Algerian opposition figure Karim Tabbou. © Private


© 2020 Private

(Tunis) – An appeals court on March 24, 2020 sentenced an Algerian opposition figure to one year in prison after an apparent unfair trial for his defiant but peaceful speech, Human Rights Watch said today. The opposition figure, Karim Tabbou, was accused of criticizing the army and supporting the Hirak movement that seeks democratic change.

The court in Algiers issued its verdict one day before Tabbou was to go free upon completing the six-month sentence that the first instance court had imposed on him. In an apparent effort to silence him and intimidate others, the authorities are prosecuting Tabbou on other speech-related charges in a trial set to begin April 6.  

“While governments are freeing prisoners to reduce risks of COVID-19 spreading in prisons, Algeria continues to jail dissidents like Karim Tabbou for expressing political views,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

On April 1, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune signed a decree pardoning 5,037 prisoners, apparently in an effort to address the pandemic. The decree apparently did not include jailed Hirak activists.

The Hirak began in February 2019 when Algerians protested en masse to demand that the then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika renounce plans to run for a fifth term. After forcing Bouteflika’s resignation in April, the movement continued to stage massive demonstrations every Friday, calling for a more democratic system of government. 

The movement opposed the presidential election that Tebboune, a former prime minister under Bouteflika, won on December 13, with a 40 percent participation rate, a record low for Algeria. Soon after, Tebboune declared that his government would “consolidate democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights.” 

The Hirak demonstrations continued weekly until the authorities banned all demonstrations over the pandemic, and the Hirak announced it would suspend its rallies.

According to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees, at least 173 people remain on trial for participating in Hirak protests or covering them. They include prominent journalists, like the Radio France International (RFI) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) correspondent Khaled Drareni, who was arrested on March 29, and noted civil society activists like Abdelouhab Fersaoui, who has been in pretrial detention since October 10.

Security forces arrested Tabbou, the national coordinator of the unrecognized Democratic and Socialist Union party, at his home on September 12. An investigative judge in the Koléa Court in Tipaza Province ordered his detention on a charge of “undermining the morale of the army,” punishable by up to 10 years in prison under article 75 of the penal code. The accusation stems from Tabbou’s May 9 lecture in the city of Kherrata criticizing the army for exercising powers outside of its constitutional prerogatives, said his lawyer Abderrahman Salah.

The court released Tabbou on September 25, pending trial. But security forces rearrested him the following day, and a prosecutor later charged him, on the basis of articles 74 and 79 of the penal code, with “inciting to commit acts of violence with the intention of harming national defense” and “harming national unity by preparing and publishing videos on social media,” each of which carries a sentence of up to 10 years.

Tabbou was first tried on March 11 for this second set of charges, before the Sidi M’hamed First Instance Court. He faces trial for the charge of undermining military morale on April 6.

During the March 11 trial, Tabbou confirmed the speeches attributed to him, but contended that they violated no law. The court, however, in its written judgment, cited a few of Tabbou’s speeches in convicting him, including a video posted on Facebook on April 26, when the Hirak movement was organizing huge peaceful weekly protests. In it, Tabbou asked:

Hey Gaid [Ahmed Gaid Salah, the Army chief of staff who became Algeria’s strongman following the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika], what right have you to close the roads in the face of Algerians, shut down the internet of Algerians, close public transportation of Algerians … impose your will on Algerians?

In its written judgment, the court found that through such a statement, Tabbou meant to incite the public to confront security forces.

The court also cited Tabbou’s May 9 lecture in Kherrata in which he referred to powerful military figures as part of “the gang,” a term some use to refer to those believed to hold the real power in Algeria under Bouteflika: “Young army officers will … free the [military] institution … in a way that suits the Hirak.… Young competent officers will be able to free [Algeria] from the gang … inside that institution.” The court found that these remarks showed Tabbou’s intention to “divide the military institution and incite to chaos within it … at a time when the country is unstable.”

The court found Tabbou guilty of “compromising the integrity of the national unity,” but acquitted him of “inciting to commit acts of violence.” The court sentenced him to a fine and 12 months in prison, 6 months of which were suspended.

Although Tabbou was due for release on March 25, on March 24, the Ruisseau Court of Appeals heard Tabbou’s appeal, upheld his conviction, and returned him to prison after converting the suspended part of his lower court sentence to time behind bars.

The defense team protested, saying that judicial authorities had notified Tabbou of the trial date only on the morning of the hearing, and that they learned of it only by chance that day. Madjid Hachour, one of Tabbou’s lawyers, told Human Rights Watch “Another lawyer, who happened to be in the Ruisseau court for other business, caught sight of Tabbou and called me and other members of his defense team around 11 in the morning to tell us that his appeals hearing had already begun.” Some of Tabbou’s lawyers rushed to the courthouse. They found Tabbou being escorted to a clinic. They learned that he had collapsed after the judge rejected his plea to postpone the trial due to the absence of his lawyers, Hachour said. The lawyers asked the judge to postpone due to their client’s condition and to allow them time to prepare. They also noted that the case file lacked a copy of the written judgment in the first instance case, as required by law, Hachour and another defense lawyer, Noureddine Ahmine, told Human Rights Watch. 

When the judge refused to reschedule, Tabbou refused to answer the court’s questions. His lawyers decided to boycott the hearing. The court announced its verdict later that day.

The Algiers public prosecutor stated that the trial had proceeded according to the law.

Tabbou should not have been tried in the first place for his speeches, Human Rights Watch said. International human rights law guarantees the right to peacefully criticize and challenge the legitimacy of a country’s leaders and institutions, including the army. It permits states to punish speech only in narrowly defined circumstances, such as direct incitement to violence.

Algeria is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In its General Comment number 34 on that covenant, the United Nation’s Human Rights Committee stated that:

in circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by the Covenant upon uninhibited expression is particularly high…. States parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.

Moreover, Tabbou’s appeals trial appeared to violate fundamental tenets of a fair trial, as set out, for example, in the Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa. This includes the requirement that the defense be given reasonable time to prepare their arguments and that they have access in sufficient time before trial to all relevant files and documents to their case, including the lower court written judgment that they are appealing. 

“At a time when the Hirak has suspended its peaceful protests due to the pandemic, the authorities have pounced to imprison one of its leaders after an expedited and unjust trial,” Goldstein said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 5, 2020, 4:00 am

A member of the Yangon City and Development Committee disinfects government offices to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus in Yangon, Myanmar on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Thein Zaw
(Bangkok) – Myanmar authorities should immediately move to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus by reducing the populations of the country’s overcrowded and unsanitary prisons, Human Rights Watch said today. Myanmar confirmed its first COVID-19 related death on March 31, 2020.

Myanmar’s prison system, made up of 46 prisons and 50 labor camps nationwide, holds an estimated 92,000 prisoners but has an official capacity of only 66,000. Approximately 15 percent of the prison population consists of detainees awaiting trial. Myanmar’s poor healthcare infrastructure, along with other public services, are ill-equipped to deal with an outbreak of coronavirus among the general population, let alone in overcrowded prisons. Only 30 doctors and 80 nurses are employed across the entire prison system, according to reports the by Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP Burma).

“Prisoners in Myanmar’s horribly overcrowded and unsanitary prisons and labor camps face health hazards in the best of times, and the prison authorities are ill-equipped to treat those who become sick with COVID-19,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The authorities need to act immediately to avoid an entirely foreseeable health disaster.”

Myanmar authorities should immediately release people who were unjustly or arbitrarily detained. This includes people held arbitrarily long-term without charge or trial and political prisoners, journalists, and activists. Myanmar has 74 political prisoners serving sentences and an additional 139 detainees being held while facing trial on politically motivated charges, according to the Assistance Association. The authorities should also release those who are in pretrial detention for minor offenses.

The authorities should consider alternatives to detention for prisoners with underlying health conditions, older prisoners, people with disabilities that put them at greater risk of infection, children, low-level and other nonviolent offenders, and people who have served most of their term. Approximately half of the prison population is serving time for drug-related offenses, a percentage that rises up to 80 percent in Kachin and northern Shan States. According to the Assistance Association, most drug-related charges “target drug users and small-time dealers and it is rare that large-scale drug traffickers are arrested or imprisoned.”

“Myanmar authorities should promptly release those who shouldn’t have been jailed in the first place, including critics of the government,” Adams said. “Convicted prisoners most at risk of falling severely ill if they get COVID-19 should be given special consideration for alternatives to detention.”

Myanmar’s largest detention facility, Insein prison, in Yangon, is at more than double capacity, the Assistance Association reported. Their 2018 report estimated that the prison, built for 5,000 people, held 12,392 prisoners in February 2018. Prisoners at Insein prison describe sleeping “shoulder-to-shoulder on the ground,” the magazine Frontier Myanmar reported.

Prisons elsewhere in Myanmar such as in Myingyan, in the Mandalay region, were at almost three times their capacity – holding 2,800 in a prison built for 1,000 people. “Prison capacity across the 93 prisons and prison labor camps is 66,000, putting overcrowding nationwide at over 139 per cent,” the Assistance Association’s 2018 report said.

The Home Affairs Ministry held a meeting to develop measures for reducing the risk of an outbreak in the prisons, but efforts have been severely inadequate, including promoting misinformation about how to prevent the spread of the disease. The wife of a prisoner at Insein prison told Frontier Myanmar that the measures were limited to hand washing and providing ginger water, a false prevention claim that has circulated on social media and was included in the Prison Department’s guidance. She said: “The prison authorities told my husband that ginger water can protect him from coronavirus, so he wants to drink it all the time. He even told me that I should be drinking it.”

