Click to expand Image Children in front of the Africa/Ayga hotel likely damaged by a direct fire weapon in Humera town, Tigray region, Ethiopia, on November 22, 2020. © 2020 Eduardo Soteras for Agence France Press

The Covid-19 pandemic has put the brakes on many things, including the negotiations to conclude a new political declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas. But states have continued such use, particularly with weapons with wide-area effects, with devastating consequences for civilians.

Over the last year, Human Rights Watch has documented the extensive harm caused by explosive weapons with wide-area effects from Idlib in Syria to Armenia and Azerbaijan, and most recently in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.  

In November 2020, apparently indiscriminate artillery attacks by Ethiopian federal forces struck homes, schools, markets, and near places of worship and hospitals in the city of Mekelle, and the towns of Humera and Shire, killing at least 83 civilians, including children, and wounding over 300.

In addition to causing civilian casualties directly, explosive weapons with wide-area effects have frequently damaged or destroyed civilian infrastructure such as bridges, water pipes, power stations, hospitals, and schools, causing long-term harm to civilians. These weapons have a large destructive radius, are inherently inaccurate, or deliver multiple munitions at the same time. Sometimes it’s all three. Their use in populated areas forces people to flee their homes, exacerbating humanitarian needs. 

Dozens of states have already signaled their commitment to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas because of the harm they invariably cause civilians.

One such state is Ethiopia, which in 2017 joined 18 other African countries in Maputo in signing a communique calling for further action  to avoid using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas and to support a political declaration curbing their use.

The next meeting of states to discuss the latest draft of the political declaration will occur on March 3-5. While the draft is a good basis for a declaration, Human Rights Watch has outlined how it can be strengthened to better address concerns about civilian harm.

All states, especially those that have recently used explosive weapons in populated areas and caused civilian harm, including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Ukraine, and Yemen, should support a strong declaration that addresses the harm these weapons cause to civilians and commits states to avoid using those with wide-area effects in populated areas.  

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 26, 2021, 7:00 am
Click to expand Image The grave of 34-year-old Ojong Thomas Ebot killed by soldiers in the forest surrounding Ebam on March 1, 2020. © private, Ebam, South-West region, Cameroon, October 20

(Nairobi) – An attack by Cameroonian soldiers on March 1, 2020 has come to light in which soldiers raped at least 20 women, including four with disabilities, arrested 35 men, and killed one man, Human Rights Watch said today. The attack on the village of Ebam in the South-West region was one of the worst by Cameroon’s army in recent years.

The soldiers also burned one home, looted scores of properties, and severely beat the men they took to a military base. Based on information obtained by Human Rights Watch, there has been no effective investigation, and no one has been held accountable for the crimes.

“Sexual violence and torture are heinous crimes that governments have an obligation to immediately, effectively, and independently investigate, and to bring those responsible to justice,” said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “One year on, survivors of the Ebam attack are desperate for justice and reparations, and they live with the disturbing knowledge that those who abused them are walking free and have faced no consequences.”

Cameroon’s North-West and South-West regions have been rife with violence since late 2016, as armed separatists seek independence for the country’s minority Anglophone regions.

Human Rights Watch conducted telephone interviews between August 1 and January 5, 2021 with 20 rape survivors, four men who were arrested and beaten, four witnesses to the attack, two relatives of the man who was killed, a medical doctor who screened the rape survivors, two aid workers who helped the victims, and two United Nations officials with knowledge of the incident. Human Rights Watch also consulted confidential reports by an international nongovernmental organization and the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, a Cameroonian rights group based in Buea, South-West region, which corroborated the findings.

Human Rights Watch shared its findings with senior officials at the Cameroonian Presidency in a January 13 letter, requesting answers to specific questions. Cameroonian officials have yet to respond.

Witnesses said that over 50 soldiers entered Ebam, in Manyu division, in the South-West region, at about 3 a.m. on March 1, 2020, on foot leaving their vehicles in the outskirts. They broke into almost all the 75 homes in the village, looting money and other items, and dragging men out. Some soldiers rounded up men in the village center, while others sexually assaulted the women, including four with disabilities, mostly in their homes.

“Five masked soldiers entered my home,” a 40-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch. “It was dark, and I was alone. They searched the house and stole my phone and money. One of them abused me. He said: ‘If you don’t have sex with me, I will kill you!’ I was too afraid to say or do anything. After the rape, I ran into the bush where I spent two months. I am still upset and traumatized.”

Click to expand Image Soldiers who conducted the abusive operation in Ebam on March 1, 2020 arrived there on vehicles, and parked them at the outskirts of the village, on the other side of the river shown in the picture.  © private, Ebam, South-West region, Cameroon, October 2020

None of the rape survivors interviewed could get post-rape medical care in the immediate aftermath of the attack due to a range of obstacles, including displacement, lack of medical facilities, the cost of travel to such facilities, the cost of medical care, and fear of stigma and rejection. Some had medical care, such as screening for sexually transmitted infections, for the first time only in late July and mid-August, or even later.

A doctor who screened the survivors in August said that women described symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress and depression: fear, anxiety, sleeplessness, and an inability to complete daily tasks. Rape survivors said they are struggling to rebuild their lives and provide for themselves and their families.

Witnesses said that at the end of the three-hour attack, soldiers took at least 36 men to a military base in Besongabang, about eight kilometers away, where the soldiers beat the men severely and repeatedly, amounting to torture. The soldiers detained the men at the base for a day then transferred them to the gendarmerie brigade in Mamfe, the main city in Manyu division.

“The soldiers put us on a military truck and took us to their camp,” a 25-year-old man said. “My hands were tied behind my back. When we reached the camp, soldiers beat me up. They hit my legs very strongly; I still have scars.”

Four of the men held at the military base in Besongabang said that soldiers removed 34-year-old Ojong Thomas Ebot from the cell where they were held, and that he never returned. They believed that the soldiers later killed Ojong in the forest surrounding Ebam.

Six other witnesses said that, at about 7 a.m. they saw a military truck coming back to Ebam and leaving shortly after. Residents discovered Ojong’s body less than one hour later. Two of Ojong’s relatives said they buried him the same day.

A 28-year-old student and family member said: “They brought the body home. I saw three gunshot wounds on it: one in the head, which was the worst, one in the chest, one in the elbow. The head was almost destroyed. It was painful to see.”

Human Rights Watch reviewed photographs showing the exact location where Ojong was buried in Ebam and corroborated them with accounts from family members and residents of the village.

Witnesses said that the military operation was a reprisal attack to punish civilians suspected of collaborating with and harboring armed separatist fighters. Soldiers who raped women also implied in their verbal abuse that they were carrying out the rapes in part as a form of punishment for any presumed affiliation with armed separatist fighters.

A 28-year-old woman who was raped and witnessed the attack told Human Rights Watch: “The military asked me and other villagers: ‘Where are you keeping the amba [separatists]?’ We said we did not know where the amba [separatists] were. So, they [the soldiers] said: ‘The next time we come here, we’ll shoot everyone if you don’t show us the amba [separatists] now.’”

The Ebam attack occurred 16 days after soldiers in Ngarbuh, North-West region massacred 21 civilians, including a pregnant woman and 13 children, prompting a public outcry in Cameroon and beyond.

The attack has gone largely unreported for a year, due in part to the stigma and fear of reprisal which discourages survivors of sexual violence from speaking out about what they experienced. Underreporting by survivors also suggests that incidents of sexual violence by soldiers is probably much higher than the documented cases, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has documented widespread human rights violations by members of the Cameroonian security forces in the Anglophone regions since 2017, including torture and sexual violence. There has been little to no accountability for military abuses in the English-speaking regions over the past four years, and atrocities by members of national armed forces remain largely unpunished.

The Cameroonian government has legal obligations under international law to ensure that those responsible for sexual violence and other grave crimes such as murder, torture, and inhuman treatment are investigated and prosecuted. The government also has an obligation to provide reparations, such as compensation, livelihood support, or access to long-term medical and psychological health care for survivors of such attacks.

“Cameroonian authorities should urgently conduct an independent investigation into the Ebam attack, with support from the United Nations and the African Union, and make its findings public,” Sawyer said. “Ensuring justice and reparations will be essential for deterring future attacks and helping survivors heal.”

For more information on the Ebam attack, including statements from survivors, please see below.

Cameroon’s Cycles of Violence

Over the past four years, Cameroon’s Anglophone regions have been caught in a deadly cycle of violence that led to a major humanitarian crisis, with almost 700,000 people displaced and three million in need of aid. Human Rights Watch estimates that violence has claimed over 3,500 lives since late 2016.

The crisis has been characterized by widespread human rights abuses by both government forces and armed separatists. Security forces have killed civilians, razed hundreds of homes, sexually assaulted women, and arbitrarily arrested and tortured hundreds of alleged separatist fighters. Armed separatists have also killed civilians, attacked humanitarian workers and schools, kidnapped hundreds of people, including students and teachers, destroyed homes, and tortured those perceived as opponents.

In March 2020, the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (SOCADEF), a separatist group, called for a ceasefire as the Covid-19 pandemic was declared – a move welcomed by the spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General. On June 16, government officials held peace talks in the capital, Yaoundé, with the leaders of the Interim Government, a major separatist group led by Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, who had previously been sentenced to life in prison and is currently in a high security prison in Yaoundé. However, neither the call for a ceasefire nor the peace talks have ended the violence against civilians.

On September 10, 2019 amid increasing violence and following sustained international pressure, President Paul Biya called for a “national dialogue,” a series of nationwide discussions aimed at addressing the Anglophone crisis. The dialogue ended with the adoption of a special status for the two Anglophone regions and the release of hundreds of people arrested in connection with the unrest in the North-West and South-West regions.

On October 24, 2020, gunmen stormed a school in Kumba, South-West region, and opened fire in a classroom, killing seven children and injuring 13 others.

On January 10, army soldiers killed at least nine civilians in Mautu village, South-West region. The dead included a woman and a child. The soldiers also looted scores of homes and threatened residents.

