demands to be much greater, both to the global protection of human rights and to the GCTS itself.

We strongly urge your delegation to insist on restoring the approach of the 2017 resolution on “the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism” at the Third Committee of the 74th UNGA, in place of any merged initiative. Through this, we request that you make your full support to the independence and integrity of the existing Special Rapporteur mandate clear, and set the groundwork for placing human rights at the center of the GCTS 2020 review.

Yours Sincerely,

Access Now!
Amnesty International
Association for Progressive Communications (APC)
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
Fair Trials
Human Rights in China (HRIC)
Human Rights Watch
Igarapé Institute
International Commission of Jurists
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism
International Service for Human Rights
MENA Rights Group
Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF)
UnidOSC, México
*Due to security concerns, one organisation has endorsed the letter but withheld its name


[1] Paragraphs of resolution 72/180 omitted in Resolution 73/174 include, inter alia: OP4 on derogations; OP5(b) on minorities; OP5(c) and (d) on arbitrary detentions; OP5(f) on fair trials; OP5(j) on surveillance and the right to privacy; OP5(k) on economic, social and cultural rights; OP5(l) on border control operations; OP5(m) on non-refoulement; OP5(n) on return to torture in States of origin; OP5(o) on interrogation methods; OP5(s) and OP9 - 10 on relevant international human rights and humanitarian law instruments; OP5(u) on drones; OP5(v) on implementation of UN resolutions and recommendations; OP5(w) on investigations into violations; and OP7 on protections for humanitarian organisations.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A girl stands in the annex of al-Hol camp in northeast Syria, where more than 11,000 women and children from nearly 50 nationalities are confined as family members of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects. The Kurdish-led coalition controlling northern Syria wants home countries to take the women and children back. But most governments have only repatriated small numbers of their citizens.

© 2019 Sam Tarling

“They won’t shoot us, my darling. Mummy is right here with you, don’t worry.”

The German mother’s words, spoken in almost a whisper, did not stop her young son’s whimpers.

Desperate text and voice messages have been furtively emerging from al-Hol, a desolate camp holding about 70,000 women and children related to Islamic State suspects in northeastern Syria, a de facto autonomous region controlled by a Kurdish-led coalition until Turkey invaded from the north on October 9.

The women locked up without charge in the open-air camp spoke of armed, masked guards from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — who, as of Monday, still controlled al-Hol — snatching sons over age 12 from their tents during the night. They wrote that the medical clinic inside an annex that holds 11,000 foreigners from four dozen countries has been shut for days — a fact confirmed by aid workers. They described overflowing latrines and dwindling food and water supplies. They begged to be brought home even if prison awaited them, writing that they were terrified of being transferred to Syrian prisons, notorious for mass deaths and torture, under a deal announced Sunday in which Kurdish authorities agreed to let the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad advance into northeastern Syria to stave off the Turkish assault.

But none of the texts or voice messages I have received conveyed the women’s despair as palpably as the exchange between the mother and son. The woman’s voice and the boy’s cries sounded muffled and frozen with fear, as though the fighting would sweep into the desert camp at any moment, like the dust storms that leave babies in al-Hol coated in grimy sand.

For months, Human Rights Watch and a host of other human rights defenders, including the United Nations human rights commissioner and the UN special rapporteur on countering terrorism, have issued largely unheeded appeals for governments to bring home their nationals detained in al-Hol and in two smaller camps in northeastern Syria used to house family members of ISIS suspects.

More than two-thirds of detainees in the camps are young children who never chose to be dragged to or born in the so-called caliphate. Between December 2018 and September, nearly 340 children died in al-Hol — most from preventable diseases such as severe diarrhea or malnutrition, according to the International Rescue Committee.

I have been unable to reach the camps since Turkey’s military offensive began and cannot verify all the women’s latest stories. But during three visits to al-Hol in late June, conditions were dire. Almost every child I saw was bone thin with a swollen belly, a deep cough and a shell-shocked gaze. Many dragged jugs of water larger than their own slight frames under a blistering sun. A boy and a girl struggled up gravelly paths on crutches, each with a leg amputated above the knee. Infants lay listless on the floors of tattered tents, flies on their faces.

One sunburned boy with a shock of blond hair, who looked about 5, stood alone by a mound of stinking garbage, clad in a soiled yellow shirt with the words, “Who Am I?” The answer is clear: these children are victims, not only of ISIS but of their current conditions of captivity.

The embattled Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria that, until Turkey’s incursion, governed the region, has repeatedly called on all other countries with nationals inside the camps to repatriate them. In many countries, grandparents and other family members are begging their governments to let them take in and care for women and children stuck in the camps.

But most governments, including those of Western Europe, argue that most of these nationals are not their responsibility unless they can, by some miracle, leave their locked camps and cross conflict zones and borders to reach consulates often hundreds of kilometers away. These governments also balk at taking responsibility for their nationals who are ISIS suspects, including boys as young as 12, whom the SDF is holding in inhumanely overcrowded, makeshift prisons. These governments insist that security concerns and logistical difficulties preclude swift returns except, occasionally, of a few orphans.

Perversely, the refusal of Western governments to take responsibility for their nationals may result in ISIS criminals and camp members breaking free, as the SDF diverts its forces to fighting the Turkish military. Already in recent days, several Syrian ISIS suspects reportedly escaped an SDF-controlled prison and hundreds of women and children escaped Ain Issa, another camp for family members of ISIS suspects, after both were struck by Turkish artillery.

A few foreign governments, including those of Kazakhstan and Kosovo, have taken back citizens held in northeastern Syria, and in some cases, male prisoners by the planeload, demonstrating that where there is political will to bring citizens home for rehabilitation and reintegration, there is a way. The Kurdish-led coalition has also worked with local authorities in Syria to return many Syrian women and children, who make up about half of the camp’s detainees, as well as Syrian men and boys they have imprisoned separately or prosecuted, to their communities.

Once back home, former detainees can be investigated and, if appropriate, monitored or prosecuted in line with international fair-trial standards. Children should only be prosecuted in exceptional circumstances, as a last resort.

Helping these women and children come home advances two basic legal obligations: ensuring everyone’s right to return to their home country, without their home state throwing up direct or indirect barriers, and ensuring justice for serious crimes committed by ISIS through fair trials for those most responsible.

