LGBT activists protest the planned revision to Indonesia’s criminal code outside parliament in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 12, 2018.

© 2018 AP Photo
Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced on Friday he wanted parliament to delay its vote on the country’s proposed new criminal code. The pending bill contains dozens of articles that violate the rights of women, religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people – and ultimately all Indonesians.

Jokowi’s announcement followed large demonstrations in Jakarta’s streets in recent days. Yet it will mean little unless he can persuade his ruling coalition to vote against the draft law.

Jokowi’s opposition is a welcome but belated turnaround. The bill had earlier received support from his administration, allowing it to proceed to a second stage of deliberations where the plenary session in the House of Representatives will decide.

If passed by parliament, the 628-article bill would become law 30 days later, whether Jokowi signs it or not. Jokowi has instructed Minister for Law and Human Rights Yasonna Laoly to encourage parliamentarians to delay the bill, letting the next parliament, to be sworn in on October 1, debate it.

Provisions in the bill that effectively censor the dissemination of information about contraception and criminalize abortions will deprive women and girls of their right under international law to make their own choices about when and whether to have children. Provisions that criminalize sex outside of marriage and unmarried cohabitation violate international law by criminalizing consensual sex between adults. These provisions are likely to disproportionately affect women and criminalize same-sex conduct – something Indonesia has never done.

Six new articles on blasphemy could be used to further discriminate against non-Muslim, non-Sunni, and local believers. Indonesia’s blasphemy law is already used as a “political weapon”; expanding its “elements of crimes” – including defaming religious artifacts – will facilitate Islamist militants’ targeting of minorities.

A new criminal code could be an opportunity to remove toxic and discriminatory laws from the books and build a better, rights-respecting Indonesia. But if Jokowi’s late move to delay debate fails, his vision of a modernizing and open country will be lost.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 23, 2019, 4:59 am

The names of the months in French and sign language are depicted inside a classroom for deaf students in Leveque, a community where a group of deaf people relocated after the 2010 earthquake in Cabaret, Haiti, April 17. 2016.

© 2016 AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery

We often take for granted our ability to interact with others in our own language. But significant barriers to communicating in sign language are depriving many deaf people of enjoying even these basic interactions.

More than 70 million deaf people around the world use sign languages to communicate. Sign language allows them to learn, work, access services, and be included in their communities. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities calls on states to accept, facilitate, and promote the use of sign languages with the goal to ensure that people with disabilities can enjoy their rights on an equal basis with others.

But Human Rights Watch research around the world finds deaf people often struggle to access basic services. In India, Iran, and Russia, lack of sign language interpreters and information in accessible formats hampers access to public services and courts. In these and other countries, communication barriers also impede access to health care for deaf people. In one case, Shahla, a deaf woman in Iran, told us she can’t visit the gynecologist unless her mother accompanies her. “But this is very embarrassing to share everything when my mom is there. So it’s better not to go,” she says.

We have documented cases of deaf children in Nepal, China, and northern Uganda who were denied their right to education in sign language. In Brazil, we found many deaf people living in institutions spend their lives without being able to meaningfully communicate because they were never taught how to sign.

Everyone should be able to access information equally. Human Rights Watch offers multiple formats to increase accessibility of more of our products, including videos in sign language, closed captioning, and reports in easy-to-read format.

On this International Day of Sign Languages, governments should remember their obligation to ensure deaf people are able to access schools, jobs, medical treatment, and other services, and fully support their equal inclusion in society.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 23, 2019, 4:00 am


Indonesia: Indigenous Peoples Losing Their Forests

The Indonesian government is failing to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples who have lost their traditional forests and livelihoods to oil palm plantations in West Kalimantan and Jambi provinces.

(Jakarta) – The Indonesian government is failing to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples who have lost their traditional forests and livelihoods to oil palm plantations in West Kalimantan and Jambi provinces, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Loss of forest occurs on a massive scale and not only harms local indigenous peoples but is also associated with global climate change.

The 89-page report, “‘When We Lost the Forest, We Lost Everything’: Oil Palm Plantations and Rights Violations in Indonesia,” examines how a patchwork of weak laws, exacerbated by poor government oversight, and the failure of oil palm plantation companies to fulfill their human rights responsibilities have adversely affected Indigenous peoples’ rights to their forests, livelihood, food, water, and culture in Bengkayang regency, West Kalimantan, and Sarolangun regency, Jambi. The report, based on interviews with over 100 people and extensive field research, highlights the distinct challenges Indigenous people, particularly women, face as a result.

“Indonesia’s Indigenous communities have suffered significant harm since losing their lush ancestral forests to oil palm plantations,” said Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu, researcher on women and land at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The Indonesian government has created a system that facilitates the deprivation of Indigenous land rights.”

A complex web of domestic and international companies is involved in growing palm fruit, processing palm fruit into oil, manufacturing ingredients, and finally using these ingredients to produce consumer products sold around the globe – everything from biodiesel blends to frozen pizzas, chocolate and hazelnut spreads, cookies, and margarine, to the manufacturing of numerous lotions and creams, soaps, makeup, candles, and detergent. Given its ubiquity in consumer goods, every person globally has probably consumed palm oil in some form. 

Human Rights Watch focused on the plantation operations of two palm oil companies: PT Ledo Lestari in West Kalimantan and PT Sari Aditya Loka 1, a subsidiary of the Jardine Matheson Group, in Jambi. Both oil palm plantations have had a devastating impact on the rights of two Indigenous peoples: the Ibans, a subgroup of the Dayak peoples indigenous to Borneo (Kalimantan), and the Orang Rimba, a semi-nomadic, forest-dependent Indigenous people in central Sumatra.

Kinda, 48, a resident of Dusun Pareh, said, “The water [in the river] is contaminated.” Some residents believe the Kumba River they previously relied on for water to drink, cook, and perform household chores has been contaminated, based on their observations of the color of the water and their perceived skin sensitivities to it. Bengkayang regency, West Kalimantan, September 2018.

2018 Pailin Wedel for Human Rights Watch

The impact of oil palm production can be seen across Indonesia, including in restive Papua province, Human Rights Watch said. Conflicts related to land are pervasive and have frequently been linked to oil palm plantations. Konsorsium Pembaruan Agraria (Consortium for Agrarian Reform), an Indonesian nongovernmental organization, documented more than 650 land-related conflicts affecting over 650,000 households in 2017, and about 410 conflicts affecting 87,568 households in 2018.

Various Indonesian laws, starting from 1999, require companies seeking to develop oil palm plantations to consult local communities at every stage of the process to obtain government permits. Companies have responsibilities under international law to have ongoing consultations with communities.

Human Rights Watch found no evidence that these oil palm plantation companies adequately consulted with affected households until after forests were significantly destroyed. In West Kalimantan, Iban villagers said they learned that the company had initiated operations in their forest only when bulldozers and other equipment rolled in to raze their land. A decade later, PT Ledo Lestari signed agreements with some families to relocate their homes a few kilometers into the plantation but did not provide any compensation for the loss of their indigenous forest and livelihoods derived from it. Their community is now enclaved within the company’s oil palm plantation, leaving them no land for gardens. The forest has been largely destroyed, clearing plants they use for food and materials used to make mats and baskets they sell to supplement household revenue. Community members said company representatives burned down their traditional homes at the old village, including the belongings of residents who refused to relocate.

In Jambi in central Sumatra, PT Sari Aditya Loka 1 failed to adequately consult with the Orang Rimba to mitigate any ongoing harm after legal reforms introduced clear obligations to do so. The company has not organized any meaningful consultations nor reached agreement to provide remedies to the Orang Rimba the company displaced from their forests.

The forest itself has been irrevocably changed. In the past, the forest provided community members with most of their needs – from food to rattan. Many Orang Rimba in Jambi province are now homeless, living in plastic tents, without livelihood support. Some Orang Rimba said they had been self-sufficient but are now reduced to begging on the highway or “stealing” oil palm fruits from the plantation area to sell and make money. Many now live in abject poverty.

In both communities, women experienced distinct losses in passing on intergenerational knowledge and skills, such as weaving mats and baskets made from forest products. Several Indigenous women also said they had lost sources of supplemental income.

In 2018 and 2019, Human Rights Watch wrote to both PT Ledo Lestari and PT Sari Aditya Loka 1 introducing our research and later explaining our findings, along with a list of questions. PT Ledo Lestari has not responded. In August, Human Rights Watch received a letter via email from the vice president of sustainability at PT Astra Agro Lestari Tbk, PT Sari Aditya Loka 1’s parent company. The letter provided details on education, health, and economic programs the company implemented in the area. However, both companies have failed to create any mechanism to explore restitution or provide just and fair compensation for losses suffered, in consultation with the Indigenous people affected.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights set out company responsibilities independent of government obligations to identify, prevent, mitigate, and remedy human rights abuses linked to their operations. Human Rights Watch research indicates that the companies were falling short of their human rights responsibilities.

Successive governments in Indonesia have turned a blind eye to widespread forest clearance, facilitating the proliferation of oil palm plantations. Between 2001 to 2017, Indonesia lost 24 million hectares of forest cover, an area almost the size of the United Kingdom. Indonesia has about 14 million hectares of land planted with oil palm.

Deforestation on such massive scale threatens not only the wellbeing and culture of the Indigenous populations, but also has global significance associated with climate change. The European Union responded to the environmental concerns around palm oil production by capping all palm oil imports for biofuel at 2019 levels until 2023, and a total phase-out by 2030. The EU policy should also advocate for transparency within the supply chain to curb human rights risks communities face due to oil palm plantations.

On September 23 at the Climate Action Summit in New York, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will be asking leaders from government and business to enhance their commitments to reduce carbon emissions drastically by mid-century. One key summit theme is a focus on nature-based solutions by increasing carbon sink capacity and enhancing resilience within and across forestry.

In 2018, President Joko Widodo announced a moratorium on new permits to oil palm plantations. The moratorium is a good start, but additional reforms are long overdue, Human Rights Watch said.

A bill to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights and ensure that simple recognition procedures are put in place is being debated in Indonesia’s parliament. If passed, it would go a long way in protecting Indigenous peoples’ rights to their customary forests.

“The poverty, hunger, and loss of identity experienced by Indigenous people in exchange for oil palm and the consumer goods it produces is a human rights tragedy,” Nnoko-Mewanu said. “Parliament should promptly adopt the bill to protect Indigenous rights to stop further irreversible damage caused by the palm industry.”