Sexual Violence in Ebam

Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 women, ranging in age from 23 to 42, who said they were raped by soldiers during the attack in Ebam on March 1. Human Rights Watch corroborated their accounts with a medical doctor who screened and treated them, and a humanitarian worker from an international group that provided psychological counseling and material assistance to the survivors.

Rape appears to have formed a systematic part of the military attack on Ebam and was mostly committed in homes during door-to-door searches.

“One masked soldier broke into my home where I was with my little daughter,” a 23-year-old student said. “He pointed a gun at me, searched everything and everywhere. He spoke French to me. I speak little French. He ordered me to get undressed and raped me. He said I should remain silent and not shout; otherwise, he would kill me. I was afraid and allowed him to have an intercourse with me because he threatened me. When he finished with me, he took my money, my phone, my food and drinks, and left. I ran into the bush where I spent two weeks.”

A 45-year-old woman, who has a physical disability and has difficulties hearing and speaking, said she was raped outside the church where she had gone with her daughter:

It was about 5:30 a.m. I had woken up early to go to the church with my 18-year-old daughter … Two soldiers came inside the church. One took me by my hand and pulled me outside. I started crying. My daughter was also crying ... One of them removed my dress and raped me on the ground, in the grass. He abused me for over 15 minutes. He searched my clothes, took my phone and money, and left.

At least three other women with disabilities, including physical, hearing, and visual, were raped.

A 27-year-old woman said:

I have a physical disability due to an accident. I cannot walk well. One of my legs is bad. When the military came, they arrested my husband and took him outside. Two of them remained in the house and forced me in the bedroom. I was wearing just a pagne [cloth covering] around my chest. Both of them raped me. ‘If you alert anyone, we will kill you,’ they said. I opposed some resistance and in the struggling I hit my bad leg against the bed. It swelled and hurt.

Soldiers who raped the women also implied in their verbal abuse that they were carrying out the rapes in part as a form of punishment for any presumed affiliation with armed separatist fighters. “Before he [the soldier] raped me, he asked: ‘Where are the amba boys [separatists]?’ I replied I didn’t know,” a 45-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch. “Then, he said: ‘You are the wife of one of those amba boys, aren’t you?’ I replied that my husband was not a fighter.”

A 30-year-old farmer said two soldiers broke into her home, looking for her husband and armed separatists: “They pulled me, took me to the bedroom. One of them asked me in French: ‘Where is your husband? Where are the ambas?’ I replied that my husband was dead. So, one pushed me and pointed a gun at me. He cornered me. There was no way I could shout or move. He forced himself on me and raped me. I was afraid. I cried.”

At least three women said that they were raped by more than one soldier. One of them, a 35-year-old teacher, said that two soldiers sexually assaulted her at home: “They were both in army uniform and had guns. They spoke French and broken English. They asked me where my husband was, and I replied I didn’t know. They were upset they could not find him, so they revenged on me. They undressed me. I was afraid of their weapons. They raped me, both of them. Then, they stole my phone.”

Late Access to Medical Care and Psychosocial Support

Sexual violence has altered life for all the women interviewed. None of them could access post-rape medical care in the immediate aftermath of the attack due to a range of obstacles, including displacement, lack of medical facilities, the cost of travel to such facilities, the cost of medical care, and fear of stigma and rejection.

A 35-year-old survivor and mother of eight children said in late August: “After the rape, I took few things and ran away to the nearby bush, where I spent several weeks. I didn’t seek any medical assistance because there was no way I could go to the hospital in the bush. The first time I saw a doctor was three weeks ago.”

A 56-year-old farmer whose wife was raped said in late August: “When my wife told me [about the rape], she was traumatized, but I could not take her to the hospital. I had no money. We fled to the bush out of fear of another attack. My wife was only provided with some assistance recently, when a doctor came and tested her for HIV.

Some rape survivors had access to medical care, psychological support, and material assistance only in late July and mid-August, five months after the attack, due to the intervention of an international humanitarian organization that learned about the mass rape in mid-July. A medical doctor who screened the survivors and conducted blood tests to verify whether they suffered from any sexually transmitted diseases, said:

When I was informed about the mass rape, it was already too late. Nevertheless, I went to Ebam in mid-August and screened the women who said they were sexually assaulted. I conducted medical exams and collected their records. Blood tests revealed that at least two had syphilis. I cannot tell whether this is because of the rape. But what I know for sure is that the survivors are still traumatized.

Two rape survivors reported physical injuries and illness after the assault. A 28-year-old student said: “As a result of the rape, I had physical pain. My abdomen was hurting, and I had headaches for a while.” Human Rights Watch also found that the rapes caused dire mental health consequences. The doctor who screened the survivors in August said that women described symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress and depression: fear and anxiety, sleeplessness, and an inability to complete daily tasks.

A 35-year-old survivor said: “I don’t really know how I feel. I think I feel empty and sad.” A 30-year-old farmer described feeling upset and anxious: “My mind is disturbed; I have trouble sleeping and concentrating. When I think about what happened, I don’t feel fine.” A 27-year-old woman said: “I feel bad. I am traumatized. Every time I see the military, I shake; it reminds me of what happened, it brings back bad memories.”

Unable to resume work or other activities for their sustenance, rape survivors said they are struggling to rebuild their lives and provide for themselves and their families.

A 28-year-old survivor and mother of four children described how the longer-term impact of the sexual violence on her mental health had made it impossible for her to find work, even though she needed it more than ever as the soldiers also looted all her cash: “I am psychologically disturbed. I am stressed because I have no money. I don’t know what I can offer to my children. I do nothing for a living. Nobody supports me at the moment.”

The stigma associated with sexual assault caused some women to feel embarrassed and ashamed. Fear of stigma has also prevented some survivors from disclosing rape even to close friends and relatives and from seeking assistance. Women said that husbands or partners had blamed or rejected them, and community members mocked them after rape.

A 34-year-old survivor said she has been taunted by members of her community: “Villagers know I was raped, and they mock me. Sometimes, when I walk, people point fingers at me. They mock me instead of consoling me.”

A 30-year-old farmer with six children told Human Rights Watch that her husband was disappointed when she told him she had been raped: “He was upset. He said I should have escaped. I explained I could not escape; there was no way I could resist or shout. He said he cannot sleep with me anymore. In the village, I am stigmatized. People mock me. When I pass by, they look at me and say: ‘Look at this one who was raped!’”

Mass Arrests, Beatings at Military Base and Detention at Gendarmerie Brigade

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that soldiers entered Ebam, went house to house, looted money and other valuable items, and pulled 36 men out of their homes. They were taken to the village center, where the soldiers threatened them.

A 53-year-old farmer who was among those arrested said:

The soldiers did not shoot; they entered quietly and took all of us by surprise. Few managed to flee. The whole village was taken hostage. They broke into all the homes, including mine. They were four, well-armed. I was home with my wife. They stole my Android phone and 150,000 XAF [US$271]. They pulled me outside and brought me to the middle of the village where other men had been rounded up. We were all forced to sit on the ground, tied up with a nylon rope, in groups of three to four. They threatened us and said: ‘Today, you are finished. You will not come back to your village.’ Some of us were screaming and crying.

Four of the men said that at about 6 a.m., soldiers put them and 32 other men on military trucks and drove them to a military base in Besongabang, about eight kilometers from Ebam. The four men said that soldiers administered beatings amounting to torture to them and others at the military base to force them to admit to supporting armed separatist groups.

A 42-year-old former detainee said: “I was tortured four times. They beat me with a fan belt from a car. When they were beating me, they told me to speak the truth about the amba boys [separatists]. I replied I didn’t know anything.”

A 53-year-old man said:

At the military camp, we were seriously tortured. The military beat us with their hands and other objects. I was beaten with a big rubber chip on my back, buttocks, and legs. I was hit many times. While they beat us, they accused us of sheltering the amba boys [separatists]. We had no answers to give about the amba, so they beat us even more strongly. I had bruises on my back and buttocks for over two weeks and was in pain.

On March 1, the detainees were transferred to the gendarmerie brigade in Mamfe, about 10 kilometers from Besongabang, where gendarmes took their statements. They were all released between March 4 and 6, following payments ranging from 25,000 XAF (US$45) to 35,000 XAF (US$63).

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 26, 2021, 6:00 am
Click to expand Image People gather in front of the Razi Hospital in Saravan where those injured in the shooting of February 22, 2021 were believed to be taken. © 2021 Private

(Beirut) – Iranian authorities should transparently investigate alleged government security forces’ use of excessive force in Sistan and Baluchistan province on February 22, 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. At least 10 Baluchi people were killed in the Saravan border area near Pakistan, local activists said.

The Baluchi Activists Campaign, a website reporting on human rights violations in the area, reported that on February 22, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps blocked the road that residents use to transport fuel to Pakistan at the Eskan border area in the town of Saravan, in Sistan and Baluchistan province. The security forces then apparently opened fire at those attempting to open the road, killing at least 10 people and injuring 5.

“The Iranian authorities should urgently conduct a transparent and impartial investigation into the shootings at the Saravan border,” said Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should hold those responsible for wrongdoing to account, appropriately compensate victims, and ensure that border guards are taking the utmost precautions to respect the right to life and other human rights.”

On February 25, several mobile network operators shut down internet access in several parts of the province, including Zahedan and Saravan, a digital rights researcher reported. According to official statistics, more than 95 percent of internet users in the province are connected through mobile service. Several activists had said that since the February 22 incident, internet access in the area has been disrupted.

On February 23, Mohamad Hadi Marashi, the Sistan and Baluchistan deputy governor for security, told reporters that the shooting started from the Pakistan side of the border and said that two people had died. On February 25, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported that Ali Ahmad Mouhebati, the governor of Sistan and Baluchistan, told representatives of tribal leaders in the area that three people were killed in the incident, two of them in Pakistani territory.
The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) reported that on the same day, violence broke out when protesters gathered in front of the governor’s office in Saravan. The police used teargas and shot bullets to disperse the crowd, HRANA said. It is not clear if any protester was injured during the incident.

