Venezuelan children play in a refugee shelter in Boa Vista, Roraima state, Brazil, August 26, 2018.

© 2018 Lucas Dantas for Human Rights Watch

On December 5, Brazil’s refugee agency (CONARE) granted asylum to 21,432 Venezuelans . Until then, CONARE had granted asylum to a total of just 263. There are currently 224,000 Venezuelans living in Brazil.

In June, CONARE concluded that “serious and widespread violations of human rights” exist in Venezuela, paving the way for the mass recognition of refugee status under the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, which provides guidance to Latin American governments on the scope of refugee protection.  

CONARE based its June finding on a 25-page technical report on the situation in Venezuela that cited Human Rights Watch’s work thirty times. The report extensively quoted Human Rights Watch research showing compelling evidence of serious human rights violations committed by the Venezuelan government under Nicolás Maduro, including excessive use of force against journalists and protesters, arbitrary detention, ill-treatment of detainees that in some cases amounted to torture, and eradicating judicial independence in the country. The report also relied on our research on the collapse of Venezuela’s health system and a spike in treatable diseases.     

The Brazilian government’s historic decision – considered a “milestone in refugee protection” by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) – is a recognition of the rights and dignity that so many Venezuelans in Brazil have hoped for. We have spoken to scores of Venezuelan asylum seekers at the Brazilian border over the past three years, and with this decision, it feels as though they have finally received the protection, stability, and reassurance to start a new life that they desperately need.

CONARE should next make a prompt decision on the cases of 98,000 other Venezuelans whose requests for asylum are still pending. Other countries in the region should take note and follow Brazil’s leadership in providing legal protection to Venezuelan refugees.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 6, 2019, 10:46 pm

People march through the center of Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek for International Women's Day, March 8, 2019.

© 2018 AP Photo/Vladimir Voronin

The “Feminnale” exhibition at Kyrgyzstan’s National Art Museum in Bishkek centers on the theme of economic independence for women, intentionally challenging gender norms in the country. But instead of treating the event as an opportunity to foster conversation, opponents have instigated an intense backlash, involving verbal abuse and death threats, the resignation of the museum’s director, removal of several artworks, and finally, calls for law enforcement to get involved.

The exhibition, which opened on November 28, coincides with the annual campaign 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence taking place in Kyrgyzstan and around the world. Members of a conservative nationalist movement objected to artwork incorporating nudity, and accused the artists of “perverting young people.”

The National Art Museum’s director, Mira Dzhangaracheva, was forced to resign following threats to herself and staff, including threats she said to “tear me apart, to rape me.”

Rather than enhancing protections for the artists and organizers, Kyrgyz Minister of Culture Azamat Zhamankulov sided with those seeking censorship, meeting with them to hear their complaints and calling for the removal of several artworks he deemed “provocative” and “amoral.” The censored artworks involved representations of naked women.

Then on December 5, some members of parliament spoke against the exhibition. One deputy, Kurmankul Zulushev, said law enforcement should open an investigation into the more controversial pieces on display.

International human rights instruments enshrine the right to freedom of expression, including through art. Limits to artistic freedom must be necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim, such as to defend national security or ensure respect of others’ rights. A United Nations cultural rights expert cautioned governments against curtailing the rights of artists, highlighting the importance of freedom of artistic expression to cultural and political progress. In response to the threats against Feminnale organizers, the United Nations office in Kyrgyzstan called on the government to ensure debate about gender takes place “free from incitement to hatred and violence.”

Rather than limiting public access to thought-provoking art, the Kyrgyz government should protect its creators against threats of violence and support freedom of expression, including about women’s rights. The government took steps in this direction on December 6, announcing it had opened an investigation into threats against the former museum director. It should ensure the investigation is thorough and fair and continue to act when violence threatens free expression.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 6, 2019, 10:01 pm

Andy Ruiz Jr (left) and Anthony Joshua during the weigh in at the Al Faisaliah Hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 6, 2019.

© 2019 Press Association via AP Images

Saudi Arabia has been better known of late for serious human rights violations than sports spectacles. Yet the country is hosting the December 7 heavyweight world title boxing rematch between Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua, with likely millions watching around the world. A month later, the kingdom will host the Dakar Rally, a legendary desert race.  

Under Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is rolling out ever more entertainment and sporting events, an apparent attempt to “sportswash” away its abusive rights reputation using large-scale events, with highly controlled environments, to show a progressive face of the kingdom.

Barely one year after Saudi state agents murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi officials are racing to lock in hosting contracts with other major sports federations.

But fans and viewers need to look past the glamour of these events. A recent Human Rights Watch report shows another side of Saudi Arabia, with widespread rights abuses including mass arrests and detention, a crackdown on dissent and free speech, surveillance and hacking, and jailing of the country’s most prominent women’s rights advocates, including Loujain al-Hathloul.  

Sponsors, broadcasters, and athletes are affected by sports organizations’ choices to hold major events in countries that don’t respect basic human rights. In January, more than a dozen women drivers will take part in the Dakar Rally, another opportunity to highlight that the Saudi women’s rights activists who fought for and won the right to drive in Saudi Arabia remain banned from travel, on trial or behind bars.  

World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has grappled with fan anger since its 2014 10-year deal with the Saudi government, and has only recently negotiated for its female stars to be able to wrestle in the kingdom. 

One positive dimension of Saudi Arabia’s newfound enthusiasm for sports is that the rules of sport increasingly require adherence to international human rights standards. As businesses, many sports bodies are increasingly adopting policies to ensure events are not brought to rights-abusing hosts. Earlier this year, the country’s bid to host an expanded 2022 World Cup failed in part due to human rights concerns. Increased pressure from fans and consumers would help ensure Saudi Arabia’s sports-hosting ambitions also raise the bar for human rights.

Instead of using sports to rehabilitate its global image, it would be cheaper and easier for Saudi Arabia to simply undertake fundamental human rights reforms and respect the basic rights of its citizens in order to improve its image and standing in the world.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 6, 2019, 5:41 pm

The transgender pride flag. 

© Wikimedia Commons

A Russian court has sentenced a 53-year-old trans woman to three years in prison, on bogus “distribution of pornography depicting minors” charges for sharing nude anime drawings on social media.

The case began in the summer of 2018, when Michelle was informed she was under criminal investigation for posts of “hentai” – sexually charged drawings featuring naked characters from Japanese cartoons – in 2013 and 2014.

Prior to the trial, which took place in November, the investigators ordered an “expert” evaluation of the images from the Center for Socio-Cultural Expertise, an organization known to provide damning conclusions in politically motivated criminal cases, including the case of Pussy Riot, the child pornography case against human rights defender Yury Dmitriev, and dozens of extremism cases against Russia’s Jehova’s Witnesses. Their evaluation of the drawings concluded that they included characters younger than 14 years of age. Authorities took Michelle into custody from the courtroom, immediately after the judge handed down the verdict. She remains in a solitary cell in jail pending an appeal hearing in her case.

Michelle, a survivor of bladder cancer who worked as an epidemiologist at a local clinic before she was fired because of the criminal case, has been on hormone therapy for transitioning for about two years. But she is legally recognized as male. She will therefore be forced to serve her sentence in a men’s penal colony. Such a blatant disregard for her gender identity leaves Michelle extremely vulnerable to abuse by both male detainees and guards.

Moreover, Maria Chaschilova, a lawyer at the Moscow LGBT Community Center, who was in contact with Michelle before her trial, says Michelle does not have access to hormone therapy in prison and will not have it in penal colony. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health warns that for trans people in detention the “consequences of abrupt withdrawal of hormones … include a high likelihood of negative outcomes such as surgical self-treatment by autocastration, depressed mood, dysphoria, and/or suicidality.”  

Michelle is appealing her conviction and sentence, but so long as this case persists Michelle’s rights to health, identity, expression, liberty, and even to life hang in the balance.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 6, 2019, 3:55 pm

Algiers, March 15, 2019.

© 2019 Ahmed Benchemsi/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) - Algerian authorities are cracking down on the protest movement known as “the Hirak,” which opposes holding the presidential elections scheduled for December 12, 2019, arresting hundreds of activists and imprisoning scores for protests or waving flags, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since the campaign officially opened on November 17, at least eight protesters have been convicted and imprisoned and 15 others are in pretrial detention on the vague charges of “compromising the integrity of the territory,” “distributing publications harmful to the national interest” or “calling for an unauthorized gathering.”

“The crackdown on protesters casts a long shadow on whether the Algerian authorities are prepared to accept everyone’s basic rights to speak out,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “No one should be arrested simply for waving a flag or expressing their opposition to an election.”

The Hirak began holding massive street demonstrations in February to oppose President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to seek a fifth term. After successfully pressuring him to resign, large numbers of protesters continued to take to the streets to demand the departure of the entire ruling elite and an inclusive transition toward genuinely democratic elections.

More than 120 protesters arrested since June for their role in the Hirak movement have either been sentenced and sent to prison or are in pretrial detention, according to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees, created on August 26 by activists and lawyers to defend arrested protesters.

Kaci Tansaout, a spokesperson for the group, told Human Rights Watch that the committee had recorded at least 300 arrests since the beginning of the electoral campaign. Tansaout said that while most people were released the same day, eight have been imprisoned after trial.

On September 15, Abdelkader Bensalah, the speaker of the upper house of Parliament who replaced President Bouteflika upon his resignation, announced that presidential elections would take place on December 12. Those elections, originally set for April 18, had been postponed until July 4 and then postponed again. The Hirak protesters maintain that Bouteflika-era figures have no legitimacy to organize the elections on their own or call for a more inclusive process to prepare for the vote.

Five candidates have qualified for the December 12 vote.

On December 3, Interior Minister Salah Eddine Dahmoune, speaking before parliament’s upper chamber, accused election opponents of perpetuating a “colonial” mentality, and called them “traitors, mercenaries, deviants and homosexuals.”

The eight people reported sentenced to prison terms in recent weeks include Ghoumari Isehaq, Riyahi Smail, Medeledj Sid Ahmed and Ben Sahla Sid Ahmed, who were arrested in Tlemcen on November 17 while protesting outside of the hall where Ali Benflis, a presidential candidate was holding a rally. The next day, a first instance court in Tlemcen sentenced them to 18 months in prison.

Ali Slimani was arrested on November 19 in a demonstration in Algiers and sentenced to two years in prison the next day by the first instance court in Bab el Oued. Abdelkader Boumzareg, arrested on November 22, was sentenced two days later to two months in prison by the first instance court of Hadjout, Tipaza. Yacine Elouareth and Taoufik Karfa, both arrested on November 20 in Algiers during a night protest, were sentenced on November 24 to one year in prison by the first instance tribunal of Bab el Oued in Algiers.

All eight activists were sentenced for one or more of the following three charges: “compromising the integrity of the national territory,” “distributing documents harmful to the national interest,” and “calling for an unarmed gathering” under articles 79, 96 and 97, respectively, of the penal code, stemming from their participation in peaceful protests, said Abderrahmane Salah, a lawyer who has been following the cases. None was charged with any violent act.

