Loan Torondel, 21, worked with L’Auberge des Migrants in Calais for two years, helping to provide legal information and support and humanitarian assistance to migrants and asylum seekers in northern France.

© 2018 Loan Torondel
(Paris) – An appeals court’s confirmation of the defamation conviction of an aid worker on June 24, 2019 for an ironic tweet sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today. The case was a serious escalation in harassment and intimidation of aid workers in France

The Court of Appeal in Douai, northern France, found Loan Torondel, the aid worker, guilty of defamation for a tweet he published in early January 2018 and sentenced him to pay a 1,500 euro fine (about US$1,700), which it suspended, and ordered him to pay damages and court costs. It was the first defamation case against an aid worker in France for criticizing the French government’s actions against migrants. Torondel told Human Rights Watch that he would appeal to the Court of Cassation, France’s court of last resort.

“This decision against Loan Torondel is a worrying precedent and a blow to freedom of expression,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. “It resonates as a pernicious intimidation against staff or volunteers for organizations that speak out against police abuses against migrants.”

In January 2018, while working for the Auberge des Migrants, which provides crucial assistance to migrants and asylum seekers in Calais, Torondel published a tweet criticizing abusive police practices toward migrants. This tweet, with a photo showing two police officers standing over a young man seated in a field, imagined that the young man was protesting against the confiscation of his sleeping bag in the middle of winter and that the officer replied: “Maybe, but we are the French nation, sir,” an allusion to a speech President Emmanuel Macron gave in late December 2017.

Torondel was prosecuted following a complaint by one of the police officers and was sentenced by the first instance by a court in Boulogne-sur-Mer on September 25.

Torondel worked with Human Rights Watch earlier in 2019, and the organization is about to resume the collaboration to research police practices during identity checks in France.

A volunteer operating in Calais, Tom Ciotkowski, was also prosecuted, for “insult and violence” after filming French police officers who were impeding a food distribution to migrants and asylum seekers by volunteers in Calais. But he was acquitted on June 20 by the Boulogne-sur-Mer court. 

Torondel's conviction and Ciotkowski’s prosecution expand on what aid workers have regularly described as harassment by the French police to hinder or prevent aid workers and volunteers supporting migrants and asylum seekers from carrying out their work in Calais.

The aid workers have reported repeated fines for minor infractions and parking violations, excessive use of identity checks, and temporary confiscations of mobile phones to look through or delete their content. In some cases, aid workers have reported being improperly sprayed with tear gas or pushed or insulted by police officers. 

Human Rights Watch, the French Defender of Rights, UN observers, and four associations in Calais reported abusive practices by the police in Calais, both against migrants and asylum seekers and against aid workers. Amnesty International recently published a detailed report on the criminalization and harassment of people defending refugee and migrant rights in northern France. 

Criminal defamation laws are a disproportionate and unnecessary restriction on free speech and create a “chilling effect” that effectively restricts legitimate as well as harmful speech. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression and the representative on freedom of the media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), together with the Organization of American States’ special rapporteur for freedom of expression, have called for the abolition of such laws.

The UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression has said that countries should take particular care to ensure that defamation laws – civil or criminal – “should never be used to prevent criticism of government” and “should reflect the principle that public figures are required to tolerate a greater degree of criticism than private citizens.”

“Obstructing assistance to migrants and bringing legal proceedings that criminalize the denunciation of abuses is a shameful tactic to deter solidarity,” Jeannerod said. “France should not go down this dangerous path, which reduces the working space of both aid workers and government critics.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Recent reports that the US monitored calls between members of President Trump’s campaign staff and Russian intelligence personnel have renewed controversy about the surveillance powers of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI), and how those bodies handle the information they collect. But anyone concerned about the scope or legality of the US government’s warrantless intelligence surveillance should also worry about the way these programs may affect the country’s border and immigrant communities.

A general view shows part of the Loma Blanca neighborhood as a section of the border fence marking the boundarie with El Paso, U.S. is seen on the background, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico January 18, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

The US currently has two main “foreign” surveillance powers it can—in practice—use to obtain and sift through information on people within its borders without a warrant. (We do not yet know whether either of these was the legal basis for intercepting the conversations with Trump’s campaign staff). 

The first, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is scheduled to expire at the end of this year, setting the stage for an intense debate in Congress about reforming surveillance. Under Section 702, the NSA (with telecommunications companies’ help) automatically searches virtually all the Internet communications flowing over the fiber optic cables that connect the US to the rest of the world—a practice known as “upstream” scanning. 

As of 2015, 26 percent of people in the United States were first- or second-generation immigrants.  Upstream monitoring, as we currently understand it, means that whenever any of these tens of millions of people—or anyone else in the US—sends an email to a friend or family member in another country, the US government is likely searching those communications to see if they contain e-mail addresses or other “selectors” of interest. This kind of suspicionless, warrantless, disproportionate monitoring violates human rights.

In addition to Section 702, Executive Order 12333 allows the NSA and other US agencies to vacuum up the communications of US citizens and lawful permanent residents in the course of foreign surveillance. Leaked documents indicate that pursuant to EO 12333, the US has grabbed records of potentially all telephone calls in countries including Mexico and the Philippines. In other words, if you are in El Paso, Texas and have called your mother in Juárez, Mexico, US intelligence agencies probably have a record of your call. They can use this data to map social networks—and share it for law enforcement purposes.

The US’ vast warrantless surveillance powers are not only an issue for legal wonks or the technically savvy: they may be affecting people and communities throughout the United States and the world. Congress and the judiciary should regard them as direct threats to both US democracy and human rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(New York) – The latest revisions to China’s Criminal Law impose up to seven years in prison for “spreading rumors” about disasters, Human Rights Watch said today. The revised law, which took effect November 1, 2015, does not clarify what constitutes a “rumor,” heightening concerns that the provision will be used to curtail freedom of speech, particularly on the Internet.

“The revised Criminal Law adds a potent weapon to the Chinese government’s arsenal of punishments against netizens, including those who simply share information that departs from the official version of events,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities are once again criminalizing free speech on the Internet, which has been the Chinese people’s only relatively free avenue for expressing themselves.”

The National People’s Congress Standing Committee approved the addition of a provision to article 291(1) of the Criminal Law (Criminal Law Amendment Act (9)), which states that whoever “fabricates or deliberately spreads on media, including on the Internet, false information regarding dangerous situations, the spread of diseases, disasters and police information, and who seriously disturb social order” would face prison sentences – with a maximum of seven years for those whose rumors result in “serious consequences.” The vagueness of the provision means that individuals doing nothing more than asking questions or reposting information online about reported local disasters could be subject to prosecution.

In the past, the Chinese government has detained netizens who questioned official casualty figures or who had published alternative information about disasters ranging from SARS in 2003 to the Tianjin chemical blast in 2015, under the guise of preventing “rumors.”

