“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

 Al-Hawl camp in Syria

© 2019 Human Rights Watch
(Al-Hol Camp, northeast Syria) –Sitting on the floor of a shack in a locked desert camp in north-east Syria, her baby boy in her lap and her two other children nestled by her side, Radhia* had only one question.

"Please, can you tell me," she asked, "when will Australia bring us home?"

That same week in June, Australia evacuated eight Australian children from al-Hawl, the same camp where Radhia and her children have been detained since January.

Radhia and her children, too, are Australian citizens. While the eight evacuated children were brought home to Australia, Radhia and her children remain indefinitely detained by a Kurdish-led coalition in al-Hawl, a camp rife with disease and despair.

"People think we are monsters," said Radhia, who did not want her real name used in order to protect her children. "Please tell them we are humans, just like them."

At least 50 Australian women and children remain in al-Hawl, according to Save the Children, which has urged Australia to bring them all home. They are among about 11,000 foreigners — more than 7,000 children and about 3,000 women — from about 50 countries who are held in the camp.

The self-declared Autonomous Administration for North and East Syria, which is detaining the foreigners, says it will not prosecute them and has urged their governments to repatriate them. But most countries are bringing home only token numbers, leaving the rest in legal limbo.

Indeed, just days after the evacuations of the eight children from al-Hawl, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton introduced draconian revisions to Australian law that would ban alleged foreign fighters as young as 14 from returning to Australia for two years.

During visits to al-Hawl from June 21 to 23, I found dire conditions including overflowing latrines and sewage trickling into tattered tents.

Young children with skin rashes, emaciated limbs and swollen bellies were drinking wash water from tanks containing worms. Other children lay limp with fever on tent floors, their bodies dusted with flies and dirt.

Children are dying from acute diarrhea and flu-like infections, aid groups and camp managers told me.

A key reason for the squalor is donor nations' reluctance to assist potential Islamic State members or sympathizers, camp managers and aid workers said. But international law forbids denying essential aid based on religious or ideological affiliation. Moreover, children who lived under Islamic State are victims first and foremost, and many of their mothers are, too.

Speaking softly and stroking the hair of her children, ages 3, 1 and a half and 6 months, Radhia said she had never planned to leave Australia to live under Islamic State. But one day, she said, her Australian husband told her, "'I am going, you are coming with me.' I was thinking, 'Why? We are comfortable.' But as a Muslim woman you follow your husband."

She said the couple crossed into Syria via Turkey in 2014 and settled in Tal Abyad, an IS-held town on the northern border. After Tal Abyad fell in 2015, they moved from one shrinking IS-held pocket to another.

In 2017, Radhia's husband was killed in a coalition drone strike. Radhia said she could not find a way out until January, when the caliphate lost its grip on Deir al-Zour. Then she and her children joined thousands of starving, shell-shocked families streaming out.

Radhia did not want to talk about her husband or the father of her third child. But she spoke at length about her dreams for her children: a real roof over their heads, clean water, fresh food, school.

Like all detainees at al-Hawl, Radhia and her children live in a tent and subsist on scant dry rations. The shack where she sat was a shared kitchen whose concrete floors and walls were her greatest luxury.

While I can't verify Radhia's story, her children deserve to be rescued and promptly brought to Australia from al-Hawl like the children evacuated in June.

Absent clear, compelling evidence that they could harm their children, women like Radhia should be brought home as well. Leaving mothers behind places children in even greater danger and risks fueling instability and grief. International law provides all nationals the right to return to their home country.

If the Australian authorities have grounds to believe that Radhia or other Australians have committed crimes during their years under Islamic State, they should investigate them in line with international standards, and prosecute them in Australia as appropriate.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison himself said that children born in IS areas or brought there by their mothers or fathers "should not be punished for the crimes of their parents".

Yet that is precisely what Australia will do if it abandons Radhia and her three children to indefinite detention without charge in al-Hawl.

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


Video: Attacks on Civilians in Border Area in Colombia

Armed groups have committed egregious abuses against Colombian and Venezuelan civilians as they fight for control in Catatumbo, northeastern Colombia, Human Rights Watch said. 

(Bogotá) – Armed groups have committed egregious abuses against Colombian and Venezuelan civilians as they fight for control in Catatumbo, northeastern Colombia, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 64-page report, “The War in Catatumbo: Abuses by Armed Groups Against Civilians Including Venezuelan Exiles in Northeastern Colombia,” documents killings, disappearances, sexual violence, recruitment of children as soldiers, and forced displacement by the National Liberation Army (ELN), Popular Liberation Army (EPL), and a group that emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Armed groups use threats to gain control, including against community leaders and human rights defenders, some of whom have been killed. Venezuelans who fled the humanitarian emergency in their country are among the victims.

“As armed groups fight for the void left by the FARC in Catatumbo, hundreds of civilians have been caught in the conflict,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Venezuelans who are fleeing the humanitarian emergency in their own country are being caught in this nexus of war and desperate flight.”

Graffiti on the wall of a brothel in Convención in the Catatumbo region, where most women working were Venezuelan exiles. The EPL (Popular Liberation Army) is one of the armed groups operating in the area.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

Violence and abuses have increased in Catatumbo since the FARC demobilized in 2017 as part of its peace accord with the government. The Colombian government is falling short on its human rights obligations to protect civilians from abuses and to provide victims with redress. 

In April 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 80 people, including abuse victims, their relatives, community leaders, church representatives, human rights officials, local authorities, justice officials, and members of humanitarian and human rights organizations working in the area. Interviews were conducted in Catatumbo, as well as some in Cúcuta, the capital of North Santander province, and some by telephone.

Human Rights Watch also reviewed official reports and statistics, publications by nongovernmental and international organizations, and written testimony given to government officials by almost 500 victims of abuses committed in the context of the armed conflict. The total number of cases is most likely higher than that recorded by government authorities, given victims’ fear of retaliation by armed groups for exposing abuses, or Venezuelan victims’ fear of deportation.

“Those who are part of the conflict do not suffer what we, as the people in the countryside …, suffer,” said a teacher in a rural school who lost his foot when a landmine exploded just meters from the school grounds. “We are the ones paying for a conflict that they started.”

Limited immigration controls and better-paying jobs attract Venezuelans to the Catatumbo borderlands. At least 25,000 Venezuelans live in Catatumbo, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Desperate and often undocumented Venezuelans have been among those forcibly displaced and killed, and Venezuelan children have been recruited as soldiers.

In Catatumbo, more than 40,000 people have been displaced from their homes since 2017 – the majority during 2018 – according to government statistics. Some have been forcibly displaced. People have fled after armed groups threatened them for allegedly cooperating with competing armed groups or the government. People have also fled after being threatened for refusing to join an armed group.

OCHA reported that 109 people it considered civilians were killed by armed groups in 2018 alone. Armed groups have killed nine human rights defenders and community leaders, according to investigations by Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

“Community leaders play a fundamental role to give voice to abuse victims and help reinstate the rule of law in remote areas of Colombia,” Vivanco said. “The Colombian government should increase its efforts to protect them and ensure that those responsible for these murders are held to account.”

