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, 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

A demonstrator raises a poster of Xu Zhiyong during a protest against his sentencing, Hong Kong, January 27, 2014.

© 2014 AP Photo

(New York) – Chinese authorities should immediately and unconditionally release a well-known anti-corruption activist who had eluded arrest after a new government crackdown on rights activists, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 15, 2020, authorities in Guangzhou apprehended Xu Zhiyong at a friend’s home where he had gone after authorities in December detained participants of a gathering on human rights in Fujian province.

Xu, 46, is one of China’s most prominent activists and human rights advocates. He was a co-founder of the now-banned legal aid center Open Constitution Initiative and the New Citizens’ Movement, a nongovernmental group advocating for civil rights.

“President Xi Jinping claims the government is ‘open’ and ‘transparent,’ but the authorities have without basis detained one of the country’s best-known anti-corruption advocates,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of arbitrarily detaining Xu Zhiyong and other human rights activists, the Chinse government should listen to what they have to say.”

In late December 2019, police across the country began to detain participants of a December 7 and 8 gathering in Xiamen, Fujian province, where they discussed human rights and China’s political future. On December 26, in what has become known as the 12.26 crackdown, authorities detained prominent human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi, scholar Zhang Zhongshun, and activists Dai Zhenya and Li Yingjun. Since then, Xu had been traveling to different cities, updating his Twitter account, and criticizing the government’s authoritarian rule and its mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak.

It is unclear what charges authorities might bring against Xu. Police had accused the four men detained in December of “inciting subversion” – a crime that carries up to 15 years in prison – and placed them under “residential surveillance in a designated location,” a form of enforced disappearance in which police can hold individuals in undisclosed locations for up to six months. This places them outside the formal detention system, denying them access to legal counsel and family members, and increasing the risk of torture and ill-treatment.

Hours after the police took Xu away, his girlfriend, Li Qiaochu, a Beijing-based women’s rights and labor rights activist, also went missing. In January 2020, Beijing police searched Xu’s home, detained Li for 24 hours, and denied her adequate medicine in the detention center.

A former lecturer at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, Xu has long advocated for legal reform and equal rights. In 2003, he achieved national attention when his joint petition to the National People’s Congress led to the abolition of the administrative detention system called “custody and repatriation.” That year, he was named by the state broadcaster CCTV as one of the “top 10 rule of law figures” in China.

In 2009, Xu was forced to disband the Open Constitution Initiative, the legal aid center he helped set up, after police detained him and a co-worker in a trumped-up case of tax evasion. From 2014 to 2018, Xu served four years in prison for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order” after a series of small-scale protests by members of the nongovernmental New Citizens’ Movement, an initiative he cofounded in 2012 to develop civil society in China within the confines of the one-party political system.

“Once again, Xu Zhiyong has been detained despite breaking no laws, simply for advocating rights-respecting policies,” Wang said. “Governments are increasingly recognizing that they pay a price for Beijing’s hostility toward peaceful criticism, and should press China to release Xu immediately.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Members of the European Parliament sit in the plenary chamber of the European Parliament during a vote. 

©2020 Philipp von Ditfurth/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
(Bangkok) – The European Union should press Vietnam to end its systemic repression of human rights and release political prisoners and detainees, Human Rights Watch said today. A human rights dialogue between the EU and Vietnam is scheduled for February 19, 2020 in Hanoi.

The meeting will be held only a week after the European Parliament approved an EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and Investment Protection Agreement (IPA). With several other Vietnamese and international groups, Human Rights Watch had urged the European Parliament to postpone ratification to put pressure on Vietnam to commit to human rights reforms and to agree to enforceable measures to improve labor rights.

“The European Union missed an important opportunity when it agreed to a trade deal with Vietnam without securing enforceable commitments for human rights reforms,” said John Sifton, Asia Advocacy director. “EU officials should warn the Vietnam government during the human rights dialogue that failure to meet those commitments could result in suspension of the agreements’ benefits”.
Human rights should be an integral part of bilateral relations between the EU and Vietnam, Human Rights Watch said.