The revision was made in the context of a wider effort to rein in online freedom since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013:

  • In August 2013, the authorities waged a campaign against “online rumors” that included warning Internet users against breaching “seven bottom lines” in their Internet postings, taking into custody the well-known online commentator Charles Xue, and closing popular “public accounts” on the social media platform “WeChat” that report and comment on current affairs;
  • In September 2013, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (the state prosecution) issued a judicial interpretation making the crimes of defamation, creating disturbances, illegal business operations, and extortion applicable to expressions in cyberspace. The first netizen who was criminally prosecuted after this took effect was well-known blogger Qin Huohuo, who was sentenced to three years in prison in April 2014 for allegedly defaming the government and celebrities by questioning whether they were corrupt or engaged in other dishonest behavior;
  • In July and August 2014, authorities suspended popular foreign instant messaging services, including KakaoTalk, claiming the service was being used for “distributing terrorism-related information”;
  • In 2015, government agencies such as the State Internet Information Office issued multiple new directives, including tightening restrictions over the use of usernames and avatars, and requiring writers of online literature in particular to register with their real names;
  • In 2015, the government has also shut down or restricted access to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which many users depend on to access content blocked to users inside the country and also help shield user privacy;
  • In March 2015, authorities also deployed a new cyber weapon, the “Great Cannon,” to disrupt the services of GreatFire.org, an organization that works to document China’s censorship and facilitate access to information;
  • In July 2015, the government published a draft cybersecurity law that will requires domestic and foreign Internet companies to increase censorship on the government’s behalf, register users’ real names, localize data, and aid government surveillance; and
  • In August 2015, the government announced that it would station police in major Internet companies to more effectively prevent “spreading rumors” online.
     

Activists in China are regularly prosecuted for speech-related “crimes,” Human Rights Watch said. The best known of these crimes is “inciting subversion,” which carries a maximum of 15 years in prison. But authorities have also used other crimes such as “inciting ethnic hatred,” as in the case of human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who has been detained since May 2014 for a number of social media posts questioning the government’s policies towards Uighurs and Tibetans.

While providing the public with accurate information during disasters is important, the best way to counter inaccurate information would be to ensure that official information is reliable and transparent, Human Rights Watch said.

Above all, journalists should have unimpeded access to investigate and inform the public about these events, and the wider public should have the freedom to debate and discuss disaster response.

“The casualties of China’s new provision would not be limited to journalists, activists and netizens, but the right of ordinary people and the world to know about crucial developments in China,” Richardson said. “The best way to dispel false rumors would be to allow, not curtail, free expression.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev takes the oath during his inauguration ceremony in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.

© 2019 Vladislav Vodnev / Sputnik via AP

(Berlin) – Kazakhstan’s new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, should urgently address pressing human rights concerns as part of his mandate, Human Rights Watch said in a letter sent to the president that was released today.

Tokaev was inaugurated on June 12, 2019, after the long-time president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, stepped down from office earlier in 2019.

“Strengthening protection for human rights is long overdue in Kazakhstan,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “For a start, President Tokaev should adopt a reform agenda that includes robust measures to protect media freedom, trade union rights, and the right to peaceful protest.”

Human Rights Watch has monitored and documented human rights violations in Kazakhstan for over 20 years, and has carried out in-depth investigations into violations of fundamental freedoms including freedom of association, workers’ rights to organize, and the rights of children with disabilities.

Human Rights Watch highlighted key areas of concern and urged authorities to take action to address long-standing abuses. President Tokaev should lift restrictions on peaceful assembly and freedom of speech and the media, revise overbroad criminal charges and stop using them to target government critics, and ensure the rights of children with disabilities. The authorities should also release the wrongfully imprisoned human rights defender Maks Bokaev, who peacefully protested against proposed land code amendments and was imprisoned for five years on multiple charges, including “inciting social discord.”  

In his inauguration speech, President Tokaev said that one of the key components of his platform is “to protect the rights of every citizen.”

“For many years, Kazakhstan’s leadership has paid lip service to human rights while cracking down on fundamental rights and freedoms at home,” Williamson said. “If his words are to carry any weight, President Tokaev should waste no time in carrying out meaningful and tangible human rights reforms.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Tourists walk past Indian security forces during curfew like restrictions in Jammu, India on Monday, August 5, 2019. An indefinite security lockdown was in place in the Indian-controlled portion of divided Kashmir on Monday.

© 2019 AP Photo/Channi Anand
(New York) – Indian authorities have adopted measures in anticipation of unrest in Jammu and Kashmir state that raise serious human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said today. The government announced on August 5, 2019 that it was altering the special constitutional status of the state.

Before making the announcement, the government detained several political leaders, imposed broad restrictions on freedom of movement, and banned public meetings. It also shut down the internet, phone services, and educational institutions. The Indian government should take all necessary steps to ensure that security forces act with restraint, Human Rights Watch said.

“The government has a responsibility to ensure security in Kashmir, but that means respecting the human rights of everyone, including protesters,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government got off to a bad start by detaining political leaders, banning public meetings, and shutting down the internet.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led national government has deployed tens of thousands of additional troops to the region since last week, citing security reasons. The authorities also ordered tourists and Hindu pilgrims to leave Jammu and Kashmir because of a “terror threat.” Orders issued to public officials, including hospital staff, caused panic in the predominantly Muslim Kashmir valley, with people stocking up on food and currency, anticipating that services would be shut down.

The government’s decision to revoke special status for the state provided under Article 370 of the Indian constitution prompted condemnation from political leaders in Kashmir and generated tensions in the state. On August 5, Home Minister Amit Shah told parliament that “not all the provisions of Article 370 will now be implemented in Jammu and Kashmir.” In effect, these measures eliminate the autonomous status provided to Jammu and Kashmir when it acceded to India seven decades ago and splits the province into two separate territories which will be federally governed, reducing the authority of elected state officials.

Kashmir has witnessed a spike in violent protests and militant attacks in recent years. Indian security forces have often used excessive force to respond to protests, including using pellet-firing shotguns as a crowd-control weapon, even though they have caused a large number of protester deaths and injuries. The Indian government should review its crowd-control techniques and rules of engagement, and publicly order the security forces to abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.

Indian troops have seldom been held accountable despite serious allegations of human rights violations including extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) gives soldiers effective immunity from prosecution for serious human rights abuses. The government has failed to review or repeal the law, despite repeated recommendations from several government-appointed commissions, UN bodies, and experts, and national and international rights groups. Since the law came into force in Kashmir in 1990, the Indian government has not granted permission to prosecute any security force personnel in civilian courts.

While law enforcement officials have a duty to protect lives and property, they should use nonviolent means as far as possible, only use force when unavoidable and in a proportionate manner, and use lethal force only when absolutely necessary to save lives, Human Rights Watch said.

In July, a report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights raised serious concerns about abuses by security forces in Kashmir. Those included the use of excessive force to respond to protests and the detention of protesters, political dissidents, and other activists on vague grounds for long periods, ignoring regular criminal justice safeguards. The Indian government dismissed the report as a “false and motivated narrative” that ignored “the core issue of cross-border terrorism.”