The country’s displaced populations also face high risk as an estimated 350,000 people are trapped in overcrowded camps with insufficient food, clean water, sanitation material, and health care. Ethnic Rohingya Muslims, who are effectively denied citizenship and lack freedom of movement, are regularly arrested for attempting to flee the dire conditions in Rakhine State, which commonly carries a two-year prison sentence. The United Nations estimates that 3,000 Rohingya are detained for travel violations. The authorities should release Rohingya adults and children imprisoned for seeking refuge from persecution and arbitrary confinement in Rakhine State.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, on March 25 called on all governments to “work quickly to reduce the number of people in detention” to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 “rampaging through such … extremely vulnerable populations.”

Specifically, Myanmar’s government should consider alternatives to detention for:


  • People in pretrial detention for low-level or nonviolent offenses, or who don’t present a significant flight risk;
  • People in semi-open facilities who work in the community during the day;
  • People at higher health risk, such as older people, pregnant women and girls, people with disabilities that may place them at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19, and people who have compromised immunity or chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, and HIV. Assessments should determine whether their health can be protected if they remain in detention, and take into account factors like time served, the gravity of the crime, and the risk their release would represent to the public.
  • People with care-giving responsibilities accused or convicted of nonviolent crimes, including women and girls incarcerated with their children and prisoners who are primary caregivers to children;
  • People convicted of nonviolent crimes close to the end of their sentences; and
  • Other people whose continued detention is unnecessary or disproportionate.

The government has a responsibility to protect and provide medical treatment for detainees who are not released. The authorities should draft comprehensive plans to prevent and respond to a COVID-19 outbreak in detention facilities that do not rely on simple lockdowns but provide measures to protect the physical and mental health of detainees. Prisons should protect inmates and staff while allowing detainees to have access to family and legal counsel.

“Myanmar authorities need to act fast to address prison conditions,” Adams said. “Keeping Myanmar’s jails and prisons full and overcrowded is endangering detainees, staff and could jeopardize the country’s efforts to stop the pandemic’s broader spread.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 4, 2020, 12:50 am

People wearing masks, attend a vigil for Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, in Hong Kong, February 7, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Kin Cheung

For authoritarian-minded leaders, the coronavirus crisis is offering a convenient pretext to silence critics and consolidate power. Censorship in China and elsewhere has fed the pandemic, helping to turn a potentially containable threat into a global calamity. The health crisis will inevitably subside, but autocratic governments’ dangerous expansion of power may be one of the pandemic’s most enduring legacies.

In times of crisis, people’s health depends at minimum on free access to timely, accurate information. The Chinese government illustrated the disastrous consequence of ignoring that reality. When doctors in Wuhan tried to sound the alarm in December about the new coronavirus, authorities silenced and reprimanded them. The failure to heed their warnings gave COVID-19 a devastating three-week head start. As millions of travelers left or passed through Wuhan, the virus spread across China and around the world.

Even now, the Chinese government is placing its political goals above public health. It claims that the coronavirus has been tamed but won’t allow independent verification. It is expelling journalists from several leading US publications, including those that have produced incisive reporting, and has detained independent Chinese reporters who venture to Wuhan. Meanwhile, Beijing is pushing wild conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, hoping to deflect attention from the tragic results of its early cover-up.

Others are following China’s example. In Thailand, Cambodia, Venezuela, Bangladesh, and Turkey, governments are detaining journalists, opposition activists, healthcare workers, and anyone else who dares to criticize the official response to the coronavirus. Needless to say, ignorance-is-bliss is not an effective public health strategy.

When independent media is silenced, governments are able to promote self-serving propaganda rather than facts. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, for example, downplayed the coronavirus threat for weeks, apparently wanting to avoid harming Egypt’s tourist industry. His government expelled a Guardian correspondent and “warned” a New York Times journalist after their articles questioned government figures on the number of coronavirus cases.

The government of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan implausibly denies that there are any COVID-19 cases in its prisons, and a prosecutor is investigating a member of parliament—himself a doctor—who says that a seventy-year-old inmate and a member of the prison staff have tested positive. Thailand’s Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-ocha warned journalists to report on government press conferences only and not to interview medical personnel in the field.

Of course, a free media is not a certain antidote. Responsible government is also needed. US President Donald Trump initially called the coronavirus a “hoax.” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro called the virus a “fantasy” and preventive measures “hysterical.” Before belatedly telling people to stay home, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ostentatiously held rallies, and hugged, kissed, and shook hands with supporters. But at least a free media can highlight such irresponsibility; a silenced media allows it to proceed unchallenged.

Recognizing that the public is more willing to accept government power grabs in times of crisis, some leaders see the coronavirus as an opportunity not only to censor criticism but also to undermine checks and balances on their power. Much as the “war on terrorism” was used to justify certain long-lasting restrictions on civil liberties, so the fight against the coronavirus threatens longer-term damage to democratic rule.

Although Hungary has reported Covid-19 infections only in the hundreds to date, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán used his party’s parliamentary majority to secure an indefinite state of emergency that enables him to rule by decree and imprison for up to five years any journalist who disseminates news that is deemed “false.” Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has also awarded himself emergency powers to silence “fake” news.

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces corruption charges, his justice minister cited the coronavirus to suspend courts for most cases, as did a close parliamentary ally as he attempted to prevent the opposition’s new majority from ousting him as Knesset speaker—a move that the Israeli Supreme Court said “undermin[ed] the foundations of the democratic process.” The Trump administration has cited the coronavirus to discourage requests under the Freedom of Information Act, suddenly insisting they be made by only traditional mail, in spite of the greater public health safety of electronic communication.

Some governments are breathing a sigh of relief that the coronavirus has provided a convenient reason to limit political demonstrations. The Algerian government has halted regular protests seeking genuine democratic reform that have been under way for more than a year. The Russian government has stopped even single-person protests against Vladimir Putin’s plans to rip up term limits on his presidency. The Indian government’s recently announced three-week lockdown conveniently ends the running protests against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anti-Muslim citizenship policies. It remains to be seen whether such restrictions outlive the coronavirus threat.

Other governments are using the coronavirus to intensify digital surveillance. China has deepened and extended the surveillance state that is most developed in Xinjiang, where it was used to identify some of the one million Uighur and other Turkic Muslims for detention and forced indoctrination. South Korea has broadcast detailed and highly revealing information about people’s movements to anyone who might have had contact with them. Israel’s government has cited the coronavirus to authorize its Shin Bet internal security agency to use vast amounts of location-tracking data from the cellphones of ordinary Israelis. In Moscow, Russia is installing one of the world’s largest surveillance camera systems equipped with facial recognition technology. As occurred after September 11, 2001, it may be difficult to put the surveillance genie back in the bottle after the crisis fades.

There is no question these are extraordinary times. International human rights law permits restrictions on liberty in times of national emergency that are necessary and proportionate. But we should be very wary of leaders who exploit this crisis to serve their political ends. They are jeopardizing both democracy and our health.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 3, 2020, 7:59 pm

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

© 2019 AP Photo/John Bazemore

Five deaths from COVID-19 in a United States federal prison in Louisiana were reported within the past week, which suggests more needs to be done to protect people in custody.

Even before reports of infections at US detention facilities had surfaced, Human Rights Watch had warned about the particular vulnerability of people behind bars, and urged officials to consider supervised release and other non-custodial measures, especially for those more vulnerable to serious effects from COVID-19.

Last week, US Attorney General William Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons to expand the use of home confinement, though he hasn’t made clear how far this expansion will go or how many people it will affect. While encouraged by Barr’s announcement, federal public and community defenders wrote to Barr objecting that his order “erects unnecessary barriers” and sets “arbitrary criteria” for deciding who can access home confinement. For example, the Bureau will use an algorithmic assessment tool that carries inherent racial and class bias to determine eligibility. Also, the Bureau will give lower priority to people deemed to have violated prison rules, such as smoking where prohibited or using abusive language.

The Bureau operates 122 prisons with nearly 175,000 people in custody. As of April 2, 75 people in Bureau custody and 39 staff had tested positive for COVID-19, up from 10 people in custody and eight staff on March 27. Other jails and prisons across the country are recording even higher numbers.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that people 65 and older and people with underlying medical conditions are particularly at risk of severe illness from COVID-19. About 10,000 individuals over the age of 60 are in Bureau custody and about a third of people in Bureau custody have what Barr called “pre-existing conditions.” For years, Human Rights Watch has urged federal authorities to expand provisions for compassionate release, which allows release for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons, to include older and seriously ill prisoners.

Federal prisons and immigration detention facilities are “breeding grounds” for uncontrolled transmission of COVID-19 and present “significant health risks” to the people in them and the community as a whole, public health experts recently warned.

As COVID-19 rapidly spreads, the attorney general should ensure necessary releases are carried out quickly and fairly.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 3, 2020, 5:57 pm

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

© 2019 AP Photo/Jimmy Rahadat

Eight armed men attacked a mining area in Timika, Papua in easternmost Indonesia earlier this week. They shot and killed Graeme Thomas Wall, a New Zealand miner, and wounded four Indonesian workers, two seriously.

Jeffrey Bomanak, the commander of the West Papua Liberation Army, the military wing of the rebel Free Papua Organization, claimed responsibility. Their spokesperson warned employees of Grasberg gold mine, which is operated by PT Freeport Indonesia (PTFI), to leave Papua’s mining areas, which the group declared in 2017 to be “a battle zone.”

