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

Bidun residential area in Taima, al-Jahra, Kuwait. 

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Kuwait’s State Security agency arrested at least 15 activists from the stateless Bidun community over the past week, Human Rights Watch said today.

Authorities arrested the activists after they organized a peaceful sit-in at al-Hurriya Square in al- Jahra town near Kuwait City on July 12, 2019 in response to the death of Ayed Hamad Moudath. Moudath, 20, committed suicide on July 7 after the government denied him civil documentation, which is needed to access public services, as well as to study and work. 

“Kuwaiti authorities should immediately release the detained Bidun activists, who were peacefully advocating for their fundamental rights,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Kuwaiti government needs to fairly resolve the longstanding issue of stateless people in Kuwait instead of trying to silence them.”

For over 50 years, the Bidun, a community of between 88,000 to 106,000 stateless people who claim Kuwaiti nationality, have remained in legal limbo. After an initial period allowing them to register for citizenship, the authorities shifted Bidun citizenship applications to a series of committees that have avoided resolving the claims while maintaining sole authority to determine Bidun access to civil documentation and social services. Article 12 of the 1979 Public Gatherings Law bars non-Kuwaitis from participating in public gatherings.

On July 12, before the sit-in was scheduled to begin, the authorities surrounded the homes of those who had led previous sit-ins and arrested them. They include a prominent human rights defender, Abdulhakim al-Fadhli. The agents also confiscated al-Fadhli’s and his family’s cellphones and computers. A source told Human Rights Watch that al-Fadhli was beaten while in custody with the State Security agency and was not allowed to file a complaint.

Authorities had previously arrested al-Fadhli several times for his peaceful activities on behalf of the Bidun community.

Other activists arrested between July 11 and 13 are: Awad al-Onan, Ahmed al-Onan, Abdullah al-Fadhli, Mutaib al-Onan, Muhammed al-Anzi, Yousef al-Osmi, ِNawaf Al-Bader, Hamed Jamil, Jarallah al-Fadhli, Yousif al-Bashig, Ahmed al-Anzi, Abdelhadi al-Fadhli, and Alaa al-Saadoun. The authorities arrested activists at their homes, but did not detain people at the sit-in location. Abdelhadi and al-Saadoun were released on July 11, a source told Human Rights Watch. The general prosecutor has extended the detention of others until July 21, the source said.

The source said that the charges against the activists include spreading fake news, harming allied countries, joining a group that calls for the destruction of the country’s basic systems, calling for attacking national interests, calling for public gatherings, participating in public gatherings, and use of cellphones for abusive purposes.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “everyone,” not just citizens, has the right to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly.

Over the past two decades, the Kuwaiti government’s language to refer to the Bidun has changed, and Kuwaiti authorities now refer to them as “illegal residents.” The government claims that most of them moved to Kuwait from neighboring countries in search of a better livelihood and hid their other nationalities to claim Kuwaiti citizenship. As "illegal residents," the Bidun face obstacles to obtaining civil documentation, leaving them unable to consistently get social services or function as normal members of society and interfering with their fundamental rights to health and work, among others.

Since 2011, the Central System for the Remedy of Situations of Illegal Residents, the administrative body in charge of Bidun affairs, has started issuing temporary ID cards. The process of determining applicants’ eligibility for services and whether they hold another nationality remains opaque, however. In recent years, the ID cards issued to Bidun have often indicated that the cardholder possesses another nationality, such as Iraqi, Saudi, Iranian, Syrian, or Yemeni, but it remains unclear how the Central System determines the individual’s alleged nationality and what due process systems are available for Bidun to challenge the Central System’s decision.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Erlan Baltabay, leader of the independent trade union “Decent Labor,” at his trial in Shymkent, Kazakhstan, April 16, 2019.

© 2019 Dilara Isa/RFE/RL

In yet another development that tightens the authorities’ stranglehold on Kazakhstan’s independent labor movement, a Kazakh court on Wednesday sentenced Erlan Baltabay, a trade union leader affiliated with the now-closed Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK), to seven years in jail. The court also banned him from engaging in civic activities, such as trade union activism, for seven years.

Last month, the world’s authoritative international labor rights body, the International Labor Organization (ILO), held a special review of Kazakhstan, criticizing it for its “persistent lack of progress” on fulfilling its labor rights commitments. The ILO called upon the Kazakh government to “ensure that the KNPRK and its affiliates enjoy the full autonomy and independence of a free and independent workers’ organization, without any further delay.” Unfortunately, Baltabay’s sentencing does the opposite.

Baltabay and his lawyer argued in court that the criminal charges levied against him of large-scale misappropriation of funds were politically motivated and unfounded from the start. They explained that the person who made the allegation has no standing to do so under Kazakh law and that authorities should have dismissed the complaint, not brought a criminal case against Baltabay.

The International Trade Union Confederation, of which KNPRK is a member, “harshly condemned” Baltabay’s sentencing, stating the charges were brought “in retaliation for his trade union activism and principled position in support of other [KNPRK] leaders.”

Baltabay is the fourth trade union leader in two years to be criminally convicted or jailed as the government’s continues to crackdown on Kazakhstan’s independent trade union movement.

If recently elected President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev doesn’t want his predecessor’s negative legacy on labor rights to tarnish his own record, he should ensure a swift end to the crackdown on independent trade unions and that Kazakh authorities take meaningful and urgent action to fulfill their ILO obligations.

No one, including Erlan Baltabay, should be jailed for defending workers’ rights and speaking out in their defense.

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

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad listens to questions during an interview with foreign media on the government's one year anniversary in Putrajaya, Malaysia on Thursday, May 9, 2019. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Vincent Thian
(New York) – The Malaysian government should reinstate its moratorium on using the Sedition Act pending the law’s repeal, Human Rights Watch said today. Previous Malaysian governments have used the broadly-worded law, which goes well beyond inciting the public to violence, to silence critics of the government, the judiciary, and Malaysia’s royalty.

While the current government, which took office in May 2018, promised to repeal the Sedition Act, the attorney general’s office has recently sought higher penalties in two pending sedition cases, raising concerns about the commitment to reform.

“It’s outrageous that Malaysia’s self-described ‘reformist’ government seems intent on jailing people under the justly maligned Sedition Act,” said Linda Lakhdhir. “The government should impose a moratorium on this long-abused law until it can be repealed.”