The Indian government has also repeatedly imposed internet shutdowns in Kashmir, restricting mobile and broadband internet services. There have already been 53 instances of shutdowns in the state in 2019, the largest number in the country. In 2017, David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, and Michel Forst, the special rapporteur on human rights defenders, condemned the restrictions on the internet and social media services in Jammu and Kashmir, saying they had a “disproportionate impact on the fundamental rights of everyone in Kashmir,” and had the “character of collective punishment.”

“Kashmiris have endured decades of violence and human rights violations, and are yet to be assured of justice,” Ganguly said. “The government should ensure accountability for past abuses and address grievances instead of silencing opposition voices.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Wives of six men who went missing in February 2019 join the weekly Saturday Mothers vigil in Istanbul for families of disappeared people in Turkey, July 2019. 

© 2019 Private

(London) – The Turkish authorities’ decision to deny lawyers access to four men, who were forcibly disappeared in February 2019, but are now confirmed to be in police custody in Ankara raises concerns that the men may be being put under pressure to conceal information about their disappearance, Human Rights Watch said today. 

The authorities acknowledged on July 28 that they are holding four men, Salim Zeybek, Yasin Ugan, Özgür Kaya, and Erkan Irmak, but have not revealed where they have been since February, and are implying that the men were not in the custody of the state nor their proxies before July 28. The men were detained on various dates in February and are presumed to have been held in unacknowledged detention ever since. The whereabouts of two other men, Mustafa Yılmaz and Gökhan Türkmen, who were also reported missing in February, remains unknown.

“Lawyers have been prevented from meeting the men, in violation of Turkey’s laws, which fuels our suspicion that the authorities want to hide the truth about what these four have lived through for the past five-and-a-half months,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “There needs to be a full account of what has happened to these men since February, and everyone implicated in their presumed enforced disappearances should be held to account.” 

The families of the four men have been permitted to see them briefly twice in the presence of police officers, but the families’ lawyers have been completely barred from visiting them. When the families tried to ask the men where they had been since February, the men were reluctant to provide answers and the police intervened to stop further questions.

The Turkish authorities are legally obliged to grant the families’ chosen lawyers access to the men and to enable confidential meetings. They should also permit independent medical professionals to conduct full medical examinations of the four men, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch spoke to the men’s wives about their brief meetings with their husbands.

The families had spent months publicly campaigning and lodging complaints with the authorities seeking information on their husbands’ whereabouts. The families said the men were very pale, had lost a lot of weight, and were unwilling to answer any questions about what had happened to them over the months they were missing.

The wives said the police prevented them from asking questions of the men or learning anything about their situation. The wives also reported that each of the men said, with police officers standing by, that they did not want to see a lawyer and that the wives should stop campaigning or lodging complaints about their cases and even withdraw existing complaints to international bodies and organizations.

The presence of police officers during these meetings, the men’s reported introverted manner of speaking, and apparent inability or fear to provide any information about the past five months fuels Human Rights Watch’s concern that they are being pressured to withhold information about their treatment and to collude in providing a fabricated version of their detention.

The authorities suspect the men of having links with the Fethullah Gülen religious movement, which the Turkish government has labeled a terrorist organization responsible for the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. The government has carried out an unprecedented crackdown on the movement and its followers in Turkey since that period.

Zeybek, who formerly worked for an official body, the Information Technology and Communications Board, was last seen by his wife in the custody of security forces on February 21. Officers detained him after following a car in which the couple was traveling, as they headed toward Edirne in western Turkey.

On February 13, numerous witnesses saw a large number of plain-clothed and uniformed police detain Kaya, a former teacher, and Ugan, a certified accountant, at an apartment building in an Ankara neighborhood where they were staying. The wife of Irmak, also a former teacher, saw her husband led away by two people after he had left their home in Istanbul late on the evening of February 16.

In each case, the families made great efforts to secure a full investigation into their husbands’ whereabouts, contacting multiple authorities in Turkey, including the prosecutor’s office, collecting evidence of what had happened, and running social media campaigns asking the Turkish authorities for information.  But prosecutors have failed to carry out an effective investigation, complaints have been dismissed, and the families have applied to the constitutional court, where their cases are still pending.

Several parliamentarians repeatedly raised the cases in parliament and made public statements seeking investigations of the disappearances. The Ankara Bar Association and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) the Human Rights Association and the Rights Initiative Association have all publicly reported on the cases. The authorities have made no official statement about the presumed enforced disappearance of the men or their whereabouts since February. The families have also applied to the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

Yılmaz and Türkmen remain unaccounted for and the Turkish authorities should immediately investigate whether they too are being held in undisclosed detention sites. Security camera footage shows Yılmaz, a physiotherapist, being abducted by two men and taken away in a black VW Transporter van after he left his home in Ankara the morning of February 19. Türkmen, who worked at the Farming and Rural Development Support Board, disappeared in the southern city of Antalya on February 7.

Human Rights Watch most recently documented abductions and enforced disappearances in Turkey in the 2017 report “In Custody: Police Torture and Abductions in Turkey.”

“After four men turned up in police custody, the Turkish authorities should urgently take steps to determine the whereabouts of Mustafa Yılmaz and Gökhan Türkmen,” Porteous said. “Forcibly disappearing people is an egregious crime and Turkey has a heinous history of forcibly disappearing people in the 1990s, as attested in multiple ECtHR judgments.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A campaign poster showing environmental activists, Taher Ghadirian, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Houman Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Sepideh Kashani, Morad Tahbaz and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, who have been in detention for six months. 

© 2018 #anyhopefornature Campaign
(Beirut) – At least two environmental experts detained in Iran since January 2018 have likely embarked on a hunger strike to protest their continued detention after many months in legal limbo, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should ensure their adequate access to medical treatment. 

They are among eight environmentalist experts detained for over 18 months without being provided with the evidence concerning their alleged crimes and with serious due process violations. Given those circumstances, the authorities should immediately release all eight.  

“Members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation have languished behind bars for over 550 days while Iranian authorities have blatantly failed to provide a shred of evidence about their alleged crime,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should take the long overdue step of releasing these defenders of Iran’s endangered wildlife and end this injustice against them.”

A source who requested anonymity informed Human Rights Watch that Niloufar Bayani and Sepideh Kashani intended to begin a hunger strike on August 3, 2019. Two other environmentalists arrested with them have most likely begun a hunger strike as well, the source said. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any contacts the detainees have had with family members since August 3.

Authorities from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Intelligence Organization detained the two, along with Houman Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Taher Ghadirian, Morad Tahbaz, Amirhossein Khaleghi, and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh on accusations of espionage. All are members of a local environmental group, the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF). The authorities have provided no evidence to them or their lawyers concerning their alleged crimes.