In January, Human Rights Watch sent the EU a submission in preparation for the dialogue, urging the EU to focus on five priority areas regarding the dire human rights situation in Vietnam: 1) political prisoners and detainees; 2) repression of freedom of speech, association, assembly, and movement; 3) repression of freedom of information; 4) repression of the right to freely practice religion; and 5) police brutality.

The EU should urge Vietnam to release all political prisoners and detainees and amend articles in its penal code used to imprison people for peaceful protest, association, dissent, and religious activities, including articles 109, 116, 117, 118, and 331. The Vietnamese authorities frequently use these articles to punish anyone who expresses views or joins an independent group that Vietnam’s Communist Party sees as a threat to its monopoly on power.

In one notable incident in November 2019 linked to the EU-Vietnam agreements, the authorities detained a Vietnamese journalist, Pham Chi Dung, and charged him with “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” most likely in connection to an overture he made to the European Parliament about Vietnam’s abysmal rights record. He remains in detention without access to a lawyer.

Pham Chi Dung is one among hundreds of activists who are harassed, prosecuted, and convicted for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, including on social media. In late 2019, the European Parliament president, David Sassoli, sent a letter to Vietnamese authorities calling for his release ahead of the vote on the EU-Vietnam agreements. The Vietnamese ambassador's reply, seen by Human Rights Watch, plainly defends the arrest and shamelessly compares Vietnam's limitations to freedom of expression to those in place in western countries.

Under Vietnam’s criminal procedure code, the authorities can detain people on national security charges for months, or sometimes even years, without access to legal counsel.

The EU should press Vietnam to amend article 74 and article 173 in its criminal procedural code and allow immediate and unhindered accesses to legal assistance for all detainees upon arrest, no matter what the charges.

In the submission to the EU for the dialogue, Human Rights Watch also highlighted the shortcomings of a revised labor code recently passed by Vietnam’s National Assembly. If it is not amended before it becomes effective in January 2021, it will prohibit workers from forming independent unions without official approval. The EU should pressure Vietnam to immediately ratify and carry out the provisions of the International Labour Organization Conventions No. 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize).

The EU should also press Vietnam to revise its cyber security law to ensure it will not violate freedom of information and release all Facebook users detained for posting their political opinions.

To ensure freedom of religion and belief, Vietnam should allow all religious organizations independence and the rights to govern themselves and freely conduct religious activities. It should immediately end harassment and ill-treatment of followers of religions the government doesn’t favor. It should stop arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning them and forcing them to denounce their faith.

Vietnam should also make serious commitment to end police brutality, Human Rights Watch said. In September, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc approved a roadmap that required security officials across the country to record interrogations, starting on January 1. However, in December, the Public Security Ministry announced a postponement of the roadmap, citing the lack of recording equipment and training for police investigators. It is unclear when it will become effective.

“Numerous rounds of EU-Vietnam human rights dialogues failed to persuade the country to reverse its abusive trend, even as separate negotiations for economic agreements have ended with lucrative deals,” Sifton said. “The EU needs to connect its economic leverage to the human rights principles it claims to champion.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

© 2015 John Emerson/Human Rights Watch

(Moscow) – Police in southern Russia on February 13, 2020 raided the homes and office of activists who provide legal and psychological assistance to survivors of domestic violence, Human Rights Watch said today. The raids took place in Makhachkala and Khasavyurt, two cities in Dagestan, a republic in Russia’s Northern Caucasus region.

The activists targeted are partners of Stichting Justice Initiative (SJI), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) representing victims of grave human rights abuses in the North Caucasus and survivors of domestic violence in Russia. Police seized computers and electronics containing documentation pertaining to their work.

“These outrageous police raids show the poisonous climate for NGOs in Russia, and particularly in the North Caucasus,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These are overt attempts to suppress independent civic activity, instill fear, and keep activists in a perpetual state of uncertainty.”

The court order sanctioning the search and seizure, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, contains no information about any specific alleged offense that would have justified the action. Instead, it quotes generic provisions of the Law on Law Enforcement Operations and the need to check allegations of involvement with organizing mass riots and financing of extremist activities, although without reference to any factual grounds necessitating the searches.

