Laith Abu Zeyad, a campaigner for Amnesty International, in front of Israel’s separation barrier in Jerusalem.

© 2020 Private

Amnesty International will soon challenge in a Jerusalem court a travel ban that the Israeli government imposed on its campaigner for Israel and Palestine, Laith Abu Zeyad. The hearing is slated for May 31.

Six months ago today, the Israeli government deported me over my human rights advocacy.

As a Palestinian from the West Bank, Abu Zeyad must obtain an Israeli-issued permit to enter significant parts of the West Bank under Israeli control, including East Jerusalem, and Israel itself. Yet Palestinians applying for permits face what the Israeli rights group B’Tselem describes as an “arbitrary, entirely non-transparent bureaucratic system.” Most can travel abroad only by land via Jordan through the Israeli-controlled Allenby Crossing.

Israeli authorities denied Abu Zeyad a permit in September 2019 to enter occupied East Jerusalem, where he had hoped to accompany his mother, who needed cancer treatment, to a hospital just three kilometers from his home but on the other side of the separation barrier. She died there in December without her son by her side.

In October 2019, Israeli authorities at the Allenby Crossing barred Abu Zeyad from traveling to Jordan to attend a relative’s funeral, citing undisclosed “security reasons,” despite his never having been convicted for a security offense.

Authorities provided no further information and designated the evidence as “secret,” meaning even his attorney will not be able to see it in court.

And of course, without a permit to enter Jerusalem, Abu Zeyad cannot attend his own court hearing.

Israel’s efforts to muzzle human rights work provide plenty of reason to be skeptical about the basis for the ban. Authorities in recent years imposed travel bans on, raided the offices of, and arrested Palestinian rights defenders. They also denied entry to international human rights activists, and have made it more difficult for Israeli advocacy groups to operate, with senior officials even branding them as “traitors” and “collaborators.”

New Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, who warned in his campaign that the previous government’s attacks on independent institutions jeopardized the country’s future, can signal a new direction by lifting Abu Zeyad’s travel ban. He is empowered to do so as he holds the defense portfolio.

Israel’s international friends should also find their voice. A government that kicks out a Human Rights Watch director and bans an Amnesty International campaigner from traveling without disclosing the reasons will not hesitate to go after others, much less end systematic rights abuse, unless there is greater global pressure.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 25, 2020, 4:00 am

Image of a US Army AH-64E Apache attack helicopter.

© 2020 US Army/Specialist Cody Rich
(Washington, DC) – The US Congress should block or delay sales of almost $2 billion in attack helicopters and munitions to the Philippines until the government adopts major reforms to end military abuses and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said today. The Trump administration notified Congress in late April 2020 of two possible Foreign Military Sales by the US military to the Philippines, one for $1.5 billion including six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, a second for $450 million including six AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters, both with accompanying guided missiles, rockets, and light cannon ammunition, as well as ongoing service contracts for training, parts, and maintenance.

The Philippines military has a long track record of violations of human rights and the laws of war during counter-insurgency operations against the communist New People’s Army and Moro armed groups, including disregard of civilian life, hundreds of extrajudicial executions, mistreatment of displaced people, and indiscriminate attacks. The military also has a poor record of holding those responsible for human rights abuses accountable.

“Approving contracts for attack helicopters would be sending a terrible message to the Philippine government that long-running military abuses without accountability have no consequences on the US-Philippines relationship,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “Congress should be impressing upon the Philippine government that real reforms are needed to end military abuses before deals like this can be approved.” 

The Philippine military has a deeply rooted culture of impunity, Human Rights Watch said. Data from the Philippines Department of National Defense indicate that only one soldier has been convicted of an extrajudicial killing since 2001.

For much of the past decade, the US Congress has imposed conditions or restrictions on military assistance to the Philippines, communicating that cuts could only be restored if the Philippine government systematically improved its record, which the government never did. The arrest in August 2014 of Jovito Palparan, a retired Army major general implicated in numerous cases of abductions, torture, and killing, and his conviction in 2018, was a rare challenge to the impunity for military personnel, which multiple Philippine presidential administrations have failed to adequately address. There have been no other such convictions.

Unlawful attacks against leftists that the military accuse of being members of or sympathizers with the New People’s Army have continued, particularly in the central Philippine island of Negros. The government has also ramped up its dangerous anti-communist rhetoric against these individuals and groups.

The US State Department has not received any assurances about where these weapons systems would be deployed or for what purpose, Human Rights Watch said.

Congress has various means to stop or delay the sales. Members of Congress can introduce a “resolution of disapproval” and seek to vote it into law, and individual members on certain committees can place a “hold” on the sales pending further review.

If the sales goes forward, the US government should put the Philippines on notice that ongoing and future servicing and supply of parts for the weapons systems will cease in the event the systems are used illegally. Under US law illegal use of weapons constitute a violation of their End Use Certificates, which impose various restrictions on their use after a sale.

The proposed sales come at a time of a deeply deteriorating human rights situation in the Philippines and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. After President Rodrigo Duterte began his “war on drugs” in mid-2016, the police have killed more than 5,600 people in anti-drug operations, according to official statistics. Thousands more have died in killings attributed to unidentified gunmen. The killings have orphaned thousands of children who suffer from the emotional, psychological, and economic impacts of the campaign. More than 100 children have been killed between 2016 and 2018.

“The US should not be selling advanced military systems to an abusive, unaccountable Philippine military under cover of a global pandemic,” Sifton said. “Congress needs to act now.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 22, 2020, 8:55 pm

A nearly empty Oktyabrskaya Street in Minsk, Belarus amid coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic precautions on April 05, 2020.

© 2020 Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

(Moscow) – Belarusian authorities have intensified their crackdown on independent activists and journalists, with presidential elections less than three months away, Human Rights Watch said today.

Between May 6 and 13, 2020, the authorities arbitrarily arrested over 120 peaceful protesters, opposition bloggers, journalists, and other critics of the government in 17 cities. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, and the increased risk of virus transmission in closed settings such as detention facilities, courts handed down jail sentences of up to 25 days on charges of “participation in unsanctioned public gatherings.”

“The new wave of arbitrary arrests in Belarus is particularly disturbing in light of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Tanya Lokshina, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Belarusian authorities should not be arresting people for peaceful protests, but to expose them to higher risk of a deadly infection is unacceptable.”

The Belarusian leadership should act on the calls by the World Health Organization and other expert international bodies such as the UN Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture to minimize the number of people in custody during the pandemic.

Belarus, which had 31,523 registered Covid-19 cases as of May 21, hasn’t ordered a lockdown, citing its potential economic and social costs.

Those arrested included environmental protestors who oppose construction of a battery factory in Brest; supporters of Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular blogger who recently announced he would run for president; Youth Block movement activists concerned over human rights and the rule of law in Belarus; and human rights defenders and journalists who reported on peaceful public gatherings.

Human Rights Watch spoke with three activists after their release. One was diagnosed with Covid-19 shortly after his arrest, another fell ill with symptoms during his arrest, and the third was placed in a transport vehicle next to another detainee who was coughing and had no mask. The families of two of the activists did not discover their whereabouts for more than 24 hours.

Sergei Piatrukhin, a video blogger, was arrested when meeting with Tikhanovsky’s supporters on May 6, and five days later was sentenced by a court in Brest to 15 days of detention. He told the court that he was running a fever and had other symptoms of a respiratory disease and requested an ambulance. The judge consented, but, defying the court order, law enforcement officials took Piatrukhin to a detention center before the ambulance arrived.

Piatrukhin told Human Rights Watch that he was detained for alleged participation in an unsanctioned public gathering on April 19 against the construction of a battery plant near Brest, from which he live-streamed his blog. He said that on May 6, riot police broke into a house in the village of Ostrov where he was meeting with Tikhanovksy’s supporters, arrested him and two of his interlocutors, and drove them to a local police station.

There, the police blindfolded Piatrukhin, took him in a police van to the vicinity of Baranovichi, and transferred him to other police waiting for him. They then took him to a detention center in Brest, where officials finally registered his detention. The unsanctioned gathering that he was charged with participating in was one of a series of regular peaceful protests against the battery plant.

On May 8, a judge ordered Piatrukhin released until his next hearing on May 11. But police detained Piatrukhin as he was leaving the building, and returned him to the temporary detention center. On May 11, after the court sentenced Piatrukhin to 15 days of detention, the authorities took him back to the holding center, though an ambulance had been called for him.

At the detention center, Piatrukhin convinced staff to take his temperature. When they found he had a fever, they called another ambulance, which took Piatrukhin to a hospital. On May 12, Piaturkhin tested positive for Covid-19, and is being treated at the Brest Central Hospital.

Police detained Tikhanovsky on May 6 on the outskirts of Mogilev and detained him based on a 15-day sentence he received in January for alleged participation in an unsanctioned public gathering. On May 18, a different court sentenced Tikhonovsky to 15 days more for meetings with his followers in Orsh and Brest, which the authorities considered unsanctioned public gatherings.

On May 19, in a separate proceeding, the court handed down another 15 days for meetings with his followers in Soligorsk and Miory. Tikhanovsky told reporters that seven more administrative cases against him are pending over meetings with his followers in different towns.

Roman Kislyak, a human rights defender from Brest, was arrested on May 10 while monitoring a peaceful protest against the battery plant. Kislyak said there were about 230 participants, who did not shout slogans or hold posters, but rather fed the pigeons, a local protest tradition. Police detained Kislyak when the protest ended.

The officers took Kislyak in a police bus to a detention center in the nearby town of Kobrin. He was given no reason for his arrest until May 12, when he was taken to a police station in Brest, and given a charge sheet alleging he was at an unsanctioned gathering on April 12.

Between May 10 and May 12, Kislyak’s family had no information about his situation or whereabouts. His mother filed a missing persons report with police.