The environmentalists on hunger strike are demanding that authorities end their legal limbo and either release them on bail until a verdict is issued against them or transfer them to the public ward of Evin prison, the source said. They are in ward 2-Alef of Evin prison, which is under the supervision. of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization.

Their trial in Branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court was halted before the Iranian new year in March, then resumed at the beginning of August. The court reportedly did not allow lawyers to review the evidence before the trial opened on January 30. Judge Abdolghassem Salavati of Branch 15 also restricted the defendants’ choices of lawyers to a list approved by the judiciary. Bayani had interrupted an earlier trial session, in February, saying that the defendants had been under psychosocial tortured and were coerced into making false confessions.  

On February 10, 2018, a few weeks after their arrests, family members of Kavous Seyed Emami, a Canadian-Iranian professor and environmentalist arrested with the other members of the group, reported that he had died in detention under suspicious circumstances. Iranian authorities claimed that he committed suicide, but they have not conducted an impartial investigation into his death and have placed a travel ban on his wife, Maryam Mombeini.

Several senior Iranian government officials have said that they did not find any evidence to suggest that the detained activists are spies. On May 22, 2018, ISNA News Agency reported that Issa Kalantari, the head of Iran’s Environmental Institution, said during a speech at a bio-diversity conference that the government had formed a committee consisting of the ministers of intelligence, interior, and justice and the president’s legal deputy, and that they had concluded there was no evidence to suggest those detained are spies. Kalantari added that the committee said the environmentalists should be released.

On February 3, Mahmoud Sadeghi, a member of parliament from Tehran, tweeted that according to the information he has received, the National Security Council headed by President Hassan Rouhani also did not deem their activities of the detained conservation activists to be spying.

On October 24, 2018, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, the Tehran prosecutor, said that the prosecutor’s office had elevated the charges against four of the detainees to “sowing corruption on earth,” which includes the risk of the death penalty. The prosecutor claimed that the activists were “seeking proximity to military sites with the cover of environmental projects and obtaining military information from them.” Bayani, Tahbaz, Jokar, and Ghadirian are believed to face the capital charges. On January 30, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported that three others are charged with spying and one person is charged with assembly and collusion against national security.

Article 48 of Iran’s 2014 criminal procedure law says that detainees charged with various offenses, including national or international security crimes, political, and media crimes, must select their lawyer from a pre-approved pool selected by Iran’s judiciary during the investigation. The list published in June 2018 of lawyers allowed to represent people charged with national security crimes in Tehran province did not include any women or human rights lawyers.

Iran has a dismal record of providing necessary medical care and respecting the due process of detainees, Human Rights Watch said. In one of the latest incidents, on December 13, authorities informed the family of Vahid Sayadi Nasiri, a dissident, that he died in prison. His family said he had been he was serving time for charges that included “insulting the supreme leader” and that he had gone on a hunger strike to protest his condition.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Edem Bekirov in court.

© 2019 Anton Naumluk

(Kyiv) – A Crimean Tatar activist who has been in pretrial detention for almost eight months is very ill and needs urgent expert medical attention, Human Rights Watch said today. Russian officials in Crimea should immediately transfer the activist, Edem Bekirov, 58, to a hospital for examination and treatment.

“Edem Bekirov is gravely ill and his lawyers and relatives are seriously concerned for his life,” said Yulia Gorbunova, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “He should be in a hospital, where he can get adequate medical care, not in a detention cell.”

Russian law enforcement has defied an order from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to immediately hospitalize Bekirov for proper medical examination and treatment. 

Prior to his imprisonment, Bekirov had participated in demonstrations in Crimea protesting Russia’s occupation of the peninsula. Russian authorities arrested Bekirov in December 2018, while he was traveling from mainland Ukraine to Crimea to visit his mother. He was arrested at the de facto border, on charges of passing a 14-kilogram backpack with explosives and ammunition to a taxi driver in Crimea. He is being held in SIZO-1 pretrial facility in Simferopol.

Bekirov’s right leg was amputated below the knee in 2005, and he has a difficult-to-heal wound on his stump. He has several chronic illnesses, including type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, pelvic floor dysfunction, and chronic neurological conditions affecting his spine and blood circulation, which resulted in partial paralysis of both legs. In January 2018, Bekirov had quadruple coronary artery bypass surgery. He was to have open-heart surgery again in December but was arrested several days before the scheduled surgery.

One of Bekirov’s lawyers, Islyam Velilyaev, told Human Rights Watch that he last saw Bekirov in prison on July 30 and that his condition was “consistently critical.” For the last 10 days, Bekirov has been in severe pain and practically immobile due to a spinal nerve compression. His ability to move has somewhat improved after his relatives brought him pain medication, Velilyaev said, but his blood sugar remains dangerously high. The lawyer also said that Bekirov’s blood sugar has been at a critically high level for some time because “insulin dosages administered to him in detention are incorrect.”

Bekirov requires constant medical attention to address and monitor his spinal and heart conditions and diabetes. According to recommendations of a doctor who previously treated Bekirov, the stump wound requires regular cutting away of dead tissue (debridement) and at least twice-daily dressing change to prevent infection. Bekirov’s lawyers told Human Rights Watch that he is changing the dressing himself and the wound has gotten worse in detention.

He also has had to rely on his relatives to bring him most of his essential medication, because the detention facility provides him only with insulin.

Russian law precludes incarceration of suspects or accused who have certain illnesses or conditions. Several conditions that Bekirov has, including an amputated limb that requires constant medical attention and a severe neurological disease affecting his spine and legs, are included in a 2011 government regulation on this issue.

In January, March, and May 2019, Bekirov’s lawyers unsuccessfully petitioned investigative authorities to send Bekirov for examination by relevant medical professionals to determine whether his pretrial custody could be replaced with an alternative measure, such as house arrest.

On June 11, at the request of Bekirov’s lawyers, the ECtHR issued an interim measure under Rule No. 39 of the court, ordering the authorities to immediately hospitalize Bekirov for “proper medical examination and treatment.” Bekirov’s lawyers petitioned the investigators to comply with the European Court’s request and immediately transfer Bekirov to a hospital. On June 12, the lead investigator rejected the request, saying that the authorities had no way of verifying the facts contained in the court’s request and that the court’s letter was not certified, which led the investigators to question its authenticity.

On July 10, the court also asked the authorities to ensure that Bekirov is examined by “independent and specialist doctors with the view to preparing separate and detailed medical opinions” on each of Bekirov’s health problems. The court also stipulated that the interim measures issued on June 11 remain in place.

Bekirov’s other lawyer, Alexey Ladin, told Human Rights Watch that the detention facility authorities took Bekirov to several “medical consultations” that were not effective and cannot replace a medical examination that determines a person’s fitness for custody. Velilyaev said: “They are tormenting him, this is torture. We’ve been talking about his health for six months now, but nothing is being done. It’s like we are tilting at windmills.”

