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Video: Miners at Risk for Death and Injury in Georgia

The safety of workers in Georgia’s mines is at serious risk due to insufficient government regulation and resulting mining practices that prioritize production quotas and put workers’ safety in jeopardy.

(Tbilisi) – The safety of workers in Georgia’s mines is at serious risk due to insufficient government regulation and resulting mining practices that prioritize production quotas and put workers’ safety in jeopardy, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 60-page report “‘No Year without Deaths’: A Decade of Deregulation Puts Georgian Miners at Risk” documents how weak labor protections and limited government oversight have allowed mining practices that undermine safety to flourish. Georgian labor law does not sufficiently regulate working hours, rest time, weekly breaks, and night work, and does not provide for government oversight of all labor conditions.

“Thousands of workers will be at heightened risk until Georgia regulates working hours and creates a system to inspect the broad impact of working conditions,” said Corina Ajder, Finberg fellow at Human Rights Watch. “It is entirely in Georgia’s power to protect workers and improve conditions for their health and safety.”

A worker stands inside one of the manganese tunnels. Chiatura City, Georgia.

© 2014 Daro Sulakauri

Manganese, a mineral used in steel production, is among Georgia’s top exports. The largest manganese producer, Georgian Manganese (GM), operates 11 mines and a processing plant, employing about 3,500 workers. Workers at GM mines told Human Rights Watch that because they work 12-hour shifts underground, including at night, for 15 straight days, they are often exhausted, and they have faced penalties for failure to make quotas.

Miners said that in a rush to meet quotas or without sufficient rest, workers had suffered deep cuts, were buried under rocks as roofs collapsed, lost limbs, suffered concussions, or narrowly avoided serious accidents.

During shifts, the company requires miners to live in a dormitory, in part to maximize production. GM maintains that the arrangement ensures that miners get the rest they need in living conditions that enhance safety. But this requirement unfairly interferes with their freedom of movement and their family and home lives.

“On the 9th or 10th night of work, everyone is exhausted, and a lot of workers fall asleep,” Merab, a manganese worker, said. He was injured on his 14th consecutive night underground. “Someone was sitting next to me and fell asleep and accidentally turned on a piece of equipment. I was cut, and my ribs were showing.”

Coal miners for Saknakhshiri LLC also cited working conditions that heighten risks to safety and labor rights. Miners said that a compensation system based on performance, or quantity of coal extracted, imposed production targets that could not be reached safely, encouraging workers to omit time-consuming safety measures.

Human Rights Watch cited other practices at odds with workers’ rights. These include long hours, inadequate breaks, and no weekly rest days, non-payment of overtime hours, failure to provide copies of written contracts, and unfair wage deductions.

Years of deregulation have left Georgian workers without adequate protection, Human Rights Watch found. In an effort to attract foreign investment, Georgia in 2006 abolished its Labor Inspectorate and dramatically reduced worker protections in the labor code. One study found that deaths at work soared by 74 percent, most of them in mining and construction. Since 2013, when a new government took power, Georgia has gradually introduced more labor protections, including establishing a labor inspectorate with a limited mandate in 2015.

In 2018, Georgia was shaken when 10 miners died in 2 accidents within months in Tkibuli, in western Georgia. Following calls from nongovernmental groups, in February 2019, parliament gave more powers to the Labor Inspectorate to address health and safety in the workplace. Even after these amendments, which go into effect in September, the Inspectorate has a limited mandate. It cannot address the broader impact of long working hours, production pressures, and difficult working conditions, for example.

Mining’s contribution to the Georgian economy and employment opportunities do not offset the serious labor rights concerns in the industry, Human Rights Watch said.

In responding to the findings, Georgian Manganese said that the “human and social rights of our employees, their health and safety have always been of utmost importance for our company.” It acknowledged that “we may have some shortcomings in our work” and said it was “ready to tackle them accordingly.” Saknakhshiri LLC said it had established a dedicated safety department in 2017 and that “labor safety has been always a priority in the company.”

Human Rights Watch is aware of ongoing efforts to address remaining gaps in the law, including with regard to overtime, days off, holidays, and minimum wages, and to strengthen the Labor Inspectorate. But no draft law has yet been introduced in parliament, and there is no clear timeline for these urgently needed reforms.

The Georgian government has made commitments in agreements with the United States and the European Union (EU) to strengthen its labor laws and oversight and enforcement systems. Georgia benefits from preferential tariffs on exports to the US, including manganese, provided that it respects and enforces internationally recognized labor rights. Manganese producers, including those employing miners Human Rights Watch interviewed, benefit directly.

Under the Association Agreement with the EU, Georgia pledged to bring its labor legislation in line with EU laws and take steps toward establishing a full Labor Inspectorate before 2020.

International human rights standards guarantee everyone the right to just and safe working conditions, reasonable limitations on work hours, fair pay, freedom of movement, and respect for and protection of family and private life. International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions, many of which Georgia has not yet ratified, detail standards with respect to acceptable working conditions, as well as proper oversight and enforcement.

Georgia’s international partners, including the EU, and the US State Department have criticized Georgia’s labor inspectorate system. In April, the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights said, after a visit to Georgia, that it was concerned that the regulatory framework remains inadequate since it “will not cover the whole spectrum of labor rights.”

The Georgian government should move ahead to reform its labor law to protect workers against long hours and pressures that put them at risk. The government should put in place a full-fledged, independent, and adequately staffed Labor Inspectorate with a mandate to inspect all working conditions in line with international standards.

Mining companies in Georgia should respect workers’ rights and the safety of their employees, and work with employees and their representatives to carry out reforms that will improve safety. Georgia’s trading partners, including the EU and the US, should insist on full respect for labor rights.

“Georgia’s gradual approach to re-regulation ignores the everyday risks miners are taking without adequate protection for their rights,” Ajder said. “The government should move quickly to correct the errors of the past.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 22, 2019, 7:00 am

Delegates sit at the opening of the 41th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, June 24, 2019.

© 2019 Magali Girardin/Keystone via AP

(Geneva) – The United Nations Human Rights Council should establish a commission of inquiry during its September 2019 session to investigate serious human rights violations in Venezuela, Human Rights Watch said today in a joint document prepared by 11 Venezuelan and international human rights organizations. The groups have been monitoring and documenting Venezuela’s spiraling human rights and humanitarian emergency for years.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, is scheduled to present an oral update on the human rights situation in Venezuela before the UN Human Rights Council on September 10. This presentation, which follows a damning report published by her office in July, is the final step mandated by the council resolution on Venezuela, its first, adopted in September 2018.

“The victims of the dire human rights and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela deserve a thorough and authoritative response from the Human Rights Council to address their right to truth, justice, and reparations,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The Human Rights Council has the opportunity and responsibility to create a mechanism to investigate grave violations in Venezuela and to identify those responsible and, where possible, the chain of command.”

The report by Bachelet’s office documented abuses that are consistent with previous findings by her office and Venezuelan and international human rights organizations, and highlighted the need for accountability. The abuses include arbitrary arrests, torture, extrajudicial executions, and violations to the rights to food and health. A commission of inquiry is needed to identify those responsible and break the cycle of impunity.

The UN Human Rights Council should give a commission of inquiry a strong, clearly defined mandate to investigate reports of violations of international human rights law in Venezuela, including, but not limited to, torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention, discrimination, enforced disappearances, as well as violations of freedom of expression, the right to life, and the rights to health and food, the groups said. It should be provided with adequate resources to investigate and report back to the UN Human Rights Council on these violations within a specific period and be mandated to share its findings with the UN secretary-general and relevant UN bodies, including the UN Security Council and General Assembly.

The UN Human Rights Council is particularly well suited to allow for countries or a group of countries, including on a regional level, to take the lead in mobilizing support to address the human rights crisis. The Lima Group, which currently consists of 10 Latin American countries and Canada, has been leading efforts in Geneva to scrutinize the human rights situation in Venezuela, and could take the lead in establishing a commission of inquiry.

A commission would not be a substitute for criminal investigations into specific crimes. But the information gathered may be relevant for authorities considering criminal proceedings, including the International Criminal Court prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, who opened a preliminary examination into the situation in Venezuela in February 2018.

If a commission of inquiry is created, Venezuelan authorities should cooperate with it fully, including by giving it access to the country and by responding to requests for relevant documents and interviews with officials. However, a refusal by the government of Venezuela to engage with a commission should not prevent commissioners from carrying out their work. Commissions of inquiry for North Korea, Myanmar, and Syria have successfully produced reports extensively documenting human rights violations and international crimes, despite the refusal of those governments to cooperate.

The joint document was prepared by Acción Solidaria, Amnesty International, Centro Derechos Humanos – Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, CEPAZ, Civilis Derechos Humanos, COFAVIC, Espacio Público, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, and PROVEA.

For a question and answer on a commission of inquiry on Venezuela, please visit:
https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/supporting_resources/un_inquiry_for_venezuela.pdf

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 22, 2019, 4:00 am

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan departs after speaking about upcoming changes to the Flores ruling at a news conference at the Reagan Building in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
 
(Washington, DC) – A Trump administration final regulation announced today could result in severe harm to migrant children who may be held in immigration detention indefinitely in the United States. The rule seeks to replace the longstanding Flores court settlement that imposed detention standards and time limits.
 
“The detention of children can lead to trauma, suicidal feelings, and exposure to dangerously inadequate medical care,” said Clara Long, acting deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “No amount of time in detention is safe for children and prolonged detention is particularly harmful.”
 
The core principle and requirement of the Flores Agreement is that migrant children taken into detention should be released as “expeditiously” as possible. The new rule provides instead for the indefinite detention of children with their parents in federal immigration facilities pending resolution of their immigration proceedings. In doing so, it seeks to reverse a ruling under the Flores settlement that children not be held for more than 20 days in facilities not licensed for childcare.
 
During a press conference Wednesday morning, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said average stays in 2014 and 2015 for families in detention leading up to that ruling was 50 days.
 
But many families were held for longer than that during 2014 and 2015, according to Human Rights Watch research from the time. Their prolonged detention took a severe psychological toll on them. Other studies of detained immigrant children have also found high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety, and psychologists agree that “even brief detention can cause psychological trauma and induce long-term mental health risks for children.”
 
“The US government claims family detention is needed to ensure families show up to court,” Long said. “But the government has done nothing to expand community-based case management programs that led the vast majority of people released from immigration detention to show up to court. The government should be dramatically scaling up those programs, not looking for ways to ramp up the abusive detention of children.”
 
Human Rights Watch submitted comments on the Flores regulation when they were proposed last fall, recommending that the administration withdraw the rule and instead dedicate their efforts to advancing policies that safeguard the health, safety, and best interests of children and their families, not least through robust, good-faith compliance with the Flores Settlement Agreement.
 
Legal advocates have already filed a notice that they will challenge the rule in court. If not stopped by a judge, the new rule will take effect in 60 days.
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 21, 2019, 4:00 pm

Coal ash swirls on the surface of the Dan River following one of the worst coal-ash spills in US history into the river in Danville, Virginia, February 5, 2014.