The government ran on a platform promising to repeal oppressive laws, including the Sedition Act. On October 11, 2018, the communications and multimedia minister, Gobind Singh Deo, announced that the Cabinet had agreed to a moratorium on use of the law pending repeal. However, the government lifted that moratorium on November 30, 2018, in response to disturbances surrounding a Hindu temple in Subang Jaya, and the law has since been used to arrest individuals for comments critical of the Malaysian monarchy.

In a recent case, the public prosecutor filed a cross-appeal against preacher Wan Ji Wan Hussin’s appeal of his conviction under the Sedition Act, seeking to enhance his sentence. On July 9, the High Court denied Wan Ji’s appeal and increased his sentence from nine months to one year in prison. The public prosecutor has also appealed the decision of the High Court to replace the eight-month jail term imposed on activist Haris Ibrahim after his conviction for sedition with a fine of RM4,000 (US$970). The government is seeking the reimposition of a prison sentence.

Following public outcry over the increase of Wan Ji’s sentence, the Attorney General Tommy Thomas said he was not aware of the case and that the cross-appeal was filed before the May 2018 election. He added, however, that “where there are no alternatives under the laws, then in appropriate cases, [the Attorney General] could not rule out applying the Sedition Act, until it is repealed.”

The government appears to be backtracking on other abusive laws, Human Rights Watch said. On July 16, Mohamed Hanipa Maidin, the deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s department, stated that the government would submit amendments to the Official Secrets Act (OSA) “in its efforts to tighten the current regulations to prevent leakages in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) environment and current threats.” He also stated that a Freedom of Information Act would be put forward to “offset the impact of the OSA.”

By criminalizing the disclosure or receipt of documents without requiring that the government demonstrate that such disclosure would pose a “real and identifiable threat of causing significant harm,” Malaysia’s Official Secrets Act violates international freedom of speech standards and fosters a culture of secrecy that runs counter to the public’s interest in access to information about government activity, Human Rights Watch said.

“Malaysia should be making it harder, not easier, to misuse the overbroad Official Secrets Act,” Lakhdhir said. “The government needs to show that it’s really committed to an open society and has shed the heavy-handed ways of the past.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Natalia Estemirova in Nozhai-Yurt district of Chechnya.

© 2007 Tanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch

(Moscow) – Russian authorities have failed to bring to justice those responsible for the murder 10 years ago of Natalia Estemirova, Chechnya’s most prominent rights defender, Human Rights Watch said today in a joint statement with Russian and international human rights groups.

“We are still waiting for the Russian government to carry out an effective investigation into the murder of our friend and colleague, Natalia Estemirova,” said Tanya Lokshina, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s inaction in this heinous crime is a black stain that perpetuates human rights abuses in Chechnya.”

Natalia Estemirova honored by Human Rights Watch in New York for her courageous human rights work. 

© 2007 Human Rights Watch
On the morning of July 15, 2009, Natalia Estemirova, who worked in the Grozny Office of Memorial Human Rights Center, a leading Russian human rights organization, was forced into a car by unidentified security personnel near her home in Grozny. She was shot dead later that day in the neighboring North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia. Her killing elevated the climate of fear in Chechnya and sent a chilling warning to local residents who might seek assistance from human rights defenders.  

Estemirova, a close colleague of Human Rights Watch, had received the organization’s annual award for extraordinary activism in 2007. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Human Rights Center “Memorial”
Human Rights Watch
Amnesty International
International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR)
Norwegian Helsinki Committee
Front Line Defenders
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
RAW in WAR (Reach All Women in WAR)
Board of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum
Committee Against Torture (CAT)
Public Verdict Foundation
European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC)

On the 10th anniversary of the murder of Natalia Estemirova, Chechnya’s most prominent human rights defender, nine international and two Russian human rights groups, jointly with FIDH and its member organization, Human Rights Centre “Memorial,” call on the Russian authorities to finally fulfil their obligation to conduct a thorough, impartial and effective investigation into her killing, bring the perpetrators to justice in fair trials before ordinary civilian courts, and end impunity for human rights violations in Chechnya. 

Natalia Estemirova was abducted, apparently by security personnel, near her apartment building in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on the morning of July 15, 2009. Her body was found several hours later in Ingushetia, the neighbouring North Caucasus region, with multiple gunshot wounds.

From the early 90s, Natalia Estemirova fearlessly fought injustice in Chechnya. At the start of the second Chechen war in autumn 1999, she began working with Human Rights Center “Memorial” and soon became one of its leading activists. She fearlessly documented egregious abuses, first by the Russian military and police and later, by local Chechen security personnel. Her work brought many atrocities to light, including the Russian ballistic missiles strike on Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, killing over 100 civilians in October 1999, the massacre of dozens of civilians in the Chechen village of Novye Aldy in February 2000, and enforced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings, and punitive house-burnings by Chechen law enforcement and security agencies in 2007-2009.

In 2008, after she spoke out against the headscarf requirement imposed on women by Chechen authorities, the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, personally threatened her. She also received indirect threats on several occasions, including in the days leading up to her murder. In the last weeks of her life, Estemirova investigated and publicized particularly sensitive cases of abuses by Chechen security officials, including the public execution of Rizvan Albekov in the village of Akhkinchu-Borzoy on July 7, 2009.

Natalia Estemirova’s brave work was recognized and celebrated through several high-profile awards. She received the "Right to Life" award from the Swedish Parliament in 2004 and the European Parliament's Robert Schuman medal in 2005. In 2007, she received Human Rights Watch’s annual award for extraordinary activism. After the murder of her friend, Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, Estemirova was awarded the first RAW in WAR Anna Politkovskaya Award, established in honour of the murdered Russian journalist.

In January 2010, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, the country’s chief investigation agency, stated that the murder was carried out by an insurgent, Alkhazur Bashaev, who had been killed by the time of the announcement. The Investigative Committee said that Bashaev supposedly committed the crime because Estemirova had implicated him as a recruiter of insurgents. Later, a different official explanation emerged; Bashaev allegedly murdered Estemirova to discredit the government of the Russian Federation and Chechen authorities on the eve of a meeting between Russia’s then-President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This conclusion, backed by testimonies obtained from former insurgents serving long prison terms, was neither reliable nor convincing.

In 2011, FIDH, Novaya Gazeta, and Human Rights Center “Memorial” emphasized in their joint report that the inconsistencies in the official version gave grounds to believe that a cover-up version of the events had been created to avoid investigating possible official involvement in the killing, including that of Chechen security officials. On September 20, 2011, Natalia Estemirova's relatives lodged a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights about the lack of effective investigation into her murder. The case is pending.