At Kislyak’s May 12 hearing, the authorities would not allow his lawyer into the courtroom. Kislyak complained to the judge about that, and about detention center staff taking away his pen, preventing him from drafting a complaint about his arbitrary detention.

The judge postponed the hearing on the merits and told Kislyak he was free to go. However, the police detained him by the building exit and took him to a detention center in Brest. The officers there said he was being detained on “an administrative violation” but provided no more information, and denied his request for a lawyer.

During a second court hearing on May 14, Kislyak found out that he was being charged with participation in an unsanctioned protest on May 3. He asked the court to review footage on his mobile phone to show his whereabouts that day. The judge granted his request, and Kislyak was allowed to return home pending a hearing scheduled for May 19. But he soon fell ill and is self-quarantined at home with respiratory symptoms resembling those of Covid-19.

Ales Asiptsou, a journalist from Mogilev working with the independent BelaPAN information agency, was arrested while covering a protest in Bobruisk on May 9 over President Alexander Lukashenka’s plans for a World War II Victory Day parade in Minsk despite the risks from Covid-19.

Asiptsou said that a plainclothes police officer detained him without explanation. They took him to a police station, searched him, and five hours later, at 5:30 p.m., took him to a station in Mogilev. Officers there showed him his detention report, saying he was charged with participation in a meeting with Tikhanovsky, with his followers in Mogilev on May 5, which the authorities considered an “unsanctioned public gathering.” Asiptsou had covered the meeting on assignment from BelaPAN.

Police drove him in a small prison vehicle to a temporary holding center, along with a detainee with a bad cough and other respiratory disease symptoms who was not wearing a mask. At the holding center, Apistou was put in a cell alone.

Asiptsou’s relatives searched for him for over 24 hours, unable to get information from various authorities about his situation or whereabouts. They eventually located him at the detention center by tracking his cell phone and calling the facility, where officers confirmed they had Asipstou in custody.

On May 12, a court in Mogilev sentenced Asiptsou to 10 ten days of detention. He was released on May 19 and is at home in apparent good health.

Belarusian authorities should respect freedom of assembly, Human Rights Watch said. Under international law everyone has a right to take part in peaceful assemblies, assemblies should be presumed lawful, and no person should be held criminally or administratively liable for participating in a peaceful protest, even if the authorities deem it unlawful.

“Arresting people for participating in or reporting on peaceful gatherings is an unjust penalty even in normal times, and pursuing this practice during a pandemic is simply outrageous,” Lokshina said. “Belarus authorities compromised the health of the activists they detained, as well as the health of other detainees and officials around them. The authorities should focus on containing the spread of Covid-19 rather than contributing to it by prosecuting and arbitrarily jailing people.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 22, 2020, 6:33 pm

Delegates applaud as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the opening session of China's National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, May 22, 2020. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, Pool

(New York) – The Chinese legislature’s adoption of a formal decision to directly impose national security legislation on Hong Kong threatens the basic rights and freedoms of the city’s people, Human Rights Watch said today. The law, which China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) almost certainly will enact, will prohibit acts of “splittism, subversion, foreign intervention, and terrorism,” vague terms that the Chinese government has frequently used on the mainland to punish peaceful dissent.

“The new national security law will deal the most severe blow to the rights of people in Hong Kong since the territory’s transfer to China in 1997,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Hong Kong people will now have to consider arrests and harsh sentences for protesting, speaking out, running for office, and other freedoms they have long enjoyed and struggled peacefully to defend.”

The NPC’s decision authorizes the body’s Standing Committee to draft the legislation, following which the committee will add it into Annex III of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the city’s functional constitution. The Hong Kong government will then promulgate the law and make it effective in Hong Kong.

The decision to directly insert the national security legislation into Annex III of the Basic Law raises serious concerns about human rights protections. Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” constitutional arrangement means that China’s national laws do not apply to the city. While article 18 of the Basic Law gives the NPC’s Standing Committee powers to add laws to Annex III, the laws must undergo either legislation or promulgation.

Legislation would involve the Hong Kong government introducing a bill to the Legislative Council (LegCo, Hong Kong’s semi-democratic legislature) for debate, amendments, and voting. This would allow the council to review the legislation, including evaluating whether the law complies with international human rights standards guaranteed under the Basic Law. To promulgate the law, the Hong Kong chief executive issues a legal notice in the Government Gazette, and the Chinese national laws concerned are applied verbatim. This will be the first time that a Chinese law carrying criminal penalties will be introduced to Hong Kong through promulgation and without a legislative process.

The Hong Kong government tried to introduce national security legislation in 2003, prompting massive protests and the withdrawal of the bill. The NPC, in its new decision, is explicit that its actions intend to bypass popular oversight through the Legislative Council.

The NPC decision also raises concerns because article 18 of the Basic Law states that such insertion of Chinese national legislation into Annex III “shall be confined to those relating to defense and foreign affairs as well as other matters outside the limits of the autonomy of the Region.”

Under the Basic Law and the bilateral treaty between the United Kingdom and China at the time of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty, Hong Kong has a “high level of autonomy.” The Hong Kong government has autonomous powers to manage the city’s affairs, except for defense and foreign affairs. Article 23 of the Basic Law empowers the Hong Kong government to “enact laws on its own” to prohibit subversive acts. This suggests that it is the Hong Kong government, not the NPC Standing Committee, that has the power to legislate on Hong Kong’s national security.

The NPC Standing Committee will meet next in late June. As it takes three readings to legislate, the earliest the national security legislation will take effect will be around November, according to mainland media.

The NPC decision also states that the law will allow the central government to set up “relevant” institutions to protect “national security” in Hong Kong. Although there are few details, this could mean the establishment of agencies such as the Ministry of State Security and the National Security Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security – agencies long known for rights abuses in China, including arbitrary detention and torture – to operate in Hong Kong.

In addition, pro-Beijing sources say the law would enable the Hong Kong government to ban “foreign groups or organizations” designated by Beijing as being involved in “color revolutions” – another vague term that could apply to any groups critical of China’s government. It could also ban people who work for or receive funding from these organizations from entering Hong Kong.

The Chinese government conceptualizes “national security” in such a broad manner that people exercising their basic human rights and defending them peacefully, including activists, human rights lawyers, scholars, ethnic minorities, and netizens, are detained and imprisoned for years – sometimes for life – for crimes such as “subversion,” “inciting subversion,” “splittism,” and “leaking state secrets.”

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam issued a statement stating she will “comply fully” with the NPC’s decision. The proposed legislation already faces opposition from the pro-democracy movement. Even after the law is promulgated, it could still face challenges in the courts.

While the Chinese government controls China’s judiciary, Hong Kong has its own legal system, and the courts have long been regarded as independent and highly professional. The national security legislation will put additional strain on the judiciary, which has increasingly had to rule on more politically motivated prosecutions. Any legal challenges related to the national security legislation will challenge the judges’ independence, as the legislation will raise conflicts with the Basic Law’s human rights protections.

Judicial rulings against the government on this key legislation could result in Beijing intervening in Hong Kong’s judicial process and “interpreting” the law, as it did in 2016, further damaging Hong Kong’s judicial independence.

Since mid-April, amid the Covid-19 crisis, the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have heightened their assault on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, and Beijing has escalated its efforts to impose direct control over the city’s governance.

Governments should take concrete actions to help protect the rights of people in Hong Kong, Human Rights Watch said. They should sanction senior Beijing and Hong Kong officials responsible for recent human rights abuses in Hong Kong and future abuses under the national security legislation, subjecting them to travel bans and asset freezes. They should also offer a safe haven to Hong Kong people who suffer retaliation for exercising their human rights.

“Governments have offered little beyond rhetoric in support of Hong Kong’s freedoms while Chinese authorities have accelerated violations in the mainland and Hong Kong,” Richardson said. “China’s imposition of a Hong Kong security law under the cover of Covid-19 shows the need for strong international action.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 22, 2020, 4:50 pm

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 13, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters
United States Secretary of State Michael Pompeo once again threatened the International Criminal Court (ICC), this time saying the Trump administration will “exact consequences” if the ICC “continues down its current course” – that is, if the court moves forward with an investigation of possible war crimes committed on Palestinian territory.

A decision that could pave the way for an investigation of serious crimes by Israelis and Palestinians is pending before the ICC’s judges, who have been asked by the ICC prosecutor to confirm the court’s jurisdiction there. Palestine has ratified the court’s treaty, while Israel has not.

Pompeo’s May 15 statement termed the ICC a “political body” when it is instead a global court of last resort for serious international crimes. In March, Pompeo threatened to take action against ICC staff and their families in response to the opening of an investigation into crimes committed in and around Afghanistan. That probe could include scrutiny of serious abuses by Afghan nationals and could also touch on serious abuses by US military and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) personnel committed on Afghan soil or in other ICC member countries. These abuses have not been addressed by any meaningful action in US courts. The US, which is not an ICC member, earlier revoked the ICC prosecutor’s visa and threatened economic sanctions. Pompeo may have been bolstered by last week’s letters from members of Congress calling on him to work to see a stop to these ICC investigations.  

Pompeo’s rhetoric against the court reflects the Trump administration’s broader hostility to the international legal framework. The ICC’s 123 member countries should challenge Pompeo’s toxic narrative on the court. Israeli and Palestinian authorities have for years failed to credibly investigate alleged war crimes and hold those responsible to account. If ICC judges confirm the court’s mandate there, it could provide an opening to check this impunity. The member countries should make clear their support for the ICC’s independence and its mandate to act impartially to deliver accountability. Victims should know that their pursuit of justice will be met by a commitment to the rule-of-law. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 22, 2020, 3:28 pm

The High Security Prison in Yaoundé, Cameroon, where separatist leader Blaise Sevidzem Berinyuy, also known as Shufai, is being held, February 2019.

