Click to expand Image Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva participates in a panel discussion on post Covid-19 recovery and resilience during the 2020 Annual Meetings at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC, October 13, 2020.   © 2020 IMF Photo/ Cory Hancock

This was a year like no other for the International Monetary Fund (IMF)-World Bank Annual Meetings, which took place virtually earlier this month. A crush of panels, briefings, and townhalls painted a searing picture of the havoc the Covid-19 pandemic has wrecked on the global economy: Poverty is rising for the first time in decades and inequality is climbing. But even as the virus continues to leave a trail of death and disruption, many governments are ending support for millions now facing hunger or eviction.

Listening to IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva offering her now-familiar vision for turning this crisis into an opportunity for building more resilient and equitable economies gave me both hope and despair.

Georgieva repeatedly exhorted governments to continue to support workers, especially in the informal sector, even after the economy slowly begins to recover. Invest in health care, education, and green technology. Modernize tax codes, including closing tax loopholes that benefit the rich, consider a wealth tax, prioritize taxing capital over labor, and consider a carbon tax. Govern transparently and fight corruption.

But hope for this vision is dimmed by the reality of IMF programs, which continue to condition loans on governments achieving fiscal consolidation targets that all but force them to impose austerity measures, which hurt the poor and fuel inequality. What faith can we have that the IMF will insist governments fill budget gaps by taxing the rich when it continues to push value-added taxes – a regressive tax that hits people with low incomes particularly hard?

With many countries still living the painful consequences of the IMF’s mistakes during the 2008 recession, it’s  encouraging to hear Georgieva offer an alternative vision. But hope will turn to despair without global support within the IMF – especially the United States and Europe – to turn rhetoric into reality.

IMF policy and programs are developed through a complicated process and require the approval of an Executive Board whose distribution of power heavily privileges Western countries. Together, the US and European countries are a few points shy of holding half the voting power, while 23 African countries share a single executive director who wields a mere 3 percent share.

If this is truly to be, in Georgieva’s words, a “new Bretton Woods moment,” it will require the commitment of the entire institution, as well as the governments who wield outsize power on its board. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 24, 2020, 11:00 am
Click to expand Image Tens of thousands of people rallied in central Moscow Russia, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, for the third consecutive weekend to protest the exclusion of opposition and independent candidates from the Russian capital's city council ballot. © 2019 AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

(Moscow) – Prosecutors have ordered a university in Moscow to submit detailed information on students and faculty who participated in mass protests and had contacts with foreign groups, Human Rights Watch said today. The order is part of an inspection of the university by a local prosecutor’s office.

The inspection comes a year after mass protests in Moscow attracted thousands of students and other younger people. It seems aimed at intimidating students and faculty, limiting free speech and academic freedom, and falsely portraying critics and protesters as linked to foreign influence.

“Demanding information on politically active students and lecturers appears to be yet another attempt by Russian authorities to stifle activism and academic freedom” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This kind of inspection cannot but send a chilling signal to people in academia who have dissenting views that they could be driven out for political activism.”

On October 16, a trade union of higher education workers published an instruction issued by the rector of the university, the Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, directing its officials to gather information required by the prosecutor’s office for the inspection. Attached to the instruction is a letter from the prosecutor’s office, dated October 4, notifying the rector about the inspection, listing the required information, and setting an October 18 deadline for responding.

The local prosecutor’s notification states that inspections of academic institutions’ compliance with Russian law are conducted at the request of the Moscow City Prosecutor Office. The BBC reported that the Academy declined to comment on the instruction and that at least one other university had said that it had not received such a request.

The first part of the inspection notice requests generic information about state accreditation, licenses, and general compliance with the Law on Education and the labor law.

The language in the second part of the notice, and the types of data it requires, make clear that one aim of the inspection is to uncover “destructive” foreign influence on Russia’s younger generation. It singles out the need to report on, among other things, “pro-American groups of influence that can be used by international NGOs trying to achieve their destructive goals,” the “falsification of global and Russian history to achieve the geopolitical interests of ani-Russian forces,” and the “destruction of Russian traditional spiritual and moral values.”

The notification requires the Academy to provide a list of all of its international projects or programs funded from abroad and to explain how they comply with Russian law, joint programs with foreign nongovernmental groups, and any activities within the university by groups deemed “undesirable” in Russia or threatening state security and “the foundations of Russia’s constitutional order.” The latter includes training election observers, monitoring elections, “ideological propaganda” such as promoting “American and European democratic and liberal values,” and meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs by, for example, monitoring government practices, publishing findings, and proposing recommendations for improvements.

For years, Russian authorities have used the pretext of protecting the state from foreign influence to demonize, intimidate, and shut down nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and activists who criticize or seek change in government policies.

The Kremlin’s efforts to marginalize critics crystallized with the 2012 “foreign agents” law, requiring Russian organizations that accept foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” a term that is widely understood in Russia to mean spy or traitor. Challenges from at least 66 groups against this law are pending before the European Court of Human Rights. The 2015 law on “undesirable” foreign organizations” banned the activities of foreign or international NGOs deemed to be undermining state security, national defense, or the constitutional order and set out administrative and criminal penalties for Russian citizens who cooperate with them.

The prosecutor’s office also required the Academy to submit information about students who participate in unauthorized mass protests, about protest organizers, whether protesters were paid, and whether they had previously taken part in international exchange programs. It demanded data on events that develop “civil protest skills,” such as organizing mass public gatherings or legal defense in case of detention during a protest.

In summer 2019, numerous unauthorized but peaceful protests took place in Moscow, triggered by the exclusion of independent candidates from the city legislature’s elections. The authorities responded with force and harassment through abuse of the legal system, prosecuting dozens of people.

Many students from Moscow universities joined the protests, and some faced administrative and criminal charges. Some universities threatened to expel student protesters. An official with the Higher School of Economics, one of Russia’s leading universities, initially supported students’ right to peacefully protest during summer 2019. But in January 2020, the university introduced restrictions on students’ political activism on campus in an effort to distance itself from such activities.

Although the notice states that the inspection is based on Russian laws on education, the purpose is to require universities to monitor the peaceful and lawful activism of faculty and students with dissenting views, which goes beyond the main goals of an educational organization, Human Rights Watch said.

“The prosecutor’s order frames peaceful activism as something that is destructive and that should be monitored and rooted out,” Williamson said. “This is a blatant violation of the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and assembly and fosters an atmosphere that jeopardizes academic freedom. The authorities should ensure that students and faculty can openly express their opinions without fear of reprisal.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 23, 2020, 5:00 pm
Click to expand Image © RuslanDashinsky/Getty Images

(Washington, DC) – Many plans by local, state, and federal authorities in the United States to respond to heat extremes and climate change miss the threat that extreme heat poses to pregnancy, particularly for low-income and Black and brown people, Human Rights Watch and partners said today. Authorities should promote racial and reproductive justice and address stark racial disparities in health outcomes.

“We reviewed more than 100 heat and climate change adaptation plans or associated documents but found only a couple of references to pregnancy,” said Skye Wheeler, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Pregnant people, and especially Black and brown people, need to be at the table as we tackle the multiple harms to health from increasing heat.”

A Better Balance, the Black Women’s Health Imperative, Human Rights Watch, the National Birth Equity Collaborative, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice-Florida released today a fact sheet, “Increasing Temperatures because of the Climate Change Crisis is a Reproductive Justice Issue in the United States.” Reproductive Justice is a global movement created by Black women’s rights activists in the US. It seeks to ensure the human right to legal and equitable access to comprehensive, high quality reproductive health services, and a healthy and safe environment for all women during pregnancy and while raising children.

Fact Sheet: Increasing Temperatures because of the Climate Change Crisis is a Reproductive Justice Issue in the United States Fact Sheet: Increasing Temperatures because of the Climate Change Crisis is a Reproductive Justice Issue in the United States


Human Rights Watch reviewed 105 official heat safety web pages, climate action plans, heat plans, heat advisories, disaster plans, and sustainability initiatives for 18 large US cities, including the 15 most populous, with a total of 32 million people. As of August 2020, only two of these documents, from Chicago and Philadelphia, explicitly addressed the danger heat poses during pregnancy. Since the review was conducted, Human Rights Watch has seen that New York City has also included this group in a list of vulnerable populations. Concerns about the dangers of heat for pets were found 37 times.

A Buzzfeed article from August also found that out of 25 US cities, only Chicago and Philadelphia mentioned pregnancy in public heat guidelines.

Heat-related illnesses range from heat rashes and cramps to heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which is a medical emergency and can be fatal or cause permanent disability. Every year, more people die in the US from heat than from any other weather-related cause, and the number of heat-related deaths is increasing. Heat stress threatens health during pregnancy and fetal health exposure to high temperatures results in higher rates of premature birth as well as other adverse birth outcomes.

Because of systemic racism, Black women and other women of color in the US face dramatically worse pregnancy health and birth outcomes than white women. Some studies suggest that Black pregnant women may be especially vulnerable to the emerging threat of heat. Women of color and low-income women may also face more hours of dangerous heat, because they work in hot conditions – for example about one-fifth of US farmworkers are women – or because they live in parts of cities with less green space and higher average temperatures.

The 2020 summer was hotter than usual, a trend that is expected to continue, although some parts of the US have had bigger heat increases than others in the past decades. Predictions for extreme increases in heat by the end of the century can only be mitigated by rapid action to cut carbon emitted into the atmosphere. Regardless, temperatures are set to rise significantly in much of the US because of increased carbon, already present because of past emissions.

City studies of local dangers of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, flooding, or heat waves, and local climate change action plans did often note, correctly, that the impact of climate change varies greatly between individuals and communities. Many said that older people, people with pre-existing conditions such as heart and respiratory disease, as well as athletes and children, are especially vulnerable to illness and death from extreme heat.

Some plans or warnings cited outdoor workers as an at-risk group. There is no federal heat standard protecting US workers from extreme heat, although laws protecting access to cooling or water, shade, and rest in at least some circumstances are in place in California, Minnesota, and Washington states. An incomplete but increasing number of states provide accommodations for pregnant workers such as additional water breaks. In September 2020, the US House of Representatives passed a federal bill, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, that would provide explicit protections nationally, though it remains pending in the Senate.

Some climate change or heat plans reviewed discussed how low-income communities, communities with less access to air conditioning, or communities of color are more likely to be hit harder by heat or other extreme weather. Most did not include recommendations to address racial inequities and racism as part of the response to the climate crisis, although some did. Scholars, climate activists, and public health officials have cited these inequities and said that local plans addressing climate change should be as inclusive as possible.

A 2020 study estimated that there may have been 12,000 heat-related deaths a year during the last decade in the contiguous US and warned that the number could increase to 110,000 a year under high-emission “business-as-usual” scenarios by the year 2100. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not published complete data on heat-related deaths over the last decade; from 1999 to 2010 it recorded around 618 heat-related deaths every year. But because the recorded cause of death is often another health event, such as a heart attack, this is an underestimation.

Many studies show that heat exposure is linked to premature birth and others also link exposure to heat to low birth weight, birth defects, and stillbirth. Several reviews of studies warn that more needs to be done to address these findings, especially given predictions of hotter days and nights as well as acute heat wave periods. Premature birth is a leading cause of infant death and linked to higher rates of lifelong intellectual and physical health problems. Premature birth can also create a heavy financial and emotional toll on families.

The rates of premature births in the US grew for a fifth year in a row in 2019. The CDC says that Black women’s pregnancies end in premature birth 50 percent more often than those of white women. Low birth weight is also twice as common among babies born to Black women, and stillbirth is more than twice as common for Black women as for white women. The March of Dimes, which fights premature birth in the US, provides analysis that shows that Hispanic and Native American women also have worse birth outcomes than white women.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has explicitly called for including pregnancy when “prioritiz(ing) the most vulnerable” to climate change. The US government should increase funding for efforts addressing the impact of climate change on human health. Cities, states, and Native American tribes should also ensure that their programming to prepare for climate impacts on human health includes pregnancy health and addresses reproductive injustice because of racism and poverty.

The US Congress should pass federal heat protection for all workers, for example through passing the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, and the Senate should pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act so that pregnant workers have an explicit right to accommodations, including to prevent heat-related illnesses during pregnancy. States should ensure that workers have and know about workplace protections for pregnancy already in place, including accommodations.

“The effects of climate change and extreme heat on pregnant people are a matter of racial, gender, and economic justice and cannot be ignored,” said Sarah Brafman, senior policy counsel and director of the DC office at A Better Balance. “One key step our lawmakers need to take is to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to ensure that pregnant people – especially low-income women and women of color who are too often exposed to higher rates of extreme heat – are able to seek accommodations so they don't have to choose between their paycheck and their health by continuing to work in dangerously hot environments.”