“Memorial” believes that Estemirova’s murder was connected exclusively to her human rights work. Chechen authorities wanted her silenced. The official version, which attributes her killing to insurgents, falls apart on closer examination. Russian authorities must find and punish the perpetrators, including those who ordered the killing,” said Oleg Orlov, head of the Hot Stops program at Human Rights Center “Memorial”.

Against the backdrop of systematic persecution of human rights defenders in Chechnya, the failure of Russian authorities to conduct an effective investigation into Estemirova’s murder appears to be deliberate. Her killing had disastrous effects on the human rights situation in Chechnya, increasing the level of fear and discouraging local residents from seeking the assistance of human rights defenders. Kadyrov, repeatedly labelled human rights defenders as enemies of the people and collaborators of terrorists.

Activists of the Joint Mobile Group of human rights defenders in Chechnya, which played a crucial role in providing legal aid to victims of abuses by local security officials in the years after Estemirova’s murder, were subjected to numerous attacks in 2014-2016. On March 9, 2016, two members of the group and six foreign and Russian journalists traveling to Chechnya were attacked by apparent proxies of Chechen authorities in Ingushetia, near the administrative border with Chechnya. Mobsters, apparently acting on the orders of Chechen authorities, attacked and destroyed the group’s office twice. All of these attacks have been carried out with complete impunity, forcing the group to withdraw from Chechnya due to security concerns.

The efforts made by Chechen authorities to  eradicate human rights work in Chechnya culminated in the criminal case fabricated against the successor of Natalia Estemirova, her friend and colleague Oyub Titiev, who took lead of “Memorial”’s work in Chechnya soon after Estemirova’s death. In January 2018, authorities in Chechnya arrested him on bogus drug possession charges. After 17 months behind bars, Titiev was released on parole in June 2019.

The organizations call on Russian authorities:

  • To conduct a thorough, impartial, independent, and effective investigation into the murder of Natalia Estemirova and bring the perpetrators to justice in fair trials before ordinary civilian courts;
  • To investigate and ensure justice for other attacks on human rights defenders and journalists in Chechnya, including the attacks on activists of the Joint Mobile Group in 2014-2016;
  • To create a favourable working climate for human rights defenders and journalists in Chechnya;
  • To ensure respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international human rights obligations of the Russian Federation.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Kong Raya outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. 

© 2019 VOD/Khan Leakhena
(New York) – Cambodian authorities should drop all charges and release people arrested for commemorating the third anniversary of the killing of the political commentator Kem Ley, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 10, 2016, the prominent critic of the government was fatally shot in broad daylight at a gas station in central Phnom Penh.

The Cambodian government should revoke all restrictions on gatherings and other activities commemorating Kem Ley’s death and permit an independent investigation into the killing.

“The brazen daylight murder of Kem Ley three years ago sent shock waves throughout Cambodia that propelled tens of thousands of supporters to march from Phnom Penh to his home province of Takeo,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Instead of permitting an independent investigation of allegations that this was a state-sponsored killing, the government has broken up commemorations and arrested activists.”

On July 9, 2019, Phnom Penh police arrested a student activist, Kong Raya, his wife, sister, and brother-in-law for printing T-shirts in Kem Ley’s memory and selling them on Facebook. The latter three were released after being forced to sign a “confession” that they would not repeat the act – a requirement that Cambodian authorities frequently impose on released activists. On July 11, Raya was charged with incitement and sent to pretrial detention at Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 1 (CC1). In August 2015, Raya had been convicted of “incitement to commit a felony” for a Facebook post in which he called for a so-called “color revolution.”

On July 10, a group of Kem Ley supporters gathered at the Caltex gas station where Kem Ley was killed in 2016. About 50 members of various security forces surrounded them and prevented them from laying floral wreaths or drinking coffee at the station while wearing T-shirts depicting Kem Ley. Those wearing shirts were required to take them off or place other garments over them. The police arrested Soung Neak Poan, a student activist who had distributed posters calling for an end to extrajudicial killings. Soung Neak Poan refused to sign a pledge not to distribute posters. On July 12, Soung Neak Poan was charged with incitement to commit a felony and sent to pretrial detention at CC1.

The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) reported that security forces would not allow activists from Phnom Penh’s evicted Boeung Kak lake community to enter the gas station. Also that day, about 40 police officers in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district blocked approximately 20 members of the Grassroots Democracy Party as they were heading to Takeo province to commemorate Kem Ley’s death.

Police also monitored, disrupted, or canceled commemorations in other parts of the country, including Banteay Meanchey, Kampong Cham, Kampong Chhnang, Kandal, Battambang, Kampong Thom, Prey Veng, and Tboung Khmum.

Following Kem Ley’s murder in 2016, the authorities arrested a former soldier, Oeuth Ang, who identified himself as “Choub Samlab” (“Meet to Kill”). On March 23, 2017, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted him after a half-day trial of premeditated murder and illegal possession of a firearm and sentenced him to life in prison. The trial was widely criticized as falling short of international fair trial standards and for not providing clarity about who killed Kem Ley or who ordered the killing.

Kem Ley was killed amid a government crackdown on nongovernmental organizations, independent media, and the political opposition.

“Cambodia’s donors should call for the release of anyone charged for peaceful protests and renew demands for an independent investigation into Kem Ley’s killing,” Adams said. “A government with nothing to hide should allow this or expect to see protests every year on the anniversary of this atrocity.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Berlin, July 12, 2019) – Russian authorities have brought unfounded terrorism charges against 24 Crimean Tatars, 20 of whom were arrested during heavily armed raids on their homes in the spring of this year, Human Rights Watch said today. Security officers tortured four of the men, denied lawyers access to search sites, planted evidence, and later briefly detained two activists who spoke out on behalf of the arrested men.

Crimean Tatars are a Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula. Many openly oppose Russia’s occupation, which began in 2014.The crackdown in the spring of 2019 is the latest in a pattern of repression to smear peaceful activists as terrorists and to stifle dissent in occupied Crimea. Russian authorities should release the activists and stop misusing the country’s overly broad counterterrorism legislation to stifle freedom of opinion, expression, and religion.