Selected accounts from the report:

Leni is a 43-year-old Iban Dayak woman and mother of two, in Jagoi Babang district of West Kalimantan province – an area her Indigenous community has inhabited for centuries. A decade and a half ago, lush forests with evergreen fruit-bearing rambutan trees surrounded Leni’s home. Currently, they have little land to farm and no forest in which to forage after the land was cleared to make way for an oil palm plantation run by an Indonesian company. Leni explained:

Before our lives were simple, not rich, but enough. Since oil palm came there is more suffering. I can’t feed my family. I have a baby. I must put food on the table every day. How do I do that when both of us [my husband and I] are not working. Every day I must figure out how to do this.

Maliau, an elderly Orang Rimba mother of nine children, has struggled to survive off land in Sarolangun district of Jambi province on the island of Sumatra. The forests once sustained her the families in her community. They have now been decimated by an oil palm plantation that began operating in the area nearly three decades ago:

Life was better before. Women could find many types of food. Some wove mats from leaves and baskets. We made lamps from gum resin. Now we cannot find materials to make these.

Mormonus, a 49-year-old village leader of Semunying Jaya, was one of two people who were detained by the police in 2006 for organizing protests against PT Ledo Lestari’s expansion into their forest:

Forest means everything. Forest provides water. Water is blood … land is body, wood is breath. When we lost the forest, we lost everything. We can’t pray to the god of oil palm.

Francesca, a 28-year-old Iban Dayak mother of two, said she and her husband refused relocation. She said that company representatives torched her home, rendering them homeless:

An assistant manager came to my home. On that day my oldest son had fever. He said to my husband, “Your five hectares of land here is gone and two hectares here is gone. Go to the company and get your money.” My husband told them he doesn’t want to sell. Months later, while I was at my mother’s new house [in the plantation] and my husband was away in Malaysia, we heard a loud noise and could see smoke. I went to see, and it was crazy. My house was already burned. Everything was in there, my son’s bicycle, clothes, and all the wood we planned to build a house, all was gone.

Susanti, a 37-year-old Iban Dayak single mother of four, said:

The [company] cleared the land and said I must move to another place. I had to sell my land or let them take it with no pay. I did this to survive. They [company] did not provide transportation for me to move my things [to new location]. They burned my wood and belongings I left behind.


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 23, 2019, 3:01 am

A still photo of a video circulated on social media on September 20 showing masses of anti-government protesters in the city of Damietta, North of Cairo, tearing down a big Sisi banner. 

© Twitter
(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities should protect the right to peaceful protest in upholding Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should immediately release all those arrested for solely exercising their rights.

Media reports and videos posted on social media on the evening of September 20, 2019 show thousands of anti-government protesters gathered in several cities across the country. Security forces, including the military and the police, have apparently chased and rounded up protesters and surrounded Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, according to media reports.

“President al-Sisi’s security agencies have time and again used brutal force to crush peaceful protests,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should recognize that the world is watching and take all necessary steps to avoid a repetition of past atrocities.”

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should direct the state security forces to abide by international standards for law enforcement during demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said.

The protests followed calls for President al-Sisi to step down by Mohamed Ali, a former army contractor, who over the past two weeks has published allegations of corruption within the army and of al-Sisi himself.

In recent months, al-Sisi has warned against protests, and Egyptian security forces have used unnecessary and excessive lethal force in recent years against peaceful protesters with near-total impunity. In the largest mass killing of protesters in Egypt’s modern history, security forces killed at least 817 protesters within a few hours on August 14, 2013, as security forces violently dispersed a sit-in at Rab’a Square in Cairo. Authorities also have failed to investigate these mass killings, which most likely amounted to crimes against humanity.

Authorities have imprisoned and prosecuted thousands of protesters since President al-Sisi rose to power in late 2013. The nationwide crackdown intensified after he became president in June 2014.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party, upholds the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

The Egyptian government should publicly order the security forces to abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Human Rights Watch said. The Basic Principles state that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.” Furthermore, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

Earlier on September 20, al-Sisi flew to New York City to participate in the United Nations General Assembly. Egypt’s international partners, as well as the UN secretary-general, should call on the Egyptian government to respect people’s rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 21, 2019, 4:00 am

Mourners carry coffins of protesters killed in the September 19 and 20 demonstrations during a ceremony organized by the opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, November 1, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

Three years ago, Congolese security forces shot dead at least 66 protesters, rocking Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Three years later, nothing has been done to hold senior officials responsible to account.

The protests, which took place from September 19 to 21, 2016, were against the national electoral commission’s failure to announce presidential elections. The delay was part of a long, concerted effort by then-President Joseph Kabila to stay in office past the two-term constitutional limit.

During the protests, people were burned to death when the Republican Guard presidential security detail attacked opposition party headquarters. Security forces took away the bodies of many victims; some were thrown into the Congo River and later found washed up on its shores.

One protester told Human Rights Watch that he saw soldiers shooting at a group of peaceful protesters outside of their truck: “When they drove by a group of young men gathered together, they started shooting. ‘You shot him in the neck, but he isn’t dead,’ one of the soldiers said. ‘Shoot again,’ the other said.”

Some protesters in Kinshasa turned violent, beating or burning to death at least four police officers and one bystander. They also burned and looted police stations, public buildings, and private property. Human Rights Watch found police officers and youth league members – whom ruling party officials and security force officers had mobilized – were also involved in the violence and looting.

Several officers told Human Rights Watch that Gen. Gabriel Amisi and Gen. Ilunga Kampete gave orders to the security force units on the ground. The officers also said that Col. Ferdinand Ilunga Luyolo, commander of the National Intervention Legion of the Congolese Police (LENI), gave orders to Republican Guard troops who were deployed during the crackdown. Evariste Boshab, the interior and security minister at the time, was officially responsible for the security services. None of these senior officials have been brought to justice.

“My son … was shot dead at close range in the chest by a Congolese soldier [on September 20, 2016],” the father of Jiresse, who was 31-year-old, told us today. “I will never forget that. The perpetrators of this unjust act must be punished, and the state must compensate us.”

President Felix Tshisekedi and his new government should stand by the victims and help ensure long-overdue justice.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 20, 2019, 7:03 pm

(Goma) – The death in the Democratic Republic of Congo of a rebel leader wanted by the International Criminal Court highlights the need to bring justice for his forces’ many victims. The Congolese army announced on September 18, 2019 that its forces killed Sylvestre Mudacumura, commander of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and “his closest lieutenants” the previous night.

Sylvestre Mudacumura. 

FDLR forces under Mudacumura’s command committed numerous atrocities against people in eastern Congo and Rwanda. He had been wanted by the ICC since 2012 for the war crimes of murder, mutilation, cruel treatment, rape, torture, destruction of property, pillaging, attacks on civilians, and outrage upon personal dignity allegedly committed in eastern Congo between 2009 and 2010.

“Mudacumura’s death should not mean that victims and their families are denied justice,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Remaining FDLR leaders should still be prosecuted and the victims provided redress.”

A villager who lost seven family members to Mudacumura’s forces in Masisi territory in 2008 told Human Rights Watch, “Even with Mudacumura dead, we continue to cry for the many Congolese who remain orphans, widows and widowers.” Another person from Masisi, whose village the FDLR attacked in 2009, said: “Mudacumura killed our brothers, sisters, and children…. I regret that he was killed without being brought to justice and held accountable.”

Human Rights Watch repeatedly pressed the Congolese government and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country, which had waged a military campaign against the FDLR, to arrest Mudacumura and transfer him to The Hague. This would have been a critical step toward advancing international justice in the region.

Human Rights Watch documented the killings of over 700 civilians by FDLR fighters in 2009-2010. Most victims were women, children, and the elderly, whom the rebels hacked to death with machetes or hoes or burned to death in their homes. These attacks were accompanied by widespread rape and other sexual violence.

Some FDLR leaders participated in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, in which Hutu extremists set out to destroy the Tutsi minority. Since then, Rwandan Hutu militias based in eastern Congo have reorganized politically and militarily, going through various name and leadership changes. The rebel group’s current configuration, the FDLR, was established in 2000.

FDLR forces continue to carry out serious abuses, sometimes alongside other Congolese armed groups.

In the last two years, armed groups in Congo’s eastern Kivu provinces have killed at least 1,900 civilians and abducted more than 3,300 others. Congolese authorities should make accountability for grave crimes a domestic priority, and officials will need support to investigate, apprehend, and appropriately prosecute abusive commanders who remain at large, Human Rights Watch said.

Mudacumura was the last person wanted by the ICC for crimes related to the situation in Congo.

The Congo-related cases that have come before the ICC have not adequately addressed the scale of the crimes committed in the country since 2002, when the court’s jurisdiction began. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the ICC prosecutor to expand the investigation in Congo to include, for example, the role of senior political and military officials from Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda who supported, armed, and financed abusive armed groups in eastern Congo over the last two decades. The ICC prosecutor should formulate a clear strategy to address outstanding accountability needs in Congo, including by supporting Congolese authorities.

“Armed groups like the FDLR will continue to kill, rape, and pillage because so few commanders are ever held to account,” Mudge said. “Mudacumura is dead but his lieutenants are still committing atrocities against civilians in eastern Congo. Both the Congolese government and the ICC have a role to play in bringing them to justice.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 20, 2019, 5:30 am

This June 2019 photo shows Gorofa village, Nkoben area, one of the current settlements for those evicted from Mau forest in July 2018.


(Nairobi) – Authorities in Kenya have not investigated abuses by security officials during the forced evictions of thousands of people from Mau Forest in July 2018 and now are planning more evictions, Human Rights Watch said today. In August 2019, the government announced plans to evict another 60,000 people from the forest. The authorities should ensure that police officials do not use unlawful force, and should provide the residents with adequate notice and compensation as required under Kenyan and international law.

The evictions of people who have settled on forest land are an effort to save the Mau ecosystem, which the authorities say is threatened by ongoing encroachment, heavy deforestation, and illegal settlements. The recent evictions targeted people who have settled on Maasai Mau, a block of Mau forest managed by the Narok county government that is held in trust under the Mau Trust Land. The Kenya Forest Service manages another 21 blocks.

“In efforts to preserve Mau forest, the government has conducted evictions in an abusive, unlawful manner, and isn’t following its own guidelines,” said Otsieno Namwaya, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “While forest conservation goals are laudable, the way the government is carrying out the evictions raises serious human rights concerns.”