Climate change impacts on health should be included in medical education. Doctors, midwives, and community birth workers can provide information about the importance of hydration and keeping cool during pregnancy. Doctors should ask pregnant patients about their work and exposure to heat and, where appropriate, provide letters to employers to help workers access reasonable workplace accommodations.

Cities and other US jurisdictions should revise their plans and websites before the next heating season to include pregnancy and to address the special needs in communities of color, Human Rights Watch and its partner groups said.

“Black women experience higher rates of premature birth and negative birth outcomes, which affect their and their children's chances for a healthy life,” said Kelly Davis, Chief Equity Officer at the National Birth Equity Collaborative. “Climate change impacts, including heat, remains a challenge for Black people, along with other marginalized and minority groups, for achieving healthy pregnancies and supportive parenting environments. The movement to combat climate change must include addressing structural racism and gender oppression in service of birth equity.”

For more information on the health impacts of increasing heat and reproductive justice, please see below.

 

No Federal Action Plan on Climate Change, Health Impact
The National Climate Assessment, written by the US Global Change Research Program, a body mandated by the US Congress to summarize current and future impacts of climate change on the US, has, together with many scientists and advocates, warned over the past 20 years of extensive negative health impacts from climate change, including increases in heat-related illness and deaths.

The US has struggled with increasing numbers of extreme weather events over the past decade including heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires and massive flooding that have devastated communities and, between 2007 and 2017 alone, cost the US government $350 billion. Weather-related disasters have cost the US over $46 billion so far in 2020 alone.

Despite this, the US government has no federal plan to address the climate crisis or its detrimental impact on human health. Under the administration of President Donald Trump the United States has reversed course on reducing carbon emissions. Trump canceled his predecessor’s climate action plan and pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

But President Barack Obama’s plan was also not ambitious enough in reducing emissions and contained little on the health impact of climate change. Funding for the federal flagship climate change and health program “Building Resilience Against Climate Effects” (BRACE), allows for little more than providing advice and modest grants for a total of 18 tribes and states to address some climate impacts. The program received about $10 million for 2019.

Pregnancy Information in Government Heat Plans
Many cities, counties, and states in the US have begun to independently plan for and take action on climate change. Heat awareness efforts have understandably largely focused on reducing mortality and heat-related illnesses. This approach risks authorities missing the hidden costs of heat such as adverse birth outcomes, increases in violence during periods of hotter weather, mental health impacts, and reductions in productivity and educational achievements.

BRACE and academic experts on the relationship of heat to health have urged authorities to assess how heat affects different populations and to recognize that some are much more vulnerable than others. One guiding document by BRACE provides a strong emphasis and substantial supporting research on the importance of including racial inequities in addressing heat illness and other impacts.

Although information on the added vulnerability to heat illness during pregnancy and the link between heat and adverse birth outcomes have been available for years, only two cities included in the Human Rights Watch analysis included this in their planning or analysis. The Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications recommends that during pregnancy people should “avoid extreme heat, stay well hydrated and follow advice of their medical providers.” Philadelphia’s page on heat safety includes pregnant women as a vulnerable population. Since the review was conducted, Human Rights Watch has seen that New York City has also included this group, noting on one webpage: “[p]regnant people are sensitive to heat. An increase in body temperature may bring on labor, preterm birth or lower birth weight. Those who are pregnant should stay in a cool place, drink fluids and take it easy when it’s hot.”

The CDC and the EPA have acknowledged pregnant people as an at-risk population in their “Extreme Heat Guidebook.” The National Climate Assessment 4 (2018) included studies on heat and preterm birth and included pregnant people as an at-risk group. The US Global Change Research Program also noted that climate-related exposures “may lead to adverse pregnancy and newborn health outcomes, including spontaneous abortion, low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds), preterm birth (birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy), [and] increased neonatal death.”

State-level climate change planning documents from North Carolina, New York, and Oregon have noted that pregnancy presents additional vulnerability as well as the link to preterm birth and other adverse birth outcomes.

Although the impact of heat on pregnancy health may be acknowledged elsewhere, front-facing heat public education webpages for the CDC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency do not include pregnant people as an at-risk group. Communication efforts should include pregnancy vulnerabilities, including through a reproductive and racial justice lens.

Heat and Pregnancy Health
For hormonal and other reasons, such as their increased size and smaller skin-to-volume ratio, during pregnancy people are less able to regulate their body temperature and are more vulnerable to heat stress. The additional vulnerability to heat has been noted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH, a government research and education agency) says:

If your job causes your body temperature to become higher than 39°C (102.2°F), you may suffer from heat exhaustion, heat stroke, or dehydration, which are not good for either you or your developing baby. If you are pregnant, you are more likely to get heat exhaustion or heat stroke sooner than a nonpregnant worker. This is because your body must work harder to cool down both your body and your unborn baby. If you are pregnant, you are also more likely to become dehydrated. This also means you won’t be able to cool yourself as well by sweating. ... Exposure to excess heat at work could increase your chances of having baby with a birth defect or other reproductive problems.

A 2020 review paper of academic peer-reviewed studies in the US found that “five out of five studies on heat and preterm birth found an effect, and three out of three studies on heat and low birth weight found an effect.” Increased risk of preterm birth because of high temperature exposures “range(d) … from 8.6 percent to 21.0 percent.” Two reports “found an association of racial/ethnic disparity and heat exposure with an increasing risk of preterm birth; higher risk was found among black mothers.” Another study on pregnancy health and heat found that pregnant Black women had more hospitalizations due to heat exposure during their pregnancy than other women.

One 2017 review of 28 peer-reviewed papers on heat and adverse birth outcomes found: “There is evidence that temperature extremes adversely impact birth outcomes, including, but not limited to: changes in length of gestation, birth weight, stillbirth, and neonatal stress in unusually hot temperature exposures.” Findings from another review of 15 studies, also published in 2017, “confirm the crucial importance of the adverse health effects of climate change especially in the perinatal period.”

Heat has other impacts on pregnancy health. Another important effect is that warming temperatures increase the formation of ground-level ozone, which can cause respiratory illness in pregnant women and can lead to low birth weight or preterm birth. Forest fires, like those in California in recent years, also worsen air quality and release large amounts of fine particulate matter, PM 2.5, a toxic pollutant in smoke that is linked to poor pregnancy outcomes.

Heat and Inequity
Activists and scholars examining racial and environmental justice in the US are increasingly recognizing the negative health effects of heat exposure, and have noted, in a CDC report for example, that “many pathways that modify vulnerability to extreme heat vary by race and ethnicity.”

A study published in 2020 found that areas formerly subjected to redlining – a racist housing policy banned in 1968 that made Black and other minority neighborhoods less valuable, leading to further marginalization – in 108 urban areas across the US are still mostly – 94 percent – hotter than non-redlined areas, by as much as 7 degrees Celsius. An investigation by the National Public Radio service found a strong correlation between poverty, often in communities of color, and heat in cities.

One study of 234,042 adult deaths during warm periods between 2000 and 2011 in New York City found that “deaths during heat waves were more likely to occur in black individuals than other race/ethnicity.” A study of Portland, Oregon, found “groups with limited adaptive capacity, including those in poverty and non-white populations, are at higher risk for heat exposure” noting that “climate change is catalyst for injustice.”

Air conditioning protects against heat, but is unequally distributed. In one study, for example, prevalence of central air conditioning among Black households was less than half that among white households in Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Pittsburgh, and deaths among Black people were more strongly associated with hot temperatures. Energy burdens – the proportion of family income spent on energy bills – are higher for minority groups in the US and when money is tight families may not be able to use air conditioning.

As temperatures increase, heat exposure is also increasingly an issue of concern to labor unions and others working to protect the rights and health of outdoor workers – for example construction workers, farmworkers and airport workers, and people working in hot indoor sites such as some warehouses. The nongovernmental organization Public Citizen estimated that in July 2017, over 1.1 million outdoor workers labored in dangerous heat each working day, including 265,000 agriculture workers. A study in Florida found that pregnant farmworkers found it difficult to access health services that included information about occupational health, including exposure to heat.

While government health agencies advise workers to take “plenty of breaks” in cool or air-conditioned areas, this may not be possible for pregnant farmworkers, and especially women who need to earn money before their baby is born and have no paid parental leave.

A national heat standard, which would protect outdoor workers by mandating water, rest, shade, and other protections, has long been needed. NIOSH issued criteria for a heat standard in 1972 and then updated it in 1986 and 2016.

However, the Occupational Safety and Health Agency, which is responsible for work safety and rules and regulations, has never issued a heat standard. It has only the vague and hard-to-enforce general duty clause (of the Occupational Safety and Health Act) to punish employers for forcing people to work in health-threatening heat. Pregnancy accommodations, such as to be able to take more frequent water and cooling breaks, should be better protected, as envisaged in the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, Human Rights Watch and partners said.

Fact Sheet: Increasing Temperatures because of the Climate Change Crisis is a Reproductive Justice Issue in the United States Fact Sheet: Increasing Temperatures because of the Climate Change Crisis is a Reproductive Justice Issue in the United States
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 23, 2020, 12:00 pm
Click to expand Image A shop containing toilets, tiles and other housewares burns in Stepanakert on the night of October 3, 2020 after the city is shelled.  © 2020 Union of Informed Citizens.

Azerbaijan has repeatedly used widely banned cluster munitions in residential areas in Nagorno-Karabakh, Human Rights Watch said today. During an on-site investigation in Nagorno-Karabakh in October 2020, Human Rights Watch documented four incidents in which Azerbaijan used cluster munitions.

Fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia and the de-facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh dramatically escalated on September 27, 2020. Two humanitarian ceasefires brokered by members of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe have failed to halt the fighting. According to authorities from all parties, scores of civilians have been killed or injured in attacks in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan.

“The continued use of cluster munitions – particularly in populated areas – shows flagrant disregard for the safety of civilians,” said Stephen Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition. “Cluster munitions should never be used by anyone under any circumstances, much less in cities, due to the foreseeable and unacceptable harm to civilians.”

In the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, Human Rights Watch is investigating whether all sides of the conflict adhere to international humanitarian law, which requires armed forces to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and between military objects and civilian objects, at all times. As such, indiscriminate attacks are prohibited, including attacks which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific legitimate military target. Human Rights Watch has made repeated requests to the Azerbaijani government for access to conduct on-site investigations, but access has not yet been granted.

Human Rights Watch examined remnants of the rockets, impacts, and remnants of submunitions that exploded, as well as dud submunitions that failed to function at several locations in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s administrative center, which is called Khankendi in Azerbaijan. Human Rights Watch also examined photographs taken in the town of Hadrut of a rocket, impacts, and remnants of submunitions that exploded, and a dud submunition that failed to explode. Human Rights Watch also spoke to six people who witnessed the attacks. Azerbaijani officials have accused the Armenian side of using cluster munitions in this conflict, but Human Rights Watch has not independently verified those claims.

Residents of Stepanakert told Human Rights Watch that attacks using cluster munitions began on the morning of September 27 in a residential area no more than 200 meters from the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross.  

Click to expand Image © 2020 Planet Labs

A 69-year-old woman who was in her apartment on the fourth floor of a building next to where Human Rights Watch observed scores of the distinctive impacts of the M095 submunitions said the building began to shake around 7:15 a.m.: “The children started to scream and everyone was panicking when the bombs started coming down. We opened the windows and saw that the cars were burning. We saw that they had small pink things that were making them burn, so we ran down to the basement.”

She said that a number of submunitions did not explode and that people in the neighborhood covered them with sand from the children’s playground until emergency responders came the next day to secure and remove them. She said glass broken from the blasts injured a number of people in the neighborhood. Another resident told Human Rights Watch that dozens of vehicles were damaged.

On October 12, Human Rights Watch visited the site and, in addition to the distinctive impacts of the submunitions, Human Rights Watch observed several damaged and burned vehicles and numerous broken windows in nearby apartments and a shop located in the courtyard. However, the exact damage to the area done by the submunitions is unknown because another subsequent attack was carried out with a different munition in roughly the same location.

At least one more LAR-160 cluster munition rocket was fired roughly into the same area several hundred meters away. Human Rights Watch observed the remnants of a LAR-160 rocket, scores of the distinctive impacts of the M095 submunitions, the remnants of the pink-colored stabilization ribbons, and submunition fragments. Numerous buildings, private business, and markets had varying degrees of damage from the attack.

Click to expand Image The distinctive, ring-shaped, pre-formed fragments of an Israeli-made M095 submunition near a shop in Stepanakert.  © 2020 Human Rights Watch


Human Rights Watch spoke to one worker for a nongovernmental group who observed a fire in a shop following an attack in this second neighborhood when he visited the site at approximately 11:20 p.m. on October 3. Human Rights Watch also reviewed a photograph taken by this witness that, according to the photograph’s metadata, was captured on October 3 at 11:20 p.m. 