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

Crimean Tatar activists protest politically motivated arrests of terrorism charges in Moscow’s Red Square on July 10, 2019, with posters saying “The Fight with Terrorism in Crimea is a Fight against Dissent”; “Stop Ethnic and Religious Repression in Crimea”; and “Our Children Aren’t Terrorists.” 

© 2019 Alexandra Krylenkova

(Berlin) – Russian authorities have brought unfounded terrorism charges against 24 Crimean Tatars, 20 of whom were arrested during heavily armed raids on their homes in the spring of this year, Human Rights Watch said today. Security officers tortured four of the men, denied lawyers access to search sites, planted evidence, and later briefly detained two activists who spoke out on behalf of the arrested men.

Crimean Tatars are a Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula. Many openly oppose Russia’s occupation, which began in 2014.The crackdown in the spring of 2019 is the latest in a pattern of repression to smear peaceful activists as terrorists and to stifle dissent in occupied Crimea. Russian authorities should release the activists and stop misusing the country’s overly broad counterterrorism legislation to stifle freedom of opinion, expression, and religion.

“Russian authorities seek to portray Crimean Tatars who oppose Russia’s occupation as ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremists,’” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Russian authorities in Crimea are using terrorism charges as a convenient tool of repression.”

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Video: Crimean Tatars Face Unfounded Terrorism Charges

Russian authorities have brought unfounded terrorism charges against 24 Crimean Tatars, 20 of whom were arrested during heavily armed raids on their homes in the spring of this year, Human Rights Watch said today. Security officers tortured four of the men, denied lawyers access to search sites, planted evidence, and later briefly detained two activists who spoke out on behalf of the arrested men.

Human Rights Watch visited Crimea from May 17 to 20 and interviewed 16 relatives of 9 of those arrested, 5 lawyers representing some of them, and a leading activist with Crimean Solidarity, which provides aid to families of individuals arrested on politically motivated charges. Human Rights Watch also examined some legal documents and seven search sites, including the places where banned books or brochures had been allegedly planted. One lawyer, who is based in Moscow, was interviewed by phone.

Most of the 24 men arrested were active in Crimean Solidarity, a loose association of human rights lawyers, relatives, and supporters of victims of political repression. All have been charged with association with Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), the controversial pan-Islamist movement that is banned in Russia as a “terrorist” organization but is legal in Ukraine. Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks the establishment of a caliphate but does not espouse violence to achieve its goals.

The raids took place on March 27, 2019, with early morning large-scale search-and-seizure operations in the activists’ homes in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, and its suburbs. Heavily armed security personnel and police cordoned off homes and stormed inside, in some cases breaking doors and windows. They seized computer equipment, cell phones, tablets, flash drives, and Islamic literature. The searches violated procedural safeguards provided for in Russian and Ukrainian law, such as not allowing the residents to have a legal counsel present and not having independent witnesses to observe the search. In some cases, security officers appeared to plant books and brochures banned in Russia as “extremist publications.”

Twenty men were arrested at home, immediately following the searches. Three were arrested later that evening in Rostov-on-Don, where they had traveled the day before to deliver food parcels to jailed activists and attend court hearings. Officers with Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) abducted, beat, and threatened to kill them, then transported them to Crimea.

Lawyers for these 23 men were granted access to their clients when the clients were in custody at the FSB headquarters in Simferopol. Court hearings on pretrial custody took place in Simferopol on March 27 and 28. Lawyers and family members said the hearings, which resulted in pretrial detention, were rushed, perfunctory, and either closed or severely restricted public access.

One man, Edem Yayachikov, remains at large, wanted by Russian authorities on allegations of Hizb ut-Tahrir involvement. On April 17, FSB agents rounded up Raim Aivazov, a Crimean Tatar activist and friend of Yayachikov. They drove him to a deserted area, carried out a mock execution, beat him, and threatened to kill him unless he “cooperated.” They took him to the FSB office in Simferopol and forced him to sign a “confession” incriminating himself, Yayachikov, and those arrested on March 27 as Hizb ut-Tahrir members.

During his second pretrial custody hearing, Aivazov told the judge about his ordeal and retracted his confession. His lawyer filed a kidnapping and torture complaint, and the authorities have opened an inquiry.

None of the men are accused of planning, carrying out, or being an accessory to any act of violence. Nineteen, including Aivazov, are charged with involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, and five with organizing the activities of an alleged local Hizb-ut-Tahrir cell. Under Russian law, neither offense requires evidence that the accused has committed any specific offending behavior, such as planning or abetting attacks.

Edem Semedlyaev, a lawyer for one of the men who coordinates the work of lawyers representing the others, said that the defendants chose to neither acknowledge nor deny links with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Instead they invoked Article 51 of Russia’s Constitution, which sets out the rights against self-incrimination. If convicted, the men face prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life under Article 205.5 of Russia’s criminal code (organizing and participating in activities of a terrorist organization).

Lemara Omerova and her grandchild after the arrest of her husband, Enver Omerov, and her son and the grandchild’s father, Riza Omerov, on June 10, 2019, on politically motivated terrorism charges in Crimea.

© 2019 Taras Ibraghimov, Belogorsk (Crimea)

These 24 arrests were followed by the arrests of another eight men in Crimea on similar charges on June 10, bringing the total number of Crimean Tatars being prosecuted for association with Hizb ut-Tahrir since 2015 to 63. Among them were five Crimean Tatar activists who on June 18 received prison sentences ranging from 12 to 17 years. The FSB said that it has identified and eliminated Hizb ut-Tahrir cells in Yalta, Bakhchisarai, Simferopol, and Sevastopol.

With the 24 most recent cases not yet moved to trial, defense lawyers have yet had access to all the alleged evidence against their clients. Based on the documents and information they have received during the investigation and pretrial custody hearings, they believe that, as in previous Hizb ut-Tahrir cases in Crimea, the prosecution will largely rely on recordings of discussions on religion and politics obtained through wire-tapping and testimony from “secret witnesses,” or under-cover agents.

Semedlyaev said that he and his colleagues saw the case as politically motivated “because practically all the people who were arrested… had an active civic position. They helped victims of abuses, they were not afraid of speaking up… of shedding light [on abuses] … Also, [the authorities] show all others – if you follow their footsteps, you will share their fate.”

Russia’s international partners should urge Russian authorities to drop the charges against Crimean Tatar activists and ensure prompt, effective, and impartial investigations into all allegations of abuse by law enforcement and security officers against them.