Armed groups have been implicated in kidnappings and disappearances, as well as rape and other sexual violence.

Children as young as 12 have been forced to join an armed group after members threaten to kill them or their families, or they join for money. Human Rights Watch reviewed testimony in a dozen cases in which families fled after an armed group threatened or attempted to recruit a child.

Armed groups are also reportedly planting antipersonnel landmines in rural areas of Catatumbo, where the FARC had also previously used landmines. Four people have died and 65 have been injured by antipersonnel landmines in Catatumbo since 2017.

Colombian authorities have thus far failed to ensure justice for abuses committed by armed groups. As of April 2019, there were over 770 cases related to murders that occurred in Catatumbo since 2017. There have been convictions in 61 cases. Only two armed group members have been charged with murder, according to the Attorney General’s Office. The office has not charged anyone for threats, recruitment of children as soldiers, or enforced disappearances, which, under Colombian law, may be committed by both state and private actors. Two armed group members have been charged for forced displacement, but no one has been convicted; 480 cases remain pending.

Assistance to the displaced, provided for under Colombian law, has been slow and insufficient, said humanitarian workers in the region. Hundreds of people have lived in temporary shelters improvised by communities. Some shelters lacked furniture or running water. Authorities have also failed to adequately address risks to human rights identified by the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office.

In October 2018, the Colombian government created a Rapid Deployment Force to increase the number of military officers in Catatumbo by 5,600. Residents, human rights officials, and humanitarian workers have reported abusive behavior by soldiers directed at civilians, including accusing them of being complicit with guerrilla groups and questioning them at military checkpoints, exposing them to retaliation by armed groups. In April 2019, a soldier killed a demobilized FARC member.

To comply with its obligations under international and Colombian law, the Colombian government should put in place human rights-respecting strategies for the military and police to protect civilians. It should provide further support to prosecutors investigating abuses by armed groups and seek international support to aid people who have been displaced. It should also carry out a comprehensive assessment of the number of Venezuelans living in Catatumbo and their needs, and ensure that all Venezuelans can work legally in Colombia, including in safer parts of the country.

“The government’s efforts to increase its presence in Catatumbo through deploying the military needs to go hand-in-hand with broader efforts – like support for criminal investigations and humanitarian assistance – to protect the rights of farmers and Venezuelan exiles there,” Vivanco said.

For selected cases documented by Human Rights Watch, see below.

Beatriz (pseudonym) was raped in mid-2017. That day, she was at her job as a cook for agricultural laborers. Her husband was working on the same farm. At around 5 p.m., a group of uniformed men, their faces hidden under balaclavas, arrived, shouting why “the fuck” hadn’t the couple left since they had been “warned.” They asked if anyone else was on the farm. Beatriz’s husband said no, to protect the other workers.

The guerrillas sent men to look. Four, who had the ELN logo on their clothes, stayed. Two of them sexually assaulted Beatriz as the others made her husband watch. Beatriz lost consciousness and woke up two hours later in her husband’s arms. They fled to a nearby city, and, she said, only reported the incident several months later because of the shame and psychological trauma.

Dalila (pseudonym) lived between two mountain ridges where armed groups operate. The groups often fight among themselves, she reported to authorities, and the walls of her house are full of holes from the shootouts. One afternoon in early 2018, three men arrived at her house. They were armed and wearing uniforms, but Dalila said she did not know to which group they belonged. They told her they were going to take her oldest children, who were 17 and 14. Dalila said she told them they would have to kill her first. The men said she had a few hours to leave. She sent her two sons to another municipality where her sister lived. Dalila went back to sell her animals and fled to a nearby city. 

Alejandro Rodríguez (pseudonym), 34, is a primary teacher at a rural school in Catatumbo. Around 1 p.m. on February 5, 2019, Rodríguez went to look for a soccer ball that a student had kicked off school grounds, about 15 meters from where the students were playing. Rodríguez stepped on something that exploded, likely a landmine. Neighbors helped him get to the nearest town, several hours away. He lost his foot.

When we interviewed him in April, he said that nobody from the government had visited the area in the two months after the incident to see if there were other landmines near the school. He said he had moved to an urban area to receive medical treatment. In his rural community, he had heard shots nearly every day and children feared going to school, Rodríguez said.

Henry Pérez Ramírez, a 46-year-old community leader, went to check his crops early in the morning on January 26, 2016, and did not return, said his wife, Elibeth Murcia Castro. A man later told her that days before he had overheard Pérez Ramírez speaking on the phone with a FARC member. The FARC member had asked him questions about where the Colombian armed forces were operating and had requested a meeting on January 26.

Murcia Castro said Pérez Ramírez had previously received threats from the FARC member. She and her family desperately looked for him, and she filed complaints with judicial authorities and the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office, but his whereabouts remain unknown. “What I want the most is to find him,” she told us. “And not be like this, with this uncertainty, not knowing if he’s alive or if he’s dead.”

Enrique Pérez (pseudonym), 14, arrived with his mother in Catatumbo in February 2019. They left Trujillo state in Venezuela because, he said, his parents could no longer feed the family adequately. Some days, they only had one meal, and sometimes it was every other day. He had been a student in Venezuela but dropped out to work in the coca fields, under the blazing sun. At times, Venezuelans work only for a plate of food, he said. He said that he works alongside Colombian and Venezuelan children as young as 8, and that he would love to go back to school but must work.

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

(Al-Hol, Northeast Syria) – The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration for northeast Syria is holding more than 11,000 foreign women and children related to Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects in appalling and sometimes deadly conditions in a locked desert camp in northeast Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. At least 7,000 of the children are under 12.

During three visits to the section of al-Hol camp holding foreign women and children in June 2019, Human Rights Watch found overflowing latrines, sewage trickling into tattered tents, and residents drinking wash water from tanks containing worms. Young children with skin rashes, emaciated limbs, and swollen bellies sifted through mounds of stinking garbage under a scorching sun or lay limp on tent floors, their bodies dusted with dirt and flies. Children are dying from acute diarrhea and flu-like infections, aid groups and camp managers said.

“Foreign women and children are indefinitely locked in a dustbowl inferno in northeast Syria while their home countries look the other way,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should be doing what they can to protect their citizens, not abandon them to disease and death in a foreign desert.”

At least 240 children have died en route or upon arrival to al-Hol, according to the United Nations. Authorities from the camp, which is overseen by the Autonomous Administration, do not appear to consistently record deaths, international aid group members said. The groups did not want to be identified for fear of losing access to al-Hol.

Al-Hol camp in northeast Syria has rapidly expanded with the influx of more than 63,000 women and children displaced by the offensive against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Baghouz between December 2018 and April 2019. The area at lower right shows the annex, now housing more than 11,000 non-Iraqi foreigners.