The Iranian government should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials , Human Rights Watch said. The Basic Principles state that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that whenever the use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials should exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved. Security forces should also minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.

The principles say that “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.” And they provide that, “in cases of death and serious injury or other grave consequences, a detailed report shall be sent promptly to the competent authorities.”

Sistan and Baluchistan province has a high rate of poverty and lacks access to economic and social infrastructure. Similar to the western provinces of Western Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, its lack of economic opportunities has led many residents to engage in unlawful cross-border commerce with Pakistan and Iraq.

Over the past three years, Iranian authorities have increasingly used large-scale internet shutdowns during periods of unrest and protests to disrupt access to information for local communities and international observers. Internet shutdowns violate multiple rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and access to information, and the rights to peaceful assembly and association.

Under international human rights law, Iran has an obligation to ensure that internet-based restrictions are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information or to harm people’s ability to freely assemble and express political views.

“The international community should press Iranian authorities to immediately lift all restrictions to internet access and act to end such shutdowns in the future,” Sepehri Far said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 26, 2021, 12:00 am
Click to expand Image LGBT Rainbow Flag © 2008 Ludovic Berton (Wikimedia Commons)

Malaysia’s Federal Court on February 25 ruled that a state law banning consensual same-sex conduct was unconstitutional. While the ruling leaves intact a federal statute criminalizing same-sex relations, it does bring relief to those who have faced persecution from religious enforcement agencies enforcing such state laws.

The case arises from a 2018 raid on a private residence in Selangor, in which state religious enforcement officials arrested 11 men on charges of “attempting” gay sex, under section 28 of Selangor’s Syariah (Sharia, or Islamic law) criminal enactment. In November 2019, a court convicted five of the men and sentenced them to fines, imprisonment, and six strokes of the cane each.

With support from human rights lawyers and organizations in Malaysia, one of the men appealed, arguing that the enactment of section 28 was ultra vires, or beyond the state's powers, because under Malaysia’s constitution only the federal government may legislate some aspects of criminal law.  The nine-judge panel agreed.

Malaysia’s federal laws  are no more friendly to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people than its state laws. They are in fact so far-reaching that most sexually active Malaysians of any orientation likely fall afoul of them. “Carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” or any sexual act involving “the introduction of the penis into the anus or mouth of the other person,” is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and mandatory whipping. Another law punishes any sexual act involving “introduction of any object or any part of the body, except the penis into the vagina or anus of the other person.” The federal laws, however, are rarely enforced, and federal police tend not to share state religious officials’ zeal for invading the privacy of Malaysian bedrooms.

Meanwhile, state religious officials persecute LGBT people, especially trans women. After one trans woman, Nur Sajat, failed to appear in court to answer to charges of “insulting Islam” for having attended a religious event dressed in clothing typically associated with women, Selangor’s religious department announced it was deploying 122 officers to hunt her down. State Sharia laws also criminalize non-normative gender expression.

In the face of pervasive anti-LGBT discourse, law, and policy, Malaysian activists are taking steps to whittle away at institutionalized discrimination. The Federal Court ruling is one small but significant step forward.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 25, 2021, 10:20 pm
Click to expand Image Billboard in front of the gate of SMPN2 school in Solok showing the principal in a long hijab, smiling, with the words “Selamat Datang di SMPN 2 Kota Solok. Kawasan wajib berbusana Muslim untuk Kota Solok Serambi Madinah” (Welcome to Public Junior High School 2 Solok City. Mandatory Muslim clothing area for Solok City, Veranda of Medina), August 2018.  © 2018 Andreas Harsono/Human Rights Watch

This week I moderated a discussion with seven courageous Indonesian women – a teacher, a lawyer, an ombudswoman, two psychologists, and two activists. They were holding a news conference to support a new government decree that allows schoolgirls and teachers to choose whether to wear a jilbab (the common term in Muslim-majority Indonesia for a head, neck, and chest covering) in state schools. The decree orders local governments and school principals to abandon regulations requiring a jilbab in nearly 300,000 state schools in the country.

Ifa Hanifah Misbach, a psychologist in Bandung, spoke about her clients who had suffered “body dysmorphic disorder” after being bullied into wearing a jilbab. Two have tried to take their lives. The social pressures reminded her of her own experience of receiving constant questions about whether she was a pious Muslim because she chose not to wear a head covering. 

Although Indonesia has a large Muslim majority, it has people of many faiths and no official religion. “The regulation is very important, crucial, to maintain the idea of Indonesia as a cohesive nation-state,” said Alissa Wahid, a family psychologist in Yogyakarta.  “Everyone has the right to religious freedom.”  

Ombudswoman Yefri Heriani spoke about abusive mandatory jilbab regulations in West Sumatra. Lawyer Dian Kartika Sari demanded that local governments obey the new rule and revoke “unconstitutional” regulations. Budhis Utami of Kapal Perempuan women’s rights group talked about their online petition signed by 184 groups asking the Indonesian government to enforce the new rule.

Dwi Rubiyanti Kholifah of the Asian Muslim Alliance Network talked about groundless accusations from conservatives that they are Islamophobic if they choose not to wear the jilbab. “Anyone who criticizes this new regulation should read it first,” she said. “There is too much disinformation.” Henny Supolo Sitepu, a teacher, talked of the need for state schools to promote religious diversity and to stop discrimination.

Perhaps the most poignant moment was when Misbach read a poem, “A Little Girl Is Asking God,” about her three decades facing social pressures: “God, isn’t it possible for me, a girl, to be myself? God, isn’t it possible for me, a girl, not to be a hypocrite? I want to be honest with myself.”

Some people sobbed during the poem and conversation.

The seven women powerfully conveyed the harm of mandatory jilbab regulations. Local governments and school officials should protect women and girls’ rights and promptly and fully comply with the new decree.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 25, 2021, 9:14 pm
Click to expand Image Demonstrators hold a banner that reads, "the depreciation of Yemen's rial currency threatens citizens' livelihood," in Taiz, Yemen, December 2018. © 2018 Taiz News Network

Imagine what it is like to live in the world's worst humanitarian crisis: You are in a daily struggle for survival and you don’t know where your next meal will come from. This is the reality for many in Yemen, where an unmitigated humanitarian emergency fueled by years of armed conflict has pushed millions of people into the “worst famine the world has seen in decades,” according to the United Nations.

The humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated by Yemen’s economic collapse. The sharp depreciation of the Yemeni rial, which makes imported food, oil and other necessities more expensive, has dramatically reduced households’ purchasing power and harmed the livelihoods of millions of Yemenis.

Yemen’s international donors need to grapple with these harsh realities when they meet on March 1 for a high-level humanitarian pledging event on Yemen organized by the UN, Switzerland, and Sweden.

Many Yemenis and humanitarian workers are concerned that donors will again fail to meet the challenge. Last year’s pledges were US$1.35 billion, $1 billion less than what the UN said it needed to continue operating its aid programs. A number of countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Kuwait have not even fulfilled the amounts pledged.

But the level of support is not the only issue. Last September Human Rights Watch documented that the parties to the conflict, notably the Houthi armed group, which controls much of the country, as well as the Yemeni government and affiliated forces, and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council, have at times severely restricted the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid.

As much as it is critical to address the shortfalls in humanitarian aid pledged to Yemen, donors should pressure parties to the conflict to lift obstacles on humanitarian aid and allow aid agencies to have safe and unimpeded access to populations at risk. Mitigating Yemen’s economic collapse should also be at the heart of discussions by Yemen’s donors and supporters.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 25, 2021, 8:23 pm
Click to expand Image Civilians fleeing Kajo Keji county, toward the southern border with Uganda, April 27, 2017. © 2017 Jason Patinkin

Next month, the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan will come up for renewal. Looking at recent developments, it’s clear the UN Human Rights Council should renew the commission’s mandate in full.

The South Sudanese authorities may well argue recent positive steps, made in their implementation of the 2018 peace deal, merit a shift in approach. But those steps remain too little, too vague, and too speculative.

On February 19, the commission released a new report that found  “vast swathes of South Sudan have witnessed a massive escalation in violence perpetrated by organized tribal militias exceeding the violent conflict of December 2013,” fueled by failure to implement the 2018 peace agreement. The situation in Central Equatoria is particularly concerning, with widespread sexual and gender-based violence “characterized by a pattern of terror and subjugation,” which included rape, gang rape, sexual mutilation, forced marriage, abduction and sexualized torture, and sexual exploitation of children.

The continued failure of authorities to address accountability, has “engendered marginalization and exclusion at all levels, breeding resentment among affected communities and fueling cycles of violence and conflict,” according to the commission.

On January 29, South Sudan’s government announced it approved the establishment of accountability mechanisms to address the country’s conflict, including the creation of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan in partnership with the African Union (AU). After years of paralysis, this is a potentially significant step, but the question of implementation remains key.

The AU Commission should work on a clear timeline with South Sudan’s justice minister for the court to be operational, while keeping the option to unilaterally establish the court so the interests of victims are not held hostage to further intransigence by authorities.

In the meantime, the commission remains a unique, crucial vehicle to document abuses so justice is ultimately delivered. The commission keeps the hope for accountability alive, while laying an essential foundation for future prosecutions. If anything, now is time to increase support for the commission rather than weaken its mandate. Victims of the widespread abuses committed across South Sudan deserve this, and so much more, from the international community and the South Sudanese authorities.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 25, 2021, 8:10 pm
Click to expand Image Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi (left), Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (center), and Finance Minister Taro Aso (right) attend a Cabinet meeting in Tokyo on February 24, 2021. © 2021 Kyodo via AP Images

(Tokyo) – The Japanese government should take urgent action to pressure the leaders of the military coup in Myanmar to restore the democratically elected government and respect human rights, Human Rights Now, Human Rights Watch, Japan International Volunteer Center, Justice For Myanmar, and Japan NGO Action Network for Civic Space said today.  