In June, Human Rights Watch interviewed 67 people in Maasai Mau and the Narok side, including people who had been evicted, conservation groups, police, and government officials. Researchers found that in early July 2018 a combined team of forest, wildlife, county, and national administration police deployed to the Maasai Mau forest on the Narok side and used excessive force to evict the communities that authorities say encroached forest land.

June 2019: Burned remains of a dwelling of one of those evicted from Mau forest in July 2018.

© HRW/Namwaya

At least nine people, including two babies, died during the eviction. The officials beat people, torched homes, and destroyed crops, leaving thousands of people homeless and stranded in the cold. At least four people remain missing, and families say they have received no police support to search for their missing relatives.

In at least three locations, the evicted people moved elsewhere on the edge of the forest, setting up temporary settlements, most of them in Masaita, Gorofa, and Chepalungu villages in Nkoben area, Narok county. Community leaders said government officials evicted them again in December, allegedly to stop them from returning to the forest, destroying their temporary settlements in Gorofa, Masaita, and Chepalungu. But the families later managed to rebuild their temporary structures on those sites.

Officials have told them to return to their places of origin. The people said they had migrated from Bomet, Kericho, or Narok counties to settle on Mau forest land, and some, who had bought the land and acquired ownership documents, had been living there for more than 30 years.

The government has not investigated the deaths, injuries, and other abuses, though at least 30 families reported them to police stations in Narok county. At least two senior government officials in Narok revealed that the official debriefing report described the abuses, including destruction of settlements, food crops, and stores, and brutal treatment of the residents. “The number of houses burned or the number of those injured is in the debriefing report, which we can’t share,” one official said.

The new eviction plans include both people who have land titles and those without, according to government officials. The government has received court permission to cancel titles, contending that, although legal, the land was irregularly allocated and, in some cases, the titles were issued by “unscrupulous” officials. Criminal investigators in the town of Narok told Human Rights Watch that they were investigating government officials, both past and current, and will prosecute those found responsible for the irregular allocation of land and issuance of deeds.

In early August, the Land Ministry nullified over 1,274 title deeds in advance of the evictions. Families with titles have filed a challenge in a Nakuru court, but government officials say that everyone involved, with or without titles, will be evicted.

The people who now live in the scattered settlements on the forest edge said that at around 6 a.m. on July 7, 2018, more than 100 armed security officers from the Kenya Forest Service, Kenya Wildlife Service, Narok County Security team, and Rapid Deployment Unit of the Administration Police deployed to the edges of the forest-neighboring villages in Nkoben area such as the Chepalungu, Gorofa, and Masaita areas, on the Narok side of the Maasai Mau forest. They said the police raided homesteads, shot in the air, beat and evicted residents, looted, torched houses, and chased away anyone who came to salvage their goods or crops.

In some cases, the security officers used power saws to cut down houses or, in other instances, simply torched them. Victims said the security officers beat residents with big sticks and gun butts, injuring hundreds, and arrested and detained many others during the three-day operation. A 41-year-old man said:

“When I heard that evictions had started, I left church and went to check on my house. Police blocked me on the way, beating me up. Police were beating anyone who tried to access the houses.”

Human Rights Watch documented 9 deaths, although community leaders estimated that about 30 died. In Kararet village, when security forces evicted all the residents from the Enakishomi ranch, a 45-year-old mother of nine, who was being pursued by the evictions police, slipped and fell in a ditch with her 5-year-old daughter on her back. The daughter, Sharon Chepkoech, died four weeks later from her injuries.

Two people, one a neighbor to the victim and the other a relative, told Human Rights Watch that two other people committed suicide when they realized they had lost all they owned. Both their bodies were found dangling on a rope.

Family members of a man who has been missing since the evictions said that several months later, they had found the remains of a man they suspected was their relative near where the evictions took place. But they said a postmortem was never carried out to determine the man’s identity. In Reiyo area, a group ranch hived off from Mau forest in the 1970s, researchers saw the remains of an unidentified woman, who residents said died during the eviction, still lying in the forest.

Kenya adopted guidelines on evictions in 2009, three years after another violent eviction from Mau forest that the government halted following a court order. According to the guidelines, those being evicted should be given prior notification of at least three months, published in the official government gazette and served to the affected people individually or, where that is not possible, pinned in an open place where everyone can see it.

The guidelines require the authorities to ensure that no one is left homeless and to ensure adequate consultation with affected communities to develop or communicate a comprehensive plan for resettlement and compensation.

Government officials said they had issued adequate notice, including hosting public meetings with communities a month beforehand. But the people interviewed said they were unaware of the government’s plan to evict them.

Taken in June 2019, internally displaced people at Masaita camp. They were evicted from Mau forest in July 2018.

© HRW/Namwaya

No one interviewed has been compensated or resettled, and government officials in Narok said there is no plan for either resettlement or compensation, including for those individuals who had deeds to the land, as it was forest land and should never have been allocated to individuals. On August 18, the cabinet secretary for the environment, Keriako Tobiko, called the land encroachment a crime for which there can be no compensation: “You cannot pay people for crime. In fact, the government is being lenient. In normal circumstances, it jails people for crime.”

Under international law, forced evictions are a gross violation of human rights, and states must take all measures possible to prevent forced evictions. States have the responsibility to ensure compensation for the displaced communities, irrespective of whether they hold title deeds. The authorities should also respect the right to property of any individual, family, or community that owned the land. Where forced evictions are inevitable due to exceptional circumstances, such as where it is in public interest, the authorities are still required to adhere to international standards, including accountability for violations, as well as nondiscrimination and attention to vulnerable and marginalized groups.

The Kenyan government should ensure that abuses during forced evictions in Maasai Mau in 2018 are investigated and those responsible held to account, and that any ongoing evictions are carried out in a manner that respects national and international standards.

“Kenya’s government should ensure that evictions in the name of conservation are humane and lawful,” Namwaya said. “The authorities should address the past violations before proceeding with more evictions and ensure that evictions meet international and national standards.”

For details about the situation and accounts by victims, please see below.


Map showing Mau forest. The Nkoben area, on the Maasai Mau side of the forest, was the site of forceful evictions in 2018.

© 2019 John Emerson/Human Rights Watch

History of Mau Forest Evictions

Originally covering over 400,000 hectares, according to the Narok deputy county commander, the Mau Complex of 22 blocks, extending through 7 counties, is the largest forest in Kenya and the single most important water catchment in the Rift Valley and western Kenya. The forest is the source of at least 12 rivers that feed into 3 lakes – Victoria, the world’s second largest freshwater lake, Nakuru, and Naivasha. In line with its climate change commitments, including reducing the levels of greenhouse gas emissions and the risks of drought or floods, Kenya’s government has been evicting people from the forest since 2004 to reclaim encroached forest land. Private conservationists and Land Ministry officials estimate this land at around 40,000 hectares.

Kenyan officials have said they are alarmed at the rate of encroachment and deforestation in Mau forest. Government officials and staff at a conservation group that works in Narok said that, according to their research, illegal settlements and deforestation of the Mau are altering the whole Mau ecosystem, leading to prolonged droughts, drying of rivers, and death of animals in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

At least 40 percent of the forest cover has been depleted by deforestation and encroachment by more than 50,000 people who authorities say were irregularly allocated land by government officials since 1974. Some have managed, with the help of “unscrupulous” government officials, to acquire ownership documents such as titles, according to a conservation group working in the Mau. “When it rains nowadays, we experience peak flows that are very high and very low base flows,” an official of the group said. “During recent drought in 2009 and 2019, Mara River and other rivers in the Mau basin dried up completely. If the Mau was intact like it was 50 years ago, the rivers would not have dried up.”

A land official in Narok said that the government aims to reclaim land that residents unlawfully occupied in block 22, the Maasai Mau, on the side of Narok county. Kenyan authorities allocated forest land to group ranches – tracts of 200-250 hectares for group farming and commercial activities, which is provided for under Kenyan law – and to individuals between 1973 and 1985. That was followed by another round of allocations in 2001. But Land Ministry officials say that some group ranches extended boundaries unlawfully into forest areas or subdivided the land to individuals, contrary to regulations.

Since 2004, Kenyan authorities have been trying to conserve Mau forest. An initial 100,000 people were evicted between 2004 and 2006, with serious abuses, according to Amnesty International and Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. The evictions stopped when the High Court in Nakuru awarded an injunction on behalf of seven people who had titles, which the government said it had canceled. The court said the government could not revoke titles without court orders.

In 2018, the authorities sought court permission to cancel the titles on the basis that the Mau forest land was irregularly acquired. The court granted the petition in June 2019, authorizing the government to cancel titles ahead of planning new evictions that will, in view of the court order, even include people with titles. The authorities told Human Rights Watch that they will evict all unlawful residents, with or without titles.

On July 7, 2018 the government began the first round of evictions. The second round was scheduled to follow in 2019, but community and political leaders in the Rift Valley have cautioned the government against carrying it out before the case filed in the Nakuru court about the 2018 evictions is concluded.

Government land policy over the last 50 years has contributed to the encroachment, said a 2010 report of the Task Force on Mau Forest Complex, through uncontrolled degazettement and excisions of forests and allocation of land to individuals, in some cases irregularly.

The government’s excision of land for group ranches between 1973 and 1985, five of which have since extended boundaries and encroached into the forest, is an example. The five – Sisian, Enkaroni, Enosokon, Anakishomi, and Reiyo – have enhanced their allocated area by an extra 1,807 hectares, according to a Land Ministry official. In 2001, the government excised another 61,587 hectares of the forest to allocate to individuals. Since 2001, communities have encroached on an estimated 29,000 hectares. In the same period, government officials irregularly allocated over 17,000 hectares in the Maasai side of Mau.

2018 Evictions

In June 2019, Human Rights Watch visited camps for the displaced people of Mau in Narok and interviewed 67 people, including victims of forced evictions, community leaders, witnesses, conservationists, officials from Kenya Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Land Ministry, Environment Ministry, national government administrators, and police investigators. Human Rights Watch worked closely with partner organizations in Narok to identify people evicted and community leaders, and further cross checked the information with government officials and police. Researchers focused only on the violations during the July 2018 evictions from the Maasai Mau Forest, Narok county.