Russian authorities have steadily intensified their persecution of Crimean Tatars for their vocal opposition to Russia’s occupation under various pretexts and with the apparent goal of completely silencing dissent on the peninsula. They have portrayed politically active Crimean Tatars as extremists and terrorists, arrested and jailed dozens on trumped up charges, and forced many into exile.

“Bekirov urgently needs proper medical care, the European Court has ordered it, and the Russian authorities should do the right thing and transfer him to a hospital,” Gorbunova said. “To deliberately refuse to transfer Bekirov, and to choose instead to keep him suffering in detention, is inhuman and degrading, and a blatant violation of their most fundamental obligations.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A group of Lebanese activists chant slogans as they hold Arabic placards that read: "Freedom of expression," right, and "With Mashrou' Leila against the suppression of freedoms. 

© 2019 Bilal Hussein/AP Photo
(Beirut) – The Byblos International Festival Committee has cancelled the indie band Mashrou Leila’s August 9, 2019 concert, Human Rights Watch said today. The committee cited security considerations and said it wanted to avoid “bloodshed,” following a week of pressure and threats from some individuals and some Christian groups.

The Interior Ministry neither responded to the escalating violent threats against Mashrou’ Leila, nor publicly guaranteed the safety of the festival and the concert-goers. Instead, on July 24, the public prosecution referred two band members for interrogation, which lasted six hours. State Security officers forced them to pledge to censor content on their social media accounts, in violation of their right to free speech.

“The cancellation of Mashrou Leila’s concert reflects the government’s increased reliance on overbroad and abusive laws to stifle and censor activists, journalists, and artists,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s decision to take action against Mashrou’ Leila while ignoring serious threats against the band shows that it is using insult and incitement laws selectively to censor divergent opinions.”

Mashrou’ Leila is a Lebanese band that has that gained worldwide acclaim for tackling pressing social issues in the Arab world and speaking out against oppression, corruption, and homophobia.

Mashrou’ Leila has played in Lebanon multiple times, including at the Byblos Festival in 2010 and 2016, performing songs that some individuals and religious groups now claim are offensive to Christianity. The controversy is the latest in an escalating campaign of repression against peaceful speech in Lebanon.

On July 22, a lawyer filed a complaint with the public prosecution calling on the government to prosecute Mashrou’ Leila for insulting religious rituals and inciting sectarian tensions, citing Articles 317, 474, and 475 of the Penal Code. The same day, the Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Byblos issued a statement claiming the band’s songs “offend religious and human values and insult Christian beliefs.” They demanded that the Byblos Festival cancel the show. The campaign proliferated on social media, and many internet users threatened the band with violence if the concert went ahead.

Although the Mount Lebanon prosecutor, Judge Ghada Aoun, released the band members without charge following their July 24 interrogation, State Security forced them to pledge to remove the “offensive” content from their social media accounts, issue a public apology, and remove songs deemed to be offensive to Christianity from their concert set list.

Such pledges violate the band members’ right to free speech, given that Lebanese lawyers agree that they are unconstitutional and have no legal basis. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has found that blasphemy or “defamation of religion” laws violate freedom of expression.

Several hours after the concert was cancelled, the band released a statement expressing regret that any of its songs offended anyone’s beliefs. They assured the public that: “our songs do not insult any sacred religious symbols or beliefs, and that insulting people’s feelings was primarily the result of campaigns of fabrication, defamation, and false accusations of which we were the first victims, and it is unfair to hold us responsible for them. Our respect for others’ beliefs is as firm as our respect for the right to be different.”

On July 30, 11 rights groups, led by Lebanese human rights organization The Legal Agenda, submitted a complaint to the acting cassation prosecutor. They expressed concern about the widespread threats on social media, including incitement to violence, death threats, and calls to ban the concert by force and asked the prosecutor to investigate. They said that such remarks threaten civil peace and prevent the band members from exercising their constitutionally-guaranteed rights to free artistic expression and free speech.

Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have noted an exponential increase in the use of criminal defamation and incitement laws to arrest, interrogate, and prosecute people who are exercising their right to free speech. Journalists and activists have told Human Rights Watch that the current climate of prosecutions for peaceful speech has had a chilling effect. Some said they have started self-censoring for fear of being called in for interrogation.

Lebanon’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression “within the limits established by law.” Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Lebanon ratified in 1972, provides that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.” But Lebanon’s penal code includes several provisions that criminalize peaceful speech. Articles 474 and 475 criminalize insulting religious rituals and denigrating or distorting religious and sacred symbols, respectively. Both are punishable by six months to three years in prison. Article 317 criminalizes “inciting sectarian tensions,” punishable by one to three years, even if the speech is not likely to, or even intended to, incite violence.

Authorities should drop criminal charges for peaceful speech and parliament should urgently repeal laws that criminalize it, Human Rights Watch said.

Laws that are so vague that individuals do not know what expression may violate it create an unacceptable chill on free speech because citizens may avoid discussing any subject that they fear might subject them to prosecution. Vague provisions not only do not give sufficient notice to citizens, but also leave the law subject to abuse by authorities who may use them to silence dissent.

Instead of ensuring that all the necessary security precautions were taken to guarantee the safety of the concert, the Lebanese authorities chose to infringe on Mashrou’ Leila’s right to free speech, Human Rights Watch said.

“This incident demonstrates how criminal defamation, incitement, and insult laws in Lebanon are exploited by powerful groups and how they fail to protect marginalized voices and those who have divergent opinions,” Fakih said. “Lebanon is joining the ranks of abusive governments in the region that trample on free speech rights, pushing out the talent and debate that has made this country what it is.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – Mauritania’s authorities freed a blogger on July 29, 2019, who had been held in a blasphemy case for five and-a-half years, Human Rights Watch said today.

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir. 

© Private

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir was freed three days before the inauguration of the new president, Mohamed Ould Ghezouani. The authorities transferred Mkhaitir directly from detention to a location outside Mauritania, ostensibly because his life would be in danger in his native country after religious figures and demonstrators had called for his execution.

“By freeing Mkhaitir three days before stepping down as president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has addressed one of the most heinous injustices of his 10-year tenure,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “His successor should prioritize decriminalizing peaceful speech, starting with the elimination of capital punishment for blasphemy, so that no Mauritanian ever again suffers what Mkhaitir did.”

The authorities arrested Mkhaitir in January 2014 for denouncing what he said was the misuse of Islam to justify caste discrimination in Mauritania. A lower court sentenced him to death for blasphemy in December of that year. In November 2017, an appeals court converted the penalty to two years of prison, already served. But instead of releasing him, authorities held him in solitary and arbitrary detention for another 21 months.

Mkhaitir is one of many Mauritanians convicted or otherwise persecuted for speaking out against ethnic and caste discrimination or the vestiges of slavery in the country.