Fifteen other activists have been sent to pre-charge detention since November 17, on the same charges by various first instance courts, Tansaout said.

 

Mustapha Atoui, president of the National Association against Corruption, which exposes and combats corruption in Algeria, told Human Rights Watch that plain-clothes police arrested Halim Feddal, the group’s secretary general, on November 17 as he participated in what Atoui said was a peaceful demonstration in front of the Chlef first instance court to protest the detention of other Hirak movement protesters.

The police searched Feddal’s house, seized his computer, and detained him until November 19, when a prosecutor of the Chlef first instance court charged him under penal code articles 79, 96, and 97. An investigative judge at the same court ordered his pretrial detention in the Chlef prison.

On November 22, police arrested Fouad Ouicher, interim secretary general of the association Youth Action Rally (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse, RAJ), an association active in the protest movement, and Saida Deffeur, a member of the association’s branch in Tizi Ouzou. Kamel Nemmiche, a member of group’s executive bureau, told Human Rights Watch that the two were arrested in front of its office in Algiers after they participated in the weekly Friday protest.

On November 24, a prosecutor of the Sidi M’hamed first instance court charged both Ouicher and Deffeur with “compromising the integrity of the national territory” and “distributing publications harmful to the national interest,” under articles 79 and 96 of the penal code. An investigative judge of the first instance court of Sidi M’hamed in Algiers issued a detention order against Ouicher. He releases Deffeur but placed her under judicial control, requiring her to sign in once a week at the court. Eleven members of the group are being held in El Harrach prison, including its president, Abdelwhahab Farsaoui, and one of its founders, Hakim Addad.

In November, the First Instance court of Sidi M’hamed in Algiers sentenced at least 49 protesters to up to one year in prison on the charge of “compromising the integrity of the national territory,” for possessing or waving the Amazigh flag, a symbol of the large ethnic community of the same name. Before the Hirak protest movement in 2019, Algerians had generally been free to wave the Amazigh flag in public. The 49 had been held in detention since being arrested in Algiers at various times since June.

On November 11, the court sentenced seven flag-wavers to one year in prison, suspending six of the terms. On November 12, it convicted 22 other flag-wavers and sentenced them to one year in jail, with six months suspended. On November 25, the same tribunal sentenced 20 protesters to six months in prison for waving the flag.

Human Rights Watch reviewed one of the verdicts against seven flag-waving protesters who were arrested on June 21 during a Friday demonstration. It said that the protesters were arrested separately that day for waving or possessing the flag and interrogated at various police stations in Algiers.

The court convicted them all under article 79 for “compromising the national unity” and in doing so, invoked article 75 of the Algerian Constitution, which states that it is the duty of every citizen to safeguard Algeria’s “integrity of its territory and unity of its people.” The court held that Algeria has only one national flag as defined in the Constitution and that waving others could threaten its national unity.

The government should immediately free everyone detained or imprisoned for peaceful protest, including those who waved the Amazigh flag or expressed their opposition to the December 12 election, as these are acts of peaceful expression protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Algeria ratified in 1989, Human Rights Watch said.

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 6, 2019, 9:43 am

A screen shot from the Facebook page called “BespredelKG” (“lawlessness” in Russian), administered by Aftandil Zhorobekov, a Kyrgyzstan blogger, who posted about corruption allegations for which he faces prosecution on incitement charges.

(Berlin) – A blogger in Kyrgyzstan who wrote about corruption on social media is facing charges of inter-regional incitement, Human Rights Watch said today. The blogger, Aftandil Zhorobekov, was detained on November 24, 2019 by Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (GKNB) and held in pretrial detention until being placed under house arrest on December 5, with the charges against him still standing.

The national security agency said that Zhorobekov, the 34-year-old administrator of a Facebook page called “BespredelKG” – “lawlessness” in Russian – had posted “knowingly false and provocative information meant to discredit the current authorities,” which “resulted in the agitation of hateful feelings” among visitors to the page. Incitement carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison. The Kyrgyzstan authorities should drop the charges against him.

“The authorities in Kyrgyzstan are using bogus incitement charges as a pretext to punish Zhorobekov for his controversial posts about government figures,” said Laura Mills, a Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “His arrest sets a dangerous precedent that anyone could be held criminally liable for criticizing public figures, or for the offending speech of others.

A court-issued warrant published by media outlets said that Zhorobekov first attracted law enforcement attention for a post in which he accused the president and his allies of corruption. Separately, the national security agency sent media outlets various screenshots pertaining to the case, which included snapshots of posts about Kyrgyz politicians as well as comments posted by visitors to the page.

Law enforcement agencies’ repeated references to Zhorobekov’s writing about government figures underscore concerns that, since the claims of incitement are unsubstantiated, their real intent is to muzzle a critical voice. Politicians in Kyrgyzstan regularly target critical journalists or media outlets with damaging lawsuits, but defamation appropriately carries no criminal punishment. In this case, the authorities are holding Zhorobekov criminally liable for the actions of others – those who posted offensive comments on his Facebook page.

The charges against Zhorobekov violate Kyrgyzstan’s human rights obligations, including as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects freedom of expression. The ICCPR allows for certain restrictions on expression, including in response to “incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” But any laws restricting freedom of expression must comply with the principle of legal certainty, in that they are sufficiently clear and precise to ensure people are able to reasonably foresee the consequences of their actions and regulate their conduct in relation to the law. Restrictions can also only be imposed to the extent that they are a proportionate and necessary response to protect the interest at stake. The misuse of incitement charges against Zhorobekov to achieve an ulterior, impermissible motive – that of silencing a critic – fails to meet these criteria.  

The charges against Zhorobekov demonstrate how Kyrgyzstan’s broad definition of incitement can be used to chill freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. In March, the authorities detained a couple who held up posters condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin outside the Russian Embassy in Bishkek and charged them with inciting national hatred, though the charges were later dropped. A teacher accused of incitement for anti-Russian comments online was acquitted in May.

Zhorobekov’s family said that they were unaware of any previous expression of concern from the authorities regarding the content on his social media pages. They said his apartment was searched in the days after his arrest.

“The ability to express critical opinions is fundamental to freedom of expression,” Mills said. “The authorities in Kyrgyzstan should immediately drop the criminal charges against Zhorobekov, lift his house arrest, and ensure the statute on incitement isn’t used abusively again in the future.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 6, 2019, 5:01 am

March organized by the ruling CNDD-FDD in Burundi’s Gitega province, August 24, 2017.

© 2019 Private

(Nairobi) – Local officials and members of the widely feared youth wing of Burundi’s ruling party have extorted donations for the upcoming 2020 elections, in many cases with threats or force, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Members of the youth group, the Imbonerakure, have blocked access to basic public services for those who cannot show a receipt for their payment.

The 48-page report, “‘We Let Our Children Go Hungry’: Abuses Related to 2020 Election Levy in Burundi” documents the campaign by the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy party (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD) with the youth wing and local officials to collect “voluntary” contributions from the population. Human Rights Watch found that people have been forced to pay multiple times or more than the officially requested amount, or were not given a receipt, exacerbating the situation.

“Local authorities and Imbonerakure members exercise a terrifying level of control over people’s movements and basic activities like buying food, seeing a doctor, or getting water,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The election levy has opened the door to unbridled abuse.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 80 people, including 65 victims of the abuses. The victims are from 13 of the country’s 18 provinces.

A December 2017 government order established the contributions to be collected in various ways, including “voluntary” donations of 2,000 Burundian Francs (US$1.08) per household, 1,000 Burundian Francs ($0.54) per student of voting age, and direct deduction from the salaries of public sector workers and civil servants. But members of the Imbonerakure, who have no official role in the government or in collecting taxes, used violence and intimidation to extort money from Burundians.

They set up roadblocks to check receipts and restricted access to markets, schools, water pumps, and administrative services for those who failed to comply, Human Rights Watch found. Victims said that Imbonerakure members at food distribution centers managed by aid groups had beaten people, prevented them from getting food, or forcibly taken food from them.

One 23-year-old from Cankuzo province, who was forced to flee and leave his family behind, said “They put up barriers everywhere so you couldn’t go get water, go to the market, or just get around without the receipt.… I paid just so I could live safely. To get to the market, I went through three roadblocks.”

Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases during 2019 in which members of the Imbonerakure, sometimes working with police or local authorities, carried out killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and beatings of real or suspected political opponents.

Since early 2018, members of the Imbonerakure, visibly emboldened by their contribution collector role, also intimidated, threatened, and beat people to force them to donate food, livestock, and money to the ruling CNDD-FDD and take part in the construction of local ruling party offices, Human Rights Watch found.

In October, four members of the youth league were convicted of killing an opposition member and sentenced to life in prison. However, the Imbonerakure, who are often described as having more power than the police, have overall been shielded from justice and rarely been held accountable for their abuses.

President Pierre Nkurunziza announced the suspension of the collections in July 2019, claiming their objective had almost been met, but said those who wished to continue contributing could do so. Human Rights Watch found that the election levies are still being collected, albeit on a lesser scale, while the youth wing and local officials continue to collect other “donations” to the ruling party and other local projects.

The election contributions and associated extortion and other abuses have significantly affected the lives of many Burundians, including over 70 percent of the population of 11 million living below the poverty line, Human Rights Watch said.

A receipt for a one-ton contribution of beans paid to members of the Imbonerakure. The beans were worth one million Burundian Francs (US$540) at the time. The receipt with the ruling party’s logo reads: “What is your contribution to the political struggle?” Members of the Imbonerakure and local authorities have been forcibly collecting food contributions from people.

© 2019 Private

Imbonerakure members have strengthened their grip over many aspects of people’s lives, Human Rights Watch found. The degree to which an individual pays the election or other contributions, attends ruling party rallies, or participates in the construction of the party’s offices has become a measure of their allegiance to the CNDD-FDD.

Authorities should ensure that all Burundians, including the most vulnerable, have access to critical humanitarian assistance, and that access to public services is not denied on the basis of people’s real or perceived political allegiances and their contributions to the elections.

The government should hold accountable local authorities, police, and Imbonerakure members credibly implicated in violations of the rights to life, security, food, movement, property, and freedom from political discrimination, as well as the right not to be subjected to ill-treatment.

Regional entities should increase scrutiny by ensuring that the African Union’s human rights observers are fully deployed in Burundi and given unfettered access across the country, Human Rights Watch said.

“With increasing repression and arbitrary and punitive financial demands on the population, there is a real risk that political tensions will escalate ahead of the May 2020 elections,” Mudge said. “Burundian authorities should urgently rein in, investigate, and prosecute Imbonerakure members and local administrators where there is evidence of their involvement in extortion and abuse.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 6, 2019, 5:01 am

Indonesian soldiers stand guard during a protest in Timika, Papua province, August 21, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Jimmy Rahadat

The list of political prisoners in Indonesia’s West Papua and Papua provinces is growing higher, as at least 110 people were arrested for raising the Papuan national flag over the weekend. Police charged 20 people with treason (makar), which carries a maximum 20-year prison term.