In a letter to Japan Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi on February 25, 2021, the organizations urged the Japanese government to take joint action with other countries, including imposing targeted economic sanctions against the Myanmar military and companies that it controls, supporting a global arms embargo, and triggering human rights-based conditionals enshrined in Japan’s Official Development Assistance programs and charter.  

ဗမာစကား Japan: Take Action Against Myanmar Coup_Burmese ဗမာစကား Japan: Take Action Against Myanmar Coup_Burmese

“As a major and influential donor, the Japanese government has a responsibility to take action to promote human rights in Myanmar,” said Teppei Kasai, Asia program officer. “It should urgently review and suspend any public aid that could benefit the Myanmar military.”

The organizations also said in their letter that Japan should join other concerned governments in imposing targeted economic sanctions against the military-affiliated companies, including Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), while assisting Japanese companies with direct or indirect ties to the military to terminate their business relationships responsibly. 

“There is clear and growing evidence that the Myanmar military uses business revenue to finance their widespread abuses,” said Yadanar Maung, spokesperson for Justice For Myanmar. “The Japanese government and businesses should uphold their human rights responsibilities and cut ties with the Myanmar military.” 

For decades, Japan has been a major donor to Myanmar. Japan has provided more than a total of 1 trillion yen (US$9.5 billion) in loan assistance, and more than 300 billion yen (US$ 2.8 million) in grant aid, and 88 billion yen (US$834,000) in technical assistance. By 2017, Japanese aid to Myanmar ranked first among member countries and institutions of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s development cooperation directorate. In November 2016, when Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, visited Japan, Japan announced that its public and private sectors would contribute 800 billion yen (US$7.6 billion) to Myanmar over a five-year period. 

The organizations noted that, “Japan’s private sector has also been increasingly investing in Myanmar, at times without adequately respecting the framework laid out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights including conducting human rights due diligence.”  

“The Japanese government should now realize that its efforts to enable Japanese companies to invest in Myanmar have backfired since they didn’t adequately consider the risks associated with doing business with the military,” said Akiko Sato, deputy secretary-general at Human Rights Now. “Going forward, the government should promote the UN Guiding Principles as well as human rights due diligence among the private sector in Japan in accordance with its October 2020 national action plan on business and human rights.”

The organizations also called for the Japanese government to trigger human rights-based conditionals enshrined in its Official Development Assistance programs and charter, which states that “Japan will pay adequate attention to the situation in the recipient countries regarding the process of democratization, the rule of law and the protection of basic human rights, with a view to promoting the consolidation of democratization, the rule of law and the respect for basic human rights.”

Humanitarian aid should be maintained and even increased where necessary. However, development aid should be reviewed to ensure it is not delivered via the Myanmar government. Japanese aid should be directed only toward basic human needs and where possible delivered through independent civil society organizations.  

“The Japanese government should move in an effective manner to promote the return of democracy in Myanmar, including the release of those detained and the safety of protestors,” said Ryota Kato, coordinator at Japan NGO Action Network for Civic Space. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 25, 2021, 6:03 pm
Click to expand Image Still image captured from video of Philippine Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra disclosing initial findings of a departmental review into the deaths of drug suspects during anti-drug operations in the Philippines to the UN Human Rights Council on February 24, 2021. © UN Web TV

(Geneva) – The Philippine Department of Justice admitted police culpability in thousands of “drug war” killings, Human Rights Watch said today. The surprising admission provides further reason for the United Nations Human Rights Council, meeting in Geneva, to investigate President Rodrigo Duterte’s abusive anti-drug campaign.

In a speech before the Human Rights Council on February 24, 2021, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra disclosed the initial findings of a departmental review into the deaths of drug suspects during anti-drug operations in the Philippines. He said that in many cases, police made no effort to examine recovered weapons, verify ownership, or conduct ballistic examinations. In most of the cases the Department of Justice reviewed, police failed to follow standard protocols in the coordination of drug raids and in the processing of crime scenes. His statement seriously undermines the usual government claim that drug suspects were killed because they fought back, Human Rights Watch said.

“The justice secretary’s astounding disclosure is the first time the Duterte administration has admitted many police are to blame for ‘drug war’ deaths,” said John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN Human Rights Council should recognize this admission as reason enough to create an independent, international commission of inquiry.”

The Philippine police have killed thousands of mostly urban poor men since the “war on drugs” started after Duterte took office in June 2016. Thousands more have been murdered by unidentified assailants that Human Rights Watch research has linked to the police or other authorities. Domestic and international human rights groups have called on the Human Rights Council to undertake an independent international investigation into the killings, while the International Criminal Court continues its preliminary examination into alleged crimes against humanity.

In justifying the police killings of drug suspects, the Philippine government has repeatedly claimed that drug suspects “fought back.” But research by Human Rights Watch and others have shown that this claim frequently had no basis and that, in fact, police routinely planted evidence, such as weapons and drugs on the bodies of victims, to justify their killing. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in its June 2020 report, found that many of the guns recovered at the crime scene often had the same serial numbers, suggesting that these weapons were recycled.

During the Human Rights Council session in October, the government committed to take certain steps to address concerns raised over the “drug war,” offering to review some police killings. Guevarra, in his February 24 speech, said the Department of Justice referred its findings to the police, which, he said, promised to take action. Allowing the police to investigate the Justice Department’s findings is unrealistic and may even frustrate efforts to seek justice, Human Rights Watch said.

Since international scrutiny of the “drug war” began, the Philippine government, particularly the police, has refused to cooperate with investigations conducted by the national Commission on Human Rights. The Office of the Solicitor General, the government’s lawyer, has actively tried to undermine the investigations. The police’s own Internal Affairs Service has had a lackluster record in investigating police complicity in crimes while other government agencies, such as the Office of the Ombudsman, have also failed to take action. Only a handful of cases out of thousands reported are being investigated, while just one case in which police officers were implicated has resulted in a court conviction.

“The justice secretary tried to show that their findings are proof of what he called ‘functioning accountability mechanisms,’” Fisher said. “Concerned governments should not be fooled by this unconvincing attempt to head off a Human Rights Council investigation. If the Philippine government now admits that its previous denials of police misconduct were false, what else are they hiding? This only makes an international inquiry by the UN even more imperative.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 25, 2021, 2:44 pm

This was meant to be Niger’s first peaceful and democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960. But contested results and disruptions to internet access now threaten this process.

Local media sources in Niger and members of the internet measurement community reported that restrictions to mobile internet networks were imposed Wednesday in parts of the country, including the capital, Niamey, a day after violent protests erupted after the ruling-party candidate, Mohamed Bazoum, was declared the winner of the presidential poll by the national independent electoral commission (CENI).

Click to expand Image Election officials count votes by flashlight inside a school used as a polling station during elections in Niamey, Niger, Sunday, March 20, 2016. © AP Photo/Gael Cogne

The second round of the election pitted Bazoum, a former interior minister, against ex-President Mahamane Ousmane. On Tuesday, the CENI announced provisional results, giving Bazoum a lead with 55.75 percent of the votes. Ousmane then alleged electoral fraud and yesterday claimed he had won the election with 50.3 percent.

When CENI announced its provisional results, supporters of Ousmane took to the streets of Niamey, clashing with security forces, according to media reports. Footage seen by Human Rights Watch shows demonstrators armed with clubs erecting barricades, as well as security forces firing tear gas to disperse crowds.

Niger is a member of the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States. It also sits on the UN Security Council, and is a key partner of France, the European Union, and United States in the fight against armed Islamist groups in the Sahel. The government should respect human rights in responding to these protests.

It should immediately restore access to the internet, since blanket shutdowns are a form of collective punishment. They hinder access to information and communications needed for daily life, which is particularly vital during times of crisis. Restrictions also provide cover for human rights abuses. 

The government should also provide a space for peaceful protests and ensure that security forces respond to violence according to UN and African human rights standards   Law enforcement should generally only use lethal force to prevent loss of life and in proportion to any threat.

This post-electoral period poses a crucial test. Niger’s international partners should urge the government to make the right decisions, including lifting internet restrictions, investigating the allegations of fraud, and limiting the use of force against protesters to what it strictly necessary, if they want its democracy to succeed.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 25, 2021, 12:08 pm
Click to expand Image Protestors prepare to take part in a car demonstration organized by Women's Strike against imposing further restrictions on abortion law in Poland. Krakow, Poland on October 19th, 2020.  © 2020 Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via AP

The message was clear at this week’s European Parliament hearing on Poland’s near-ban on abortion: the European Commission should act decisively to protect the lives and rights of women and girls and stop erosion of the values on which the European Union stands.

Marta Lempart, co-founder of the Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike) movement leading Polish protests, told the Commission, “I am not asking for your concern. I am not asking for declarations. I demand action and that is my role and my right. I am a European citizen. Your duty, first, is to me.”

Members of the European Parliament spelled out how heightened restrictions on legal abortion in Poland, already home to one of Europe’s most restrictive laws, defy international human rights law and are indisputably intertwined with rule of law violations that should have swift repercussions for Poland’s government. They rightly denounced the ruling Law and Justice party’s use of the politically-influenced Constitutional Tribunal to bypass proper parliamentary procedures in eliminating legal grounds for abortion.

As Lempart said, “If we lose the rule of law, if we lose judiciary independence, we lose everything.”

The Commission itself is among authoritative bodies that have condemned the Tribunal’s lack of independence and even triggered Article 7, the EU mechanism to address governments breaching core EU values.

But when asked if the Commission will act instead of just talk, Equalities Commissioner Helena Dalli again fell short of indicating real engagement on accountability for Polish authorities. In the past year alone, Poland’s government has pushed forward bills to completely ban abortion and criminalize sex education, cracked down on LGBT activists, and revived threats to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, a regional violence against women treaty.

Without definitive action, the Commission is telling women across Europe that their rights to health, freedom from cruel and inhumane treatment, bodily autonomy, and privacy, are secondary. It also underscores the Commission’s hesitancy to respond firmly when a member state repeatedly violates fundamental rights and EU values; this is a risky move when some European governments appear to view Poland as an example rather than a warning.