© 2014 AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File

A proposed new rule by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could mean that coal ash pollution – a byproduct of burning coal for electricity – won’t be properly cleaned up and that even if it is, the public will foot the bill.

The EPA is required to assess whether industries need to set aside money for potential pollution cleanup. It is now proposing not to impose financial requirements on the electrical power industry, despite the enormous cost of cleaning up decades of coal ash pollution.

Human Rights Watch submitted a comment today opposing the agency’s proposal.

Coal ash, which contains a slew of toxic metals such as arsenic and lead, is one of the largest industrial waste streams in the United States. Prior to an EPA regulation in 2015, most US states let utilities dispose of coal ash in unlined pits that allow these metals to leach into groundwater. The pollution poses a significant health risk for the 115 million US citizens who rely on groundwater sources for drinking.

The extent of coal ash contamination was first revealed in March 2018, when a new federal regulation required power plants to test groundwater near coal ash ponds and publish the results. According to the advocacy group EarthJustice, 91 percent of the units reporting data had found groundwater contamination, many at levels far exceeding federal safety standards.

US law requires the EPA to assess the chance of an industry’s cleanup costs being passed onto the public, and if this seems likely, to require companies to set aside cleanup funds. But the agency’s assessment of the electric industry significantly underestimated the financial risks.

First, it only looked at cases where pollution was generated after 2015, when coal ash sites became regulated. For example, North Carolina ordered Duke Energy to clean up all its coal ash pollution in the state after 39,000 tons of toxic waste from coal ash contaminated the Dan River in 2014. The company estimates this will cost US$10 billion, and is now seeking to pass some of the cost on to consumers by hiking electricity prices.

Second, it didn’t adequately consider the financial precariousness of the coal-powered industry, as competition from natural gas has led dozens of these plants to recently shut down, with many more slated for closure.

If utilities that rely on coal aren’t forced to set aside funds, there are serious concerns they won’t have the resources to pay clean-up costs. The public will then be on the hook for the bill, or face continued health risks from the pollution.

Either way, the public loses.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 21, 2019, 3:30 pm

Serikzhan Bilash, a prominent activist who has campaigned for the release of ethnic Kazakhs in China, poses for a photograph, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, August 17, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Vladimir Tretyakov

When Serikzhan Bilash, a well-known rights activist in Kazakhstan, was freed from jail after a hearing late on August 16, 2019, he was very clear about the terms of his release: Cease all activism against China.

“It was that or seven years in jail. I had no choice,” said Bilash, who has exposed human rights violations against Turkic Muslim minorities, including ethnic Kazakhs in China’s Xinjiang region.

The harsh terms imposed by the Almaty court show how willing Kazakhstan is to repress the rights of courageous activists like Bilash. Under the conditions of his release he had to concede guilt to bogus incitement charges, give up peaceful activism, pay a $300 fine, and cannot leave Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, for three months.

The fact that Kazakhstan, under its new president Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, is forcing an internationally respected activist to limit his own freedom of expression, speaks volumes of the authorities’ disrespect for justice and rule of law. It also demonstrates Kazakhstan’s readiness to sacrifice human rights to maintain good relations with its neighbour, China.

Bilash’s own lawyer Aiman Umarova refused to sign the plea bargain, insisting on her client’s innocence. “I refuse to put my name to any deal that was signed under pressure,” she said.

Bilash’s experiences before and after his arrest in March also cast light on Kazakhstan’s approach. After authorities refused to register Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights, Bilash’s campaign group on Xinjiang, in February, they fined him almost $700 for acting in the name of an unregistered group. He was later placed under house arrest for more than five months in the capital Nur-Sultan, far from his family in Almaty. And at his trial last Friday his lawyer was initially denied access to him during the hearing.

It’s good news that Bilash is free and can rejoin his family. But it’s tragic that if he again tries to speak up for those facing abuses in ‘political re-education’ camps in Xinjiang, he would be jailed. The conditions on his release should be dropped immediately. And Kazakhstan should think beyond its ties with China to its obligations to respect and comply with international human rights law.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 21, 2019, 1:52 pm

Fishermen rest on their boats in Hodeida, Yemen before going out to sea, September 2018. Since 2018, Saudi-led coalition naval forces have attacked fishing boats in the Red Sea, killing at least 47 Yemeni fishermen.

© 2018 Hani Mohammed/AP Photo

(Beirut) – Saudi-led coalition naval forces have carried out at least five deadly attacks on Yemeni fishing boats since 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. Coalition warships and helicopters have been involved in attacks that killed at least 47 Yemeni fishermen, including 7 children, and the detention of more than 100 others, some of whom were tortured in custody in Saudi Arabia.

The coalition attacks on fishermen and fishing boats appear to be deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects in violation of the laws of war. Coalition officials who ordered or carried out the attacks or tortured detainees are most likely responsible for war crimes.

“Coalition naval forces repeatedly attacked Yemeni fishing boats and Yemeni fishermen without any apparent determination that they were valid military targets,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Gunning down fishermen waving white cloths or leaving shipwrecked crew members to drown are war crimes.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed survivors, witnesses, and knowledgeable sources about seven fishing boat attacks: six in 2018 and one in 2016. Civilians died in five of them. Coalition forces carried out the attacks using small arms and heavy weapons. Warships and helicopters were involved in the attacks from short distances away, so the civilian nature of the fishing boats should have been clear. The fishermen waved white cloths, raised their hands, or otherwise showed they posed no threat. In three attacks, coalition forces did not attempt to rescue survivors adrift at sea, and many drowned.

A fisherman described the attack on his boat: “The helicopter was close, about three meters up. They said [over a megaphone] ‘go forward,’ and four or five [fishermen] went forward, and the rest were near the [boat’s] stern. I was in the middle. Then they hit us with the big gun with bullets.” Seven fishermen died.

The coalition also detained, apparently without charge, at least 115 fishermen, including 3 children, in Saudi Arabia for between 40 days and more than two-and-a-half years. Seven former detainees said that Saudi authorities tortured and ill-treated apprehended fishermen and boat crew members and denied them contact with their families, legal counsel, and Yemeni government representatives.

The attacks and detentions severely affected remote fishing communities that lost the primary earners for dozens of families. They have also deterred other fishermen from going to sea. “Before the war, fishing was good,” said the wife of a fisherman. “But we heard that eight men from the neighborhood next to us were killed … so [my husband] stopped going.”

The San Remo Manual on Armed Conflict at Sea, which is widely viewed as reflecting customary laws of war at sea, requires attacking forces to do everything feasible to limit attacks to military targets. Vessels are presumed to be civilian unless they are carrying military equipment or presenting an immediate threat to the attacking vessel. “Small coastal fishing vessels” are specifically exempt from attacks. These vessels must submit to identification and inspection when required, and follow orders, including orders to stop or move out of the way. The laws of war also place a duty on parties to the conflict, whenever circumstances permit but particularly after an engagement, to take all possible measures to search for and collect the wounded and shipwrecked.

The Saudi-led coalition has consistently failed to investigate alleged war crimes and other unlawful attacks, including the attacks on fishing boats, Human Rights Watch said. No coalition personnel are known to have been disciplined or prosecuted for attacking Yemeni fishing boats.

The coalition body that reviews alleged laws of war violations by coalition forces, the Joint Incident Assessments Team (JIAT), has investigated fewer than 10 alleged attacks on civilians at sea, none of which appear to correspond with the attacks Human Rights Watch investigated. The JIAT did not find coalition wrongdoing in any of these cases or recommend payments to victims.

The fishermen and their relatives interviewed said that the JIAT had never contacted them. Saudi authorities gave monetary and equipment “assistance” to families of fishermen killed in only one case that Human Rights Watch investigated, and money to released crew members in another.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the coalition on June 21 about the incidents investigated, but has received no reply.

Houthi forces, who control much of northern Yemen and are the target of the coalition forces, have unlawfully attacked commercial traffic in the Red Sea. In its 2018 final report, the UN Panel of Experts noted Houthi attacks on a crude oil tanker, a bulk cargo carrier, and a World Food Program charter vessel. Houthi forces launched attacks with anti-ship cruise missles, remote-controlled boats filled with explosives, and skiffs carrying armed men. Houthi forces have also announced their use of sea mines, which pose a grave risk to civilian vessels.

The UN Panel of Experts should investigate the attacks at sea and other attacks on civilians and recommend that the UN Security Council impose sanctions on officers and commanders responsible for violations of the laws of war. 

Countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, and France should immediately cease all sales and transfers of weapons, including warships and helicopters, to Saudi Arabia, and should carefully review sales to coalition members given the possibility they could be used in committing violations, Human Rights Watch said.

“The naval attacks on Yemeni fishing boats make it clear that the Saudi-led coalition is not only killing civilians through countless illegal airstrikes, but also while conducting operations at sea,” Motaparthy said. “How much more proof do countries continuing to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia need to stop all sales, including of warships, or risk becoming complicit in war crimes.”

Attacks on Fishing Boats

Human Rights Watch documented five coalition naval attacks on Yemeni fishing boats in the Red Sea in 2018 that left 47 fishermen dead and 14 injured. In three of the attacks, coalition forces left the scene without trying to help fishermen who were wounded or adrift at sea. The coalition also detained without charge more than 100 fishermen in Saudi detention centers between 40 days and more than two-and-a-half years. Human Rights Watch documented an additional incident from 2016.

Witnesses to attacks and former detainees who spoke to Human Rights Watch are identified by pseudonyms because of fear of reprisals against them or their families. Human Rights Watch also reviewed media reports on the attacks, documents from Yemeni coast guard and local fishing authorities, and a Saudi deportation request confirming the transfer of Yemeni citizens.

The incidents investigated are not a complete accounting of coalition attacks on Yemeni fishermen. The Civilian Impact Monitoring Project, which monitors civilian casualties in Yemen’s armed conflict, reported at least 12 coalition attacks on fishing boats that killed or injured fishermen between January 2018 and January 2019, including 9 reported as airstrikes. Two match incidents that Human Rights Watch documented. Given the isolated nature of maritime incidents and poor communication networks on Yemen’s western coast, the number of attacks may be much higher.

All of the attacks documented appear to be violations of the laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Yemen. In every incident, coalition forces appeared to deliberately attack fishing boats and fishermen that could clearly be identified as civilian. Human Rights Watch found no evidence that any of these boats posed a military threat to the coalition forces. Warships left the scene while fishermen were floating in the sea. The prolonged detention of fisherman and boat crews and torture and ill-treatment in custody also violated the laws of war and international human rights standards.

Commanders who willfully ordered or carried out unlawful attacks, failed without justification to rescue shipwrecked fishermen, or mistreated detainees are responsible for war crimes. Commanders responsible for the attacking units may be criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility.

Eritrean Coast, September 15, 2018: 18 killed, 1 injured

On September 15, 2018, coalition naval forces off the coast of Eritrea attacked the fishing boat Faris carrying 19 fishermen, apparently killing 14 men and 4 children. One man, Nafea Khadem Zayd Hurbi, survived but died in a motorbike accident about a month after the New York Times published an article that included his account. Human Rights Watch interviewed a person who knew the fishermen killed, a local human rights activist, and two fishing community members who said they had spoken to Hurbi about the attack.