“There are neither accusations nor evidence that these Crimean Tatar men were involved in or planning any act of violence,” Williamson said. “Russian authorities should stop the crackdown on Crimean Solidarity and unjustified interference with freedom of association, religion, and expression in Crimea.”

For details about the crackdown, the legal framework, and the family’s accounts, please see below.

At least 20 of the 24 arrested men were involved, to different degrees, with Crimean Solidarity. Established in 2016, the group provides legal and social support for the families of those arrested for political reasons and documents and live streams court proceedings, police searches, and raids. It has become the most active voice among those peacefully opposing the occupation of the peninsula. Most of the group’s activists are Crimean Tatars.

Many Crimean Tatar activists and others critical of Russia’s actions in Crimea have been targets of persecution since Russia began occupying the peninsula in 2014. Russian authorities and their proxies have subjected them to harassment, intimidation, threats, intrusive and unlawful searches of their homes, criminal prosecution, physical attacks, and enforced disappearances. Russia has banned Crimean Tatar media and organizations that criticized Russia’s actions in Crimea.

In May, two leading members of Crimean Solidarity, Lutfie Zudieva and Mumine Saliyeva, were briefly detained and fined for “propaganda with the use of extremist symbols.” This administrative charge stemmed from their earlier social media posts supposedly involving symbols or inscriptions related to Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Torture, Cruel, and Degrading Treatment

Human Rights Watch concluded from its research that at least 4 of the 24 detained men experienced torture or other cruel and degrading treatment at the hands of Russian security agents.

Raim Aivazov, born 1994

Aivazov, a resident of Kamenka, knew some of the men arrested on March 27 and is a close friend of Yayachikov, who is wanted by authorities. FSB agents detained Aivazov and forced him to incriminate himself and others under torture.

On April 16, Aivazov was traveling to Odessa, arriving at the Kalanchak crossing point, on the Russian imposed border with the rest of Ukraine around midnight. His wife, Mavile Aivazova, said that he texted her that a Russian border control officer took his passport and told him to wait. Aivazov sent his wife several more messages, saying he was still waiting, and that the border officials would not explain the delay. His last message came at 3 a.m. on April 17. She then called and texted him repeatedly on various messaging platforms, but he did not reply. Later that morning, the family filed a missing person report.

At 10:30 a.m., Aivazov’s wife and mother received messages from Aivazov’s number saying that he had crossed the border and that all was well. Both immediately replied, urging him to call them on video. They received repeated replies saying it was not a good time. After the family persisted, the sender promised to call “in 10-15 minutes,” but then stopped replying. Both women assumed that the messages had been sent by someone who was holding Aivazov. That afternoon, Aivazov called his sister, saying he had been arrested and was at the FSB headquarters in Simferopol.

On April 18, Aivazov’s family saw him at his pretrial custody hearing in Simferopol. Aivazov’s mother, Zukhra Amakova, said, “He was like a stranger. We couldn’t recognize him… He wouldn’t lift his eyes. He wouldn’t look at [us]. His father was asking, ‘Raim, what happened?’ And he just said, ‘Papa, that’s the way it has to be.’” Aivazov’s wife said that at one point he whispered to her that he had been “taken to the woods” and “had confessed to everything they wanted.”

In May, when his Moscow-based lawyer, Maria Eismont, visited Aivazoz before his second pretrial custody hearing, she learned about what had happened to him. Aivazov told Eismont that at the crossing check point, three FSB agents had rounded him up, forced him into a car, and drove to a nearby forest. They kicked him and forced him to his knees. One put a gun to Aivazov’s head as the others fired shots next to him, threatening to kill him and dump his body in a pond. They demanded to know Yayachikov’s whereabouts, and because Aivazov could not answer the question, he thought they would kill him. The agents then told him that the only way he could save his life was by “cooperating” with them.

They took him to the FSB office in Simferopol. Officials wrote up a detention report saying he was detained at 1:30 p.m. on April 17 in the office of an FSB investigator. It made no mention of Aivazov having been seized at the crossing point. The investigator provided a state-appointed lawyer who told Aivazov that it was in his “best interest” to sign the documents the investigator wanted him to sign. Aivazov signed a confession saying he was a member of a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell, along with the recently arrested men.

Eismont convinced Aivazov to tell the judge at his pretrial custody hearing on May 13 about the real circumstances of his detention and the threats, including mock executions, and to withdraw his confession. On May 17, Eismont filed a complaint with Russia’s chief criminal investigative agency, describing her client’s treatment and seeking an investigation. She said the agency forwarded the complaint to its military investigative department in Crimea. A department investigator questioned Aivazov in his lawyer’s presence, and an inquiry is ongoing. Aivazov is in pretrial detention in Crimea. The others are being held in the Rostov region, in southern Russia.

Remzi Bekirov (age 34), Vladlen Abdulkadyrov, (born 1969), and Osman Arifimetov (born 1985)

Bekirov, Abdulkadyrov, and Arifimetov are among Crimean Solidarity’s most active members. They live-streamed from court hearings and assembled food parcels for prisoners. Relatives and lawyers describe them as “citizen-journalists.” Bekirov also has a press card from Grani.Ru, an independent online media outlet. FSB officers detained them in Rostov region, took them to a deserted area, beat them, and threatened to kill them. They had no food and very limited access to water for 24 hours after their detention.

The night before the house raids, the three traveled to Rostov-on-Don with parcels for jailed activists. Bekirov’s lawyer, Semedlyaev, said that FSB agents detained the three on March 27 between 8 and 9 p.m., at a McDonald’s in Aksai, 19 kilometers from Rostov-on-Don. A group of 10 to 15 officers rushed in, threw them to the floor, and kicked and beat them, mostly on the legs. Arifimetov also received a blow to his head and passed out.

The agents handcuffed the men and drove them to a forest, beating them and calling them offensive names on the way. Once there, the FSB agents beat them, pressed them for Yayachikov’s whereabouts, and demanded to know who tipped them off about the house raids. They said they did not know about Yayachikov and had heard only that morning about the house raids. “They threatened to kill them and bury the bodies right there,” Semedlyaev said. “At that point, the guys thought that was it. They were ready to say good-bye to life.”

The agents then drove the men to the Simferopol FSB headquarters, arriving on March 28. They were formally questioned, charged, and taken before a judge who authorized pretrial custody. At around 10 p.m., when they reached the Simferopol pretrial detention center, they were finally given food. The next morning, they and the other 20 men were flown to Rostov-on-Don and placed in several pretrial detention centers in Rostov region.