Click to expand Image Body of a LAR-160 series Israeli-made rocket in a residential neighborhood in Stepanakert. © 2020 Human Rights Watch


A video uploaded on the Telegram channel “Re:public of Artsakh” on October 4, captured another cluster munition rocket attack on Hakob Hakobyan Street in Stepanakert. Human Rights Watch spoke to two people who live on Hakob Hakobyan Street and witnessed the attack. One 55-year-old resident said that she was in her fourth-floor apartment during the attack. She said that some of the explosions occurred on the roof and ruptured the water pipes on the top of the building, causing water to run down from the upper floors. As a consequence, the water was shut off to the building.

Click to expand Image The distinctive pattern of a M095 dual-purpose submunition impact on the ground along with its pink-colored ribbon in Stepanakert near Karabakh Telecom’s main building.  © 2020 Human Rights Watch.


Rescue services were able to clear the submunitions from the top of the building after several days and access to water was restored but there has been no electricity in the building since the attack. An individual familiar with the electrical grid told Human Rights Watch that they were working to restore electricity in the area but could only provide electricity to basements and shelters for the time being.

Click to expand Image Damage to a private vehicle near Karabakh Telecom from an Israeli-made dual-purpose M095 submunition that produces a jet of molten metal intended to destroy vehicles and materiel.  © 2020 Human Rights Watch


Human Rights Watch was not able to identify any military equipment or bases in the three neighborhoods where the attacks took place. Even if there had been, given the indiscriminate effects of cluster munitions, their use in a residential civilian setting is not permitted under the laws of war.

Click to expand Image Workers attempt to repair damaged electrical lines in Stepanakert near the Karabakh Telecom building which is surrounding by residential buildings.  © 2020 Human Rights Watch


Human Rights Watch also examined 35 photographs and one video shared directly with Human Rights Watch from the town of Hadrut of a LAR-160 rocket and its fuse, impacts, and remnants of M095 submunitions that exploded, and dud submunitions that failed to explode in and around a home. According to the metadata of the media, they were recorded on October 3. Human Rights Watch verified the location of the video and photographs as taken in the town of Hadrut. On October 4, a video was uploaded on YouTube by the Armenian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that showed the same house and remnants.

Click to expand Image Remnant of an Israeli-made LAR-160 series rocket that struck a house in a residential area in the town of Hadrut.   © 2020 Union of Informed Citizens Click to expand Image A M136 R fuze associated with the Israeli-made LAR-160 series rocket found in a residential area in the town of Hadrut.  © 2020 Union of Informed Citizens.


Cluster munitions have been banned because of their widespread indiscriminate effect and long-lasting danger to civilians. Cluster munitions typically explode in the air and send dozens, even hundreds, of small bomblets over an area the size of a football field. Cluster submunitions often fail to explode on initial impact, leaving duds that act like landmines.

Click to expand Image Two unexploded Israeli-made M095 submunitions, one of which is armed, in a residential area in the town of Hadrut following an attack on the city.  © 2020 Union of Informed Citizens

The 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions comprehensively prohibits cluster munitions and requires their clearance as well as assistance to victims. Armenia and Azerbaijan are not among the treaty’s 110 states parties. Both say that they cannot accede to the treaty until the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is resolved. Both should take the necessary steps to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions without delay, Human Rights Watch said.

Regardless of specific treaty obligations, all parties to the conflict are bound by the Geneva Conventions and customary international law and must abide by the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, which requires armed forces to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and between military objects and civilian objects, at all times. It is also forbidden to carry out indiscriminate attacks or attacks that cause excessive civilian damage to the anticipated concrete military advantage.

“The repeated use of cluster munitions by Azerbaijan should cease immediately as their continued use serves to heighten the danger for civilians for years to come,” Goose said.

Additional information about cluster munitions attacks in Nagorno-Karabakh

Human Rights Watch identified the remnants of Israeli-produced LAR-160 series cluster munition rockets and unexploded M095 dual-purpose submunitions in Stepanakert and Hadrut. Each rocket carries 104 submunitions and each submunition is equipped with a self-destruct mechanism. Azerbaijan received these surface-to-surface rockets and launchers from Israel in 2008–2009. Neither Armenia, nor Nagorno-Karabakh de-facto authorities, are known to stockpile cluster munitions but they possess multi-barrel rocket launchers capable of delivering these weapons.

Human Rights Watch identified the Israeli-produced M095 dual-purpose submunition in each location. When this submunition detonates on impact, it produces lethal pre-formed metal fragments and a jet of molten metal intended to destroy vehicles and materiel. Human Rights Watch observed hundreds of the distinctive impacts of M095 submunitions as well as remnants of the pink-colored nylon stabilization ribbons in three neighborhoods in Stepanakert.

On October 13, Human Rights Watch visited the site where the witness saw and photographed the burning shop at 11:20 p.m. on October 3 and observed the same scorched building visible in the photograph and at least three pink stabilization ribbons a few meters away from the building as well as numerous distinctive impacts consistent with M095 submunitions. Human Rights Watch found remnants of a LAR-160 rocket 10 meters from the building and observed impacts to the roof of the building that were consistent with kinetic damage. According to available satellite imagery, the attack took place between September 27 and October 8. On October 8, the imagery shows damage to the building that is consistent with fire.

In the attack on Hakob Hakobyan Street, the distinctive auditory signature of at least three separate rockets dispersing payloads of submunitions, and their subsequent detonations can be heard in the video of the attack, believed to have been filmed by a vehicle’s dashcam. On October 12, Human Rights Watch visited the site where the video was taken and counted over 100 individual impacts on the same street. Human Rights Watch also observed scores of submunition impacts on immediately adjacent streets and on rooftops of office and residential buildings on several adjacent streets within a 100-meter radius. In a separate visit on October 13, Human Rights Watch found the remnants of a LAR-160 series rocket less than 100 meters from the location the video of the attack was taken. Human Rights Watch observed damage to power lines, children’s playgrounds, vehicles, businesses, homes, the main post office, and the Karabakh Telecom building.

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 23, 2020, 6:00 am
Click to expand Image A campaign poster showing environmental activists, Taher Ghadirian, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Houman Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Sepideh Kashani, Morad Tahbaz and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh.  © 2018 #anyhopefornature Campaign

(Beirut) – Iranian judiciary authorities are prosecuting human rights defenders for reporting abuse in detention, Human Rights Watch said today. Since September 2020, the authorities have brought charges against two imprisoned activists who had published letters alleging mistreatment.

On October 18, Emtedad online news channel reported that in the previous week, authorities had charged Niloufar Bayani, an environmental conservationist serving a 10-year sentence after an unfair trial, with “publishing false information.” In a separate case, the Human Rights Activists Agency (HRANA) reported that on October 11, the authorities charged an imprisoned student activist, Parisa Rafiee, with “propaganda against the state” after she published a letter about her detention conditions.

“Punishing people reporting mistreatment in Iranian detention facilities shows a warped sense of justice,” said Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The judiciary’s recent rhetoric on ‘transparency’ rings especially hollow if prosecutors silence alleged torture victims rather than impartially investigating their claims.”

In February, the BBC Persian website published a detailed account of the alleged mistreatment of Bayani by prison authorities based on her letters, including “1,200 hours of interrogations,” “long hours of interrogation while standing,” “threatening with a hallucinogenic injection,” and “sexual insults.”

On February 24, Iran’s presidential cabinet tasked Alireza Avayi, the justice minister, to investigate the allegations of torture and report back. More than nine months later, there has been no information about such an investigation.

In January 2018, the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization arrested Bayani and seven of her colleagues, all members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, a local conservation nonprofit group, on accusations of “using environmental projects as a cover for espionage.” On February 10, 2018, family members of Kavous Seyed Emami, one of those arrested, reported that he had died in detention under suspicious circumstances.

The environmentalists’ trial began in January 2019 but was halted multiple times. The defendants were not allowed to have access to a lawyer of their choice. Bayani had interrupted a trial session in February, saying that the defendants had been under psychological torture and were coerced into making false confessions.

On February 18, 2020, Gholamhossein Esmaili, Iran’s judiciary spokesman, confirmed at a news conference that a court of appeal had upheld sentences ranging from 6 to 10 years against seven of the group’s members for “cooperating with the hostile state of the US.” Esmaili said the court also upheld a 4-year sentence for Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, another member of the group, for “assembly and collusion to act against national security.” Authorities released Kouhpayeh in March.

The court upheld the 10-year sentences for Niloufar Bayani and Morad Tahbaz, two of the seven, and ordered them to return allegedly “illicit income.” The court ordered Bayani to return US$360,000 in “illicit funds;” authorities calculated this amount by multiplying Bayani’s last annual salary from the United Nations Environment Programme, where she worked prior to joining the wildlife group, by the six years she worked at the UN, a source told Human Rights Watch.

Over the past two years, several senior Iranian government officials have indicated that they did not find any evidence to suggest that the detained activists are spies. 

HRANA reported that the authorities arrested Rafiee, a student activist at the University of Tehran, on February 25, 2018 and released her on bail after 23 days. On August 26, 2018, Saeed Khalili, Rafiee’s lawyer, told the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) that branch 26 of Tehran’s revolutionary court had sentenced her to seven years in prison on charges of “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “disturbing public order.”

The lawyer said the charges were brought for activities such as participating in peaceful demonstrations on campus after dormitory curfew hours. In November 2019, Rafiee’s sentence was reduced to one year after a clemency order by Ayatollah Khamenei.

In a letter published on May 9, 2019, Rafiee wrote that she had been kept in solitary confinement for 21 days without knowing her location. She also wrote that her interrogator sent her for a virginity test, which she refused. But she said she was not allowed to file a complaint about this degrading treatment.

On June 7, 2020, the authorities arrested and transferred Rafiee to prison to serve her sentence. On August 19, HRANA reported that the prosecutor’s office at Evin prison had opened a new case against Rafiee, charging her with propaganda against the state because of the letter.

On October 15, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raeesi, the head of Iran’s judiciary, published a “document on judicial security” as part of the judiciary’s obligations under the country’s sixth development plan. Among other things, the document emphasizes several key human rights issues, including the prohibition on torture and arbitrary arrests and the right of access to a lawyer. The document also commits the judiciary to publishing final court opinions while respecting privacy rights.

“If the judiciary actually wants to curb ongoing abuse, it can start by quashing abusive charges against human rights defenders who are already unfairly behind bars, investigate their torture allegations, and hold those responsible to account,” Sepehri Far said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 23, 2020, 4:01 am
Click to expand Image Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh at an inauguration ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 9, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File

(New York) – Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh has ordered the arrest of the individual who reported civilian casualties from an Afghan government airstrike on October 22, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. The Afghan air force struck a mosque school in Takhar province, killing at least 12 children and wounding 18 other civilians, news agencies reported.

Afghan government forces were apparently targeting Taliban fighters when they hit the school at the mosque in Baharak district, Takhar. In response to early reports of the incident, Saleh denied on Twitter that any civilians had been killed, and said that “the person responsible for spread of this venomous & fake news was arrested immediately.” The identity of the person and whether that person was arrested is unclear. On Facebook he threatened legal action against those “who make false allegations.”

The Afghan government ordered an investigation into the incident. However, findings from investigations into other incidents of civilian casualties have not been made public and no one has been held accountable.

“Vice President Amrullah Saleh is trying to silence those who reported a potentially unlawful airstrike that killed civilians, including many children,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director. “The government should immediately release anyone detained under Saleh’s order and carry out a thorough and impartial investigation of the airstrike.”

In recent weeks, Afghan government forces have sustained many casualties during intense fighting in Takhar province. The uptick in fighting comes amid rising numbers of Taliban attacks and little progress on the Afghan peace talks in Doha.

The laws of war permit attacks only against military objectives, which include enemy fighters, weapons and equipment. Warring parties are prohibited from deliberately attacking civilians, except those directly participating in hostilities. For a specific attack on a military objective to be lawful, it must discriminate between combatants and civilians, and the expected loss of civilian life and property must be proportionate to the anticipated military gain from the attack. Attacks that target civilians, that are indiscriminate, or that cause disproportionate civilian loss are unlawful.

It is not clear if Taliban forces were in the vicinity of the mosque. Mosques and schools are civilian objects not subject to attack unless being used for military purposes. Any Taliban fighters present would be required to take all feasible precautions to remove civilians from the vicinity.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has reported that women and children comprised 65 percent of the civilian casualties from airstrikes by the Afghan air force for the first half of 2020. The Afghan government has a poor record of investigating such incidents.