© 2019 Planet Labs

Al-Hol guards do not allow the women and children to leave the camp except when escorted out for emergencies such as surgery not available in camp hospitals.

Officials from the Autonomous Administration told Human Rights Watch they do not intend to prosecute the women and children. Asked about the legal status of the women and children, they said only in a brief written statement that when the women and children left ISIS-held areas, they were “transferred to al-Hol to work on delivering them to their countries given that they are from different nationalities.” The Autonomous Administration has repeatedly called on home countries to take back all foreigners in their custody. “We are overwhelmed,” a camp manager said.

Countries should immediately assist efforts of their citizens held in al-Hol camp to come home if they choose to do so. The Autonomous Administration, as well as home countries, should ensure that detention is only imposed according to law, on an individual basis, and with all basic rights of detainees under international law including judicial review of detention.

Donor governments, the United Nations, and humanitarian agencies should also immediately increase aid to all camp inhabitants, more than 7,000 of them children.

From June 21 to 23, Human Rights Watch interviewed 26 foreign women confined in al-Hol annex from countries including Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and Trinidad. The women included mothers who begged camp guards for news of husbands or sons whom US-backed, Kurdish-led troops, called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), had separated from them when they fled ISIS-held areas over the past several months.

“Please, tell me, where are my sons? Please, let me visit them,” pleaded “Aisha,” a pregnant woman from Trinidad. The SDF took her two sons, ages 14 and 15, and their father when the family fled ISIS-held Abu Badran in January, she said.

“First they said they would bring my boys to me in a month. Then they said two more weeks. Then they said they were sick in the hospital,” Aisha said of camp officials. Like other women interviewed, Aisha did not want her real name used. “Then for the past two months, nothing.”

Conditions are dire throughout al-Hol, which holds 62,000 Syrians and Iraqis in the main camp sections, most of them also wives and children of men accused of ISIS membership. However, the worst conditions are in the annex holding the 11,000 non-Iraqi foreigners. The annex receives less aid from donors and annex inhabitants must wait for armed escorts to bring them to the camp market, hospitals, and food distribution center, which Syrian and Iraqi women and children can reach freely, aid workers said.

All but one of the foreign women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they wanted to go home. One, from Uzbekistan, said she wanted to go to a third country because she feared persecution if repatriated. All said they are not allowed to leave the locked camp. None said she had been taken before a judge to review whether she should be detained or been contacted by a representative of her government.

“We were prisoners under al-Dawla [ISIS] and now we’re prisoners of our liberators,” said “Layla,” a 29-year-old Frenchwoman. “I’ll go to prison again back home if I have to but please, just get me out of here.”

International law allows imposing punishment for crimes only on people responsible for the crimes, after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishment on families by preventing them from leaving the camps violates the laws of war.

Unless they are lawful places of detention such as prisons, camps for displaced people should respect the free movement right to leave the camps and return. Movement restrictions are only permissible if they are provided by law and necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others. Any restrictions must be nondiscriminatory, proportionate, and necessary to achieve legitimate aims.

Anyone detained, including civilians initially detained in wartime as security threats, should be detained on a clear legal basis, and have the right to challenge the necessity and legality of their captivity before a court. No one should be detained in inhuman or degrading conditions. International law obligates all countries to ensure justice through fair trials for the gravest crimes, such as those by ISIS.

International law also grants everyone the right to return to their home country and obligates countries to fulfill a child’s right to acquire a nationality. This duty has been interpreted to extend to children born abroad to a country’s citizens who would otherwise be stateless.

“The conditions in al-Hol annex are untenable and unconscionable,” Tayler said. “Abandoning citizens to indefinite confinement without charge will only make the problem worse.”

More than 7,000 foreign children and 3,000 foreign women from about 50 countries are held in the al-Hol annex according to officials from the Autonomous Administration, which is led by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Several hundred more foreigners are held in two other camps in northeast Syria, Ain Issa, and Roj. In addition to Westerners, the foreigners include Algerians, Indonesians, Malaysians, Moroccans, Russians, Tunisians, Turks, and Uzbeks, among others. About two-thirds of the foreign children are under age 12 – with most under age 5 – and hundreds are orphans, their parents missing or dead, aid workers said. While most women and children are recent arrivals, some said they had been held at Al-Hol for over a year.

Reluctant Donors, Insufficient Access

Autonomous Administration authorities blamed the conditions in al-Hol annex on insufficient aid from foreign donors. “We feel abandoned by the international community,” Abdulkarim Omar, the administration’s co-chair for foreign affairs, told Human Rights Watch. “Taking care of these foreigners is a big, big problem for us. Countries should take back their people and rehabilitate them.”

The Autonomous Administration and SDF have already made significant sacrifices as part of the international coalition fighting ISIS, Omar said. About 12,000 SDF troops were killed and another 20,000 were injured fighting ISIS, he said, in part “so that people in Europe can sleep calmly at night.”

About three dozen aid agencies including the UN Refugee Agency and UNICEF work in al-Hol. But many donor countries are wary of supporting a camp population that may include ISIS members or sympathizers, Autonomous Administration authorities and humanitarian workers said, even though the majority of people in the camp are young children who had no choice but to live with their parents under ISIS.

“We are seeing the stigmatization of a vast section of the camp population that is perceived as affiliated with the Islamic State group,” said Fabrizio Carboni, who heads Near and Middle East operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Carboni warned against a “good victim-bad victim” double standard. International standards prohibit denying essential aid, including if the denial is based on ideological or religious affiliation.

Some organizations are also concerned that their assistance could enable indefinite detention of women and children without charge. “It is one thing to assist a refugee camp and another to assist a prison,” one aid worker said.

The three field hospitals in the main camp areas are understaffed and under-resourced, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in July. Doctors Without Borders runs a health clinic inside the annex and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) runs a mobile clinic there, but their hours are limited due to staff shortages and security concerns.

Two-fold access problems also hinder delivery of services, aid groups said. Humanitarian agencies with agreements to work in Syria must obtain permission to access al-Hol through Damascus because the Autonomous Administration controlling the northern third of Syria, including al-Hol camp, is not an internationally recognized government. Negotiations with the Syrian government on humanitarian access are often difficult, as Human Rights Watch documented in a June report.

But even agencies that receive Syrian government permission, or that work under the radar in al-Hol without it, sometimes face delays in obtaining the Autonomous Administration authorities’ permission to deliver assistance inside the annex, aid workers said. In its July report, OCHA said that humanitarian access to the annex “remains restricted” in ways that “continue to impact and prevent delivery of services.”

Dire Health Conditions

One reason for poor conditions at al-Hol is that the camp population soared from 10,000 people in December 2018 to more than 73,000 by April, camp managers and aid groups said. During that period, a US-led military coalition routed ISIS from its last stand in Baghouz, a town in eastern Deir al-Zour governate. Many new arrivals from Deir al-Zour were severely injured, traumatized, and malnourished. Yet while conditions are dire throughout al-Hol, they are worse in the annex than in the main areas where Syrians and Iraqis are confined, camp officials and aid workers said.