Based on Hurbi’s account to community members and the New York Times, a naval ship approached the fishing boat at about 6 p.m. A man on the ship using a megaphone ordered the fishermen to move to their boat’s bow. After they gathered there, coalition forces opened fire with light weapons, killing or wounding several men and boys. The naval ship then left the area without assisting the wounded, Hurbi reportedly said. He told the New York Times that he floated in the water for four days, clinging to an ice box, before being rescued by a passing boat. He received treatment at a coalition military hospital in al-Khawkha, on Yemen’s west coast.

After news of the incident spread on social media, coalition representatives at the al-Khawkha military base gave 100,000 Saudi riyals (US$26,600) to the families of the 18 fishermen for each of their relatives that was killed, plus a boat and outboard engine, but did not admit to any wrongdoing. The coalition’s Joint Incident Assessment Team did not list the incident in any of its public reporting.

Eritrean Coast, August 21, 2018: 7 killed, 4 injured, 12 detained

On August 21, 2018, at about 3 p.m., Saudi naval and air forces attacked a fishing boat carrying 19 fishermen off the coast of Eritrea. Seven fishermen died in the attack and Saudi forces detained the remaining 12, 3 of whom had burns and another who was severely wounded. The fishing boat had left the Yemeni port of Qatabah about a week earlier with permission from the Eritrean government to fish in Eritrean waters.

Three survivors, interviewed separately, said they saw a gray and black helicopter with a Saudi flag painted on the side approach their boat. The men waved a white cloth and raised their hands to indicate they were unarmed. A man using the helicopter’s loudspeaker ordered them to move toward the boat’s bow. Some of the men did. but a gunman in the helicopter opened fire with an automatic weapon.

One fisherman, “Bassam,” described the attack:

At that point, a coalition warship approached the fishing boat. It fired a munition that struck the boat’s stern and caused an explosion, setting the boat on fire. The 12 surviving fishermen jumped into the water, clinging to empty tanks to stay afloat. A rubber dinghy with several armed men approached the survivors.

Two witnesses said that the officers nearly executed one of the badly injured fishermen. “They yelled, ‘He is wounded. Kill him! Kill him!” said “Shihab.” The wounded man shouted, “I am Muslim like you!” and started reciting the shahaada [prayer said before death]. At that point, the officers dragged him onto their boat.

After bringing the surviving fisherman aboard the naval ship, also marked with a Saudi flag, officers beat the fishing boat’s captain, one witness said.

The badly wounded fisherman was transported by helicopter to a military hospital for treatment and the 11 others were taken by ship and vehicle to a medical clinic in Saudi Arabia, and then to a detention facility near the Jizan port, in the country’s southwest. Three of them were burned severely, two witnesses said, but it was six days before they saw a doctor.

“The soldiers [in the detention facility] would cover their faces because of the smell [of the burns],” said “Hossam.” “[After] five to six days, they brought us pills and ointment and gauze.” Prison authorities did not transfer the burn victims to a hospital for treatment.

The men faced mistreatment during interrogation that amounted to torture. “Bassam” said:

They blindfolded and handcuffed us and hit us with a cable … [I] lost consciousness every night for 15 days. Every one of us was investigated and hit … there was blood…. We were interrogated for a few hours. I would go by myself. I felt from the beating and the voices that three or four people were hitting me in different ways and in different places – on my leg, and my chest, and my waist and bottom.They also hung me from a pipe from my arm and leg, and then they dropped me. They said, “You are Houthis.… [C]onfess you are Houthi and we will stop doing this.” So I put my thumb print on a piece of paper [but] didn’t read it. 

Three months later, Saudi authorities transferred eight of the detainees to a deportation detention center, where they spent nine days. Guards then put them on a bus to the al-Wadia checkpoint at the Yemen border. They said they were given 5,000 Saudi Riyals (US$1,333), which guards told them was “from King Salman,” and warned them not to speak about what happened to them after returning to Yemen. Once they crossed the border, Yemeni authorities gave the men money to return home, and they made their way back to Khawkha. Another detainee was released 29 days later. The situation of the three remaining detainees, including the boat’s captain, remains unknown.

Zuqer Island, mid-August 2018: 15 killed in 2 attacks, 6 injured

In mid-August 2018, coalition naval forces attacked two fishing boats on the same day near Zuqer Island off the coast of Yemen, in seas controlled by the Yemeni government. Human Rights Watch spoke with two survivors of one attack, one of whom witnessed the other attack.

One fishing boat had set off from Khawkha port with a crew of nine men and five boys. “Ramzi,” a crew member, said they received permission to fish from the political security office in al-Khawkha, which coordinated these requests with the Yemeni coast guard and coalition forces.

On the fifth day at sea, between 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m., when they were fishing near Zuqer Island, a coalition warship approached the boat, “Ramzi” said. The warship began shooting over the fishing boat, while the men onboard shouted that they were fishermen and waved at the warship to stop firing. The warship then fired at the boat, killing and injuring some of the crew.

Another fisherman, “Yousef,” gave a similar account. “I tried to hide in the boat but then I jumped,” he said. “I was injured in the head – one bullet penetrated the boat and nicked my head. I saw Ibrahim Abdo Saeed dying in front of me.”

The attack started a fire on the fishing boat, causing the surviving crew members to jump into the water. Ramzi saw the current carry two fishermen away, one a 13-year-old boy, though he later learned that they survived. Some died immediately and many others were wounded, he said. Ramzi managed to connect a cluster of jerry cans with rope, which he and four others, one of them a 13 or 14-year-old boy, used to stay afloat.

Ramzi said he saw a helicopter on the warship take off and fly toward another fishing boat about two nautical miles away, manned by fishermen whom he knew. He later learned that this boat was also attacked, and 4 of the 10 crew members died.

Ramzi and the others holding onto the bound jerry cans drifted for four days without food or water. On the fifth morning, at about 3 a.m., he said, the others began to drown, and by 5 a.m., Ramzi was the sole survivor.

Later that morning, an Eritrean boat passing by rescued him, and took him to Eritrea, where he stayed for four days before finding passage back to Yemen on another fishing vessel.

Yousef said he stayed alive by holding onto a jerry can together with a 13-year-old boy for a day and a night before they were rescued by a passing boat. “We were new to fishing and didn’t know how to swim well,” he said.

Khawkha, August 1, 2018: 7 killed, 2 injured

On August 1, 2018, at about 5:30 a.m., three fishing boats set off from the Yemeni port of Khawkha. Human Rights Watch did not speak with any of the men aboard the vessels but interviewed “Amr,” whose relatives were killed in the incident, and who had a detailed account from two survivors. The account he provided is consistent with the New York Times reporting on the incident.

Amr said that one of the boats, with a crew of 9 men, together with the other 2 boats traveled approximately 22 nautical miles from Khawkha. The crew had received travel permission from the fishing institute of the Yemeni Coast Guard, which operates under coalition control, he said.

At about 10 or 11 a.m., a helicopter suddenly flew toward the boats and hovered for a few minutes overhead. The helicopter left but soon afterward, a munition apparently struck the stern of the boat, setting it ablaze.

Amr said the two survivors described hearing a warplane overhead, then a whistling sound before the munition exploded, suggesting that this attack might have been an airstrike.

The two said they remained in the water until 4 p.m., when another Yemeni boat passing by rescued them and took them back to Khawkha.

“The people whom we lost had kids and families,” Amr said. “[Now] all of them are on the brink of starvation.”

Al-Swabe’a Islands, mid-March 2018: 1 injured, 91 detained

In mid-March 2018, a group of six fishing boats set out from the Hodeida port, with a seventh boat joining them seven days later. The 7 boats with 91 men were fishing in a loose cluster near al-Swabe’a Islands, a small archipelago about 45 nautical miles from Hodeida. Human Rights Watch interviewed the captain of one of the boats. A Houthi-affiliated news channel aired interviews with four men from the group, who said that coalition forces had arrested them and detained them in Jizan, subjecting them to beatings and other treatment they described as torture.

The boat captain, “Saeed,” said that shortly before noon he saw a large, gray warship coming toward them. Warning shots struck the water near the boats, then more shots flew over their heads, he said. Someone on the ship ordered the boats by loudspeaker to move closer to each other, and for the fishermen to raise their hands.

At that point, a rubber dinghy came toward the boats from the warship, carrying five or six armed men in uniform, Saeed said. The men boarded the fishing boats, separated the captains from the other crew members, and began searching the boats. Three armed men searched Saeed’s boat, he said, and checked the crew’s documents. He overheard one officer radio the warship and say, “They are fishermen … they are clear.” The man on the other end replied, “Bring the captains.” The coalition forces blindfolded the captains of the seven boats, including Saeed, and cuffed their arms and legs, then took them to the warship.

On board the warship, officers removed the leg cuffs and blindfolds and gave the men water but berated them for supporting the Houthis. “You are working with the Houthis, you are Houthis, you are terrorists,” Saeed recalled they said.

Officers on the ship ordered the seven boats to follow their vessel. They sailed for three days, then arrived at Jizan port in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities held them there at a detention facility, splitting the group between two cells. Saeed said that he and other detainees were beaten during interrogations. He was interrogated twice and others up to five times, he said.

Saeed said that none of the group had access to legal counsel, and none of them spoke to a representative of the Yemeni government. One fisherman, injured in his leg by a gunshot, received medical treatment at a nearby hospital for ten days. After he was transferred to the detention facility, guards took the injured man to the hospital for treatment every five days, Saeed said. After about 40 days, all 91 men were released.

Difnen Island, mid-October 2016: 12 detained

Around October 16, 2016, about 70 fishermen on a small boat and two large dhows, or sambuk, were fishing off the coast of Eritrea near Difnen Island. Six people interviewed separately, including fishermen who witnessed the arrests and relatives of detainees, said that coalition naval forces had stopped the boats. Over the course of the day, coalition forces detained 12 people – 9 men and 3 children – and held them for between 17 months and more than two-and-a-half years. Eight fishermen remain in detention. A local activist who investigated the case and conducted additional interviews corroborated the details that witnesses and family members provided to Human Rights Watch.

At about 8 a.m., a boat carrying eight armed uniformed military personnel approached one of the boats, said “Omar,” a crew member. Omar said the men were Saudi based on their uniform and accent. The forces accused the fishermen of being armed and of being Houthis, he said. The men replied that they were fishermen with permission to fish from both Yemeni and Eritrean government authorities.

The military personnel ordered the captain on one of the sambuks to sail in a particular direction, with the armed patrol boat alongside it, until about 4 p.m., Omar said.

“We arrived next to a large gray warship … with a helicopter on board,” Omar said. He saw other fishing boats in the water nearby, also apparently in coalition custody. The boats stayed next to the warship for three days while authorities detained and interrogated several crew members: two of the captains, seven other men, and three boys ages 15 and under. On the third day, the Saudi authorities ordered the fishermen to return to Hodeida with their boats, but without the 2 sambuk captains and 10 other crew members from the various boats.

Saudi authorities have returned four of the detainees to Yemen. Several people familiar with the detainees’ experience said that the group had spent 17 days in a detention facility in Jizan, where they were temporarily separated from the boat captains, who were placed in solitary confinement. When the captains were reunited with the rest of the group, bruises were evident on their bodies.