“The Afghan government is obligated to investigate possible laws-of-war violations by their forces,” Gossman said. “The free expression rights of those reporting on alleged violations should be respected.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 22, 2020, 9:43 pm

(New York) – Cambodia’s increasingly dictatorial, one-party rule is underpinned by generals in the security forces who are responsible for serious and systematic human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today as it issued the Khmer-language version of its 284-page report, “Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen: A Long History of Rights Abuses by Hun Sen’s Generals.” Human Rights Watch also released a video showing some of the unexplained wealth of these generals and their family members.

Since the release of the English-language report in 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have continued to benefit from the unquestioning support of senior officials in the army, gendarmerie, and police to effectively eliminate all political opponents and dissolve the main opposition party, rendering the July 2018 national elections meaningless. Cambodia now has more than 50 political prisoners and dozens of others facing charges.

The report spotlights 12 senior security officers who form the backbone of an abusive and authoritarian political regime. Since 2018, three of the 12 have been promoted and one has died.

Each of these officers owes his high-ranking and lucrative position to political and personal connections with Hun Sen dating back two decades or more. Each has demonstrated a willingness to commit rights abuses on behalf of Hun Sen. Instead of serving the public, these officials have acted to protect the rule of Hun Sen, who has been in power for more than 35 years. Throughout their careers, they have served in government positions paying modest official salaries, yet they have amassed large amounts of unexplained wealth.

“Over the years, Hun Sen has created and developed a core of security force officers who have ruthlessly and violently carried out his orders,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The importance of Cambodia’s generals has become even more apparent with the massive crackdown in the past two years against journalists, political opponents, and anti-government protesters.”

Human Rights Watch has long documented Hun Sen’s egregious human rights record. Over more than three decades, hundreds of opposition figures, journalists, trade union leaders, and others have been killed in politically motivated attacks. Although in many cases those responsible for the killings have been known members of the security services, in not one case has there been a credible investigation or prosecution, let alone a conviction. In some cases, triggermen or fall guys have been prosecuted, while their superiors go untouched. Security forces have also arbitrarily arrested, beaten, harassed, and intimidated many other critics of the government, including human rights workers, labor activists, land rights activists, and bloggers and others expressing their views online.

Hun Sen has orchestrated his repressive rule by promoting people based on loyalty to him instead of the military, gendarmerie, and police institutions they formally serve.

The report details the responsibility of 12 senior security force officers for human rights abuses in Cambodia from the late 1970s until the present. Below are the positions each held in 2018 and any changes since then:

Gen. Pol Saroeun, Supreme Commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF):
In September 2018, he was replaced as RCAF Supreme Commander by General Vong Pisen. He is now a Senior Minister for Special Missions. Gen. Kun Kim, Deputy Supreme Commander of RCAF and Chief of the RCAF Mixed General Staff:
In September 2018, he was replaced as RCAF Deputy Supreme Commander and Chief of the RCAF Mixed General Staff by General Ith Sarat. He is now a Senior Minister for Special Missions, First Vice-Chairperson of the National Committee for Disaster Management, and Secretary-General of the Cambodian Veterans Association. Gen. Sao Sokha, Deputy Supreme Commander of RCAF and Commander of the Royal Khmer Gendarmerie (GRK):
Still in post. Gen. Neth Savoeun, Supreme Commissioner of the Cambodian National Police:
Still in post. Lt. Gen. Chea Man, Deputy Commander of the Army and Commander of Military Region 4:
Died on October 23, 2018 and has been replaced by Lt. Gen. Peou Heng. Lt. Gen. Bun Seng, Deputy Commander of the Army and Commander of Military Region 5:
On March 1, 2019, he was promoted to Secretary of State at the Ministry of National Defense and was replaced in Region 5 by Lt. Gen. Ek Sam-aun. Lt. Gen. Choeun Sovantha, Deputy Commander of the Army and Commander of Military Region 2:
Still in post. Lt. Gen. Chap Pheakdey, Deputy Chief of the RCAF Joint General Staff and Commander of Special Forces Paratrooper Brigade 911:
Still in post. Lt. Gen. Rat Sreang, Deputy Commander of the country-wide Gendarmerie and Commander of the Phnom Penh Gendarmerie:
Still in post. Gen. Sok Phal, Deputy Supreme Commissioner of National Police and Supreme Director for Immigration:
In September 2018, he was promoted to Secretary of State at the Ministry of Interior and was replaced as Supreme Director for Immigration by Gen. Kirth Chantharith. Gen. Mok Chito, Deputy Supreme Commissioner of National Police and Secretary-General of the National Anti-Drugs Authority:
Still in post. Gen. Chuon Sovan, Deputy Supreme Commissioner of National Police and Commissioner of the Phnom Penh Municipality Police:
In September 2018, he was named Vice Chairperson of the National Anti-Drugs Authority and was replaced as Deputy Supreme Commissioner of National Police and Commissioner of the Phnom Penh Municipality Police by Lt. Gen. Sar Thet. 


Although these officials have a legal responsibility to represent the state instead of a political party – and to carry out their duties in an impartial and neutral manner – all have acted in an openly and highly partisan manner. Each is a member of the CPP Central Committee, the party’s highest policymaking body. Members of the Central Committee are required to carry out all party policies. This conflicts with international human rights standards, which protect the rights of members of security forces to be members of a political party, vote, and privately express their opinions. However, officials should not be politically partisan in carrying out their professional duties or favor one political party over others.

June 27, 2018 Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen


Like Hun Sen, several of these senior officials were members of the Khmer Rouge regime, which between April 1975 and January 1979 was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.2 to 2.8 million Cambodians.

Hun Sen has been Cambodia’s prime minister since 1985. Since 2015, he has been chairman of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which has been in power since 1979. He is now among the world’s five longest-serving autocrats. In public, he talks about himself in the third person and has tried to create a cult of personality, including naming hundreds of schools (many donor-financed) after himself. His official title in Khmer is “Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen,” which literally translates to “princely exalted supreme great commander of gloriously victorious troops.” He has called himself the “five-gold-star general to infinity.”

“No dictator reaches or stays at the top without the support of other ruthless people,” Adams said. “Underneath Hun Sen are a core group of generals who abuse and intimidate Cambodians with the same contempt towards pluralism and democracy that Hun Sen has exhibited throughout his 35 years in power. Like their boss, they need to be called out and held accountable for their many crimes.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 22, 2020, 7:16 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

(Berlin) – The Polish Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling to invalidate the constitutionality of access to abortion on the ground of “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life” will further harm women and girls and violates their human rights, Amnesty International, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and Human Rights Watch said today.

Amnesty International, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and Human Rights Watch sent independent expert monitors to observe the hearing of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal and to analyze the decision.

“Today’s judgement puts the health and lives of women in Poland at great risk and violates Poland’s obligations under international human rights treaties to refrain from retrogressive measures that roll back women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health care,” said Leah Hoctor, regional director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Poland must act now to bring its law into line with other European Union member states and legalize abortion on a woman’s request or broad social grounds, and guarantee women’s full and effective access to care in situations where women’s physical or mental health is at risk.”

“This judgement is the result of a coordinated systematic wave of attacks on women’s human rights by Polish lawmakers, and represents their latest attempt to ban abortion in Poland,” said Esther Major, senior research adviser at Amnesty International. “Legal prohibitions on abortion do not prevent abortion or reduce the rates of abortion; they serve only to damage women’s health by pushing abortions underground or forcing women to travel to foreign countries to access abortion care they need and to which they have a right. Although all women may be affected by this cruel judgement, marginalized groups of women who cannot afford to travel will disproportionately suffer the consequences of the judges’ actions today.”

“Instead of safeguarding and protecting people’s rights, Poland’s Constitutional Court has contributed to violating them,” said Hillary Margolis, senior researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “The European Commission and EU member states should urgently address breaches of rule of law and their impact on fundamental rights in Poland. Ensuring women’s human rights, including their reproductive rights, is essential to upholding EU values. Poland’s flagrant disregard for these values is dangerous not only for women and girls in Poland, but throughout Europe. Women in Poland have sustained attacks against their rights again and again and will not stop fighting for their right to abortion care. We stand with them every step of the way.”

Background
Poland has one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws. It is one of only two of twenty-seven EU member states that do not allow abortion on request or on broad social grounds. Under Polish law, abortion is only permitted to safeguard the life or health of women, or where the pregnancy results from rape. Prior to today’s ruling it was also legal in situations of “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life.” Even in situations in which abortion is legal, multiple barriers combine to severely limit access to care in practice.

The ruling Law and Justice party has repeatedly moved to further curb sexual and reproductive health and rights, including through a bill that would have enacted a total abortion ban. Such attempts have been met by mass public protests and condemnation by international human rights bodies and European institutions.

Since coming to power in 2015, the Law and Justice government has undermined the Constitutional Tribunal’s independence and its effectiveness as a check on the executive. The Council of Europe’s legal advisory body, the Venice Commission, and the European Commission have censured the Polish government’s interference with the Tribunal. In its September 2020 rule of law report, the Commission noted that “concerns over the independence and legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal” remain unresolved. In 2017, the European Commission launched proceedings against Poland under Article 7(1) TEU in 2017 due to breaches of rule of law, including concerns related to the lack of an independent and legitimate constitutional review.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 22, 2020, 5:00 pm
Click to expand Image Hedong Village in Xumai Township, Tibet Autonomous Region, launches the "Four Stresses and Four Loves" teaching, September 11, 2020. © 2020 Sunshine Tibet/WeChat

Wu Yingjie, the Chinese Communist Party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region, recently visited Chamdo, in the province’s east, for the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the town’s “liberation” – meaning the People’s Liberation Army’s defeat of the Tibetan army there in October 1950. In a speech summarizing Beijing’s current Tibet policy, Wu notably called for eradicating all influence of the Dalai Lama from Tibetan Buddhism inside Tibet “so that the believing masses distinguish religious devotion from everyday life, distinguish religious devotion from separatist sabotage, distinguish religious devotion from the 14th Dalai, and distinguish religious devotion from enjoying their present happy life.”

Under the Communist Party’s latest religion policies for Tibet, administered by official work teams stationed in monasteries, Buddhist monks and nuns are required to live up to “four standards.” Besides genuine proficiency in the Buddhist teachings, they must also be “politically reliable,” ready to “serve the masses,” and be “dependable during critical moments,” meaning potential outbreaks of dissent. Wu’s “four distinguishes,” however, apply to the Tibetan population at large, whom Party jargon calls “the believing masses.”

Criticism of religion is a current theme of compulsory political education in villages, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. The message is that Tibetans should value “the happy life they now enjoy,” rather than focusing on preparation for the next life, as prescribed by religion. This is referred to as “guiding people to take a rational view of religion,” especially the “wastefulness” of offerings and ceremonies, and the reminder that it is the Party and President Xi Jinping whom ordinary Tibetans have to thank for their “happy lives,” not the lamas.

Wu’s “four distinguishes” mean not just that ordinary Tibetan believers must reject their spiritual leader, but even that their religious beliefs must not affect their everyday lives or influence their social behavior. The Party maintains that its “freedom of religious belief” policy will never change, but these requirements stretch its credibility to the limit. What the authorities call “accommodating religion to socialist society” involves an increasing subordination of religious freedom to the shrill demands of a government that, 70 years after “liberation,” still sees the attitudes and beliefs of ordinary Tibetans more than ever as a threat to its dominance.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 22, 2020, 2:30 pm
Click to expand Image A woman departs the Beethoven Elementary School after participating in early voting in Chicago, October 15, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Approximately 38.3 million people with disabilities, nearly the equivalent of the entire population of California, are eligible to vote in the upcoming United States elections. This includes 5.4 million Black and 4.1 million Latinx voters with disabilities. Yet the obstacles they face in voting may mean that their voices will not be heard.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other laws require polling places for US federal elections to be accessible to all voters. That includes physical accessibility, accessibility in communications, and reasonable modifications to accommodate individual requirements. Polling stations are also required to have an accessible system for casting ballots that ensures a private and independent vote. But many polling sites don’t meet these standards. A report on polling stations after the 2016 elections found that nearly 60 percent had at least one accessibility barrier, an improvement over 73 percent in 2008, but still far from where the country should be 30 years since the ADA’s passage.  

The Covid-19 pandemic brings new difficulties. During spring primaries, election officials reduced the number of polling places, requiring people to travel further to reach them. Accessible public transportation remains limited. Long lines can impede the vote for those unable to wait outdoors or in line for long periods, and those who are at heightened risk for severe illness from Covid-19.

The expansion of mail-in and online voting has increased opportunities for many people with disabilities to vote. For example, Virginia allows people who are blind or with low vision to utilize electronic ballots compatible with screen reader assistive technology. But the ballot still needs to be printed and mailed, a challenge or impossibility for some. During Arizona’s spring primaries, we learned that Maricopa County election officials provided an electronic voting tablet to voters with disabilities or with risk factors for Covid-19. They then used an online portal to help people navigate through electronic voting.