© Private

Separatist leader Blaise Sevidzem Berinyuy, also known as Shufai, was discharged from the hospital and sent back to a high security prison in Yaoundé on May 21, despite his critical health condition and apparently following pressure by the head of the detention facility on medical staff. Transferring Shufai, who is immunocompromised, to a crowded prison setting where transmission of Covid-19 is more likely seriously enhances the threats to his health and life.

On May 16, Shufai, one of the leaders of the separatist group “Ambazonia Interim Government,” was transferred from the prison to the hospital for non-Covid-19-related illness. His family and lawyers said he was unconscious, and his health had deteriorated significantly over the previous 10 days. They reported that on May 19, Shufai was handcuffed to his hospital bed for the night, despite being barely able to move.

Shufai’s family members and lawyers said that the head of the prison visited Shufai twice at the military hospital and pressed medical staff to discharge him, although his condition continues to be alarming. This is despite concerns over the spread of Covid-19 across Cameroon’s overcrowded prisons.

Shufai and nine other leaders of the “Ambazonia Interim Government” were arrested in January 2018 in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, and forcibly returned to Cameroon. Their extrajudicial transfer was denounced by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, as violating the fundamental principle of non-refoulement. The forced return of the 10 leaders was also declared illegal by a Nigerian court in March 2019. The 10 leaders were later held incommunicado at Cameroon’s State Defense Secretariat prison for six months before being taken to the Yaoundé high security prison. They were charged with terrorism, rebellion, and secession, and sentenced to life before a military court on August 20, 2019, following a deeply flawed trial.

Cameroon has a fundamental obligation to treat all prisoners with humanity and respect, and as the authorities grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic, they should ensure that all prisoners can take measures such as regular handwashing and have proper access to medical care. They should also ensure sick prisoners receive the medical treatment they need and that their health or lives are not further jeopardized by increasing their risk of Covid-19 infection. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 22, 2020, 1:46 pm

Women hold up signs demanding justice during the hearing of the president of the Fédération Haïtienne De Football (FHF), Yves Jean-Bart, regarding allegations that he abused female athletes at the country's national training center, outside the courthouse in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, Thursday, May 14, 2020. As reported in the Guardian, survivors and family members have accused Jean-Bart of coercing young female players at the Centre Technique National in Croix-des-Bouquets into having sex with him.

© 2020 Associated Press (Dieu Nalio Chery)
(New York) – Haitian law enforcement should effectively investigate serious allegations of sexual assault against the president of the Fédération Haïtienne De Football (FHF), and vigorously pursue appropriate prosecutions, Human Rights Watch said today. As reported in the Guardian, survivors and family members have accused the federation president, Yves Jean-Bart, of coercing young female players at the Centre Technique National in Croix-des-Bouquets into having sex with him.

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), football’s world governing body, has confirmed that its independent ethics committee is investigating the allegations in Haiti. FIFA should exercise its authority to suspend the FHF president and any implicated officials during its investigation, Human Rights Watch said. Such a measure is important to reduce risks of abuse or retaliation against women and girls in the country’s football system. FIFA should also conduct the investigation with a survivor-centered approach and ensure sensitivity, safety, and access to support services when conducting outreach and interviewing suspected victims.

“Haitian authorities need to investigate all allegations of crimes committed against women and girls who dreamed of playing football for their country,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “FIFA president Gianni Infantino has encouraged women and girls to join football, and FIFA has a duty of care to protect all who play from risk of sexual assault by its associates.” 

Jean-Bart has been Haiti’s football federation president since 2000 and was recently re-elected for a sixth term. The federation oversees youth, men’s, and women’s teams, and training. Jean-Bart has publicly denied the allegations.

However, a former Haiti Women’s National Team player who spoke to Human Rights Watch said Jean-Bart used promises of contracts or scholarships and the threat of expulsion from the national training center to pressure young female players into having sex. 

The young woman, who lived and trained at Haiti’s problematic national training center, told Human Rights Watch that women and girls experienced very serious sexual abuse over the years she was based there.

When she sought to advance professionally as a player, she was told her contracts and “my chance to play overseas depended on sleeping with the president.” When she was 16 or 17, she said, “he put his hand on my leg to get me to go with him.” She witnessed a female FHF staff member waking girls up early “to ‘go to the doctor’ and they would come back very late at night in new clothes.” She said teen girls became pregnant and had children by the president. “All of the players, officials, and staff at the center knew what was going on.”

In Haiti, women and girls struggle to access justice, and gender-based violence is a widespread problem. Haiti does not have specific legislation against domestic violence, sexual harassment, or other forms of violence targeted at women and girls. Rape was only explicitly criminalized in 2005 by ministerial decree. In 2017, Haiti’s Ministry of Health released a survey saying one in eight women reported experiencing sexual violence at some point in their lives.

Human Rights Watch has long documented how women in Haiti seeking accountability for sexual violence crimes encounter multiple obstacles, including reproach by members of the public or threats. Some survivors experience threats or reprisals for filing criminal complaints, leading them to drop charges. In one high-profile case, a woman pressed charges against a former justice minister, claiming he had raped her in 2012. She subsequently reported receiving multiple death threats, which led her to withdraw her criminal complaint.

Women’s rights groups in Haiti have urged the Ministry of Justice to take immediate action. “It is absolutely necessary to protect the girls and their anonymity. We are worried about their safety,” Yolette Andrée Jeanty, the director of the association Kay Fanm in Haiti told the Guardian.

On May 21, 2020, Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, a leading human rights organization based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, published a report documenting abuses by Jean-Bart and “demanding a serious judicial investigation.”

Over the past two years, a number of top football officials in the FIFA system across the globe have been accused of sexual harassment or assault. In 2019, Ahmad Ahmad, president of the Confederation of African Football and a vice president of FIFA, came under investigation for multiple allegations including allegedly sexually harassing several women. That investigation is ongoing, and Ahmad denies the allegations.

In Afghanistan, members of the Afghan National Women’s Football team accused the president of the Afghan Football Federation (AFF), Keramuudin Karim, and other AFF officials of sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination. FIFA issued a lifetime ban on Karim and fined him 1 million Swiss francs (about US$1 million). FIFA suspended Karim and other senior AFF staff during its investigation into the sexual assault complaints, and eventually banned them from the sport.  

Since 2016, FIFA has enshrined its responsibility to respect human rights in Article 3 of the FIFA Statutes, constituted an independent Human Rights Advisory Board, employed staff members in Human Rights and Child Protection and Safeguarding roles, set up a complaints system for human rights abuses, and adopted a landmark 2017 Human Rights Policy stating that “Human rights commitments are binding on all FIFA bodies and officials.”

In June 2019, FIFA created the “FIFA Guardians” program, which makes football leaders responsible for “responding to concerns about a child” and lays out “guidelines for identification, prevention, and mitigation of risk to children involved in football” (under Step 3). The President’s Message from Infantino reads:

With this toolkit, FIFA has established guiding principles and minimum requirements that will help leaders and organisers in our sport to ensure a safe and nurturing environment for the youngest members of the football family. Such an environment, far from being a privilege, is every child’s right.

The Haitian football player interviewed told Human Rights Watch that athletes and parents were powerless when the president targeted the girls for sexual abuse and threatened them into silence: “He is known to pay mobsters and local gangsters. They will come to the center all the time. A player I know got a recent call that, ‘if you speak, Dadou [Jean-Bart] will kill you.’” 

She said she is afraid. But she also said, “My hope is that ‘Dadou’ can end up in jail to face justice with all the other members of the Haitian Football Federation too, because they knew of his crimes and were involved in sexual abuse.” 

“Moving immediately to suspend Haiti’s federation president and any implicated officials while these serious allegations are investigated would signal that FIFA intends to safeguard young athletes from retaliation,” Worden said. “With threats already made, FIFA has a clear duty of care to limit the ability of those in positions of power to intimidate or silence accusers.” 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 22, 2020, 4:01 am

A displaced family in their tent in al-Sowida camp for internally displaced people in Marib governorate, north Yemen, February 2020. The family had been displaced twice, the second time after fleeing to Marib to escape renewed fighting near the capital, Sanaa. 

© 2020 Ali Owidha

(Beirut) – Civilians fleeing renewed fighting in northern Yemen are particularly vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today.

Fighting in Marib governorate between Houthi forces and the Saudi-led coalition and their Yemeni government allies has moved closer to overcrowded camps for internally displaced people that have inadequate health services and humanitarian aid. The parties to the conflict should take immediate steps to protect displaced people in insecure areas and facilitate access to aid. Poor camp conditions including recent flooding make the residents especially vulnerable to a Covid-19 outbreak, which Yemen lacks the capability to contain, especially as donors have reduced assistance.

“Yemeni government forces and Houthi forces need to protect fleeing civilians and ensure that they can get aid,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The heightened risk to millions of Yemeni civilians who rely on aid as their lifeline comes at a time of reduced foreign assistance and rising fear of a Covid-19 outbreak.”

The armed conflict that began in Yemen in March 2015 has displaced nearly four million people. Many have fled their homes due to serious laws-of-war violations, including the Saudi-led coalition’s unlawful airstrikes on homes, schools, and marketplaces and the Houthis’ indiscriminate shelling of neighborhoods. Since early 2020, fighting in northern Yemen has increased sharply, causing a significant displacement toward Marib. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, reported that over 40,000 people have been displaced since the beginning of the year, and more displacement is likely as Houthi forces advance closer to Marib City.

Marib currently hosts 750,000 displaced people, outnumbering the city’s original population of 500,000. There are camps for displaced people and other shelter facilities across Marib, including in schools, a university campus, and a museum, according to Yemen’s internationally recognized government. Two aid workers told Human Rights Watch that coalition forces are deployed near some camps near current front lines, putting civilians at additional risk.