In May 2018, six UN special rapporteurs on human rights urged Mauritanian authorities to release Mkhaitir and ensure his safety. In June 2019, nine special rapporteurs again called for his release while expressing alarm at his deteriorating health while in detention. Mkhaitir is reportedly suffering from physical pain, psychological trauma, and glaucoma, according to his family. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Video

Video: Mashrou’ Leila is Lebanon’s Latest Free Speech Victim

The world famous Lebanese band, Mashrou’ Leila, has become the latest victim of Lebanon’s criminal defamation and insult laws, encapsulating the alarming crackdown on free speech in a country once proud to embrace diversity.

The world famous Lebanese band, Mashrou’ Leila, has become the latest victim of Lebanon’s criminal defamation and insult laws, encapsulating the alarming crackdown on free speech in a country once proud to embrace diversity.

Mashrou’ Leila is slated to perform at Lebanon’s Byblos Festival on August 9. But this week a lawyer filed a complaint with the public prosecution calling on the state to prosecute the band on archaic and vague laws that criminalize insulting religious rituals and inciting sectarian tensions. Each of the “crimes” Mashrou’ Leila is accused of carries a maximum prison term of three years.

The same day the complaint was filed, the Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Byblos issued a statement claiming that the band’s songs “offend religious and human values and insult Christian beliefs,” and demanded the Byblos Festival cancel the show. A social media storm ensued, as internet users hurled insults and violent threats at the band.

Instead of upholding Mashrou’ Leila’s right to freedom of expression, the prosecution accepted the lawyer’s complaint and subjected two band members to a six-hour interrogation, after which the band was forced to pledge to remove the “offensive” language from their Facebook page and issue a public apology.

Lebanon has joined the ranks of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan in censoring a band that has put Lebanon on the global indie rock scene and gained worldwide acclaim for speaking out against oppression, corruption, and homophobia.

The Lebanese government should ensure Mashrou’ Leila can perform safely, and as a matter of urgency reform laws that criminalize protected speech. Lebanon should decide what kind of country it wants to be: one that controls and dictates public discourse, or a beacon of tolerance and a center for art, music, and culture.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The world famous Lebanese band, Mashrou’ Leila, has become the latest victim of Lebanon’s criminal defamation and insult laws, encapsulating the alarming crackdown on free speech in a country once proud to embrace diversity.

Mashrou’ Leila is slated to perform at Lebanon’s Byblos Festival on August 9. But this week a lawyer filed a complaint with the public prosecution calling on the state to prosecute the band on archaic and vague laws that criminalize insulting religious rituals and inciting sectarian tensions. Each of the “crimes” Mashrou’ Leila is accused of carries a maximum prison term of three years.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Former Radio Free Asia journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin outside Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, August 21, 2018.

© 2018 AP Photo

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian authorities should immediately drop the politically motivated case against two ex-Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 26, 2019, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court will begin the trial of Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin on wholly unsubstantiated espionage charges.

“The fabricated case against the ex-RFA journalists is intended as a strike against media that dares to criticize the Cambodian government,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Chhin and Sothearin should never have had to face these bogus espionage charges, and all judicial restrictions on them should be lifted.”

On November 14, 2017, Cambodian authorities arrested Sothearin, RFA’s former Phnom Penh bureau office manager and a news editor, and his colleague Chhin, a former RFA cameraman. Four days later, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged both with supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to Cambodia’s national defense under article 445 of the criminal code, an offense punishable by a prison term of 7 to 15 years.

On March 15, 2019, the investigating judge of the Phnom Penh court ordered the case to go to trial based on allegations that the journalists “illegally collected information for a foreign source.” On June 21, the Phnom Penh appeals court decided to keep them under judicial supervision but dropped a requirement to report to the police each month.

After their arrest, the men were held in pretrial detention and were repeatedly refused bail for nine months, until August 21, 2018, when the court released them and placed them under judicial supervision. Both journalists asserted that their bail conditions – the monthly police station visits and confiscation of their passports – prevented them from earning a living.

The fabricated case against the ex-RFA journalists is intended as a strike against media that dares to criticize the Cambodian government.

Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

The arrests came two months after RFA shut down its Cambodia bureau and local newsgathering operations. RFA alleged that the government systematically harassed its reporters, compelling it to close the bureau. Cambodian authorities accused Sothearin and Chhin of illegally setting up a broadcast studio with the purpose of continuing to file news reports to RFA’s headquarters in Washington, DC. The journalists appealed the charges to the Supreme Court, but the court rejected their appeal.

RFA has had a long history of reporting on corruption, social and labor issues, human rights, illegal logging, and violations of land rights in Cambodia. In August 2017, the Cambodian authorities ordered the closure of 32 FM radio frequencies across 20 provinces, particularly stations that relayed independent Khmer language news broadcast by RFA, Voice of America, and Voice of Democracy. After the RFA bureau in Phnom Penh closed, senior officials from the Ministries of Interior and Information threatened any journalists still filing media reports to RFA, saying that they would be treated as spies.

In March 2018, prosecutors brought additional unfounded charges against Chhin and Sothearin that they produced pornography, in violation of the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation. If convicted of these additional charges, they face 16 years in prison.

On May 29, 2019, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that the “violations of the right to a fair trial are of such gravity as to give the deprivation of liberty of Mr. Uon and Mr. Yeang an arbitrary character.” The working group also said that article 445 of the Cambodian criminal code was not in line with Cambodia’s international human rights obligations because it did not offer a definition of what constitutes an offense under that provision, leaving broad and unfettered discretion to authorities, risking abuse.

Cambodia’s press freedom and freedom of expression, both online and offline, came under broad attack by the authorities prior to the July 2018 elections. The two main independent newspapers were forcibly closed or sold to a businessman with ties to the Hun Sen government.

The independent online news portal Voice of Democracy (VOD) reported that in a letter dated July 5, 2019, the Ratanakiri provincial authorities demanded that all journalists report to them with identification and inform officials of their intentions before reporting on any stories.

On July 19, military police arrested two publishers of Facebook news livestream channels CPNTV and TN TV Online, Hun Sokha and Keo Rattana, while they were covering a community land protest in Preah Sihanouk province. On July 22, the provincial prosecutor charged them with incitement to commit a felony, incitement through the print media, and acts of violence against a property owner, for allegedly inciting protesters and committing intentional violence against the real estate agent involved in the land dispute. Five other protesters were arrested and charged with incitement. Local journalists and associations criticized the charges as a restriction on press freedom and called for their release and the charges to be dropped.

“Hun Sen’s Cambodia has effectively become a one-party state, yet the prime minister still holds journalists as scapegoats to punish those who criticize the government,” Robertson said. “Foreign governments and donors should urge the government to drop the ridiculous charges against these journalists or consider media freedom in Cambodia as dead as its democracy.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives for a group photo with his cabinet members at the government house in Bangkok.

© 2019 Vichan Poti/Pacific Press/Sipa USA via AP Images
(New York) – The new Thai government’s policy statement fails to provide a pathway for restoring respect for human rights after five years of military rule, Human Rights Watch said today. Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha will present the policy statement for his second term in office on July 25-26, 2019.