During Human Rights Watch visits, al-Hol annex was filled with the sounds of children wailing and women and children coughing. A funnel-shaped dust whirl blew hot dust and debris into tents.

Many women and children had visible skin sores from leishmaniasis, a sand fly-borne parasite. Some inhabitants have been diagnosed with tuberculosis, camp managers said. Drinking water is insufficiently chlorinated and remains in short supply, aid workers said. Human Rights Watch saw children drink water from a wash-water tank that had worms coming out of the spout.

In July, OCHA reported a “sharp increase” in acute diarrhea and a “slight increase” in acute malnutrition throughout al-Hol.

Some women, including those with risky pregnancies and pre-natal complications such as anemia or high blood pressure, are giving birth in their tents without a doctor or midwife, aid workers said. One reason is that Asayish – Autonomous Administration security agents who guard the camp –sometimes delay or refuse their requests to go to a hospital, or they arrive at a hospital only to be turned away because the facility is full, they said. In an added disadvantage, women who give birth in a hospital automatically receive post-natal care and essentials such as diapers whereas women who give birth in tents must request such assistance, they said.

Three women said that a young girl had died from kidney failure in the annex the previous week.

Human Rights Watch saw several wounded children in the annex. One was a bone-thin, 12-year-old Russian boy wearing a patch over his left eye. “Shrapnel in Baghouz,” he said, adding that he had lost vision in that eye.

Another boy, a 4-year-old from Uzbekistan, sat with a blank stare as his mother pushed him across the rubble in a stroller, his right leg missing up to his mid-thigh. The boy’s leg was blown off during a US-led coalition strike in the Syrian town of Sousa in late 2018, his mother said, adding: “I have been trying to get him crutches and a prosthetic leg for four months.”

Worse Conditions for Foreigners

In addition to problems accessing essential services in the main camp areas, nearly all the women interviewed in the annex said they had scant if any means to buy fresh food for their children to supplement their rations of lentils, grains, oil, and sugar, or extra diapers. SDF troops and Asayish agents have confiscated women’s cash and other valuables and barred them from selling any possessions that they may have been able to hold onto, camp inhabitants and aid workers said.

Camp administrators allow Syrian and Iraqi women in the main camp areas to make purchases through the Hawala alternative money transfer system but the foreigners cannot, aid workers said.

Autonomous Administration authorities also bar women in the annex from using cell phones for fear they may contact ISIS members, although cell phones are allowed in sections holding Syrians and Iraqis, aid workers said. The ICRC has begun helping women send letters to family members, but many have not yet made contact and communications have been irregular for those who have.

On all three visits Human Rights Watch saw dozens of women pounding on the chain-link fence that cordons off the annex, clamoring for escorts to reach supplies or health services. Human Rights Watch saw some of the women waiting for hours, with no shade, in 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) heat. The temperature at al-Hol has soared as high as 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) this summer.

“I am going into labor,” shouted a visibly pregnant woman. “What about our human rights?” demanded another. By the time they reach the food distribution point, the rations are sometimes gone and they have to return the next day, the women said.

Living in Fear

Tensions run high in al-Hol, and many women said they were terrified for their safety and that of their children. Women in the camp who adhere to ISIS’ extremist ideology have threatened and set fire to tents of women and children who they consider infidels. Twice, in separate attacks in June and July, a woman stabbed a guard with a knife hidden in her abaya, camp managers and aid workers said.

Guards raid tents at night and frequently shoot in the air to keep order. On July 3, guards shot and wounded two boys, ages 12 and 10, who they said were throwing rocks at them, aid workers said. Twice while at the camp in June, Human Rights Watch heard gunshots fired.

Interviewees also consistently said they feared the Asayish security agents who frequently search tents and take away families in the middle of the night. Camp managers said that the night raids were necessary to remove women or children who were security threats, or to relocate families who feared for their safety to other areas of al-Hol or other camps.

Many women said they also feared tent fires caused by women cooking inside tents; at least one child died in a cooking fire. Others spoke of insects and snakes that crawl onto their sleeping pallets at night.

Piecemeal Repatriations

Repatriations of ISIS suspects and family members from northeast Syria, as well as from neighboring Iraq, have been piecemeal. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, Kosovo, and Turkey have organized the return home of more than 1,250 nationals held in northeast Syria and Iraq, most of them children.

But most countries have ignored the Autonomous Administration’s calls for them to repatriate citizens or have taken back only small numbers, primarily orphans, calling them a security threat and citing complications in verifying citizenship of children lacking documents or born in areas under ISIS control.

Norway in June repatriated 5 orphans from northeast Syria. France in March and June flew home 18 children – 17 from northeast Syria and 1 from Iraq. In June, Sweden brought home 7 children and the Netherlands brought home 2 children from Syria. Germany has flown home fewer than 10 from Iraq. Australia in June brought home 8 children from Syria. The US, which has criticized Western allies for refusing to repatriate all its nationals, has brought home 16 adult suspects and children since July 2018. Italy in June took back one suspected ISIS fighter.

France has allowed 11 citizens to be prosecuted in Iraq although the defendants were sentenced to death in rushed proceedings tainted by allegations of torture. The UK has stripped citizenship from nationals including Shamima Begum, who joined ISIS abroad, and Denmark in March proposed stripping children of ISIS members of citizenship. Australia in July introduced draconian revisions to Australian law that would ban returns of citizens as young as 14 for two years if they are suspected of being foreign fighters abroad.

Expressions of Regret

All the women interviewed said they realized soon after arriving in Syria that they had made a mistake. They all insisted that during their life under ISIS their roles had been solely those of housewives and mothers. Human Rights Watch is not in a position to judge the veracity of these claims and it is clear that some women in the camp support – and seek to enforce – ISIS ideology. Women who have committed international crimes should be charged and those who do not face criminal charges should be freed. But children brought to or born in ISIS-controlled areas should not be punished for their parents’ poor judgment or crimes.

“My children did not choose this life,” said “Fatima,” a 27-year-old Belgian widow held in al-Hol with her four young children. Fatima said her 7-year-old daughter did not even learn to read and write under ISIS. Her 6-year-old daughter has a viral infection; unable to obtain medical care in the annex, she scrounged funds to buy rehydrating fluids and inserted an intravenous drip in her daughter’s arm with a friend.

“My children don’t even have a working toilet,” Fatima said. “When there is shooting, they cry and remember the fighting. They deserve a second chance.”

Additional Recommendations

As part of measures to assist repatriation efforts, countries should immediately take all possible steps to ensure that their citizens trapped in any areas of al-Hol or in other camps or prisons in northeast Syria have a way to request repatriation and expedite efforts to verify citizenship, particularly of children. Countries that can guarantee fair trials and humane conditions should investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute returnees responsible for international crimes such as war crimes and torture.