Every year on December 1, towns across the Papuan provinces hold small marches and prayer services, commemorating the day in 1961 when a group of Papuan legislators – promised independence by then-colonial ruler the Netherlands – first raised the Papuan national flag, the Bintang Kejora (“Morning Star”) flag.

This was before Indonesia invaded Papua in 1962, which the United Nations General Assembly recognized in 1969. Since then, Indonesia has cracked down on Papuan separatists, treating the raising of the Morning Star flag as a criminal offense.

In Jayapura on December 1, four students attended a Sunday morning mass with the Morning Star flag. The media reported that about 20 Indonesian police went to the church and arrested the students, prompting many churchgoers to flee. The police only released the four students after midnight.

In Fakfak, Indonesian police and military separately arrested 54 Papuan men, asking them to take off their shirts and pants, the media reported. Police then tied their hands together and, as photographs show, forced the suspects to crawl subserviently before the security officers.

Veronica Koman, an Indonesian human rights lawyer, said at least 110 people were arrested on December 1 – 34 in Jayapura; 54 in Fakfak; 8 in Manokwari; 10 in Ternate; and 4 in Merauke.

Charging protesters in Jayapura with treason adds to a growing list of political prisoners in Indonesia. In August and September, Indonesian authorities arrested and charged at least 22 people with treason for their involvement in protests, following at times violent demonstrations in Papua and West Papua. The protests took place after a video was circulated of Indonesian militias racially abusing indigenous Papuan students, calling them “monkeys.”

Human Rights Watch takes no position on Papuan claims to self-determination, but it supports the right of all individuals, including independence supporters, to express their political views peacefully without fear of arrest or other forms of reprisal. To the extent individuals are arrested and imprisoned for possessing or raising a Papuan flag, such treatment constitutes arbitrary arrest and detention in violation of international law.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 5, 2019, 3:49 pm

Attorney General William Barr speaks during a tour of a federal prison in Edgefield, South Carolina, July 8, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/John Bazemore

On Tuesday, Attorney General of the United States William Barr warned that if Americans don’t give more “support and respect” to police, “they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”

Suggesting police protection will be withheld from communities for the views their members express is dangerous. Not only does he disregard their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly, Barr refuses to understand that communities often exercise the right to protest in direct response to injustice. In a September 2019 report on policing in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Human Rights Watch found police activity diminished the quality of life and harmed large populations of black and poor people who experience harsher, discriminatory treatment ­–  from physical force to oppressive court debt, disproportionately long traffic stops, and most devastatingly, the use of lethal force. Today, Black people in Tulsa are subjected to physical force – including tasers, police dog bites, pepper spray, punches, and kicks – at a rate 2.7 times white people. 

The problem extends beyond Tulsa. Twenty years ago, Human Rights Watch found victims of police misconduct in 14 major US cities lacked effective avenues to seek justice and that excessive force by police went uninvestigated.

Barr’s disturbing comments are in keeping with the Trump administration’s disregard for civil rights and promotion of police impunity. Trump himself encouraged officers to use excessive force during arrests. His Department of Justice (DOJ), responsible for some degree of oversight on local police, rolled back critical accountability mechanisms that served to reform police departments with proven track records of violating civil rights. Barr’s suggestion police should stop working for communities not sufficiently loyal is particularly egregious in light of the DOJ’s lack of oversight over local and state police departments.

Law enforcement officers swear an oath to be accountable to the communities they serve. “Protect and serve” should apply to everyone and when it doesn’t, communities are made less safe, and rights – disproportionately of black, brown, and Indigenous peoples - are abused. Communities in Tulsa, Baltimore, Ferguson, and Standing Rock, among many others, know firsthand the trauma that comes from the failure of police to abide by their sworn obligation. All too often justice and equal protection under the law are conditioned on race and class.

Police do not and should not expect to command support and respect solely for being law enforcement officers. That respect must be earned. And, when police do wrong, they should be held accountable – no exceptions, no conditions.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 5, 2019, 2:36 pm

Kim Jong-Un watches a performance in Pyongyang, North Korea, on February 23, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/KCNA

The United Nations Security Council has an opportunity this month to refocus attention on North Korea’s abysmal human rights record after giving it a pass last year.

If all goes according to plan, on December 10 – Human Rights Day – at least 9 of the council’s 15 members will vote to hold a debate to discuss the regime’s abuses.

Last year, when a similar debate was under consideration, the council dropped the ball. This may have been due, in part, to summits in 2017 and 2018 between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the presidents of the United States and South Korea, which focused on weapons proliferation issues, not human rights. The council’s inaction sent a message to North Korea’s leadership that rights had reverted to a second-tier issue, which was probably music to Kim Jong Un’s ears.

It’s time to correct that mistake. In the years since a historic UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report in 2014, which documented a litany of North Korea’s crimes against humanity and other serious rights violations, the UN system has been intensifying its attention to the regime’s record. The UN Human Rights Council has mandated a UN office to collect evidence of abuses for possible use in future prosecutions. And in Security Council debates in December 2014, 2015, and 2016, the council considered proposals by member states –unfortunately blocked by China – to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.  

This December 10, it is crucial that the council sends Kim Jong Un the message that most of the world is appalled by his government’s abuses and will continue to seek justice.

Inaction and silence would be reckless. The totalitarianism of North Korea and its human rights abuses are inextricably linked to the government’s weapons proliferation. Furthermore, most council members agree that North Korea represents an ongoing threat of instability that undermines international peace and security. As the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, recently told the UN General Assembly: “This is not an agenda that can be deferred.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 5, 2019, 2:28 pm

Pedro M., 12, inside the housing unit where he lives with his sister Mariana, 13, at a UN shelter in Roraima in October 2019. 

© 2019 César Muñoz Acebes
(São Paulo) – Brazilian authorities are failing to provide adequate protection for hundreds of unaccompanied Venezuelan children who are fleeing into Brazil, Human Rights Watch said today.

From May 1 through November 21, 2019, 529 unaccompanied Venezuelan children crossed the border into the Brazilian state of Roraima, according to the Brazilian Federal Public Defender’s Office, which interviewed these children at the border. Almost 90 percent of them are between ages 13 and 17. They had either traveled alone or with an adult who is not a relative or legal guardian. The total number is most likely higher, as some children may not stop at the border post where the public defenders conduct their interviews. No system exists to track and support unaccompanied children after their entry interview.

“The humanitarian emergency is driving children to flee Venezuela alone, many looking for food or health care,” said César Muñoz, senior Brazil researcher at Human Rights Watch. “While Brazilian authorities are making a great effort to accommodate hundreds of Venezuelans crossing daily into Brazil, they are failing to give these children the protection they desperately need.”

Some unaccompanied children end up living on the streets, where they may be particularly vulnerable to abuse or to recruitment by Brazilian criminal gangs, Human Rights Watch found. Without a legal guardian, they cannot enroll in school or get public health care, federal public defenders and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) told Human Rights Watch. Roraima’s child protection services, known as guardianship councils, used to place some unaccompanied children in state shelters, which can house up to 15 adolescent boys and 13 girls. In those cases, the shelter director acts as their guardian so they can go to school and obtain identification papers to access the public health system.

However, Roraima’s two government shelters for children ages 12 to 17 became so overcrowded that, on September 13, a state judge ordered them to stop accepting children.  

Since then, the guardianship councils in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima, and Pacaraima, a border town, have sought judicial authorization to place some unaccompanied Venezuelan children in United Nations shelters for Venezuelan adults and families with children. The shelters were established as part of “Operation Welcome” (Operação Acolhida), an effort by the Brazilian federal government – supported by UN agencies and non-governmental organizations – to respond to the inflow of Venezuelans. But United Nations representatives told Human Rights Watch that the shelters lack the necessary services and support for unaccompanied children.

An administrator at a shelter that houses some of them said in October that the unaccompanied children there did not go to school because there was no adult to assume responsibility for taking them there and back.

On October 8, 2019, Jesús Alisandro Sarmerón Pérez, a 16-year-old boy who lived in a UN shelter in Boa Vista, was found choked to death on a nearby street. His body was left in a plastic bag with signs of torture. He had entered Brazil alone in June, stayed briefly in a state shelter, and then lived on the streets in Boa Vista. He was placed in an Operation Welcome shelter after the September 13 decision about children’s shelters, a UNICEF Emergency Child Protection Officer told Human Rights Watch. UN representatives believe that a criminal gang may have killed him. “Venezuelan adolescents are easy prey for recruitment by gangs,” the officer said.  

UNICEF plans to open two temporary homes for 10 unaccompanied children each during December, and fund them for the first six months, under an agreement with the state and federal governments. But for the project to be sustainable Brazilian state and federal authorities need to take over the coordination of the project after the first stage and provide financial support, Human Rights Watch said. UNICEF would also like to temporarily place unaccompanied children with Venezuelan and Brazilian families. That requires Brazilian authorities to create a foster family program in Roraima and to commit funding to ensure sustainability.

In his September 13 ruling on the overcrowded shelters, the state judge gave the state of Roraima 10 days to present a plan to house unaccompanied Venezuelan children. In response, the Roraima state government drafted a plan that includes improvements for the shelters and the opening of the two temporary homes by UNICEF. The Roraima state government did not respond to several Human Rights Watch requests to discuss the issue.

The plan requested by the judge is crucial, but the care and protection of unaccompanied Venezuelan children should not be the sole responsibility of Roraima state, and it should go beyond just accommodation, Human Rights Watch said. Brazil’s federal government should work jointly with Roraima and municipal authorities, and federal and state justice officials, to establish a properly funded system to identify, track, and support unaccompanied Venezuelan children. This should be done in collaboration with UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations working in the area. They should also ensure these children have access to school, health care, and legal documentation.

For further information on Human Rights Watch findings, see below.

Stories of Three Unaccompanied Children

Luis P. (pseudonym), 17, left Venezuela in 2017 because of hunger and family abuse, and has not received adequate support and protection in Brazil.

When he was 15, Luis started working loading trucks in a street market in Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela, to earn money for food for him and his family, he told Human Rights Watch. There were days when he ate only once, rice with butter, or some sardines. He left home in 2016, after a lifetime of physical abuse at the hands of his uncle and father, he said. He first worked selling food at mines controlled by brutal gangs near Las Claritas, Venezuela. On April 25, 2017 he entered Brazil with a friend without stopping at the Brazilian federal police checkpoint at the border. “I came in avoiding the police,” he said. “I was afraid.” So, he was not counted as an unaccompanied child in the official tally.

For the next three months, he lived in the streets of the border town of Pacaraima, unloading trucks, gardening, and doing other jobs, until he accompanied an acquaintance to do some paperwork and came in contact with representatives of the city’s guardianship council, who sent him to a state shelter in Boa Vista, the state capital.

Five months later, after resisting efforts by Brazilian adolescents to recruit him into criminal gangs, he left the shelter. For more than a year and a half, he lived on the streets of Boa Vista. He worked cleaning houses and, like other children in vulnerable situations, started using marijuana and cocaine to blunt anxiety. “I cried and told myself that was not the life I wanted,” he said. “I did not want to get lost in that madness. There are many crack users on the streets.”