The Indonesian police are responsible for investigating the attack and bringing the perpetrators to account. But they should not violate the rights of ordinary Papuans, as happened in 2002 after the fatal shooting of two American teachers and an Indonesian teacher in Timika.

Years after the shooting, in 2006, Indonesian police rounded up a local church leader and his two assistants, while credible reports linking the attack to the Indonesian military were never pursued. The three church workers were wrongfully convicted of “aiding a suspect” when they had actually helped United States investigators interview the criminal suspect.

New Zealand police should offer to send a team to help Indonesian investigators. Criminal investigation in a place such as Timika, with numerous competing political and business interests, is best carried out by an independent investigative team removed from local issues.

Grasberg is the world’s largest gold mine, in operation since 1967, and its owner PTFI says there are more than 1,000 Indonesian security forces and hundreds more private security personnel in the area. Many armed gangs, with various ethnic affiliations, also operate in Timika.

Killings in Timika are not uncommon, though killings of foreigners are rare. In 2015, a local newspaper editor said that since 2003, at least 45 men were shot and killed along the 79-mile route between Timika and Grasberg gold mine, including an Australian miner in 2009. Yet no one has been held to account for these killings.

As well as investigating this latest killing swiftly, the Indonesian government should also allow independent journalists, including from New Zealand’s media, to enter Papua without the region’s highly restrictive travel permit, so that they can freely investigate and report on this crime.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 3, 2020, 4:59 pm

Sri Lankan government soldiers in protective clothes spray disinfectants at a railway station in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, March 18, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

Sri Lanka’s inspector general has ordered police to arrest those who “criticize” officials involved in the coronavirus response, or share “fake” or “malicious” messages about the pandemic.

According to the order, issued on April 1, officials “are doing their utmost with much dedication to stop the spread of COVID 19,” but “those officials’ duties are being criticized, minor issues are being pointed out,” and messages are being posted that “scold” officials, thus “severely hindering” their duties.

As of April 2, Sri Lanka had 151 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 4 deaths. So far, more than 10,000 people have been arrested since a curfew intended to slow the spread of the virus was imposed on March 20.

The global pandemic is a challenge for authorities as they try to protect the population with necessary public health measures. However, criticism will not hinder their work, even if some find it aggravating or unjustified. Blanket censorship and threats of arrest for speech not only violate Sri Lanka’s obligations under international human rights law, but are counter-productive. Officials who need to know of shortcomings to address gaps in their response will not be helped by the withholding and censoring of information. During curfews and lockdowns, many citizens will need help obtaining basic necessities, and they should be able to share their views and exchange information.

Sri Lankans’ concerns that their rights will be respected are particularly crucial since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has assigned the army chief to lead Sri Lanka’s coronavirus response. Gen. Shavendra Silva, who heads the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak, faces credible allegations of war crimes during the final months of Sri Lanka’s long civil war. Ethnic Tamils, Muslims, and critics of the government, who have long borne the brunt of security force abuses, will be especially concerned that their civil and political rights will not be respected.

A rights-respecting response to COVID-19 needs to ensure that accurate and up-to-date information about the virus, access to services, service disruptions, and other aspects of the response to the outbreak is accessible to all. A failure to uphold the right to freedom of expression during the pandemic undermines basic human rights and could undermine trust in government actions.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 3, 2020, 3:50 pm

Pro-democracy activists from Filimbi movement raise awareness about the COVID-19 pandemic in Kinshasa’s Gambela market, Democratic Republic of Congo, March 28, 2020.

© 2020 Filimbi

(Kinshasa) – The Democratic Republic of Congo’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic should prioritize support for low-income communities, displaced people, and others at greatest risk, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Congolese government should quickly begin an effective communications strategy to provide accurate, timely information about measures to contain the coronavirus. The government should also prepare for disruption in food security and access to health care, and ensure that health workers are protected. And the authorities should direct the security forces to enforce the law while respecting basic rights.

“Congo’s government needs to react to the overwhelming COVID-19 crisis with a global approach that respects not only the health but all rights of everyone in the country,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should develop aid strategies with local and international partners to reach the most vulnerable populations and ensure that health workers can do their jobs safely.”

Congolese health officials have confirmed 134 COVID-19 cases as of April 2, 2020, with 13 deaths. Most cases have been in the capital, Kinshasa, while a handful have been reported in cities in eastern Congo. However, as elsewhere in the world, the actual number of cases is most likely higher since testing is limited and many with the virus may not show symptoms.

The Congolese government has already taken steps to stop the spread of the virus, including restricting all forms of internal and international travel except for cargo; banning large gatherings; closing bars, restaurants, places of worship and schools; and shutting down borders. Instructions have been given to erect water points for hand washing in public areas, but Human Rights Watch has found that many districts in cities and towns are still awaiting equipment. While public health information campaigns are being rolled out, these efforts should be scaled up nationwide, including by involving respected community leaders and institutions and ensuring that all communications are translated into local languages and dialects.

The National Institute for Biomedical Research, based in Kinshasa, coordinates testing and processes all samples across the country of 80 million people. The government should decentralize its testing capacities to identify people infected with COVID-19 more effectively, and isolate and start treating positive cases faster, Human Rights Watch said.

“In Kinshasa, our teams don’t have enough vehicles, and we can only test about 80 people a day [for COVID-19],” a medical worker told Human Rights Watch. The worker said they lack protective equipment and wear the same masks all day. Many health workers await transport to enable them to work and they do not know how and when they will be paid.

Kinshasa residents say that people having potential COVID-19 symptoms struggle to get through to hotlines made available to alert the health authorities about suspected cases.

Medical workers who have reviewed official documents outlining health system capacity, also seen by Human Rights Watch, raised concerns that hospitals designated to treat COVID-19’s sickest patients remain underequipped. Only a few dozen ventilators are available throughout the country, hospitals lack oxygen supplies, and functional intensive care units are scarce.

Kinshasa’s provincial governor, Gentiny Ngobila, announced on April 2 that Kinshasa’s business district, Gombe, will be on total lockdown for 14 days, starting on April 6. As officials consider extending the lockdown to other districts and cities, they should recognize that strictly confining people at home will hurt millions who work in the informal sector and live hand-to-mouth. The government should take steps to the maximum of available resources so that people have sufficient food and access to clean water. The authorities should work with neighborhood and community groups, houses of worship, and local and international aid organizations to ensure everyone’s health and well-being, including by organizing food and water distributions in the most at-risk neighborhoods. The government and its partners should also address health issues other than COVID-19. 

Distrust, misinformation, and suspicion during the response to an Ebola outbreak in late 2018 in eastern Congo sparked violence against health workers, helping the virus spread while critical assistance was partially suspended.

On March 26, Kinshasa’s governor had announced that the entire city would begin an intermittent lockdown for three weeks, starting on March 28. Crowds of panicked residents rushed to banks, shops, and markets to stock up on food and goods, causing prices of staples to skyrocket. On the evening of March 27, the authorities suspended the lockdown plans, revealing disagreements between provincial officials and the central government.

When the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Congo on March 10, there was confusion as information from the health minister and regional government officials was sometimes inaccurate. Civil society groups and many Congolese have expressed their frustration as the government struggled to communicate accurate information and an effective plan in response to the pandemic.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has put prevention measures in place in camps for internally displaced people and refugees that should be urgently ramped up to all sites. More than five million displaced people live in dire conditions across the country and are already in need of life-saving assistance, including food, water, and health care. COVID-19 could put displaced people and refugees at a heightened risk of mortality should the virus reach the camps.

State security forces, in responding to lawbreaking and violence, should respect human rights including only using force when strictly necessary. On March 29, Gen. Sylvano Kasongo, the head of police in Kinshasa, appeared to be ordering police officers to beat a motorcycle-taxi driver, in apparent “punishment” for violating social distancing measures, video footage indicated.

On March 30, the police killed at least 3 people and wounded 11 others, according to a UN source, when they fired live rounds at members of the Bundu dia Kongo politico-religious movement who were demonstrating in Kinshasa to “chase the spirit of the coronavirus.” The authorities should issue clear orders to the security forces that they are to act with restraint while enforcing restrictions in place.  

“The Congolese government’s response to the pandemic should start with a robust communication plan to gain the people’s trust,” Mudge said. “But it will need to quickly put in place rights-respecting humanitarian measures. The survival of millions of people will depend on it.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 3, 2020, 11:30 am

A screenshot of an officer with five youths locked inside a dog cage after breaking curfew in Laguna province, the Philippines on March 20, 2020. 

© 2020 Facebook

Philippine authorities have subjected children to absurdly abusive treatment for violating curfew and quarantines rules imposed to limit exposure to COVID-19.

Police and local officials in several parts of the country have mistreated people detained for violating COVID-19 regulations, including by confining them to dog cages and forcing them to sit for hours in the midday sun.

Reports shared with Human Rights Watch by child rights groups in Manila show that children are among those facing cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment for violating pandemic emergency measures.

In Cavite province, two children were locked in a coffin on March 26 as punishment for violating curfew. On March 20, officials in Santa Cruz town, Laguna province, locked five young people inside a dog cage. In Binondo, Manila, village officials arrested four boys and four girls on March 19 for violating curfew. They forcibly cut the hair of seven of the children while the one who resisted was stripped naked and ordered to walk home.