SJI told Human Rights Watch that during the search, police informally told their partners’ staff that law enforcement was inspecting all organizations “working in the field of violence.” SJI heard unconfirmed reports of similar searches of other independent groups in Dagestan and Ingushetia that work on humanitarian issues, including those working with orphans. These groups, SJI said, are refraining from speaking publicly about the searches for fear of repercussions.

Raids on organizations working on domestic and other violence against women can have a significantly chilling effect, preventing victims from seeking help or accessing potentially life-saving services. Violence against women, including domestic violence, is already an underreported crime.

The searches on February 13 were the second time in six months that police have targeted SJI and its partners. In August 2019, police and security services raided and searched the group’s Moscow and Nazran (Ingushetia) offices. In Moscow, the authorities did not show a search warrant and claimed that the raid was in conjunction with the search in the adjacent offices of an audit company.

However, police who stormed the Nazran office of Pravovaia Initsiativa Foundation, one of SJI’s two operational partners, said they were investigating alleged foreign funding of unsanctioned protests. At the time, SJI was working on a submission to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) of a group of cases pertaining to protests in Ingushetia. They said that they could not rule out the possibility that the raid sought, unsuccessfully, to impede the group’s work.

In December 2019, the Ministry of Justice listed Pravovaia Initsiativa Foundation Ingushetia as a foreign agent under the 2012 “Foreign Agent” law, which aims to tarnish independent groups that engage in advocacy and receive foreign funding.

In July, SJI was the successful litigator in the European Court’s first ruling on a domestic violence case in Russia. The court concluded that domestic violence and the official inaction the applicant faced was not an isolated incident, but rather the result of a systemic, ongoing failure on the part of the Russian authorities to properly address domestic violence.

SJI has been an irritant for the Russian authorities for years through its successful European Court litigation, Human Rights Watch said. Since 2001, the organization has submitted more than 450 cases to the ECtHR, United Nations Human Rights Committees, and the International Criminal Court, representing about 1,800 applicants. It has won over 250 cases at the ECtHR pertaining to enforced disappearances in Chechnya and other abuses. Russian authorities have had to pay over 25 million euros in compensation to the victims.

Russian authorities for years have sought to hinder SJI’s work, Human Rights Watch said. The Justice Ministry denied the group’s application for re-registration in 2006 and 2007, including shortly after it won its first case concerning torture in Chechnya. The organization was finally registered on its third attempt in February 2007. Thereafter, in 2011, the Justice Ministry excluded SJI from the list of accredited foreign organizations, effectively banning their human rights work in Russia.

The organization spent over a year in litigation with the government, and after repeated failed attempts to receive the accreditation, established two Russian nongovernmental groups to act as its operational partners. SJI’s leadership considered their registration problems a sign of the authorities’ annoyance at the group’s successful work.

SJI and its partners told Human Rights Watch they firmly intend to continue their work.

“Activists and independent groups in Dagestan and elsewhere in the North Caucasus are helping the most vulnerable and unprotected members of the community, yet they constantly face great risks to their safety,” Williamson said. “Instead of wasting time hindering activists’ work, the authorities should foster a safe atmosphere so that the most vulnerable get the assistance they need.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina interacts with journalists in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Monday, Dec. 31, 2018.

© 2018 AP Photo/Anupam Nath
(New York) – Authorities should drop charges and immediately release from custody leading Bangladesh publisher Nur Mohammad and Sufi singer Shariat Sarker, Human Rights Watch said today. Both appear to be detained for having criticized the ruling party, and religious leaders, respectively. The authorities should end all arbitrary arrests and a crackdown on freedom of expression under the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA).

Mohammad, the owner of Guardian Publications, was arrested on February 10, 2020 for “associating with” Enamul Haque Moni, who was arrested in 2018 for spreading “fake news and propaganda” about Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed and her son Sajeeb Wazed, and for digital fraud. Sarker has been in prison for over a month on charges for “hurting religious sentiments” after he criticized Muslim clerics who oppose singing.

“The government has the responsibility to protect the right to speech and expression, not use its internet laws as an excuse to go after singers who criticize clerics or anyone who criticizes the prime minister or her family,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The ruling Awami League should not be silencing its critics.”