Deaths, Missing People

Human Rights Watch found that at least nine people died and others remain missing following the evictions. Witnesses and victims said that the evictions team fired gunshots in the air, in some cases aiming lethal fire at fleeing residents, but most of the people who died fell while fleeing. In June 2019, researchers saw the remains of a man and a woman, who survivors of the evictions said had died after police who were pursuing them shot them dead and abandoned them there.

A relative said that on July 8, 2018, 5-year-old Sharon Chepkoech fell off her 26-year-old mother’s back, as her mother fled the evictions team, which had demolished their house and destroyed their food store. Sharon fell ill and died in Masaita camp a week after the fall, a family member said.

In another incident, a 39-year-old man said that his 52-year-old mother, Elizabeth Tuwei, died at Tenwek mission hospital, Bomet County, in September 2018, where she had been admitted after the evictions. “The evictions team came with power-saws, which they used to destroy everything, including food stores, crops in the farms and all our houses,” said Richard Ng’eno, her son. “My mother collapsed in shock on July 7 when the evictions started and we admitted her at Tenwek hospital, where she died.”. The other victim, Richard Tanui, a neighbor of Elizabeth Tuwei, was fleeing the evictions team when he fell in a ditch in Oruwuit village and died instantly, relatives said.

Relatives of 20-year-old Sharon Ng’etich and 12-year-old Mercy Chepkoech, a former standard six student at Reiyo Primary school, both of Chepalungu camp, said the two have not been seen since the day of the eviction. Sharon’s husband said: “My wife was seriously affected psychologically by the eviction, and she went missing when the eviction was still going on. She left me with three children, and we have never seen her again.”

A survivor said that, on July 7, in Lebekwet village, the evictions team, including administration police and Kenya Wildlife Service police, chased a 24-year-old man, Emmanuel Sigei, and started beating him: “They beat his neck, back and waist with a big stick until he fainted. They then dug a hole and wanted to bury him. They thought he was dead. People made noise and they stopped. No one has seen Sigei since that day. He could have died.”

Others who died included Gideon Kipkoech, in his 30s, a disabled man who starved to death when the evictions team violently dragged him out of his house and left him outside for days. Samuel Pere, a Maasai in his 50s, died in September 2018, during intercommunal violence between the Kalenjin, who opposed the evictions, and the Maasai, who supported them. The Maasai said that the drying rivers are leading to animal deaths in Maasai Mara Game reserve, with a negative impact on tourism, which is an economic mainstay for the Maasai in Narok county. Two other bodies of people who died there during the evictions were still uncollected in the forest at the time of the visit.

Beatings, Looting

All those interviewed said that a combination of wildlife police, forest police, county government security team, and the national administration police raided homesteads at 6 a.m. for three successive days, shooting in the air to disperse people and beating people, torching houses, destroying crops, and looting households and food stores. But government officials denied that the eviction was forceful.

A senior warden with Kenya Wildlife Service, Dickson Ritan, who was the head of the evictions team, said: “The process was very smooth. People were not evicted. They were just asked to move out, and this took just three days. We assisted people to carry their goods from their houses.” The deputy county commissioner for Narok, Arthur Bunde, who was part of the team that planned the evictions, said that the evictions were largely peaceful and only those who resisted were forced out, and there was no looting by the evictions’ officers.

All the 67 victims interviewed, including those who had escaped unhurt, said the authorities used force, including shooting at people. A 35-year-old man in Masaita camp who owned a shop, said that, when the evictions team raided his home on July 8, it demolished his shop, burned down his houses, destroyed crops, and beat him and his mother. His mother, Ruth Sigei Laboso, 55, fell and broke her leg as she tried to flee, he said.

A 93-year-old grandfather said police raided his Ororuit village home on July 8, beat him and his10 children, burned his three houses, clothes, and crops. Police beat one of his sons, 30-year-old Bernard Kiprotich, for instance, with sticks on the back and head, injuring him. Police forcefully took Ksh30,000 (USD300) from Kiprotich and never returned it. Kiprotich reported the incident at Malelo police station but police have never investigated it.

At least 30 people interviewed said the evictions team looted their household items, destroyed their food stores, and carried away the food. Julius Bor, 48, said that police burned down his food store with 30 bags of beans, 150 bags of corn, 15 sacks of potatoes, and 3 sacks of onions. Three men interviewed, one currently in Gorofa area and the other two in Chepalungu area, said the security team carrying out the evictions slaughtered and feasted on their goats, sheep, and cows.

Failure to Uphold Eviction Guidelines

Human Rights Watch found that Kenyan authorities have failed to respect both national and international laws, according to which all victims of forced evictions are entitled to adequate compensation and resettlement. Government officials in Narok told researchers that government would not compensate or resettle evictees, as they had encroached government land.

In addition, the authorities did not issue adequate notice to the affected people. Government officials said they informed people a month in advance of the evictions, and later issued with a two-week notice. But the guidelines require at least 90 days’ notice served individually to each person, and those interviewed said that residents were unaware of the intended evictions.

The guidelines require government officials to initiate consultations with the affected communities on the eviction plan, providing full information on the alternative settlement sites and compensation. The guidelines say: “The government shall ensure that, in the event that agreement cannot be reached on the proposed alternative by the affected persons, groups and communities and the entity proposing the forced eviction in question, the dispute shall, in the first instance, be referred to Mediation Committee consisting of representatives from the affected group, officials from the Ministry of Lands, representatives from the party intending to carry the eviction and a representative from the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.”

The guidelines require the government to take special measures to ensure that there is no arbitrary deprivation of property or possessions as a result of eviction. Property and possessions left behind involuntarily should be protected against destruction, arbitrary, and illegal appropriation, occupation, or use.

But victims said that no one has been compensated and that the authorities have yet to compile a record of those evicted with the view to either compensating or resettling them. Since July 2018, the environment cabinet secretary Keriako Tobiko has repeatedly said to the media that none of those evicted would be compensated as they had illegally encroached on government land.

“Instead of getting money to resettle them, we want then to go back to where they came from. Some have returned titles willingly and gone back to where they came from,” said Arthur Bunde, the deputy county commissioner for Narok.

Lack of Accountability for Violations

Although Kenyan media have widely reported on the abusive evictions and some people have said they reported beatings and destructions of property to police, Human Rights Watch found that Kenyan authorities have not investigated them. A senior government official in Narok said that, after the eviction, the government carried out an assessment, which included details, including “how many houses were burned where.” Kenyan authorities have not released this assessment to the public.

A senior police officer in Narok attached to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations said that, even though he has been tasked to lead a team investigating issues relating to the Mau evictions, they are not looking into abuses resulting from the evictions. A Kenya Wildlife Service official in Narok who participated in the evictions said the authorities have not investigated the abuses because there were none: “No one has reported any abuses, whether its killings or beatings. The process was very peaceful. Our officers just escorted them out of the forest.”

At least 57 people interviewed described how the evictions team either looted homes and food stores or used violence against people. At least 30 said they had made official reports, including about deaths resulting from the evictions, at police stations in Narok but there has been no follow up.

Police have failed to intervene in intercommunal violence stemming from the evictions. The Maasai support government efforts to conserve Mau, including through evictions, while the Kalenjin, who have gradually moved into the forest since the 1974, have resisted. At least two Maasai families, including one that lost a relative during the intercommunal violence in September, said that police have failed to investigate the violence even though the affected families made official reports at police stations.

The family of William Pere, who was killed in mid-September inside Mau forest, where he had gone to retrieve his livestock when the violence erupted, said they made an official report at both Gorofa police post and Lulung’a police station. Although officers from Lulung’a station visited the crime scene, no further investigations have taken place since, and no one has been held to account.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 20, 2019, 5:00 am

The Union Flag flies near the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, June 7, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

In light of the United Kingdom government’s decision to suspend parliament, apparently to avoid scrutiny just weeks before it risks crashing out of the European Union without a deal, the Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka suggested that the Commonwealth should investigate Britain.

Soyinka argues that suspending parliament sets a terrible example in democratic practice. The UK’s reputation as “the mother of parliaments,” whose government describes itself as the “home of parliamentary democracy,” is being challenged.

And the move to suspend parliament – combined with government ministers suggesting they might not respect the rule of law – is at severe odds with the government’s attempts to be an international champion of human rights and democratic values. 

The UK’s conflicted standards on rights at home and abroad come at a critical time.

When Hong Kong authorities cracked down on protests with excessive violence, the British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab rightly called for the full respect of the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong. Yet Britain’s voice carries less weight when, at the same time, it’s moving to undermine democracy at home.

Meanwhile Cameroon, a Commonwealth member, is facing a serious crisis in its two Anglophone regions, with killings by both security forces and armed separatist groups. The UK recently urged Cameroon's government to respect human rights and to ensure access for human rights officials in the affected regions. But when its own reputation on rights is being challenged by voices in the Commonwealth, the UK needs to apply at home the standards it rightly calls on other countries to respect.

In a recent speech about Britain’s role in the world after Brexit, Raab’s predecessor said the UK’s unique combination of soft and hard power gives the country “a real ability to shape the course of history in line with our values.”

Unless the UK government starts to practice what it preaches, those words will ring hollow.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 20, 2019, 4:00 am

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a public meeting in Ahmadabad, India, Sunday, May 26, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Ajit Solanki

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the United States next week,  he will address a large gathering of Indian Americans in Houston, and be joined by President Donald Trump. He will also meet business leaders, receive an award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and address the United Nations General Assembly.

Wherever he goes, the Indian delegation will likely encounter protests over the worsening human rights situation in India. Since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took office in 2014, there has been an increase in attacks on minorities, particularly Muslims, a crackdown on free speech, and targeting of human rights activists.

Much of the criticism, however, will focus on India’s recent actions in Jammu and Kashmir since the government revoked the state’s autonomous status in August. This includes a broad internet and mobile phone blackout and the detention without charge of several thousand people, including leaders of political parties and separatist groups, journalists, and lawyers.

The current human rights situation in Kashmir cannot be divorced from the nearly three decades of separatist insurgency and counter-insurgency that has left tens of thousands killed, and many more injured or displaced. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said his government is trying to  “find actually more effective answers for what is a very challenging situation.”

But at the same time, boasts by BJP leaders that the recent Kashmir decision will enable their acquiring land and brides in Kashmir has many Kashmiris deeply concerned that the doors have been opened for a new influx of abuses.

Instead of committing more abuses against the beleaguered community, the Modi government would do better by addressing Kashmiri grievances over human rights violations. So, when Modi and his delegation face protests in the US, they should listen and seek a way to engage, instead of responding with angry defiance.