House Raids

Disproportionate Use of Force

The mother, wife and son of Ruslan Suleimanov, one of the men arrested on politically motivated terrorism charges in Crimea on March 27, 2019. 

© 2019 Tanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch
The March 27 raids began at around 6 a.m. and were conducted in the style of large-scale counterterrorism operations. Groups of heavily armed security agents and police cordoned off the targeted houses and, in some cases, entire streets or blocks. Relatives of the arrested men said they were awakened by loud knocks. Once they opened the door, armed and masked security agents stormed in and effectively took over before eventually identifying themselves properly or showing a warrant.

“They flew into different rooms, like flies,” said Suriya Sheikhalieva, wife of Rustem Sheikhaliev, from Kamenka. Gulzar Abdulkadyrova, wife of Vladlen Abdulkadyrov, from Stroganovka, could not count how many agents there were because “they just rushed into the house, without saying anything, without identifying themselves, and ran to different rooms.”

In several cases, security officers also broke doors or windows.

Semedlyaev said they broke a window in Yayachikov’s house in Kamenka.

Aliye Nezhmedunova, Arifimetov’s wife, said that no one was home and that her father and brother-in-law rushed to the house when other relatives told them what was happening. When the two men arrived, security agents would not allow them into the yard. Neighbors told Nezhmedunova that they saw the agents breaking the door and asked why they needed to do that. They said the agents replied, “We’ll tear apart the whole house if we feel like it.” They broke the front door and the door to the basement.

When Nezhmedunova was finally allowed to enter, after the search, she was struck by the damage. “They dragged everything from the basement outside – boxes, cans, our stroller and bicycle, [wooden shelves] and all the stuff – and just dumped it all in the yard. They overturned the children’s bed and all our documents and papers were thrown around… everywhere.”

The heavily armed and masked men frightened the children. Razie Gafarova, wife of Dzhemil Gafarov from Stroganovka, said that during the search, which lasted several hours, her daughters, ages 12 and 17, and brother, and sister-in-law were confined to the kitchen by several armed officers, which the girls found very frightening. “Both girls have been sleeping in the same room with me [since the raid] – they’re too shaken up,” Gafarova said. She pointed out that her husband was not an activist but knew some of the other men arrested.

Ruslan Suleimanov’s lawyer, Lilya Ghemedzhi, and his wife, Elzara Sifersha, said that the family’s nine-year-old son was particularly upset by the raid. “The stress was so severe that his psycho-emotional state is still affected,” Ghemedzhi said. “He needs psychological assistance.”

Suleimanov’s 70-year-old mother, Zera Suleimanova, fainted after seeing numerous armed and masked agents at their front door. Sifersha said:

She was standing on the doorstep and began sliding down it. [Suleimanov] rushed to her and caught her as she fainted. We screamed, urging [the agents] to call an ambulance. One of them said, ‘What’s happening here?’ and another replied, ‘Pay no attention. It’s just a show.’ … I said she could die because she has a heart condition. I asked several times and only on my third, or fourth attempt, one of them … called an ambulance.

The investigator promised to give Suleimanova a chance to say goodbye to her son, but the agents took him away without telling her. Ghemedzhi was near the yard but was denied access to the home, even though she was the family’s lawyer. She saw Suleimanova begging the armed servicemen to let her see her son. “I asked the police to let me calm her down, explain… support [her]. But they [refused] and I had to scream over the police cordon that her son had already been taken away.”

Planted Evidence

Three of the nine families interviewed said that security agents planted books and brochures associated with Hizb ut-Tahrir during house raids. In all three cases, the books and brochures seemed brand new and pristine, despite being found in dusty basements and/or cupboards. During the raids, most family members were forced to sit in one room, while security agents were able to go through the contents of the houses without a lawyer, independent witnesses, or the family present. These conditions made it possible to plant evidence undetected.

Khalide Bekirova, wife of Remzi Bekirov, from Stroganovka, said that security agents allegedly “found” books on a shelf in her basement: “I was in the living room, my parents and the kids were in the kitchen. . . During that time, they planted those books in the basement, two or three white books, one of them was called Caliphate.”

Gafarova said that security agents allegedly “found” two brochures in their attic. The agents started searching the attic before she or her husband had made it upstairs to monitor the search.

Those brochures… were new and glossy. There was not a speck of dust on them, though … the attic is dusty. … Two officers went up … They spent very little time poking around and then, bingo, they just picked up two brochures from the top of a cabinet… [Then] they immediately … returned downstairs, like they knew there was nothing else in the attic worth their attention.

Human Rights Watch examined the attic and, given its size and cluttered state, acknowledged it would have taken substantial time to conduct a complete search.

Ghemedzhi and Sifersha, Ruslan Suleimanov’s lawyer and wife respectively, said that security agents planted three books in the house and a cell phone in the yard. Ghemedzhi was standing by the police cordon and could see masked agents poking around Suleimanov’s yard and “opening doors of outbuildings” with no residents or witnesses there. Soon, she saw the agents leading Suleimanov through the yard, toward an outbuilding. An agent picked up a small, dark object from the ground. Suleimanov later told Ghemedzhi that it was a cell phone that belonged neither to him nor his family members.

Sifersha said that the agents “discovered” the three books when no one was present. They first found some cash on a shelf and told Suleimanov to take the money to his father. Then, the family heard one of the agents yelling, “We got you!” They looked out of the room and saw the agents standing in the hall with three brand new white books, one of which was titled Caliphate.

Suleimanov said that his family owned no such books and one of the agents told him to take them and have a look. Suleimanov refused to touch them, suspecting the agent was trying to trick him into leaving his fingerprints on them.

Members of all nine families said that the agents had brought some young adults, who were unknown in the local communities and appeared to be about the age of first-year university students, to act as witnesses to the searches. The family members who had been there, said that the young witnesses appeared uninterested in the proceedings, paid no attention to the security officers’ actions, signed the protocols without reading them or, in several cases, even seemed to be acting in collusion with security officers, to the point of assisting with a search. The agents denied residents’ requests to call witnesses from their neighborhood.

Legal Counsel Excluded from Observing Searches, Arrests

Russian and Ukrainian criminal procedure provides that lawyers may be present during house searches. Several lawyers active in Crimean Solidarity quickly found out about the raids and rushed to the sites. They requested access to advise their clients and monitor the search. Security agents refused to allow them past the cordons. Bekirova said that she could see her lawyer behind the police cordon and unsuccessfully demanded that they let her in.