In February 2020, Houthi forces made military advances in north Yemen, taking control of the strategic district of Nehm and the city of al-Hazm, some 60 kilometers northeast of the capital, Sanaa, and about 60 kilometers northwest of Marib. Simultaneously, Houthi forces made military advances in the governorate of Al-Bayda', south of Marib, leaving Marib city surrounded by active fighting from both the north and south.

Since February, Houthi military advances have left Marib City surrounded by active fighting in both the north and south. Coalition airstrikes have continued, with Marib one of the hardest-hit areas. Two hospitals in Marib City that served displaced people were struck during clashes in February. The UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen described the attacks as “a completely unacceptable breach of international humanitarian law.”

International humanitarian assistance to Yemen has been hampered by a funding shortfall as well as Houthi obstruction of aid to those in need. International donors have not fulfilled their 2020 funding pledges, with only 27 percent of the Yemen humanitarian fund funded.

Pledges are also down in 2020, with only US$800 million in pledges compared with $2.6 billion pledged in 2019.

In April, the UN humanitarian coordinator warned that 31 of 41 major humanitarian programs in Yemen would be reduced or shut down “unless funding is urgently received.” Numerous aid workers told Human Rights Watch that displaced people would be among those most affected by funding shortages. UNHCR said that nearly one million vulnerable displaced people and refugees in Yemen risked losing their shelter, vital cash assistance for essentials like food and medicine, and other assistance. The agency said that it received only 28 percent of the 2020 funding needed to protect and provide critical aid to displaced people.

Several aid workers and journalists in Marib told Human Rights Watch that both the Houthis and the Yemeni government authorities have placed constraints on humanitarian aid operations in the city. The UN has previously accused Houthi authorities of obstructing aid, including diversion of World Food Program food assistance, demands for a 2 percent cut from the entire UN-led aid budget, refusing biometric registration conditions to reduce corruption, and otherwise unnecessary restrictions on northern Yemen relief operations.

Since early 2020, several donor governments have suspended funding in the north due to the Houthis’ increased restrictions. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) suspended at least $73 million out of $85 million for humanitarian programming in the Houthi-controlled north. After an outcry, the US on May 6 announced $225 million in emergency food aid for Yemen.  

One aid group told Human Rights Watch that after temporarily suspending funding over Houthi obstruction, Sweden’s International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) recently resumed its funding. Another humanitarian worker in Marib said that two other donor countries, without stating their reasons, have suspended funding to projects in Marib and other parts of the north, causing him to lose his job.

UN officials have raised concerns that some epidemiological projections estimate that the coronavirus could infect nearly 16 million people in Yemen, 55 percent of the population. The country’s shattered health system – under-resourced and buffeted by years of war – is inadequately prepared to care for Covid-19 patients and contain the spread of the virus.

Al-Meel camp is one of 126 camps for internally displaced people in Marib governorate, north Yemen, March 2020. 

© 2020 Ali Owidha

Displaced people, whom UNHCR warned are “the most vulnerable to the threat of COVID-19,” face even greater risks. Most displaced people are in dangerously overcrowded camps with substandard health care and inadequate access to clean water, sanitation, and other essential services, or the ability to follow social distancing guidelines or “self-isolate” when sick. Recent flash flooding in Marib has affected at least 16 sites, increasing the chances of another cholera outbreak.

As of mid-May, Marib has one confirmed Covid-19 case, and the risk will increase as the virus spreads to other Yemen regions. The internationally recognized Yemeni government’s Covid-19 committee reported on May 20 that there were 180 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 29 deaths in Hadramout, Aden, Taizz, and other governorates since April 10. As of 16 May, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen reported that there were 4 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 1 death in the capital, Sanaa.

Humanitarian groups told Human Rights Watch that the actual number of cases in Yemen is most likely much higher than those reported, in part due to limited testing capacity and the country’s weak health system. They also reported that warring parties have politicized the Covid-19 response by accusing one another of deliberately spreading the virus.

“Given Yemen’s existing humanitarian crisis, battered health system, and the imminent threat of a cholera outbreak, Marib’s displaced people now face the double threat of renewed fighting and the uncontrolled spread of a dangerous virus,” Nasser said. “The warring parties need to work with donors to prevent an even greater catastrophe.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 22, 2020, 4:00 am

The Europa II, a tourist ferry sets sail from Marsamxett Harbour, Valletta, Malta. The vessel, along with sister ship, Atlantis, are being used by the Maltese government to detain asylum seekers in the Mediterranean.

© 2012 NielsVK / Alamy Stock Photo

(Milan) – The Maltese government should immediately allow more than 160 people detained on two private tourism vessels just off Maltese territorial waters to disembark in Malta and seek asylum if they choose, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since April 30, 2020, the Maltese government has been paying a private company to keep people on the high sea on vessels designed for pleasure cruises. The government has not provided a legal basis, or legitimate purpose, for keeping people on these ferries, making this arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

“It’s incredible that the Maltese government would hold these people captive on tourist ferries in miserable conditions for weeks to pressure other EU countries to take them,” said Judith Sunderland, acting deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Concerns about Covid-19 and long-standing complaints, in part justified, about lack of fair sharing of responsibility can’t excuse this disgraceful behavior.”

France and Portugal have shown leadership and humanity in offering to relocate some of the men, and other European Union (EU) countries should follow their example, Human Rights Watch said.

The people were rescued at sea between April 30 and May 7. On April 30, the Maltese government arranged for the transfer of 57 people rescued the day before by a private fishing vessel to the Europa II, a 34.75-meter tourist ferry boat owned by Captain Morgan Cruises Ltd. On May 7, an Armed Forces of Malta patrol boat rescued 45 people and coordinated the rescue by a fishing boat of 78 people.

While all 18 women and children were reportedly taken ashore, the other 105 people were transferred the same day to the Bahari, a 23.59-meter tourist ferry boat owned by the same company. That group was subsequently transferred, on May 15, to the Atlantis, a 39.6-meter ferry boat owned by Captain Morgan Cruises. These boats, all flying the Maltese flag, are pleasure crafts designed for short tourist cruises and not to accommodate people for lengthy periods.

The government has not stated whether this is a mandatory quarantine to limit the potential spread of Covid-19, nor is it clear if it has carried out any public health measures, such as testing for Covid-19, isolating anyone with symptoms, and enabling social distancing. Even if it were intended as a quarantine, both groups have been on these boats for longer than the commonly mandated 14-day period.

Conditions on board, never appropriate, appear to be deteriorating significantly. On May 19, a man sent a Facebook post to the nongovernmental organization Alarm Phone, which runs a hotline for boats in distress in the Mediterranean, saying he is on board the Europa II and describing increasing despair in the “water prison.”

He said that some people had attempted suicide and that “anxiety, resentment, and depression have increased … this has made our health condition worse. Also due to lack of full health care, there’s been an outbreak of skin diseases … there is lack of care when it comes to food. Hunger strikes have started and we’re in a deplorable state. We have no means of communication to reflect our [condition] to the outside world.”

Alarm Phone was unable to reach the man for further communication, and no independent groups appear to have had any contact with anyone on the Europa II or the Atlantis. The government says it is spending €3,000 per day for each boat and has requested EU funds for these expenses.

Screenshot of a Facebook message sent to Alarm Phone, a hotline for people in distress at sea, by a man saying he is being detained on the Europa II boat by Maltese authorities.

© 2020 Alarm Phone

In a letter to the European Commission, three Maltese organizations, Aditus Foundation, the Integra Foundation, and Jesuit Refugee Service Malta, said they are not aware of any effort by authorities to identify people with vulnerabilities or unaccompanied children, while no one on board has had access to lawyers, interpreters, or the United Nations (UN) refugee agency, UNHCR.

The Maltese government of Prime Minister Robert Abela has stated explicitly that it is keeping people at sea to pressure other EU countries to take them. A government spokesman said on April 30, “Our ports are closed. Now it’s up to the European Union to shoulder responsibility.”

Media reported that Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo and Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri sent a letter to the European Commission on May 1 saying that EU countries had failed to live up to relocation pledges and asserting that the then-57 people on a Captain Morgan ferry would stay there “pending their relocation to other European countries.”

On April 9, the day after Italy declared its ports “unsafe” amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Malta went even further, announcing that Maltese authorities “are not in a position to guarantee the rescue of prohibited immigrants … nor to ensure the availability of a ‘safe place’ on the Maltese territory to any persons rescued at sea.”

Malta faces serious allegations in at least two incidents involving boats in distress in mid-April. A joint investigation by the Italian newspaper Avvenire and the UK newspaper the Guardian, based also on evidence collected by Alarm Phone, documented that the Armed Forces of Malta allegedly intercepted a boat carrying 101 people and instead of rescuing them, engaged in dangerous maneuvers, gave them some supplies and instructions at gunpoint, and told them to continue toward Italy.

On April 15, the privately-owned Dar al Salam 1, allegedly acting on orders from Malta, intercepted a boat carrying forty men, eight women, and three children, and returned them to Libya, where they were detained in the Tarik al Sikka detention center in Tripoli. On April 30, a former Maltese official told prosecutors investigating the allegations that he coordinated the pushback under instructions from the prime minister’s office as part of a long-standing role as liaison with Libyan authorities in the western part of the country. A reconstruction of the boat’s journey by Avvenire suggests that failure by the Maltese and EU authorities to respond to repeated distress alerts contributed to the deaths of at least five people, whose corpses were on board when the boat reached Libya. Seven others remain unaccounted for.