“Prime Minister Prayuth’s second term is starting with the same blanket disregard for human rights that characterized his first term,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “His policy statement contains no language whatsoever addressing the serious problems under repressive military rule since the 2014 coup. Whatever hopes that the new government would bring about human rights reforms and advance democratic, civilian rule suffered a serious setback with the failure to include any commitments in the policy statement.”

Prayuth’s 40-page policy statement, which was submitted to the parliament speaker on July 19, does not discuss human rights issues in the country. It does not even discuss Prayuth’s own “national human rights agenda,” which he released in February 2018 with much fanfare.
 

Key civil and political rights problems that need to be addressed by the new government include:
 

Impunity for Human Rights Violations

As chairman of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta, Prayuth wielded power from 2014-2019 unhindered by administrative, legislative, or judicial oversight or accountability, including for human rights violations. While the NCPO disbanded after the new government took office, the constitution that took effect in 2017 protects junta members and anyone acting on the junta’s orders from being held accountable for human rights violations committed during military rule. And no redress is available for victims of those rights violations.

Restrictions on Freedom of Expression

The NCPO prosecuted hundreds of activists, journalists, politicians, and dissidents for peacefully expressing their views, on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and insulting the monarchy. During Prayuth’s first term, the junta frequently used these overbroad laws to arbitrarily punish and silence critics. Under the new government, the military retains the power to summon anyone deemed to have criticized the government or the monarchy, question them without the presence of a lawyer, and compel them to promise to end their criticism to gain release.

Protection of Human Rights Defenders

A climate of fear persists among rights activists and critics of the government. Even those who fled Thailand to escape political persecution are not safe. At least three Thai political activists have been forcibly disappeared in Laos. Two others have been killed. Another three Thai political activists returned by Vietnam to Thailand have also been missing.

Successive governments have disregarded Thailand’s obligation to ensure that all human rights defenders and organizations can carry out their work in a safe and enabling environment. Against the backdrop of a recent string of brutal attacks targeting prominent pro-democracy activists and dissidents, the government has yet to develop a credible policy to better protect them. Thai authorities have not seriously investigated these attacks, and instead repeatedly told activists and dissidents to give up political activity in exchange for state protection.

During his first term, Prayuth frequently stated that Thailand would act to end so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP), which are used by government agencies and private companies to intimidate and silence those reporting human rights violations. However, these cases continue, frequently as criminal defamation cases. Prayuth’s policy statement makes no mention of Thailand’s much advertised commitment to promote business practices compatible with human rights standards.

The policy statement also does not address the urgent need to revamp the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand. The United Nations Human Rights Council has downgraded the commission because of its substandard selection process for commissioners and its lack of political independence. Revisions to the law adopted during Prayuth’s first term further weakened the commission and transformed it into a de facto government mouthpiece.

Enforced Disappearance, Torture, Violence, and Abuses in Southern Border Provinces

Since January 2004, more than 90 percent of the 6,800 people killed in the ongoing armed conflict in Thailand’s southern border provinces have been civilians from both ethnic Malay Muslim and ethnic Thai Buddhist communities. Although the insurgents have committed egregious abuses, rights violations by Thai security forces have greatly exacerbated the situation.

Thai authorities regularly failed to conduct serious and credible inquiries into torture allegations and enforced disappearances. Military detention, which lacks effective safeguards against abuse, occurs regularly during government counterinsurgency operations in the southern border provinces. Successive Thai governments have failed to prosecute security personnel responsible for torture, unlawful killings, and other serious human rights violations against ethnic Malay Muslims. In many cases, Thai authorities provided financial compensation to the victims or their families in exchange for their agreement not to speak out or file criminal cases against officials. Despite these concerns, Prayuth’s policy statement does not address human rights problems in Thailand’s southern border provinces.

International Obligations

Prayuth’s policy statement only vaguely mentions the importance of Thailand meeting its international obligations. The junta did little to promote Thailand’s adherence to the core international human rights treaties. Although Thailand signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2012, it has yet to ratify the treaty and Thailand’s penal code does not recognize enforced disappearance. Thailand also does not have a law that criminalizes torture, as required by the Convention against Torture, which it ratified in 2007. The junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly suddenly suspended its consideration of the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance bill in February 2017, and the government has not set a new time frame for reconsidering the bill. Prayuth’s policy statement does not include this law among legislation to be urgently introduced by the government.

“Thailand’s foreign friends should not let the recent elections become an excuse for ignoring the deteriorating human rights situation in the country,” Adams said. “There should be no rush to return to business as usual without securing serious commitments and corresponding action from the new government to respect human rights.”

 

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Prominent rights activist and journalist Hossam Baghat, center, leaves a courtroom at the Cairo Criminal Court on March 24, 2016. In recent years, Egyptian authorities have relentlessly prosecuted leading human rights and civil society activists for their peaceful work.

© 2016 Mohamed Elraai/AP Photo

(Beirut) – Egypt’s parliament approved a new law governing nongovernment organizations on July 14, 2019 that would maintain many of the existing restrictions on their work, Human Rights Watch said today. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should not approve the law and instead should return it to parliament for amendments.

Egypt faced intense internal and external pressure to repeal a draconian 2017 law that threatened to crush the independent work of nongovernment organizations, including provisions to imprison their workers for their peaceful work. While lawmakers removed prison penalties from the new law, they have maintained severe restrictions over the groups’ work.

“The restrictions in the new law coupled with Egyptian security agencies’ relentless crackdown on civil society demonstrates the Egyptian government’s intention to suppress independent groups,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “If there’s a shred of good intention to enable civil society to function independently, President al-Sisi should send the law back to parliament to address its fundamental flaws.”

Egypt’s parliament, approved the new law, “The Law on Regulating the Work of Civil Associations,” after only one plenary session to discuss its 107 articles. Parliament then sent it to the State Council, a judicial body that issues non-binding legal reviews of legislation. The State Council sent its review back to parliament in less than a day, and the parliament appears to have sent the bill to the Presidency on July 15. President al-Sisi has 30 days to approve or return it but it is not always clear when the President receives bills from the parliament due to lack of transparency.

The government seems to have finalized the draft law in early April but did not make the draft public, even after sending it to the parliament on June 26, a few days ahead of a scheduled parliamentary recess. Ali Abdel Aal, the Parliament speaker, extended the parliament’s session several times, saying he was personally “under pressure.” He said the law had to be in effect before Egypt’s upcoming Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council, scheduled for November.

The new law prohibits a wide range of activities, such as to “conduct opinion polls and publish or make their results available or conduct field researches or disclose their results” without government approval. The law states that the government must “ensure the integrity and neutrality of the polls and their relevance to the activity of the Association.” The law completely prohibits other activities under vaguely worded terms such as any “political” work or any work that undermines “national security.”