Even when adults are arrested it can create risks for children. As of March 30, the authorities had arrested more than 17,000 people for violations of COVID-19 emergency measures, according to Rappler. In some cases, children’s caregivers have been arrested for violating COVID-19 regulations. In Tacloban City, a mother was arrested on March 24 for allowing her children to play outdoors.

Things could get worse. On Wednesday, President Rodrigo Duterte, whose murderous “war on drugs” has killed thousands of people since 2016, said that his orders to the police and military during the pandemic were “if there is trouble, … shoot them dead."

The Philippines already has a terrible record of criminalizing children, with members of Congress attempting to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 12, with some having proposed it to be lowered to 9. If enacted, this could put more and younger children behind bars in dangerous detention facilities.

Human Rights Watch has urged governments to prioritize the right to health and respect everyone’s human rights as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Locking up people for violating emergency measures such as curfews and quarantine rules may actually increase disease transmission if people are placed in close proximity to one another in detention facilities. Children should not face criminal sanction for violating emergency measures.

Philippine authorities should focus on measures that could actually help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 3, 2020, 9:04 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

On March 31, the Hungarian government submitted a bill to parliament that, among other things, would  make it impossible for transgender people to legally change their gender. It was unclear when parliament might debate and vote on the bill.

The proposed amendment to the Registry Act would include a clarification regarding the word “nem,” which in Hungarian can mean both “sex” and “gender,” to specifically refer to the sex at birth (“szuletesi nem”) as “biological sex based on primary sex characteristics and chromosomes.” According to the draft bill, the birth sex, once recorded, cannot be amended.

This attack on a vulnerable minority group comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when, instead of focusing on ways to protect public health from the virus, the government used the crisis as a pretext to grab unlimited and indefinite power by proclaiming a state of emergency, enabling it to rule by decree.

This show of contempt for the rights of the transgender community flies in the face of the European Convention on Human Rights case-law. In a 2002 case involving a trans person in the United Kingdom, the court held that refusal to change identification documents and legal identities could amount to discrimination and violate the right to respect for private lives. In another case in 2003, the court found that Germany had failed to respect an applicant’s “freedom to define herself as a female person, one of the most basic essentials of self-determination.”

When governments force trans people to carry documents that don’t match their identity and appearance, every situation when documents are requested or appearance is scrutinized becomes fraught with potential for violence and humiliation.

As long as it remains in session during the COVID-19 crisis, members of the Hungarian parliament should reject the government’s amendment outright. European Union institutions should add this latest measure to the very long list of the Hungarian government’s human rights and rule of law violations currently under review and urgently move the article 7 procedure, enabling political sanctioning of an EU member state, forward.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 3, 2020, 4:01 am

Rainbow flags symbolizing LGBT rights.

© 2017 Reuters

Living in a shelter for homeless people shouldn’t be illegal. But according to Ugandan police, 23 people living at a shelter serving lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Kampala are guilty of “a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease,” as well as “disobedience of lawful orders.”

Police were presumably enforcing presidential directives to combat the spread of COVID-19, including one prohibiting public gatherings of more than 10 people. The homeless youth were indoors at a shelter in Nsangi, near Kampala, run by the nongovernmental organization Children of the Sun Foundation. No order limits the number of residents in a private home or shelter.

Two were released from police custody for medical reasons, as was a nurse who worked at the shelter’s clinic. But 20 were remanded to prison, a disastrous move when civil society leaders have been pleading with officials to decongest Uganda’s teeming prisons.

At the root of the arrests is homophobia. According to the legal aid group Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), neighbors complained to local leaders about the presumed sexuality of shelter residents, prompting the mayor, Hajj Abdul Kiyimba, to lead a raid on the home. A video viewed by Human Rights Watch shows Kiyimba berating residents for “homosexuality” and beating them with a stick.

HRAPF said police searched the shelter for evidence of homosexuality, which is punishable by up to life in prison. Police confiscated HIV medication, self-testing kits, and condoms. At least three of those arrested were undergoing HIV treatment at the shelter. Police eventually settled on COVID-19-related charges.

The arrests echo an October 2019 raid on another LGBT shelter, where police arrested 16 people after they were attacked by a mob, detained them, and subjected them to forced anal examinations. The case against them was eventually dropped.

The Children of the Sun detainees may be less fortunate. Their lawyers can’t visit them in prison – Uganda’s latest COVID-19 guidelines only allow movement for “essential services,” which do not include legal services. Indeed, HRAPF’s application to visit them was rejected by the Ministry of Works and Transport. In the meantime, the detainees may be exposed to COVID-19 in prison. If any become ill or die, the Ugandan authorities will bear responsibility.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 3, 2020, 4:01 am

Thousands of political prisoners are held in the vast Silivri campus prison, Istanbul.

© 2016 AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis

(Istanbul) – An examination of cases of prisoners, in the hundreds, whose underlying health conditions put them most at risk of the deadly effects of COVID-19 demonstrates why the Turkish authorities should include such inmates in its new plans for early release on parole or house arrest despite their conviction under antiterrorism laws, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch examined 14 cases of prisoners whose health puts them at the gravest risk and who should be considered eligible to benefit from measures to shield them from the virus. But a draft law with alternatives to incarceration for some prisoners excludes those serving time for the most serious crimes, including terrorism offenses, regardless of whether their underlying medical conditions or inability to care for themselves in prison mean they are among those at the greatest risk of death from COVID-19.  

“When taking action to protect prisoners from the COVID-19 virus, those at gravest risk should not be left out of consideration,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Turkish government’s positive proposal to reduce overcrowded prisons is undermined by the blanket exclusion of thousands of inmates convicted on terrorism charges, including those at risk of death from the virus and those who should not be in prison in the first place.”

The government’s draft law is due to be voted on in Parliament early in the week of April 5, 2020 and should significantly reduce the population in Turkey’s overcrowded prisons, a key priority in efforts to prevent rapid transmission of COVID-19 virus among detainees and staff. It would provide early release on parole and house arrest for several categories of prisoners, among them pregnant women, older people with medical conditions, and those with limited sentences left to serve.

Tens of thousands of inmates are behind bars for links with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), revolutionary leftist groups, or alleged affiliation with the Fethullah Gülen movement, which Turkey deems a terrorist organization and accuses of orchestrating the 2016 failed coup attempt.

Turkey has detained, prosecuted, and convicted thousands of civil servants, lawyers, politicians, activists, and journalists for alleged links to these groups, although there is no evidence they committed violent crimes, incited violence, or provided logistical support to outlawed armed groups. The blanket terrorism exclusion in the draft law covers all prisoners convicted for terrorism offenses, makes no mention of detainees in detention before or during trial for terrorism offenses, and makes no allowance for those in either group with chronic medical conditions for whom COVID-19 poses a lethal risk. Among the latter are individuals who were convicted for violent activities.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 28 lawyers and family members of prisoners, 2 former prisoners, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations working on prisons about overcrowded prison conditions and the situation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. They described inconsistent preventive and protection measures for disease in prisons, including whether staff wear protective masks or whether masks and cleaning materials are provided to prisoners.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council of Europe’s European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) has recommended that governments provide alternatives to deprivation of liberty to ease overcrowding and offer “screening for COVID-19 and pathways to intensive care” for those most vulnerable.

The government’s draft law is focused on convicted prisoners and does not contain measures for the release of detainees held on remand – provisional or pretrial detention – whose numbers are currently estimated to be 43,000, according to rights groups that received informal figures from the Justice Ministry. Detainees are categorized as being on remand until their convictions are confirmed by the Court of Cassation.

Most journalists, politicians, and rights defenders in prison are still on remand facing trial on terrorism charges. Among them are people over age 60, including the rights defender Osman Kavala and the journalist Ahmet Altan. Politicians in prison include Selahattin Demirtaş, who is taking medication for a heart condition, and Gültan Kışanak.

“For vulnerable prisoners the COVID-19 pandemic risks turning a prison sentence into a death sentence,” Williamson said. “Prisoners who have been jailed for little more than their political views should be able to benefit from the early release law.”

For detailed findings and international human rights requirements, please see below.

According to Justice Ministry data for March, Turkey’s penitentiary system has the capacity for 235,431 inmates, but in November 2019, it held upwards of 286,000 inmates. There are 368 prisons with 67,246 personnel. The Justice Ministry no longer publishes up-to-date and disaggregated statistics on the prison population so available figures are drawn from statements by ministers. The number of inmates has risen sharply in recent years, with Human Rights Watch regularly receiving complaints of overcrowding, prisoners sleeping on mattresses on the floor, and prisoners having to share limited toilet and washing facilities.

In several cases prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Turkey’s failure to offer adequate medical care and conditions to sick prisoners or to release terminally ill prisoners has constituted cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or has violated the right to life. In its most recent published report following a visit to Turkey’s prisons in June 2013, as in earlier reports, the CPT raised concerns about prison authorities’ capacity to provide adequate health care for inmates and made recommendations for proper screening of prisoners for transmissible diseases.

Since that visit, rights groups in Turkey – in particular the Human Rights Association and the Association of Lawyers for Freedom – have compiled new lists seen by Human Rights Watch of hundreds of sick prisoners and repeatedly raised concerns about the lack of access to timely and adequate medical treatment, obstacles to securing postponement of sentences for convicted prisoners unfit on medical grounds to be held in prison, or release for sick prisoners with ongoing trials. Turkey’s Parliamentary Inquiry Commission on Human Rights has recently published several reports raising serious concerns about prisons conditions and capacity to provide medical care for prisoners.