The entire group of 12 was then transferred to Abu Arish prison, where they were held for about 52 days. Then they were transferred to Khamis Mashit prison. In early 2018, authorities released the three boys and returned them to the Marib governorate, where they stayed in a local detention facility for an additional month. Another man was released in late May 2019. The rest remain missing, last seen in Saudi custody. Human Rights Watch interviewed relatives of four of the missing fishermen to confirm their continued detention.

Arbitrary Detention, Torture, and Mistreatment in Saudi Custody

Saudi forces detained without apparent legal basis at least 115 fishermen and crew members for 40 days to more than two-and-a-half years in detention centers and prisons in Saudi Arabia. Some detainees reported torture and other ill-treatment in custody. None were known to have been brought before a judicial authority. None had access to their family, lawyers, or Yemeni government representatives.

Two former detainees said that Saudi security personnel beat them with cables and wooden sticks, in one case causing unconsciousness, and hung them in the air while tied by an arm and a leg. The men described seeing other detainees who appear to have been tortured, including a fellow fisherman held in Jizan:

He was in a very difficult condition. He was crawling and … couldn't stand. His whole back was bleeding from the beating, [and] his whole mattress was covered with blood. He wasn't talking at all. Even when I talked to him, he didn't answer me.

Three other former detainees said that they were held in solitary confinement for periods ranging from a few days to three weeks, and said that they observed other crew members also held in solitary confinement. They said Saudi authorities did not provide adequate medical care to those who were injured or ill. The authorities also did not separate child detainees from adults as international law requires.

Detainees’ families said they did not know where their relatives were until others from their area were released. At least 10 fishermen last seen in Saudi detention facilities in these cases remain missing.

The Saudi government should immediately release all Yemeni fishermen and civilian boat crews detained without any lawful basis. Those detained should have access to a representative of their government and legal counsel, and contact with their families.

Accountability

The UN Panel of Experts should review the roles and actions of naval captains of coalition warships operating in the Red Sea during the period of the above incidents. Investigations should also review the role of naval commanders, including Adm. Fahd bin Abdullah Al-Ghafili al-Mahfouz al-Ajmi, current commander of the Saudi Royal Navy.

Human Rights Watch compiled this list of 47 fishermen and crew members killed in the incidents it documented:

September 15, 2018:

  1. Amr Yahya Radwan
  2. Mansour Yahya Radwan
  3. Ayash Saeed Dunini
  4. Ahmed Saeed Dunini
  5. Yahya Soliman Dunini
  6. Ibrahim Soliman Dunini
  7. Abdulla Muhammad Mussa
  8. Saeed Muhammad Mussa
  9. Abdul-Malik Thabit Murad
  10. Anis Talib Hadhrami
  11. Shaker Ali Yahya Nahari
  12. Abdo Ali Bukiri
  13. Hussain Muhammad Munubi
  14. Fajri Ahmed Hassan
  15. Abdo Ahmed Mahlbi
  16. Muhammad Khadem Harbi
  17. Abdulla Ali Hafez
  18. Yasser Wahb-Allah Bazaz

August 21, 2018:

  1. Salman Ahmad Abdo Muhammad Hassani
  2. Ahmed Ghalib Salem Foufli
  3. Ahmed Abdo Dabaj Qulia’b
  4. Mahmmoud Thabit Salman Ahmdi
  5. Muhammad Saleh Ali Hassani
  6. Muhammad Abdo Muhammad Hassani
  7. Magdi Abdo Ali Hassani

Mid-August 2018: 2 attacks

  1. Ahmed bin Ahmed Thabit
  2. Abdul-Rahman Abdo
  3. Ahmad Ibrahim Qassim
  4. Esam Ali Saleh Atyia
  5. Bashir Ghalib Qassim
  6. Murshid Rashid Thabit
  7. Ibrahim Abdo Saeed
  8. Muhammad Ahmad Abdu-Hamid
  9. Ali Ghalib Abdli
  10. Saeed Salman Muhammad Alili
  11. Emad Ibrahim Ahmad

 

  1. Najib Ibrahim Muhammad Afda
  2. Ali Suliman Ibrahim
  3. Abbas Muhammad Afda
  4. Nasser Yousef Afda

August 1, 2018:

  1. Murtadha Zayd Murshid Zaid Bujiri
  2. Mahyoub Saeed Saleh Bujiri
  3. Abdulla Ibrahim Ahmed Bujiri
  4. Adnan Bagash Ibrahim Ahmed Bujiri
  5. Hameed Saif Saleh Bujiri
  6. Muhammad Abdulla Hizam Afdah
  7. Hayel Abdulla Afdah

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 21, 2019, 4:01 am

Rohingya refugees at a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, January 1, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo

(New York) – The Myanmar and Bangladesh governments should suspend plans to repatriate Rohingya refugees until returns are safe, voluntary, and dignified, Human Rights Watch said today. With new repatriations set to start on August 22, 2019, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh camps protested that they will face the same violence and oppression in Myanmar that they fled.

Myanmar authorities have verified 3,454 people for an initial round of returns from a list of 22,000 submitted by Bangladesh authorities. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, and Bangladesh authorities said they are seeking to confirm that these refugees wish to return.

“Myanmar has yet to address the systematic persecution and violence against the Rohingya, so refugees have every reason to fear for their safety if they return,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Bangladesh has been generous with the Rohingya – though conditions in the camps have been difficult – but no refugee should feel compelled to return to a place that isn’t safe.”

After the UN began the consultation process, many Rohingya refugees told Human Rights Watch that while they wished to go home to Myanmar eventually, current conditions made their return unsafe. Many of the refugees on the initial lists refused to attend the consultations.

Bangladesh should not join this dangerous rush to send refugees back to conditions that they may be forced to flee again.

Meenakshi Ganguly

South Asia Director

“We know that thousands of Rohingya back in Myanmar are still in detention camps,” one refugee told Human Rights Watch, referring to an estimated 125,000 Rohingya who have been confined to open-air camps in central Rakhine State since 2012. “If those people are released and return to their villages, then we will know it is safe to return and will go back home.”

A refugee from camp 26 who was on the list with six family members said, “We do not want to go back to Myanmar where so many of our loved ones did not even get a funeral, and ended up in mass graves after they were killed.”

A woman living in camp 24 said: “This is the second time I have fled here in Bangladesh. My husband was killed by the [Myanmar] military.… I don’t want to go back because I don’t want to my grandchildren to face the same risk that I did.”

The refugees held protests after the repatriation plan was announced demanding that those responsible for atrocities be held to account. They also called on the Myanmar government to guarantee full citizenship rights and return land and properties to the refugees, including compensation for homes and businesses that the military burned.

More than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since August 2017 to escape the Myanmar military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. They joined about 200,000 refugees who had fled previous waves of violence and persecution. A UN-backed fact-finding mission found “sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw [armed forces] on charges of genocide.”

Bangladesh and Myanmar previously attempted repatriation in November 2018, initiated without consulting UNHCR or the Rohingya. Refugees on the list for return went into hiding and refused to leave, fearing for their lives. In July 2019, Myanmar officials arrived at the sprawling refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar to discuss repatriation, but denied Rohingya citizenship claims and instead promoted a digitized National Verification Card (NVC) process.

A refugee from camp 27 said, “The Myanmar delegation visited last month and made many assurances, but we would be foolish to return now because then they will never fulfill our rights.”

A police officer stands guard outside repatriation camps built for Rohingya refugees expected to return from Bangladesh, in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar, January 24, 2018.

© 2018 AP Photo

Bangladesh authorities said they are preparing for repatriation. “Repatriation may start any moment,” Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque said recently. “In the next few weeks we shall encourage the Rohingyas to go back.” Ko Ko Naing, director general of Myanmar’s Disaster Management Department, said that reception centers had been set up at Nga Khu Ya and Taung Pyo Letwe in Rakhine State to receive 300 people a day, and that the refugees would initially be placed at a temporary camp in Hla Poe Kaung before they are sent back to their villages. The “reception centers” and “transit camp” are surrounded by barbed-wire perimeter fences and security outposts, similar to the physical confinement structures in the central Rakhine camps.

UN officials said they have not had enough time to survey the refugees who have been cleared for repatriation to find out whether they want to return to Myanmar. UNHCR as well as Bangladesh authorities have asserted that any returns will be voluntary.

A refugee who was called by Bangladesh camp authorities to meet with UNHCR said she told the refugee agency that she and her family do not want to return to Myanmar yet. Holding a leaflet with a list of demands, she said:

They [Myanmar authorities] always abuse us in different ways. Why would we go back to that country to endure the same cycle of abuse. If we are recognized as Rohingya, given citizenship, our lands, and assurance of freedom of movement, then no one will need to send us back. We will go ourselves.

Some Hindu refugees said that they would like to return to Myanmar, but their names were not on the initial list. Shishu Pal Shil, the Hindu camp majhi (leader), told Human Rights Watch: “When we came to know about the repatriation of the Rohingya Muslims, I asked when our name will come in the list. He said possibly in the next round. We are always ready to go back to Myanmar.”

Conditions in Rakhine State are not conducive for voluntary, safe, or dignified repatriation of Rohingya. The remaining Rohingya population in Rakhine State is confined to camps and villages with no basic freedoms, subject to ongoing state persecution and violence. The Myanmar government has taken no action to improve conditions or address the root causes of the crisis, including systematic persecution and violence, statelessness, and military impunity for grave violations.

Since November 2018, fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army armed group in Rakhine State has displaced at least 27,000 people. Since June, internet services have been shut down in eight townships in Rakhine State and one township in neighboring Chin State where there is fighting between the Arakan Army forces and Myanmar military.

Although Bangladesh is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention, it is bound under customary international law not to forcibly return refugees to a place where they would face persecution, torture, other ill-treatment, or death. Any repatriation plan should follow international standards and be developed with consultation and informed consent from Rohingya refugees, with objective, up-to-date, and accurate information about conditions in areas of return, including security conditions, assistance, and protection to reintegrate.

“Many Rohingya have said that they would like to return to Myanmar so long as they don’t suffer the same abuse, indignities, and atrocities they have endured in the past,” Ganguly said. “Bangladesh should not join this dangerous rush to send refugees back to conditions that they may be forced to flee again.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 21, 2019, 2:45 am

General Shavendra Silva is seen at the Ampara Air Force camp in eastern Sri Lanka August 24, 2009. 

© 2009 Reuters/Stringer/Files

Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena has appointed a general whose forces have been credibly accused of war crimes as the commander of the national army. The move would seem to confirm the fears of those like Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who, back in March, supported the United Nations Human Rights Council’s extension of its 2015 resolution on Sri Lanka.

The extension, which Sirisena and other top officials openly opposed, seeks justice and accountability for violations committed during the 26-year civil war that ended in 2009. “The sad reality is, then, that there are those who oppose any measure to achieve accountability and reconciliation, because they don't want justice,” said Mangala Samaraweera. “They want victor's justice.”

The appointment of Major General Shavendra Silva as army commander suggests he was right. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Investigation on Sri Lanka documented laws of war violations committed by the Silva-led 58th Division in the conflict that could amount to war crimes.