Malta has clear responsibilities under international law to respond to boats in distress at sea, enact or coordinate rescue operations within its search and rescue area, and ensure timely disembarkation at a safe port. Under international law, restrictions may be placed on rights for public health reasons, but they must be proportionate, nondiscriminatory, and based on available scientific evidence. The pandemic cannot justify abdicating rescue responsibilities or blanket bans on disembarkation, which puts the right to health of those on board at risk.

Deprivation of liberty without a legal basis is unlawful and arbitrary detention in contravention of international and European law. That the men are being held on private vessels in international waters does not absolve Malta of its responsibilities or its liabilities under international and European law. For the purposes of state responsibility, the men are in the custody and under the control of Maltese authorities. Denial of access to asylum contravenes the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

In a letter to Prime Minister Abela, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner said that the authorities should ensure prompt and safe disembarkation and investigate allegations of delay or non-response to situations of distress. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern in early May over reports of distress calls being ignored and reiterated that states should ensure search-and-rescue operations and swift disembarkation even amid the Covid-19 pandemic. On May 21, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that people on board the two boats should be brought to shore “as soon as possible,” stressing that it was “unacceptable to leave people at sea longer than necessary, especially under difficult and unsuitable conditions.”

This episode, reminiscent of numerous stand-offs at sea that were only resolved by ad hoc arrangements, makes an agreement among EU countries on a predictable system for disembarkation and relocation of migrants and refugees all the more urgent, Human Rights Watch said.

EU member states should not only relocate this group and follow through on prior commitments, but also strongly condemn the Maltese authorities for the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of scores of people and the violations of the law of the sea and of EU asylum standards, and urge Malta to allow the people to disembark. The European Commission should also open infringement proceedings against Malta for violating its EU treaty obligations.

“We believe the 160 people on board tourist cruise boats on the high sea are experiencing severe emotional and physical distress,” Sunderland said. “But we don’t believe their treatment, and violation of their rights, is worthy of the people of Malta, or any EU country.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 22, 2020, 4:00 am

People wave a Lebanese national flag during a protest in Central Beirut December 11, 2006.

© 2006 Reuters

As poverty increases, inflation skyrockets, and unemployment soars, Lebanon is facing the worst economic crisis in its history. Last week, the government began formal negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to discuss a plan to rescue the economy and request around US$10 billion dollars in aid.

Millions of people in Lebanon are already struggling to afford food, housing, and other basic rights due to the double hit of an economic crisis and impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the lack of a functioning social safety net and poor governance has left the majority dependent on a corrupt, sectarian-based “spoils system” for access to basic services, including jobs, education, and health care. Any economic reforms should protect people’s economic rights and address these underlying issues.

Lebanon has previously received four multi-million dollar aid and soft-loan packages since the end of its civil war in 1990, but the benefits were never shared equitably. The country remains one of the most unequal in the world, with 55 percent of the national income concentrated in the top 10 percent of earners.

The IMF will no doubt seek to reduce Lebanon’s debt, currently at 170 percent of its GDP, as well as decrease government expenditures and raise revenues. But the costs of these reforms should not fall on the poorest in the country by slashing spending on social services and making essential goods unaffordable. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Bank estimated that Lebanon’s poverty rates would rise to 50 percent in 2020, and inflation has drastically increased the price of necessities such as food, medicine, and utilities.

In particular, new tax measures should be progressive in nature and not exacerbate inequality and increase the cost of living in ways that undermine rights. Any cuts in subsidies to the electricity sector, which account for 40 percent of Lebanon’s debt, should be preceded by a comprehensive reform plan that ensures the most marginalized are still able to access electricity, essential to the enjoyment of a host of basic rights, like food, housing, and an adequate standard of living.

The IMF’s recommendations should encourage government spending on social services like education, health care, and poverty-targeting programs, while shoring up government revenues through improving the tax collection infrastructure and adopting stringent anti-corruption measures.

Fixing Lebanon’s balance sheets should not come at the expense of rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 22, 2020, 4:00 am

A woman in medical gloves holding an iPhone.

© 2020 Human Rights Watch

(Moscow) – Moscow authorities have wrongly fined hundreds, if not thousands, of people for allegedly breaching self-quarantine based on dubious interpretations of behavior by a “social monitoring” tracking app, Human Rights Watch said today.

The app, designed to track people with Covid-19 and symptoms of other respiratory diseases, unjustifiably invades users’ privacy, is mired in flaws and technical glitches, and should immediately be discontinued.

“While protecting human life and public health is a paramount concern during the pandemic, Moscow’s social monitoring app could end up discouraging people from seeking out testing or health care, putting them and others at greater risk,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The app is intrusive, violates privacy and other rights, and should be dropped.”

Moscow has the highest number of Covid-19 cases registered in Russia, with more than 150,000 cases as of May 20, 2020.

Moscow authorities had originally introduced the app online at the end of March but promptly took it down for fine-tuning. In April, the revised app was re-introduced. On April 21, Moscow’s mayor issued a decree stipulating that anyone, including children, displaying symptoms of a respiratory disease should, just like those who have tested positive for Covid-19, undergo a two-week self-quarantine period. The decree also requires people who share their residence to comply with the quarantine.

Doctors were tasked with having patients and their family members sign a quarantine notification, which includes a line in small print that they are required to install the app. But it provides no guidance about how to use the app and what may trigger a fine. Refusal to sign the quarantine notification may result in forced hospitalization.

The social monitoring app gains access to the user’s location, calls, camera, network information, sensors, and other data to ensure that people instructed to self-quarantine do not leave their home during the two-week period. It is unclear why the app would need access to all of this data to monitor compliance with self-isolation. Data collected should be limited in scope, and safeguards should be put in place to ensure it’s not used for other purposes, Human Rights Watch said.

The tracking data is stored on the city hall’s server for one year. Mobile tracking programs should be viewed as a strictly temporary measure until the pandemic is under control, Human Rights Watch said. Retaining users’ data for a year in connection with a two-week quarantine is neither a necessary nor proportionate interference with the right to privacy and may contribute toward an expanded surveillance regime.

Although the app has been in use for only a few weeks, it has already triggered a major public outcry. Critics have underscored the app’s excessive intrusiveness and its potential to become a dangerous tool in the hands of an abusive government. It is also deeply flawed on many levels and results in many fines automatically issued to people who are in fact fully complying with self-quarantine regulations.

The app randomly sends push notifications to users instructing them to immediately take and send a selfie as a proof of not having left the house without the phone. If users miss a notification, they are automatically fined 4,000 rubles (approximately US$56). Some users said that the notification would arrive in the middle of the night while they were sleeping and that they had been fined by the time they woke up.

One Covid-19 patient told the media that her health deteriorated after several days of home quarantine, prompting her to call an ambulance. While in the ambulance on her way to the hospital, the woman fell asleep and then was fined for failing to promptly respond to a notification requesting a selfie. Some users reported that they did their best to make the selfie, but that the frame would freeze or the selfie would not send, triggering an automatic fine. Some of the affected users are contesting the fines in court. Failure to install the app also results in a fine.

Among those fined was Irina Karabulatova, who had not left her bed for over a year because of a disability. After coming down with a sore throat, she was seen at her home by a doctor, who gave her a quarantine form to sign. She saw the line about the mandatory app and asked why she would need it when she could not leave her house even if she wanted to. The doctor said she probably didn’t need the app but still had to sign the document. Apprehensive about not following the instruction, Karabulatova made several attempts to install the app, did not succeed, and was fined.

Many app users and their relatives went online to condemn the app and the arbitrary fines and to urge the authorities to drop the measure. However, the head of Moscow’s Information Technology Department refused to acknowledge any problems, asserting that “no fines were issued by mistake.” As of May 20, 60,000 Moscow residents have installed the app and 53,000 fines have been issued. Thirty percent of the fined users received multiple fines.

Although the required self-quarantine period lasts 2 weeks, the app does not shut down until 10 days after the user obtains a certificate from a healthcare facility stating that their period of sick leave has ended. To obtain the certificate, the person needs to go to a clinic with the app still working and risk receiving another fine for supposedly breaching self-quarantine regulations.

“The Moscow authorities have understandably been looking at a range of solutions, including technology, in their struggle to contain the virus, but these efforts should be lawful, necessary, proportionate, transparent, and justified by legitimate public health objectives,” said Williamson. “Moscow’s social monitoring app doesn’t meet these criteria. It’s intrusive, deeply flawed, and arbitrarily punishes law-abiding people along with actual quarantine violators.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 22, 2020, 3:00 am

Rohingya refugees sit behind bars at a police station in Satun province, Thailand, June 12, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo

(Bangkok) – Thai authorities should allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) unhindered access to Rohingya from Myanmar to determine whether they qualify for refugee status, Human Rights Watch said today. The government’s inhumane policy of holding Rohingya arriving in Thailand in indefinite detention should be immediately repealed.

The latest group of Rohingya arrived in Thailand by land, crossing from Myanmar into Mae Sot district of Tak province on May 20, 2020. Thai authorities arrested at least 12 Rohingya and sent them to the Mae Sot immigration detention facility. Approximately 200 Rohingya are being held in immigration detention and other facilities across Thailand.

“The Thai government should scrap its policy of summarily locking up Rohingya and throwing away the key, condemning them to indefinite detention in cramped and unhygienic detention centers now susceptible to a Covid-19 outbreak,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Rohingya have been brutally persecuted in Myanmar. Thailand should permit the UN refugee agency to screen all Rohingya arriving in Thailand to identify and assist those seeking refugee status.”

Refugee screening is crucial for protecting Rohingya asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said. The Myanmar government and military have long persecuted the Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority group who have lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine State for generations. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, who have been effectively denied citizenship in Myanmar, have fled repression and dire poverty. Human trafficking gangs have abused and exploited many of those who eluded death during their dangerous journey.