Semedlyaev, who at the time of the search represented Yayachikov and his family, said that a riot police officer on the other side of Yayachikov’s gate prevented him from entering. Semedlyaev showed his lawyer’s ID and asked the policeman to tell the commanding officer that a lawyer had arrived to advise his clients and needed to access the premises. After Semedlyaev’s repeated requests, police told him the commanding officer said not to let him in. Yayachikov’s relatives told Smedlyaev that the search took place with no family members present. “No one even knew what they [the agents] seized,” Semedlyaev said.

The lawyers were granted access to their clients when they were in custody at the FSB headquarters before pretrial custody hearings, held on March 27 and 28. Those whose clients’ hearings were on March 27 had no time to prepare properly.

Activists of Crimean Solidarity gather by a court building in Simpheropol, Crimea to support the Crimean Tatars arrested on politically motivated terrorism charges on March 27, 2019.

© 2019 Crimean Solidarity

Legal Framework

As an occupying power, Russia is obliged by international law to respect Ukrainian laws that were in force in Crimea when it began its occupation, unless they constitute a threat to its security or an obstacle to the application of the international law of occupation. Russia rejects its status as an occupying power, violates it obligations under international humanitarian law, and applies its federal laws to Crimea, including criminalizing activity not previously criminalized on the peninsula. Nonetheless, all relevant human rights treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the Convention against Torture (CAT), apply in Crimea and all authorities, whether they are Russian or Crimean acting under Russian authority, are bound by these treaties.

The relevant obligations on Russia’s security and law enforcement include the absolute prohibition on torture, and other forms of cruel and inhuman treatment and the prohibition on arbitrary detention. The context of the detention of the men, and the treatment to which many of them were subjected, violate those prohibitions.

The ECHR and the ICCPR impose obligations to ensure people are protected from the risk of undue intrusions by law enforcement or other state agents into their homes. As such, any actions by law enforcement when conducting searches on private homes must be in accordance with law, necessary in a democratic society, and proportionate to the lawful aim pursued. Actions such as unnecessary show of force and ransacking of private premises violates human rights protections against arbitrary interference with family, home, and private life. Safeguards should be in place to prevent abuse by law enforcement, including in anti-terrorist legislation, and agents must comply with the law in the conduct of operations and searches.

Russia must also respect fundamental rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and religion. While it may fall within Russia’s discretion to proscribe Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization, that does not give Russian authorities carte blanche to use its counterterrorism law as a tool to suppress nonviolent opposition, criticism, or protest.

The prosecution on terrorism charges of Crimean Tatars for political or religious speech that does not call for or incite violence is an unjustified interference with freedoms of opinion, expression, and religion.

Russia’s use of the ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir to go after Crimean Tatar activists who have not engaged in criminal behavior, but who may oppose Russian occupation or are discussing their religious and political beliefs, is not only a violation of freedom of association but is a misuse of the criminal justice system for political ends.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

On 7 July, the European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini and Development Commissioner, Neven Mimica will meet Mogherini’s five regional counterparts from Central Asian countries in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek.

The highlight of what will no doubt be her last trip to the region in her current mandate is the presentation of the EU’s new Central Asia strategy. This occasion should be used to take stock of the changes in Central Asia’s human rights landscape, but also to strengthen Mogherini’s legacy of the EU’s engagement in the region.

The new strategy offers a clear insight into the EU’s aspirations for a more democratic future for Central Asia’s 105 million citizens. It sets itself apart from the 2007 strategy, which largely focused on energy security, and lacked strong ambition for improving human rights in the region.

The new EU strategy does not shy away from clearly calling on countries to uphold human rights standards, focusing on freedom of expression and “civil society participation in public decision-making.” It says that regional leaders should promote an environment “that allows rights defenders, journalists and independent trade unionists and employers' organisations to operate freely and safely.” It addresses the need to eradicate torture and stresses that democracy and the rule of law are necessary to make public institutions more responsive and accountable to their citizens.

Central Asia has already seen some significant change. In the last three years, though many of the region’s leaders had been in power for decades, three of its leaders have moved on – most recently in Kazakhstan, but also in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The EU strategy, while acknowledging these developments, is nevertheless firm that there should be no backtracking on progress, underscoring that the EU will continue to address serious abuses throughout the region -a positive improvement on 2007. But Mogherini should convey several things in Bishkek in order to bed down this new EU-Central Asia strategy.

Firstly, she should make it clear that the EU believes effective democracy in Central Asia is attainable if autocratic leaders refrain from putting their desire for power above the rights of their citizens.

From left to right: Mr Neven MIMICA, Member of the European Commission; Ms Federica MOGHERINI, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; Mr Erlan IDRISSOV, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan; Mr Erlan ABDYLDAEV, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan; Mr Aslov SIRODJIDIN, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan; Mr Rashid MEREDOV, Foreign Affairs Minister of Turkmenistan; Mr Abdulaziz KAMILOV, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan.

2016 European Union

In October 2017, Kyrgyzstan had the region’s first peaceful transfer of power from one elected president to another when former President Almazbek Atambaev voluntarily left office at the end of his term. In Uzbekistan, the new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has taken important if modest measures to improve human rights.

And in Kazakhstan, thousands of citizens risked detention to peacefully protest the election of Nursultan Nazarbaev’s hand-picked successor in a vote that was deemed neither free nor fair by international election observers. The time is ripe to promote more open political debate and call for the end to unjustifiable restrictions on the media and activists.

Secondly, she should warn Central Asian leaders that the EU won’t tolerate the worst forms of abuses, including the persistence of torture in the region.

Such abuses also include the arbitrary arrests and imprisonment in Tajikistan of more than 150 activists, lawyers, journalists and opposition leaders - including from the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan and the Group 24 opposition movement - since 2015, all of whom face serious ill-treatment in detention and long prison sentences.

In Turkmenistan, where the number of political prisoners is extremely difficult to determine, dozens remain forcibly disappeared in the prison system, some for as long as 16 years. Although dozens of detainees have recently been released in Uzbekistan, thousands more remain behind bars for political reasons.

Finally, Mogherini should press her host country, Kyrgyzstan to end the wrongful imprisonment of a prominent rights activist.