The prisoners whose cases Human Rights Watch examined have medical reports documenting their health condition and, in some cases, reports from Turkey’s Forensic Institute, which in the context of the COVID19 virus would justify alternatives to incarceration in prison or postponement of sentence. Human Rights Watch has seen the medical reports for the prisoners whose cases are addressed.

Risk for COVID-19 Complications, Death

COVID-19 is a serious disease, which can have symptoms ranging from no or mild fever, shortness of breath, and cough for people at low risk, to respiratory failure and death. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies individuals at highest risk to include those over age 60 and those of any age with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer.

Other serious conditions putting people at high risk include blood disorders, chronic kidney or liver disease, compromised immune system, endocrine disorders, (including diabetes), metabolic disorders, heart and lung disease (including asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions, and current or recent pregnancy.

With the onset of COVID-19, Turkey’s Justice Ministry has suspended all open and closed visits by family members until mid-April with possible further extensions. Prison administrations now allow inmates to make an additional 10-minute phone call to families to compensate the restriction of family visits. The justice minister has also announced measures to have doctors screen all new prisoners on admission to a facility and then to have them placed in quarantine for 14 days, as well as steps to provide masks and gloves to prison personnel.

On March 24, an opposition member of parliament, Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a cardiologist, alleged on social media that there were at least two cases of COVID-19, affecting a prisoner and a member of staff in Ankara’s Sincan L-type prison. In response, the Ankara chief prosecutor began an investigation into Gergerlioğlu for spreading panic among the population. Rather than targeting people for such reports, there is an urgent need for the government to inform the public by providing transparent information on the prevalence of the virus, Human Rights Watch said.

On March 31, in a case unrelated to those reported by Gergerlioğlu, a court accepted a medical report that a prisoner held on remand for alleged terrorism offenses had contracted COVID-19. The court ruled for the release of Nalan Özaydın, the dismissed co-mayor for Mazıdağı, Mardin, ruling that she be placed under house arrest.

Overcrowding and Lack of Prevention Measures

Overcrowding in prisons, a longstanding concern in Turkey, limits the possibility of effective social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. One lawyer informed Human Rights Watch that Elazığ high security prisons 1 and 2 “have a capacity of 450 but there are around 800 prisoners in each.” The wife of a prisoner in Urfa T-type prison no. 2 said her husband told her in a March 29 phone call that there were 20 prisoners in his ward designed for 8, and that while everyone had a bed, in some other wards prisoners slept on mattresses on the floor.

The wife of a prisoner in Hatay T-type prison said her husband is “in a ward with more than 20 people despite only having a capacity for 12 to 14 prisoners. Many prisoners sleep on mattresses on the floor.” A lawyer whose client is in Karaman M-type closed prison said her client “is held in a ward with a capacity for 8 prisoners but which holds 28.”

Families and lawyers have also raised concerns about the lack of adequate cleaning materials, soap, and masks for prisoners and prison staff. One prisoner in Gaziantep H-type prison told a relative by phone on March 19: “We haven’t been given any hygiene materials. Most prison personnel do not wear any masks; only a few do. They seem to be careless. We are not given any masks either. We are taking our own precautions as much as we can with limited resources.”

A prisoner in Diyarbakır D-type prison told a relative by phone on March 20: “They are not taking any precautions here, no one is wearing masks. We haven’t been given any hygiene material.” A prisoner released from Izmir Aliağa women’s prison on March 24 informed Human Rights Watch:

The prison administration gave us half a liter of bleach and said it was from the Justice Ministry. It was clearly not enough for our ward, so we bought hygiene materials from the prison canteen. The prison administration gave posters with information on how to preserve hygiene and wash hands to each ward. There were also informative videos on the prison’s private channel.

Convicted Prisoners to Whom COVID-19 Would Pose a Risk to Life

Human Rights Watch examined 14 cases of prisoners with chronic or acute medical conditions who will not benefit from the current new draft law on early release or measures such as house arrest because they have been convicted of or are held on remand for terrorism offenses.

One is serving a sentence of aggravated life imprisonment (life without parole), which exempts him from any release under Turkey’s laws, including the Law on the Execution of Sentences and Security Measures (article 25). The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Turkey should provide the possibility for these prisoners to commute or terminate their sentences. The court has found that Turkey’s failure to offer a mechanism to provide such a possibility constitutes a violation of the absolute prohibition on torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or punishment under article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  

Mehmet Emin Özkan, 81, has been in prison since 1996. He is held in Diyarbakır D-type prison. He was originally given a life sentence for participating in PKK attacks, although his conviction was based on witness testimony allegedly obtained under torture. However, Özkan is now being retried after his case was reassessed on the basis of another trial connected to the incidents in his case. His lawyer provided Human Rights Watch with evidence of Özkan’s multiple chronic medical conditions including a heart condition, hypertension, and kidney and intestinal disorders.

His lawyer’s repeated applications to the court citing lack of evidence that he committed a crime and health grounds have been rejected. Özkan’s family said that Özkan is unable to look after himself and relies on other prisoners. On March 18, Özkan’s lawyer applied again for his release on the grounds that his age and medical conditions make him at serious risk from COVID-19. The following day a court rejected the application.

İdris Başaran, 45, has been in prison since 1994, currently held in Bursa H-type prison, serving a life sentence. He joined the PKK when he was 17 after a traumatic family history, including his father’s detention and torture and the forced displacement of his family from their southeast village. Medical reports seen by Human Rights Watch reveal that among other medical conditions and a long history of repeated medical interventions, Başaran has asthma and a serious cardiac condition. Başaran’s medical condition means that COVID-19 would pose a risk to his life.  

Soydan Akay, 49, has been in prison since 1993, currently held in Silivri prison no. 9, serving a life sentence for PKK activities. He suffers from various medical conditions and has been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer in a hospital in Istanbul for the past two months. COVID-19 poses a risk to his life as a cancer patient.

Ergin Aktaş, 32, has been in prison since 2011 and was sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment for PKK activities in which he lost both hands in a bomb attack. He is in Metris R-type prison in Istanbul, in a cell with two other disabled prisoners – Abdullah Turan, who is disabled from the neck down, and Serdal Yıldırım, disabled from the waist down. The three rely on one another and the Forensic Medicine Institute has issued separate reports for each of them, concluding that they are unable to live without assistance.

Aktaş’s lawyer supplied Human Rights Watch with five reports from the Forensic Institute determining that Aktaş is unable to look after himself in prison and providing grounds for his release under the Law on the Execution of Sentences and Security Measures (article 16/6). Aktaş also has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and tuberculosis, which mean COVID-19 would pose a risk to his life. All applications for his release so far have been rejected on public security grounds and on March 24, his lawyer applied to the prosecutor, citing the high risk of COVID-19 as new grounds for his release.

Abdullah Kalay, 53, has spent 19 years in prison and is held in Kocaeli F-type prison no. 2. He was first jailed from 1992 to 2001, then returned to prison in 2010 when the Court of Cassation upheld his sentence of 32 years and 6 months for membership of the armed group Turkish Communist Party/Marxist-Leninist (TKP/ML) and armed robbery. Despite a serious heart condition, and four reports by the Kocaeli University Hospital recommending his release for medical treatment, courts have so far rejected his applications to postpone his sentence.

He has been frequently hospitalized but returned to prison. In May 2019, Kalay underwent open heart surgery as his condition declined. He has a case relating to continued imprisonment pending before the European Court of Human Rights. On March 19, 2020, Kalay’s lawyer applied for postponement of his sentence and release arguing that COVID-19 posed a grave risk to his life.  

Fatma Tokmak, 44, was detained in 1996 for alleged links with the PKK and alleges she and her then 2-year-old son were tortured in police custody in Istanbul and that she was forced to sign a statement she was unable to read, as a Kurdish woman who did not speak Turkish. Released temporarily in 2006, she was returned to prison in 2010 when the Court of Cassation upheld her sentence of life in prison.

A 2014 medical report from the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey found her unfit to serve time in prison on health grounds. Tokmak’s medical problems include a chronic heart condition, asthma, and hypertension, for which she has repeatedly been hospitalized while in prison. Her lawyer has once again applied on March 23 for her release on these grounds, arguing that COVID-19 poses a risk to her life.

Dilek Öz, 48, was detained in 1994 in Ankara and is serving a sentence of life in prison (in Bakırköy women’s prison) for alleged involvement in a bomb attack. Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that Öz’s conviction was based on witness statements only and that a medical report supports her allegation that she was tortured in custody. Öz’s family says she has medical conditions including hypertension, asthma, and bronchitis, which require frequent visits to hospital.

Hasan Alkış, 60, has been in prison since January 1994 and been sentenced to life in prison for links with the PKK. After a heart attack and surgery in 2004, the Forensic Medicine Institute ruled he was unable to remain in prison for medical reasons. His release was rejected by the authorities on public security grounds and the Forensic Institute reversed its original recommendation a month later and determined he could remain in prison. Over the years, Alkış has developed multiple medical conditions in addition to his heart condition and hypertension. Alkis applied again for release on medical grounds a year ago. His application was rejected and he remains in Bolu F-type prison.

Camal Aydoğan, 52, has been serving a 12-year, 6-month sentence for membership of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C) in Kocaeli F-type prison no. 2 since November 2014. Aydoğan has acute asthma and other chronic lung conditions. His lawyer said that he nearly died after an asthma attack for which he was urgently hospitalized while in prison.