The situation has significantly worsened since August 2017, when the Myanmar military committed ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya, driving as many as 740,000 into exile in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Responsibility for the security of the Rohingya rests primarily with the Myanmar government, but extends to the countries where they seek refuge, Human Rights Watch said. Like its predecessors, the government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha has treated Rohingya arriving at the border as illegal immigrants, subject to detention in squalid immigration lockups. The government has not permitted UNHCR to conduct refugee status determinations for them. Thailand also discriminates against Rohingya by refusing to allow them to register as legally documented migrant workers, unlike other people coming from Myanmar.

Thai authorities have for years said they do not want to treat Rohingya as asylum seekers. However, under international law, Thailand cannot summarily disregard the claims of asylum seekers who arrive at its borders. Thailand is obligated to allow them to enter the country and seek protection.

The Thai government should ensure that its laws, policies, and practices recognize the protection needs of Rohingya asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said. UNHCR has the technical expertise to screen for refugee status and the international mandate to protect refugees and stateless people. Effective UNHCR screening of all Rohingya arrivals would help the Thai government determine who is entitled to refugee status.

Under international law, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. Immigration detention should be an exceptional measure of last resort, for the shortest period, and only if justified by a legitimate purpose. Detention imposed automatically or otherwise not pursued for a legitimate purpose is considered arbitrary.

“Thailand should help the oppressed Rohingya from Myanmar, not worsen their suffering,” Adams said. “The Thai government should recognize the plight of Rohingya and allow them access to desperately needed protection.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 22, 2020, 12:45 am

Sixteen beds fill a room with barred windows in a closed institution for children with disabilities.

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

Media in Kazakhstan have reported that 4 children living in a state residential institution for children with disabilities have died, while a further 16 were hospitalized with measles and intestinal infections.

The institution, located in Ayagoz, a town in eastern Kazakhstan, has been under quarantine since early April due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Medical professionals, including the region’s head pediatrician, have not attributed the children’s deaths or illnesses to Covid-19. But the tragic deaths and numerous hospitalizations serve as an urgent reminder that children in residential institutions are at particular risk from infectious diseases.

The risk of Covid-19 exposure is higher among populations that live in close proximity to each other, where the virus can spread rapidly. In addition, the virus disproportionately affects people with underlying conditions, which may be the case for some children with disabilities. More than 100 residents live in the children’s institution where the 4 children died.

While authorities have taken the important steps of opening an investigation on criminal charges of medical negligence in this case and initiating comprehensive inspections of these types of children’s residential institutions across Kazakhstan, these deaths and hospitalizations should also spur the authorities to do more. They should take urgent measures to move as many children with disabilities as possible out of state residential institutions and into family-based care.

The virus poses a specific threat to the hundreds of children with disabilities currently living in institutions in Kazakhstan, but it’s not the only one. Human Rights Watch has found that the children are also at risk of physical violence, forced sedation, isolation, and and neglect. Some children told us that staff beat them, forcibly administered sedatives to punish or control them, and forced them to take care of younger children.

Regardless of this pandemic, home remains the best place for children with disabilities. The Kazakh government should urgently look to reallocate resources from institutions to families or other family settings in the community, so they have the necessary support to care for their children.

Until the children can safely be moved out, authorities should increase infection control measures inside institutions, ensure all people within them can practice social distancing, and provide adequate access to health care for residents and staff.

In doing so, they may help prevent the kind of tragedy that unfolded in eastern Kazakhstan.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 21, 2020, 3:45 pm

Tanzania's President John Magufuli leaves after inspecting a guard of honour during his official visit to Nairobi, Kenya October 31, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

(Kampala) – The Tanzanian government should allow all inmates access to legal counsel to ensure their rights are respected amid the Covid-19 crisis, Human Rights Watch said today. On May 19, 2020, 20 human rights organizations including the Legal and Human Rights Center in Dar es Salaam, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Tanzanian President John Magufuli, urging the authorities to ensure that all detainees and prisoners have access to lawyers and to take steps to decongest prisons.

On March 19, prison authorities banned all visits to the country’s prisons indefinitely to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The ban includes prisoners’ lawyers, which has denied the prisoners access to legal counsel and slowed down plea bargaining and resolution of cases, lawyers told Human Rights Watch.

“Banning all visitors to prisons has meant that detainees can’t speak to their lawyers, depriving them of the right to a fair trial,” said Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government has taken important steps to slow the spread of Covid-19, but this shouldn’t come at the expense of basic rights.”

Tanzania currently has 509 reported cases of Covid-19 infections, and the government has encouraged social distancing and the wearing of masks. However, there have been no restrictions on movement and court proceedings continue to take place. Defendants are not allowed to physically attend court sessions except through video links in prisons where these facilities are available.

Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the ban on prison visits means that they are unable to speak to and properly represent their clients, as they cannot meet them in person and there are no arrangements to speak with them securely over the phone. Two lawyers said the courts assigned them clients they have never spoken to because of this ban. The Tanzanian authorities have made no efforts to implement alternative measures for lawyers to access their clients in detention sites via secure phone calls or video conferencing.

Plea bargaining, which the government instituted in 2019 to reduce prison overcrowding and court backlogs, cannot take place because inmates cannot meet their lawyers to discuss their cases. Family members cannot meet their loved ones in detention and are not able to bring them food, forcing them to eat prison food which, according to one lawyer, is of poor quality.

Tanzania’s prisons are overcrowded and pose a risk to prisoners’ health. According to government statistics, prisons in the country are 9 percent over capacity and do not allow social distancing, creating conditions in which the virus could spread more easily.

On April 25, President Magufuli pardoned 3,717 prisoners in line with recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO) to decongest prisons and limit the spread of the disease. However, the country’s prisons remain overcrowded.

The Tanzanian government should urgently take further steps to reduce the prison population, including reviewing the cases of pretrial detainees, who make up the majority of prison inmates. It should also implement alternative measures for lawyers to contact their clients, through secure telephone calls or video links.

The government has an obligation to ensure the right to health of prisoners, detainees, and other persons deprived of their liberty. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is considered reflective of customary international law, guarantees everyone the right to a fair trial and to be represented by counsel. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the “Nelson Mandela Rules”) also provides for the right to legal representation. The Tanzanian constitution provides everyone a “fair hearing” before a court.

“The overcrowding in Tanzania’s prisons adds huge risks for prisoners’ health in the face of Covid-19,” Nyeko said. “The government should prioritize further decongesting and improving conditions so all prisoners are safe.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 21, 2020, 6:00 am

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, center right, speaks during a plenary session in the House of Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, Monday, March 23, 2020.

© 2020 Tamas Kovacs/MTI via AP

Hungary’s parliament this week passed a law making it impossible for transgender or intersex people to legally change their gender – putting them at risk of harassment, discrimination, and even violence in daily situations when they need to use identity documents. The law is a major backwards step on transgender and intersex rights, and yet another violation of Hungary’s international rights obligations. It comes at a time when the government has used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to grab unlimited power and is using parliament to rubber-stamp problematic non-public health related bills, like this one.

“Danny,” a 33-year-old transgender man living in Budapest, described his daily humiliation to Human Rights Watch. “I’m always stressed and uncomfortable … where I have to show my identity documents, for instance when I go to the post office or want to cross a border. I get funny looks, questions, and am forced to explain a very personal story to random strangers and that’s humiliating,” Danny said. “It really destroys my day.”

The legislation redefines the word “nem,” which in Hungarian can mean both “sex” and “gender,” to specifically refer to a person’s sex at birth as “biological sex based on primary sex characteristics and chromosomes.” According to Hungarian law, birth sex, once recorded, cannot be amended. This means that anyone who doesn’t identify with the sex they were assigned at birth – such as transgender people – will be denied the right to change their legal gender marker to correspond to their identity.

Intersex refers to the estimated 1.7 percent of people born with sex characteristics that differ from social expectations of female or male. Because their bodies are often misunderstood or miscategorized, intersex people may need access to legal gender recognition procedures later in life.

This new law compounds the marginalization trans people in Hungary already face. A recent survey showed that 95 percent of respondents in Hungary believe the government does not effectively combat anti-LGBT bias. It also violates Hungary’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Hungarian President Janos Ader has a duty to ensure that people’s basic rights are not violated by unconstitutional laws. He should decline to sign this law and instead refer it to the Constitutional Court for review. And the European Union’s Commissioner on Equality, Helena Dalli, should strongly denounce Hungary’s attack against nondiscrimination, a core right enshrined in EU treaties.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 21, 2020, 4:00 am

Tofiq Yaqublu (file photo).

© Azadliq Radiosu/RFERL

Friday marks two months since Tofiq Yagublu, one of Azerbaijan’s top political opposition figures, was thrown behind bars for his activism.

Police arrested Yagublu on March 22, three days after President Ilham Aliyev, in his first major speech addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, implied he would use the fight against the virus to crack down on the country’s political opposition.

The authorities wasted no time finding a pretext to jail Yagublu, arresting him on bogus “hooliganism” charges. As governments around the world are urged to decrease the population of people in detention by using alternatives to pretrial custody, thereby reducing the risk of spreading Covid-19, Azerbaijani authorities in Baku have kept Yagublu in Pretrial Facility No. 3, also known as Shuvelan, a facility notorious for severe overcrowding and dirty cells, and for being poorly lit and ventilated. Conditions in Shuvelan are so poor, the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) had called for its shuttering three years before the pandemic.

There are now at least 33 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in one prison in Azerbaijan. Although no cases have been reported in Shuvelan, it is clear Yagublu shouldn’t be there, or in any prison for that matter.

Baku’s appeal court has denied several motions by Yagublu’s lawyers to release him. Meanwhile, they told Human Rights Watch that authorities have no active investigation into his case. Police have not questioned him or other defense witnesses.