Protesters in Poland persist despite daily abuse, harassment and detention. Lempart faces charges that could result in up to eight years in prison. She pleaded to Commission members, “We, the people, urge you to fight for us.” 

The Commission should quickly heed her call.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 25, 2021, 10:08 am
Click to expand Image Permanent premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands. © 2018 Marina Riera/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Justice remains elusive and impunity rampant a decade after the United Nations Security Council referred the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since 2011, multiple armed conflicts and political infighting have decimated Libya’s economy and public services and left the judiciary dysfunctional. Multiple armed groups backed by foreign supporters have killed, forcibly disappeared, and arbitrarily detained people, and displaced hundreds of thousands.

“After a decade of impunity for serious crimes, the wheels of justice set in motion by the Security Council’s referral of Libya to the ICC seem to have come to a grinding halt,” said Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Council members need to ensure that the court has sufficient means and political backing to do its vital work on behalf of victims of grave abuses in Libya.”

On February 26, 2011, days after the start of the revolution that ousted Muammar Gaddafi, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1970, giving the court a mandate over crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide committed in Libya since February 15, 2011. The ICC has issued arrest warrants against five individuals during its decade-long mandate.

The ICC faces steep challenges in carrying out its mandate in Libya. Without a police force, it relies on governments of countries where suspects can be found for cooperation in arrests, and that cooperation has been inadequate, Human Rights Watch said.

The three suspects implicated in the prosecutor’s current active cases remain at large. They include Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, a son of Muammar Gaddafi, for his alleged role in attacks on civilians during the country’s 2011 uprising, and Mahmoud al-Werfalli, commander of a special forces unit under the Libyan Arab Armed Forces, who is wanted for the murder of 33 people in seven incidents between 2016 and 2017 and another incident in 2018 when he allegedly shot 10 people. The third suspect is Al-Tuhamy Mohamed Khaled, a former head of the Internal Security Agency under Muammar Gaddafi. The ICC prosecutor has said that securing these arrests continues to be one of her office’s greatest challenges. The ICC also relies on government cooperation to further its investigations, including by facilitating evidence collection and preservation.

The situation in Libya remains deeply fractured as two authorities vie for control: the internationally recognized Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in the west and the rival Interim Government in eastern Libya, which is affiliated with the armed group known as the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), under the command of Khalifa Hiftar. The LAAF has received substantial military support from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, and Russia. Turkey is the main military backer of the GNA. According to the UN, 20,000 foreign fighters from Syria and elsewhere have supported these two entities.

In February 2021, the UN brokered the establishment of a new Government of National Unity among participants of the Libya Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). This group of 75 individuals negotiated a governance framework and a roadmap for general elections, and on February 5 elected a three-member Presidency Council headed by Mohamed al-Mnefi with Abdelhamid Dabeiba as prime minister designate. Dabeiba has until February 26 to present his cabinet for confirmation by the parliament.

Over the past decade, Libyan authorities failed, or were unable, to investigate or prosecute those responsible for grave violations. Domestic courts, hampered by political divisions and episodes of armed conflict, are barely functional, characterized by grave due process violations, including forced confessions, ill treatment, and lack of access to lawyers. Lawyers, judges, and prosecutors have been targets of militias and risk retaliation for their work.

Systematic and widespread human rights violations, including forced displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, long-term arbitrary detention, and thousands of politically motivated assassinations, have been ongoing since 2011. During the latest armed conflict, between April 2019 and June 2020, armed groups from all sides were responsible for unlawful air and drone strikes, indiscriminate shelling, torture, unlawful executions and desecration of bodies, destruction of civilian structures, and use of prohibited cluster bombs and anti-personnel landmines and booby traps. Hundreds of residents from the town of Tarhouna remain missing after a local militia abducted and forcibly disappeared them.

The UN Security Council-mandated Sanctions Committee for Libya has listed only eight people for individual targeted sanctions – two militia commanders and six people involved in human trafficking.

The UN Human Rights Council on June 22, 2020 established a fact-finding body to investigate violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law by all parties to the Libya conflict since the beginning of 2016. Due to budgetary constraints linked with the Covid-19 crisis, the mission has yet to deploy.

The ICC prosecutor reported in November 2020 that her office had conducted two missions to Libya in 2020 enabling her office to collect important evidence but did not give details about ongoing investigations.

The ICC’s member countries on February 12 elected a British lawyer, Karim Khan, as the new prosecutor of the court. In 2017 Khan was appointed Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s counsel and represented him until 2018 in the context of litigation challenging the admissibility of Gaddafi’s case at the ICC. 

As chief prosecutor, Khan will oversee the investigation and prosecution of serious crimes at a court that is struggling with its existing caseload, including due to inadequate resources. The court has 13 situations under investigation in addition to nine preliminary examinations – Khan’s term will begin in June 2021. In a move widely seen as an effort to thwart ICC investigations in Afghanistan and Palestine, the United States government in September 2020, under former president Donald Trump, imposed sanctions on the ICC prosecutor and another senior court official. Human Rights Watch has called on President Joe Biden to repeal ICC sanctions and work constructively with the court.

“Insufficient efforts to ensure accountability for past and ongoing serious crimes in Libya have only served to embolden those responsible for serious abuses,” Salah said. “An effective ICC backed by the strong support of the international community is needed more than ever to send the message that impunity for mass atrocities will not be tolerated.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 25, 2021, 6:00 am
Click to expand Image The face of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears on a large billboard on West Cromwell Road, on March 7, 2018, in London, England. "He is bringing change to Saudi Arabia," the ads say. © Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia recently announced a series of important and necessary reforms, but ongoing repression and a lack of respect for basic rights are major barriers to progress, Human Rights Watch said today. The repression of independent civil society and critical voices that can provide objective feedback decreases the chances that reform efforts will be successful.

While Saudi authorities have released some unjustly detained dissidents and activists, including the women’s rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul and Nouf Abdelaziz, they remain subject to restrictions that hamper their ability to speak out without fear of reprisal. Prominent clerics, public intellectuals, academics, and human rights activists arrested since 2017 remain behind bars. Saudi authorities’ arbitrary and abusive targeting of dissidents and activists and the total lack of accountability for those responsible for arrests and torture demonstrate that the rule of law in Saudi Arabia is weak and that Saudi leadership undermines it at will. 

“Announcing reforms doesn’t halt the authorities’ no-holds-barred repression of civic activism, which fundamentally undermines these measures,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “When the government brutally punishes citizens and residents who dare provide honest critical feedback, it can’t credibly spin proposed reforms as genuine efforts to improve people’s lives.”

Women’s Rights Reforms

On February 8, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced plans to introduce significant changes to Saudi Arabia’s judicial system, including the promulgation of a personal status law (or family law). In the absence of a codified family law that meets international standards, women in Saudi Arabia face discrimination in marriage, divorce, decisions relating to children, including child custody, and inheritance.

The details of the drafting process have yet to be published and it is unclear when the law is expected to be finalized and come into effect. There are serious concerns, however, that without the effective participation of women’s rights advocates, the discrimination in practice may simply be codified into law. As processes to adopt new family laws in the region have shown, women’s rights and civil society participation is crucial both to ensuring that progressive laws are adopted and to raising awareness of and compliance with such laws.

In 2019, Saudi Arabia introduced significant women’s rights reforms, including lifting travel restrictions and allowing Saudi women to drive, register their children’s birth, and providing new protections against employment discrimination and sexual harassment.

But even as these reforms were announced, women activists who championed them remained on trial or in detention. The majority have since been provisionally released or convicted and conditionally released. But Nassima al-Sadah and Samar Badawi, prominent women’s rights activists arrested during the 2018 crackdown, remain behind bars. Without independent women’s rights groups to monitor the implementation of these reforms and given that criticizing the government leads to arbitrary arrests and prison terms, it is unclear how well they are being carried out.

The introduced reforms are also incomplete. Saudi women still require a male guardian’s approval to marry, be released from prison, or obtain certain sexual and reproductive health care. Men can still file cases against their daughters, wives, or female relatives for “disobedience,” which can lead to their forcible return to their male guardian’s home or imprisonment. 

Work Sponsorship Reforms

The Saudi authorities announced reforms in October 2020 to the notorious kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties the legal status of millions of migrant workers to individual sponsors, facilitating abuse and exploitation, including forced labor. The limited reforms will reportedly allow a migrant worker to change employers under some circumstances and cancel the requirement for permission from their employers – an exit permit – to leave the country.

Few details have been announced, but the reforms are to be rolled out in March 2021. Saudi Arabia still bars trade unions and strikes, and the authorities have not consulted with migrant worker groups on these upcoming reforms.

The 3.7 million domestic workers excluded from the labor law are also excluded from these modest changes. Many face serious abuses including long working hours without a day off, forced confinement, and physical and sexual abuse.

Some abusive kafala elements are slated to remain. Migrant workers – and their dependents – will still need employers to facilitate entry, residence, and employment in the country, including applying for and renewing residency and work permits.

Employers will still be able to cancel these permits so workers can find themselves undocumented through no fault of their own when employers fail to carry out such processes, and it is the workers who suffer the consequences. Migrant workers will also still need their employer’s permission to change jobs if they have not finished their contract or worked less than a year. The government will also continue to impose harsh penalties for “absconding” – leaving an employer without permission or remaining in the country beyond the grace period after their residence permit expires or is revoked. The penalties include fines, detention, deportation, and a ban on re-entry.

Criminal Justice Reforms

Saudi Arabia applies Shari’a (Islamic law) as its national law. In the absence of a written penal code or narrowly worded regulations, judges and prosecutors can convict people on a wide range of offenses under broad, catch-all charges such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom.” Detainees, including children, commonly face arbitrary arrest and systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights.

As part of the justice reforms announced on February 8, 2021, the country’s first written penal code for discretionary crimes and a law of evidence are being prepared, though apparently without any participation by civil society. The crown prince said the changes are meant to “increase the level of integrity and efficiency of judicial institutions.” Details are yet to be published and it is unclear how closely these laws will comply with international standards. In particular, there are concerns that many arbitrary charges will simply be codified as wide-ranging, catch-all offenses that criminalize the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, among other rights.