Children should be treated first and foremost as victims, including those recruited by ISIS, and decisions about their future should be made based on their best interests. Parents should be brought home with children unless separation is in the child’s best interest. Children should face prosecution only in exceptional circumstances.

In the meantime, Autonomous Administration camp administrators, humanitarian organizations and donor governments, including those with nationals confined to camps in northeast Syria, should improve sanitary conditions, access to food and clean water, shelter, and medical and psychosocial services for all camp inhabitants. The Autonomous Administration should increase annex inhabitants’ access to essential services in other camp areas.

The Autonomous Administration and US-led coalition fighting ISIS should facilitate contact between camp inhabitants and their families including relatives held in separate prisons or camps.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres should press and assist UN agencies including the UN Refugees Agency and member states to coordinate a swift global response that upholds international human rights protections and includes repatriations and resettlements.

Statements from Women Confined in al-Hol annex

This is a nightmare I cannot wake up from. As Muslims we wanted to experience the Islamic State like Christians want to visit Jerusalem. It was so easy to get to Syria through Turkey. But then we found there was no way out. Bombs were falling everywhere and we could not afford a smuggler. In the end they [ISIS] even hid food from us. The only people they fed were their fighters. We are so broken. We are not threats to anyone. We just want our children to go to school and to stop stressing about where is the next meal coming from.

  • “Ayisha,” 37 weeks pregnant, from Trinidad. Mother of five children including two boys, ages 14 and 15, who were taken with her husband when the family surrendered to SDF forces in January.

From the first day I got to Syria I wanted to go home. They [ISIS] treated us like garbage. There was so much injustice. But my husband kept saying, “Forget going back. If they know we want to leave they will put us in prison or kill us.” Then my husband died two years ago. He just never came home. Since then I have been trying to find a way home. The Prophet…says the Sham [Levant] is a blessed place. But I never saw a blessing.

  • “Maria” from Belgium, widow, mother of two children born in Syria.

One day my husband said, “I am going, you are coming with me.” I was thinking, “Why? We are comfortable.” But as a Muslim woman you follow your husband. I just want to go back to Australia. My family says they will take me and the children back. People think we are monsters. Please tell them we are humans, just like them.

  • “Radhia” from Australia, widow, mother of three children born in Syria.

I thought, “Now I’ll be able to practice my religion and cover my face without being harassed the way I am at home.” I heard there was bombing and stuff but I didn’t think I’d be living under it. But then I got here [to Syria] and realized how dangerous it was. My husband became disillusioned, too. A year ago, we found a smuggler to take us out. We wanted to start over. But then Kurdish [SDF] forces took us.

  • “Miriam” from Canada, mother of two children born in Syria, husband in SDF-controlled prison.

I came to Syria because I was having problems at work and at home. It sounds so cliché. I was 20 when I left. I got the idea while I was conversing online with sisters [ISIS members]. I married two weeks after I arrived. They gave me a paper with three men’s names, ages, and hometowns. I chose the man from my hometown. We met and we liked each other. Then he was killed by a bullet in the head. If I have to go to prison I will. I just want to come home.

  • “Hanneke” from the Netherlands, widow.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The beginnings of a gate erected in Jadah 5 camp intended to enclose a section of the camp to prevent free movement. 

© 2019 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Erbil) – A local Iraqi organization managing a camp for displaced people is making preparations to unlawfully confine families scheduled to be transferred from northeast Syria, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Jadah 5 camp, 65 kilometers south of Mosul, has forcibly relocated 175 families from one sector of the camp to another in order to make room for the families, mostly women and children. Iraqi authorities have previously arbitrarily detained families perceived to have possible ISIS affiliation.

“Authorities in Iraq are planning to detain returning families arbitrarily, in violation of Iraqi and international law,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Segregating families – mainly women and children – coming from Syria is a step toward stigmatizing and labeling them in the absence of any credible allegation that they have committed a crime.”

Human Rights Watch visited the Jadah 5 camp, estimated to house over 16,000 people on July 16, 2019. Four residents in the sector known as “400,” because of the number of tents, said that camp management told the 175 families there on July 10 that they had to relocate to other camp areas. The rest of the tents in the sector were empty. The families currently living in the camp are generally able to move freely within and outside the camp within its immediate vicinity.

They said the camp head told them they had to move, apparently because they planned to detain the new arrivals. “If you don’t move you will regret it,” two of the residents quoted one camp management official as saying. “It will become like prison and you will need permission to come in and out, you won’t be able to move freely.” He said the families would be brought from al-Hol camp in northeast Syria, which holds Iraqi, Syrian, and foreign families who lived under ISIS in Syria.

Another camp management official told the group that the arriving families “have the same extremist ideology… it is not in your interest to live next to them,” the residents said.

Iraqi authorities said on July 9 that al-Hol families would be relocated to the camp. But the National Security Council, which coordinates Iraq's national security, intelligence, and foreign policy strategy, told aid groups and camp management on July 10 that Jadah 5 would not house the al-Hol families, three aid workers said. They said that authorities have not indicated when these families will be transferred or how long they would be confined in camps before being allowed to move freely.

By the evening of July 11, the families from “400” had all relocated within the camp, with the exception of four or five families who left the camp, residents told Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch visited the section on July 16 and found it empty, with the beginnings of a fence being erected around it. Two other residents said camp management also told families in sector “500,” which holds about 240 families, that they would need to relocate. But the families interviewed refused and threatened to protest and had not been forced to move at the time of the visit, possibly because aid agencies intervened. Both “400” and “500” areas are isolated outcrops of the camp.

Al-Hol camp holds 30,000 Iraqis in northeast Syria, the vast majority of them female-headed households, often including many children. Some fled ISIS when it controlled parts of Iraq, and others lived under ISIS control in Syria until the battle to retake Baghouz, ISIS’s final pocket in Syria in early 2019. Few, if any, have been charged with any crime. Human Rights Watch has not been able to determine the extent to which the families in al-Hol, who aid workers say have signed up to voluntarily return, have done so with informed consent, given that that Iraqi authorities seemingly plan to arbitrarily detain them in camps.

A United Nations plan from early 2019 for the return of Iraqi families from al-Hol, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, calls on Iraqi authorities to ensure that the families are not sequestered into one specific camp but are instead mixed with existing camp populations. It said this would ensure that the families would not be further stigmatized and marginalized. The plan said that international assistance to these families would depend on compliance with these conditions.

International human rights law prohibits arbitrary detention. Any deprivation of liberty must be according to law that is “accessible, understandable, non-retroactive and applied in a consistent and predictable way” and allows people to seek judicial review of their detention. Any detention that lacks such legal basis is both unlawful and arbitrary.

International human rights law and humanitarian law allow punishment only for people found responsible for crimes after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishment on families, villages, or communities violates the laws of war and amounts to a war crime. Under international human rights law and the laws of armed conflict, children may be detained only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period. If children are detained, detaining authorities must fulfill their rights, including to appropriate food and medical care, education and physical exercise, legal assistance, privacy, complaints mechanisms, and contact with their families.