Yet in states without electronic options, some voters may have to forgo their right to a private vote, or not vote at all if they can’t write by hand or sign a mail-in ballot, or can’t easily read a standard ballot due to a vision, intellectual, or other disability.

In an election with many voting concerns, states should invest in ensuring people with disabilities’ voices are heard and that their votes are counted.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 22, 2020, 1:33 pm

(Berlin) – Turkmenistan’s authorities should immediately and unconditionally release a lawyer imprisoned on bogus charges that appear to be in retaliation for his alleged ties with activists abroad, 10 human rights organizations said today. The authorities should quash his conviction.

Click to expand Image Pyrgamberdy Allaberdyev © 2020 Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights

On September 29, 2020, in a closed trial, a court in Balkanabad sentenced Pygambergeldy Allaberdyev, 48, a lawyer with a government oil and gas production office in the city of Balkanabad, to six years in prison on charges of hooliganism and intentional infliction of moderate bodily harm. Allaberdyev is currently in custody although his precise whereabouts are unknown.

“The trial and charges against Allaberdyev, and the surrounding circumstances, clearly suggest that the case is political,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should release him immediately and annul his conviction.”

The 10 groups are the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Crude Accountability, the Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, Democratic Civil Union of Turkmenistan, Freedom Files, Human Rights Watch, the Memorial Human Rights Center, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights.

Allaberdyev’s arrest comes amid growing social tension in Turkmenistan and unprecedented protests among Turkmen living abroad.

Turkmenistan has an extremely repressive government. The country is utterly cut off from any independent human rights scrutiny. The authorities tolerate no dissent and subject people it suspects of disloyalty to surveillance, arbitrary arrests, and imprisonment on trumped up charges following unfair trials. Torture and incommunicado detention are a serious concern. Dozens of people remain victims of enforced disappearances.

On September 5, police in Balkanabad arrested Allaberdyev for allegedly getting into a fight with another man. That day, when Allaberdyev and a friend were leaving a grocery store, the man attacked him and tried to provoke a conflict by arguing with Allaberdyev and grabbing him by the collar.

The police arrived quickly. The other man accused Allaberdyev of instigating the conflict, and then left. The police arrested Allaberdyev and took him to the police station, where the other man appeared with his arm bandaged. The police told Allaberdyev that he had injured the man’s arm and rejected Allaberdyev’s request to see the medical reports documenting the man’s alleged injury. Allaberdyev denied the allegations. A source close to the case said that officers of the Ministry of National Security from Ashgabat appeared and questioned Allaberdyev about alleged connections with activists involved in the Turkmen protest movement abroad. Allaberdyev denied these allegations.

The groups expressed serious concern about the lack of due process in Allaberdyev’s detention and trial. On September 5, police interrogated Allaberdyev in the absence of any legal representation. The authorities refused to allow his family to visit and rebuffed their attempts to deliver food and clothing parcels for him. The lawyer Allaberdyev’s family hired was granted access to him only on September 8. The authorities repeatedly rejected the lawyer’s requests for copies of the case materials.

On September 14, Allaberdyev’s wife, Satlykgul Allaberdyeva, following unsuccessful attempts to get any precise and credible official information about her husband’s arrest, requested written information about the official allegations against Allaberdyev and details surrounding his arrest from the Balkan provincial prosecutor’s office.

On September 16, the office referred the request to the head of the Balkanabad city police department. She has received no response.

On September 24, a police investigator refused to provide one of Allaberdyev’s relatives any information about the formal charges against Allaberdyev, saying that he “can only share the case documents with the lawyer.” A source close to the case said the relative immediately arranged a phone conversation between Allaberdyev’s lawyer and the investigator. After a brief phone conversation, the lawyer, citing health problems, withdrew from the case.

The family tried unsuccessfully to hire another lawyer. Lawyers they approached refused to take on the case, most likely out of concern for government reprisals. The source said that one lawyer told them that “The case is political and is under the control of Ashgabat. Any lawyer [who takes on the case] may have problems.”

The groups also received credible reports that Allaberdyev was under surveillance the week before his arrest.

The Turkmen authorities have in the past used fake administrative hooliganism charges to retaliate against perceived critics.

Allaberdyev’s trial on September 29 was closed to his relatives and the public. The witnesses initially invited to testify were never called in to the courtroom. During the trial, Allaberdyev refused the services of a government-appointed lawyer. In light of the total lack of transparency and accountability in Turkmenistan’s criminal justice system, the institution of government-appointed lawyers cannot ensure effective and adequate legal representation, the groups said.

Because Allaberdyev does not have a lawyer and his family is not allowed to speak or visit with him, as well as authorities’ complete refusal to provide them any information on the case, the family has had difficulty getting official information about his case. On October 13, staff of the Balkanabad city court denied a request of Allaberdyev’s wife for a copy of the court ruling. The staff told her that her husband received the court decision and that she has no right to it. Under Turkmen law, only defendants, victims, civil plaintiffs, and their lawyers may receive copies of court rulings.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Turkmenistan is a party, protects the rights of individuals to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly. Turkmenistan is also bound under the ICCPR to respect the right to a fair trial.

Turkmenistan's international partners, in particular the United States, the European Union (EU) and EU member states should press Turkmenistan to free Allaberdyev immediately and quash his baseless conviction, the groups said. They should also press Turkmen authorities to stop harassing people on mere suspicion of connections or interests in the activities of critics abroad, and to refrain from persecuting and intimidating Turkmen citizens at home or abroad in retaliation for their peaceful activism.

“By targeting Allaberdyev for alleged links to Turkmen activists’ movement abroad and prosecuting him on bogus charges, the Turkmen government is demonstrating its complete disrespect for basic rights and freedoms,” said Tadzhigul Begmedova, director of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. “Turkmenistan’s international partners should remind the authorities about their binding international obligations and send a clear signal that the continued crackdown would lead to serious consequences.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 22, 2020, 12:50 pm
Click to expand Image Rohingya refugee students demonstrate against being expelled from Bangladeshi secondary schools in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, February 6, 2019. © 2019 Private 

(New York) – Governments participating in the October 22, 2020 fundraising conference for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis should insist that Myanmar and Bangladesh ensure Rohingya children’s right to education, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the conference hosts. The majority of Rohingya children both in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and in refugee camps in Bangladesh are barred from formal education.

“This entire generation of Rohingya children is being deprived of education and there is no end in sight to the status quo of gross discrimination in both Myanmar and Bangladesh,” said Bill Van Esveld, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Donor governments should demand a paradigm shift to fulfill this basic human right of quality education, with the full involvement of the Rohingya community.”

The US, UK, EU, and the UN refugee agency are hosting the donors’ conference with the aim of closing the $500 million funding gap in a humanitarian needs plan budgeted at $1 billion. Most of those resources will be committed to support the Rohingya in Bangladesh.

Education programs have been further restricted or shut down entirely in Rohingya detention camps in Myanmar and in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh due to Covid-19 related closures, with limited distance learning alternatives. But even if existing programs were fully funded and reopened, the vast majority of Rohingya children would still be denied access to formal, accredited education or secondary school, Human Rights Watch said.

Donor governments should demand the Myanmar authorities lift barriers to Rohingya children’s access to education inside the camps and villages in Rakhine State, and press Myanmar to accredit formal education in the Myanmar curriculum for refugee children in Bangladesh.

Donor governments should insist that Bangladesh urgently lift restrictions on Rohingya refugee children’s ability to enroll in formal, accredited education, and to complete secondary education. Bangladesh does not allow Rohingya children to study the Bangladesh curriculum but has greenlit a “pilot” project to teach the Myanmar curriculum. Bangladesh and humanitarian groups working with Rohingya refugees should urgently develop plans to scale up the Myanmar curriculum to all children, and implement the core humanitarian principle that refugee communities play a leading role in education programming.

Myanmar

In Myanmar, about 600,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine State, confined by the Myanmar government in camps and villages under conditions that amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid, persecution, and severe deprivation of liberty.

About 65,000 Rohingya children are detained in camps, where they are mainly provided, at best, with only basic instruction in “temporary learning centers.” Access to secondary education is limited to a single government school with 600 students, only two teachers, and four volunteer instructors. Rohingya students were expelled and barred from the last accessible university, in Sittwe, in 2012.

“In Myanmar’s Rakhine state, children and their parents are effectively locked down in villages and detention camps to which humanitarian access is severely restricted, and for most children, access to education is an unfulfilled dream,” Van Esveld said. “The international community should pressure the Myanmar government to give these Rohingya children a real future, not indefinite confinement.” 

Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, none of the nearly 400,000 school-age Rohingya refugee children currently have access to certified, formal primary or secondary education, or to university or college. Bangladesh government policy also bars formal education, including in refugee camps and at public and private schools, to Rohingya refugees who entered in the 1990s or before, and to their children born in Bangladesh.

Since mid-2019, Bangladesh authorities have allowed humanitarian groups to provide younger children with a “learning competency framework approach,” but this is not formal or accredited and includes only a few years of lessons.

In January, Bangladesh approved a “pilot” program to allow 10,000 children to study the formal Myanmar curriculum, with the assumption that they would eventually return to Myanmar. This is a potentially significant positive first step, but there is no public information as to whether Myanmar will accredit this education or Bangladesh will certify the students’ progress, or when the program will be scaled up to reach the other 390,000 Rohingya children.

On August 24, Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen announced that Bangladesh will “ensure access [to education for] Rohingya children according to [the] Myanmar curriculum” and that a “Myanmar Curriculum Pilot” had been adopted under the Joint Response Plan. Donors should ensure that their education aid supports access for all Rohingya refugee children to formal education.

There are virtually no training or vocational programs available in Bangladesh for Rohingya youth who have aged out of available education programs. Bangladesh authorities are building barbed-wire fencing around the refugee camps, citing concerns about the potential deterioration of the security situation, but for Rohingya youth who fall into the age range most at risk of criminal exploitation, the authorities have essentially blocked any education that would provide them with the skills to contribute to their community.

“Affording Rohingya refugee children the right to education will be critical to enable them to build productive lives and eventually return home to Myanmar,” Van Esveld said. “Bangladesh should expand its ‘pilot program’ to reach all Rohingya children with formal, certified education.”

While conditions in the refugee camps remain dire, Bangladesh has spent substantial resources to develop de facto detention facilities on a remote island, Bhasan Char, where it plans to transfer 100,000 Rohingya from the camps. Despite promises, the government has not allowed the UN to assess the habitability of the island and determine whether the refugees’ rights will be protected. Authorities are currently holding more than 300 Rohingya on the island, including at least 33 children who are denied any education whatsoever, ignoring their pleas to be reunited with their families back in the refugee camps.

Donors should not provide any funding for Bangladesh’s activities on Bhasan Char unless UN humanitarian experts are provided unfettered access to the island at times of their choosing and conclude that the island is safe for voluntary relocation. Bangladesh has refused to allow independent UN experts to conduct an independent research assessment of the island. Rohingya refugees currently held at Bhasan Char should be allowed immediately to rejoin their families in Cox’s Bazar.

“The denial of education to Rohingya children is a key aspect of their persecution in Myanmar, and it is undermining their futures even in exile,” Van Esveld said. “Donor governments need to ensure that their support to Myanmar and Bangladesh helps to end these massive human rights abuses and that Rohingya children get the education they need.” 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 22, 2020, 6:00 am
Click to expand Image A satellite photograph of Scorpion Prison taken in September 2016. Inmates suffer abuses in secret and are denied most access to the outside world. Satellite imagery. © 2016 DigitalGlobe – NextView

(Beirut) –Egyptian authorities executed 15 men convicted for alleged involvement in three cases of political violence as well as 2 women and 32 men convicted in criminal cases between October 3 and 13, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately halt executions, and re-try those sentenced to death in grossly unfair trials.

Thirteen of the 15 men charged with political violence had been held in Cairo’s Scorpion Prison. Their executions follow a suspicious incident inside Scorpion’s death row ward on September 23 in which Interior Ministry forces killed four prisoners after those prisoners killed four security personnel. Authorities alleged the prisoners were trying to escape.

“Egypt’s mass executions of scores of people in a matter of days is outrageous,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The systematic absence of fair trials in Egypt, especially in political cases, makes every death sentence a violation of the right to life.”

The government typically does not announce executions, or even inform the prisoner’s family. On October 13, the pro-government Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper published the names of eight prisoners executed in the Maximum-Security Prison in Minya governorate, south of Cairo, including a woman. On October 6, pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said authorities in Cairo Isti’naf Prison carried out 11 executions, including a woman, convicted in criminal cases. Al-Watan reported on October 3 that authorities executed eight prisoners and on October 8 another seven in Alexandria, in murder and rape cases.