It is not the first time Saudi officials have claimed to be embarking on changes meant to increase the independence and effectiveness of the Saudi legal system. In 2017, King Salman issued a royal decree severing the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution (BIP) from the Interior Ministry and re-establishing it as the Public Prosecution, an “independent” entity reporting directly to the king.

The Saudi prosecution service is a major tool of Saudi repression and has been used to oppress peaceful Saudi dissidents since 1988 through various means, including harassment, endless summonses for interrogation, arbitrary detention, and prosecution in blatantly unfair trials on spurious charges. These practices accelerated and increased following the 2017 reorganization.

Saudi Arabia has introduced important changes to its use of corporal punishment and the death penalty. In April 2020, Saudi authorities announced an end to flogging for some crimes and retroactive application of a 2018 legal change halting the death penalty for alleged child offenders for certain crimes. In January 2021, the Saudi Human Rights Commission announced a moratorium on the death penalty for drug-related offenses, crediting it with reducing executions by 85 percent in 2020. And in February 2021, the Commission announced that the Saudi judiciary had commuted the death sentences of three men for protest-related crimes when they there children.

Both the previous reforms and those recently announced have been introduced or are being drafted without public consultation, accompanied by a complete shutdown of what had already been a narrow space for civil society in Saudi Arabia. It leaves no one inside the country to monitor and report on government performance, ensure that the government is delivering on its promises, or advocate for further necessary changes.

To demonstrate that Saudi Arabia is truly reforming, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should introduce new reforms to ensure that Saudi citizens enjoy basic human rights, including freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, as well as an independent judiciary and due process of law.

The authorities can signal this commitment immediately, Human Rights Watch said, by releasing anyone detained arbitrarily or on charges based solely on their peaceful ideas or expression, dropping all charges against detainees that do not resemble recognizable crimes, and providing justice for abuses such as torture or arbitrary punishments.

“Saudi Arabia’s top-down reform dictates will never succeed without public consultation, in which people can share their views without fearing arrest,” Page said. “The upcoming reforms could very well entrench existing discrimination and criminalization of freedoms unless the very people who could help the government succeed are released from jail cells and those silenced are allowed to speak up.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 25, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Image taken from a video of an immigration truck with security guards and unidentified people on the road to Lumut Naval Base on Tuesday, February 23, 2021 in Lumut, Malaysia.  © AP Photo

(Bangkok) – The Malaysian government should urgently investigate the Immigration Department’s return of 1,086 Myanmar nationals to Myanmar in defiance of a court order, Human Rights Watch said today.

On February 23, 2021, the Malaysian High Court granted a temporary stay of deportation for 1,200 Myanmar nationals in custody to allow judicial review. Despite the court order, immigration authorities transferred 1,086 of them to the custody of the Myanmar navy for return to Myanmar.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin should order the Immigration Department to grant the United Nations refugee office, UNHCR, immediate access to everyone in immigration detention to assess and determine whether they are recognized refugees, qualify as refugees, or have grounds to seek asylum.

“Malaysia’s immigration authorities have shown a blatant disregard both for the basic rights of Myanmar nationals and an order by the Malaysian High Court,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor. “The immigration director-general has put lives at risk by sending people back to a country now ruled again by a military that has a long track record of punishing people for political dissent or their ethnicity.”

In a letter dated February 11, 2021 “regarding the repatriation for 1,200 undocumented Myanmar nationals,” the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur asked Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for “permission” for three navy ships to dock at the Lumut Naval Base in Perak State on February 21 and depart on February 23. Malaysia’s director-general of immigration, Khairul Dzaimee Daud, publicly confirmed the arrangement on February 11.

On February 15, Daud asserted that the Myanmar nationals to be returned would not include UNHCR “cardholders” or Rohingya refugees. Human Rights Watch, Fortify Rights, and others called for Malaysia to allow UNHCR, which has been denied access to Malaysian immigration detention centers since August 2019, to have access to the detainees to determine whether any were recognized refugees or had grounds to qualify as refugees. That access was never granted.  

Despite lack of access, Asylum Access and Amnesty International, in their application for judicial review filed on February 22, said they received information indicating that at least three UNHCR cardholders were among those scheduled for return. The groups also received information indicating that at least 17 children with one or more parent in Malaysia were among those scheduled for return. On February 23, the High Court granted review and ordered a halt to the deportations until after a hearing to be held at 10 a.m. on February 24.

Malaysia’s Immigration Department has provided no information regarding the approximately 114 Myanmar nationals who were not transferred to the custody of the Myanmar navy, but again asserted that it did not send back any Rohingya refugees or asylum seekers. 

“Given Malaysia’s prior claims that no refugee cardholders were among those scheduled for return, the Immigration Department’s assurances carry little weight,” Lakhdhir said. “Without a full and transparent investigation into these returns and an order permitting UNHCR access to all detainees, refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia are at risk of prolonged detention and return to persecution.”

As of December 2020, more than 178,000 refugees were registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. More than 86 percent are from Myanmar, including more than 100,000 Rohingya, 22,000 Chin, and 29,000 from other ethnic communities. The total number of refugees in Malaysia, including those from Myanmar, is likely much higher.

More than one million ethnic and religious minorities from Myanmar have fled persecution, protracted human rights violations, and mass atrocity crimes by the Myanmar military in the past decade. On February 1, the Myanmar military overthrew the democratically elected government. Since the coup, Myanmar security forces have used excessive and unnecessary lethal force against peaceful protesters, conducted hundreds of arbitrary arrests, amended laws to strip away rights, and blocked internet access nationwide.  

The international legal principle of nonrefoulement prohibits countries from returning any person on its territory or under its jurisdiction to a country where they may face persecution, torture, or other serious harm. Although Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, nonrefoulement is recognized as part of customary international law and is binding on all states.

Given the Myanmar military’s repression of critics of the coup or the junta, as well as the military’s record of abuses against ethnic minorities, Malaysia’s failure to provide fair asylum procedures or allow UNHCR to make refugee determinations violates the government’s international legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

Director-General Daud did not specify whether the 17 children identified by Asylum Access and Amnesty International, or any other children with a parent in Malaysia, were among those returned to Myanmar. Separating children from their parents would violate Malaysia’s obligations under the Convention on Rights of the Child, to which Malaysia is a party. Under that convention, children should not be separated from their parents unless doing so is in the best interests of the child.

The Malaysian government should thoroughly investigate the actions of the Immigration Department in this case, take appropriate disciplinary or legal action against anyone acting in violation of the court order, and put in place rules and regulations to ensure that any future returns are in full compliance with international law, Human Rights Watch said. The government should grant UNHCR immediate access to all immigration detention facilities to exercise its mandate to determine the refugee status of all detainees and facilitate durable solutions, including integration in Malaysia, for those recognized as refugees. The government should also ratify the Refugee Convention and establish asylum procedures consistent with international standards for stateless people and foreign nationals at risk of persecution in their home countries.

“Malaysia’s Immigration Department should recognize that it cannot operate above the law,” Lakhdhir said. “With Myanmar’s brutal military back in power, the risks of returning Myanmar nationals fearing return are higher than ever.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 24, 2021, 11:13 pm
Click to expand Image Tear gas rises from parts of Turi jail where an inmate riot broke out in Cuenca, Ecuador, February 23, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Marcelo Suquilanda

Riots that broke out in four large prisons in Ecuador on February 23 have left at least 79 detainees dead. The prisons, located in Guayaquil, Cuenca, and Latacunga, host 70 percent of Ecuador’s prison population nationwide. These violent events are an alarming reminder of the authorities’ failure to effectively control prisons and to protect the lives and security of people in them.

The government described the riots as “concerted actions of criminal organizations.” Prison authorities said the uprisings seem to be a consequence of a violent power struggle among criminal groups following the killing of a criminal organization’s leader in December.

Soldiers and special forces of the national police were sent to control the riots. None were reported injured or killed. Detainees were armed with knives, firearms, and chainsaws, according to media and prison authorities. Videos of the uprising show mutilated corpses.

Overcrowding, weak security, violence, inadequate health care, and other poor conditions are longstanding problems in prisons in Ecuador. The Covid-19 outbreak exacerbated the health risks, infecting detainees in overcrowded cellblocks.

Insufficient and poorly trained guards make it easier for criminal organizations to control prisons. According to prison authorities, the number of officers is low in relation to the country’s prison population.

Other riots and killings have taken place in Ecuador’s prisons in the last year. In response, President Lenín Moreno declared two states of emergency in all prisons, in May 2019 and August 2020.

Ecuadorian authorities have a duty of care for people in prisons, which are under their control, and an obligation to protect their right to life and security of person. According to the United Nations Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, authorities should ensure detainees are treated with dignity and create favorable conditions for reintegrating formerly incarcerated persons into society.

Before leaving office on May 24, President Moreno should ensure authorities promptly investigate this week’s violent attacks so those responsible are brought to justice. His successor should ensure these investigations move ahead swiftly and prioritize addressing the underlying problems that continue to lead to avoidable deaths in Ecuador’s prisons.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 24, 2021, 11:07 pm
Click to expand Image A protester is tackled by riot police during a demonstration outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, June 12, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Kin Cheung

The Hong Kong government’s budget for this year, released on Wednesday, has a new line item: “safeguarding national security.” It carries a price tag of HK$8 billion (USD$1 billion). It also comes on top of a HK$25.8 billion (USD$3.3 billion) budget for policing, a 25 percent increase compared to last year’s budget.

No evidence suggests Hong Kong is suddenly awash in common crime. Rather, the dramatic increase follows Beijing’s imposition of the draconian National Security Law on the city last June. Asked how the money would be dispersed, the Hong Kong finance chief declined to give details, saying, “It is inconvenient to discuss further.”