And when US officials and business leaders meet Modi, they should remember that any celebration of India should be about lauding its long embrace of democracy, civil liberties and human rights. And in that, the Modi government has floundered.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 19, 2019, 9:11 pm

(Washington, DC) – Human Rights Watch and four other plaintiffs will present arguments on September 20, 2019 against the dismissal of their challenge to a 2017 United States law that imposes criminal liability for online speech about sex work.

The hearing will take place at 9:30 a.m. in Courtroom 31 of the E. Barrett Prettyman US Courthouse and William B. Bryant Annex in Washington, DC. Plaintiffs contend the law violates freedom of speech and makes sex work more dangerous for an already vulnerable and criminalized population, Human Rights Watch said.

People march in support of sex workers, Sunday, June 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. People marched in support of decriminalizing sex work and against the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, among other issues. 

© AP Photo/John Locher
The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, commonly known as FOSTA, makes it illegal to own or use an internet site with the intent to “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” Because the law’s language is broad and vague, it could prevent sex workers and others from writing about sex work and posting about critically important health and safety issues, and it would restrict organizations like Human Rights Watch from effectively reporting on and advocating for the decriminalization of sex work.

“We’re going to keep fighting this law that threatens our ability to do our job – to clearly advocate for the rights of sex workers and to see our work shared freely across the internet,” said Skye Wheeler, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “We’ve already seen the law impel many partners and intermediaries to take down information that helps guide sex workers to online resources to protect themselves.”

Sex workers and sex worker organizations in the United States have said FOSTA has endangered them. Websites that made it easier for sex workers to screen clients and to sell sex in safer locations have stopped sex workers from posting.

The co-plaintiffs in the case with Human Rights Watch are the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, the Internet Archive, and individuals Alex Andrews and Eric Koszyk. The lower court dismissed the case in September 24, 2018 without addressing the substantive claims, on the basis that plaintiffs faced no imminent risk of prosecution. The plaintiffs will argue that the court applied the wrong standard, and that, in cases involving free expression, the appropriate lens is whether speech will be unconstitutionally burdened or chilled.

“We’ve already seen a chilling impact from FOSTA and it has affected how our partners work,” Wheeler said. “We’re not going to sit around and wait to be prosecuted before we fight this law.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 19, 2019, 5:17 pm

A Tanzanian policeman watches over as Burundian refugees gather on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Kagunga village in Kigoma region in western Tanzania, where they wait for transport to Kigoma township, May 17, 2015.

© 2015 Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

(Nairobi) – Tanzania should protect Burundian refugees fleeing widespread abuses instead of requiring them to return to Burundi against their will.

Tanzanian authorities have announced a plan to send all 183,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzania back to Burundi by the end of 2019. Instead, the authorities should allow refugees fearing persecution to remain in Tanzania.

“Tanzania should publicly state that refugees will not be forcibly returned or coerced into registering for repatriation to Burundi,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Tanzania and neighboring countries, supported by international partners, should urgently assist and protect Burundians facing continuing abuse in Burundi.”

Burundi plunged into a widespread political, human rights, and humanitarian crisis when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his decision to run for a controversial third term in 2015, triggering widespread protests. Following a failed coup by military officers in May 2015, the government intensified its crackdown on protesters, pushing over 400,000 to flee the country. Human rights abuses have continued, particularly against real or perceived members of the opposition, ahead of legislative and presidential elections scheduled for May 2020.

The Tanzanian position on Burundian refugees’ situation is not clear. In August 2019, Interior Minister Kangi Lugola said that starting October 1, “2,000 refugees…will be repatriated every week until there are no more Burundian refugees in Tanzania.” The statement raised concerns that the government would forcibly return refugees to Burundi.  

However, on September 17, during the 42nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the deputy permanent representative of Tanzania, Robert Kainunula Vedasto Kahendaguza, called for the international community to support the world’s most underfinanced refugee crisis by funding “the repatriation of all Burundian refugees who have registered to do so” under a 2017 voluntary repatriation arrangement.

Kahedaguza did not state that refugees would be forced to return to Burundi, creating confusion over whether the authorities will begin repatriating Burundian refugees on October 1, as Lugola had announced.  

On August 24, the day before Lugola’s announcement, Burundi and Tanzania signed an agreement, seen by Human Rights Watch, which says the presence of refugees in Tanzania has created the illusion within the international community that Burundi is not peaceful and that therefore “refugees are to return to their country of origin whether voluntarily or not” by December 31.

In a media statement responding to the August agreement, a UN refugee agency spokesperson said in late August that hundreds of people are still fleeing Burundi each month and that conditions in the country are “not conducive to promote returns.”

Tanzania and Burundi first set a goal in March 2018 of ensuring that 2,000 Burundians would voluntarily return to Burundi each week under a 2017 tripartite agreement with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to facilitate – not promote – the voluntary repatriation of Burundian refugees. However, the return rate has been far lower, with only 74,088 returning between September 2017 and July 31, 2019. As of August, just over 180,000 Burundian refugees were still living in the three camps in the northwestern region of Kigoma.

The 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 African Refugee Convention prohibit refoulement, the return of refugees to places where their lives, physical integrity, or freedom would be threatened. Refoulement occurs not only when a refugee is directly rejected or expelled, but also when indirect pressure is so intense that it leads people to believe that they have no option but to return to a country where they face a serious risk of harm.

Since mid-2017, conditions have deteriorated in the refugee camps in Tanzania, due to chronic underfunding of aid operations for Burundian refugees in the region. There were food ration cuts between August 2017 and October 2018; a ban on refugees leaving the camps, including to find work or firewood; violence against some who leave the camps; and pressure to return to Burundi by Tanzanian officials. There also has been reported insecurity in the camps and threats against refugees by members of the Burundian ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure.

In August 2018, the protection chief of the UNHCR, called on Tanzania “not to pressure … refugees directly or indirectly to influence their decision to return.”

Some Burundian refugees say they have felt additional pressure since the interior minister’s announcement, citing worsening camp conditions. One refugee in Nyarugusu camp, speaking to Human Rights Watch on condition of anonymity, said: “Some have already decided to leave because life in the camps has become impossible. On September 9, they closed the informal market in our camp. They had already banned motorbikes. They want to make conditions unlivable, so that we have no choice but to leave.”

Refugees have faced abuse in the recent past after returning to Burundi. On September 17, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi said that some Burundians returning from abroad, and in some cases members of their family, “were victims of serious violations including cases of disappearance, torture or ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests and detention. They felt compelled to flee once more because they feared for their safety.”

“I’m not part of any political party, but the government considers me a dissident because I fled Burundi,” a 26-year-old refugee in Nyarugusu camp who also asked to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch during a phone interview. “When we heard that everyone was going to be sent back, I was afraid. I prefer to die here than to go back. They think I took part in the coup d’état, and since I left in 2015, the Imbonerakure have threatened me often.”

In June 2019, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting worrying patterns of abuse, including killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and beatings, mostly by Imbonerakure members and local authorities and targeting real or perceived members of the recently registered opposition party, the National Congress for Freedom (CNL, Congrès National pour la Liberté).

The Commission of Inquiry’s latest report on Burundi, published on September 4, concluded that “serious human rights violations – including crimes against humanity – have continued… across the country.” The targets, it said, were, in particular, real and suspected opposition supporters, Burundians who have returned from abroad, and human rights defenders. Although Nkurunziza has said he will not run for president again, the commission drew particular attention to the “major risk” posed by the 2020 election.

The African Union (AU) has declared 2019 the year of “refugees, returnees, and internally displaced persons,” and its members, including Tanzania, have committed themselves to strong regional refugee protection. 

“There are clear signs that authorities are trying to force Burundian refugees to return, against international and African standards,” Frelick said. “The AU should urgently request clarification from Burundi and Tanzania on whether they plan to carry out their recent deal. If there ever was an opportunity for the AU to hold members accountable to their refugee protection obligations, this is it.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 19, 2019, 1:30 pm

© 2016 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – The Trump administration’s proposed rule on debt collection companies in the United States would severely undermine protections for consumers, Human Rights Watch said today. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) rule would give wide leeway to abusive debt collectors and collection attorneys by allowing them to try to collect debts by using false, deceptive, or misleading representations, even after the statute of limitations has ended.

Human Rights Watch joined 232 organizations from across the United States in a statement calling for the CFPB to increase protections for consumers against harassment and abuse of rights by debt collectors. Between a quarter and a third of adults with a credit report has a debt in collection. Debt collection abuses are regularly among the top reason for consumers to complain to the CFPB.

“The Trump administration’s proposed rule better protects abusive debt collection companies than consumers,” said Komala Ramachandra, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The CFPB should do more to rein in debt collectors’ abusive practices and ensure that federal law is enforced.”

Debt collectors buy third-party debt, often for pennies on the dollar, and often without documentation of the original debt. Many collectors use aggressive legal and collection tactics to recoup the whole debt, plus interest, even though they never lent any money to the alleged debtors. Collection attorneys file thousands of lawsuits every year without adequate review, and sometimes against the wrong person, for the wrong amount, or by an entity without legal authority to collect that debt.

Courts decide many of these lawsuits without the debtors present or without adequately scrutinizing the claims. These result in default judgments in favor of debt collectors, with some judges entering hundreds of judgments in the space of a few hours. This can lead to wage garnishment and other consequences for debtors, sometimes without their knowledge. Human Rights Watch examined the devastating financial impact of collection lawsuits on the poor in a 2016 report, “Rubber Stamp Justice: US Courts, Debt Buying Corporations, and the Poor.”

Federal law prohibits false, deceptive or misleading representations by debt collection attorneys. However, the proposed rule is so vague on the steps required by lawyers to verify information in a debt collection lawsuit that it may be meaningless to protect consumers from frivolous litigation. Civil society groups called on the CFPB to require collection attorneys to review original documentation of the debt they are attempting to collect and make an independent determination that they are filing a lawsuit against the right person, for the right amount, based on accurate information about the age of the debt, and that their client has the legal authority to file the lawsuit.

Residents in communities of color are more likely to have debt sent to collections. A CFPB survey found that 44 percent of borrowers of color reported having been contacted about a debt, compared to 29 percent of white respondents. Strong rules on debt collection practices are needed to protect consumers living in poverty and communities of color, Human Rights Watch said.