Silva’s own website described himself as a “hero” for his role in the defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But in 2012, while he was Sri Lanka's deputy ambassador to the UN, he was removed from the UN Special Advisory Group on Peace Keeping Operations due to the allegations against him. Silva has also been accused of human rights violations during security operations in southern Sri Lanka against the Sinhalese nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) armed group in the late 1980s.

The UN human rights investigation recommended that Sri Lanka engage in vetting “to remove alleged perpetrators” from the military. But instead of investigating Silva, the government has rewarded him with promotions. Michelle Bachelet, UN high commissioner for human rights, stated that she was “deeply troubled” by the appointment.

For the relatives of victims of abuses committed by Silva’s 58th Division – who have long held vigils seeking justice and answers – this appointment negates all the government’s pledges toward accountability, reconciliation, and reform. Even so, the government still has international commitments. It should immediately set up a justice tribunal with international participation – or the UN Human Rights Council should step in and do so instead.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 20, 2019, 1:51 pm

The elected mayors from the main southeastern municipalities removed by Turkey’s interior ministry on August 19, 2019; from left to right: Mardin mayor Ahmet Türk; Diyarbakır mayor Adnan Selçuk Mızraklı; Van mayor Bedia Özgökçe Ertan.

© 2019 private

(London) – The Turkish Interior Ministry’s removal of three democratically elected mayors in the major municipalities of the Kurdish southeast and eastern regions blatantly violates the rights of voters and suspends local democracy, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Interior Ministry on August 19, 2019, removed the mayor of Diyarbakır, Adnan Selçuk Mızraklı; the mayor of Mardin, Ahmet Türk; and the mayor of Van, Bedia Özgökçe Ertan, accusing them of supporting terrorism. All three mayors are from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The three mayors should be allowed to resume their posts immediately.

“President Erdogan’s government has effectively cancelled the results of the March local elections in the three main cities of the Kurdish southeast and east by removing voters’ chosen mayors, all valid candidates, and taking over these municipalities,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Smearing the mayors by alleging vague links with terrorism to deprive the Kurdish population of their chosen representatives endangers everyone in Turkey who is committed to democratic elections, human rights, and the rule of law.”

The Interior Ministry justified substituting government-appointed provincial governors in each municipality because the mayors face investigations and legal proceedings under terrorism laws for their speeches and non-violent political activities. None have received a final conviction.

Abusive prosecutions and investigations for overly broad and vague terrorism offenses are widely used in Turkey to silence and arbitrarily detain government critics, journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition politicians, Human Rights Watch said.

The European Court of Human Rights has harshly criticized Turkey for its actions in pursuing baseless terrorism charges against elected members of parliament. In one example, the unlawful detention of Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-chair and HDP member of parliament, the court found in 2018 that his detention “pursued the predominant ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate, which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society.”

The three mayors won their seats in the March 31 local election, with Mızraklı winning 63 percent of the vote, Türk 56 percent, and Özgökçe Ertan 53 percent. It is the second time that elected mayors in the southeastern part of the country have been removed from office and replaced with Ankara appointees.

In September 2016, the Law on Municipalities was changed under a state of emergency decree to facilitate the removal of mayors accused of terrorism links and their substitution with provincial governors. Ninety-four mayors from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP) were subsequently removed, and many were held in prolonged pretrial detention. Turk, a veteran Kurdish politician, was previously stripped of office as elected mayor of the Mardin greater municipality under that decree and arrested in November 2016. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a speech in February, in advance of the March elections, in which he stated that mayors found to be linked with terrorism could be removed once again.

These moves by Erdoğan’s government against democratically elected officials violate Turkey’s obligations under international and regional human rights law, Human Rights Watch said. The moves violate the right to political participation, the right to free elections, and the right to freedom of expression under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 20, 2019, 6:00 am

Satellite image showing the location of the State Defense Secretariat (Secrétariat d’État à la défense, SED) in Yaoundé, Cameroon.

© DigitalGlobe-Maxar Technologies 2019; Sources: EUSI, Google Earth

(Nairobi) – Cameroonian authorities held over 100 detainees incommunicado and tortured many of them in a detention facility in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, from July 23 to August 4, 2019.

The detainees were transferred to the facility, the State Defense Secretariat (Secrétariat d’État à la défense, SED), the morning after inmates in Yaoundé’s Central Prison rioted on July 22 in protest at overcrowding, dire living conditions, and delays in their cases getting to trial. Many were in detention on suspicion of being involved with or supporting armed separatist groups operating in English-speaking regions of Cameroon. Since late 2016, a cycle of civil protests there, followed by government repression, has escalated to hostilities between government forces and armed separatist groups, resulting in over 2,000 deaths. Others included members and supporters of the opposition party Cameroon Renaissance Movement (Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun, MRC).

“These credible accounts of torture and abuse out of the State Defense Secretariat are sadly not the first, but only the most recent,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The security forces’ apparent belief that they are free to torture and otherwise abuse detainees is a direct consequence of the Cameroonian government turning a blind eye to reports about the abuse – but the world is watching.”

In a news release dated August 2, Communication Minister René Emmanuel Sadi confirmed that 224 prisoners were transferred from the Central Prison to police and gendarmerie units in Yaoundé for questioning but did not specify which facilities.

Human Rights Watch has established that at least 100 of the prisoners were taken to the SED. The whereabouts of the majority was unknown for almost two weeks. When an individual’s detention is followed either by a refusal to acknowledge the detention or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts, this constitutes an enforced disappearance, an egregious human rights violation, Human Rights Watch said. On August 3, the day after official acknowledgement of the men’s whereabouts, some lawyers were finally able to meet with some of their clients at the SED.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 detainees held at the SED, all of whom said they were tortured and held incommunicado during their time there, and heard credible accounts that scores more were also tortured. Human Rights Watch also spoke with family members of detainees and six lawyers who provided information about their clients and detention conditions.

A 29-year-old detainee from Kumba, South-West Region, said: “We were treated like animals; we were beaten twice a day with wooden clubs and machetes. The hygienic conditions were dreadful.”

On August 4, all prisoners who had been transferred to the SED were moved back to the Central Prison. Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that on August 6 at least 80 of the detainees who were returned to the Central Prison were charged before a Yaoundé court of first instance with “rebellion, attempted prison break, destruction of property and theft.”

Some lawyers were not permitted in the courtroom, so their clients had no representation while they were being charged. Lawyers who were able to see their clients beforehand told Human Rights Watch that their clients said they had been tortured at the SED. Some showed signs of torture, the lawyers said.

A lawyer representing eight opposition party prisoners, who were among those who reported torture, said: “I spoke to my clients on August 6 outside the courtroom. I saw horrors. They all had scars on their bodies due to the torture suffered at the SED, and injuries on their heads. They told me that they had been severely beaten at the SED at least twice, in their cells, by gendarmes and other guards using wooden clubs. They also told me that they were interrogated at gunpoint.”

Under human rights law, all forms of inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees is strictly prohibited, and Cameroonian law provides that detainees shall not be subject to any physical or mental constraints, or to torture, and that their counsel and families should be able to visit them at any time.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented the widespread use of torture and incommunicado detention at the SED, mainly of detainees suspected of ties to armed separatist groups. The prison has been used to hold people incommunicado and as a place of torture since at least 2014. Torture is pervasive across the country, in both official and unofficial detention centers.

In December 2017, the United Nations Committee Against Torture said that the government of Cameroon should ensure prompt, effective, and impartial investigations into all allegations of torture, ill-treatment, and incommunicado detention, and appropriately prosecute and punish abusers. The government has taken no action to implement the recommendation.

On August 15, Human Rights Watch sent a letter with its findings to Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, secretary general at the presidency, requesting a response to questions but the government did not respond.

“Cameroonian law enforcement authorities seem happy to torture without an afterthought for the repercussions,” Mudge said. “These types of reports will become more commonplace until Cameroon’s international partners stand up and press the government to take action.”

July 22 Prison Riot and Transfer to SED

According to media reports, the July 22 protests in Central Prison turned into riots as the prisoners took over parts of the prison. Human Rights Watch reviewed videos and pictures showing buildings on fire and shots fired as security forces tried to reassert control. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm whether live ammunition was used, but other reports indicate it was.

Human Rights Watch heard credible reports that, as authorities attempted to re-establish order, they beat detainees, in particular those they suspected of being responsible for the riot.

Lawyers for MRC members and supporters said their clients believed that they were targeted for beatings, including the MRC vice president, Mamadou Mota, who has been in prison since June 1. Mota was arrested for leading protests calling for the release of the MRC president, Maurice Kamto, who had been arrested on January 30. Both Mota and Kamto are currently facing trial before the Military Court in Yaoundé.

Mota’s lawyers told Human Rights Watch that a prison guard and a gendarme beat him at the Central Prison, breaking his arm, and that he was then taken to the Security Directorate facility where he was held in solitary confinement for 12 days. He was allowed to see his lawyers four days after he arrived. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, Mota is the only detainee – among those transferred from the Central Prison to other facilities – allowed to meet with his lawyers before August 3.

After the riot was quelled, approximately 100 detainees were transferred to the SED.

A 30-year-old detainee from the North-West Region told Human Rights Watch:

At about 1:30 a.m. on July 23, the guards of the Central Prison removed us all; they said that all “Ambazonians” [Anglophones] should go. I was taken to the SED with only my shirt. I was alongside dozens of other Anglophones. We were seriously beaten up. We were brought to the underground cells with no sunlight.

Incommunicado Detention

All 14 detainees Human Rights Watch interviewed said that they were held at the SED for 12 days before being allowed to briefly speak with lawyers on August 3.

Five relatives of detainees said that they did not know where their loved ones were until August 3, and that when they had approached the SED during the previous 10 days to inquire about the detainees, they were denied access and refused any official acknowledgement that they were being held there.

The wife of an anglophone detainee who was arrested in Bamenda, South-West Region, in late 2016 and who had been held in Yaoundé’s Central Prison said:

I had not heard from him since July 23. The lawyer told me he finally saw him at the SED, but I didn’t speak to him. I was very worried, because he had already been tortured at the SED before. When I went to Kondengui [Central Prison] the day of the riot, I was denied access. I went to the SED and a guard told me that many of those transferred from the Central Prison were held in the SED. However, he would not let me in.

A lawyer for three men who were missing from July 22 to August 3 said that he was not given any information by the prison authorities and was denied access to the SED: “I went to the SED on July 24 and 25. I could not get in. The guards told me I couldn’t enter and didn’t provide any other information.”

A 41-year-old detainee from Ndu, North-West Region, said:

In the SED, nobody had access to family members. I think my family thought that I was dead. Some lawyers came the day before we were brought back to Kondengui [Central Prison]. But for 12 days, we were held in secret, with no access to the outside world. If you asked to see anyone, you would be badly beaten.

A 25-year-old man from the South-West Region said:

We did not see anyone except for the guards who would only beat and insult us for two weeks. We had no access to the outside and couldn’t call anyone; we couldn’t see our lawyers and families. It was like being in a nightmare.