In mainland China, public security spending figures have been useful indicators of repression, especially when examining differences in yearly spending between majority Han Chinese and ethnic minority areas. While Chinese authorities have increased security spending over the past decade, the increase has been much greater in minority areas.

Such spending may actually exacerbate vicious cycles of resistance and repression. In 2011, Human Rights Watch’s analysis of security spending in the Aba prefecture in Sichuan province, a Tibetan area, suggested that an increase in security spending, accompanied by provocative policing techniques such as the mass detentions of monks, may have escalated tensions.

We may be seeing similar dynamics in Hong Kong. During the 2019 mass protests, the previously disciplined Hong Kong police transformed into a repressive apparatus of the Chinese government. Officers beat, pepper-sprayed and teargassed protesters, some already subdued on the ground. They shot and blinded several people, including a journalist. At press conferences, they gave patently improbable explanations about their actions.

Indicative of the police’s growing power and corresponding lack of accountability, the Hong Kong government’s budget for the Independent Police Complaints Council — which lacks real investigative power — went down 4 percent compared to its spending last year.

The HK$8 billion national security budget is a heavy price tag, not least because Hong Kong is experiencing a record budget deficit under Covid-19. But it is the human cost, which will likely only escalate given the history of repression along China’s peripheries, that is truly alarming.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 24, 2021, 10:41 pm
Click to expand Image Weenusk First Nation member, Mike Wabano, sets up camp for caribou hunting on a frozen river near Peawanuck, December 14, 2019. As a result of warming temperatures, ice and snow cover is often thinner and more unstable.  © 2019 Daron Donahue

Climate change was top of the agenda yesterday as US President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met virtually to identify priorities for collaboration. Both countries committed to working together to accelerate action on climate change – but Canada has a lot of work to do to match Biden’s stated climate ambition.

In a recent opinion piece Canada’s environment minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, claimed that Biden would not find a “more resilient and determined [climate ally]” than Canada. Yet, the US’s northern neighbor remains a climate policy laggard. Canada is not on track to meet its current weak target to reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2030. And while Biden has committed to pushing for a global ban on fossil fuel subsidies, Canada ranks last among G20 OECD countries in progress on ending support for fossil fuels. When Biden delivered on his promise to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline, recognizing the imperative to develop a clean energy economy, Canada sought to change his mind.

Canada, warming at up to almost three times the global rate, should need no prompting to tackle the climate crisis. As Human Rights Watch has documented, climate change is already taking a growing toll on First Nations in Canada, depleting food sources and exacerbating health issues.

Yesterday, Trudeau affirmed Canada’s intent to set a more ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target. This is great to hear. Biden and Trudeau’s shared recognition of the importance of working with Indigenous peoples in advancing climate solutions is likewise welcome.

Canada could show its determination to move from climate laggard to leader by quickly following through on these commitments, including in the forthcoming federal budget. As Human Rights Watch outlined in a pre-budget submission, ending financial incentives for fossil fuel companies would be a good start. So too would support for First Nations-led climate solutions to monitor and address climate impacts on food poverty and health.  

Biden made clear, starting with Keystone, that the US plans to move ahead on climate, with or without Canada. With the Biden administration committed to reach a net-zero carbon pollution free energy sector by 2035, Canada now stands to lose a key market for oil and gas exports – all the more reason to stop investing in fossil fuels and accelerate climate action at home.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 24, 2021, 9:37 pm
Click to expand Image A perimeter fence around what is officially known as a” vocational skills education center” in Dabancheng in China's Xinjiang region, September 2018.  © 2018 Reuters/Thomas Peter

(New York) – The Chinese government has increased its groundless prosecutions with long prison sentences for Uyghurs and other Muslims in recent years in China’s Xinjiang region, Human Rights Watch said today. Since the Chinese government escalated its repressive “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” in late 2016, the region’s formal criminal justice system has convicted and sentenced more than 250,000 people.

While few verdicts and other official documents are publicly available due to Xinjiang authorities’ tight control of information, a Human Rights Watch analysis of nearly 60 of these cases suggests that many people have been convicted and imprisoned without committing a genuine offense. These formal prosecutions are distinct from those arbitrarily detained in unlawful “political education” facilities.

“Although the Chinese government’s use of ‘political education’ camps has led to international outrage, the detention and imprisonment of Xinjiang’s Muslims by the formal justice system has attracted far less attention,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher. “Despite the veneer of legality, many of those in Xinjiang’s prisons are ordinary people who were convicted for going about their lives and practicing their religion.”

Prosecutions Increase Sharply, Many for Long Sentences

The Chinese government’s official statistics showed a dramatic increase in the number of people sentenced in Xinjiang in 2017, followed by another increase in 2018, as reported by the nongovernmental organization, Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, and the New York Times in 2019.

Click to expand Image Source: China Law Yearbooks, Xinjiang Regional Yearbooks and Xinjiang Court Annual Work Reports

According to Chinese government statistics, Xinjiang courts sentenced 99,326 people in 2017 and 133,198 in 2018. The authorities have not released sentencing statistics for 2019.

The Xinjiang Victims Database – a nongovernmental organization that has documented the cases of over 8,000 detainees based on family accounts and official documents – estimates that the number of people sentenced in 2019 may be comparable to those in the previous two years. Of the 178 cases whose year of sentencing is known, the number of people sentenced in 2019 is roughly the average of those of 2017 and 2018.

Click to expand Image Source: Xinjiang Victims Database

A comparable official sentencing figure could mean that tens of thousands more people were sentenced in Xinjiang in 2019.

Another change in 2017 was the dramatic increase in the number of those given lengthy sentences, also according to government statistics. Prior to 2017, sentences of over five years in prison were about 10.8 percent of the total number of people sentenced. In 2017, they make up 87 percent of the sentences.

Click to expand Image Source: Xinjiang Regional Yearbooks

Similarly, the dataset from the Xinjiang Victims Database shows that among the 312 individuals whose prison terms are known, people are being imprisoned for, on average, 12.5 years during the Strike Hard Campaign. That figure excludes six people who have been given life sentences.

Arbitrary Imprisonments Under the Strike Hard Campaign

One case that vividly illustrates the arbitrary nature of Xinjiang’s mass imprisonment of Muslims is that of Jin Huaide, a Hui Muslim sentenced to life imprisonment for “splittism” in Changji Prefecture in September 2018. In a verdict obtained by Human Rights Watch, the Changji Intermediate People’s Court convicted Jin, 47, for “repeatedly and illegally” organizing trips abroad to study the Quran, inviting religious figures from countries including Bangladesh and Kyrgyzstan to Xinjiang, and holding religious meetings in the region between 2006 and 2014. The authorities accused Jin of encouraging others to take part in Tablighi Jamaat, a kind of transnational movement of Islamic proselytization.

There is no publicly available evidence that Jin’s activities constituted a recognizable criminal offense. Yet the court determined that his activities had “promoted the infiltration of foreign religious forces in China,” “strengthened the idea that Islam will unite the world, ultimately to establish a caliphate,” and thus “endangered the country.”

Jin was sentenced to seven years for “gathering crowds to disturb social order” in 2015 for these same behaviors, but the procuratorate challenged the verdict in 2017 and asked for a heavier sentence, resulting in a retrial that resulted in a life sentence. Prior to this sentence, in 2009, Jin had been imprisoned for 18 months for teaching the Quran to over two dozen Hui and Uyghur children.  

Aside from Jin Huaide’s case, the Xinjiang Victims Database found six others, some provided by families:

Nebijan Ghoja Ehmet, an ethnic Uyghur, was convicted of “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination” for telling others “what is haram and halal” (prohibited and permissible in Islam) and sentenced to 10 years in prison; Huang Shike, Hui, was convicted of “illegal use of the internet” for explaining the Quran to others in two WeChat groups and sentenced to two years in prison; Asqar Azatbek, Kazakh, was convicted of “spying and fraud” for showing a visiting Kazakh official around hydraulic projects near the Kazakh-Chinese border and sentenced to 20 years in prison; Nie Shigang, Hui, was originally convicted of “assisting in terrorist activities” and “money laundering” for helping over 100 Uyghurs transfer money to their relatives in Egypt – funds authorities said were used for terrorist activities – and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Upon appeal, however, the court ruled that Nie was not guilty of “assisting in terrorist activities” and reduced his sentence to five years for “money laundering;” Nurlan Pioner, Kazakh, was convicted of “disturbing public order and extremism” for educating over 70 people in religion, and sentenced to 17 years in prison; Serikzhan Adilhan, Kazakh, was convicted of running an “illegal business” for selling cigarettes worth 174,600 RMB (US$27,000) without a license and sentenced to 3 and a half years. The verdict of Serikzhan Adilhan is the only one of the seven available verdicts that is posted on China’s official database of court verdicts.

Other available information concerning 51 cases, including the indictments, incarceration notices, leaked official documents, and official communications with families indicate that most of the Uyghur and Kazakh individuals in these cases have been imprisoned for vague and overbroad offenses such as “inciting ethnic hatred,” “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and for watching or listening to “extremist” content.

One such document, an indictment detaining the case of four Uyghur family members, illustrates the Chinese government’s perilously over-expansive use of the terms “terrorism” and “extremism.” The four were indicted in January 2019 for travelling to Turkey in 2013 and 2014 to visit another family member. Chinese authorities claimed that the man in Turkey, a university lecturer named Erkin Emet, belongs to a terrorist organization, and that the money (US$2,500) and gifts his family gave him – including a dutar, a traditional musical instrument, a gold ring, and basic necessities – were evidence of them “assisting terrorism.” These four, along with another sibling of Emet, were given sentences of 11 to 23 years, according to Emet, who in 2019 learned about their conviction.

These verdicts and the additional case information suggest that the courts in Xinjiang have convicted and imprisoned many people who had not committed a genuine offense.  

No Due Process Under Strike Hard Campaign

Xinjiang’s Strike Hard Campaign targets the “ideological virus” of Turkic Muslims, religious and political ideas that do not conform to those prescribed by the state, such as pan-Islamism. It involves mass surveillance and political indoctrination of the entire population. The authorities evaluate people’s thoughts, behavior, and relationships based on bogus and broad criteria – such as whether they have families abroad –  to determine their course of “correction.” Those whose transgressions the authorities consider light are held in political education camps or under other forms of movement restrictions, including house arrest. Past government practice suggests that more serious cases are processed in the formal criminal justice system.