As the battle rages in northeastern Syria, the need is greater than ever for countries to respond to the plight of their citizens trapped in camps and detention centers, including young children too scared to cry instead of whimper.

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

Detainees in what The Times of London describes as an informal detention center for Islamic State (ISIS) suspects in northeast Syria.  

© 2019 The Times/Anthony Loyd
(Beirut) – A Kurdish-led armed group backed by the United States-led coalition against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) is detaining thousands of Syrian and foreign men and boys in severely overcrowded informal detention centers in northeast Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. The heightened possibility of a Turkish invasion of northeast Syria underscores the urgent need for countries to immediately ensure that their imprisoned citizens can return home for rehabilitation, reintegration, and appropriate prosecution in line with international standards.

On October 7, 2019, US President Donald Trump announced a pullout of US troops from northeast Syria, an area controlled by the Kurdish-led armed group, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which had been a key member of the international coalition against ISIS. The group is detaining thousands of Syrian and foreign men and boys in severely overcrowded schools and other buildings in northeast Syria.

“Thousands of people, including children, are stuck in what amounts to shockingly overcrowded prisons on suspicion of being ISIS, but no one is accepting responsibility for them,” said Letta Tayler, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Any authority that effectively controls these informal prisons is legally bound to urgently improve conditions and ensure that each and every detainee is held lawfully.”

The SDF says it is holding 12,000 prisoners, including 4,000 foreigners, in 7 detention centers in northeast Syria. Human Rights Watch spoke to two witnesses, including a former prisoner, who described harrowing conditions and severe overcrowding in the detention centers. The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration controlling northern Syria says it lacks the resources to detain the prisoners properly and that their own countries should bring them home for investigation and potential prosecution. Most countries have failed to do so.

Human Rights Watch interviewed a journalist who said he had visited one of the detention facilities and reviewed his video footage published in The Times of London on September 30. The footage showed cells with dozens of men in orange jumpsuits packed together tightly, their bodies touching, and an equally crowded medical block in a detention center holding boys. The journalist said the detainees included British, French, Belgian, and US citizens, and that they were held in “terrible, terrible conditions.” CBS news published similar images on September 17. Human Rights Watch was not able to verify the images independently.

According to The Times, the people pictured were captured during the battle of Baghouz, which ended in February, and held on suspicion of being ISIS members.

Another person who visited one of the detention centers showed Human Rights Watch two recent photos that also showed severe overcrowding as well as male prisoners who appeared to be children sharing cells with men.

The journalist, Anthony Loyd, said he saw more than 450 detainees in the hospital block of one detention center, including children as young as 12. Many patients were not receiving adequate care and some had died of their injuries in the detention center, he said.

“Several prisoners had multiple amputations and I saw one with his intestines hanging out beneath a bloody dressing. The situation was pretty bleak,” Loyd said. “There were children there.”

The SDF is detaining many boys, some as young as 12, in informal detention centers, but others, particularly younger boys, are held with their parents in camps for suspected ISIS family members or in centers for children apprehended without their parents. One 16-year-old, who spoke with Human Rights Watch in June at a center for unaccompanied boys, said that the SDF and US forces appeared to decide at random which boys to imprison and which to send to the camps or centers.

“One American twice put me in a line to go to jail. But another American cursed him and said, ‘Why are you putting him back? The boy is small,’” the boy said.

The evidence and images reviewed by Human Rights Watch strongly suggest that conditions are unfit to hold detainees and fail to meet basic international standards.

Countries that have refused to allow the return of their nationals held in informal detention centers, or in squalid northeast Syrian camps holding more than 100,000 women and children related to ISIS suspects, nearly half of them foreigners, cite national security concerns and insufficient evidence for prosecution as justification for leaving them there.

Local authorities claim they do not have the necessary infrastructure to prosecute foreign ISIS suspects in line with international due process standards. They have nevertheless set up courts that have tried thousands of Syrian ISIS suspects in flawed proceedings. But neither the Syrian government nor the international community – including the Autonomous Administration’s own international partners – recognize the courts, raising doubts about the enforceability of the rulings.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the “Mandela Rules”) require that “[a]ll accommodation provided for the use of prisoners … shall meet all requirements of health, due regard being paid to climatic conditions and particularly to cubic content of air, minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation.” The rules state that “sanitary installations shall be adequate to enable every prisoner to comply with the needs of nature when necessary and in a clean and decent manner” and that “[a]dequate bathing and shower installations shall be provided.”

The Autonomous Administration should stop detaining children solely for suspected ISIS membership. Children who have been associated with armed groups should be treated primarily as victims who need rehabilitation assistance and help reintegrating into society. Children who may have committed other violent offenses should be treated in accordance with international juvenile justice standards and detained only as a last resort. Child suspects should be held separately from adults, unless it is considered in the child's best interest not to do so.

In addition to immediately ensuring that citizens trapped in northeast Syria can return to countries that guarantee due process, countries including members of the International Coalition against ISIS should also press and provide support to detaining authorities to end the inhumane conditions for those who cannot be promptly taken home or be involuntarily resettled without risk of torture or ill-treatment, including citizens of Iraq. The detaining authorities should ensure that anyone it is holding has been detained according to law, including prompt judicial review of each detainee to ensure the legality and necessity of detention, and that no one is held in inhumane or degrading conditions.

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, anyone detained on suspicion for committing criminal offenses should be taken promptly before a judge or an equivalent authority to order their release. Anyone so detained is entitled to a trial within a reasonable time or release. The UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has said that the right to a judicial review of detention continues at all times, including in emergency situations.

Pending repatriation or third-country resettlement of non-Syrian prisoners to countries where they are not at risk of torture, ill-treatment, or unfair trials, the US-led coalition and countries with nationals held in northeast Syria should provide financial and technical support to the detaining authorities. The funding should be used to ensure that the authorities house all detainees in official prisons that are built to accommodate detainees and meet basic international standards including standards regarding juvenile justice.