In addition to charges for digital fraud and forgery, Mohammad could face a sentence of up to life in prison for charges under section 25 of the law, which criminalizes publishing any content with the intention of “tarnishing the image of the nation.” He is also charged under section 31, which criminalizes publishing or broadcasting any content that “destroys communal harmony” or “deteriorates or threatens to deteriorate the law and order” which carries up to 10 years in prison. These terms are so vague and broad that the authorities can essentially arrest critics at will, effectively chilling free speech.

The First Information Report on Mohammad’s arrest filed by Rapid Action Batallion-2 Inspector Ikramul Haq Chowdhury in Dhaka Railway Police Station, accuses him of colluding in publishing material that was “spreading misinformation” about student protests for road safety and quota reform and thus “provoking anarchy in the country.” It also says he promoted propaganda harmful to the reputation of the ruling Awami League ahead of the parliamentary election.

Evidence against Mohammad cited in the police investigation report includes news headlines allegedly published by Moni such as “Joy Makes His Mother Popular through a Non-Reputed Poll” and “Surprising Facts Behind Withdrawing all Cases Against Hasina.”

Mohammad’s arrest comes after Guardian Publications was denied participation in Bangladesh’s largest annual book fair which takes place this month. The company has published two books by Pinaki Bhattacharya, a leading critic of the prime minister. Bhattacharya went into hiding and fled the country after security forces allegedly summoned him and raided his home in 2018 after he expressed support for the student protests that summer.

This is not the first time that authorities have arrested people for criticizing the prime minister or her family. In July 2019 a man was arrested under the DSA for allegedly sharing distorted images of the prime minister and her son on Facebook. Human Rights Watch documented several such cases in its report on abuses under the previous Information and Communication Technology Act, which the DSA replaced. 

The DSA was also used against the Sufi singer, Shariat Sarker, for accusing Islamic clerics of misinterpreting the Quran to forbid music and for reportedly saying “Our great Prophet Muhammad was an ardent fan of music and went to sleep at night after listening to music.” Sayedur Rahman, the officer in charge at the Mirzapur police station in Tangail district said that Sarker was arrested after the police received complaint about Sarker’s remarks. “We questioned him in custody and found the allegations to be true,” he said. If convicted, Sarker could face 10 years in prison.

Sarker is a Sufi Baul singer, a tradition of nomadic folk singers, which UNESCO included in 2005 in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. However, Baul singers have faced attacks by religious extremists in recent years. When questioned about Sarker’s case, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that “as he was arrested, surely he was involved in a crime,” denying that the case had anything to do with Baul singing. Instead of quelling fears, she urged Baul singers to lay low and avoid trouble with the law. “They mustn’t do such activities … They also have to remain cautious,” she said.

On February 12 the High Court issued a notice asking authorities to explain why Sarker has yet to be released on bail.

The Bangladesh government has ignored repeated calls from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rightsthe United States, the European Unionjournalists within Bangladesh and many others to bring the law in line with Bangladesh’s commitments under international law.

“Instead of recommending ‘caution,’ the prime minister should be upholding the democratic principles of free speech,” Adams said. “People can be criticized or countered if their speech is offensive, but the state should not be locking up people simply because they said something the police decided is unpleasant.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Maxim Vernikov at his verdict announcement, Yekaterinburg, Russia. February 11, 2020. 

© 2020 Private

(Moscow) – A Russian court on February 11, 2020 found a journalist criminally responsible for involvement in an “undesirable” organization, Human Rights Watch said today.

The journalist, Maxim Vernikov, was the first person convicted under a 2015 law that allows the authorities to ban from the country any foreign or international organization that allegedly undermines Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. The law also provides for administrative sanctions to organizations and people that engage with “undesirable organizations” and criminal liability for “continued involvement,” that is, more than two administrative penalties in a year.

“While we cheer the fact that Vernikov was spared detention, his conviction and sentence are violations of his rights and freedoms,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is quite simply punishment where there has been no crime, just peaceful activism.”