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement stipulate that if displacement occurs in situations other than during the emergency stages of a conflict, “Adequate measures shall be taken to guarantee to those to be displaced full information on the reasons and procedures for their displacement and, where applicable, on compensation and relocation… The free and informed consent of those to be displaced shall be sought… The authorities concerned shall endeavour to involve those affected, particularly women, in the planning and management of their relocation… The right to an effective remedy, including the review of such decisions by appropriate judicial authorities, shall be respected.”

In light of recent developments, authorities should suspend all transfers until they are able to ensure that they are voluntary and that Iraqis have adequate information about what awaits them upon their return, Human Rights Watch said. Once people are in Iraq, if they are not wanted for a crime, authorities should ensure that their rights to free movement are respected, including either to return home or to relocate where they choose, as security allows. Iraqi authorities should ensure that they do not confine people not charged with any crime in camps.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A motorboat passes by the MI6 building in London August 25, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters
The British government is expected to announce this week whether an independent inquiry will resume into the UK’s involvement in overseas torture and transfers (known as “renditions”) in US-led counterterrorism operations after the 9/11 attacks. If it does, it may help bring justice for victims who suffered terrible abuses in which UK officials were complicit.

The original UK government inquiry, set up in 2010, was tasked with investigating alleged UK complicity in the kidnapping and unlawful rendition of terrorism suspects and their detention and torture outside the country. But the inquiry was shelved in 2012, following criticism about its weak powers and lack of independence.

In 2013, the government handed responsibility for the matter to a parliamentary committee with limited powers.

And although the UK police opened a separate criminal investigation in 2012 into the role senior British officials played in assisting torture, the Crown Prosecution Service announced in 2016 it would not prosecute anyone. This despite strong evidence showing UK officials’ involvement in several egregious cases of rendition to torture in Libya.

The UK government has since publicly apologized to several of the Libyan victims for its role in their brutal treatment, and reached out-of-court compensation settlements with British nationals detained by the US at Guantanamo Bay and another family renditioned to Libya. Intelligence guidelines have been revised. And the parliamentary committee’s deeply damning findings have been made public.

But no one has yet been held to account for their role in abuses. And disturbing new allegations keep trickling out.

The Crown Prosecution Service seems to have set the bar for complicity in torture so high that it may be nearly impossible to prosecute anyone in the UK for assisting torture overseas. In explaining why it would not prosecute anyone for rendition to torture in Libya, the prosecutors’ office suggested it would have needed evidence that the “conduct” of UK nationals had “influenced” the Libyan decisionmakers.

The Director of Public Prosecutions should publish clear guidance on the evidence needed to prosecute someone for complicity in torture abroad, and this guidance should be applied objectively to those implicated in breaking the law.

Years after Human Rights Watch found clear evidence of UK complicity in torture in Libya and Pakistan, the UK government should finally help victims obtain justice.

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

The school at Hammam al-Alil 1 camp for displaced people south of Mosul that security forces occupied on July 6, 7, and 9 in order to conduct security screenings of camp residents. 

© 2019 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Erbil) – Iraqi military have accompanied police in entering a camp for displaced people south of Mosul and started “screening” over 3,500 households there, Human Rights Watch said today. The screenings appear to include questioning camp residents about the actions and whereabouts of their relatives who are suspected of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) affiliation.

The arrival of the armed men, who occupied a school in the camp, is causing panic among camp residents, who have told Human Rights Watch that they fear arrest over the acts of their relatives, and in some cases sexual exploitation. Iraqi authorities have said they plan to conduct similar screenings at other camps for displaced people in the governorate.

“While Iraqi police forces should be taking reasonable actions to improve security for everyone, the military should not be occupying schools or even entering camps for the displaced,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “No one should become a criminal suspect just because of their relatives.”

Nine residents of Hammam al-Alil 1 camp, 30 kilometers south of Mosul, told Human Rights Watch that on July 6, agents arrived from Military Intelligence, the National Security Service (NSS), the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) forces under the Ministry of Interior, and local police.

The camp houses over 3,500 families who have been displaced for years, since fighting between ISIS and Iraqi forces broke out in the area. The families in the camp were screened when they arrived.

After some discussion, the residents said the security agents decided to conduct the screenings from the school inside the camp, which is closed for summer recess. Given the involvement of military forces, this violates international humanitarian principles and is contrary to the Safe Schools Declaration, a commitment Iraq endorsed to protect education in conflict by refraining from the use of schools by military forces. Human Rights Watch has found that the presence of fighting forces in schools endangers students and teachers, can lead to the damage and destruction of education infrastructure, and can interfere with students’ right to education.

Two witnesses told Human Rights Watch that there is already a screening site next to the camp. Aid workers at the camp said they protested the use of the school, but that security forces ignored their concerns and began using the school to screen residents on July 9, calling on families to start coming in in groups of 25.

After the first day of screening, security forces halted the process because of the objections from the aid groups, three aid workers said. As of July 17, Human Rights Watch was informed that authorities in Baghdad had decided that the screenings would relocate to the nearby screening site in coming days. 

Three witnesses also said the security forces were carrying arms when they arrived and during the screening, including at the doorway into the school caravan. An army colonel who manages security at the screening site adjacent to the camp told Human Rights Watch that they needed to be armed because his forces do not have a presence inside the camp, and because of fears that camp residents are potentially armed, smuggle drugs and alcohol into the camp, and are engaged in criminal activity like prostitution.

Former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued a decree in 2017 reiterating orders that security forces are not allowed to enter camps with weapons.

Three aid workers said the authorities told camp management they intended to conduct screenings to gather the details about the families inside the camp including their governorate of origin and to identify which families were ISIS-affiliated. The aid workers said the managers implied that families might be hiding ISIS relatives, saying they had been informed that some women in the camp with supposedly missing husbands had become pregnant in recent months, and they said they wanted to issue civil documentation to those without it.

The witnesses said they saw security forces give a group of informal community leaders in the camp forms and told the leaders that they had to give one form to each family and would risk legal action if they missed anyone. Human Rights Watch has obtained copies.

The forms tell each family to list all family members, with names, birthdates, gender, and marital status, the family’s home address, type of vehicle, and date of displacement. The forms tell families to list every family member who joined ISIS and to provide details on when they died, disappeared, or were arrested. The forms provided do not say why this information is being gathered, or by which authority.

The military colonel who manages security at the screening site outside the camp also told Human Rights Watch on July 11 that the authorities wanted to ensure that all families in the camp missing civil documentation could obtain it. However, two families who underwent the screenings on July 9 said that they told security forces they had children without civil documentation and the security forces did nothing to register the children or facilitate their access to documentation.

One woman said that she told security forces that her husband, who had joined ISIS, died in September 2017. She said: “They asked me if I was sure he was dead, and I said yes. Then they threatened – we will check that and if it turns out that you lied, we will take legal action against you.”