Torture

All 14 detainees interviewed said that they were tortured at the SED. They said that they were beaten with various objects, including wooden sticks, planks, electric cables, machetes, and guns.

A 37-year-old man from Bamenda said gendarmes attempted to suffocate him: “The gendarmes put a piece of cloth on my nose and beat me. I was tortured like this, beaten badly several times on my legs and back.”

A lawyer representing anglophone detainees who was permitted to see his clients on August 3 said:

What I saw was unbearable. The good news was that they were not dead, but some of them were in horrible physical and psychological conditions. One had a laceration in the head and was given seven stiches with no anesthesia. Another had also several lacerations on the head and was given 12 stiches, again with no anesthesia. I saw injured detainees. We met with 80 of them after having tried to see them for 12 days. Our clients told us that they were forced at gunpoint to wear T-shirts and clothes provided by the guards at the SED, just to meet with us, because when they had been brought in and while they stayed there, they were kept naked or half-naked.

A 32-year-old anglophone detainee from Bamenda, North-West Region, said:

I was beaten, taken out of Kondengui half-naked. I was brought to the SED with other detainees, mostly Anglophones. I was held in a small cell underground with around 20 other people. The guards beat us with sticks and electric cables. I was beaten like a snake. The food and hygiene were simply deplorable.

A 26-year-old detainee from Manyu division, South-West Region, said:

The beatings started in Kondengui and continued at the SED. We were treated very badly and beaten up at least twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, with electric cables, clubs, and machetes. We slept on wet floors for two weeks. We had no access to any medical service.

As previously documented by Human Rights Watch, detention conditions at SED are appalling, with poor hygiene and sanitation and lack of appropriate medical care. Detainees also reported overcrowding, inadequate and insufficient food, and no access to fresh air.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 20, 2019, 4:01 am
(New York) – Algerian authorities deported a Human Rights Watch official, Ahmed Benchemsi, on August 19, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities detained him for 10 hours and seized his passports, holding them for 10 days before deporting him. 
 
Benchemsi, the Middle East communications and advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, had been in Algeria since August 1 on the organization’s behalf. The police detained him on August 9 at about 2 p.m. while he was observing the 25th consecutive Friday pro-democracy demonstration in downtown Algiers. They held him without allowing him to contact anyone, confiscated his cellphone and laptop computer, and ordered him to provide his passwords to unlock both devices, which he refused to do.
 
“Ahmed Benchemsi was in Algiers simply doing his job observing human rights conditions,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “His arbitrary arrest and mistreatment send the message that authorities don’t want the world to know about the mass protests for more democracy in Algeria.”
 
Benchemsi entered Algeria lawfully and disclosed his professional affiliation when asked. He had visited Algeria three times previously since 2017 for Human Rights Watch, each time lawfully entering the country.
 
In an effort to end Benchemsi’s ordeal as quickly as possible, Human Rights Watch did not make a public announcement about his situation during the time that authorities prevented him from leaving Algeria.
 
After detaining Benchemsi on August 9 and releasing him around midnight, the police gave him a summons to return to the downtown police station known as “Cavaignac” on August 13. On August 13, the police did not tell Benchemsi of any charges against him or present a search warrant, but again demanded the passwords to his devices. When he refused, they gave him a summons to return the next day.
 
On August 14, when he reported to the police with an attorney, Salah Dabouz, the police demanded aggressively that he provide his passwords, which he again refused to do. After four hours, the police dismissed Benchemsi and summoned him to return the next morning to appear before the prosecutor.
 
On August 15, Benchemsi reported to the police in the company of Dabouz. The police made them wait eight hours without bringing Benchemsi before the prosecutor. At the end of the day, the police gave him a second summons to appear before the prosecutor on August 18.
 
On August 18, after having Benchemsi wait all morning, the police transferred him to the headquarters of the Police Brigade for Foreigners, where officials told Benchemsi that they might soon deport him.
 
Benchemsi remained in police custody overnight and was placed on a flight to Casablanca, Morocco on the afternoon of August 19. Algerian authorities returned his passports and electronic devices before he boarded the plane. He entered Morocco without incident.
 
At no time did Algerian authorities notify Benchemsi of any charges against him or the legal basis for confiscating and retaining his passports, phone, and laptop, or for demanding that he surrender the passwords to the devices. Nor did authorities provide the legal grounds for deporting him. Algerian news websites reported on August 18 that the prosecutor in Sidi Mhamed had ordered his expulsion, but Benchemsi never appeared before or spoke with a prosecutor.
 
The police at various times deprived Benchemsi of his ability to communicate with others, including his lawyer, and threatened him with physical violence, but did not physically mistreat him.
 
Since February, huge numbers of Algerians have marched every Friday in the streets of the capital and other cities, overwhelmingly peacefully, initially against the candidacy for re-election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and, after his resignation on April 2, for a transition toward a more democratic government.
 
Benchemsi is a dual Moroccan and US citizen. He had visited Algeria this August to monitor human rights developments in Algeria, especially those related to freedom of assembly and expression in the context of the pro-democracy protests. Algeria is among the more than 90 countries that Human Rights Watch monitors around the world.
 
“Benchemsi’s mistreatment is a sobering reminder of the risks faced every day by Algerian human rights defenders exposing and reporting on government abuses,” Roth said. 
 
 
Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 20, 2019, 4:00 am

Former CNRP official, Nuth Pich, in custody, August 17, 2019. 

© 2019 VOD

(Bangkok) – Cambodian authorities for the first time invoked a discredited 2017 Supreme Court ruling to arrest a former opposition official in Kampot province, Human Rights Watch said today. On August 17, the authorities detained Nuth Pich, a former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) provincial leader, for allegedly disobeying the court decision that dissolved the party.

The Cambodian authorities should drop all politically motivated charges against Pich, 63, and unconditionally release him.

“Cambodian authorities went into contortions to find charges to bring against Nuth Pich, who merely exercised his basic rights to free speech and association,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is just the latest baseless act of harassment against a former opposition party member.” 

In April and May, Pich helped organize gatherings of former CNRP elected officials and activists for meals of Khmer noodles, which the authorities treated as resisting the Supreme Court decision. On May 17, the Kampot provincial court issued an arrest warrant against Pich, and he promptly went into hiding. 

In early August, he came out of hiding and returned home, mistakenly believing it was safe to do so. The authorities arrested him and the court charged him with discrediting judicial decisions (article 523 of Cambodia’s penal code), incitement to commit felony decisions (article 494), and incitement to discriminate (article 495).

In its charges against Pich, the court indicated it was acting on the basis of the November 16, 2017 Supreme Court decision that dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 party leaders from formal participation in political activity for five years. As a result of the ruling, elections were held on July 29, 2018 without a major opposition party. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all the seats in the National Assembly, effectively making Cambodia a one-party state.

Since the start of 2019, the authorities have summoned over 147 CNRP members and supporters around the country for questioning. On May 7, the police arrested another former Kampot provincial CNRP official, Nget Khouch. The authorities held Khouch for two nights during which time they gained access to his phone to view group messages exchanged among former CNRP members. The authorities alleged that some of the messages, in which Pich was purportedly involved, expressed support for the acting CNRP leader, Sam Rainsy, to return to Cambodia. They released Khouch after he agreed under duress to join the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. 

The leader of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, remains under highly restrictive house arrest in conditions comparable to detention. He has spent a year in pretrial detention in jail and almost one year under restrictive house arrest, but there is no indication that the authorities will send Sokha’s case to trial or release him. 

Concerned governments should call for the immediate and unconditional release of former opposition members and activists arbitrarily detained, Human Rights Watch said. 

“The Cambodian government’s crackdown on opposition parties did not end with the Supreme Court’s decision to dissolve the CNRP, but has only gotten worse,” Robertson said. “The appalling silence of the EU, US, and other foreign donors whenever a former CNRP leader is arrested should end now.” 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 20, 2019, 2:00 am

A cyclist rides past paramilitary troops during the curfew in Srinagar, India, August 17, 2019. 

© 2019 Saqib Majeed / SOPA Images/Sipa USA via AP Images

(New York) – The Indian government should ensure that rights are protected after lifting some restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir State, Human Rights Watch said today. The government announced that it had partially restored landline connections, reopened schools, and withdrawn the ban on large gatherings. The government imposed the restrictions after it revoked the state’s special autonomous status on August 5, 2019, and split it into two federally governed territories.

The authorities reported violent protests in which eight people were injured over the weekend of August 17-18. Hundreds of political leaders and activists remain in detention, including many outside Kashmir, without access to family members or legal counsel. The government has acknowledged only a “few preventive detentions,” to maintain “law and order and avoid breach of the peace.” While the authorities said on August 16 that landlines would be restored in Muslim majority areas, access to mobile phones and the internet is still denied in much of the region.

“The Indian government can’t just claim to be lifting restrictions in Kashmir, but needs to ensure that everyone’s rights are respected,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Officials should cease using broad, repressive means to curtail the flow of information, or to prevent people from peacefully assembling and expressing their views.”

On August 5, the authorities shut down all forms of communication in Jammu and Kashmir, including internet, cell phones, and landlines. The government also imposed broad restrictions on freedom of movement and banned public meetings. The disruption to internet and telecommunication services has exacerbated an information blackout, while the restrictions on movement placed vulnerable people at risk, hindering access to crucial medical care and other services.

The authorities also asked the social media site Twitter to suspend some accounts for allegedly spreading false information. The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion, David Kaye, expressed concern over the current communication clampdown.

India is obligated under international human rights law to ensure that internet-based restrictions are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. The UN Human Rights Council in July 2016 condemned measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online, and said that all countries should cease such measures.

There have been reports of sporadic protests in Kashmir since August 5, and of security forces using pellet shotguns that have led to about a dozen injuries. The use of pellet-firing shotguns as a crowd-control weapon in Kashmir has received widespread condemnation because of the large number of protester deaths and injuries.

The Indian government should publicly direct the security forces to abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and take all other necessary steps to ensure that the forces act with restraint, Human Rights Watch said. Protest organizers should take steps to deter their supporters from engaging in violence against members of the public and law enforcement officers.

Agence France-Presse reported that the authorities have detained thousands of Kashmiris under the Public Safety Act, a controversial law that allows detention for up to two years without charge or trial. On August 15, the authorities detained Shah Faesal, a Kashmiri politician, a day after he gave an interview to the media criticizing the government’s decision. Local activists issued a fact-finding report saying that children had been detained as well.

The government should periodically release lists of those detained, inform families of their whereabouts, and ensure that detainees have proper access to their families and legal counsel, Human Rights Watch said. International human rights law generally prohibits detention without charge and requires prompt and regular judicial review to prevent arbitrary detention.

The government says it has adopted these measures to ensure law and order. Accusing Pakistan of instigating violent protests and militant attacks, the government has also deployed tens of thousands of additional troops to the region. On August 16, the United Nations Security Council held a closed-door consultation to discuss increasing tensions between India and Pakistan over the disputed region.