A court in Ekaterinburg sentenced Vernikov to 300 hours of mandatory labor for involvement in the activities of the Open Russia Civic Movement (ORCM). Three more activists with the movement are currently on trial or facing prosecution on similar charges.

Since 2015, 19 groups have been placed on Russia’s blacklist, including in 2017 an organization registered in the United Kingdom which is also called the Open Russia Civic Movement. Members of the Russian group of the same name have said repeatedly that they are not connected to the banned UK-based organization.

The case against Vernikov was opened in March 2019, after armed police raided his apartment. The charges stem from two prior misdemeanor fines issued to him in 2018 for participation in the activities of an “undesirable organization.” These involved organizing and participating in a conference of the Open Russia Civic Movement’s branch in Sverdlov region in November 2017 and posting information about the movement on his social media page. The authorities accused him of continuing to participate in the group’s activities by persisting to post information about it in late 2018 and early 2019 and by attending a regional branch meeting in mid-December 2018, at which he was allegedly elected to the branch’s council.

Vernikov’s defense team pointed out irregularities in his case in court and said they intend to appeal the decision. The Russian criminal code provides that if a person voluntarily discontinues participation in the activities of an undesirable organization, they can be exonerated from responsibility for prior participation. Open Russia’s human rights project coordinator told Human Rights Watch that Vernikov did just that. He learned about the preliminary investigation against him in February 2019, when he was called for questioning, and immediately withdrew from the organization and informed the police that he had done so.

Previously, law enforcement in Krasnodar closed a criminal case against another former coordinator of Open Russia, Alexander Savelyev, for that very reason.

Nevertheless, the criminal proceedings against Vernikov in Yekaterinburg continued. His defense also twice appealed to have the case closed, providing his statement informing Open Russia of his departure and a note from the media outlet he worked for, confirming that he attended the December 2018 meeting of the group in his capacity as a journalist.

The prosecution and the court, however, considered his departure from the organization a pretense. They accepted the testimony of an anonymized “secret witness” to assert that Vernikov had attended an event as an Open Russia activist.

The criminal cases on the same charges against other former Open Russia activists are underway. Yana Antonova is on trial in Krasnodar, Anastasiya Shevchenko has been indicted in Rostov-on-Don, and a criminal case is open against Anton Mikhalchuk from Tyumen. He has left Russia and is on a “wanted” list.

The Council of Europe’s European Commission for Democracy Through Law (the Venice Commission) has warned Russia that its law on “undesirable” organizations interferes with fundamental human rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, including the rights to freedom of association, assembly, and expression.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Russia is also a party, protects the same key principles and freedoms.

“The real targets of the ‘undesirables’ law are Russian activists and independent groups,” Williamson said. “In cases like these, Russian authorities are clearly using criminal prosecutions as a scare tactic against civic activism and critical voices.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Academic and writer, Taban Lo Liyong. 

© 2014 Private

South Sudan’s University of Juba has suspended a renowned academic and writer from his teaching position over an opinion article on the issue of states and their boundaries – a controversial issue that has yet to be addressed by South Sudanese leaders before a Unity government can be formed. Taban Lo Liyong’s article, the university said, amounted to “incitement of ethnic hatred” and is “bringing the name of the university…into disrepute.”

This action is emblematic of the government’s repression of basic freedom of expression, where any form of dissent or criticism of government policy is dangerous.

In recent years, South Sudan’s universities have taken steps to limit political freedoms on campus, requiring students and staff to obtain permission from the National Security Service (NSS) for planned activities. Undercover NSS agents are also said to pose as students to keep tabs on critical voices.

Lo Liyong is not the first academic to be silenced. In January 2017, two academic staff were arrested and detained by the National Security Service (NSS) for leading staff protests and salary negotiations.  

In October 2015, Dr. Luka Biong, Associate Professor of Economics, was suspended from Juba university after organizing a public dialogue on the controversial creation of new states by President Kiir. Threatened by the NSS, he fled the country and remains in exile.

The same year, the late Dr. Leonzio Angole Onek, former Dean of the College of Applied and Industrial Sciences at the University of Juba, was picked up by armed NSS officers from his faculty residence. He was accused of supporting rebels and held in solitary confinement but released five months later without charges.