The Strike Hard Campaign is typical of Chinese authorities’ periodic and politicized “anti-crime” initiatives. The authorities pressure the police, procuratorate, and courts to cooperate to deliver swift and harsh punishment, leading to summary trials, the processing of large number of cases in a short time, and a suspension of basic procedural rights under Chinese law.

Similar dynamics appear to characterize Xinjiang’s Strike Hard Campaign. News reports describe crushing work pressure on Xinjiang officials, including those in the criminal justice system. One describes police officers, procurators, and judges not having time to eat or sleep, and holidays being suspended. Human Rights Watch in 2018 interviewed people held in Xinjiang’s formal detention centers between 2016 and 2018 who said that they and fellow detainees were tortured to confess crimes and deprived of access to lawyers. Radio Free Asia has reported that people are being sentenced with perfunctory and closed trials that families cannot attend.

International pressure may have contributed to the Chinese government releasing some detainees from “political education” camps. The government, which has denied mass arbitrary detentions in Xinjiang, has asserted that it governs the region according to the “rule of law.” But many people have been forcibly disappeared, detained or imprisoned with their families not informed of their whereabouts. Those released are subjected to continued surveillance, control of their movements, and some to forced labor.

“International pressure on the Chinese government should be escalated for an independent investigation in Xinjiang,” Wang said. “That’s the best hope for the release of all those unjustly detained or imprisoned.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 24, 2021, 8:18 pm
Click to expand Image A police officer stands in front of anti-coup protesters in Yangon, Myanmar, February 19, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo

(New York) – The United Nations Security Council should urgently impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar in response to the military coup and to deter the junta from committing further abuses, 137 nongovernmental groups from 31 countries said today in an open letter to council members. Governments that permit arms transfers to Myanmar – including China, India, Israel, North Korea, the Philippines, Russia, and Ukraine – should immediately stop the supply of any weapons, munitions, and related equipment.

February 24, 2021 Joint Call for a Global Arms Embargo on Myanmar

An Open Letter to the UN Security Council and Individual UN Member States

Since the February 1, 2021 coup, the Myanmar military has detained civilian leaders, nullified the November 2020 election results, and installed a junta, the State Administration Council, under a manufactured “state of emergency.” In the ensuing weeks, Myanmar security forces have used excessive and at times lethal force against demonstrators; arbitrarily detained activists, students, and civil servants; and imposed rolling internet shutdowns that put lives at risk.

“Given the mass atrocities against the Rohingya, decades of war crimes, and the overthrow of the elected government, the least the UN Security Council can do is impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Supplying any equipment to the military enables further abuses and bolsters the junta’s ability to repress Myanmar’s people.”

The groups’ call reinforces UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s vow to “do everything we can to mobilize all the key actors and international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure that this coup fails.” The UN special rapporteur on Myanmar has called for a global arms embargo, while he and the deputy high commissioner for human rights have voiced support for targeted UN sanctions.

Security Council members should draft a resolution that bars the direct and indirect supply, sale, or transfer to the junta of all weapons, munitions, and other military-related equipment, including dual-use goods such as vehicles and communications and surveillance equipment, as well as barring the provision of training, intelligence, and other military assistance, the groups said. This should be accompanied by a robust monitoring and enforcement mechanism, including close scrutiny of sales to third parties that may be likely to resell such items to Myanmar.

Such sales violate international humanitarian and human rights law, which prohibit the transfer of weapons to a state where there is a clear risk of their being used to commit or facilitate serious violations.

The Security Council should also impose targeted sanctions, global travel bans, and asset freezes on the leadership of the junta and military-owned conglomerates.

Millions of people have taken part in anti-coup protests across the country, calling for the realization of their right to democratically elect their leaders. On February 16, protesters outside UN offices in Yangon called for increased international support. “We are happy the UN issues statements of condemnation, but we understand they are powerful and can do more,” Thurein, a 21-year-old student, told Frontier Myanmar.

The junta has deployed security forces, including the notoriously abusive Light Infantry Divisions, to crack down on demonstrators with teargas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and live ammunition, killing at least three people. Such violence perpetuates the security forces’ longstanding history of abuses against peaceful critics, as well as against the Rohingya and other ethnic minority groups. The commander-in-chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and several junta officials are directly implicated in crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, and Chin States.

Until the Security Council acts, individual UN member states should adopt measures at the national and regional levels to block sales and other transfers of weapons and materiel to Myanmar, with the goal of extending an arms embargo to as close to a global scale as possible. Countries with existing arms embargoes on Myanmar, including the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and European Union member countries, should urge governments around the world to institute bilateral embargoes in the interest of building a broad coalition to oppose the flow of weapons to Myanmar. Governments should also strengthen monitoring and enforcement processes for existing embargoes, while ensuring the Myanmar military is barred from procuring dual-use goods and technologies.

For decades, the Security Council has failed to take adequate steps to respond to widespread violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Myanmar. China and Russia have repeatedly vetoed or threatened to veto resolutions, blocking collective action. Despite this disunity, council members put out a collective statement in early February calling for the release of all those arbitrarily detained and the protection of the country’s democratic institutions. Members should build on that newfound consensus by urging China and Russia to support an arms embargo resolution that would ground a global effort to shield the people of Myanmar from a return to autocratic rule, the groups said.

“Cutting off the military’s access to arms, hardware, technology, and training would tell Myanmar’s junta and those who profit off it that there are real consequences for their crimes,” Roth said. “It would also signal to the millions of people marching in the streets, risking everything for democracy and freedom, that they are not alone in this struggle.”


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 24, 2021, 1:00 pm
Click to expand Image Ali Naseer Alawy, after armed masked men beat him and used an acid mixture to try to remove a tattoo on his arm. © 2021 Private

(Beirut) – On February 15, Iraqi authorities detained at least four men, with alleged ties to a unit within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or Hashad, formally under the control of the prime minister) who are alleged to have killed at least four protesters in the southern city of Basra in January 2020. One of the detained men holds a senior police position. These arrests represent an important step in government efforts to fulfill its promise to hold accountable those who have abused or killed protesters, but authorities should take swift action to carry out further arrests of abusive forces where there is evidence that they are linked to recent attacks, Human Rights Watch said today.

“These arrests in Basra may represent a real change in the government’s willingness to hold its own forces accountable for perpetrating serious crimes and will help deter such abuses in the future,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should also ensure that the trials of the men are fair and devoid of any political influence.”

Protests broke out in south and central Iraq in October 2019, with violence and excessive force killing at least 487 protesters and wounding thousands more. At the same time, a range of armed forces targeted protesters with harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and enforced disappearances. In May 2020, then-newly appointed Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced the creation of a committee to investigate killings and other attacks on protesters but until now no information has been made public about the work or findings of the committee.

On February 15, al-Kadhimi announced on Twitter that “The death squad that terrorized our people in Basra, and killed innocents, are now in the hands of our heroic forces, on their way to a fair trial.” On the same day, a local media outlet publicized the names of four men detained for their alleged role in this death squad linked to the PMF Hezbollah Brigades with potential ties to another PMF unit as well. According to other media coverage, authorities arrested them for their roles in the killings of Jinan Madi, a paramedic who had been treating wounded protesters at demonstrations when she was killed, Ahmed Abdessamad, 37, a journalist, and his cameraman Safaa Ghali, 26, who had been covering the protests for Dijlah, a privately owned local station, and Mojtaba Ahmed al-Skini, 14, a protester. A source close to the government said that authorities had identified 16 men implicated in the killings, but most had already fled the country.

Given extensive documentation of the unfair nature of Iraq’s criminal justice system, which often relies solely on confessions to convict, the government and judicial authorities need to preserve the credibility of measures to rein in abusive security forces by ensuring that these trials are fair, Human Rights Watch said.

While the Basra arrests mark a positive step when it comes to accountability, PMF attacks on protesters have continued. Ali Naseer Alawy, 25, a prominent member of the protest movement in Najaf, told Human Rights Watch that on February 12, four armed masked men in black uniforms picked him up off the street within view of a police patrol, which did not intervene, at around 6:30 p.m. He said they put him into a white pickup truck with no license plate and drove him to an office where they blindfolded him and started beating his back and legs with the butts of their guns. He said,

I could tell there were many men in the room who were asking me all sorts of questions about other activists’ names and who was leading the protests in Najaf. They saw I had tattooed October 25, the first day of protests in Najaf, on my arm and they tried to remove it with an acid mixture. They also attached electric cables to me and shocked my chest and legs before I fainted.

Alawy said that when he regained consciousness, he found himself lying on a highway outside the city near his house. It was about 1 a.m. He went to the hospital where he spoke to police but said that because he did not know who the kidnappers were, there was no point in filing a complaint. He said he believes that they must wield power since nearby police had done nothing to intervene in his abduction. He shared two photographs with Human Rights Watch that show bruising and blood on his face and scarring on his shoulder and back around his tattoo. Alawy is currently in hiding and said he still receives threatening messages on Facebook.

In addition, there has been no accountability for other killings of protesters in Basra since 2019, despite the government’s commitments. For example, on October 3, 2019, Hussein Adel Madani was shot dead along with his wife by masked gunmen who stormed their house. The couples were taking part in ongoing protest. On August 14, 2020 two masked armed men in civilian dress shot and killed activist Tahseen Osama Ali, 30, in his apartment. On August 19, 2020, Reham Yacoub, a doctor and activist in the local protest movement since 2018, was shot by an unidentifiable armed man on the back of a motorcycle. As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, the authorities have yet to arrest any suspects of these killings.

“The government can prove there has been meaningful change only when protesters no longer fear getting hauled off the streets in broad daylight and held and tortured with impunity,” said Wille.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: February 24, 2021, 5:00 am