Yagublu has underlying health conditions that could put him at higher risk of serious illness should he contract Covid-19. According to his family, he has chronic asthma and was receiving routine medical treatment before his arrest. He had surgery in February and was scheduled for further treatment, partially to address consequences of a severe police beating last year. Azerbaijani authorities have periodically arrested Yagublu in the past, subjected him to ill-treatment, and warned him to stop his political activism and criticism of the government.

Both the Council of Europe and the United States have called on Baku to release Yagublu, and Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience.

Azerbaijan’s government should heed these calls, free Yagublu, and end political retaliation against him and other critics, especially during the pandemic.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 21, 2020, 3:00 am

People affected by the coronavirus economic downturn, line up to receive food donations at the Iterileng informal settlement near Laudium, southwest of Pretoria, South Africa, Wednesday, May 20, 2020. 


© 2020 AP Photo/Themba Hadebe

(Johannesburg) – The South African government’s Covid-19 aid programs, including food parcels, have overlooked refugees and asylum seekers. They include many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people who fled to South Africa to escape persecution. 
The government should take urgent steps to facilitate support, including from donors, for refugees and asylum seekers with little access to food and other basic necessities during the ongoing nationwide lockdown.

“The Ramaphosa administration should either ensure access to food for thousands of refugees and asylum seekers, or say that it can’t meet the need and seek donors to step in and provide assistance,” said Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government is ignoring the plight of refugees and asylum seekers currently confined in their homes and unable to work to provide for themselves.”

Undocumented migrants and asylum seekers live on the economic margins, a situation exacerbated by the government’s stringent lockdown measures. After receiving numerous pleas from refugees and asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch raised the issue with the South African Human Rights Commission, which confirmed receiving similar reports and pressed the authorities to ensure that everyone in South Africa can realize their rights.

On May 12, 2020, the rapporteur for South Africa of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Solomon Ayele Dersso, sent an urgent appeal to the government to protect the rights of vulnerable groups, including refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in the context of the lockdown.

South Africa is a common destination for LGBT people fleeing their home countries due to persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression. The Refugees Amendment Act of 2008 expressly includes persecution on the basis of sexual orientation as a ground for seeking asylum in South Africa. Thirty-three out of the 70 countries that criminalize adult consensual same-sex conduct are in Africa. Across the continent, discriminatory laws and hostile social attitudes lead many LGBT people to flee their countries of origin – including many from Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, and Nigeria – and travel to South Africa, often against considerable odds, to seek asylum and a better life.

Victor Chikalogwe, director of the LGBT refugee advocacy group People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression, and Poverty (PASSOP), has said that the lockdown has made life incredibly difficult for many undocumented LGBT migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, as they are unable to work in the informal trades that have sustained them, including restaurants, bars, or sex work. They are not eligible to receivegovernment social grants or food parcels, which are distributed only to those with South African identity cards and Social Security cards.

Thomars Shamuyarira, a transgender man from Zimbabwe who is the director of The Fruit Basket, a Johannesburg-based group that provides support to African LGBT migrants, said that the Covid-19 lockdown measures have had a severe impact on LGBT refugees and asylum seekers who do not have access to informal employment, food, medicine, and accommodation. 

Human Rights watch spoke with a gay man from the Democratic Republic of Congo who fled to South Africa following a targeted attack on the basis of his sexual orientation by an armed group in South Kivu. He said he has tried unsuccessfully since 2014 to get refugee status and that the lockdown makes it even more difficult for him to survive from one day to the next.

A gay man who fled Zimbabwe in 2014 after his family members threatened to kill him when they discovered his sexual orientation said that he has been unable to do sex work due to the lockdown, therefore unable to pay rent or buy food.

On March 24, The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights expressed concern about the vulnerability of refugees and asylum seekers under Covid-19 regulations and addressed a letter to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who currently serves as African Union Chairperson, urging the South African government to adequately address human rights issues in its responses to Covid-19. This should include ensuring that undocumented refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa have access to basic services.

The South African authorities should ensure that essential goods and services are provided to everyone in need without discrimination, Human Rights Watch said. Special arrangements should be made to protect the rights of vulnerable groups, including refugees, asylum seekers, and the homeless, who may not normally have access to basic goods, including food, water – potable and washing – and health care.

The national lockdown will be most effective if carried out not only in accordance with the law, but also hand-in-hand with the fulfillment of the government’s obligation to provide basic goods and services to vulnerable community members. Services should be available to all who are in need, including those living in areas under movement restrictions or under quarantine, those infected with Covid-19, and marginalized groups such as refugees, migrants, and people with disabilities. The government should take special measures to protect women and girls from physical and sexual abuse and exploitation and provide timely help to victims.

“South Africa should make special efforts to protect the most vulnerable in the country and ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are not overlooked or forgotten,” Mavhinga said. “The authorities should act and seek donor support to avert an imminent humanitarian catastrophe.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 21, 2020, 3:00 am

Ruth Aracely Monroy helps her son, Carlos, with his jacket among tents set up inside a shelter for migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, March 5, 2019

© 2019 AP Photo/Gregory Bull

This week, the Trump administration indefinitely extended an order that gives United States immigration agents the power to summarily expel migrants arriving at the US country’s borders under the pretext of preventing the spread of Covid-19.

First issued on March 20, the order invokes public health to further an agenda of hostility to migrant children and their families.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have already used the order to expel more than 20,000 people along the US-Mexico border in March and April. CBP hasn’t provided a breakdown of expulsions by age, gender, and other characteristics, but Human Rights First estimates they included at least 1,000 unaccompanied children.

Summary expulsions occur without due process, so the US government returns unaccompanied children without giving them an opportunity to make their case for asylum or to appeal.

Children desperately need these legal safeguards. Many are fleeing death threats, rape, and torture, or after being targeted for other serious abuse.

US authorities are also taking other procedural shortcuts to swiftly remove unaccompanied children who were already in the country, many of whom it was keeping in prolonged immigration detention instead of transferring them to the care of family members. Some were “rousted from their beds in the middle of the night in U.S. government shelters and put on planes out of the country,” the New York Times said, deported with no notice to families or lawyers and no coordination with protection authorities in children’s home countries.

The claimed legal authority for the order is an obscure public health provision enacted in 1893 and last revised in 1944 – well before Congress overhauled US immigration laws in 1952 and subsequently added protections for refugees, victims of torture, and children at risk of being trafficked. The expulsions under the order also conflict with well-established US obligations under international refugee law.

There's no public health basis for summary expulsions. In fact, “The order is based on specious justifications and fails to protect public health,” according to 40 health experts.

If safety – the public’s and the children’s – were the administration’s concern, it would take the kinds of evidence-based measures recommended by public health experts and release detained migrant children to families as quickly as possible. Instead, it’s rushing to return them to the places they fled.

The Trump administration is using the coronavirus pandemic as convenient cover for a renewed attack on migrant children and their families.   

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 20, 2020, 9:59 pm

NASA satellite imagery shows Cyclone Amphan over the Bay of Bengal in India, May 19, 2020, which made landfall on Bhasan Char May 20, 2020. 

© 2020 NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) via AP

(New York) – The Bangladesh government has kept over 300 Rohingya refugees confined on Bhasan Char, a remote silt island in the path of a “super cyclone” without adequate protections or safety measures, Human Rights Watch said today. Three people were reported killed in Bangladesh soon after the storm struck the coast.

The authorities should take immediate steps to ensure safety and transfer the refugees, including nearly 40 children, to the camps in Cox’s Bazar as soon as possible. The United Nations refugee agency and other humanitarian organizations are there, prepared to provide them with critical services and reunite them with their families.

“The Bangladesh government properly brought Rohingya refugees stranded at sea ashore, but holding them on a tiny island during a cyclone is dangerous and inhumane,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Our fear that Bhasan Char would become a ‘floating detention center’ has now turned into a fear of a submerged one.”

Cyclone Amphan made landfall on the Bangladesh coast on the evening of May 20, 2020, though it shifted course slightly so Bhasan Char is no longer in its direct path. Bangladesh’s Land Ministry has previously reported that Bhasan Char could be submerged by a strong cyclone at high tide. About 300 Bangladesh security officials are also on the island.

Bangladesh rescued two boats of Rohingya refugees in early May after Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Bangladesh authorities pushed them back to sea for two months. While Bangladesh initially stated that the refugees were being temporarily quarantined on Bhasan Char to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak in the camps, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has since said they would “most likely” be held on the island indefinitely.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 25 Rohingya refugees, including both refugees on the island and their family members in Cox’s Bazar. They said that those on the island are being confined in prison-like conditions without freedom of movement or adequate access to food, water, or medical care. Some alleged beatings by Bangladesh security forces.

One refugee, whose daughters are on Bhasan Char, said he is worried about their safety during the cyclone because they told him that “it feels like a gust of wind could blow the structures over anytime,” and that it feels like “an island jail in the middle of the sea.”

India and Bangladesh are evacuating over two million people from the coasts to take shelter from Cyclone Amphan. However, Bangladesh authorities have failed to evacuate the refugees on Bhasan Char, a 40-square-kilometer island in the Bay of Bengal made of silt that has accumulated in the last two decades. When then-United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, visited the island in January 2019, she questioned whether the island was “truly habitable.”

The refugees had all been moved to a four-story shelter on the island ahead of the incoming cyclone, but Bangladesh authorities have yet to provide UN technical experts with sufficient access to the island to determine its habitability and to assess plans for emergency preparedness in the face of Cyclone Amphan.

Although the Bangladesh government has previously promised that no one would be forced to remain on Bhasan Char against their will, officials have apparently told refugees that they will not be transferred to the mainland. One refugee in Cox’s Bazar said that a Navy officer told his sister on the island that they “might be sent to Myanmar but not to the camp [in Cox’s Bazar] again. That’s impossible.” A refugee on Bhasan Char said that military officials told him, “Don’t even think to go back to the camps. Your whole family will be brought over here.”