“That those detained are ISIS suspects is no excuse for home countries to look the other way,” Tayler said. “If conditions in these prisons don’t improve, then home countries’ fears of radicalization and ISIS resurgence could become a reality.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

 Al-Hawl camp in Syria

© 2019 Human Rights Watch
(Sydney) – The Australian government should bring home Australian children of parents who may have joined armed groups and who are living in deplorable conditions in camps in Syria, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Save the Children said today. The following is their statement:

Civil Society Groups Call for the Urgent Repatriation of Australian Children of Foreign Fighters

Ahead of tonight’s ABC “Four Corners” program, three civil society groups are jointly urging the Australian government to bring home dozens of Australian children of foreign fighters languishing in Syrian camps.

There are currently more than 60 Australian children and women living in desolate camps in northeast Syria, where there is no running water, poor access to education, and extremely limited health facilities.

Save the Children, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International stand united in their call for the Australian government to urgently repatriate all these children and women.

Save the Children Australia CEO Paul Ronalds said:

“Children are the innocent victims in all this, they have been through hell and they must not be punished for the actions of their parents. We cannot forget about them and let them continue to suffer in dangerous camps that simply aren’t fit for children. Like millions of Syrian children, these Australian children have lived through conflict, bombardment and acute deprivation. We appreciate that there will be serious questions to answer for the adults involved, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing the right thing by these children.”

Amnesty International Australia Refugee Coordinator Dr Graham Thom said:

“We know conditions in the camps are dire. Children are going without food and water and their safety is constantly threatened by violence, disease and malnutrition. These Australian children did not choose the hardships they are currently enduring. We urge the government to intervene immediately and save these mothers and children as soon as possible so that they can all return to Australia, where they belong.”

Human Rights Watch Australia Director Elaine Pearson said:

“Children should be treated first and foremost as victims. The Australian government should be doing what it can to protect its child citizens and bring them home, not abandon them to disease and death in a foreign desert.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Presidency of the Federal Court of Cassation of Baghdad

© 2019 SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Image

(Beirut) – A close study of appeals court decisions in terrorism-related cases in Iraq shows that judges in close to two dozen cases in an 18-month period appeared to ignore torture allegations or to rely on uncorroborated confessions, Human Rights Watch said today. Some of the torture allegations had been substantiated by forensic medical exams, and some of the confessions were unsubstantiated by any other evidence and were apparently extracted by force, including by torture.

In each of these cases, the trial courts took the torture allegations seriously, found them credible, assessed the evidence, and acquitted the defendants. These cases show that gaps in Iraq’s criminal justice system extend to the highest level. Under international law, courts should never rely on evidence obtained by torture. Member states of the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS (also known as the Islamic State), who are meeting on September 26, 2019 on the margins of the UN General Assembly session in New York to discuss accountability measures for ISIS crimes, should agree not to transfer ISIS suspects from Syria to Iraq until the Iraqi justice system can ensure that criminal prosecutions meet international fair trial standards and until the government imposes a death penalty moratorium.

“Our investigation into a large number of Iraq’s court rulings found what may be repeated miscarriages of justice in terrorism cases,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “How can Iraqi lawyers and counterterrorism judges stand by and watch this unfold?”

Human Rights Watch reviewed the appeals court case files in 27 decisions issued between September 2018 and March 2019 by the Federal Court of Cassation’s criminal committee. In 21 cases, the appeals court overruled the trial court’s acquittal and ordered retrials; in two cases, it upheld the acquittal; and in four cases, it upheld the trial court’s conviction but increased the sentences. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm the outcome of the cases following retrial.

Of the 27 terrorism cases, 23 were prosecuted under Iraq’s counterterrorism law, three under the penal code, and one under the Weaponry Law No. 51 of 2017. The veracity of the court documents was confirmed by an independent Iraqi legal expert.

Criminal courts in Iraq are divided into courts for serious offenses, here referred to as “criminal courts,” and courts of minor offenses. The public prosecution, defendant, and complainant each have the right to appeal an acquittal, conviction, or sentence in a criminal court ruling. Appeals are heard by the criminal committee, consisting of a presiding judge and a minimum of four other judges, within the Federal Court of Cassation in Baghdad. The criminal committee automatically reviews all cases with a sentence of 25 years, life imprisonment, or death. The committee may uphold a decision or overrule it and return the case to the trial court for a retrial or a repeat judicial investigation.

In six cases, the defendants alleged at trials that investigators had tortured or otherwise coerced them into making a confession. The criminal committee overruled the acquittals and ordered retrials, relying on the recanted confession and mentioning evidence either not considered during the defendant’s trial or dismissed as unreliable. In two cases, the confession was the sole evidence. It was unclear from court documents whether trial judges had investigated those who had allegedly tortured or otherwise coerced the defendants, or if judicial investigators, police, or the public prosecution conducted criminal investigations into the allegations of torture and other crimes toward defendants who had made a complaint.

In two cases, the defendant submitted a forensic medical report that found signs he had been “subjected to external force,” yet the criminal committee ignored or dismissed the report. In one case, the criminal committee stated, “What the defendant’s medical report mentions does not affect the value of the evidence available in the case,” though the allegedly coerced confession was the only evidence presented at the trial.

While the issue of torture was not explicitly raised in seven cases, criminal courts in Anbar, Karkh, and Kirkuk acquitted defendants because no evidence was presented beyond their confessions, the case files showed. In each case, the criminal committee found that the disputed confession was sufficient evidence to proceed with the charges, and ordered a retrial.

These cases raise concern, particularly in light of comments made by an Iraqi judicial expert and two experts on Iraqi law and on terrorism cases. They all said that in their experience, when the criminal committee overruled an acquittal and ordered a retrial, it was sending a clear message that the trial court should change its ruling. They said that these retrials could not be seen as a neutral judicial order to reassess the facts of the case, but rather an implicit order to find the defendant guilty.

Human Rights Watch wrote to Iraq’s chief justice on June 10, 2019 with the findings. The High Judicial Council, which manages and supervises the federal judiciary’s affairs, responded on June 20, asking for the details of the cases reviewed, which Human Rights Watch provided on June 26. It also stated that, “independent experts were unable to properly assess the decisions taken by the distinguished judges at the Federal Court of Cassation because they lacked the appropriate expertise.” On July 18, it shared with Human Rights Watch an order from the chief justice to examine the cases Human Rights Watch shared but had not provided more information by the time of publication.