“Debt collection lawsuits not only threaten the rights of people living in poverty, but also disproportionately impact communities of color,” Ramachandra said. “The proposed rule should be significantly strengthened for the sake of all consumers.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 19, 2019, 12:00 pm

New information received by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burundi supports what many have long suspected: Marie-Claudette Kwizera, the treasurer of the Burundian group Ligue Iteka, was targeted because of her human rights work and murdered.

Marie-Claudette Kwizera.

© Private

Almost four years ago, Marie-Claudette, who was passionate about human rights and had joined the Ligue Iteka in secondary school, was picked up and driven away in a vehicle thought to belong to the National Intelligence Service (SNR). The vehicle with tinted windows took her to an unknown location, leaving her colleagues and loved ones expecting the worse. The commission now says she was driven to a local SNR office before being taken to another location to be executed.

Marie-Claudette’s murder remains a warning to those who dare denounce abuse in the country. Only yesterday, the commission confirmed that in 2018 and 2019, there was an aggravation of restrictions on civil liberties, as “journalists and human rights defenders continued to be arbitrarily arrested and detained, but also intimidated, harassed or subjected to ill-treatment to prevent them from carrying out their legitimate activities.”

That the Burundian authorities have failed to launch a thorough, independent investigation into her death is not surprising. Ligue Iteka publicly denounces abuse by security forces and the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure.

Abductions and disappearances took place all too regularly in Burundi in late 2015 and 2016. Jean Bigirimana, a journalist with Iwacu, Burundi’s last remaining independent newspaper, was on a reporting trip in July 2016 when he disappeared. Unconfirmed reports indicated that members of the Burundian intelligence services arrested him in Bugarama.

The commission says that these days anyone suspected of not supporting the ruling party is at risk. Families live in fear that their loved ones will be picked up one night by members of the SNR or Imbonerakure, never to be seen again. Sometimes, if the authorities or the Imbonerakure don’t find the person they are looking for, they take their family members instead.

But families like Marie-Claudette’s have a right to full, independent, and speedy investigations by authorities into what happened to their relatives. Until then, the Commission of Inquiry’s mandate should be extended to continue their critical documentation work.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 19, 2019, 6:46 am

Hassan al-Dika 

© Private
(Beirut) – Lebanese judicial authorities failed to investigate serious torture allegations made by Hassan al-Dika prior to his death in custody, Human Rights Watch said today, on the two-year anniversary of the passage of an anti-torture law.

Internal Security Forces (ISF) officers arrested al-Dika, 44, on November 1, 2018 on drug-related charges. Al-Dika alleged that ISF officers subjected him to repeated beatings and electric shocks, suspended him in stress positions, and forced him to confess, including in notes he allegedly smuggled out of prison. Prison authorities transferred him to a hospital on April 2, 2019 due to his deteriorating health, which his family said resulted from torture in ISF detention. He died in the hospital on May 11.

“The prosecutor’s failure to investigate Hassan al-Dika’s allegations underscores serious failings in how Lebanon’s judiciary is handling torture complaints,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The procedures in the anti-torture law are intended to safeguard the evidence and provide accountability for the crime of torture. Yet two years on, we have yet another case in which authorities failed to follow the law.”

On July 31, in response to a Human Rights Watch letter inquiring about the investigation into al-Dika’s death and torture complaints, Justice Minister Albert Serhan sent Human Rights Watch a copy of the investigation results compiled by the acting cassation prosecutor following al-Dika’s death.

The report stated that the ISF’s Central Criminal Investigations Department conducted the investigation, although the anti-torture law prohibits security agencies from carrying out torture investigations. An investigation by the ISF into actions committed by its own officers is neither independent nor impartial, Human Rights Watch said.

Toufic al-Dika, Hassan al-Dika’s father, who was also acting as his lawyer, filed a complaint with the public prosecutor on November 21, 2018 alleging that his son had been tortured. Instead of referring the complaint to an investigative judge within 48 hours as required under the anti-torture law, the public prosecutor sent it to the ISF, whose officers allegedly committed the torture.

The public prosecutor also did not appoint a forensic medical examiner within 48 hours of receiving the complaint on November 21 as the law requires. Ghassan Moukheiber, a former member of parliament and architect of the anti-torture law, told Human Rights Watch that he met with the public prosecutor in November after Hassan al-Dika’s father submitted the torture complaint to her, urged her to appoint a doctor to examine al-Dika, and that she refused. When he cited the anti-torture law, Moukheiber said, the public prosecutor told him that “she had not seen the law.” On May 12, the investigative judge who issued al-Dika’s arrest warrant also said that that the public prosecutor had not agreed to appoint a forensic doctor to examine al-Dika. The public prosecutor claimed in response that she had authorized al-Dika’s transfer to the hospital and ordered a medical committee to examine al-Dika, but she did so many months after the torture complaint.

On November 23, another public prosecutor authorized Toufic al-Dika to appoint a medical examiner “at his own expense.” Al-Dika’s family appointed a physician and psychiatrist to examine him. Both reported that al-Dika was suffering from serious physical and psychological trauma as a result of abuse. The authorities subsequently claimed that the physician had written a false report, but the psychiatrist’s findings alone should have prompted the authorities to investigate the torture allegations. Despite the psychiatrist’s compelling medical findings, the public prosecution still did not refer the complaint to the judiciary as mandated by law.

While the acting cassation prosecutor’s investigation report, compiled on July 27, after al-Dika’s death, states that a sergeant and nurse examined him upon his transfer to pretrial detention at the Baabda Justice Palace on November 9, as did a physician from the ISF on November 19 who found a number of contusions on al-Dika’s shoulders and right arm, government statements immediately after al-Dika’s death do not reference those medical examinations. While an ISF statement on May 12 disputes the findings of the physician appointed by al-Dika’s family, it does not indicate that other examinations were conducted.

On December 10, Toufic al-Dika filed another torture complaint directly with the investigative judge, enclosing both reports from the physician and psychiatrist he appointed. Both Toufic al-Dika and Moukheiber told Human Rights Watch that the clerk at the judge’s office initially refused to register the complaint. They also alleged that when the investigative judge finally registered the complaint on February 27, he shared details of the complaint with ISF officers.

Subsequently, Toufic al-Dika told Human Rights Watch that he received threats to his life that he deemed serious, compelling him to withdraw both complaints on March 20. The anti-torture law requires the authorities to ensure the protection of the person filing the complaint from ill-treatment and intimidation.

On January 25, three specialized United Nations experts sent a letter to the Lebanese government expressing grave concern about the alleged arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment of al-Dika.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed concern on May 14, following Hassan al-Dika’s death, about the judiciary’s failure to investigate al-Dika’s original allegations of torture, and called for a “thorough, effective, and independent investigation” into his death.

Human Rights Watch also found that the ISF and the public prosecution committed serious due process violations, notably by arresting al-Dika outside the permissible hours and apparently falsifying the date of al-Dika’s arrest.

Human Rights Watch has routinely documented credible reports of torture in Lebanon. However, authorities have failed to properly investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment by security services, and justice for torture in detention remains elusive. Ziad Itani, a well-known actor exonerated of spying for Israel, has described in detail his forced disappearance and torture in detention at the hands of State Security in November 2017. Despite filing a lawsuit against the individuals involved in his torture in November 2018, there has been little movement on his case.

As a party to the Convention against Torture, Lebanon is required to take effective measures to prevent torture, investigate credible allegations of torture, and hold accountable anyone found guilty of committing torture with appropriate penalties that take into account the gravity of the crime.

Lebanon should allocate a sufficient budget for the National Preventative Mechanism against Torture and accept the pending request of the UN special rapporteur on torture to visit Lebanon, submitted on February 13, 2017.

“There is absolutely no excuse when prosecutors and judges continue to ignore the provisions of the anti-torture law,” Fakih said. “Lebanon needs to step up its efforts to combat torture and ensure that anyone found responsible for misconduct in Hassan al-Dika’s case is held accountable.”

Due Process Violations During Hassan al-Dika’s Arrest

Toufic al-Dika told Human Rights Watch that at around 9:30 p.m. on November 1, 2018 more than 50 armed and uniformed ISF officers stormed the building where he and his son Hassan lived in separate apartments, and arrested his son, Hassan al-Dika, without presenting an arrest warrant, even when Toufic asked them to do so.

The father said that he did not hear from his son until two days later when Hassan was allowed to make a brief phone call. He was not allowed to see his family or a lawyer until the ISF transferred him to the Baabda Justice Palace pretrial detention facility on November 9. The authorities subsequently transferred him to Roumieh Prison and then to Aley Prison.

Under Lebanese law, police are not allowed to enter a suspect’s home between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. Unless a suspect is discovered in the act of committing a crime, police also cannot detain him without the public prosecutor’s prior approval. Article 47 of the Lebanese Code of Criminal Procedure also guarantees detained suspects the right to contact a person of their choosing, to meet with a lawyer, and to request a medical examination as soon as they are arrested. Arresting officers must inform detained suspects of these rights promptly upon arrest.

Pre-charge detention must not exceed 48 hours and can be renewed once for another 48 hours with the public prosecutor’s consent. In the investigation report that the Ministry of Justice sent to Human Rights Watch, the public prosecution claimed that the ISF arrested al-Dika on November 3, instead of November 1, and that the investigation with him concluded on November 5, after which the ISF referred his case to the public prosecution. ISF records compiled at the time of al-Dika’s arrest and interrogation, which Toufic shared with Human Rights Watch, indicate that al-Dika was arrested on November 1, not November 3.

The ISF stated that al-Dika remained at the ISF Information Branch until November 9 due to the lack of vacant pretrial detention places at the Baabda Justice Palace.

Officers found to have breached rules regarding the detention of a suspect are criminally liable for unlawful detention. The judiciary should ensure that an independent investigation is conducted into the allegations, and hold the responsible officers to account, Human Rights Watch said.

Hassan al-Dika’s Account of Torture

Human Rights Watch saw notes that Toufic al-Dika alleges his son Hassan al-Dika wrote during his pretrial detention at the Baabda Justice Palace, and smuggled out on cigarette cartons. In the notes, Hassan al-Dika described his ordeal at the ISF’s Information Branch. This account is consistent with reporting about Hassan’s case prior to his death.