Since September, Luis has lived with a Brazilian family who took him in. He said he does not want to go back to Venezuela because of the abuse he suffered there. Despite his contact with Pacaraima’s guardianship council and shelter staff, he has yet to apply for asylum or residency in Brazil and remains undocumented.

Luis has not attended school for two years but hopes to. “I want to graduate and become a systems engineer, and travel to Japan and around the world,” he said.

Pedro M., 12, and Mariana M. (pseudonyms), 13, brother and sister, left Venezuela separately in 2019. They now live together in a UN shelter for Venezuelan families in Roraima, without access to school.

Pedro and Mariana lived on rice and sardines, when there were any, with their parents in their native San Félix, Venezuela. They sometimes spent entire days without food. “He was very thin, so was I,” Mariana said. While in Venezuela, Mariana twice suffered chikungunya and malaria, both mosquito-borne treatable illnesses, but got no medicine.

Pedro left first, in about February. He meant to hitchhike to Las Claritas and work in the mines with another brother, 14, who was already there. “I wanted to help him, to buy more food,” Pedro said. Pedro said he overslept in a van that had picked him up while he was hitchhiking and ended up reaching the border with Brazil. He lived with a cousin for two months in Pacaraima, he said, and then the guardianship council took him to a state shelter in Boa Vista. He escaped from there and lived in the streets until Mariana found him.

Mariana said she left home a few months after Pedro to look for him, carrying nothing but a bag of clothes. She hitchhiked to the border and came into Brazil with a friend, a 14-year-old girl who now lives in the streets, and a 22-year-old woman.

Pedro and Mariana live together in one of the shelters set up for Venezuelans by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Brazilian federal authorities. They are not going to school because no adult can take them there and pick them up, the shelter coordinator told Human Rights Watch. 

Pedro M., 12, inside the housing unit where he lives with his sister Mariana, 13, at a UN shelter in Roraima in October 2019. 

© 2019 César Muñoz Acebes

Venezuelan Migration into Brazil

Successive Brazilian governments have maintained an open-door policy toward Venezuelans fleeing hunger, lack of basic health care, or persecution. Brazilian government figures show that in September, more than 224,000 Venezuelans lived in Brazil. More than half of them requested asylum, while the rest applied for residency. In June, Brazil’s federal refugee agency declared that a “serious and widespread violation of human rights” exists in Venezuela, a legal declaration that speeds up granting asylum.

The vast majority of Venezuelans enter Brazil through Roraima and many remain there because the state is poorly connected to the rest of the country. The influx of Venezuelans has overloaded state and municipal health care services, schools, and social services for vulnerable children, state authorities told Human Rights Watch.

In March 2018, Brazil’s federal government created Operation Welcome to coordinate emergency assistance to the most vulnerable Venezuelan migrants and refugees who arrive in Roraima. UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations support the effort, led on the ground by Brazil’s armed forces.

Operation Welcome has built and operates 13 shelters in Roraima, which housed 6,461 people in mid-October, said Lt. Col. Fábio Fernandez, an Operation Welcome official. The armed forces also provide tents and security each night at a site near the Boa Vista bus station for about 1,000 Venezuelans who would otherwise sleep on the street.

Fernandez said Operation Welcome’s priority right now is relocating Venezuelans to other states where they can have more opportunities for work and services. Relocation is voluntary. By September 2019, 16,611 Venezuelans had been relocated to shelters, to friends’ or relatives’ homes, or to fill in jobs offered by companies outside of Roraima. Operation Welcome made all arrangements for more than 10,000 of them, while nongovernmental organizations relocated the rest (in these cases, Operation Welcome typically arranges only for flights and the nongovernmental group is responsible for living arrangement).

Brazil’s Failure to Protect Unaccompanied Children

While comprehensive information about why children flee Venezuela on their own is not available, federal public defenders and UN officials said that they believe some flee hunger and seek to work in Brazil, some look for treatment for serious health conditions, and others are escaping family abuse.

From May 1 through November 21, 2019, 529 unaccompanied children were stopped at the only port of entry at the Venezuelan/Brazilian border, at the Brazilian town of Pacaraima, according to the Brazil Federal Public Defenders Office (DPU). About 60 percent were girls.

Ligia Prado da Rocha, the agency’s secretary of strategic affairs, said that the higher number of girls is because the agency counts as “unaccompanied” girls under 18 who come into Brazil with men who are over 18 to whom they are married or in a relationship.

In addition, 2,133 “separated” children came into Brazil from May through November 21, 2019, according to DPU. Nearly all traveled with an adult relative who is not their legal guardian. Of the 2,133 children, 43 percent came with a grandmother, 19 percent with an aunt, and the rest with other female and male relatives. About half were girls.

Federal public defenders interview each unaccompanied and separated child who comes through the port of entry, to assess their personal circumstances and vulnerability.  

The Federal Public Defenders Office provides unaccompanied children with information about services. It also informs them that state (not federal) public defenders can ask courts to grant temporary custody to an adult, or grant them emancipation if they are 16 or older, da Rocha said. After that, they let most unaccompanied children into Brazil on their own.

“We don’t have capacity to do follow-up,” said da Rocha. In fact, Brazilian authorities and UN agency representatives told Human Rights Watch, nobody tracks the vast majority of unaccompanied and separated children after they enter Brazil.

The interviews are based on a form in a joint resolution issued on August 9 by the National Council for the Rights of Children and Adolescents (CONANDA, in Portuguese), the National Committee for Refugees (CONARE, in Portuguese), the National Immigration Council (CNIg, in Portuguese), and the Federal Public Defenders Office.

The resolution instructs federal defenders to be alert to the possibility that the children are victims of human trafficking. Da Rocha said they have so far only encountered one case of suspected trafficking, of a Venezuelan baby.  

Like other Venezuelans, unaccompanied children can apply for asylum or residency, with assistance from federal public defenders at the border. Children will have to renew those applications after one year for asylum and two years for residency. The resolution entrusts federal public defenders with “supporting” those children in future applications but the agency does not monitor the cases and or keep track of the children once they enter the country due to lack of capacity, an agency representative said.

Unaccompanied children face additional difficulties in Brazil. Many want to work to provide for themselves and send money back home, but Brazilian child-labor legislation restricts their options for legal work. Children who are 14 or older can enroll in practical training programs in which they should earn at least the minimum wage. Children 16 or older can perform regular work but with some protections that make hiring them less attractive than hiring an adult for some companies. The companies need to give them time to go to school and cannot employ them for night shifts or in conditions that are considered dangerous or unhealthy.

In addition, children cannot access school, health care, and other services without a legal guardian, da Rocha and Marcela Ulhoa, the Emergency Child Protection Officer at UNICEF, said.

Those legal obstacles make it crucial to have a system to support them, but such a system does not exist.

The Federal Public Defender’s Office hands off to Pacaraima’s guardianship council children it believes are particularly vulnerable and need to be housed in a state shelter.

But conditions in the only two shelters for children ages 12 to 17 in Roraima have deteriorated markedly due to overcrowding – the girls’ shelter was 50 percent over capacity and the boys’ at double capacity in September. The State Council for the Rights of Children and Adolescents of Roraima – a body made up of government officials and representatives of nongovernmental groups – criticized conditions at the boys’ shelter in September, saying it had insufficient food and hygiene.

“They don’t even have a broom to sweep the floor,” Paulo Thadeu Franco das Neves, president of the council, told Human Rights Watch.

On September 13, in a ruling that ordered the shelters to stop admitting children, a judge found that those shelters did not provide safe and clean facilities, nor the educational support required by law.  

That left Roraima’s guardianship councils with nowhere to send unaccompanied Venezuelan children in need of shelter, said Andreza Ferreira, a member of Boa Vista’s council. When the guardianship council receives a case now, it seeks a judicial order to have the unaccompanied child placed in Operation Welcome shelters for families and lone adults, Ferreira said.

United Nations refugee agency housing units in one of its shelters in Boa Vista, Roraima state, October 20, 2019. 

© 2019 Tamara Taraciuk Broner

In mid-October, when Human Rights Watch visited those shelters, they housed only eight unaccompanied children, a UNHCR representative said. The children lived in refugee housing units, along with hundreds of other Venezuelans, without gender separation and without any adult specifically assigned to their care even though Brazilian law requires that institutions that house children provide “personalized services or in small groups.”

These shelters only have one social worker for every 300 children, the UNHCR office in Roraima told Human Rights Watch.

Recommendations

The state of Roraima should work jointly with Brazil’s federal government and municipal authorities as well as with federal and state justice officials, to establish systems and to secure funding to identify, track, and support unaccompanied Venezuelan children, in collaboration with UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations operating in the area.

Those government entities, international agencies, and nongovernmental organizations should create a permanent working group to coordinate services for unaccompanied children. The working group should design a flow of actions and communication between municipal, state, and federal officials, and international agencies that ensures protection for those children.

Those procedures should include robust interviews at the border that produce key information about the reasons children are leaving Venezuela and the potential for family reunification; referral of all cases to the guardianship councils for assessment and follow-up; and systems to provide children with food, shelter, health care, and schooling in Brazil, to prevent gender-based violence and/or other types of abuse, and to help children with application and renewal of documentation, including applying for asylum or residency.

Procedures should also include coordination with the International Red Cross to locate parents in Venezuela when that is in the child’s best interest, and with state and federal agencies to locate relatives in Brazil. The federal government should also work with other countries in the region on drafting and carrying out an agreement to facilitate the reunification of unaccompanied Venezuelan children with family members in third countries.

Authorities should also open the possibility of relocating unaccompanied Venezuelan children to Brazilian states further away from the border, where they might have access to better services or may be placed with a temporary host family if in their best interest and taking account of the children’s views.

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 5, 2019, 5:01 am

Video

Greece: Camp Conditions Endanger Women, Girls

Asylum Seekers Lack Safe Access to Food, Water, Health Care

(Athens) – Women and girls face relentless insecurity in Greece’s overcrowded Moria “hotspot” for asylum seekers and migrants on Lesbos island, Human Rights Watch said today, releasing a video that shows the dire conditions. The Greek government should take immediate action to ensure safe, humane conditions for women and girls in line with their international human rights obligations and standards for humanitarian emergencies.

As of December 2, 2019, the Moria Reception and Identification Center was holding nearly 16,800 people in a facility with capacity for fewer than 3,000. Overcrowding has led authorities, as well as some asylum seekers and migrants themselves, to erect shelters outside Moria’s fenced boundaries, first in the adjacent area called the Olive Grove and now in a second olive grove, which has no water and sanitation facilities. In all areas, women and girls, including those traveling alone, are living alongside unrelated men and boys, often in tents without secure closures.

“Just going to the bathroom feels too risky for women and girls in Moria,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Their lives are defined by fear, and that won’t change unless the Greek government addresses the pervasive dangers they face.”

During research on Lesbos in October, Human Rights Watch found women and girls in and around Moria lack safe access to essential resources and services including shelter, food, water and sanitation, and medical care. Interviews with 32 women and 7 girls, as well as 7 representatives of aid agencies working on Lesbos, revealed a threatening environment, with few protections from sexual harassment and gender-based violence.