The intimidation and harassment have led to self-censorship and have a corrosive effect on research and publication.

Ensuring freedom of expression and the academic freedom to test and contest ideas, however, is essential to building South Sudan’s universities as bastions and safe places for learning and intellectual exchange. “How else would you be able to be innovative and build the minds of the future generation in South Sudan?” the late Dr. Onek had pointed out when I met him in May 2019.  

The university should immediately reverse Liyong’s suspension and ensure students and faculty can engage in uninhibited dialog on matters of public importance.

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

Pictured (L) members of a left-wing group Set (Network) in court in Penza, Russia on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, when the court convicted seven members on terrorism charges, sentencing them to prison terms ranging from six to 18 years. (R) Eduard Nizamov.

© 2020 AP Photo/David Frenkel (L); 2019 Private (R)

(Berlin) – Russian military courts handed down guilty verdicts on February 5 and 10, 2020 in three separate, deeply flawed terrorism cases in which the defendants alleged incommunicado detention, torture, and other ill-treatment to extract confessions, Human Rights Watch said today. A total of 18 defendants in the cases were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 23 years.

The trials were also marred by the prosecution and judges’ refusal to rigorously investigate complaints of abuse, and by their reliance on dubious expert analysis and use of anonymous “secret witnesses.” In one of the cases, the very existence of the alleged terrorist organization remains in question.

“These are three cases in different parts of Russia, but what unites them is the authorities’ refusal to rigorously investigate the defendants’ credible claims of abuse,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These defendants didn’t get a fair trial. The verdicts should be quashed, and allegations of fabrications and ill-treatment adequately investigated.”

One case involves “Network” (Set, in Russian), which the Federal Security Service (FSB) allege to be a terrorist organization created in St. Petersburg and Penza, among other places. The authorities claimed the defendants planned to destabilize the country through violence, including during the 2018 presidential elections and the World Cup. The prosecution did not argue that the defendants planned any specific acts of violence. The seven defendants convicted on February 10, aged between 23 and 31, were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 18 years.

The second case involves an alleged leader of the entire Russian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamist group that Russia’s Supreme Court banned in 2003, categorizing it as a terrorist organization. Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks to establish a caliphate but does not espouse violence to achieve it. A court sentenced the defendant, Eduard Nizamov, to 23 years in maximum security prison.

Finally, five days earlier in a separate criminal case, another 10 alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir were handed prison terms ranging from 11 to 22 years.

In the “Network” case, the Privolzhski District Military Court convicted the defendants on charges of creating and participating in a terrorist organization, as well as of trafficking in explosives and arms and attempted narcotics trafficking. The defendants are Dmitriy Pchelintsev, Ilya Shakurskiy, Andrey Chernov, Maksim Ivankin, Mikhail Kulkov, Vasiliy Kuskov, and Arman Sangynbayev.

Some of the men were antifascist activists, and others described themselves as anarchists or left- wing activists, and their supporters alleged that this case is part of a broader crackdown on radical leftist groups. Russian media reported that some of the defendants did not even know each other, but shared views and hobbies. Some had played a game similar to paintball that sometimes simulates battles or quests in forested areas. The prosecution claimed the game was in fact military training to prepare for an unspecified coup.

Several defendants alleged during court proceedings and beforehand that authorities beat them and used electric shocks to extract testimony. But the authorities claimed that a preliminary inquiry by the military department of the investigative committee, Russia’s chief criminal investigative agency, established the defendants’ injuries were from an attempted escape, and the court and the prosecution accepted this explanation without further inquiry. Another suspect in the same case who later fled the country consulted a physician and state forensic physician to document his injuries. In response to his formal complaint, the authorities claimed that marks on his body consistent with the use of an electroshock weapon were “insect bites.”