He wrote that upon his arrest on the evening of Thursday, November 1, he was taken to a police building in the neighborhood of Ain El-Remmeneh, where he was kept overnight. The next morning, he was taken to the Information Branch, where officers handcuffed and blindfolded him, and forced him to remove his clothes. He stated that officers made him wait in a dark room “smaller than a toilet” for 15 minutes and then took him to a room where officers questioned him about his alleged drug smuggling. When al-Dika denied the accusations, he wrote, five officers beat him for two hours on his head, face, and stomach.  

After the beating, al-Dika wrote, officers interrogated him about his customs clearance company and his employees, and asked that he provide the requested information. He said he was then taken to a cell and left alone for two hours. Officers then entered the room and started questioning him about his alleged crime again. When he answered truthfully, he wrote, one of the officers called him a liar and officers beat him, applied electric shocks, and subjected him to the “falaka,” a form of torture that entails beating on the soles of the feet.

Al-Dika wrote that a few hours later, officers took him for interrogation again, where the torture was “on another level.” Officers beat him, including on his feet, and put him in the farrouj position, suspending him with his hands tied from an iron bar passed under his knees. Al-Dika wrote that he fainted an hour later, and when he regained consciousness, an officer told him, “Do you want to talk, or do you want to die?”

Al-Dika wrote that after that, he agreed to everything. “If they asked me whether I had killed the prophet, I would have said yes,” al-Dika wrote.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 19, 2019, 4:00 am

(Warsaw) – Tajikistan’s government takes little action to investigate or prosecute domestic violence cases and is doing far too little to help survivors, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Despite progress in some areas, Tajik law does not criminalize domestic violence, and women who experience abuse lack adequate protection and access to shelter and other services.

"He Often Beat Me Up"

"He Often Beat Me Up"

Senior researcher Steve Swerdlow talks about domestic violence in Tajikistan, and how oftentimes no one – from the police, to judges, to their own families – will help victims. 

The 93-page report, “‘Violence with Every Step’: Weak State Response to Domestic Violence in Tajikistan,” documents obstacles to help and justice for domestic abuse survivors. Despite laws that guarantee survivors’ rights to protection and social services, Human Rights Watch found ongoing gaps in police and judicial responses to domestic violence, including refusing to investigate complaints, failing to issue or enforce protection orders, and treating domestic violence as a minor offense. Human Rights Watch also released a video with domestic violence survivors describing the hurdles they faced when trying to get protection.

“The response to domestic violence victims in Tajikistan often leaves them in danger,” said Steve Swerdlow, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Officials are ignoring their obligations to enforce Tajikistan’s law on domestic violence.”


Tajikistan: Barriers to Aid for Domestic Violence Victims

The Tajik government takes little action to investigate or prosecute domestic violence cases and is doing far too little to help survivors. 

A 2013 law on preventing domestic violence led to important measures, such as awareness-raising campaigns and staffing of some police stations with specially trained female police inspectors. But survivors, lawyers, and service providers report that police often ignore the law, and that victims lack adequate protection from abuse and access to shelters.

Underreporting and insufficient data collection make it difficult to assess the scale of domestic violence in Tajikistan, but local and international groups report that it is commonplace. In 2016, United Nations Women, the UN agency that champions gender equality, reported that domestic abuse affects at least one in five women and girls throughout the country, drawing on government statistics. In November 2018, the UN committee that oversees implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women expressed concern that domestic violence in Tajikistan is “widespread but underreported” and that, along with marital rape and sexual assault, it is not criminalized.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 80 people, including 55 female domestic violence survivors from the country. Human Rights Watch also interviewed police, lawyers, shelter and crisis center staff members, government officials, service providers, and representatives of the UN, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and other international organizations with projects on violence against women.

The Tajik government had not responded to requests for information regarding the implementation of the 2013 domestic violence law or provided any comment on the findings.

Women interviewed reported enduring years of abuse, usually by husbands or partners, including rape, stabbing, strangulation, and beatings with sharp and heavy objects such as a shovel, a fireplace poker, an iron, and a chair. They said abusers deprived them of food, clothing, and access to toilets or the kitchen. Women said the violence caused injuries, including internal bleeding and damage to vital organs, concussions, skull fractures, broken jaws, and severe bruises, as well as symptoms of trauma and emotional distress.

“After he beat me, I narrowly escaped and went to the city prosecutor’s office covered in blood,” said a 28-year-old woman who endured four years of spousal abuse and rape. But as she tried to report the violence, she said the prosecutor interrupted, saying, “Aren’t you yourself to blame?” He called her husband, exposing her whereabouts, and told her, “Everything will work out fine. Go home.”

Tajikistan’s domestic violence law allows police and courts to issue temporary or long-term protection orders to prohibit abuse or bar contact between the abuser and the victim. However, many survivors said that the police never informed them about protection orders or failed to enforce the orders or penalize abusers who violated them. Abusers are rarely prosecuted or brought to justice, Human Rights Watch found.

“Those responsible for domestic violence should be brought to justice,” Swerdlow said. “Without accountability, abusers are sent a message that domestic violence is acceptable.”

Survivors also face a dire lack of services. Tajikistan has only four specialized shelters for domestic violence survivors for a population of nearly nine million people, far short of the minimum called for in international standards. Nongovernmental groups provide most of the available services. Although Tajikistan has a network of state-supported women’s resource centers throughout the country, qualified psychosocial and mental health counselors are virtually nonexistent, and there is almost no legal assistance for survivors, including for property division following divorce.

Survivors and activists said that even in women’s resource centers and shelters, most available counseling focuses on reconciling survivors with their abusers rather than ensuring protection, services, and accountability for serious ongoing violence. Women said they were often encouraged to return to abusive relationships and continued to experience violence.

Other barriers include financial dependence on abusers and fear of losing custody of their children. Many women said they remained in abusive relationships or tried to reconcile with abusive husbands who had abandoned them because they and their children would otherwise go hungry.

In Tajikistan, where wives usually live with their in-laws, housing options, even after divorce, are extremely limited. A provision of Tajik law known as vseleniie means that courts often order that a divorced woman and her children be allocated a portion of the home of her former in-laws and husband in which to reside. Vseleniie has placed many women and survivors of abuse in even more precarious situations where they are exposed to continuing risks of violence.

Other harmful practices that can heighten the risk of domestic violence include polygamy and unregistered, forced, and child marriages, even though the government has raised the marriage age to 18 and taken steps to ensure that couples register their marriages with the state.

The Tajik government should amend the domestic violence law to explicitly criminalize domestic violence, Human Rights Watch said. It should ensure that police, prosecutors, and judges issue and enforce protection orders and investigate and prosecute domestic violence. Officials who fail to do so should be disciplined.

The government should also support shelter, health, psychosocial, and legal services for survivors, including by expanding legal aid and domestic violence shelters. The government should amend the vseleniie provision and develop longer-term housing options for vulnerable segments of the population, including domestic violence survivors.

Tajikistan’s international partners, including international aid agencies, should press the Tajik government to criminalize domestic violence. They should also offer further assistance for shelters, affordable longer-term housing, and other services for victims of domestic violence.

“The Tajikistan authorities’ priority should be protecting women from abuse, not pressuring them to return to unsafe environments,” Swerdlow said. “Tajikistan should ensure that domestic violence is investigated and prosecuted, and that there are shelters and other services available to keep women safe.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 19, 2019, 4:00 am

LGBT activists protest the planned revision to Indonesia’s criminal code outside parliament in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 12, 2018.

© 2018 AP Photo

(Jakarta) – The Indonesian parliament should substantially revise the proposed new criminal code to meet international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said today. The current bill contains articles that will violate the rights of women, religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, as well as freedom of speech and association.

“Indonesia’s draft criminal code is disastrous not only for women and religious and gender minorities, but for all Indonesians,” said Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Lawmakers should remove all the abusive articles before passing the law.”

Updating Indonesia’s criminal code, which dates back to the Dutch colonial era, has taken more than two decades. On September 15, 2019, a parliamentary task force finalized the 628-article bill. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill later in September.

A coalition of Indonesian civil society organizations has urged President Joko Widodo to delay passing the law because it will discriminate against non-Muslims, non-Sunni Muslims, and local religious minorities, as well as women and LGBT people.

Provisions of the draft criminal code violate free speech and freedom of association. The ability to engage in political speech, even speech espousing a peaceful political ideology that the government does not favor, lies at the heart of the democratic process.

Provisions that effectively censor the dissemination of information about contraception and criminalize some abortions will set back women and girls’ rights under international law to make their own choices about having children. Unintended pregnancies can affect a range of rights, including by ending a girl’s education and contributing to child marriage, as well as putting women and girls’ lives at risk and other health complications.

“The bill’s provisions censoring information about contraception could set back the progress Indonesia has made in recent years to dramatically reduce maternal deaths,” Harsono said.

The bill also expands Indonesia’s 1965 Blasphemy Law, which increases the enumeration of “the elements of crimes” to include defaming religious artifacts. Parliament should remove blasphemy offenses that are inconsistent with Indonesia’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Human Rights Watch said.

“Indonesia’s parliament should be encouraging free speech and association, and limiting – not expanding – the Blasphemy Law,” Harsono said. “The new criminal code is a precious opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted to remove toxic laws from the books and build a better, rights-respecting Indonesia.”

Problematic Provisions in the Draft Criminal Code

Article 2 recognizes “any living law” in Indonesia, which could be interpreted to include hukum adat (customary criminal law) and Sharia (Islamic law) regulations at the local level. Indonesia has hundreds of discriminatory Sharia and other regulations that discriminate against women, religious minorities, and LGBT people. As there is no official list of “living laws” in Indonesia, this article could be used to prosecute people under these discriminatory regulations.

Article 417 punishes extramarital sex by up to one year in jail. (The current code says only that married couples can be prosecuted for extramarital sex based on police complaints by their spouse or children.) While this article does not specifically mention same-sex conduct, since same-sex relationships are not legally recognized in Indonesia, this provision effectively criminalizes all same-sex conduct. It will also subject all sex workers to criminal prosecution.

Article 419 states that couples who live together without being legally married could be sentenced to six months in prison. A village head could report these couples to the police.

Article 421 criminalizes “obscene acts” in public with a penalty of up to six months in prison. This article could be used to target LGBT people.

Articles 417, 419, and 421 violate the right to privacy for consenting adults that is protected under international law. Such provisions can reinforce or exacerbate discriminatory social norms and have heightened impact on women, who may face pressure to enter forced marriages if accused of sex outside of marriage or an increase in societal “policing” of their behavior.