Women and girls said they avoid leaving their shelters or using the toilets, bathing, or waiting in food distribution lines due to fear. Parents said they do not allow their daughters to go out unaccompanied, including to attend school. “I don’t go out [of the tent] alone,” said Naima, 12, who lives in the Olive Grove with her mother and 14-year-old sister. “The men and boys looking at me, I don’t like it…. [If I need the toilet at night], I have to wait all night – I have no choice.”

Women with disabilities face additional barriers because the toilets and showers are far from their shelters over rough terrain or are not adaptable for people with disabilities. Aid workers handling cases of sexual and gender-based violence said protection systems are virtually nonexistent, exposing women and girls to high risk that has increased with overcrowding.

A high-level Greek official said during a call with Human Rights Watch that maintaining adequate conditions in the camps is impossible, especially following recent large numbers of arrivals, because Greece is hosting asylum seekers and migrants well beyond the facilities’ capacity. He noted the pressure on Greece and lack of support from other European Union countries. “Greece cannot be the gatekeeper of Europe, as it is being asked to be by the EU, and also be expected to respect human rights fully,” he said.

Conditions in Moria violate Greece’s obligations to migrants and asylum seekers under international law and fall far below standards of treatment developed for humanitarian emergencies around the world, Human Rights Watch said.

With the intent of facilitating speedy processing and return to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal, Greece has adopted a “containment policy” that traps people in under-resourced camps on the Aegean islands while awaiting the outcome of their asylum claims or return, which can take months or even years. Combined with a lack of government-supported services, this creates an inordinate burden for aid agencies, which provide almost all camp services, interviewees said.

The government’s move in July to stop issuing social security numbers to asylum seekers exacerbates the situation, obstructing their access to public health services except in emergencies. Aid agency representatives said overwhelming demand means they sometimes have to turn away all but the most extreme cases for medical care and gender-based violence support. “Organizations just can’t respond anymore to the increased needs,” said one service provider. “People are being pushed to make horrifying decisions.”

Under Greek law, the authorities should identify “vulnerable” people, including pregnant women and new mothers, survivors of sexual and other serious violence, single parents with children under 18, and people with disabilities, and refer them to appropriate support services and accommodation. This may include housing in apartments outside of Moria.

Human Rights Watch interviewed women and girls who meet current vulnerability criteria but said they had not been screened for vulnerability or identified as vulnerable after weeks or even months, including survivors of gender-based violence, pregnant women, new mothers, women with disabilities, and women alone with children under 18. Since late 2018, staff resignations and shortages at the government agency conducting vulnerability screenings in Moria have led to lengthy delays in identification of vulnerable individuals, and resulting delays in any additional support.

The Greek government should urgently improve security and living conditions for women and girls in Moria, ensuring safe access to secure shelter, food, adequate water and sanitation, and specialized medical care. The government should identify and assist vulnerable asylum seekers and migrants on Greek islands, including survivors of gender-based violence, women alone with children under 18, pregnant women, new mothers, and people with disabilities. It should prioritize awareness-raising about existing services and availability of trained female interpreters.

Other EU countries should share responsibility for accepting asylum seekers and migrants, processing their asylum applications, and facilitating family reunification.

“Women and girls who have come to Greece seeking safety are finding the exact opposite at Moria, and the situation is only getting worse,” Margolis said. “The Greek government has a duty to make sure women and girls don’t have to hide in tents all day out of fear.”

For more information on risks for women and girl asylum seekers on Lesbos, please see below.

Additional Information, Accounts by Women and Girls

All names have been changed to protect privacy and security.

On November 20, 2019, Greek authorities announced plans to relocate 20,000 asylum seekers to the mainland by early 2020 from five Greek islands currently hosting almost 40,000 asylum seekers and migrants, a positive move. However, the government also plans to turn reception centers for identification, processing, and deportation, including Moria, into detention centers.

Rather than establishing blanket detention of asylum seekers and migrants in closed facilities, Greek authorities should ensure humane living conditions in open camps, in line with international and EU standards for reception, protection, security, health, and sanitation. In the meantime, they should urgently adopt measures to secure basic rights, services, and safety for women and girls in Moria and other island hotspots.

A new law that will take effect on January 1 reduces protections for vulnerable groups. They can be subject to accelerated border procedures, and some – such as people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – will no longer qualify as “vulnerable.”

Beginning in October 2018, a shortage of doctors, psychologists, and social workers from the Health Ministry agency in Moria tasked with conducting vulnerability screenings resulted in severe delays, incomplete screenings, or, at times, a stoppage of screenings altogether. Aid workers supporting vulnerable people at Moria said that this has caused a months-long backlogs in vulnerability screenings.

Insecurity

Inhumane and unsafe conditions at Moria have worsened since a December 2017 Human Rights Watch report on dangerous conditions for women and girls at Moria and in migrant reception and detention facilities on the Greece-Turkey border. Aid workers in Moria describe the current situation as an “emergency.”

Women and girls said that a lack of functional locks and privacy in toilets, bathing facilities, and shelters, as well as poor lighting, frequent outbreaks of violence, and lack of police assistance for security incidents create heightened risks. Faruza, 46, from Afghanistan, lives in a tent in the Olive Grove and said she worries about her daughters, ages 12 and 14. “We don’t have a door [on our tent] – anyone can open it,” she said. “I do not sleep at night. I just sit in the entrance.”

Heba, 27, from Syria, was sleeping in a tent in the second olive grove with her children ages 6 months to 6 years: “Inside [the camp] it would be safer because here you’re in the jungle and far from everything…. To go to the bathroom we have to go all the way around the main gate and inside. For sure I don’t feel safe.”

“There is no law here,” said Susana, 25, from Afghanistan, who is eight months pregnant and living in a tent in the Olive Grove with her husband and two other families. “You see the security, you see the police, but they don’t care. After something really serious happens – if someone dies – they come, but otherwise they don’t do anything. And there is nowhere you can go to report anything.”

Women with disabilities may face additional risks, especially if they lack access to necessary assistive devices. Samiya, 40, from Syria, who has a physical disability, said her leg brace broke en route to Greece, further limiting her mobility and increasing her vulnerability in Moria: “Every night there is fighting, I hear people running…. I can’t sleep because I’m afraid that if something happens people will run away, but I can’t run away – how can I?”

Sexual Harassment, Gender-Based Violence, and Lack of Protection

Many asylum seekers and migrants have experienced sexual or other violence in their countries of origin or en route to Greece. Representatives of agencies assisting victims of sexual and gender-based violence in Moria said incidents in the camp have increased with the growing population.

Under Greek rules governing reception sites, women traveling alone should be housed in separate, fenced-in sections within Moria. Human Rights Watch found single women living outside the sections, including in both olive groves. Multiple women said they were told the protected section was full and could not accommodate them until other women left. Data collected by an agency responsible for housing in Moria showed 361 single women housed in the dedicated sections and an additional 256 in tents outside the sections as of November 28.

Unaccompanied girls should also be housed in separate, secure sections. In Moria, a “safe zone” holds both unaccompanied boys under 14 and girls under 18. Human Rights Watch interviewed sisters ages 16 and 17 living in the safe zone who said boys and girls have separate toilets and showers but neither they nor the shelters have functioning locks.

“When I was alone, I went to the bathroom and a boy came and wanted to open the door and come in,” said Salma, 16, from Afghanistan. “I made a noise to show I was inside, but he continued.” The sisters said they usually feel safe in the section because they are together. “But I don’t know about the girls living alone,” said Afri, 17. A forthcoming report from Human Rights Watch details conditions for unaccompanied children living in Moria.

Human Rights Watch interviewed five women traveling alone who had been sleeping in the open without shelter inside Moria for up to nine nights, including two pregnant women and two with serious health conditions. They said they were told they could not receive tents because they should be housed in the section for women alone. Other women, some with children under 18, said they had spent up to several nights sleeping outside without shelter upon arrival in Moria. The two unaccompanied sisters said they slept in the open for one night before getting housing. A government representative denied that people including women and unaccompanied children are not given tents.

Single women living in tents amid shelters housing unrelated single men and families said they felt especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence. Zainab, 20, from Afghanistan, lives alone inside Moria with her 2-year-old son. She said a single man in a nearby tent regularly approaches her shelter: “One time he came and said, ‘You have to sleep with me.’ I said no. He tried to choke me. When he did this, I tried to scream. He pushed me and said, ‘You have to tell me I love you, I want you.’ I said, ‘Okay, okay, I want you.’ Then I ran out…. I thought if I changed my tent maybe another place [in Moria] would be even worse. But now I’m afraid because I don’t know what will happen.”

Even women living in the designated section said they felt unsafe because people housed elsewhere – including men – can enter the section and adolescent boys occupy sections immediately adjacent. They said they experience sexual harassment whenever they leave the section. Mina, 21, from Afghanistan, said authorities are unresponsive if she reports harassment or violence: “Last month, around 11 p.m. when I went to go back inside [the section], a man came and touched my body. I told the police, but they laughed at me and said, ‘You have to go inside and go to sleep.’”

Interviewees said there is an absence of systems to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, and that authorities often dismiss survivors who try to report problems or deter them from filing complaints, even in rape cases. Even if police do arrest a perpetrator, aid workers said, he would typically be released the next day and placed back in the camp pending a court case. They said that a dearth of safe housing options, such as secure shelters, makes it impossible to provide adequate protection for victims of domestic or other gender-based violence. “There are cases of rape where the victim has to go back to the camp, the same place where the perpetrator is living,” said one service provider.

“There is a huge fear of retaliation,” said another aid agency representative, which contributes to underreporting of cases.

International guidelines call for gender-based violence risk mitigation from the onset of crisis response, including through separate, secure accommodation for unaccompanied women and children. Authorities should also identify and monitor high-risk areas in displacement sites and implement responsive security measures.

Water and Sanitation

All of the women and girls Human Rights Watch interviewed said toilets and showers in Moria are unsafe, unsanitary, unhygienic, and inaccessible to people with disabilities, which Human Rights Watch researchers observed firsthand. Although some toilets are separated by gender, signage is unclear and in practice usage is mixed. Some women said they have to bathe in the same stall with the toilet, and that gaps in walls and doors may allow others to see inside.

Guidelines on prevention of gender-based violence in displacement settings call for hygienic, gender-separated toilets and bathing facilities with working locks, adequate lighting, and privacy. The Sphere Standards, a set of principles and minimum humanitarian standards developed by humanitarians, call for safe and equal access to water and sanitation facilities, including private bathing areas for women.

Women and girls said they take extreme measures to avoid using toilets after dark. “I stop drinking tea after 6 p.m. so that I don’t have to go to the bathroom at night,” said Zubaida, from Afghanistan, who lives in the Olive Grove. “I’m afraid to go alone because I see lots of men here. They can do whatever they want. They use drugs and alcohol. I’m afraid someone will rape me.

“One of the biggest problems is we have to go inside the toilet to take a shower,” said Faruza, alone with her 12- and 14-year-old daughters in the Olive Grove. “There is just a tube [for the shower]. There’s a lock inside but we don’t feel safe. If one daughter goes to the shower, the other daughter and I stand outside to protect her.”