The independent Al-Shehab Center for Human Rights published on October 7 the names of 15 people it said authorities had executed on October 3. Ten had been convicted in the South Giza Case 3455 of 2014, known as the Ajnad Masr (Soldiers of Egypt) case; three in the North Giza Case 4804 of 2013, known as the Kerdasa case; and two in the East Alexandria Case 6300 of 2013, known as the Alexandria Library case.

The Kerdasa and Alexandria Library cases stem from violent events coinciding with the August 14, 2013 violent dispersal of the largely peaceful Rab’a sit-in protesting the army’s removal of President Mohamed Morsy, a day in which security forces probably killed over 1,000 protesters.

The Kerdasa case involved violent protests and an armed attack by a mob on the Kerdasa police station, killing its warden and 12 other Interior Ministry officers and soldiers, and mutilating an officer’s body. A terrorism court sentenced 183 out of 188 defendants in a grossly unfair mass trial. The Cassation Court, Egypt’s highest appeal court, overturned the ruling in February 2016 and ordered a retrial before a different terrorism court, which in July 2017 sentenced 20 to death, 80 to life in prison, acquitted 21, and sentenced the rest to long prison terms. The Cassation Court upheld these sentences in September 2018. Seventeen of the 20 sentenced to death remained on death row. Nine leading Egyptian human rights organizations said in a 2018 statement that authorities ignored basic fair trial guarantees, including access to legal counsel and the need to establish individual criminal responsibility.

In the Alexandria Library case, authorities charged 71 people following violent protests near the library and killings of 16 people, including an officer and two soldiers, in different incidents. In September 2015, a criminal court in Alexandria sentenced three defendants to death, one of them in absentia, and the rest to prison. The Cassation Court upheld the death sentences in July 2017 and acquitted four defendants. Human Rights Watch reviewed 66 pages of the case file comprising the indictment and the evidence, mainly unsubstantiated allegations by security officers with scant material evidence that two executed, Yasser Shokr and Yasser al-Abasiery, were responsible for the killings.

In the Ajnad Masr case, authorities charged about 45 defendants of involvement in armed attacks by Ajnad Masr, an extremist armed group, which claimed responsibility for several attacks in 2014 and 2015. In December 2017, a Giza terrorism court sentenced 13 to death, others to prison terms, and acquitted 5. In May 2019, the Cassation Court upheld the sentences. Three people from this case remain on death row.

Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt has become one of the top 10 countries for executions and death sentences. Those arrested for alleged political violence frequently face a host of abuses including enforced disappearances, torture to extract confessions, and no access to lawyers. In an examination of 28 death sentence cases since 2016, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights found that authorities had forcibly disappeared 198 people, and 212 said they had been tortured. The majority of those sentenced to death were convicted in military or terrorism court trials that do not meet fair trial standards.

Authorities routinely add dozens, sometimes hundreds, of defendants to a case without justification. Mass trials, which became the norm after 2013 in political cases, do not allow sufficient time to present a defense or to establish individual criminal responsibility.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances. In 2017, Human Rights Watch said that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and other officials should issue a moratorium on the death penalty in view of the sharp rise in the number of death sentences and the failure to pass a comprehensive transitional justice law.

The 13 executed in the Ajnad Masr and Kerdasa cases on October 3, 2020 were being held in Scorpion Prison, where the suspicious killings had occurred.

On September 23, pro-government news media, citing unnamed security sources, reported that Interior Ministry forces had killed four death row inmates as they tried to escape the Scorpion prison, killing three officers and injuring another officer and a soldier, who died the next day. Defense and Interior Ministry officials, including Interior Minister General Mahmoud Tawfik, visited the prison a few hours later, but the government released no official statement. Media reported the names of the inmates killed, including three whose death sentences the Cassation Court upheld in July.

Lawyers, families of inmates, and former prisoners cast doubt on the “prison escape” story on social media. Authorities had imposed a blanket ban on visits to Scorpion since May 2018 and deprived prisoners of exercise and medical care. The death row ward where the incident happened housed an estimated 25 inmates, a lawyer told Human Rights Watch. The lawyer, who spoke with relatives of two inmates, said that the four inmates killed “took by surprise” the officers who had come to routinely inspect their cell and “slaughtered” them using sharp tools. The lawyer said inmates have the capability to improvise sharp objects.

Following the killings, the four inmates cheered loudly, the lawyer said, adding that inmates in other cells heard them and saw blood in the corridor. Shortly afterward security forces came and gunshots were heard. The lawyer said that inmates in other cells believe the reinforced security personnel quickly took control and killed the four prisoners.

The independent rights group We Record published a similar account based on information from five witnesses. An activist with the group told Human Rights Watch that a person who saw the bodies of the four inmates said they had numerous gunshots to the head and chest.

Scorpion Prison, officially Maximum Security Prison 992, is highly secure, one of seven prisons inside Cairo’s Tora Prison Complex and where authorities have placed many senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects, and other high-profile prisoners. Even if an individual managed to get outside Scorpion’s heavily armed high walls, he would have to pass several kilometers inside the Tora Complex to reach the outer gates.

The lawyer in touch with families and the activist, both outside Egypt, told Human Rights Watch that they feared the executions on October 3 were in retaliation for the killing of the officers, and could have eliminated witnesses.

Egypt has had a pattern of judicial and suspicious extrajudicial killings following attacks on security forces or civilians in recent years, Human Rights Watch said. Several officials including President al-Sisi have spoken of “revenge” rather than law enforcement to justify executions.

Following the incident, the Prison Administration Authority conducted a nationwide prison inspection campaign, which prisoners call tagreeda, (stripping), seizing most of the prisoners’ possessions, including purchased blankets and clothes, as well as hygiene tools, radios, and mattresses. A prisoner and families of inmates in three other prisons in the Tora Prison Complex told Human Rights Watch they have had such “inspections” since the incident.

One prisoner and another’s relative said that prisoners in Tora Istiqbal Prison have undertaken a hunger strike. The independent Mada Masr site reported that hundreds had joined since October 9 to protest the intensive searches and confiscations.

“The pattern of Egyptian authorities executing death row inmates following attacks on security forces makes halting executions even more urgent,” Stork said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 22, 2020, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Aftermath of the explosion in Beirut’s port that devastated the city, killing almost 200 people, injuring more than 6,000, and leaving 300,000 people without shelter. © 2020 Marwan Naamani / AP Images

(Beirut) –A domestic investigation into the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020 has failed to yield any credible results more than two months later, Human Rights Watch said today. Political interference coupled with long-standing failings of the judicial system have made a credible and impartial domestic investigation seemingly impossible.

The International Support Group for Lebanon, meeting next week, should urge Lebanese authorities to invite the United Nations to conduct an independent inquiry to determine the causes of and responsibility for the explosion.

“Everyone in Beirut has had their life turned upside down by the catastrophic explosion that devastated half the city, and they deserve justice for the disaster inflicted on them,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Only an independent, international investigation will uncover the truth about the blast. The International Support Group for Lebanon should not play along with the Lebanese authorities’ pretense that they are able to conduct their own credible investigation.”

On August 10, the Lebanese government referred the Beirut explosion to the Judicial Council, a special court with no appeals process. The judge leading the investigation was appointed in an opaque process shrouded in allegations of political interference, raising serious concerns about the independence of the process.

While foreign investigators – including about 50 French forensic police officers and gendarmes and the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation – have participated in the ongoing domestic investigations at the invitation of the Lebanese authorities, their involvement does not cure the fundamental flaws with the current approach. These foreign experts’ role and their ability to speak publicly about their findings or to criticize attempts to undermine their work are unclear. France and the United States should clarify their role and mandate, and make public any attempts to obstruct justice, Human Rights Watch said.

As of October 13, local media reported that 25 people had been arrested in relation to the case and 30 had been charged. Lebanese authorities have failed to detail the evidence and charges against these individuals, and it is not clear whether they were afforded due process. Not a single minister, former or sitting, has been charged.

In August, 30 UN experts publicly laid out benchmarks for a credible inquiry, noting that it should be “protected from undue influence,” “integrate a gender lens,” “grant victims and their relatives effective access to the investigative process,” and “be given a strong and broad mandate to effectively probe any systemic failures of the Lebanese authorities.” But the domestic investigation into the Beirut blast has failed to meet either international standards for due process or the benchmarks the UN experts identified. Instead, the investigation has centered around administrative port and customs officials, raising concerns that political officials credibly implicated in the blast will escape accountability.

“The responsibility for the Beirut explosion extends far beyond port and customs officials,” Majzoub said. “Any investigation that claims to be impartial would look into the corruption and mismanagement permeating the entire political system, which created the conditions that made the Beirut blast possible.”

Following the explosion, officials traded blame over who was responsible. Court records and official correspondence leaked to the media indicate that many high-level officials, including the president, security officials, and members of the judiciary, were aware of the dangerous stockpile of ammonium nitrate at the port but failed to take action. Reuters quoted an unnamed official source saying that initial investigations “indicate years of inaction and negligence” over the storage of the highly explosive ammonium nitrate.

The domestic investigation’s lack of independence and transparency has led to a widespread loss of public faith in the process, prompting many victims and their families to call for an international investigation. Human Rights Watch, as well as other human rights groups including Amnesty International, have said there should be an international inquiry. Lebanese officials have rejected these calls, and President Michel Aoun described any such investigation as a “waste of time.”

There have been two fires in the Beirut port since the explosion, on September 8 and September 10, prompting many allegations of tampering with the crime scene. The head of the Beirut Bar Association, Melhem Khalaf, told AFP that he was alarmed by the fires, calling them “unacceptable” and added that “preserving the (blast) crime scene was the first thing we asked” of the investigation.

In 2018, the United Nation’s Human Rights Committee expressed concern about the “political pressure reportedly exerted on the Lebanese judiciary, particularly in the appointment of key prosecutors and investigating magistrates, and about allegations that politicians use their influence to protect supporters from prosecution.” These structural weaknesses in the Lebanese system remain obstacles to delivering justice in the current context.

“The Lebanese authorities’ failings over the past two months have shown that an international investigation is the only avenue for the people of Lebanon to get the answers and the justice that they deserve for the Beirut explosion,” Majzoub said. “But it has also underscored the importance and urgency of addressing the structural weaknesses preventing Lebanon’s judiciary from independently and impartially delivering justice.”

Problems with the current investigation

On August 4, a huge explosion at the Beirut seaport devastated the city, killing almost 200 people, injuring more than 6,000, and leaving 300,000 people without shelter. The explosion affected Lebanon’s food supply, as Lebanon imports 85 percent of its food, and the port previously handled 70 percent of the country’s imports. The explosion affected 163 public and private schools and left half of Beirut’s healthcare centers unable to operate.

President Aoun and then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the explosion was caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse in the Beirut port for over six years without appropriate safety precautions. The circumstances that led to the detonation of the material are not yet clear.

President Aoun promised a transparent investigation into the causes of the explosion. However, the investigation conducted by domestic authorities has been neither transparent nor independent and fails to meet international fair standards.

Administrative Investigation Committee

On August 5, the cabinet set up an “administrative investigation committee” headed by Diab and consisting of the ministers of defense, justice, and interior, as well as the army commander and heads of the three security agencies, and tasked it with submitting the results of its investigation to the cabinet within five days. This committee has not made any public statements, and it seems to have stopped work after the resignation of Prime Minister Diab’s government on August 11.

By tasking the very same ministries and institutions that should be under investigation to lead the investigation, the cabinet engaged in a ludicrous perversion of the principles of independence and impartiality, Human Rights Watch said. Both the Lebanese Judges’ Association and the head of the Beirut Bar Association criticized the formation of the committee

Public Prosecutor’s Investigation

Separately, on August 5, the country’s top public prosecutor, Ghassan Oueidat, requested an Internal Security Forces (ISF) investigation into the ammonium nitrate and asked the ISF to provide him with the names of those responsible for overseeing its storage and security. On August 10, Oueidat announced that, following an investigation under his supervision, along with the military prosecutor, Fadi Akiki, 19 suspects had been detained. He did not announce their names or the charges against them. It was not clear whether they were afforded due process.

Judicial Council and Investigator

On August 10, Queidat, the public prosecutor, recommended that the Cabinet refer the case to the Judicial Council, which the Cabinet did on the same day. Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm, in turn, appointed Judge Fadi Sawan to serve as a judicial investigator.

The appointment of the judicial investigator was an opaque process mired in allegations of political interference. The Higher Judicial Council rejected two judges the justice minister initially proposed, but refused to explain the decision, stating that their deliberations are confidential.

The judiciary has provided very little information to the public about Judge Sawan’s investigation. Almost all information about the status of the case has come through media leaks, some of which have been inaccurate.