Refugees on the island said that soldiers threatened and beat up male refugees, including children, while interrogating them about the smugglers who transported them. Women described hearing screams from the interrogation room. One child said that officials held him in the cell and beat him. “At one point they suspected I was one of the [smugglers] and they started beating me,” he said. “I still cannot walk properly and feel the pain of the torture in my body.” Another refugee said that an officer threatened him, saying “Don’t you know how the other men were beaten? Tell us the truth, otherwise you would face the same fate.”

Refugees also described officers punishing them. One Rohingya woman said that on May 17 she witnessed soldiers force two women to stand under the hot sun for over an hour as punishment for using their mobile phones, which are forbidden. Another refugee said that when he went to a shop to buy food, officers from the Coast Guard beat him for leaving the shelter. “There are bruises all over my body from that beating,” he said.

Disaster Minister Enamur Rahman has described Bhasan Char as a “super township” with facilities for food, water, medical care, cyclone centers, and electricity, but refugees reported shortages in drinking water and medical treatment. Children have no access to books or education.

Refugees said they are given two cooked meals a day and are rebuked if they ask for more. One woman said she was scolded when she asked for more nutritious food for her children, ages 5 and 7, by officers who said she had been “spoiled” by international aid agencies. Another said she was told to “be thankful to God and to Bangladesh that you are at least getting some food. You should be kicked out from this country.”

Refugees said that they are facing serious medical problems after being stranded at sea for months, but that there is not adequate medical care on the island. One refugee said: “Some of the women have skin ailments and diarrhea but are without proper treatment. If we were in the camp at least we would be able to go to the health post or MSF [Medecins Sans Frontieres] hospital.” One refugee, whose sister is being held on the island, said that she is not able to obtain proper medication for her diabetes. Instead, refugees said that the doctors are only dispensing paracetamol tablets for pain.

There are concerns that women and girls may have faced sexual or other violence while they were on the boat or since then. One health worker said that “If there was any rape case or other sexual or gender-based violence, they will not be able to access much needed medical treatment or psychosocial counselling.” No protection services or appropriate medical services for sexual violence victims are available on Bhasan Char.

Even prior to the cyclone, Bangladesh authorities should have heeded concerns raised by the UN and nongovernmental organizations, and promptly transferred the Rohingya back to the Cox’s Bazar camps. On May 15, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the Bangladesh government to move the refugees to the camps following their two-week quarantine period, which ended on May 16 for the first group and will end on May 21 for the second. The cyclone highlights the urgency of transferring the Rohingya from Bhasan Char, Human Rights Watch said.

“The cyclone marks the beginning of monsoon season, adding further dangers for refugees who spent months on a crowded boat, starving and floating at sea, and now have been detained and beaten on Bhasan Char,” Adams said. “The Bangladesh government should immediately transfer the refugees to the camps where humanitarian agencies can give them the medical and psychosocial care they desperately need.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 20, 2020, 8:15 pm

Family and community members in Fada N’Gourma bury 12 men allegedly killed after being detained by gendarmes on May 11, 2020. 

© Private 2020.

(Nairobi) – Burkina Faso authorities should credibly and independently investigate alleged extrajudicial executions of 12 men detained by gendarmes on May 11, 2020 during a counterterrorism operation near the eastern town of Fada N’Gourma, Human Rights Watch said today. Witnesses who saw and buried the bodies said it appeared the men had all been shot in the head.  

On May 13, the prosecutor for Fada N’Gourma, in Est Region, announced an investigation into the killings. The investigation should be transferred to the capital, Ouagadougou, to allow greater independence, impartiality, and security for witnesses, and its findings should be made public. The commander of the Tanwalbougou gendarme post, where the men in custody died, should immediately be placed on administrative leave pending the outcome. The Burkinabè government should seek necessary forensic and other technical assistance from international partners.

“Suspects winding up dead hours after being taken into custody during counterterrorism operations is a strong indication of foul play,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “Killing detainees in the name of security is both unlawful and counterproductive. Those found responsible for these deaths in detention should be fully and fairly prosecuted.”  

Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone 13 people with knowledge of the incident. The interviews, with people in and around Fada N’Gourma and from Ouagadougou, included 4 witnesses to the arrests and 5 witnesses to the retrieval of bodies and burial of the victims. Witnesses provided a list of 12 victims, all men from the Peuhl ethnic group. The dead included at least one set of brothers and a man of about 70.

The alleged killings occurred amid a worsening security and humanitarian crisis in Burkina Faso, which, since 2016, has been grappling with violence by Islamist armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel. Beginning in 2016, these groups, which have largely recruited from the nomadic Peuhl or Fulani community, have attacked security force posts and civilians throughout Burkina Faso.

Human Rights Watch has since 2017 documented the killing of over 300 civilians by armed Islamist groups. Government security forces have killed several hundred men for their alleged support of these groups, including 31 men allegedly executed in the northern town of Djibo on April 9.

In his May 13 statement, the Fada N’Gourma prosecutor said that Burkina Faso’s Defense and Security Forces had detained 25 people suspected of “acts of terrorism” from Tanwalbougou during the night of May 11 to 12, and that “Unfortunately, 12 of them died during the same night in the cells in which they were being held.”

The statement said that judicial police officers, gendarmes from Fada N’Gourma, and health officers were investigating the incident. The gendarme post at Tanwalbougou is under the direct command of gendarmes in Fada N’Gourma, about 50 kilometers away.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the arrests took place between 1:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. during an operation on market day in the town of Pentchangou, 5 kilometers from Tanwalbougou. They said that during the approximately hour-long operation, defense and security force soldiers, along with several members of a village-based defense force, known asVolontaires pour la défense de la patrie (VDP), blocked the village entrances and arrested numerous Peuhl men who were trading in the market, near the mosque, or in the street. They dragged some out of hiding places. The convoy left in the direction of Tanwalbougou.

“My arrival for market day in Pentchangou coincided with the arrival of the soldiers and a few VDFs,” a witness said. “The soldiers were in a few vehicles and the VDF on motorcycles. All were armed with automatic weapons.” A community leader who investigated the incident said, “People living around the Tanwalbougou gendarmerie told me they saw the gendarmes and a few VDF returning to the base with many detainees around 4 p.m.”

“I lost two brothers that day,” one man said. “As soon as the soldiers arrived, we took off running. I saw two vehicles and five soldiers, dressed in black t-shirts and camouflage pants. It was a manhunt … they were arresting any Peuhl man they saw.”

A woman working in the market said: “From where I hid, I saw a man running, but soldiers blocked the village exits. Two soldiers and another man in civilian clothing, all armed with military rifles, chased him, but the man was able to hide in a house. The soldiers turned their attention on another man, who they dragged out of another house, then beat with wooden sticks as they took him to their vehicles, which were a bit outside the village.”

While the government statement did not speculate on the deaths of the 12 men, family members and witnesses who retrieved the bodies from the morgue in Fada N’gouroma and participated in the burials, said they believed the men had been shot in the head. “It is obvious, clear, and evident that they all had head wounds,” said a man whose brother was among the dead. “Some had crushed skulls.”

Photographs and a video seen by Human Rights Watch showed the 12 bodies being taken to a cemetery in Fada N’Gourma in a vehicle, then laid on the ground in a line. The bodies were tightly wrapped in white plastic, taped around the victims’ legs, chests, necks, and heads. Significant blood was visible through the plastic, including around the victims’ heads.

Family members said they believed the men had been executed in the custody of the gendarmes based in Tanwalbougou. One said: “The prosecutor said they died overnight in the cell, and yet they’d bled profusely, like they’d been shot in the head. How can that be?” 

Most said they were only able to recognize their loved ones by their clothing. “We identified my brother by his boubou [wide-sleeved robe],” one said.  

“We saw our brothers, fathers, and sons leaving home that morning,” said another. “By the look of their bodies, they suffered something terrible.”  

The dead were buried in Fada N’Gourma on May 13 after being released to family members.

Three family members said that the authorities in Fada N’Gourma told them that autopsies had not been performed, and they expressed concern that this would affect the investigation. “As we waited to retrieve the bodies, I heard the prosecutor and a district medical officer saying they had no forensic capacity and that given the state of decomposition, the bodies should be taken for burial,” said the brother of a victim.

“The chief medical officer entered the morgue – spent just a few minutes – then said given the state of decomposition, the body bags could not be opened at all, not even for the families to identify their dead,” the cousin of another victim said.

Relatives and members of nongovernmental groups questioned the ability of local gendarmes to conduct a credible and impartial investigation. “The gendarme post of Tanwalbougou is directly under the command of the regional capital, Fada N’Gourma, tasked with the investigation,” said a family member. “Can we really expect a fair investigation?” In a May 14 news release, the Collectif Contre l’Impunite et la Stigmatisation des Communautes (Collective Against Impunity and the Stigmatization of Communities, CISC), a local human rights coalition, called for a special commission of inquiry, saying, “How can gendarmes investigate a case in which they are directly involved.”

Community leaders and CISC said numerous Peuhl men from villages around Tanwalbougou had in recent months been executed or forcibly disappeared after their arrest by local gendarmes and noted that victims would be too frightened to respond to judicial summons by local gendarmes.

“Promptly opening an investigation into these killings is an important first step, but to move forward, the authorities should transfer the investigation to the capital, ensure witnesses are protected, and suspend the gendarme commander pending the investigation’s outcome,” Dufka said. “The authorities should send a strong message of intolerance for grave violations of rights by holding to account all security force members implicated by the investigation, including the gendarme commander.”


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: May 20, 2020, 4:00 pm