In line with international legal standards and Iraqi criminal procedures, Iraq’s High Judicial Council should issue guidelines obliging judges to investigate all credible allegations of torture and the security forces responsible, and to transfer detainees to different facilities immediately after they allege torture or ill-treatment, to protect them from retaliation. It should reiterate to judges that they are obliged to dismiss any evidence obtained by torture. Judicial authorities should investigate and determine who was responsible for any torture, punish abusive officers, and compensate the victim.

The High Judicial Council should immediately review all terrorism-related decisions issued by the criminal committee since the beginning of 2018, followed by consideration based on the result as to whether a full review since 2005 is necessary, and remedy any miscarriages of justice that it identifies.

The authorities should also ensure that there is a clear legal basis for detentions; that all detainees have access to legal counsel, including during interrogation; that they appear before a judge within 24 hours of their initial detention and at regular intervals thereafter, with the judge determining the legality and necessity of their continuing detention; and that detainees are moved to facilities accessible to government inspection, and with regular access by independent monitors and relatives.

The US-led coalition and other countries with nationals facing potential terrorism trials in Iraq should press the High Judicial Council to share the findings of any review it conducts into Iraq’s Federal Court of Cassation and ensure implementation of reforms to address the serious flaws raised in this report.

“This investigation shows that detainees in Iraq face a significant risk of unfair trial at every stage of the criminal justice process,” Fakih said. “The High Judicial Council needs to take a very close look at the terrorism-related decisions of the criminal committee.”


As of early 2018, Iraq authorities were holding an estimated 19,000 men and boys on charges of ISIS affiliation. Authorities have not responded to Human Rights Watch’s repeated requests to share updated statistics on those in custody. As of early 2019, according to an Iraqi security official, the US-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria were holding an estimated 20,000 Iraqis detained during fighting against ISIS, as well as over 2,000 non-Iraqis who are at risk of being transferred to Iraq for investigation and possible prosecution as ISIS members. At least 900 Iraqis with alleged links to ISIS have already been transferred from northeast Syria to Iraq in recent months.

Given the findings, and the risk of torture and unfair trials leading to the death penalty, neither the Syrian Kurdish forces nor any country should transfer detainees to Iraq for prosecution for terrorism or related crimes. Despite extensive credible reports of torture in detention, Iraqi judges routinely do not investigate these allegations.

Flaws in the Federal Court of Cassation

While the defendants’ arrest dates were not cited in most cases, one showed that the defendant had been arrested in March 2016 but only brought to trial in June 2017. The criminal committee overruled his acquittal in September 2018. While one case went from the trial to the appeals stage in just under six weeks, some cases took as long as a year or more. Two cases tried in 2018 related to crimes allegedly committed in 2006.

The right to a fair trial and the absolute prohibition of torture are set out in human rights treaties ratified by Iraq, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture. Key guarantees include that courts should not consider any evidence obtained by torture; that no defendant should be compelled to testify against themselves or confess guilt; and that defendants should have adequate time to prepare their defense, be able to consider and challenge the evidence and witnesses used against them, and present their own evidence and witnesses.

In March 2019, the Interior Ministry endorsed new Standard Operating Procedures for criminal investigations. These include articles to strengthen the defense, including by ensuring defense lawyers’ access to detained clients, case files, and interview records. The Interior Ministry should ensure that investigators are fully trained on the procedures and that they are put into practice across all detention facilities and during all investigations.

Torture Allegations

In October 2017, a man went on trial at Anbar Criminal Court for ISIS affiliation in 2014 in Fallujah, according to his case file. The defendant recanted his confession, saying he had been tortured. Witnesses testified that he had no links to ISIS. The court acquitted him, but the criminal committee overruled the acquittal in October 2018, finding that the confession was credible, and ordered a retrial. It found that, “the accused has confessed during the investigation and in the presence of all legal guarantees of committing the crime. Therefore, the evidence against him as previously described is sufficient and convincing enough to convict and sentence him.” It said nothing about the torture allegation.

In November 2018, the Karkh branch of the Central Criminal Court in Baghdad acquitted a man accused of complicity in the murder of an Iraqi Security Forces officer and of injuring others in 2013. The court ruled that his confession, the sole evidence, was not enough to convict him, citing an attendance sheet showing that he had been in a university class at the time of the incident, and witnesses who stated the same. The defendant said he had been coerced into confessing, and presented a forensic medical report finding that he had been “subjected to external force.”

The Federal Court of Cassation’s criminal committee found in March 2019 that the confession had been “clear and detailed” and cited statements made almost five years after the attack by other two officers who had been present at the time of attack. It stated that the forensic medical report findings did not affect “all the other evidence” and ordered a retrial.

In January 2018, the Anbar Criminal Court tried a man for ISIS affiliation and participation in two specific terrorist attacks. The defendant recanted his confession, stating he had been tortured, and the court, determining that there was no other evidence of his alleged links to ISIS, acquitted him.

The criminal committee overruled the decision in November and ordered a retrial, finding that the confession was credible because the defendant made it in the presence of the general prosecutor and his state-appointed lawyer, and citing statements made by plaintiffs not mentioned during the trial. It added that, “his confession was not refuted by any medical report that confirmed that his confession was forced,” and did not address the torture allegations deemed credible by the trial court anywhere within the decision.

According to the case file, in February 2018, a man charged with ISIS affiliation at the Anbar Criminal Court stated that he had been tortured into confessing. His brother, a juvenile in custody and accused of another crime, testified against him. The court said that it could not rely on his brother’s statement because he was a juvenile himself on trial, and that it was suspicious that his own confession to investigators was identical – word for word – to the confession he later made to the investigative judge. It reasoned:

After careful consideration of the facts of the case and evidence obtained in it, the court found that the accused’s statements given to the investigator and the investigative judge were the same, word-for-word, and that the statements given by the accused as a witness, and who is the brother of the accused mentioned above, cannot be accepted since it came from a juvenile defendant, hence it cannot be admitted as evidence in a capital crime.

The criminal committee overruled the decision, finding both the defendant’s confession and his brother’s statements credible, and ordered a retrial.

In January 2019, the Karkh court acquitted a man charged with ISIS affiliation, the case file shows. He recanted his confession at trial and presented a forensic medical report in which the doctor had found that he had been subjected to “external force.” A witness who had implicated the defendant as a member of ISIS also recanted. The court acquitted him for lack of evidence. In April, the criminal committee overruled the acquittal and ordered a retrial, referencing the defendant’s confession while ignoring the forensic medical report, and also relying on the retracted witness statement and two security agency reports that were not mentioned at trial.