These articles could also be used to target religious minorities and the millions of Indonesians – some estimates suggest as many as half of all Indonesian couples – who do not marry legally because of difficulties in registering the marriage. They include members of hundreds of unrecognized religions including Baha’i, Ahmadi, and local religions, as well as people in remote regencies and islands.

Article 413 criminalizes the production or distribution of pornography, which is poorly defined under existing law. As Human Rights Watch has documented, the 2008 Law on Pornography, which defines portrayals of “deviant sexual intercourse” to include lesbian and male homosexual sex, has been used for discriminatory targeting of LGBT people.

Article 414 states that anyone who is “to show, to offer, to broadcast, to write or to promote a contraception to a minor” – children under age 18 – could face a prison term or fine.

Article 416 specifies some narrow exceptions for health professionals and authorized “competent volunteers” to discuss contraception in the context of family planning, preventing sexually transmitted infections, or providing health education.

While the exceptions are notable, the overall chilling effect of article 414 will diminish free exchange of vital health information, including by teachers, parents, the media, and community members, and will most likely impede even those who are officially exempted from the law.

Sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS can be largely prevented by regularly using condoms, and interfering with people’s ability to get information about condoms impedes their rights to life and health.

Human Rights Watch has documented that restricted access to condoms has particular impacts on marginalized groups – such as men who have sex with men and female sex workers and their clients – who already shoulder most of the burden of Indonesia’s HIV epidemic.

Articles 415, 470, and 471 state that only doctors have the right to decide to perform an abortion. This conflicts with the 2009 Health Law, which says a woman can seek an abortion in “a medical emergency,” which could be interpreted to include health reasons or rape. A woman who aborted her pregnancy could be sentenced to up four years in prison. Anyone who helps a pregnant woman have an abortion could be sentenced up to five years in prison. These articles might also be interpreted to prosecute those selling or consuming so-called morning-after pills as an abortion tool, with up to a six-month jail term.

Human Rights Watch research in several countries has shown that criminalizing abortion impedes rights protected under international law, including to life, health, freedom from torture and degrading treatment, privacy, and to determine the number and spacing of children.

Articles 304 to 309 expand the current Blasphemy Law and maintain the maximum five-year prison term. They will punish deviations from the central tenets of Indonesia’s six officially recognized religions – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. More than 150 individuals, most of them religious minorities, have been convicted under the Blasphemy Law since it was passed in 1965, including former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, a Christian, in 2017.

Article 118 imposes up to a four-year prison sentence on anyone who spreads Marxist-Leninist teachings.

Article 119 authorizes a 10-year sentence for associating with organizations that follow a Marxist-Leninist ideology “with the intent of changing the policy of the government.”

Article 219 criminalizes “insults” to the president or vice president.

Article 220 limits, but not sufficiently, application of the law to cases filed by the president or vice president.

Under international human rights law, restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and association are only permitted to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation and must ensure that any measure taken under the law is strictly proportionate to the aim pursued.

Laws penalizing criticism of public leaders are contrary to international law. Public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority, may be subject to criticism, and the fact that some forms of expression are considered to be insulting is not sufficient to justify restrictions or penalties.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 19, 2019, 1:45 am

A notice of electronic surveillance is posted near a 95-by-50-foot American flag unfurled on the side of an apartment complex in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S., June 14, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

Today marks 11 years since the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a federal lawsuit against mass surveillance in the United States on behalf of Carolyn Jewel and other AT&T customers. When it eventually concludes, this case will determine whether people in the US ever get a judgment on the constitutionality of mass surveillance.

The case began after a technician revealed that AT&T was routing fiber optic cable communications into a secret room in its San Francisco facility controlled by the US National Security Agency (NSA), allowing the government to gather the public’s communications without court authorization.

Throughout the case’s many hearings, the US government has dodged the central contention in Jewel that its unauthorized dragnet violated rights. It argues that to confirm whether the plaintiffs were spied upon would require disclosure of “state secrets.”

Government whistleblower after whistleblower has added to the Jewel plaintiffs’ credibility, showing how likely it was that the government performed massive unauthorized data collection on ordinary people. And although the existence of mass government surveillance is hardly a secret these days, a lower court judge ruled the matter was too sensitive for adjudication. The appeals court hearing the case now is faced with the question of whether individuals can challenge illegal surveillance if the government refuses to confirm it actually spied on them.

Plaintiffs in other democratic societies with their own national security interests don’t face this dilemma. Ordinary people and civil society groups have been able to challenge the legality of mass surveillance in the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, and before the European Court of Human Rights. Just this week, a South African court found mass surveillance violated the public’s rights.

As a plaintiff in a related case, Human Rights Watch has a direct stake in the Jewel litigation. We happen to be AT&T customers, and have challenged mass surveillance previously. Now, we are urging the court to remove the blinders imposed by invoking national security and consider these facts: first, human rights defenders are targets of state surveillance the world over; second, surveillance harms everyone’s interest in learning about human rights violations because it inhibits sources and activists; and finally, the US has a long record of obstructing even defendants in criminal cases from learning evidence against them may derive from questionable surveillance.

In the US, courts should not be barred from assessing potential human rights violations whenever the government cries, “National security secret!” The country’s legal system, like those of other democracies, is equipped to address real security concerns without depriving people of a remedy for abusive state practices. You can read our brief in the case here.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 18, 2019, 10:07 pm

Douala Court of Justice, Cameroon.

© Steve Mvondo/WikiMedia

Cameroonian lawyers are on strike this week, protesting law enforcement agencies’ interference in their work and violations of defendants’ rights.

In a communique issued on August 31, the Cameroon Bar Council explained that the lawyers decided to stage the five-day strike because of what they describe as systematic denial of access to their clients in detention facilities across the country, including the State Defense Secretariat (SED) detention facility in Yaoundé. The lawyers are also protesting authorities’ alleged refusal to acknowledge or respond to their various written requests, the prolonged and unlawful detention of their clients, and the extraction of confessions under torture. The lawyers further claim in the letter that they are “continuously being threatened, arrested and detained” while trying to do their work.

Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the widespread use of incommunicado detention and torture at SED, as well other violations of due process rights. A military court recently handed down a life sentence to the leaders of a separatist group following a trial in which the defendants were not able to exercise their right to effectively defend themselves.

The strike occurs about a month after inmates in Yaoundé’s Central Prison rioted in protest against abysmal living conditions and trial delays. Following the riot, Cameroonian authorities held over 100 detainees incommunicado for almost 2 weeks at SED. Many of them were tortured.

One lawyer told us, “This is our way to say no to the abuse and the denial of basic rights.”

Lawyers always have a critical role to play in protecting the rights of suspects in custody and defendants in court, and their role in protecting human rights is fundamental in the context of the current crackdown in Cameroon. They should be allowed to carry out their jobs safely, without undue interference, and freely access their clients in custody in order to protect their rights and prepare their defense. This strike should ring alarm bells over the lawyers’ inability to do so and the violations of detainees’ basic rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 18, 2019, 5:20 pm

Rohingya refugees gather in an open field at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing campaign in Rakhine State on August 25, 2019. 

© 2019 K M Asad/LightRocket via Getty Images

Bangladesh police have now killed six Rohingya refugees they claim were involved in the August 22 murder of Omar Faruk, a local leader of the ruling Awami League’s youth organization, in Cox’s Bazar.

Several United Nations human rights experts warned the Bangladesh government that ensuring justice for Faruk’s murder should not be “reactionary, summary and ad hoc.” Forcibly disappearing or killing suspects after taking them into custody has long been a problem in Bangladesh. After the recent killings, Bangladesh authorities said that these people were killed in “crossfire” or a “gunfight.” These familiar explanations are often an euphemism for extrajudicial executions.

The killings have created a climate of intense fear in the area’s refugee camps.

There are nearly one million Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh after fleeing atrocities committed by the Myanmar military. Tensions increased after the Bangladesh governmentattempted to begin repatriation of Rohingya, which failed because refugees fearedconditions in Myanmar remained unsafe.

Faruk’s murder sparked violent attacks against Rohingya by some in the host community. One refugee living in Camp 27 told Human Rights Watch that local residents continue to “threaten to beat or kill them,” saying “‘Why don't you [Rohingya] leave our land?’”

Instead of quelling the tensions, law enforcement officers allegedly refused to intervene and protect the refugees from these attacks. The authorities also engaged in collective punishmentcutting access to the internet and instructing carrier companies to halt the sale of SIM cards and phone connections to refugees, insisting that it was necessary to contain criminal activities. 

The Bangladesh government is navigating a precarious security environment in Cox’s Bazar, heightened by the influx of 700,000 Rohingya refugees since the Myanmar government’s ethnic cleansing campaign since late 2017. But every measure should be a proportionate response to specific risks and ensure the protection of basic rights. 

Considering the long history of rights violations by security forces in Bangladesh, authorities should send an unequivocal message that abuses will not be tolerated. People who fled massacres should not have to fear for their lives again.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 18, 2019, 4:24 pm

Her smile was striking, wide and slightly ironic. Sitting up straight on the defendants’ bench in a court in Rabat, Morocco on Monday this week, Hajar Raissouni was not letting the situation get her down.

Hajar Raissouni (Via Facebook)

Yet this 28-year-old journalist would have good reason to feel defeated. Arrested on August 31 with her fiancé, her gynecologist, and his two assistants, she has remained in prison ever since, facing two accusations – abortion and sexual relations outside marriage – which could earn her up to two years in prison. Her co-defendants could face sentences of 2 to 10 years for abortion and complicity in abortion. 

The lawyers spoke one after the other at the bar, raising multiple procedural irregularities. They also reminded the court of the position of the doctor and his patient, who strongly deny abortion, presenting detailed evidence. 

But others took a step back: they reminded the court that Morocco has ratified the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees everyone’s right to privacy. The government has no business interfering in people’s bedrooms. The criminalization of sex outside marriage is absurd and should be abolished.

As for abortion, its criminalization jeopardizes numerous fundamental human rights, including the right to life, the right to health, the right to privacy, and the right not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment. Why? Because criminalization often leads to secret abortions which are much more dangerous and lead to medical complications and maternal deaths. An average of between 600 and 800 secret abortions take place in Morocco every day. 

This Thursday, the judge will decide whether to order the provisional release of Hajar and her co-defendants. The trial will resume on September 25. We will be there.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 18, 2019, 4:05 pm