Cases of Remand Prisoners at Risk from COVID-19

Ahmet Türkmen, 68, has a history of chronic heart disease, among several other serious medical complications, and has had a major heart bypass operation. He has been in Kayseri T-type prison no. 1 for the past 3 years, with an appeal pending against his April 2018 conviction for membership of a terrorist organization, for which he received a 14-year prison sentence. He is accused of links to the Gülen movement, which Turkey terms the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) and accuses of masterminding the July 15, 2016 coup attempt.

Although the Forensic Medicine Institute recommended providing him with medical examinations every 6 months, he has been offered just 1 medical examination in 3 years. He is held with 10 prisoners in a ward with capacity for 3. COVID-19 would pose a serious risk to his life. On March 18, his lawyer applied to the Court of Cassation for his release on health grounds, citing the risk of COVID-19.

İsmet Özçelik, 61 and a former school principal in Malaysia, has been in prison in Turkey since May 2017 and is held in Denizli T-type prison. Despite the fact he was registered as an asylum seeker with the United Nations refugee agency in Malaysia, Özçelik was abducted in Malaysia and forcibly sent to Turkey. In May 2019 the UN Human Rights Committee determined that Turkey had violated Özçelik’s rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and that he should be released from detention and compensated. Turkey has failed to implement this decision.

Özçelik was convicted in 2019 of membership of a terrorist organization (FETÖ) for links with the Gülen movement and is appealing his 10-year prison sentence. Özçelik has a heart condition and reported that he was not given timely medical intervention in July 2019 when he felt he was having a heart attack. His lawyer said that he has been refused a copy of the medical report detailing Ozcelik’s condition after Özçelik had undergone a medical check-up weeks after his initial urgent complaint. His lawyers in mid-March applied to the Court of Cassation for his release on health grounds in the context of the risk COVID-19 poses.

Hüseyin Soykan, 48, a former police officer, has been in Karaman M-type prison for 44 months. He was convicted of membership of a terrorist organization (FETÖ) for links with the Gülen movement and received an eight-year prison sentence, now under appeal. Medical reports show that he has a chronic lung condition and, in the past, had a collapsed lung. He was twice urgently hospitalized while in prison.

Soykan is held in a ward of 28 prisoners which has a capacity for 8. Another prisoner in the ward, Amir Gulaçtı, died on October 20, 2019 of suspected heart failure soon after his lawyer had complained of poor conditions affecting the health of inmates in the prison. A full autopsy report from the Forensic Medicine Institute to determine the full cause of Gulaçtı’s death is expected. Soykan’s medical condition means that COVID-19 would pose a risk to his life and on March 19, his lawyer applied to the Court of Cassation for his release on health grounds.    

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 3, 2020, 4:00 am

The Parliament of Armenia adopted the bill granting the authorities broad surveillance powers to track coronavirus cases.

© 2020 National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia

(Berlin) – Armenia’s parliament on March 31, 2020 passed amendments giving the authorities very broad surveillance powers to use cellphone data for tracking coronavirus cases, Human Rights Watch said today. The amendments impose restrictions on the right to privacy and allow the authorities access to confidential medical information related to people exposed to the virus.

As of April 2, Armenia had 663 identified cases of COVID-19. The government declared a state of emergency from March 16 to April 14, imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 24, and took other measures to contain the spread of the virus.

“The Armenian government is facing a public health emergency, and technology has an important role to play in communicating public health messages and promoting access to health care,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But at the same time, the authorities need to address the ways that using mass surveillance undermines rights.”

Parliament adopted the law on March 31 after voting it down earlier that day.

The law requires telecommunications companies to provide the authorities with phone records for all of their customers, including phone numbers and the location, time, and date of their calls and text messages. The authorities would use that data to identify, isolate or put in self-isolation, and monitor anyone infected with COVID-19 or those who had been in close contact with infected people. The authorities would obtain information by obliging health care providers to report data to the authorities on “people tested, infected, persons having disease symptoms, persons treated in hospitals or persons who had contacts with the patient”

The government says that the law would allow the authorities to collect only phone records, and that they will not have access to the content of customers’ private communications. But such information can contain sensitive and revealing insights about an individual’s identity, location, behavior, associations, and activities, Human Rights Watch said.

While restrictions on the right to privacy to contain the pandemic may be permissible, the government must ensure that such restrictions are lawful, necessary, and proportionate.

The law requires the destruction of call records and other obtained data after the state of emergency ends. However, the government should also consider imposing strict limits on the collection of phone records, the purposes for which they are used or aggregated, and the agencies or officials that may access such information. People should also be made aware when their data has been collected.

The government should also establish stringent security protocols that minimize the risk of data breaches and protect people’s digital safety, Human Rights Watch said.

If the state of emergency persists over a prolonged period, the government should regularly review whether phone records that are no longer relevant should be destroyed. Activists criticized the bill for not being necessary and effective to prevent the virus’s spread.

Armenia’s Ombudsperson has also expressed concerns that the law lacks adequate human rights guarantees

The Parliament of Armenia debates a bill that would allow for interference with privacy rights. 

© 2020 National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia

Armenia’s constitution protects the right to privacy of telecommunications and medical information. International law, including the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, also protect against arbitrary or unlawful interference in “privacy, family, home or correspondence.” Armenia is a party to both, but deposited derogations, or exceptions, on March 20, after it declared the state of emergency.

“Armenia’s authorities have been respecting COVID-19 patients’ privacy rights thus far,” Gogia said. “But, so they do not undermine the trust that is needed for an effective public health response, they should explain how they will continue to do so and ensure that these digital surveillance measures are strictly in line with long-established human rights safeguards.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 3, 2020, 4:00 am

Ciham Ali Abdu 

© Private

Ciham Ali turns 23 today, the eighth year in a row she will be spending her birthday behind bars in an Eritrea prison. She has been held there incommunicado since the age of 15.

For several years now, Eritrean diaspora groups, notably One Day Seyoum, have campaigned for Ciham and other political detainees’ release. This year, with the threat of COVID-19 hanging over the scores of detainees held in prisons, the call seems even more poignant.  

Ciham was born in the United States but moved to Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, with her father, Ali Abdu Ahmed, who was taking up a position as a government official under President Isaias Afewerki. Her father was appointed information minister, but fled to Australia in 2012 after he fell out with the president. Shortly after, Ciham was arrested trying to flee to Sudan for her safety.

According to Ciham’s family, they have not received any information from the government on her whereabouts or wellbeing. This is the norm for detainees in Eritrea, many of whom were arbitrarily arrested for allegedly criticizing the government, and have been held without trial for years.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses serious risks to prisoners in Eritrea.

Unsanitary and inhumane conditions of detention in many countries place detainees at an especially high risk for contracting the disease. Human Rights Watch has documented how thousands of prisoners are held in overcrowded places of detention with inadequate food, water, and medical care. Now that Eritrea has reported its 22nd case of COVID-19, it’s time for the government to take concrete steps to ensure the safety and welfare of detainees, and notify families of their loved ones’ wellbeing.

Given the current health crisis, adequate food, water, and medical care must be provided to detainees. But ultimately, the Eritrean government should grant Ciham and other prisoners – who shouldn’t have been imprisoned in the first place – unconditional release, and return them to the safety of their homes, where they can celebrate birthdays with loved ones. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 3, 2020, 3:00 am

Myanmar press freedom and youth activists demonstrate for the release of two jailed Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, in Yangon, Myanmar, September 16, 2018. 

©2018 Reuters/Ann Wang
(Bangkok) – Myanmar authorities should immediately drop all charges against an editor for broadcasting an interview with an armed group representative, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 30, police arrested and charged Nay Myo Lin, the editor-in-chief of the Mandalay-based Voice of Myanmar, under Myanmar’s overly broad Counter-Terrorism Law for an interview with the Arakan Army spokesperson.

In recent weeks, the Myanmar government has expanded its crackdown on journalists, including several editors. The actions have severely undermined press freedom and access to information in the country.

“The Myanmar authorities’ assault on media freedom by arresting journalists who are simply doing their job harms everyone’s access to information,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor. “Nay Myo Lin was unjustly charged and should immediately be released.”

On March 23, the Myanmar government designated the insurgent Arakan Army as a terrorist organization under the Counter-Terrorism Law and as an “unlawful association” under section 15(2) of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act. On March 27, Nay Myo Lin interviewed the Arakan Army spokesperson Khaing Thu Kha and broadcast the interview under the title “Peace Process has stopped.”

The Mandalay Special Branch police filed a criminal complaint against Nay Myo Lin under sections 50(a) and 52(a) of the Counter-Terrorism Law. Section 50(a) of the law authorizes a minimum sentence of ten years and a maximum of life imprisonment for, among other actions, “causing fear among the public” or “damaging the security of the public.” Section 52(a) authorizes a sentence of three to seven years in prison for activities that “knowingly involve a terrorist group.”

Nay Myo Lin’s arrest reflects the government’s deepening crackdown on independent media. On March 31, police raided the home of the editor-in chief of the Yangon-based Khit Thit News media outlet. Police also raided the office of the Sittwe-based Narinjara news outlet, arresting three journalists – Thein Zaw, Aung Lin Htun, and Htun Khaing – and releasing them later that evening. The Democratic Voice of Burma reported that the editor-in-chief of Narinjara, Khaing Mrat Kyaw, has been charged under the Counter-Terrorism Law but has not been arrested.

“The baseless charges against Nay Myo Lin and Khaing Mrat Kyaw make clear that every journalist trying to cover Myanmar’s many conflicts is at risk,” Lakhdhir said. “So too are the humanitarian workers trying to bring aid to civilians at risk and human rights advocates monitoring abuse in conflict areas.”