Women with disabilities face additional challenges in accessing bathrooms. Samiya said that her leg brace broke en route to Greece, further limiting her mobility. “It is too difficult to go to the bathroom; two people have to go with me,” she said. “Most of the time I don’t drink water so that I don’t have to go to the bathroom.”

Samiya said her assigned tent was far from the bathrooms, but personnel in the camp refused her request to move closer. “Since I arrived [11 days ago] I haven’t had a shower because it is too far away,” she said. “I moved to share a tent with relatives because it is closer to the toilet, but it is still too far…. At night sometimes when I need to go to the toilet my sister and brother help me, but most of the time I go in the tent in a plastic jug.” Human Rights Watch saw firsthand that the walk to the toilets from both Samiya’s original tent and from the tent she shared with relatives required navigating steep and unstable terrain over rocky dirt paths

Pregnant Women and New Mothers

The government is failing to meet basic needs of pregnant women and new mothers, who said they do not receive adequate food or medical care. Human Rights Watch interviewed six pregnant women and one woman who became pregnant and gave birth while in Moria.

Women said they had not accessed comprehensive prenatal care, even for high-risk pregnancies. Fatima, 28, a mother of four from Afghanistan and nine months pregnant, said a heart problem put her in intensive care following her previous child’s birth. “I’ve had pain from the day I came here, in my back and belly – sometimes it is so painful I cannot eat,” she said, noting that she did not access specialized care despite telling personnel at Moria about the pain and her medical history.

Pregnant women said they lacked information about what would happen when it was time to give birth or whom to contact for help, and that a dearth of interpreters prevented them from communicating with medical workers at Moria. Health service providers said they offer basic prenatal and postnatal care, but that limited capacity and resources mean they cannot provide full monitoring for pregnant women each trimester. The Greek government should ensure access to comprehensive prenatal and postnatal care for all women, including migrants and asylum seekers.

International humanitarian standards call for prioritization of pregnant and breastfeeding women for access to food and cash assistance and additional bedding, clothing, and nutrition to meet their needs. Women in Moria said no such measures are taken. “They give you nothing different because you’re pregnant,” said Laila, 35, from Afghanistan and eight months pregnant. “When waiting in the [food] line, I have a problem – pain in my belly, I get dizzy. Sometimes I try to sit down in the line, but it isn’t really possible and no one helps me…. Sometimes I feel like maybe I will die – like I will lose the baby, or the baby will lose me.”

“When I was six months pregnant [in July], it was really hot and I felt I would lose the baby,” said Zarifa, who had a 10-day-old baby and had been in Moria for 11 months. “I went again to [people she believed were humanitarian agency workers in the camp] and said I couldn’t handle it. They said, ‘You are not really a seriously vulnerable case.’ We never got an apartment [outside Moria] – we applied months ago, but we are still here.”

Food and Cash Assistance

Many women, including pregnant women and single mothers, said they spend hours in food distribution lines only to be told there is no food left. Seven women said they faced waits of seven to eight months for cash assistance, leaving them without any financial resources and unable to buy food or goods they do not receive through distributions. Human Rights Watch saw multiple asylum seekers’ cash assistance appointment slips with dates in June 2020 – meaning they could not receive cash assistance until after that date. Representatives of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said they reinforced staff capacity in late October 2019 to respond to needs. They said everyone who was in Moria at that time and eligible for cash assistance will have now been enrolled. All of those who are eligible for cash assistance and who arrived since then should be enrolled within the next six weeks.

“It is very difficult to get food,” said Faruza. “Most of the time [after waiting in line] they say the food is finished. If we don’t get food, we don’t eat…. The appointment for our cash assistance card is in June 2020. In the meantime, I don’t know what to do because we don’t have any money at all.”

Fatima, a mother of four and nine months pregnant, said: “We don’t have money. I don’t know what I will do for the children. They told us that to get the cash [assistance] card it is eight months waiting…. For me, I don’t eat a couple of times and it’s okay, but for the kids it’s really hard.”

Zarifa said she lacked supplies for her 10-day-old baby or resources to purchase them: “They supposedly give you [diapers] but you have to wait all night in line [for morning distribution]. They give 15 Pampers for every kid for a week. It’s nothing. You have to beg other organizations to give you some or you have to buy them yourself.”

Menstrual Hygiene Management

Women said they do not receive sufficient supplies to manage menstrual hygiene and delays in cash assistance leave them unable to purchase sanitary products. The Sphere standards call for provision of “appropriate materials for menstrual hygiene” to women and girls of menstruating age, and means to launder or dispose of them discreetly.

“[Managing] my period is one of the most difficult things – they don’t give us the supplies we need,” said Faruza. “For two of us, they give us four [sanitary pads]. It’s nothing.”

Kamila, 30, from Afghanistan, said an inability to communicate with personnel in the camp compounds the problem. "When I get my period, I bleed so much,” she said. “They just give us pads, but it is so few…. I didn’t tell anyone because I can't speak the language and they don't have a translator.”

Mental Health

Women and girls, some with pre-existing mental health conditions, said they worry about their mental health and the lack of psychosocial support in Moria.

Zarifa said she feels depressed and sought help from a doctor at Moria: “He said you have to go to the city for a private or public psychologist. A private one is 80 or 100 euro a visit. It is impossible. After some time, I gave up.”

Some women said they were unable to get medications for anxiety or depression they had taken regularly before arriving in Greece. “I had depression before,” said Zubaida. “I used [medication] but here when I went to get it, they said no…. Since I came here, I cannot cry, I am not talking with my husband or children. All day I just sit here.”

“My mental health situation is getting worse and worse here,” said Faruza, who said she had been taking medication for two months for depression. “I didn’t go to anyone [here] – there is no place to go, no one to talk to…. The doctor [at Moria] didn’t give me medicine. He said they don’t have any more.”

Faruza’s daughters, alone in Moria with their mother, worry about her mental health. “My mother’s medicine is finishing, and I’m afraid that the only person who makes us feel a bit safe here will no longer feel okay,” said Naima, 12.

Human Rights Obligations and Humanitarian Standards

Greece is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which prohibits governments from subjecting asylum seekers to arbitrary detention and inhuman and degrading treatment. It requires them to provide accommodation and decent material conditions to asylum-seekers. The court has on previous occasions found that Greece has not met its obligations because it did not ensure adequate reception conditions.

The court has ruled that severe overcrowding and inadequate sanitation conditions violated the convention. It found the same on the basis that an asylum seeker was forced to live in conditions of poverty, unable to cater for basic needs and in a constant state of fear of being a victim of violence. The court has also made clear that detained asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable given their experiences when fleeing persecution, which could increase their anguish in detention.

Sphere was created in 1997 by a group of nongovernmental aid organizations and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to improve the quality of humanitarian responses and accountable for their actions. They developed and published the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards, which form the Sphere Handbook, to inform all humanitarian action and support accountability across all sectors. The standards are a set of principles and minimum humanitarian standards in four technical areas of humanitarian response: water supply, sanitation, and hygiene promotion (WASH); food security and nutrition; shelter and settlement; and health.

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action were developed by UN and humanitarian aid agencies to guide prevention of and response to sexual and gender-based violence in all sectors in humanitarian settings. They were updated in 2015.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 5, 2019, 4:01 am

Journalists and supporters, wearing black, display their messages during a protest against the recent Securities and Exchange Commission's revocation of the registration of Rappler, an online news outfit on Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, northeast of Manila, Philippines. 

© 2018 AP Photo/Bullit Marquez
President Rodrigo Duterte ramped up his attack on the Philippine media, vowing to block the renewal of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest and most influential broadcast network. “Your franchise will end next year,” the president said on Tuesday. “If you are expecting it to be renewed, I’m sorry. You’re out. I will see to it that you’re out.”

This is Duterte’s third such threat against ABS-CBN. He accused the network of unfair reporting, as well as of allegedly taking his advertising money in the 2016 elections but then failing to run his political ads. He earlier threatened to file charges against the media company for allegedly defrauding him. The company has denied the allegations of unfair or biased reporting.

Under Philippine law, broadcasters must secure congressional franchises in order to operate. ABS-CBN’s franchise, issued in 1995, will expire in March 2020. Duterte has exploited this impending renewal to threaten the network, accusing it of slanting its reporting against him and favoring politicians identified with the political opposition. The Lopez family, which controls the network, is known for its activist past, having fought against the Marcos dictatorship. It paid dearly for that opposition when Ferdinand Marcos shut the network down during martial law in 1972. Duterte has politically allied himself with the Marcos family, which has been trying to rehabilitate its long-tattered image of abuse and corruption.

But perhaps the real reason for these threats is ABS-CBN’s critical reporting of Duterte, particularly his murderous “war on drugs.” The network has aired and published award-winning reports on the extrajudicial killings of thousands of suspected drug dealers and users by the police. Apart from ABS-CBN, the government has also targeted Rappler, the online media company that earned Duterte’s ire for its thorough documentation of the “drug war” killings and other abuses.

Duterte is misusing the government’s regulatory powers to settle a score with ABS-CBN. These actions are part of a broader crackdown on media outlets and civil society groups that dare criticize him. Philippine congress members should resist the president’s effort to shut down ABS-CBN. Appeasing a vindictive president who is hell-bent on frustrating accountability for his policies will have far-reaching implications for media freedom, human rights, and democracy in the Philippines.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 4, 2019, 11:17 pm

Migrants on a boat that they tried to take to Italy, after being detained at a Libyan Navy base in Tripoli on September 20, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

France’s decision last week to withdraw its offer of six boats to the Libyan Coast Guard is good news, as Libya could have used this “gift” to subject even more migrants and refugees to serious abuses in Libya.

In February, the French Defence Minister announced that France would transfer six “semi-rigid” speed boats to the Libyan Coast Guard, which would have been used to intercept people fleeing Libya. The announcement, which came even though the French government was well aware that people intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard face a clear risk of being systematically detained in Libya in atrocious conditions, caused a wave of outrage and criticism. Many nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), including Human Rights Watch, urged French authorities publicly and privately to reverse its decision.

We were pleased to learn in recent meetings that the French Ministry of Defence had finally cancelled the delivery. This decision was officially confirmed in a memorandum sent by the ministry to the Paris Administrative Court of Appeal on November 26, in the context of the legal action brought by Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières, and six other nongovernmental organizations to block the boat transfer.

That the French government heard their criticisms is a win for rights and humanitarian groups. Nevertheless, France should do much more to stop the nightmarish situation for migrants and refugees arbitrarily detained in Libya.

France and its European partners should condition bilateral and European cooperation on migration enforcement with the Libyan authorities on an end to arbitrary detention and abuses against migrants by Libyan authorities. France should intensify its efforts to evacuate the most vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers to safe places, including to European countries. Finally, instead of propping up the Libyan Coast Guard, France should push for the urgent resumption of EU search-and-rescue operations, disembarkation in safe EU ports, and ensure that no one is returned to hellish conditions in Libya.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 4, 2019, 10:00 pm

(Sydney) – The Australian government should publicly and privately press the Vietnamese government to overturn the convictions of a detained Australian and two of his Vietnamese colleagues, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, that was released today.