The defense team alleged that during the trial, the court accepted statements by four anonymized “secret witnesses” and allegedly rigged evidence. In January 2019, another person accused in this case, Igor Shishkin, was convicted as part of a plea bargain. Shishkin did not complain of ill-treatment, but members of the St. Petersburg Public Oversight Commission (ONK, the Russian acronym), an independent body of experts authorized by the government to monitor detention sites, observed injuries consistent with torture on his body. Two other young men, accused of involvement in “Network”, Viktor Filinkov and Yuliy (Yulian) Boyarshinov, remain on trial. ONK has also documented a detailed account by these two men of their torture and ill-treatment in custody. The Memorial Human Rights Center considers all those accused in relation to this case to be political prisoners.

On February 5, the same court that tried the “Network” defendants found 10 people guilty on a variety of charges related to their alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. These include creating or membership in a local cell of a terrorist organization, assisting terrorism, and propaganda for terrorism. The defendants are Ilnar Zialilov, Ruslan Gabidullin, Azat Gataullin, Abdukakhor Mumindjanov, Sergey Derjipilskiy, Zulfat Sabirzianov, Komil Matiyev, Farid Kriyev, Rustem Salahutdinov, and Ilnaz Safiullin.

The prosecution said the men held meetings in which they discussed political news, how to campaign among other Muslims, and how to apply Sharia rules in everyday life. They were also accused of collecting membership dues, paying to print leaflets and journals, and organizing and paying for events, including football matches that they allegedly used to recruit members. Some of them were additionally accused in relation to their online posts. The prosecution did not allege that the defendants planned or carried out any specific act of violence.

Nizamov, who was convicted and sentenced on February 10 in the Central District Military Court in Yekaterinburg, was accused of being a leader of the entire Russian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir. He said that staff at the detention center had ill-treated him and caused him to be harassed in detention.

All of the Hizb ut-Tahrir defendants denied the accusations, saying the case against them was fabricated. They said they had condemned terrorism, and never called for the overthrow of the government nor for a violent coup. Their defense team challenged the prosecution’s use of two anonymous “secret witnesses” and the use of statements by persons who were exonerated after plea bargains.

The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, an independent think tank focusing on extremism and the abuse of counterterrorism and counterextremism laws in Russia, takes issue with Hizb ut-Tahrir’s designation as a terrorist group and denounced prosecution of its members on terrorism charges based solely on such activities as conducting meetings, producing literature, and the like, because this group has not been proven to be linked to any terrorism-affiliated activities.

In a 2016 joint statement, four prominent Russian human rights organizations, the Memorial Human Rights Center, Civic Assistance Committee, SOVA, and the Institute for Human Rights, criticized the 2003 Supreme Court ruling that listed Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization, on the grounds that its activities do not contain any basis for accusations of terrorism or incitement to terrorism, and that no one should be criminally prosecuted for mere membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir.

While all countries have an obligation to protect people on their territory, counterterrorism measures should never be used as a pretext to prosecute political opponents or other critics, or otherwise to undermine human rights, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy as well as the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, of which Russia is a participating state, warns that violations of human rights can fuel terrorism. “The link between the guarantee of human rights and protection from terrorism cannot be over-emphasized … [c]ombating and ultimately overcoming terrorism will not succeed if the means to secure that society are not consistent with human rights standards,” ODIHR has said in its manual, “Countering Terrorism, Protecting Human Rights.”

Russia has obligations, including as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights, to observe the absolute prohibition of torture. In addition, rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association, guarantees of a fair trial, and right to freedom of religion are all fundamental human rights protected by Russia’s own constitution and all key international human rights treaties.

Abusing counterterrorism laws to silence critics and deny fundamental human rights is unlawful and risks fomenting more resentment against the government,” Williamson said. “Instead of steamrolling the dissidents, the authorities urgently need to learn to engage them in constructive dialogue.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Journalists and supporters, wearing black, display their messages during a protest against the recent Securities and Exchange Commission's revocation of the registration of Rappler, an online news outfit, Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, northeast of Manila, Philippines. 

(Manila) – The Philippine Congress should reject President Rodrigo Duterte’s apparent misuse of regulatory powers against the country’s largest broadcast network, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 10, 2020, the Office of the Solicitor General filed a petition before the Supreme Court seeking to nullify the franchise of ABS-CBN, which has long faced Duterte’s ire for criticizing his “war on drugs” and other policies.