In July, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a 43-page report raising serious concerns about abuses by state security forces and armed groups in both Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir. The UN found that Indian security forces often used excessive force to respond to violent protests that began in July 2016. And it decried the lack of justice for past abuses such as killing and forced displacement of Hindu Kashmiri Pandits, enforced disappearances, and alleged sexual violence by Indian security forces personnel. The Indian government dismissed the report as a “false and motivated narrative” that ignored “the core issue of cross-border terrorism.”

“Instead of denying human rights violations, Indian authorities should draw lessons from past mistakes, ensure accountability, and act to prevent further abuses,” Ganguly said. “Concerned governments and the United Nations should press India to implement the High Commissioner’s recommendations and to protect the human rights of all in Kashmir.”

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 19, 2019, 5:30 pm

Screenshot from a 2013 video of Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) volunteering to undergo the standard operating procedures for force-feeding of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. 

© 2013 The Guardian/YouTube

(El Paso) – The United States government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency should immediately cease force-feeding three hunger striking detainees, Human Rights Watch said today. In an emergency hearing later today, lawyers for one of the strikers will ask a federal court in El Paso to reverse an order to authorize his force-feeding.

The Associated Press reported last week that officials were force-feeding one detainee as of last Wednesday, and on Friday a court authorized the force-feeding of two more men who had been on a hunger strike for 39 days. All three men are Indian nationals.

Authorities should not force-feed detainees who are competent and capable of rational judgment as to the consequences of refusing food. In addition, the force-feeding method used in detention – which involves shoving a plastic tube down a patient’s nose – can be very painful and is inherently cruel, inhuman, and degrading.

Dr. Michelle Iglesias, the doctor responsible for the care of hunger strikers in ICE detention at the El Paso Processing Center where the men are held, testified in a federal court hearing observed by Human Rights Watch on Friday that her patients were indeed “capable and competent enough to make a decision” and that they’d made the choice to continue their hunger strike despite having been made aware of the medical risks.

“ICE should immediately stop the cruel, inhuman, and degrading process of force-feeding any detainees who have made a competent decision to stop eating as a form of protest,” said Ariana Sawyer, assistant researcher in the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “Hunger striking is a desperate expressive act. In immigration detention, it can be a response to the irrationality of prolonged and needless detention.”

While one of the hunger strikers had been hospitalized with abdominal pain, another quietly watched Friday’s proceedings unfold from a wheelchair beside an attorney. He appeared severely emaciated but alert and had been forced to wear shackles around his thin ankles.

When asked under cross-examination if the hunger strikers would be better off released from detention and at home, the ICE doctor said simply: “Yes.”

The judicial orders authorizing the force-feeding of the three detainees are under seal, but in court, US District Judge David Guaderrama said the US government has a responsibility to act to prevent the death of anyone in custody.

Commenting on the ruling, Linda Corchado, the immigration attorney for the three men and director of Legal Services at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said, “Without placing more of a burden on ICE to explore all humane forms of preserving the lives of people under its custody, justice will never reach the thousands of detained asylum seekers who remain under the sole custody of ICE.”

There are alternatives to detention, including the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) and the Electronic Monitoring Device (EMD) Program, which allow officers to closely monitor released immigrants while avoiding the unnecessary abuses that plague the US immigration detention system.

In January this year, ICE was force-feeding at least six immigrant detainees protesting their conditions of detention. An investigation published by the Associated Press at the time indicated that nearly 30 men – mostly from India and Cuba – in the El Paso Processing Center were refusing food to protest prolonged detentions, as well as allegations of “rampant verbal abuse and threats of deportation from guards.” ICE officials then confirmed that 11 men were on hunger strike in El Paso and another 4 elsewhere in the United States.

United Nations human rights experts have condemned the force-feeding of hunger striking prisoners and detainees in other contexts, and the World Medical Association (WMA) has said “the forced feeding of hunger strikers is unethical and is never justified” and that “the final decision to intervene must take into account the hunger striker’s informed decision and must lie with the physician and not with any non-medical authority.”

The hunger strikers’ doctor testified that she was ultimately requesting the order to force-feed them based solely on ICE policy.

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 19, 2019, 3:00 pm

At the United Nations in Geneva the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots called on governments to not allow the development of weapons systems that would select and attack targets without any human intervention.

© 2018 Clare Conboy

(Geneva) – Russia, the United States, and a handful of other nations investing in autonomous weapons are preventing efforts to start negotiations on a new treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force, Human Rights Watch said today.

More than 70 member countries of the Convention on Conventional Weapons will meet in Geneva on August 20 and 21, 2019 for their eighth meeting since 2014 to discuss concerns raised by lethal autonomous weapons systems, also known as fully autonomous weapons or “killer robots.” But the Convention on Conventional Weapons’ “all talk, no action” approach indicates that it is incapable of dealing with this threat, Human Rights Watch said.

“Most governments want to negotiate a new treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch, which coordinates the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “But with a small number of countries blocking any progress, these diplomatic talks increasingly look like an attempt to buy time and distract public attention rather than to urgently address the serious challenges raised by killer robots.”

Human Rights Watch and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots urge states party to the convention to agree to begin negotiations in November for a new treaty to require meaningful human control over the use of force, which would effectively prohibit fully autonomous weapons. Only new international law can effectively address the multiple moral, legal, accountability, security, and technological concerns raised by killer robots.

The Convention on Conventional Weapons talks began in 2014 and were formalized three years later, but still have not produced anything more than some non-binding principles. Russia and the United States, as well as Australia, Israel, and the United Kingdom, opposed calls to move to negotiate a new treaty at the last meeting on killer robots in March, calling such a move premature.

At the previous talks, almost all countries have called for retaining some form of human control over the use of force, which is effectively equivalent to a ban on weapons that lack such control. To date, 28 countries have explicitly supported a prohibition on fully autonomous weapons.

There is increasing evidence that developing these weapons would run contrary to the dictates of public conscience, Human Rights Watch said. Thousands of scientists and artificial intelligence experts, more than 20 Nobel Peace Laureates, and more than 160 religious leaders and organizations of various denominations also support a ban on killer robots. In 2018, Google released a set of ethical principles that includes a pledge not to develop artificial intelligence for use in weapons.

Killer robots would be unable to apply either compassion or nuanced legal and ethical judgment to decisions to use lethal forcce. Without these human qualities, the weapons would face significant obstacles in ensuring the humane treatment of others and showing respect for human life and dignity. 

According to international humanitarian law, the dictates of public conscience and principles of humanity should be upheld when there is no specific relevant treaty, which is the case with killer robots.

The 28 countries that have called for the ban are: Algeria, Argentina, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, China (use only), Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Djibouti, Ecuador, El Salvador, Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala, the Holy See, Iraq, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, the State of Palestine, Uganda, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which began in 2013, is a coalition of 112 nongovernmental organizations in 56 countries that is working to preemptively ban the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.

“Both prohibitions and positive obligations are needed to ensure that systems that select and engage targets do not undermine ethical values and are always subject to meaningful human control,” Goose said. “The public expects greater efforts from governments to prevent the development of fully autonomous weapons, before they proliferate widely – in fact, nothing less than a legally-binding ban treaty.”

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 19, 2019, 1:01 pm

(New York) – The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) needs to act more swiftly on complaints and evidence brought by women players of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse by leaders of the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF), Human Rights Watch said today. Specifically, FIFA needs to speedily and fairly investigate all AFF members accused of facilitating abuse, and set up effective measures to ensure the safety of whistleblowers and survivors.

Afghanistan’s attorney general should ensure that all AFF officials apparently responsible for the sexual abuse of female players, as well as those accused of facilitating the abuse or covering it up, including senior members of the AFF, are subject to criminal investigation. Those found responsible should be prosecuted in each case where evidence suggests their culpability.

Female players, coaches, and whistleblowers have taken enormous risks over the past three years to collect evidence and file written complaints with FIFA against the powerful male leaders of the AFF, including the federation’s president, Keramuddin Karim. After hearing testimony regarding horrific incidents of sexual abuse, FIFA’s Ethics Committee suspended Karim for life and fined him 1 million Swiss francs (about US$1 million) in June 2019. Karim has not been arrested, though Afghanistan’s attorney general issued a warrant for his arrest in June. Moreover, FIFA, which holds significant influence over its member associations, has yet to conduct a full investigation of all officials who may be culpable.

“The president of the Afghan Football Federation has been kicked out of football after FIFA’s Ethics Committee found him responsible for abuses,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “But a full test of FIFA’s human rights policy is whether sport is safe for women and girls in Afghanistan – and they won’t be safe until all abusers, including those who enabled crimes, are removed and protective systems for whistleblowing, justice, and remedy are in place.”

The coach of the Afghan women’s national team, Kelly Lindsey, wrote in an August letter to FIFA president Gianni Infantino that the governing body has not addressed the “widespread culture of abuse” by “senior officials in ongoing positions of power” at the Afghan federation and “complicity at all levels of the AFF.”

Afghanistan’s women’s national football team was founded in 2011 and has operated from the beginning under the control – including pay, travel, and training – of the male-led federation. Sexual assault and other abuses of female players, including girls as young as 14, are reported to have taken place between 2013 and 2018 in the federation president’s office and at a training camp in Jordan in February 2018.

FIFA was alerted to sexual and other abuses as early as April 2017, and eventually opened an investigation, asking Lindsey and a former team captain, Khalida Popal, to gather evidence. Karim’s lifetime ban came after a FIFA investigation found him guilty of “having abused his position and sexually abused various female players, in violation of the FIFA code of ethics.”

“We are football coaches and players, not investigators – yet we did our best, knowing the lives of our players were at immediate risk and at significant cost to our safety and wellbeing,” Lindsey said. “My colleagues and I went right to the top of FIFA, we went to the Ethics Committee and told everyone who would listen that our girls were telling us they had been raped, beaten and abused. The evidence we gathered pointed clearly to a widespread culture of abuse. Yet to date there has been no evidence of any investigation into the conduct of the other AFF officials who continue to hold office while accused.”

The AFF’s general secretary, Sayed Ali Reza Aghazada, was suspended by the Attorney General’s office during an investigation into his alleged role in the abuse of women players. However, in April, he was elected to the regional governing executive committee of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

Human Rights Watch wrote to FIFA for comment and asked the global football governing body to confirm that full and proper investigations are underway.

FIFA replied:

We can confirm that FIFA is carefully looking into allegations that have been made against additional persons. As stated before, FIFA will not hesitate to impose sanctions if and when justified, just as it recently did in the case of the President of the association, who has been banned from football for life.

Since the investigations before the FIFA Ethics Committee are confidential, we cannot comment further on the case. For the rest, we understand that criminal investigations are underway in Afghanistan with regard to some of the matters relating to this complaint and, for its part, FIFA hopes that all those guilty of such crimes will be brought to justice by the relevant authorities and will be held fully accountable.

Where there is an ongoing risk to the safety of others, especially the safety of children or vulnerable adults, individuals who are the subject of serious abuse allegations should be immediately suspended by local law enforcement and FIFA pending full investigation.

“The crisis in Afghan women’s football shows that abusers can get in the system and then there is no way women can access justice,” Khalida Popal, now the program director for the Afghan women’s football team, told Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch long urged FIFA to set up a mechanism for human rights defenders and whistleblowers to file complaints, which FIFA has now done. However, any adequate whistleblowing and investigative system should protect those who bring complaints against retaliation, and should not place the responsibility of investigating, collecting evidence, or furnishing proof on players and coaches.