Another resident said: “The screenings triggered a panic in the camp, with families fearing arrest just because they have a relative who joined ISIS.” He said he knew of families who fled the camp upon hearing about the screenings, even though their home had been destroyed during military operations and they had nowhere to go.

Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances in the context of screenings linked to counterterrorism operations over the last three years in Iraq, including of family members of people perceived to have been affiliated with ISIS.

“Women near my tent were saying to me they were scared of what might happen to them going into that school alone to be screened by a group of male security forces,” the second resident said.

Four camp residents said they personally knew of cases of security forces engaging in sexual exploitation in the camp in the past. Two women described security forces entering the camp and coercing women they knew into sex, including for pay, particularly women who no longer had male adult relatives with them. One camp resident said she knew of two women in the camp who had become pregnant within the last six months as a result of coerced sex by security forces in incidents not linked to the screenings.

Two senior aid workers said the authorities have said they are planning to conduct these screenings at all camps for displaced people in Nineveh. They said they fear the security forces will again violate principles around the civilian nature of the camp by entering the camp armed and by taking over and using civilian infrastructure.

Iraqi forces should carry out Iraq’s commitments under the Safe Schools Declaration and refrain from using schools for military purposes. No military forces should enter displacement camps with their arms.

Individuals should only be detained according to the law, when there is evidence of their having committed criminal offenses themselves, and not because of the actions of their relatives.

“Security forces should ensure that they conduct their operations in line with Iraqi and international principles, and in a way that is humane and dignified for the families who participate in it,” Fakih said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A checkpoint in the Syrian city of Daraa.

© 2018 Friedemann Kohler/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(Beirut) – The Syrian government is punishing entire families of people placed arbitrarily on a list of alleged terrorists by freezing their assets, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should end collective punishment of families, provide evidence of unlawful activity of the people targeted, and allow them to appeal their listing or unfreeze their assets.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented that Syrian authorities have used overbroad language in the counterterrorism law to criminalize providing humanitarian aid, recording human rights abuses, and engaging in peaceful dissent. Decree 63 empowers the Finance Ministry to provide permission to freeze the assets of people pending investigation of their crimes as suspected terrorists under Syria’s Counterterrorism Law of 2012, even where they have not been charged with any crime. Beyond the substantive and due process flaws within the law and the law governing the Counterterrorism Court (Law No. 22), new research by Human Rights Watch shows that the way the ministry is carrying out the provisions, including targeting families of people listed, constitutes collective punishment and violates their property rights.

“The expansive reach of Decree 63 shows how threatened the Syrian government feels by the mere expression of humanitarian activism and dissent,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Syria should stop using the counterterrorism law in arbitrary ways that amount to collective punishment.”

The decree also contradicts the government’s stated intent of encouraging Syrians who fled the eight-year civil war to return to Syria. By widening the scope of the decree to arbitrarily punish families of people who may be charged or prosecuted, the government is signaling to the families that they too are at risk.

Human Rights Watch spoke to four people who have been affected, the relative of another, and a former land registration employee. These cases involved former residents of Eastern Ghouta, Aleppo, and the Damascus countryside, areas that government forces had retaken from anti-government groups between 2014 and 2019. Human Rights Watch also examined documents circulating online with lists of names of hundreds of people whose assets were frozen under the counterterrorism law.

The lists include date of birth, age, and mother’s name of individuals from areas previously held by anti-government forces whose assets had been seized or frozen. The lists also name immediate families, including wives and children, and in several cases, parents. The land registration employee confirmed the authenticity of the documents, but Human Rights Watch was unable to independently verify the lists. The lists were dated from 2016 to 2018.

The people interviewed indicated they had not been notified they were included. They said they only became aware their assets had been frozen or seized when they attempted to access, register, or conduct a transaction involving their property, or when they saw their names on these lists circulated on media outlets affiliated with opposition forces.

“I was not informed of this decision,” one person said. “I found my name on one of the lists circulated by Zaman al-Wsl [one of the media outlets]. My name, and my father’s. We lost a house, a car, and a factory.”

The lists also had far-reaching impact on relatives not named. One person said he was not surprised to see his name on a list, but that the asset freeze had negative implications for family members still in government-held areas who relied on a family-owned pharmacy for income. He too found out through Zaman al-Wsl, as did his brother, who remained in the government-controlled area and was not able to access or transfer the property to himself.

“When [my brother] went to the pharmacy, he found that it had been waxed shut, and the keys were with the [local] National Security branch,” the person interviewed said. “When he went and asked for the key, they told him I was a traitor and a terrorist. He replied that he is not in touch with me, and that this is an important source of income for the family. They hit him and sent him away.”

All but one person interviewed said they were aid workers or had participated in protests but had never taken up arms. The relative of one woman whose assets had been frozen said that the woman was not politically active. Human Rights Watch was not able to independently verify these claims.

With the exception of the one man whose brother reached out to the security services to attempt to retrieve property, the other people said they had not approached the authorities. They were either afraid of putting family members at risk or did not know whom to approach to resolve the confiscation issues.

By penalizing people solely on the basis of their family relationship with an accused person, and not on the basis of their individual criminal responsibility, the Finance Ministry’s implementation of Decree 63 constitutes collective punishment, which is prohibited under international humanitarian and human rights law in all circumstances. The prohibition on collective punishments applies to criminal sanctions for actions for which the people concerned do not bear individual criminal responsibility, but also to “all sanctions and harassment of any sort, administrative, by police action or otherwise.”

The decree also violates due process guarantees in that the law provides no appeal and no official notification for those on the list. By allowing the government to seize individuals’ property without due process or notice, the decree also violates property rights which are protected under Article 15 of the Syrian constitution and international law.

Syria’s counterterrorism law defines terrorism as “every act that aims at creating a state of panic among the people, destabilizing public security and damaging the basic infrastructure of the country by using weapons, ammunition, explosives, flammable materials, toxic products, epidemiological or bacteriological factors or any method fulfilling the same purposes.” Human Rights Watch has documented that the phrase “any method” allows the government to label almost any act as a terrorist offense, and jail people providing humanitarian aid or participating in non-violent protests.

The law itself does not clearly outline the procedures governing terrorism prosecutions, but Law 22 of 2012, which created the Counterterrorism Court empowered to look into crimes under the Counterterrorism law, does contain procedural references. These few references to procedural standards underscore a number of fair trial concerns, including inadequate oversight and appellate procedures.

The Syrian government should provide specific reasons for including people on its list of alleged terrorists or remove them from the list and unfreeze their assets. It should also allow affected people to appeal the listing. The government should amend the counterterrorism law, and the laws and decrees subsequent to it, to remove any overbroad definitions of terrorism and incorporate due process and fair trial guarantees, including an open trial with a right to legal counsel and a full right to appeal.