As of October 13, local media reported that 25 people had been arrested in relation to the case, 30 had been charged, and Judge Sawan had heard the testimony of 47 witnesses. The evidence and charges against those arrested have not been made public. However, more than two months into the investigation, not a single minister, former or sitting, has been questioned as a suspect. The judicial investigator has listened to testimony of current and former ministers as “witnesses” in cases against port and other administrative employees.

The Judicial Council is operating on the presumption that it does not have the jurisdiction to prosecute sitting or former presidents and ministers. It argues that, due to legal immunity for public officials, only the “Supreme Council for Trying Presidents and Ministers,” a body consisting of seven parliament members elected by parliament and eight judges appointed by the judiciary, can do so. But the council has not yet been created.

The Lebanese Judges’ Association disputed this reading of the law, contending that the crime of killing or causing the death of citizens is not subject to immunity, as it is not directly related to the exercise of duties in office. The Judges’ Association further stated that prosecution by the “Supreme Council” was virtually impossible due to the “existing political corruption and sectarian divisions in the country, as well as the record of the parliament that is devoid of any prosecutions.”

The Judicial Council is a special court whose decisions are not subject to appeal, violating fundamental fair trial safeguards. Referrals to the court are made on a discretionary basis via a Cabinet decree, on the recommendation of the justice minister, relating to cases that are considered especially serious. The justice minister appoints the head of the Judicial Council and the judicial investigator, after approval by the Higher Judicial Council (HJC).

The HJC, the body responsible for recommending the appointment of judges to specific courts, however, lacks independence, and has been a vehicle for political interference in the judiciary. Eight of its ten members are appointed by the executive branch, and the council lacks financial independence, as funds are allocated to it annually through the Justice Ministry’s budget. The Lebanese Judges’ Association has been an outspoken critic of the lack of the judiciary’s independence and has been leading an effort for reform.

Lebanon should adjust the Code of Criminal Procedure so that its provisions comply with the principles of a fair trial, and pass the law to provide for the independence of the judiciary that has been languishing in parliament for years, Human Rights Watch said.

The Judicial Council has failed to take action against allegations that evidence has been tampered with, further decreasing confidence in the investigation’s credibility. Journalists from the local TV station Al Jadeed presented evidence that officials removed documents from the public works ministry – which oversees the port – on August 9.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 22, 2020, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image © 2020 Voice TV

(Bangkok) – The Thai government’s shutdown of the outspoken Voice TV channel misuses Thailand’s emergency decree to censor the media, Human Rights Watch said today.

On October 20, 2020, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society announced at a news conference that the government had obtained a court order to close down Voice TV on all online platforms. The ministry alleged that the station’s coverage of a democracy protest in Bangkok on October 16 violated media restrictions under the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations and the Computer-Related Crime Act.

“Banning Voice TV is the Thai government’s latest attempt to stop the reporting about democracy protests and ensuing abuses against protesters,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The crackdown is part of a bigger effort to bully and control the media into becoming a government mouthpiece.”

On October 15, before the station’s online platforms were shut down, the Thai authorities pressed satellite service providers to block the broadcast of Voice TV. Since the May 2014 military coup that brought Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to power, the government has targeted Voice TV for censorship and punitive sanctions more than any other TV station in Thailand. 

The government has also requested a shutdown order for three other online media services – The Reporters, The Standard, and Prachatai – citing similar reasons. In addition, Human Rights Watch obtained a document showing that the government is also seeking to block the Free Youth democracy movement’s accounts on the Telegram application.

On October 15, Prime Minister Prayuth declared a state of emergency in Bangkok. The United Nations, Thai human rights organizations, and Human Rights Watch, among others, raised concerns about the state of emergency on human rights and fundamental freedoms in Thailand.

The Emergency Decree empowers Thai authorities to impose broad censorship that violates the right to free expression and media freedom. On October 16, the police issued several warnings against news reports and social media commentary critical of the monarchy, the government, and the political situation in the country. Livestreaming pro-democracy protests was declared illegal, as well as posting selfies at a protest site.

That day, police arrested a Prachatai journalist, Kitti Pantapak, while was he was broadcasting the police’s dispersal of a democracy protest in Bangkok. True Visions is licensed to run the BBC World Service, CNN, and Al Jazeera English on its cable TV network, but it has blocked the broadcast of news reporting on the protests in Thailand. In addition, Thai authorities have blocked access to the online petition site Change.org, after it hosted a petition calling for King Maha Vajiralongkorn to be declared persona non grata in Germany.
 
The government has shown increasing hostility toward pro-democracy protests, which started on July 18 and later spread across the country. The protesters called for the resignation of the government, the drafting of a new constitution, and an end to the authorities harassing people who exercise their freedom of expression. Some of the protests included demands for reforms to curb the king’s powers. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that at least 81 protesters have been arrested since the declaration of state of emergency in Bangkok.

International human rights law, as reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand ratified in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But Thai authorities have routinely enforced censorship and gagged public discussions about human rights, political reform, and the role of the monarchy in society. Over the past decade, hundreds of activists and dissidents have been prosecuted on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for the peaceful expression of their views.

In addition, over the past five months, the authorities have used emergency measures to help control the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to ban anti-government rallies, harass pro-democracy activists, and enforce censorship.

“Concerned governments and the United Nations should publicly demand an immediate end to the Thai government’s censorship and political repression,” Adams said. “Prime Minister Prayuth should immediately lift Voice TV’s ban and end further attempts to stifle media freedom and free speech in Thailand.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2020, 11:32 pm
Click to expand Image Pope Francis attends a inter-religious ceremony for peace in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, in Rome, October 20, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

Pope Francis has called for the recognition of civil union laws that would provide legal protection for same-sex couples.

As part of this recognition, Pope Francis emphasized that gay and lesbian people are “children of God and have a right to a family,” and that “[n]obody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”

He made the remarks in a new documentary, “Francesco,” about his life and ministry.

In the past, the Vatican has publicly opposed violence and discrimination against LGBT people, including the criminalization of same-sex activity. It has disappointed advocates seeking greater recognition of other LGBT rights, however, including opposition to state efforts to extend legal gender recognition to transgender people.

The comments stop short of calling for marriage equality but are still likely to bolster movements seeking legal protections for same-sex couples, particularly in predominantly Catholic societies. In countries like Paraguay, Poland, and the Philippines, same-sex couples lack basic recognition and protection for their families under the law.

Only 29 countries currently extend the right to marry to same-sex couples, while at least 14 provide civil unions that extend some degree of legal protection to same-sex relationships.  

Regional and international human rights bodies have also affirmed the importance of protecting same-sex couples, with the European Court of Human Rights recognizing the right to legal protections for same-sex relationships and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights recognizing a right to marriage equality.

The Pope’s remarks are likely to resonate in contexts where basic legal recognition is badly needed. But they also boost support for LGBT families at a time when lawmakers and right-wing groups are attempting to weaken nondiscrimination protections in areas like adoption and foster care, often in the name of religion.

The Pope’s remarks may not immediately translate into stronger protections for LGBT people, but they offer a powerful reminder that LGBT families deserve respect and recognition at a time when that fact is too often ignored.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2020, 9:39 pm
Click to expand Image Abdisellam Hassen Ahmed, a Somali refugee who had been stuck in limbo after President Donald Trump temporarily banned refugee entries, walks with his wife Nimo Hashi, and his 2-year-old daughter, Taslim, who he met for the first time after arriving at Salt Lake City International Airport, February 10, 2017. © 2017 AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File

Two countries that historically have led the world in refugee resettlement, the United States and Australia, have dramatically lowered their annual admissions ceilings at a time when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has identified 1,445,383 of the world’s 26 million refugees as being in need of resettlement.  

The 11,814 refugees admitted to the US in fiscal year 2020, between October 1, 2019 and September 30, is the lowest annual admissions number on record and an 86 percent drop from the nearly 85,000 admitted in FY 2016. In Australia, the government’s 2020-21 budget shows a 5,000-place cut in refugee admissions.

The two countries have also taken inhumane measures to block the entry of people seeking asylum. Cutting resettlement places may compel desperate people to seek riskier migration alternatives.

Refugee resettlement is a tool of protection for refugees who can’t find safety in their region, including those at risk of being forcibly returned to their home countries. It provides solutions for refugees unable to repatriate or integrate locally, such as members of marginalized groups who are discriminated against and abused in both host country and country of origin. Resettlement is also an instrument for international responsibility sharing and solidarity that provides support to countries on the front lines of conflict that host the overwhelming majority of the world’s refugees.

UNHCR has identified nearly 600,000 Syrians needing to be resettled, more than 40 percent of the worldwide total. Yet in the fiscal year just ended, the US admitted just 481 Syrians, a 96 percent drop from FY 2016.

Recently, I talked with “Farid,” a Syrian refugee from Idlib who has been living in Lebanon. Too afraid to return to war-torn Idlib, and with an increasingly intolerable situation in Lebanon, Farid saw no safe and legal paths for refuge, so boarded an inflatable boat to seek asylum in Cyprus. His boat ran out of fuel and he drifted at sea for six days, near death. Farid was finally spotted by a fishing boat and rescued by the Lebanese navy. He told me he would get on another boat and try again as soon as he could.  

UNHCR should be able to help resettle Farid and others like him. But with resettlement offers as low as they are in countries like the US and Australia, that option is virtually closed. Resettlement will never be the solution for the majority of the world’s refugees, but it should at least be available as a life-saving tool for those most vulnerable.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2020, 8:28 pm
Climate change is taking a growing toll on First Nations in Canada, depleting food sources and affecting health. Canada is contributing to the climate crisis, which acutely affects Indigenous peoples who live off the land. Canada should urgently scale up its efforts to reduce emissions, and provide financial and technical support to First Nations dealing with the effects.

(Ottawa) – Climate change is taking a growing toll on First Nations in Canada, depleting food sources and affecting health, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Canadian government is not adequately supporting First Nations’ efforts to adapt to the mounting crisis and is failing to do its part to reduce the global greenhouse gas emissions that are driving it. 

The 120-page report, “‘My Fear is Losing Everything’: The Climate Crisis and First Nations’ Right to Food in Canada,” documents how climate change is reducing First Nations’ traditional food sources, driving up the cost of imported alternatives, and contributing to a growing problem of food insecurity and related negative health impacts. Canada is warming at more than twice the global rate, and northern Canada at about three times the global rate. Despite its relatively small population, Canada is still a top 10 greenhouse gas emitter, with per capita emissions 3 to 4 times the global average. 

October 21, 2020 “My Fear is Losing Everything”

“Climate change is pushing increasingly dangerous levels of food poverty in First Nations,” said Katharina Rall, senior environment researcher at Human Rights Watch. “By flouting its emissions-reduction commitments, Canada is contributing to the global climate crisis that, within its borders, is being felt most acutely by Indigenous people who live off the land.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 120 people, including residents, chiefs, and council members in First Nations in Yukon, northwestern British Columbia, and northern Ontario, as well as medical providers, educators, and environment and health experts, including Indigenous mental health counsellors and staff of Indigenous representative organizations. Human Rights Watch also reviewed academic research and peer-reviewed scientific studies documenting and projecting the impact of climate change in the areas studied, and contacted federal, provincial, and territorial government officials about the issues.

In the three geographic locations studied, residents reported drastic reductions in the quantity of food they are able to harvest, and increased difficulty and danger associated with harvesting food from the land. These changes are being driven in significant part by climate change impacts on wildlife habitat, including changing ice and permafrost conditions, more and increasingly intense wildfires, warming water temperatures, changes in precipitation and water levels, and unpredictable weather.

Interview: Climate Crisis Hurts Harvest for First Nations

Life is getting harder for First Nations in some of the most remote stretches of Canada. Senior environment researcher Katharina Rall visited communities to learn how the climate crisis is impacting food, health, and land like never before, and how they are fighting back.

READ THE INTERVIEW

Households must supplement their traditional diet with more purchased food. But grocery stores are often remote and the prices for nutritious foods prohibitive. As a result, people said, they tend to eat more affordable but less nutritious foods, compounding existing health conditions resulting from historic marginalization and poor access to health care in rural and remote Indigenous communities. Children, older people, and people with chronic diseases are particularly affected. Some children go to school hungry, and some older people cut down on their food. People with chronic diseases often cannot afford to follow medically recommended diets. Access to adequate and sufficient food corresponding to cultural traditions is an essential component of the human rights to food and health.

Across the country, First Nations are working to address the impact of the climate crisis. Some maintain strong traditional food sharing networks, while others have created monitoring systems for climate change impacts on their environment. Yet, all these efforts require resources and capacity, which many communities lack, and the federal and provincial governments are not doing enough to support them, Human Rights Watch found.