On April 1, 2019, Iraq’s High Judicial Council told Human Rights Watch that Iraqi courts had investigated 275 complaints against investigative officers by the end of 2018 in both terrorism and non-terrorism cases. The High Judicial Council stated that 176 of the cases have been “resolved,” while 99 cases were still being addressed. The council did not indicate what the term “resolved” meant in this context, nor how many of the 176 cases were being further investigated or had been dismissed.

Confession-based Prosecution

In one case in which the criminal committee ordered a retrial solely on the basis of a confession, in February 2019, it found that:

The decision issued by the Karkh Criminal Court to drop the charge against the accused and release him is incorrect and against the law as the accused had explicitly, and with the availability of all legal guarantees consisting of the presence of the deputy public prosecutor and the appointed lawyer, confessed to the crime. The accused confessed to belonging to a terrorist group and to have continued supporting it. Therefore, there is sufficient and convincing evidence to convict him. 

In two cases, the additional evidence mentioned by the criminal committee was a single witness statement against the defendant that had not been presented at his trial. In a November 2018 case, the Risafa branch of the Central Criminal Court acquitted a man accused of selling weapons to the Islamic State because his confession was the sole piece of evidence against him. The criminal committee said a witness statement that had not been considered at trial was enough to substantiate the charges and ordered a retrial. In two other cases, the additional evidence the criminal committee relied on was a witness statement that did not implicate the defendant.

Extended Sentences

In four of the 23 cases in which defendants were convicted under the Anti-Terrorism Law No. 13 of 2005, two received 15-year sentences and two life sentences. Upon appeal by the prosecution in two cases in an effort to increase the sentences, and the automatic appeal in the life sentence cases, the criminal committee ordered an unspecified increase in sentencing which in the case of life sentences could only be death. The committee said the initial sentences had been too light. One of the cases involved an elderly man sentenced to 15 years because of his age who was accused of working in a Mosul mosque and of pledging support to ISIS in religious speeches.

In two of the 27 cases, the criminal committee upheld a decision to acquit the defendants, in one case based on the defendant’s claim that he had been coerced into confessing. It was unclear from the court documents whether the judges initiated any investigations into the allegations of coercion.

Exonerating Evidence

In December 2018, according to court documents, the Karkh branch of the Central Criminal Court in Baghdad acquitted three men charged under the penal code for detonating a car bomb targeting Iraqi Security Forces in 2005. All three men recanted their confessions and the court said it had evidence that US forces had been behind the explosion and had claimed responsibility. It also found that the men’s confessions diverged from one another’s significantly. In March 2019, the criminal committee overruled the acquittals, saying the men had confessed to Al Qaeda membership in the presence of a prosecutor and their appointed lawyer, and ordered a retrial. It stated that: 

Upon examination and deliberation, it is evident from the facts of the case that the defendants have explicitly confessed to belonging to the terrorist Al Qaeda group and to carrying out several terrorist attacks, one of which is the crime at hand, in the presence of a member of the public prosecution and the appointed attorney. Their confessions were consistent with the course of the investigation, and the bomb being detonated by American troops does not affect the accused’s confessions. Therefore, there is sufficient and convincing evidence to convict them. 

In December 2018, the Karkh Criminal Court acquitted two men who were accused of detonating a bomb in 2011, court documents show, because both defendants recanted their confessions, which had been inconsistent. In addition, witnesses to the attack stated that both defendants had nothing to do with it. The court stated in its decision to acquit that:

Statements given by the injured complainants... show that they did not complain against the accused regarding this crime since they had nothing to do with the incident and since they already knew them as they are from the same area.... The court found that the evidence against the accused amounted only to their confessions written during the investigation, which they recanted. The court also found that the confessions were not validated by any legally admissible evidence. In addition to that, the court found that the confessions given by both accused were inconsistent with each other.

The criminal committee cited the confessions and the exonerating witness statements, overruling the acquittal and ordering a retrial.

Guilt by Association

In August 2018, the Karkh Criminal Court acquitted the only woman among the 27, who was charged with ISIS affiliation based on her husband’s membership. The criminal committee found that her acknowledgment that her husband had joined ISIS, and fake documentation she had while trying to smuggle herself to Turkey after he was killed, constituted enough evidence to convict her on terrorism charges and ordered a retrial. It reasoned: 

The accused had confessed during investigation, with the availability of legal guarantees, that she is the wife of a member of the terrorist group ISIS, and that after her husband was killed by the Peshmerga… an individual called her in order to transport them to Turkey, and she was given a fake civil identity card. They headed to Baghdad and were received by a defendant who owns a guesthouse and transports families from the ISIS terrorist group to safe areas. He took their photos and prepared fake IDs for the purpose of smuggling them out of Iraq, where they were arrested upon their attempt. Her confession was validated by witness statements of the arresting contingent and other witness statements, and the circumstantial evidence consisting of finding fakes IDs of the defendant. Therefore, there is sufficient and convincing evidence to convict and sentence her for the crime. 

The criminal committee ruled that the fact that she was married to an ISIS member and had attempted to leave Iraq using false documentation was enough to secure a conviction under the Anti-Terrorism Law. If prosecuted for the crime of false documentation, the woman would have faced a sentence of as little as six months, But because she was tried under the Anti-Terrorism Law, she was instead potentially facing a sentence of up to 25 years in prison for being an accessory to a crime. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Nigeria: Military Holding Children as Boko Haram Suspects

The Nigerian military has arbitrarily detained thousands of children in degrading and inhuman conditions for suspected involvement with the armed Islamist group Boko Haram. 