While international human rights law allows governments to place restrictions on the media for national security reasons, these restrictions must be strictly necessary for a legitimate purpose and not be overbroad. They may not be used to suppress or withhold information of legitimate public interest not harmful to national security, or to prosecute journalists for reporting such information. For the government to fulfill this responsibility, journalists should be able to speak to and meet with a variety of people without fear of arrest or harassment – including those who are in conflict with the government or military.

The Myanmar government has repeatedly used draconian laws against journalists for reporting on military abuses or ethnic armed groups. In 2018, two Reuters journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act after uncovering a massacre of Rohingya Muslims. They were released on a presidential pardon after spending more than a year in jail. Aung Marm Oo, the editor-in-chief of the news agency Development Media Group (DMG), which has reported on the conflict in Rakhine State, is currently facing a complaint under the Unlawful Associations Act, which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Access to information is rapidly diminishing under Myanmar’s current government. On March 23, the Ministry of Transport and Communications instructed four mobile operators to block access to 221 websites deemed to be spreading “fake news” or containing explicit content, according to the media.

Narinjara and Development Media Group said that since March 24, they have been blocked by all four mobile operators, which include Norway’s Telenor, Qatari-owned Ooredoo, military-affiliated MyTel and the state-owned MPT. Telenor is the only telecommunications provider to have issued a statement about the government directive.

The current editor-in-chief of DMG, Phadu Tun Aung, told local media that by blocking the only two ethnic-Rakhine media outlets, the government had effectively silenced ethnic Rakhine voices. “By blocking our websites, [the government is] restricting the people’s right to information,” he said. Other registered media outlets in Shan and Karen States and Mandalay region also reported that they were blocked.

Any government restrictions on websites should clearly explain why the content is being taken down and should focus on specific content rather than whole domains.

The government should also lift the continued internet shutdowns in nine townships in Rakhine and Chin States, which threaten the safety of civilians as fighting between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar armed forces continues. The blanket shutdown violates international human rights law, which requires internet-based restrictions to be necessary and proportionate.

Internet service providers should fully resist unjustified internet shutdowns or takedowns, including by seeking a legal basis for any shutdown order and interpreting requests to cause the least intrusive restrictions. They should carry out their responsibilities under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and avoid complicity in human rights abuses especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Myanmar government has increasingly acted to restrict access to information it does not like and punish those who bring it to light,” Lakhdhir said. “Counter-terrorism laws should never be used against journalists for their reporting. Under these circumstances the future for press freedom in Myanmar is bleak.” 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 3, 2020, 1:20 am

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures during a speech on the current state of the coronavirus in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Heng Sinith
(New York) – The Cambodian government should withdraw its draft state of emergency law, which would empower Prime Minister Hun Sen to override fundamental human rights protections, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 31, 2020, the Council of Ministers approved the “Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency,” which would allow the government to restrict all civil and political liberties and target human rights, democracy, and media groups. The one-party National Assembly is expected to vote on the bill later this week or early next week. 

Hun Sen has claimed that the law is necessary to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government should submit a new draft that addresses the COVID-19 public health crisis while protecting basic rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and privacy, Human Rights Watch said.

“Even before the coronavirus, Hun Sen ran roughshod over human rights, so these sweeping, undefined, and unchecked powers should set off alarm bells among Cambodia’s friends and donors,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Instead of passing laws to protect public health, the Cambodian government is using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to assert absolute power over all aspects of civil, political, social, and economic life – all without any time limits or checks on abuses of power.”

The bill contains many overly broad and vague provisions that would violate fundamental rights without specifying why these measures are necessary and proportionate to address the public health emergency.

Under article 5, the government would have:

  • Unlimited surveillance of telecommunications: “Putting in place measures to surveil and keep track of all means [of communication] for the receipt of information via telecommunication contact systems in every form” (art. 5(10));
  • Control of media and social media: “Prohibiting or restricting the distribution or broadcast of information that could generate public alarm or fear or generate unrest, or that could bring about damage to national security, or that could bring into being confusion regarding the state of emergency” (art. 5(10) and (11));
  • Catch-all unfettered powers: “Putting in place other measures that are deemed appropriate for and necessary to responding to the state of emergency” (art. 5(12)).

Article 5 would also give the government complete authority to restrict freedom of movement and assembly.

Articles 1 and 4 of the bill would allow the law to be used even after the COVID-19 crisis ends. It says that a state of emergency can be declared when, “The people of the nation face danger” and “in order to defend national security, public order, the lives and health of citizens as well as property and the environment,” and “particularly” in cases of “an urgent public health crisis arising from the wide-spreading of contagious disease” and of “grave disruption of national security and public order” (arts. 1 and 4). Just as problematic, article 3 makes it clear that a state of emergency could be declared “for a limited or unlimited period of time,” without specifying the basis for making decisions about the length (art. 3).

The bill also would create a permanent opportunity for the government to declare martial law. Article 5(2) states that, “At times of war, or in other circumstances in which national security is confronted with grave danger, the country can be governed while under a state of emergency via a martial law regime” [emphasis added].  

Notably, the bill fails to provide any oversight for the use of these sweeping executive powers. On April 1, a Council of Ministers statement said that a state of emergency would not be declared for longer than three months – but added that the government would have discretion to extend it.

“The emergency law will allow Hun Sen, at long last, to run the country by fiat,” Adams said. “It will make his dictatorial rule legal and official.”

Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern that the law could be easily misused against critics of the government and nongovernmental organizations. The bill includes disproportionate fines and prison sentences for vague criminal offenses. For instance, article 7 creates the “crime of obstructing operations during a state of emergency,” punishable by one to five years in prison or five to ten years if the obstruction “leads to public unrest or adversely affects national security.” Article 8 would create the “crime of not respecting measures” required by the government, with punishments of up to one year in prison, or five to ten years if it “leads to public unrest.” These provisions could easily be used against critics of the government’s handling of the current COVID-19 crisis – or any other situation in which a state of emergency is declared.

Article 9 creates a serious risk for civil society organizations by stating that, “Legal entities can be deemed criminally responsible” for violations of the law. The Cambodian government has long targeted independent media as well as organizations that promote human rights and democracy. Fines up to US$250,000 would bankrupt most Cambodian organizations.

The draft law comes amid a longstanding crackdown by the Cambodian government on civil society, the media, critics, and the opposition. Independent newspapers and radio outlets have been shut or sold to owners with ties to the government. Social media networks face surveillance and intervention by the government, reinforced by the government’s adoption of the 2018 decree called, “Publication Controls of Website and Social Media Processing via Internet,” which allows for interference with online media and government censorship.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cambodia is a state party, allows countries to adopt exceptional and temporary restrictions on certain rights that would not otherwise be permitted “in times of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.” But the measures must be only those “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”

The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, clarified that states parties are required to “provide careful justification not only for their decision to proclaim a state of emergency but also for any specific measures based on such a proclamation.” The committee stressed that such measures “are of an exceptional and temporary nature and may only last as long as the life of the nation concerned is threatened.”

On March 16, a group of United Nations human rights experts declared that “Emergency declarations based on the COVID-19 outbreak … should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health [...] and should not be used simply to quash dissent.”

“From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hun Sen has denied or downplayed the risks posed to Cambodia by the coronavirus in Cambodia, but evidently he’s more than willing to join the bandwagon of autocratic leaders using the crisis to justify giving themselves vastly expanded powers,” Adams said. “The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should remind Hun Sen that if he wants to suspend certain rights, he has to notify the UN Human Rights Committee. But pandemic or not, many rights cannot be suspended, and Cambodia will remain bound by its international legal commitments.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 3, 2020, 1:00 am

Refugees protest detention conditions in a Melbourne hotel, Australia, April, 2020.

© 2020 Private

In Australia, as people grumble about closed beaches and extended isolation at home due to the coronavirus, spare a thought for those in immigration detention.

In recent weeks, I’ve received anxious messages from a 32-year-old Sri Lankan refugee, detained in a Melbourne hotel for nine months. After more than six years in Papua New Guinea, authorities transferred him and dozens of others to Australia for medical treatment. The Home Affairs Department has declared some hotels in Melbourne and Brisbane as “alternative places of detention” for “low risk” refugees and asylum seekers.

They are under 24-hour guard, confined largely to their rooms, sharing the bedroom and bathroom with a roommate. A joint letter by some 1,200 healthcare professionals says these hotels represent “a very high-risk environment” for the coronavirus to be transmitted.

“We’re constantly worried,” the Sri Lankan refugee told me. “We see Australians returning from abroad protesting the conditions of their quarantine in hotels for 14 days. At least for them it will end in 14 days. We don’t know when it will end for us.”

Like many Australians, they check the news nonstop for the latest virus updates. But these men have already been confined for months: they can’t stockpile food or toilet paper, and they have no control over who walks in the door. In March, a guard working at a Brisbane hotel used as a makeshift detention center tested positive for the virus, adding to their fears.

For the 1,400 people held in Australian immigration detention facilities, COVID-19 poses a higher risk because they live in close proximity to each other, prohibiting the social distancing that helps prevent the virus’ spread. On March 25, the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture urged governments to “review the use of immigration detention and closed refugee camps with a view to reducing their populations to the lowest possible level” to mitigate the risk of COVID-19.