Federal climate change policies have largely ignored the real impact of climate change on First Nations. While climate change is already exacerbating historic inequalities experienced by First Nations, most existing policies fail to monitor – let alone address – current human rights impacts in these settings.

Subsidies, health resources, and other resources needed to respond are often not available, insufficient, or do not reach those who need them most. The federal government’s Nutrition North program subsidizes transporting nutritious foods from registered southern retailers, but healthy store-bought food options remain financially out of reach for many in remote and northern communities.

Canada is also not doing its part to advance global efforts to address climate change. Canada has not set adequately ambitious carbon emissions reduction targets consistent with the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Agreement, and the government is not even on track to meet its own targets.

The federal government acknowledged that food security is a critical issue and that more work is needed to cut emissions and meet First Nations food security needs. But it has not clarified how it will curb emissions or concretely address climate-exacerbated food insecurity.

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

Provincial and territorial government responses varied. The Yukon territorial government has committed to monitoring and tracking food insecurity and acknowledged the need to address the unique impact on Indigenous peoples. Ontario’s government, by contrast, has cancelled numerous climate adaptation and mitigation programs that benefited First Nations.

British Columbia has collaborated with First Nations to develop a climate adaptation strategy but did not respond to requests for further information on the details of this strategy, due to be released this year. Neither Yukon, Ontario, nor British Columbia have made any significant progress in reducing their emissions.

“If Canada does not urgently scale up its efforts to reduce emissions, it will continue to fuel the global climate crisis that is already having an outsized impact on First Nations,” Rall said. “The government should also urgently provide financial and technical support to First Nations already facing the devastating impacts of climate change.”

 


Selected Community Accounts

“Climate change is really affecting First Nations right now. There is no food for animals to eat. The animals won’t be there for us to hunt.”

 

 

 – Chief Madeek, Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief, Skeena River watershed, British Columbia

 

“I am concerned about the caribou. Already now there is less caribou [nearby].... They might have changed the route because of the wildfires.”

 – Elizabeth Kyikavichik, childcare worker, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, Yukon

 

“My biggest fear of climate change [is] losing everything. Losing our tradition over the weathers, over melting ice. [I]f we lose what we have now, what will we have to show our children in the future?”

 – Kyle Linklater, father, hunter, and resident of Weenusk First Nation, Ontario

 

“There [are] a lot of kids who do not eat on the weekends. We have programs here where kids take food home for the weekend. Lots of schools have lunch programs but they do not offer traditional food.”

 – Teacher in Smithers, Skeena River watershed, British Columbia

 

“First Nations peoples know what is wrong, and what is needed. Most are plagued with over-crowding, high unemployment rates, health issues such as diabetes. Any real solution to address the climate crisis and food poverty must protect First Nations’ traditional territories and traditional food sources. Canada needs to fund climate change adaptation projects so families can grow their own food and plan ahead for the future.”

 – Sam Hunter, community climate monitor, Weenusk First Nation, Ontario

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2020, 1:00 pm
Click to expand Image Tahir Elçi, the president of Diyarbakir Bar Association and human rights lawyer, speaks to the media shortly before being shot dead in Diyarbakir, Turkey November 28, 2015 .    © 2015 IHA agency via AP

(Istanbul) – The first hearing of a trial against three police officers charged with the fatal shooting of a Kurdish human rights lawyer, Tahir Elçi, is scheduled for October 21, 2020 in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır, Human Rights Watch said today.
Elçi was a key figure in Turkey’s human rights movement for decades, and then president of the Diyarbakır Bar Association. He was shot in the head with a single bullet on a Diyarbakır street on November 28, 2015, shortly after he had gathered with colleagues to issue a statement protesting armed clashes in the old city between the security forces and the youth wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

“For five years the family and friends of Tahir Elçi have pushed for an effective investigation of his killing and for his killers to be brought to justice,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “Many in the human rights movement in Turkey and internationally will be focused on whether the conduct of the trial is designed to reveal the full circumstances of Elçi’s killing or instead to try to exonerate the police at all cost.”

Moments before Elçi’s shooting, two PKK militants had shot two police officers dead in a main street nearby. They escaped down the street where Elçi had addressed the media. Police officers monitoring the news conference exchanged fire with the militants, killing Elçi in the process. The militants fled the scene. While there is video footage of the exchange of fire, it doesn’t show the moment when Elçi was shot dead.

There have been huge obstacles to securing an effective investigation into Elçi’s killing. The authorities failed to collect evidence at the site. Police failed to locate the bullet that shot Elçi. The prosecutor decided at the outset not to interview police officers who had shot in Elçi’s direction as possible suspects but rather as witnesses. The authorities failed to examine the firearms the police carried. There have been extreme delays, and the prosecutor investigating the killing was replaced several times.

A Diyarbakır Bar commission of lawyers and human rights defenders, including Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Joint Platform, followed the prosecutors’ investigation and examined the available video evidence and witness statements. The Bar Association appointed Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary group investigating human rights violations based at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, to conduct its own independent analysis of the video footage and all other evidence.

The Forensic Architecture study identified one of the police officers as the one most likely to have shot Elçi because he had a clear line of fire. The study identified two other police officers as having possibly shot Elçi. The study found that the two PKK militants were not in positions from which they could have shot Elçi and were not shooting in the timeframe in which he was killed. Video evidence provides indisputable evidence that they did fatally shoot two police officers before escaping down the street where Elçi was then shot.

In the trial that begins on October 21, the Diyarbakir prosecutor accuses three police officers, Mesut Sevgi, Fuat Tan, and Sinan Tabur, of killing Elçi and charges them with “causing death by foreseeable negligence.” If convicted, they would face a possible sentence of two to nine years in prison. There are compelling reasons to argue that the charge should have been the more serious “foreseeable intentional killing” since in discharging firearms in a street with civilians present the police knowingly endangered civilian lives.

Charges against a PKK militant, Uğur Yakışır, tried in absentia, include intentional killing of the police officers Cengiz Erdur and Ahmet Çiftaslan in a nearby main street and foreseeable intentional killing of Elçi, as well as armed separatism. The other PKK militant alleged to have been involved was reportedly killed during armed clashes in March 2016.

“The Forensic Architecture study of the available evidence provides a credible argument that Tahir Elçi was killed by a bullet fired by the police,” Porteous said. “It will be very important for the Diyarbakir court to take full note of the study’s findings and carefully examine whether the prosecutor’s charges against the police are commensurate with the gravity of the crime.”

Elçi had worked since the early 1990s as a human rights lawyer, first in his hometown of Cizre, in the southeast, and later in Diyarbakır, the largest city in the region. He worked extensively to represent families of victims of egregious human rights violations by the security forces, including enforced disappearances and unlawful killings by suspected government agents.

Over many years, he played a key role in representing victims of these crimes before the European Court of Human Rights, and worked closely with international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. He himself was a victim of torture and arbitrary detention, among other abuses, facts recognized by the European Court of Human Rights before which he and his colleagues also successfully brought their own case.

As head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, in the weeks before he was killed, he led fact-finding missions into curfews and military operations against the PKK imposed on cities and towns in southeast Turkey, including Cizre, Silvan, Bismil, and Nusaybin, and documented security force human rights violations against civilians.

He was a prominent critic of government-imposed curfews in southeastern cities and security operations in which armed clashes between the police and the youth wing of the PKK have resulted in the deaths of scores of civilians. Elçi was critical of the PKK youth wing’s practice of erecting barricades and trenches in towns and advocated an immediate return to dialogue and peace negotiations.

Despite his impartial and independent stance, on October 15 the Turkish authorities opened a criminal investigation into Elçi after he stated, on a October 15 CNN Türk talk show, that the PKK was not a terrorist organization but an armed political movement which had at times committed terrorist acts. Although Elçi’s comments fell squarely within the boundaries of protected free speech, a case against him for “making terrorist propaganda” had been due to begin in April 2016.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2020, 12:00 pm
Click to expand Image Federal officers run after dispersing protesters in Portland, Oregon, July 22, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Noah Berger

City and state officials in the United States should review their laws, policies, and practices ahead of the November 3, 2020 general elections to ensure that they protect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, five international human rights organizations said on October 20, in letters to over 3,500 mayors and city council members throughout the country, as well as to all governors.  

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International-USA, Physicians for Human Rights, and Human Rights First urged officials to prevent a repetition of recent abuses by law enforcement against overwhelmingly peaceful protests opposing systemic racism and police violence. In a separate letter to governors, also signed by Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), the organizations cautioned against the deployment to protests of forces without adequate training in crowd control, including from the National Guard.

“The United States holds itself out as a rights-respecting nation that others can look up to, but the police abuses against peaceful protesters this summer were nothing to be proud of,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “When law enforcement officers in the United States commit abuses, they not only violate the rights of people at home but also undermine the US government’s ability to promote respect for rights abroad.”

The organizations have documented that between May and September, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in dozens of locations across the country repeatedly interfered with the right of peaceful assembly, resorted to excessive use of force, and conducted mass arbitrary arrests in response to largely peaceful protests.

In 125 separate incidents in 40 states and the District of Columbia, between May 26 and June 5, Amnesty International-USA found police using excessive force against protesters, including beating protesters, misusing tear gas and pepper spray, and inappropriately and at times indiscriminately firing “less-lethal” projectiles against protesters.

“This summer, police in city after city committed widespread and egregious human rights violations against people protesting the unlawful killings of Black people,” said Bob Goodfellow, interim executive director of Amnesty International-USA. “Rather than being a necessary and proportionate response to any specific threat, the use of force became a matter of first resort for any form of resistance, or to enforce a hastily imposed curfew, to end an ongoing demonstration – or clear a park for a photo op. Real, systemic and lasting police reform and oversight is needed at all levels to ensure that people across the country feel safe to walk the streets and express their opinions freely and peacefully without facing a real threat of harm from the very officers that are supposed to protect them.”

At least 115 people suffered head and neck injuries when law enforcement officers shot them with kinetic impact projectiles, such as rubber bullets and bean bag rounds, during the first two months of the George Floyd protests, May 26 to July 27, according to a visual investigation by Physicians for Human Rights. The group also documented how the Portland Police Bureau and federal agents abused crowd-control weapons and obstructed medical care at the Portland protests, resulting in severe injuries and psychological trauma to both medics and protestors.

“So-called ‘less lethal weapons’ can cause severe injury, disability, and death, particularly when used in the reckless and excessive ways we’ve seen from law enforcement agencies around the country in recent months,” said Donna McKay, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights. “In cities across the United States, protesters suffered fractured skulls, broken jaws, traumatic brain injuries, and permanent vision loss. The misuse of crowd-control weapons poses a profound threat to the human body and to our democracy.”

In New York City, Human Rights Watch reported, the police planned an assault and mass arbitrary arrests of more than 250 peaceful protesters in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx on June 4. The police “kettled,” or surrounded, protesters and legal observers, leaving them with no avenue to disperse shortly before a curfew took effect. Officers used excessive force, including with batons and pepper spray, then arrested and jailed protesters in crowded conditions with no protection from Covid-19. The operation could cost New York City taxpayers several million dollars in misconduct complaints and lawsuits.

In addition, the groups documented that law enforcement officers used crowd control weapons to target the media, legal observers, and medics who were not participating in protests, causing injuries.

CIVIC also found that while governors in over 20 states and Washington, DC, mobilized state National Guard units to support local law enforcement at protests, little evidence suggested that more than a few had provided guidance or additional training for Guard members on conducting crowd-control operations including de-escalation tactics, or on reporting misconduct by law enforcement units they were supporting.

“Military units are generally ill-trained and ill-equipped to manage demonstrations, and their mobilization in such contexts should be avoided,” said Frederic Borello, executive director of CIVIC. “If necessary, governors should only utilize forces that are trained and equipped to comply with obligations under international human rights law, notably to protect the rights to peaceful assembly and free expression, and avoid excessive use of force. All forces responding to protests should be concerned, first and foremost, with the protection of human lives and civil liberties.”

Throughout the summer, Human Rights First mobilized US military leaders and veterans, and worked to shed light on excessive use of force by law enforcement, including the use of military tactics and weapons against protesters exercising their rights.

“When political leaders treat our public square like a ‘battle space,’ inappropriately and unnecessarily using militarized tactics, weapons, or personnel to quell protests, human rights abuses are very likely to occur,” said Michael Breen, president and chief executive officer at Human Rights First. “Such tactics have no place in a democracy.”

The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution and international human rights law, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the United States ratified in 1992. The ICCPR applies to all levels of government, including state and local officials.

“The freedom of peaceful assembly is a cornerstone of democratic governance and the human rights standards the United States has helped to shape,” Roth said. “City and state officials have an obligation under domestic and international law to enable peaceful assembly and ensure that law enforcement officers are trained to protect that right.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2020, 10:00 am