(Abuja) – The Nigerian military has arbitrarily detained thousands of children in degrading and inhuman conditions for suspected involvement with the armed Islamist group Boko Haram, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Many children are held without charge for months or years in squalid and severely overcrowded military barracks, with no contact with the outside world.
The 50-page report, “‘They Didn’t Know if I Was Alive or Dead’: Military Detention of Children for Suspected Boko Haram Involvement in Northeast Nigeria,” documents how Nigerian authorities are detaining children, often based on little or no evidence. Children described beatings, overwhelming heat, frequent hunger, and being packed tightly in their cells with hundreds of other detainees “like razorblades in a pack,” as one former detainee said.
“Children are being detained in horrific conditions for years, with little or no evidence of involvement with Boko Haram, and without even being taken to court,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Many of these children already survived attacks by Boko Haram. The authorities’ cruel treatment adds to their suffering and victimizes them further.”
Between January 2013 and March 2019, Nigerian armed forces detained over 3,600 children, including 1,617 girls, for suspected involvement with non-state armed groups, according to the UN. Many are detained at Giwa military barracks in Maiduguri, the main military detention facility in Borno State.
Nigerian authorities have released at least 2,200 children from detention, nearly all without charge. According to the UN, 418 children were detained in 2018, a significant decrease from 2017, when over 1,900 children were detained. Human Rights Watch does not know the number of children who may be currently detained.
The Nigerian government should sign and put into effect a United Nations handover protocol to ensure the swift transfer of children apprehended by the military to child protection authorities for rehabilitation, family reunification, and community reintegration. Other countries in the region, including Chad, Mali, and Niger, have already signed such protocols.
In June 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed in Maiduguri 32 children and youth who had been detained as children at Giwa barracks for alleged involvement with Boko Haram. None of the children said they were taken before a judge or appeared in court, as required by law, and only one saw someone who he thought may have been a lawyer. None were aware of any charges against them. One was detained when he was only 5 years old.
Nigerian authorities arrested the children during military operations, security sweeps, screening procedures for internally displaced people, and based on information from informants. Many of the children said they were arrested after fleeing Boko Haram attacks on their village or while seeking refuge at camps for internally displaced people. One said he was arrested and detained for more than two years for allegedly selling yams to Boko Haram members. Several girls had been abducted by Boko Haram or forced to become Boko Haram “wives."
Approximately one-third of the children interviewed said security forces beat them during interrogation after their arrest or at Giwa barracks. One girl who was forced to marry a Boko Haram member said that after soldiers captured her, “The soldiers were beating us with their belts, calling us names and telling us they will deal with us because we are Boko Haram wives.” Others said they were beaten if they denied association with Boko Haram.
Children described sharing a single cell, approximately 10-by-10 meters, with 250 or more detainees. They said the stench from a single open toilet was often overwhelming and that detainees sometimes fainted from the heat. In Maiduguri, the average annual maximum temperature is 35 degrees Celsius and temperatures can exceed 40 degrees.
Nearly half of the children said they saw dead bodies of other detainees at Giwa barracks. Many said they suffered frequent thirst or hunger.
Fifteen of the children had been detained for more than a year, and some had been held for more than three years. None had been allowed to contact family members outside the detention center, nor had the authorities contacted their families. Such cases may constitute enforced disappearances, a serious human rights violation.
The children said that Giwa has a cell for boys under 18 with children as young as 7, or even younger. The military also detains children in adult cells, where children said food and water were scarcer and conditions even more crowded. Very young children and babies are kept with their mothers and older girls in a separate cell. Three girls said they saw male soldiers making sexual advances toward female detainees or removing girls from the cell for long periods for what they believed was sexual exploitation.
The military provides no formal education or rehabilitation activities for children at Giwa. Children reported that their only activities were prayer, watching television, and informal lessons that some children provided for others. The overcrowded conditions made physical activity impossible, and some children said they developed sores from restricted movement.
Following their release, some children said they suffered social stigma from presumed involvement with Boko Haram, even if they had no ties to the group. Nearly all said they wanted to go to school, but many said that available schools were too far away, or that they didn’t have money for transportation.
Nigerian authorities should immediately release children currently in military custody. If military or intelligence authorities have credible evidence of criminal offenses by children, they should transfer them to civilian judicial authorities to be treated in accordance with national and international juvenile justice standards.
“Nigeria faces formidable challenges from the Boko Haram insurgency, but detaining thousands of children is not the answer,” Becker said. “Children affected by the conflict need rehabilitation and schooling, not prison.”
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A destroyed home near Ashqala al-Sagheer village in Hamdaniya, July 2019. Hasansham camp is in the background.

© 2019 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is preventing about 4,200 Sunni Arabs from returning home to 12 villages east of Mosul, Human Rights Watch said today. More than three years after the Hamdaniya district was retaken from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), in one area KRG authorities have only allowed Kurdish residents and Arabs with KRG ties to return, in violation of international humanitarian law.

The Arab families seeking to return home had fled primarily to ISIS-controlled Mosul during fighting in 2014. Approximately 3,400 Sunni Arabs have been residing in camps for the displaced with dwindling services, according to aid workers. Affected families said they have been blocked from their homes and farmland and unable to earn a living. A KRG official wrote in an email to Human Rights Watch that residents were free to return to their homes, but provided Human Rights Watch with a list of Nineveh villages that were difficult to return to, identifying six from Hamdaniya as “blocked” for return.

“The Kurdistan Regional Government is preventing thousands of Arab villagers from returning home without a lawful reason,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that the KRG is permitting Kurdish and well-connected Arab residents back suggests that these villagers are being improperly punished.”

Human Rights Watch has conducted three investigations into the KRG’s prevention of returns to the Hamdaniya district since 2016, most recently in June 2019, when we interviewed 11 Arab residents of Hasansham camp from the villages of Hasansham, Manquba, Shirkan, and Tal Aswad.

The KRG’s coordinator for international advocacy, Dr. Dindar Zebari, wrote on August 10 in response to a Human Rights Watch letter that in the 15 villages Human Rights Watch investigated, population counts showed that there had been few or no returns to 6 of the villages and minimal returns to 2. In 4 villages, about half the population had returned. In only 3 villages had all or nearly all residents returned. Residents blocked from returning said that these 3 villages were either predominantly Kurdish or had Arab residents with strong KRG ties.

Zebari’s information matched satellite imagery analysis from 2016 to 2019 that identified signs of reconstruction and needed reconstruction of many area buildings.