“As with other legal instruments, Syria is using Decree 63 to authorize abusive and arbitrary practices that rob people of their very livelihoods,” Fakih said. “So long as its laws and practices violate people’s rights, Syria will not be safe or stable.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Berlin, July 12, 2019) – Russian authorities have brought unfounded terrorism charges against 24 Crimean Tatars, 20 of whom were arrested during heavily armed raids on their homes in the spring of this year, Human Rights Watch said today. Security officers tortured four of the men, denied lawyers access to search sites, planted evidence, and later briefly detained two activists who spoke out on behalf of the arrested men.

Crimean Tatars are a Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula. Many openly oppose Russia’s occupation, which began in 2014.The crackdown in the spring of 2019 is the latest in a pattern of repression to smear peaceful activists as terrorists and to stifle dissent in occupied Crimea. Russian authorities should release the activists and stop misusing the country’s overly broad counterterrorism legislation to stifle freedom of opinion, expression, and religion.

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

Rusafa Central Criminal Court in Baghdad.

© 2018 Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo
The Australian government is taking an important step by helping eight Australian children of suspects of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) return home from northeast Syria. The children were held for months without charge under horrific conditions in Syria’s al-Hol Camp. The youngest is two years old.

To ensure their release, the government sent diplomats into northeast Syria. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that, “children should not be punished for the crimes of their parents.” He’s right, and it’s time other governments put forward similar efforts to ensure protection for these children.

But questions remain about what to do with Australian adults in northeast Syria suspected of ISIS crimes. Some countries have reportedly been negotiating the transfer of their nationals to Iraq for prosecution, but Australia should resist this option. At least 11 French nationals have been transferred to Iraq and sentenced to death.

Human Rights Watch has monitored Iraqi trials of ISIS suspects and has serious concerns about due process, allegations of torture, use of the death penalty, and access to justice. Some trials of ISIS suspects in Baghdad have lasted just five minutes, often relying on coerced confessions, with no effective legal representation.

In November 2018, an Iraqi court convicted an Australian citizen, Ahmed Merhi, of ISIS membership and sentenced him to death. According to media reports, he told the court his confession was coerced and he was tortured by Iraqi officials, but the judge said a medical examination found no physical torture marks on his body. Human Rights Watch has documented Iraqi interrogators using a range of torture techniques, including beating suspects on the soles of their feet (falaka) and waterboarding, that would not leave lasting marks on the body. Two French citizens also tried in Iraq for affiliation with ISIS said they were tortured or coerced to confess.

The Australian government has strongly advocated for abolition of the death penalty, a position that should be applied in all cases, including terrorism offenses. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty.

Australia should not outsource management of its terrorism suspects to abusive justice systems, especially when the end result could be death. The government should fully investigate and fairly prosecute these individuals at home in trials that meet international standards. And it should also solicit victims’ participation in trials, which Iraq has not done, even as witnesses.

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

A woman walks with a child in Roj camp, which holds foreign wives and children of Islamic State (ISIS) members, in northeast Syria, September 2018.

© 2018 Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

Western European intransigence on ensuring that citizens detained abroad as ISIL suspects or their family members can return home made world headlines recently when an Iraqi court sentenced nine French citizens to death following trials tainted by allegations of torture.

Countries including France, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands insist that logistical challenges and security risks make it practically impossible for them to help their citizens accused of membership in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIL). But others, like Kosovo, Turkey, Russia, and especially Central Asian countries are showing that where there is a will to bring citizens home, there is a way.

Three Central Asian states - Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan - have repatriated 756 nationals so far, most of them women and children. Kyrgyzstan is discussing possible repatriations as well.

In stark contrast, repatriations by Western European countries have been piecemeal, despite far greater resources and, in many cases, fewer numbers of ISIL-linked detainees. Their focus, such as it is, has been on children.

Norway, for example, in early June repatriated five orphans from northeast Syria but left 35 other children behind. France since March has flown home 17 children from northeast Syria and one from Iraq, most of them orphans. But the government says more than 400 other French citizens remain detained in northeast Syria, at least half of them children, and there is little sign of any French movement on their returns. Sweden and the Netherlands have brought home seven and two children respectively from Syria; Germany has flown home fewer than 10 from Iraq.

To be sure, repatriation is a complex process. In Iraq, the authorities are prosecuting hundreds of foreign ISIL suspects, including some women and children, in deeply flawed trials but want to send home children detained without charge. In northeast Syria, the Kurdish-led authorities, who do not have an internationally recognised government, are not prosecuting any of the 13,000 non-Iraqi foreigners - 2,000 men and 11,000 women and children - they say they are holding and want their home countries to take all of them back.

Many detainees, particularly children, lack birth certificates or other documents to confirm their nationalities. And many detained children were born to parents from two different countries, raising the issue of which nationality they could, and should, legally claim.

The most difficult obstacle to repatriation may be public opinion. Fearful of being blamed for an attack by a repatriated ISIL member, spouse, or child, government officials often prefer to let nationals remain detained in squalid conditions abroad and even, in some cases, revoke their citizenship. Western European governments say the onus is on their citizens to reach a consulate and request repatriation, but detainees cannot leave the camps and prisons they are locked in to do so.

Central Asia instead has cast airlifts as humanitarian rescues, with some of them releasing footage of cherub-faced children and of women, their black veils replaced by colorful kerchiefs, kissing the tarmac upon arriving home.

Central Asian governments should follow such messaging with greater transparency on what happens to repatriated citizens upon return, allowing independent oversight and monitoring of rehabilitation programs to ensure they comport with international human rights standards. They should take the same approach to any prosecutions of returnees, given the region's history of unfair trials and torture.

In May, the United Nations independent expert on human rights and counterterrorism, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, expressed concern that Kazakhstan's anti-terrorism legislation may conflate violent extremism with non-violent religious views and infringe on freedom of expression, assembly and belief. Yet she also found much to praise in the country's repatriation and rehabilitation efforts, noting that it was doing far more than Europe.

All countries, including Western European ones, with citizens held in Iraq and northeast Syria need to address two basic issues: the right of everyone to return to their home country, without their home state throwing up direct or indirect barriers; and the duty to ensure justice for the worst crimes committed in Syria and Iraq through fair trials for those most responsible.

The conditions in camps and detention centres in northeast Syria and Iraq are dire, with children reportedly dying from preventable diseases in al-Hol. The camps are also ideal incubators for violent extremism. That makes it all the more urgent that Western Europe stops dragging its feet and ensures that its citizens are repatriated.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Erbil, June 14, 2019) – An estimated 1.8 million people remain displaced by the conflict between Iraqi forces and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) two years after the heaviest fighting ended. A new Human Rights Watch web feature highlights the experiences of families who are struggling to find a safe home in post-ISIS Iraq.
“Iraqi authorities have put in place a system that has allowed communities, security forces, and government agencies to collectively punish families whose relatives were allegedly linked to ISIS,” said Belkis Wille, senior Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This system has put these families in a purgatory that prevents them from returning home, imprisons them in camps, and forces them to endure dire conditions that portend bleak futures for their children.”


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am