It would also allow the government to dissolve organizations for a wide range of “violations” and would impose fines of up to one million Egyptian pounds (US$60,000) for organizations that operate without a license or send or receive funds without government approval. The law sets fines at up to half a million Egyptian pounds (US$30,000) on organizations that spend their funds in ways the government deems to be “activities other than specified or in violation of laws and regulations” or for refusing to provide any data or information the government requests about the organization’s activities.

The new law will also prohibit cooperation with foreign organizations or experts, impose a strict system of prior approval for foreign organizations to be able to work in the country, and allow for government surveillance and monitoring of organizations’ daily activities.

Facing international and local criticism, President al-Sisi promised to amend the draconian 2017 law during a November 2018 speech. He admitted that the 2017 law stemmed from a “[security] phobia.”

Al-Sisi’s government has continued to relentlessly prosecute several leading human rights organizations and their staff for their peaceful work under several charges in the protracted prosecutions of the notorious 2011 “foreign funding case” as well as several other cases. In the foreign funding case, the government froze the assets of at least 7 organizations and 10 human rights defenders. The government has also placed 28 of them on travel ban lists for the past several years.

Many organizations were forced to reduce their operations or shut down their offices as a result of the government campaign. The government also shut down over 2,000 organizations, mostly charity groups, under other vague and oppressive laws.

Several UN officials and bodies have criticized Egypt for its crackdown on independent organizations and human rights defenders. The former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said that Egypt was using abusive laws to justify “the systematic silencing of civil society and closure of civic space.” The government has yet to allow the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association to visit Egypt despite requests in 2011, 2013, and 2017.

Under President al-Sisi, authorities have also introduced other laws that prohibit civic work and public gatherings and punish receiving foreign funding with penalties including a life sentence. Unless the government repeals or amends these laws, work by independent groups could still be punished and prosecuted before criminal courts.

“Whatever public relations hype Egypt will pump out to gloss over the massive flaws of this new law, the reality is that al-Sisi’s security agencies work nonstop to pursue brave human rights and civil society activists as criminals and terrorists,” Page said.

The new law is yet to be published in Egypt’s Official Gazette. Human Rights Watch reviewed what Egyptian newspapers published about the law’s provisions on July 14 and 15 as well as a copy of the draft law posted by The International Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL). The law will give existing organizations one year from the time of issuance of the law’s executive regulations to re-register under the new law.

Registration Restrictions

The government claims that the law would allow organizations to establish themselves simply by giving notice to the authorities rather than obtaining the government’s permission. However, the law would allow the government to ignore any notices that do not include “all data and documents” required. The law also allows the government to reject the notice within 60 days, with a possible appeal before the administrative court.

The law would prohibit the registration of any organization that would undermine vague, broadly-worded terms such as “national security, public order, public morals.” The law does not define these terms. Egyptian authorities have routinely and widely used such terms to criminalize and prosecute activities that fall within granted rights in the Egyptian constitution and international law such as peaceful protests, consensual sexual conduct, and artistic activity.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) holds that “[n]o restrictions may be placed on the exercise of [the right to freedom of association] other than those which are prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others” (article 22.2).

Therefore, restrictions on freedom of association need to be “necessary in a democratic society.” The authorities need to justify why each measure is necessary and proportionate, that is, the most severe restrictions on freedom of association, such as dissolving an association, would need the strongest possible justifications. In addition, any limitations cannot destroy or negate the essence of the rights guaranteed in the covenant.

Moreover, no other entities will be allowed to carry out what is defined in the law as “civil society work” which is “any nonprofit work aiming at developing the society.” This would mean that all Egyptian organizations currently registered as law firms will have to register under the new law or face prosecution after one year. The government will have the power to shut down any organization working without a license and to seize its assets.

Severe Restrictions on Funds, Activities

Similar to the 2017 law, the new law would prohibit a wide range of peaceful activities that normally fall within the work of nongovernmental groups. For example, the law would prohibit organizations from conducting any surveys or field research without government approval. The law would prohibit all “political” work, as well as any work that undermines “public order, public morals, national unity or national security.”

The law would also prohibit cooperation with any “foreign entity inside or outside.” Egyptian organizations would not be allowed to hire or consult or cooperate with foreign volunteers or staff members of foreign organizations without ministerial approval.

In recent years, the Egyptian government has sought to criminalize communication with international organizations and has summoned for interrogations victims who allegedly gave accounts of abuses against them to such organizations.

The law imposes heavy fines of between 100,000 to 1,000,000 pounds (US$6,000 to $60,000) for violating many of its terms, such as sending or receiving funds or donations without government approval. The law also provides for seizing all funds received without approval. Similar fines would be imposed for carrying out civil society work without a license.

The law would allow the government, most likely led by security agencies, to inspect all the work of nongovernmental organizations to ensure “that funds are spent for the stated goals.” The relevant minister (usually the social solidarity minister but the executive regulations can give such powers to other ministers too) would have the authority to shut down for a one-year period organizations found by the government to be in breach of regulations regarding receiving and spending funds or carrying out activities not stated when it registered. Similar authority is granted to the relevant minister in many other situations.

A court has to review and decide whether to uphold the minister’s decision within seven days. The minister can also ask the relevant court to dissolve and seize the assets of organizations in such situations.

Courts would also have the authority to dissolve organizations that receive funds or cooperate with foreign organizations without permission. Organizations would face dissolution if they do not carry out “serious work” for one year. The law does not define what “serious work” is.

Surveillance

The law would allow government officials and security agencies to interfere with an organization’s daily work. It states that any organization employee who “obstructs the administrative body” from inspecting or overseeing the organization’s activities would face a fine from 50,000 to 500,000 Egyptian pounds (US$3,000 to 30,000). A similarly disproportionate fine would be imposed for minor administrative issues such as failing to report an address change for the organization within three months. An organization’s director would face the same penalties as the employees if they “knew” about the violations.

The law would establish “The Central Unit for Associations and Civil Work,” under the relevant ministry, which would monitor and oversee the work of nongovernmental organizations. This unit would also be required to establish a mechanism for “instant sharing of information with relevant authorities” when there are “reasons for reasonable suspicion” about terrorism activities.

In recent years, the Egyptian government has increasingly used terrorism accusations and charges against peaceful dissidents and seized the assets of thousands of individuals, businesses, and associations and placed them on terrorism lists without any due process.

Foreign and International Organizations

The law would also impose draconian restrictions on the work of foreign and international organizations. It requires international organizations to obtain a license from the Foreign Ministry, valid for a specific period, before doing any work on Egypt. The license would cost up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds (US$3,000). License applications would have to match “Egyptian society priorities and needs according to the development plans.” International organizations would be required to submit any “reports, data or information” about their activities upon request by the “administrative body.” The law also prohibits international organizations from granting or receiving any funds without ministerial approval.

The law would allow the relevant minister to cancel the license of an international organization without due process under the guise that an organization undermined “public safety, national security or public order” or for violating terms of its license.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am