Chau Van Kham.

© 2017 Private

In November 2019, the Australian, Chau Van Kham, and his colleagues, Nguyen Van Vien and Tran Van Quyen, were sentenced to 12, 11, and 10 years respectively for their involvement with the overseas Viet Tan party, which Hanoi considers a terrorist organization. The party, however, has explicitly rejected violence, stating that it is “convinced that nonviolent means are the most effective for generating maximum civic participation … to contribute to Vietnam’s modernization and reform.” Chau Van Kham is appealing his sentence. He has had hardly any access to legal representation and his consular visits are monitored.

“Payne has rightly condemned the detention conditions of the Australian writer Yang Hengjun and urged his release, so it is puzzling that there has been no similar statement raising concerns about Chau Van Kham’s treatment even though he has been detained since January,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “There are serious concerns about lack of due process and the severity of the sentences, following what can only be described as a ‘show trial.’”

On December 2, Minister Payne called for Hengjun’s release and described his treatment by Chinese authorities as “unacceptable.” She had also been vocal in speaking out on the case of the Bahraini-Australian football player Hakeem al-Araibi.

Vietnamese authorities prosecuted the three men for “terrorism that aims to overthrow the people’s administration,” accusing them of ties to Viet Tan. Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security officially labeled Viet Tan a terrorist group in October 2016. Viet Tan had a history of resistance to the Vietnamese communist government in the 1980s, but more recently has said it is “committed to peaceful, nonviolent struggle.” The party describes its mission as “to overcome dictatorship and build the foundation for a sustainable democracy.” The activities listed in the indictment and attributed to Viet Tan, such as making travel arrangements to Vietnam, organizing leaflets for protests, expanding its network, writing articles, and sending people abroad for training, do not amount to terrorism.

“These men are not terrorists,” Pearson said. “They are being prosecuted simply for their affiliation with a foreign political group deemed a threat to the Communist Party of Vietnam.”

The trial lasted only 4.5 hours, suggesting that the verdict was pre-determined. It included three other defendants – Bui Van Kien, Nguyen Thi Anh, and Tran Thi Nhai – who were prosecuted for “making fake stamps, documents of offices, organizations,” and convicted to between three and four years in prison. With six defendants, the court would barely have had enough time to carry out routine processes including reading the names and charges, let alone to listen to presentation of evidence and defense arguments in a fair and unbiased manner. All Vietnamese judges are required to be members of the Communist Party of Vietnam. According to Chau Van Kham’s Australian lawyer, some family members were refused entry to the courtroom.

Chau Van Kham has had monthly consular visits from the Australian embassy, but prison officials and other Vietnamese government officials have been present, and the meetings have been video recorded, which may have hampered his ability to speak freely.

“The short duration of the trial, the nature of the prosecution’s evidence, the lack of access to legal representation – there are myriad due process concerns that the Australian government should be raising with Vietnamese authorities,” Pearson said. “Chau Van Kham is 70 years old and has prostate issues. The notorious conditions inside Vietnam’s prisons make it critical for him to be released sooner rather than later.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 4, 2019, 8:45 pm

A line of police cars are parked along a street in Times Square, in New York, December 29, 2016.

© 2016 AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Algorithmic decision-making is becoming the new norm in New York. City agencies use computerized algorithms to make important decisions about New Yorkers’ daily lives, from school assignments to public benefits evaluations and more. But serious concerns persist on how to monitor automated systems and prevent human rights abuses.

The city government recently took up this question of how to best evaluate the ways in which city agencies develop and use algorithmic decision-making systems. A city-appointed task force recommended this month that the city establish a central oversight structure to accomplish this. The Mayor’s Office announced the first piece of a new oversight function shortly thereafter.

Today, a coalition of civil society organizations released a report documenting the task force’s process and identifying automated systems currently in use by city agencies. The report proposes audits of each agency’s systems to ensure rights-respecting use, recommending oversight powers much stronger than what the city now employs.

For example, law enforcement’s investigative tools are currently exempt from the city’s oversight function, even though such tools can significantly impact New Yorkers’ rights. The NYPD deploys a sophisticated network of surveillance systems, many of which have automated components.

One such system is the NYPD’s Patternizr, a tool disclosed earlier this year that the NYPD designed to identify potential future patterns of criminal activity. NYPD analysts built Patternizr to forecast crime patterns by training a computer model on ten years of historical crime data collected during the “stop and frisk” regime of racially discriminatory policing. AI systems are only as good as the data that drives them – Patternizr could very well be replicating those biases.

Oversight of NYPD systems like Patternizr could mitigate biased policing, prevent rights-abusing surveillance, and limit intrusions into peoples’ private lives.

The risks of automated systems aren’t limited to policing. They can impose procedural barriers that limit access to public benefits. Without independent, robust, and ongoing oversight, the public will have trouble holding agencies accountable for errors or abuses linked to algorithmic decision-making.

While the city’s oversight function is an important first step, officials should work with the civil society coalition to implement their recommendations, including extending oversight to law enforcement. New Yorkers deserve to know that the city is auditing its own use of algorithms to protect our rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 4, 2019, 3:15 pm
Video

Gambia: Commission Uncovers Ex-Dictator’s Alleged Crimes

Yahya Jammeh Accused of Murder, Torture, Rape

 
(The Hague) – A Gambian truth commission has heard testimony that former president Yahya Jammeh was responsible for numerous grave crimes during his 22 years in office, Human Rights Watch said today. These include ordering the killing and torture of political opponents, the murder of 56 West African migrants, and “witch hunts” in which hundreds of women were arbitrarily detained. Jammeh also allegedly participated in the rape and sexual assault of women brought to him.
 
On December 5, 2019, the Gambia Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC) will conclude its first year of publicly televised hearings. The hearings, which included the testimony of victims and former government officials, highlight the need for a criminal investigation of Jammeh, who has lived in exile in Equatorial Guinea since his departure from Gambia in January 2017. Human Rights Watch today also released a new video, “Truth and Justice in The Gambia,” highlighting the work of the truth commission and the victims’ quest for justice.
 
“The truth commission is systematically amassing evidence of Yahya Jammeh’s alleged crimes,” said Reed Brody, counsel at Human Rights Watch who works with Jammeh’s victims. “Thanks to the commission’s work and to the courage of the survivors, we are learning more each day about the horrors and brutality that Gambians endured over 22 years.”
 
As of November 28, the truth commission had heard 168 witnesses, including 74 former government “insiders” such as 4 ministers, the chief of police, the chief protocol officer, a presidential bodyguard, and military junta members.
 
Former members of the “Junglers,” Jammeh’s elite hit squad, named the former president in a series of crimes that they claimed to have carried out, including:
  • The 2004 murder of a newspaper editor, Dayda Hydara: Lt. Malick Jatta told the truth commission that the Junglers’ leader, Tumbul Tamba, gave each member 50,000 GMD (US$1,250 at the time) as a token of appreciation from Jammeh after the killing.
  • The 2013 murders of Alhajie Ceesay and Ebou Jobe, two Gambian-American businessmen whose bodies were decapitated and mutilated: Sgt. Omar Jallow and Staff Sgt. Amadou Badjie testified that Jammeh ordered that “they be chopped into pieces.”
  • The 2005 killing of 56 African migrants, including 44 Ghanaians: Jallow testified that Lt. Col. Solo Bojang, the operation’s leader, told the men that “the order from … Jammeh is that they are all to be executed.” The testimonies of Jatta and Jallow corroborate a May 2018 report by Human Rights Watch and TRIAL International.

Three former officials – Sanna Sabally, first vice chairman of Jammeh’s 1994 to 1996 military junta, Demba Njie, former army chief of staff, and Alagie Martin, former commander of the State Guards battalion – testified that Jammeh ordered the execution of the alleged ringleaders of a November 1994 attempted coup.

The truth commission also heard testimony from Fatou “Toufah” Jallow, the winner of the main state-sponsored beauty pageant in 2014, that Jammeh raped her when she was 19. And a protected witness testified that that Jammeh hired her as a “protocol girl” and promised her a scholarship, but when she refused sex, he fired her and withdrew the scholarship. Together with Jammeh’s former protocol chief they provided further evidence of a system, described in a June 2019 report by Human Rights Watch and TRIAL International , in which aides regularly pressured women to visit or work for Jammeh, who then sexually abused many of them.

Since November 11, the truth commission has been holding hearings on the 2009 “witch hunts” in which foreign “witch doctors” (or marabouts) and soldiers took up to 1,000 women to secret detention centers and forced them to drink hallucinogenic concoctions, with several reported deaths and rapes. The former Gambia police chief, Ensa Badjie, testified that Jammeh had ordered the “witch doctors” to identify “witches” in the police force. Multiple witnesses reported that that soldiers and state vehicles accompanied the marabouts and that the head of their security team was a prominent “Jungler.”

The Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission has said that future sessions will examine in detail the killing of the 56 West African migrants as well as Jammeh’s “presidential treatment program,” in which HIV-positive Gambians were forced to give up their medicine and put themselves in Jammeh’s personal care. The commission has one year remaining in its mandate, though an extension is possible.

The truth commission hearings have been widely followed on radio and television throughout the country. The Point newspaper and the African Network Against Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances (ANEKED) publish digests of each three-week session.

One of the commission’s tasks is the “identification and recommendation for prosecution of persons who bear the greatest responsibility for human rights violations and abuses.”

Earlier this year, the government released several “Junglers” who testified to their alleged crimes after spending two years in custody, pending the commission’s recommendations on whether to prosecute them. Many victims’ groups decried their release.

In March, an official Gambian commission and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an investigative reporting platform, accused Jammeh of stealing up to $1 billion from state coffers.

“I want to see Yahya Jammeh in court, not just for what he allegedly did to my father, but for all the murders, the rapes, the torture,” said Fatoumatta Sandeng, daughter of Gambian opposition leader Solo Sandeng (whose murder in custody in 2016 galvanized opposition to Jammeh) and who is now spokesperson for the Campaign to Bring Yahya Jammeh and his Accomplices to Justice. “We victims need justice before we can reconcile and move on.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 4, 2019, 8:00 am

As part of a funeral procession, people transport the coffin of a protester killed at a Baghdad demonstration, November 24, 2019. 

© 2019 Reuters/Khalid al-Mousily
 

(Beirut) – Security forces across Iraq are using lethal force against protesters despite orders to stop, Human Rights Watch said today. The orders to stop using live ammunition were issued by Adil Abd Al-Mahdi, who resigned as prime minister on November 29, 2019, but remains in office in a caretaker status. The authorities should take urgent measures to stop security forces from using excessive force against protesters.

On December 1, Iraq’s parliament accepted Abd Al-Mahdi’s resignation, due to the ongoing demonstrations. The contrast between his statements and the continued rising death toll, particularly in southern cities, raises concerns that the government is incapable of reining in abusive forces, including groups formally under the prime minister’s control.

“The government needs to put a stop to the unlawful killing and to explain why it is unable to control its own forces,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The contrast between the government’s statements and what security forces are doing on the ground suggests that Iraq’s commander in chief is not in charge of his own forces.”