Authorities in Belgium and the United Kingdom have released hundreds from immigration detention; Spain has said it will also do so. In the United States, some judges have ordered the release of people from immigration detention because of underlying health conditions or the risk of transmission. The Australian government should do the same, finding alternatives to immigration detention, especially for people with underlying health conditions, older people, and those who pose minimal security risks.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 2, 2020, 9:23 pm

Artists and activists participate in a Campaign to Stop Killer Robots event outside Germany’s parliament, February 2020.

© 2020 Human Rights Watch

This week, Germany convened the first-ever major digital disarmament meeting for governments and civil society. Representatives from more than 70 countries logged on to participate in the two-day meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems, also known as fully autonomous weapons or killer robots.

The meeting’s goal was to explore the international framework and commitments needed to address mounting concerns over the dangers of removing meaningful human control from the use of force.

Scientists, roboticists, and artificial intelligence experts have long warned of the dangers posed by permitting machines to select and engage targets without further human intervention. That sentiment is now widely shared. In opening the Berlin Forum, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, “letting machines decide over life and death of human beings goes against ethical standards and undermines human dignity.”

Human Rights Watch concurs with the minister’s comment that permitting fully autonomous weapons is “a red line we should never cross.” A new international treaty to ban such weapons is the only logical way to prevent such a disastrous development.

In her remarks to the Berlin Forum, Human Rights Watch senior researcher Bonnie Docherty made the case for a treaty prohibiting weapons systems that select and engage targets autonomously and present fundamental moral and legal challenges. Such a legally-binding instrument must establish a general obligation that states maintain meaningful human control over the use of force.

Initiatives such as the Berlin Forum are helping the international community to lay collective groundwork for such a treaty. This online meeting shows how governments are innovating and adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital diplomatic efforts such as this one are essential to keep up multilateral dialogue and advance efforts to protect humanity from serious threats such as killer robots.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 2, 2020, 7:13 pm

When Panama announced it would implement a gender-based quarantine schedule in response to COVID-19, transgender activists were alarmed. And with reason: on April 1, police detained a transgender woman alleging that she was male and out on “the wrong day.”

Bárbara Delgado. 

© Private

The Ministry of Health’s quarantine measures allow women to do essential shopping on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while men are only permitted on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. No one is allowed out on Sundays. The measures also restrict the time of day people can leave their home depending on the last digit of their national identification card or passport. The ministry describes this as “the simplest procedure” to reduce the number of people on Panama’s streets.

Not so simple for Bárbara Delgado. She left her house on Wednesday morning, a women’s day, outside of the allotted time for her identification number, to attend a medical center near her home, where she volunteers as a health outreach worker. She said the center had not yet issued her a letter of transit and she planned to explain that she was a volunteer and needed to get to work if stopped. Soon after leaving home, two police officers stopped Delgado, along with two men and a woman, all quarantine offenders. The police let the others go with a warning, but detained Delgado, apparently because the “male” gender marker on her ID did not match her appearance. At the police station, she said, a justice of the peace accused her of not being a woman and remarked it was good that she had been taken in. Delgado was made to pay a US$50 fine for violating quarantine measures and was released after three long, humiliating hours.

In a country where, in contravention of international human rights law, modifying legal gender on official documents requires sex reassignment surgery, gender-based quarantine measures will almost certainly result in discrimination against transgender persons like Delgado. Panamanian lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) organizations have called for a gender and diversity perspective to inform measures in response to the pandemic. The National Police should also adopt a protocol affirming that quarantine enforcement measures will be sensitive to transgender people’s realities so that other trans Panamanians are spared the harassment Delgado experienced. Ultimately, Panama needs to address the draconian gender recognition procedure that inadvertently led to this incident. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 2, 2020, 6:37 pm

© 2017 Marco Tibasima for Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – The World Bank has approved a US$500 million education loan to Tanzania without requiring the government to end its policy of expelling pregnant schoolgirls, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 31, 2020, the World Bank Board of Executive Directors voted to provide the loan to fund Tanzania’s secondary education program.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has vigorously supported a ban on pregnant students and vowed to uphold it throughout his term. Tanzanian schools routinely force girls to undergo intrusive pregnancy tests and permanently expel those who are pregnant. The authorities have arrested some schoolgirls for becoming pregnant. An estimated 5,500 pregnant students stop going to school every year, although previous estimates indicate that close to 8,000 students have been forced to drop out of school each year.

“The World Bank should be working with governments to move education systems toward full inclusion and accommodation of all girls in public schools, including those who are pregnant or parents,” said Elin Martinez, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, the World Bank failed to use its leverage and caved to Tanzania’s discriminatory ban and practices, undermining its own commitment to nondiscrimination.”

The World Bank loan includes funds to build a system of “alternative education pathways,” a fee-based parallel system of nonformal education centers for children who drop out of formal education, and a cornerstone of Tanzania’s Secondary Education Quality Improvement Program (SEQUIP). This program was developed as a response to the World Bank’s decision to withhold a $300 million loan for secondary education in Tanzania in part because of the government’s mistreatment of pregnant girls.

Under SEQUIP, studying in these alternative centers is the only option for girls expelled from schools for being pregnant. But these alternative education pathways cannot be portrayed as providing the equivalence of education in formal public lower secondary schools. These centers will not be tuition-free, and will provide a condensed version of the curriculum.

In its endorsement of the loan, the World Bank considered that girls who are pregnant or have a baby merely “drop-out” of school. In framing the issue this way, the World Bank disregarded independent evidence that shows that girls are expelled, humiliated by school officials and teachers when forced to take a pregnancy test or discovered to be pregnant, and rejected by their own peers as a result.

The World Bank did not address the concerns about the ban in approving the loan, Human Rights Watch said. The Tanzanian government has not adopted a policy or decree that clarifies girls’ right to stay in school during and after pregnancy or provided assurances that it will reintroduce the “re-entry” policy struck down by Parliament in 2017.

All governments should take immediate measures to ensure that secondary education is available and accessible to all free of charge and make education compulsory through the end of lower secondary school, Human Rights Watch said.

The World Bank should not disburse the initial tranches of the loan until the government respects its obligations to guarantee equal access to free and compulsory primary education and equal access to lower secondary education for girls. The government should immediately end the discriminatory ban and adopt a ministerial decree that instructs all schools to immediately cease pregnancy testing and stop expelling pregnant girls.

Tanzania is one of two African countries that explicitly ban pregnant girls or adolescent mothers from government schools. In recent years, many African governments have made strong commitments to ensure that pregnant girls and mothers can attend school. Human Rights Watch research has found that laws, policies, and guidelines that protect pregnant girls’ and adolescent mothers’ right to education are key to ensuring girls are not discriminated against at school.

All African governments should adopt human rights-compliant “continuation” policies that are fully put into effect nationwide, spelling out girls’ rights so that school and ministry staff have clear guidance on how to support and provide special accommodations for young mothers at school, Human Rights Watch said.

The World Bank’s backtracking on pregnant girls’ right to education also raises concerns about the bank’s broader commitment to implementing its Environmental and Social Framework, which guarantees that bank loans will not be used to further discrimination. Other groups that are subject to state-sponsored discrimination in Tanzania, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, may be at greater risk if the government sees indications that the bank is not upholding its own nondiscrimination principles.

“Contrary to the World Bank’s portrayal of the Tanzanian loan, ‘alternative pathways’ will never match what children get in formal, compulsory education,” Martinez said. “Unlike most out-of-school children who have a choice of returning to school, pregnant girls are arbitrarily denied the right to return to school and forced into a parallel system.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 2, 2020, 6:00 pm

Cars are seen on highway 101 in Palo Alto, California, September 17, 2019.

© 2019 Yichuan Cao/Sipa via AP Images

United States President Donald Trump’s announcement of dramatically reduced fuel efficiency standards for new vehicles, a move expected to lead to increased air pollution and emission of billions of tons more greenhouse gases, is the latest in a series of attacks on environmental protection since Trump took office. These have included the rollback of dozens of laws and regulations designed to protect the environment and human health.

For example, late last week, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that for an indefinite period of time it would not enforce monitoring and reporting requirements of many environmental regulations if the company can show a COVID-19 related reason for non-compliance.

Both of these policies will bring added harm to human health, with no meaningful justification.

The EPA policy means that most reporting requirements for companies polluting air and water will not be enforced. This means communities will not know what is discharged into the air they breathe.

The rollback of fuel standards will almost certainly have devastating impacts on efforts to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions. It is expected to lead to one trillion more tons of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere which is equivalent to 20 percent of US total annual emissions or more than the total annual emissions of Canada. This comes at a time when it is critical that global emissions are dramatically reduced to meet the goals of the Paris agreement.

It will almost certainly harm air quality, and air pollution is responsible for a number of respiratory, cardiovascular, and other health issues in the US. People infected with COVID-19 and living in communities with high levels of air pollution may also face higher risks of severe disease or death, as during the 2003 SARS epidemic, during which people who breathed dirtier air were about twice as likely to die from the infection. Air pollution causes more than 200,000 premature deaths in the US every year.   

The EPA’s overbroad policy offered no explanation as to why COVID-19 restrictions would impact monitoring or reporting. Nor did it justify the indefinite timing for the suspension of these requirements.

The rollback of fuel efficiency standards is even more arbitrary, and inconsistent with the position of the auto industry, which has advocated for improved, not lower, standards, in part because of “shifting market conditions and consumer preferences.”

Lower fuel efficiency vehicles will bring increased fuel consumption, which stands to benefit the fossil fuel industry.

In the midst of such a horrendous public health emergency, the US should be using all tools available to protect people’s health, instead of taking steps that undermine it.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 2, 2020, 5:20 pm