Sunni Arab residents and aid workers disputed claims that authorities were willing to investigate reported cases of blocked return. After anti-ISIS forces retook Mosul in November 2016 and the KRG had put in place a security and civil administration system in the area, former residents sought to return to Hamdaniya district. However, Iraqi forces redirected the displaced to the nearby Hasansham camp. After one month at the camp, the KRG’s security forces, Asayish, informed them without a clear explanation that they were not allowed to return home. Families and aid workers said that in late 2017, Asayish reiterated that they were not allowed to return home but could leave the camps to move to the broader Mosul area or to KRG-controlled Erbil, leading some families to leave the camps.

“Families like mine have become victims of abuse because we went to Mosul when ISIS came, instead of fleeing towards the Kurds,” said a 69-year-old Arab villager from Manquba. “Now we are punished because we didn’t go to [Kurdish-controlled] Kalak.”

KRG officials, in communications with residents, aid workers, and Human Rights Watch, have provided reasons for blocking returns to the district: inadequate services, unexploded ordnance, uncleared landmines (including those of an improvised nature), property destruction; social conflicts and property and land ownership issues, concerns about attacks by villagers who had joined ISIS, and security issues arising from the September 2017 KRG referendum on independence, which makes the area a front line if there is future fighting between Kurdish and Iraqi forces.

Under international humanitarian law, the forced displacement of civilians is prohibited except when necessary to protect civilians or for imperative military reasons, and then only for as long as needed. Possible future hostilities are not a lawful basis. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it is a war crime to order the unlawful displacement of civilians. Furthermore, people may only be punished for crimes for which they are responsible, after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishments on families, villages, or communities violates international humanitarian law and amounts to a war crime.

Actions imposed for security reasons need to be according to law, proportionate, and have a legitimate aim, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, Human Rights Watch found that the displacement camps are also located in the so-called “front line” area and that the KRG has allowed some residents to return to certain villages in the area. With respect to landmines, international demining organizations have conducted considerable survey and clearance activity in the vicinity since 2016 and, if mines remained a genuine threat, no villagers should have been allowed to return.

Satellite imagery analysis shows that since 2016 the KRG military forces, the Peshmerga, have deployed and built significant military infrastructure in four of the villages, none of which have received significant population returns. The KRG should immediately remove all restrictions preventing the return of residents where there is no military necessity for doing so and investigate government officials who have been preventing lawful returns, Human Rights Watch said.

“KRG authorities should not prevent families from returning to their villages because they want to punish the community,” Fakih said. “These villagers have the right to return to their own land and homes.”

Flight and Impact of Displacement

In August 2014, ISIS forces, after capturing the city of Mosul, took control of Hasansham and surrounding areas, which had been under KRG control since 2003. Residents said they fled their villages once fighting between ISIS and the Peshmerga broke out. They said that most Arab families fled in the direction of Mosul, because ISIS told them the city was safer. However, almost all Kurdish families fled in the direction of Erbil, taking refuge in Kalak and other KRG-controlled areas.

A 50-year-old man from the village of Shirkan said that the local Kurdish families fled to areas under KRG control while most Arab families fled to Mosul. “I heard in 2017 from camp security that the Peshmerga allowed the 20 Kurdish families from our village to return home,” he said. Human Rights Watch verified the return of Kurdish villagers to Shirkan during a July visit. He said that camp officials had told him he was not allowed to return home, without providing him with a clear reason why.

A 63-year-old man from Ehsar said that only his Arab neighbors who had personal ties to the Peshmerga said they were allowed to return to his village. Only 8 people out of an original population of 60 have returned to Ehsar, according to the KRG’s population count.

Three camps in the Hasansham and Khazir areas are holding about 3,400 displaced people from 11 surrounding villages, according to camp management. Another 800 people, including some from a twelfth village, were living outside the camp in another location, aid workers said. Some of the villages are historically Arab while others are mixed Arab-Kurdish. The camps are run by a nongovernmental organization linked to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the governing parties in the KRG, and the Asayish manages camp security. Management at all three camps said that funding shortfalls over the last two years had resulted in aid agencies suspending and reducing services to camp residents.

Most of the families interviewed said that before fleeing their homes, farming had been their main source of income. All said that since 2014 they had not been able to farm their land, even after the KRG regained control and fighting had ceased. Almost all the families said that they had been unable to find any paid employment since moving to the displacement camp.

One former camp resident, 36, said he moved to Mosul and was living with his family in an abandoned building and working as a taxi driver. In his village he used to make about US$16 a day but now makes as little as $8. His 14-year-old daughter is not going to school because he cannot afford a bag, books, and appropriate clothing for her.

A 45-year-old laborer from Hasansham who has not been allowed to return said he can see his destroyed home from his tent in the displacement camp: “I want to go back to my village because here in the camp we don’t have a future. How long are we going to stay here? No work, bad education, no proper health care, we are without hope.”

Health professionals providing mental health and psychosocial support in the camps identified that families showed signs of heightening psychological distress and frustration because they were being prevented from returning home, findings consistent with a recently published report on displaced families in Iraq.

Advocating Villagers’ Return

Several aid workers in the camps told Human Rights Watch that senior aid officials had been advocating since 2018 for the return of the 4,200 people with senior KRG officials, local mayors, the governor of Nineveh, the local Peshmerga unit, and members of Parliament in Baghdad. In June 2018, then-Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani agreed with aid agencies that all Arab families should be allowed to return and instructed the KRG’s Ministry of Interior to follow up, two aid workers present said. The Erbil Joint Crisis Coordination Centre, established under the KRG’s interior ministry in 2014 to “coordinate all matters related to crisis management and response in the Kurdistan Region,” informed humanitarian partners in September 2018 that the KRG’s interior ministry and Baghdad authorities had agreed to allow the families to return. However, in October, a high-ranking Peshmerga commander told senior aid officials that returns would only be permitted if there was a political agreement between the KRG and the Iraqi government to “ensure no hostilities in the area,” the aid workers said.

Families that sought permission to return with KRG and Baghdad officials said the officials told them the decision was “not in their hands” but in the hands of the Peshmerga.

Area Contamination

At a July 2018 meeting with senior aid officials, a high-ranking Peshmerga commander raised concerns that Hamdaniya villages were contaminated with landmines (including those of an improvised nature) and unexploded ordnance, according to several aid workers. Zebari’s email to Human Rights Watch also noted the presence of unexploded ordnance and landmines. However, these concerns do not appear to be the reason KRG authorities have not allowed families to return to their villages.