A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said on November 29 that by its count, at least 354 people had been killed and 8,104 injured since protests began on October 1, but that the actual total was most likely higher. In a November 28 statement, UN Secretary-General António Guterres condemned security forces’ use of live ammunition against demonstrators.

The most recent killings include at least 16 protesters in Najaf on November 28, and three more the next day. Security forces opened fire on mostly unarmed protesters at a Shia religious monument, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir Al-Hakeem shrine, and again after they burned down the Iranian Consulate in Najaf. An Iraqi journalist who was at the shrine told Human Rights Watch on November 29 that as about 300 protesters marched on Al-Hakeem shrine that day, forces protecting the shrine, most in civilian dress and some stationed on the roof, opened fire: “I have never seen anything like it, with bullets landing in all directions.”

A medic who was there corroborated the journalist’s version and said that he ended up treating at least 25 protesters wounded by bullets to the legs, neck, and chest. He said his hospital received 16 dead that night, and three more the next day.

After those killings, Najaf Governor Loai al-Yasseri urged the federal government to end the “bloodshed” in Najaf and punish forces responsible. He identified them as Saray Ashura, a unit within the Popular Mobilization Forces, which are formally under the prime minister’s control.

Also on November 28, the Interior Ministry’s Emergency Response Division opened fire on mostly unarmed protesters in the early morning hours at a Nasriya sit-in, killing at least 25 and wounding 160, according to a report from the Dhi Qar governor’s office, the Iraqi security forces’ Joint Operational Command, and Amnesty International. A protester who was there said that he and other demonstrators remained peaceful, though some threw rocks at security forces. He said he saw security forces from Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), as well as others wearing black uniforms without logos, shoot and kill four protesters next to him: “When the police opened fire on us, I felt as if it was raining bullets.”

In a letter to Human Rights Watch on November 20 about its reports on the death toll, Iraq’s Beirut embassy cited the High Investigative Committee that Abd Al-Mahdi created to investigate abuses against protesters from October 1 to 8. The panel had recommended dismissing senior security officials and investigating senior officials for the deaths of 149 protesters and 5,494 injuries during that period. The letter did not address the extent to which the government has enforced the recommendations.

However in one example of such action in response to more recent killings, on November 28, Abd Al-Mahdi stripped Lt. Gen. Jamil al-Shammari from his role as head of the crisis cell in Dhi Qar for the Iraqi security forces because of the high death toll in Nasriya on that day. He had only appointed al-Shammari 16 hours earlier. Local media reported on December 1 that a court in Dhi Qar governorate had issued an arrest warrant and travel ban for al-Shammari.

As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, so far there have been two prosecutions of security officers. Local media reported on December 1 that a police officer was sentenced to death for killing protesters in Wasit governorate, southeast of Baghdad, and that another Iraqi officer was sentenced to seven years in prison. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all countries and under all circumstances. An Iraqi security official said on December 3 that authorities would be prosecuting another 43 police officers.

The letter from the Beirut embassy also said that Abd al-Mahdi had issued strict instructions prohibiting the use of live ammunition against protesters under all circumstances, had ordered all security forces near the protests disarmed, and had instructed them to be “patient” in dealing with protesters, and ensure they are protected when demonstrating in designated areas. The letter announced the formation of a new unit “whose mission is to deal directly with protesters and protect major social events.” On November 28 the government confirmed the creation of a joint military and civilian “crisis cell.”

The statements in the letter sharply contradict the facts on the ground in cities like Najaf and Nasriya, as well as others including Basra, Muthanna, and some protests in Baghdad, where various military and law enforcement forces have fired on and killed protesters. The federal government should clarify to the Iraqi population whether security forces have ignored the prime minister’s orders, whether he has issued different orders, or whether other officials issued conflicting orders, Human Rights Watch said.

If live fire at protesters contradicts government policy, the government should condemn the unlawful killings of protesters, including the most recent killings in Najaf and Nasriya, and refer all security forces involved to the judiciary. If commanders gave orders for forces to open fire, the government should refer them for investigation and prosecution.

The authorities should investigate every death by the security forces, with the help of international experts if necessary, Human Rights Watch said. Such investigations should be speedy, fair, and independent of those being investigated with the participation of the families of those killed. They should lead to prosecutions of anyone found to have broken the law, including commanders.

“The government has chosen to hide behind claims that it has ordered the killings to stop, but that simply is not good enough,” Whitson said. “As long as this government is in power, it is responsible when its own forces kill protesters.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 4, 2019, 7:00 am

A couple sitting by the ocean in Rabat, Morocco. 

© FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images

(Tunis) - The Moroccan parliament should adopt the groundbreaking proposals made by a government-appointed body to enshrine individual freedoms, Human Rights Watch said today. In a memorandum published on October 28, 2019, the National Human Rights Council (also known by its French acronym, CNDH) recommended decriminalizing consensual sex between nonmarried adults and granting more religious freedoms.

The CNDH memorandum aims to contribute to the projected overhaul of Morocco’s penal code, which parliament is scheduled to begin reviewing on November 30. Many Moroccans have gone to prison for nonmarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality.  

“Morocco’s parliament should take the State out of people’s bedrooms and let them pursue their consensual private lives without fear of trials and prison time,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, Middle East and North Africa communications director at Human Rights Watch.

The CNDH is established by the constitution to provide guidance on human rights matters to Moroccan institutions.  

Its memorandum identified provisions of the penal code that violate or undermine individual freedoms, including articles 489, 490, and 491, which provide prison terms for same-sex relations, nonmarital sexual relations, and adultery, respectively. These provisions violate the right to privacy, as guaranteed under article 24 of Morocco’s constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Morocco has ratified.

In a report released in June, the Office of the General Prosecutor stated that 7,721 adults were prosecuted for having non-transactional sexual relations outside of marriage in 2018. The number includes 3,048 who were charged with adultery, 170 with same-sex relations, and the remainder for sex between unmarried persons.  

The CNDH also recommended specifically criminalizing rape in marriage, based on “the principle of considering consent the cornerstone of sexual relations between adults.” A law on violence against women, which went into effect in 2018, criminalizes some forms of domestic violence but fails to explicitly define and criminalize marital rape.

The council also urged repealing penal code article 220, which criminalizes proselytizing but only when done to lure people away from Islam.  The discriminatory law punishes “using seduction means in order to shake a Muslim’s faith or convert him to another religion” with up to three years in prison. Authorities have used this provision to deport foreign Christians , but also, to charge or convict Moroccan converts to Christianity allegedly for nothing more than talking about their new faith in the company of Muslims. In 2003, thirteen heavy metal musicians were convicted under article 220 for what the court called “Satan worship.”

The ICCPR protects the right or persons to free religious belief and practice, including the right to “teach” their religion in public and private.

The council recommends decriminalizing the act of eating or drinking in public during fasting hours in the month of Ramadan. Article 222 of the penal code punishes with up to six months in prison people “who are identifiably Muslim who ostensibly break the fast in a public place during Ramadan, without benefiting from one of the exceptions that Islam permits.”  

In 2009, the authorities arrested six religious freedom activists for planning a discreet forest picnic during Ramadan to protest article 222. Since then, the authorities have periodically arrested or prosecuted individuals who were eating, drinking, or smoking a cigarette publicly during Ramadan.

Under the Moroccan penal code, performing or undergoing an abortion is prohibited and punished with prison sentences, unless the procedure is “a necessary measure to safeguard the health of the mother.” The council recommends that the exception clause be broadened to include cases in which the abortion is in the interest of the woman’s “physical, mental and social health.” This wording, the council notes, comes from the World Health Organization’s constitution, which defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

According to numerous studies, criminalization does not lead to a decrease in abortions. It rather compels women to resort to non-medicalized abortions that endanger their right to life, health, privacy, and freedom from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. There are 600 to 800 abortions every day in Morocco, an estimated one third of them performed in non-medicalized situations. Decisions about abortion belong to a pregnant woman without interference by the state or others, Human Rights Watch said.

A few days after the council published its memorandum, Prime Minister Saadeddine El Othmani and Human Rights Minister Mostafa Ramid, both leading members of the Justice and Development Party (PJD), rejected the recommendations on individual freedoms, invoking Morocco’s (traditional) “value system.” The PJD has 125 seats out of the 395 in the Parliament’s lower chamber.

The only party in the parliament that publicly supported the council’s recommendations at time of writing is the Party for Progress and Socialism, which holds 12 seats. The press reported that several other parties intend to propose pro-individual freedoms amendments to the draft penal code during parliamentary review, as an “interaction” with the council’s recommendations.

More than 25 nongovernmental organizations, including the Spring of Dignity, a collective of  associations defending women’s rights, the Moroccan organization of Human Rights, and the Forum for Truth and Equity, declared their support for some of the council’s recommendations, with a focus on those concerning individual freedoms.

The CNDH’s memorandum also includes recommendations on other human rights issues, such as abolishing the death penalty, for which a de facto moratorium has been in effect in Morocco since 1993. Human Rights Watch supports that recommendation and opposes capital punishment on principle, because it is inherently cruel and irreversible.

“Parliament should implement the road map that the CNDH has provided to protect personal liberties,” Benchemsi said.  “The state has no business policing the intimate lives of consenting adults.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 4, 2019, 5:00 am

Residents rescue injured child after strike on the displacement center in Hass on August 16, 2019.

© MacroMedia Center 2019

A December 1 New York Times investigation found that Russian aircraft were responsible for an August strike in the last anti-government held area in Syria. Two months ago, my colleague and I investigated the same attack, finding that it amounted to an apparent war crime.

On the evening of August 16, an aircraft bombed a displacement compound run by a Syrian aid organization just outside Hass, a town in Idlib governorate. The attack killed 20 people, mostly women and children and injured 52, according to the head of the displacement center, and took the center out of commission.

Human Rights Watch spoke to 24 witnesses and reviewed open source and satellite imagery relating to the attack. We found that there was no apparent military target in the vicinity, and only Syrian-Russian aircraft were operating in that area. The displacement center had been attacked previously. Under international law, deliberate or reckless attacks against civilians and civilian objects committed with criminal intent are war crimes. This seemed to fit the bill.

The NYT investigation agreed with our findings but adds a crucial piece to the puzzle. Relying on a cache of recordings from Russian pilots operating in Syria, the Times investigative team said that Russian aircraft were in the area at the time of the strike. The substance of a time-stamped Russian pilot recording, which human rights watch also listened to in the video, showed that the aircraft had executed an attack that same minute.

Russia is jointly responsible for any violations as part of its military alliance with Syria. However, the existence of evidence that may directly link Russian pilots to war crimes opens the door for prosecution and individual liability.

Until today, Idlib continues to suffer from indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian-Russian military alliance – using the excuse that they are combatting terrorism to indiscriminately bomb an area with over three million civilians trapped next to the closed Turkish border. To urgently save those civilians from a tragic fate, governments need to make clear that Russia will be held accountable for its unlawful disregard for civilian life in Syria.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: December 3, 2019, 5:17 pm