An aging human rights defender, Azimjon Askarov has languished in Kyrgyz prisons since 2010, serving a life sentence handed down after a trial marred with irregularities, credible allegations of torture, and due process violations. His life sentence was upheld even after the UN Human Rights Committee concluded that Askarov was arbitrarily detained and that Kyrgyzstan should release him and quash his conviction.

The EU’s calls to release him have fallen on deaf ears. But as Mogherini is also expected to sign a new bilateral deal with Kyrgyzstan, she should spare no effort to have the Kyrgyz authorities promise to release him. Askarov’s release would be a concrete win for the EU’s new approach to Central Asia.

Hope is high among civil society in the region that the old norms of arbitrary detention and repression do not have a future in Central Asian countries. Mogherini should support those aspirations and send the message that greater ties with the EU will go hand-in-hand with genuine human rights reforms.

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

On July 6 the European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, will be in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, to lay the groundwork to open an office of an EU delegation. The EU has 140 delegations around the world, and it’s a mark of prestige for this isolated country to host one. 

A Turkmen choir dressed in green, the national flag color, sings the national anthem at the opening ceremony of the world weightlifting championships in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, on Nov. 1, 2018. 

© 2018 Kyodo News via Getty Images

The delegation will have its work cut out for it: Turkmenistan has one of the most repressive governments in the world, with a long track record of locking up activists and human rights defenders. It ranked last in a 2019 index on global pressfreedom. Torture is widespread.

This is a far cry from what is envisaged in the EU’s brand new Central Asia strategy, which rightly calls on governments in the region to uphold human rights standards, allow rights defenders and journalists to operate freely, and eradicate torture.

If anything, Turkmenistan’s record is getting worse. More people are banned, without explanation, from foreign travel. The government has said little about the whereabouts of more than 100 people forcibly disappearedin the prison system following closed, unfair trials. Their families have had no contact, in some cases for more than 15 years. 

In recent years, the government has become more open to discuss disappearances, for example, with the EU and at the UN Human Rights Council,but there is little to cheer. Meanwhile, at least 27 have died in custody, ten of them in the past four years, as the government has “dialogued” with the EU about the issue. The prison sentences of at least 14 of the disappeared are set to expire through 2020, but absent strong pressure from external actors their fates are unclear - the courts could simply extend their sentences, as they just did to Gulgeldy Annaniyazov. He was serving an 11-year sentence set to expire in March 2019. Instead, he was handed another five years. 

The new delegation is supposed to enable the EU to “step up dialogue and cooperation” with Turkmenistan. But the EU shouldn’t waste time and money on engagement for its own sake. Mogherini should tell the government the new EU office will spare no efforts to press for real human rights changes in the country. Meanwhile, she should insist on the release of Annaniyazov and the other 14 whose sentences are ending, and for an end to the crimes of disappearance in the country. 

Update: This dispatch was updated on July 5 to correct the date of Ms Mogherini’s visit to Ashgabat

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

A student takes a moment to check her phone at Nathan Hale Elementary School in Chicago on Friday, June 8, 2018.

© 2019 AP Photo/Martha Irvine

School is out for the summer in the United States, but concerns about shootings and other violence on campus loom large. In response, some US school districts are turning to programs that monitor students’ social media activities for purported warning signs of violence. But these programs risk interfering excessively with children’s rights without proof that they are necessary or reliable in addressing the problems districts are trying to solve.

A Florida law passed last year requires the state’s Department of Education and law enforcement to create a central database capturing, among other things, information from social media. While this plan has generated controversy, a state commission report indicates that software under consideration would “scan social media to identify signs of bullying, self-harm or threats of violence against students, employees and schools.”

A number of districts elsewhere in the country have already purchased social media monitoring programs. The US-based Brennan Center for Justice reports that 63 districts purchased such programs last year – up from 6 in 2013. The programs can work in different ways, but according to the Brennan Center, a significant number involve software that analyzes social media posts for indicators of potential violence or self-harm.

Despite increasing enthusiasm for these programs, their efficacy in preventing harm to students has not yet been proven, and the potential impact on students’ privacy rights could be unnecessary and disproportionate – making such interference incompatible with international human rights standards. For example, programs could store excessive or sensitive information, including due to inaccurate or broad monitoring of posts for keywords thought to relate to mental health. They could also generate records of children simply expressing the normal highs and lows of childhood – and the children posting the material may not always understand these possible consequences.

Overly broad monitoring could also negatively impact freedom of expression of students and others. Studies show that when people realize they are under surveillance online, they are more likely to self-censor and refrain from communicating with certain groups or individuals.   

Protecting students from violence should be a top priority for schools. But when the new school year begins this fall, officials should avoid unnecessary surveillance and treat students’ online activity in a way that doesn’t interfere needlessly with rights.

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

Participants in a demonstration titled "Academic Workers' Forum Life Chain for Science" gather in front of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) headquarters to protest against the planned reorganisation of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest, Hungary, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

© 2019 Szilard Koszticsak/MTI via AP

Academic freedom in Hungary suffered a fresh blow Tuesday, when the parliament, where ruling party Fidesz has a two-thirds majority, adopted a controversial bill undermining the independence of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The country’s president is expected to sign it into law.

The Academy, comprised of distinguished scientists and intellectuals, has a research network of 15 institutes and 150 research groups comprising about 3,000 scientific researchers. The new bill will increase state control over the Academy by removing the 15 research institutes from the main academy and placing them in a newly established state research network (Eotvos Lorand Kutatasi Halozat).

The state research network will have a new governing board with members appointed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and a majority nominated by the government. The board will decide on funding and appoint directors for each research institute. The changes will allow the government to shape what types of scientific projects will be funded rather than the Academy independently making those decisions.

Emese Szilagyi, Scientific Secretary of the Institute for Legal Studies at the Academy of Sciences, told Human Rights Watch that among Academy researchers, there is fear the Academy won’t be free to choose research topics but may be forced to conduct research in fields the government wants and be expected to provide findings that support their preconceived theses.

The government’s recent campaign to ban academic gender studies in Hungary and its move to force Central European University out of the country suggests this fear is well founded.

These moves highlight the government’s wider efforts to silence critical voices and discourage independent thought.

These worrisome developments, part of the broader rule of law backslide in Hungary, underscore the importance of the political sanctions process against Hungary’s government triggered by the European Parliament last year under Article 7 of the EU treaty.

The next step is for the EU Council of member states to scrutinize Hungary’s record, but the Council has yet to have a hearing on the matter. The incoming Finnish presidency should schedule a Council hearing on Hungary as soon as possible.

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