Three demining organizations provided Human Rights Watch with maps showing clearance activities in the area, which demonstrates that considerable clearance activity was conducted in and around the villages since 2016. Human Rights Watch and aid workers have also observed shepherds grazing their sheep throughout the area, including in abandoned villages, and Peshmerga driving through the villages. The KRG authorities have allowed some residents to return to certain villages, so it is unclear why return would be safe for some but not others.

If landmine or explosive remnants of war contamination concerns persist in some of the villages of blocked return, KRG authorities should direct mine clearance organizations to provide additional mine risk education to the families in the camps. They should ensure, with the Iraqi government’s Directorate of Mine Action, which oversees work in the return areas, that demining organizations survey and clear high priority areas like main roads and public spaces, and mark other areas of contamination. The KRG should also instruct security forces to accompany camp residents on “go-and-see” visits, assisting them in avoiding any possible unexploded ordnance or landmine.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Government buses waiting to move families from one camp in Anbar governate to another during a previous wave of camp closures in December 2018. 

© 2018 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Local authorities have forcibly expelled more than 2,000 Iraqis from camps for displaced people in Nineveh governorate since August 23, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today.

Some were forced to return to their home regions, despite fears for their safety, including from former neighbors who perceive them as being linked to the Islamic State (ISIS). Some have come under attack since being forced home. Authorities in Nineveh have also blocked families who tried to leave the camps to avoid expulsion.

“Displaced people, like all other Iraqis, have the right to move freely in their country and decide where they feel safe to live,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities can’t move people without first consulting them, especially not to places where they and their families face danger.”

Authorities in Salah al-Din have also announced plans to close camps for displaced people or are already forcing people to return to their governorates of origin.

In early July, the National Security Council, which coordinates Iraq's national security, intelligence, and foreign policy strategy, passed “Resolution 16.” The resolution is not public, but officials have described its contents in letters to humanitarian organizations. It orders people from areas other than Nineveh – currently at least 38,040 people – to leave the Nineveh camps. It mandates security forces to develop a database of residents and isolate families who are perceived as ISIS-affiliated. The resolution also calls for increased security to keep people from entering or leaving camps without permission and assigning more police to the camps, to “control” people’s movement and to “assess and audit” the work of nongovernmental organizations who work in the camps.

In response, the authorities began screenings across the Nineveh camps. On August 21, Migration and Displacement Ministry officials informed aid workers at the two camps in Nineveh where screenings had been completed that they intended to expel everyone there from other governorates, starting with those from Anbar governorate, two aid workers said. Anbar is a former ISIS stronghold.

On August 23, security forces from the Nineveh Operations Command expelled 36 families from Anbar, most headed by women, totaling about 150 people , and transported them to their areas of origin in Anbar against their will and without letting them bring their belongings. They were told they were being taken to a camp in Anbar, three families told Human Rights Watch. The families called aid workers to express fears when they found they were actually being taken back home, and aid workers unsuccessfully tried to intervene.

An aid worker in Ramadi said that one of the families fled to a camp for displaced people 25 kilometers away after local residents threatened to kill them because of their perceived ISIS affiliation. Since August 25, 16 families who security forces had taken back to the Haditha area have been living in a public school encircled by police about three kilometers away because they feel unsafe, two told Human Rights Watch. They said that on August 28, someone threw a hand grenade at the school. No one inside was injured.

Two aid workers said that elsewhere in Anbar, local security forces said they denied at least six families entry to their areas of origin because of perceived ISIS affiliation. They said several more families have contacted aid groups asking for help to relocate to nearby camps because they feel unsafe.

Camp management did not have time to issue the deported Anbar families departure letters to help them pass through checkpoints, obtain security clearances in areas they returned to, and to apply for funds available for people returning.

After the expulsions, other families who are not from Nineveh started leaving the camps to avoid expulsion but on August 25, the Iraqi Army’s 16th division ordered camp management in at least two of the camps to prevent families from leaving. The army forced some departing families to return to the camps under threat of arrest, three of the families and aid workers said.

On August 28, security forces forcibly expelled from the same camps 151 families – at least 610 people – originally from Hawija, an area in western Kirkuk that continues to experience ISIS attacks and military operations, to camps in the Kirkuk area, an aid worker there said, causing food shortages in the camps they were transferred to. But two aid workers have since told Human Rights Watch that the Kirkuk governor later agreed to allow the families to continue living in camps there, instead of forcing them to return home.

Security forces also expelled at least another 671 people from Nineveh camps to a camp in Salah al-Din on August 31. Two families said that the morning after they arrived, two grenades hit the camp fence. One man, 50, said that he and other families did not feel safe there after social media posts – some containing veiled execution threats – urged local people to protest the families’ presence. Aid workers present said security forces transferred the families to another Salah al-Din camp on September 2 because of increased security concerns for the families. Residents at the new camp location launched protests when they heard of the families’ arrival.

On September 2, authorities expelled another 481 people from Nineveh camps to Salah al-Din, after keeping them waiting on buses for over five hours without a bathroom, food, or water.

The deputy governor of Salah al-Din, which currently houses at least 105,390 displaced people, told aid workers in June that he aimed to close most displaced people’s camps and informal settlement sites by early September, with statements from local officials in late August and early September that at least two camps would be closed by early September. By August 24, security forces had expelled more than 500 families from an informal settlement in Salah al-Din, an aid worker said.

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement ensure displaced people’s rights to free movement and freedom to choose their residence, as well as their right to move freely in and out of camps.

Authorities in Iraq should not force people to return to or remain in specific locations and respect their right to free movement. They should immediately facilitate the return of families who want to return to areas not affected by ongoing military operations. And if authorities cannot ensure families’ safety, they should allow families to remain in or relocate to camps that allow for free movement or other areas where authorities can properly protect them.

In line with these standards, authorities should ensure that displaced people have at least seven days’ notice of their expulsions and provide a range of detailed options for safe assisted relocation. Authorities should ensure that camp management has time to issue departure letters needed to travel, resettle, and apply for assistance, and allow people to take their belongings with them.

“Over the last two weeks government has effectively transferred people into situations where they are being targeted with grenades and death threats,” Fakih said. “Before people board buses provided by the government transporting them from the camps, authorities should clarify where the buses are traveling so families can make an informed decision about how to keep themselves safe.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am