FIFA should create new eligibility requirements under its Human Rights Policy for all federations, regional bodies like the AFC, and FIFA membership and leadership. These requirements should make anyone who is the subject of any ongoing credible abuse investigation ineligible for any role in a FIFA body where they can intimidate witnesses or influence the investigation. Individuals found to have engaged in serious abuses should be barred from FIFA membership and jobs.

“Whistleblowers and victims of sexual assault should be able to expect that FIFA will conduct timely and thorough investigations of all abuse allegations,” Worden said. “Going forward, FIFA needs to urgently put in place a system fit for purpose that will meet international standards of addressing sexual assault, care, and justice for survivors.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 19, 2019, 9:45 am

(Sydney) – Australia’s parliament should scrap a new rule that allows nursing homes to overmedicate and restrain older people, a group of organizations working for older people’s rights in Australia said today. On August 20, 2019 in Sydney, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights will hold a hearing on human rights concerns relating to the new rule. Human Rights Watch, Aged and Disability Advocacy Australia (ADA Australia), and others will appear.

The group includes ADA Australia, Capacity Australia, Dementia Alliance International, and Human Rights Watch.

“The Australian government rule is trying to regulate abusive practices that harm older people rather than prohibit them,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “The opening of a parliamentary inquiry into this matter is a critical opportunity to address the regulation’s serious shortcomings.”

In April, the Australian government introduced a new rule to regulate both physical restraints and overmedication, also known as chemical restraint, in aged care facilities. The use of physical or chemical restraints as punishment, control, retaliation, or as a measure of convenience for staff should be prohibited, in line with Australia’s international human rights obligations.

Authorities should instead make sure that any medical intervention takes place only with free and informed consent, and that medications are administered only for therapeutic purposes. The government should prioritize positive support and intervention for people with dementia, including in aged care facilities.

On May 23, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the Australian parliament, urging its joint committee on human rights to move to disallow the Quality of Care Amendment (Minimising the Use of Restraints) Principles 2010.

In 2013, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities criticized Australia for allowing practices that would subject people with disabilities, including older people with dementia, to “unregulated behaviour modification or restrictive practices such as chemical, mechanical and physical restraints and seclusion.” The committee called on Australia to end these practices.  

In addition to the physical, social, and emotional harm for older people restrained with antipsychotic drugs, the use of such drugs in older people with dementia is also associated with a nearly doubled risk of death. It also limits their ability to eat, communicate, think, and stay awake.

“Older people in nursing homes are at serious risk of harm if this new aged care regulation is allowed to stand as is,” said Geoff Rowe, CEO at ADA Australia. “Australia’s parliament should act urgently to ensure that everyone, including older people, is free from the threat of chemical restraint.”

Human Rights Watch has documented the harm of overmedicating older people living in nursing homes in the United States.

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

Supporters of Iran watch the Morocco vs Iran match in a fan zone in Moscow, Russia, on June 15, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters
(New York) – The Iranian government should release women detained because they are alleged to have dressed as men to circumvent a ban on women attending football matches, Human Rights Watch said today. Among the women reportedly detained on August 13, 2019 are Zahra Khoshnavaz, a prominent advocate for ending the ban on women and girls attending public sporting events, and Forough Alaei, a leading photojournalist.

Iran bans female spectators from football and other stadiums. The ban is not written into law or regulation, but is enforced by the country’s authorities. The ban is a clear violation of the rules in FIFA’s constitution, the Statutes, and its Human Rights Policy. Article 4 of the Statutes says discrimination against women “is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.” In June, the FIFA president, Gianni Infantino warned the Iranian Federation that it must take concrete steps to allow women in stadiums or else face sanctions.

“Iranian women should not be spending a second in prison because authorities accuse them of peacefully attempting to defy a ridiculous ban that denies women and girls equal rights to attend a football match,” said Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “Iran should immediately and unconditionally release the women and lift the discriminatory ban on women attending sports matches.”

Women and girls who want to attend major football matches in Iran have long had to disguise themselves as men and boys to peacefully exercise that right and thwart the ban. Many have posted videos on social media to show their defiance of the ban.

Iran Wire, an online news outlet, reported on August 16 that the authorities in Iran had arrested six women, with two names unknown. The others include Leili Maleki and Hedieh Marvasti, who are both reportedly in Qarchak prison near Tehran.

The four women whose identities are confirmed are well-known advocates who have previously called for lifting the ban. Khoshnavaz’s advocacy to overturn the ban has been covered extensively in Iranian and global media, which have shown photographs of her in disguises she wore to enter the stadiums.

A source who was familiar with the arrests told Human Rights Watch that on August 13, the activists were called in for questioning at the Security Police office in Tehran, where they were held overnight. On August 14, authorities took the activists to the Vozara prosecutor’s office, where a judge issued a bond for them. However, they were not released, and later that day they were transferred to Qarchak prison. Activists have previously reported on the poor hygiene and safety conditions in Qarchak prison.

"Ignoring the wishes of a big part of society just because there could be some future problems and saying that the infrastructure is not ready, is very, very cruel and an injustice," Khoshnavaz told Euronews in an interview.

Alaei, the photojournalist, won first prize in World Press Photo 2019 for her work documenting the cruel exclusion of women from stadiums in Iran. Defense of media freedom is a central principle in FIFA’s Human Rights Policy.

For decades, Iranian women have put themselves in danger to document their exclusion from stadiums, which is a denial of women’s rights to be part of public spaces and the life of the country. Jafar Panahi’s award-winning 2006 film Offside depicts women and teenage girls arrested for trying to cheer for their teams.

Beyond the women challenging the ban by disguising themselves, women’s rights advocates from @OpenStadiums and #NoBanForWomen have written to FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation for years with evidence of the country’s discrimination to demand that the federations uphold their own rules.

Infantino, the FIFA president, visited a match in Iran’s Azadi (Freedom) stadium in March 2018, during which 35 women were arrested for trying to attend. While attending a November 2018 match in the same stadium, he gave undue praise to the Iranian government for the presence of women as “a real breakthrough,” though only a select group of women were allowed to attend.

Following these events and further detention of activists in June 2019, Infantino wrote a letter to Mehdi Taj, the head of the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. FIFA’s public letter set a July 15 deadline for Taj to inform him of the “concrete steps” the Iranian government was intending to take to lift its ban so that women will be allowed to attend 2022 World Cup qualifiers. Infantino expressed disappointment in the letter that Iran has reneged on its commitments to open stadiums to women.

FIFA has reported that its pressure on Iran apparently resulted in steps for change. According to FIFA, in July the Iran Federation Executive Council decided to allow women in stadiums for World Cup qualifiers and began discussing how that would be carried out, such as for ticketing and seating, with Iran authorities for the October 10, 2019 men’s World Cup qualifying match.

“FIFA has clear rules that require members to allow women to attend matches and to protect press freedom, yet FIFA has not taken meaningful action to enforce its own regulations,” Worden said. “The latest detentions show that much stronger action than a verbal warning is needed from FIFA and that it needs to impose sanctions for such blatant, long-standing gender discrimination.”

Update: On August 17, authorities released Alaei, Khoshnavaz, Maleki  and Marvasti after their families each posted a 500,000,000 rial (usd 11,000) bond.  This reflects all the women arrested on August 14, which was a total of 4, not 6, as cited above.

On August 19, FIFA issued the following statement regarding the arrests:

"FIFA is aware of reports that several women involved in activism to end the stadium ban for Iranian women were arrested and later released. We are closely following this matter. Generally speaking, FIFA calls on the Iranian authorities to ensure the freedom and safety of any women engaged in this legitimate fight to end the ban."

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 16, 2019, 11:24 pm

Armed anti-riot police in Zimbabwe forcibly dispersed hundreds of protesters today, using teargas, batons, and whips, tarnishing the image President Emmerson Mnangagwa has tried to paint of a new rights-respecting government post-Mugabe.

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa looks on after delivering the State of the Nation Address (SONA) in Harare, Zimbabwe, December 20, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters
The opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) called for the protests, which the police banned last night. The MDC requested that a High Court set aside the ban and allow the protest to move forward. Instead, at around 9:30 a.m. today, the High Court declined to set aside the ban. But as the protest was set to start in Harare at 10:00 a.m., protesters had already gathered by the time the MDC called the demonstration off.

International human rights standards don’t bar police from breaking up an unlawful demonstration, but they do require police to avoid or at least minimize the use of force when those demonstrations are peaceful.

I spoke to several people in Harare who said they witnessed police using whips and batons to beat up older persons and women, including a woman with a child on her back. A member of the Zimbabwe Doctors Association for Human Rights (ZADHR) told me over the phone that she had treated several women for soft tissue injuries sustained from beatings by the police. Today’s brutality is at odds with Mnangagwa’s repeated promises to usher in a ‘new dispensation’ that embraces democracy and human rights, and that gross rights abuses would become a thing of Zimbabwe's past.

If the Mnangagwa government is serious about respecting the rule of law, then it should take steps to ensure that what happened today is not repeated. To show that Zimbabwe has made a clean break with its abusive past, authorities should investigate today’s violence and hold accountable those responsible for any abuses.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 16, 2019, 7:41 pm

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attends a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, February 10, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

For years, hospitals in Syria have been getting bombed. These attacks continue even though the UN collected the locations of these protected sites and shared them with the warring parties in hope of shielding them from the crossfire. Many now suspect the coordinates provided by the UN were actually being used unscrupulously by Russian-Syrian forces as a target list.

If true, this would be a huge abuse of the UN system, not least of all, as directing attacks to these sites is a serious violation of the laws of war. By launching an inquiry into these attacks, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has taken a step towards unearthing the truth. But to be effective, he should also task investigators to determine and then publicly identify the forces responsible for these unlawful attacks.

At UN headquarters, some argue against identifying those responsible, saying everyone already knows who is behind this string of bombings in Syria. These voices want the UN to avoid potentially antagonizing Moscow, which is already displeased by the inquiry. No need to poke the proverbial bear, they counsel.

Unfortunately, these short-sighted arguments may carry the day. The UN chief has a tendency to go silent on human rights. We worry he may be tempted to tell his investigators to stop shy of connecting the dots to who’s responsible. When asked about his decision to initiate an investigation, the Secretary-General was quick to assure the world that the UN wasn’t seeking to “prove” anything.

But Guterres shouldn’t break with the precedent set under previous Secretaries General, who have set up inquiries into attacks on the UN that readily attributed responsibility for certain acts. A recent study by the International Peace Institute actually found that every single similar UN inquiry “has indeed identified” those responsible for carrying out certain acts, albeit without any conclusions on their legal culpability. From South Sudan to Gaza, previous such inquiries have pointed fingers where there was a basis to do so. Why should this latest look at Syria be different?

The UN Secretary-General as head of the organization, is charged with defending the UN when its institutions are attacked and its trust violated, regardless of how powerful those responsible may be.

As he decides on the terms of this inquiry on Syria, he has an opportunity to do just that.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: August 16, 2019, 12:30 pm