Congress is authorized to renew the licenses of broadcasting companies, but the House of Representatives has yet to act on nearly a dozen renewal bills already filed. The administration’s legal action could prevent Congress from extending the 25-year-old network’s permit, which expires on March 30.

“Philippine legislators have a responsibility to uphold media freedom and resist administration efforts to pressure news outlets to toe the government’s line,” said Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher. “President Duterte’s administration should cease its politically motivated legal actions against the network.”

Duterte has publicly attacked ABS-CBN, accusing it of “swindling him by not airing his advertisements during the 2016 presidential campaign, a charge the network has denied. He has also urged the media company to “just sell” its assets, vowing that he would make sure its franchise would not be renewed. Duterte and his allies have accused the network of being sympathetic to the political opposition. Its owners, the Lopez family, are longtime political opponents of the former Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. Administration officials have also complained about the network’s critical coverage of the “drug war.”

The suit filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida, the government’s chief lawyer, called a quo warranto petition, seeks to nullify ABS-CBN’s original franchise, contending that the network has engaged in “abusive practices” that violate its franchise. Calida also alleged that ABS-CBN allowed foreigners to invest in the company, in violation of Philippine Constitution.

ABS-CBN said in a statement that it “complies with all pertinent laws governing its franchise and has secured all necessary government and regulatory approvals for its business operations.” It called the petition an attempt to shut down its operations.

The Philippines’ license renewal process allows congress to put inappropriate pressure on broadcast networks. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that monitors government compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the Philippines is a party, has stated that governments “must avoid imposing onerous licensing conditions … on the broadcast media. The criteria for the application of such conditions and license fees should be reasonable and objective, clear, transparent, nondiscriminatory and otherwise in compliance with the Covenant.”

The Duterte administration’s apparent efforts to intimidate and control ABS-CBN mimic its actions against the news website Rappler. Rappler and its editor, Maria Ressa, are facing numerous court cases as a result of their critical coverage of the “drug war.” Rappler and ABS-CBN have documented many of the thousands of killings by the police and their agents in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. The Philippine Daily Inquirer has also faced attacks from Duterte because of its “drug war” reporting and commentary.

“The administration’s attempt to cancel ABS-CBN’s franchise or deny its extension is not just an attack on a single network, but an all-out assault on media freedom,” Conde said. “Complaints against broadcasters should be addressed in the proper forum, such as the National Telecommunications Commission.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Human rights lawyer Marina Dubrovina (L) in a police vehicle, and journalist Elena Milashina following separate attacks in Chechnya. 

© 2020 Marina Dubrovina/Facebook; 2020 Elena Milashina/Facebook

Last night, a group of thugs in Grozny attacked human rights lawyer Marina Dubrovina and investigative journalist Elena Milashina – the latest in a long history of attacks on rights defenders which bear the hallmarks of being endorsed by Chechen authorities and tolerated by the Kremlin.

Dubrovina arrived in Chechnya on Thursday for a client’s court hearing. She’s representing a blogger who was tortured and jailed on bogus weapon possession charges in retaliation for posting a video about the opulent lifestyle of the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, and his associates. Milashina, who covers the case for Novaya Gazeta, joined Dubrovina in Grozny.

When they returned to their hotel, Kontinental, just after 11 p.m., they saw a group of 15 women and men in the lobby. Several of the women surrounded them next to the elevator. “One said that we came here to defend [Islamic radicals],” said Milashina in her statement to the police. “I smiled and said no. Another woman asked who we came to defend and before I had the time to answer she hit me hard in the face. Then, the whole crowd started beating us...” The assailants threw Milashina and Dubrovina to the floor, kicking and punching them and hitting their heads against the marble floor. The men spoke as if they were in charge; one of them was also filming.

When the attackers fled the hotel ten minutes later, Milashina and Dubrovina took a taxi to a hospital for treatment and medical documentation of their bruises and abrasions. Then, they filed police reports stating that the attack was work-related and sponsored by local authorities.

There is every reason to believe that Chechen authorities are behind this vile attack. For more than a decade, they have been wielding a war on human rights defenders, branding them as “enemies” and “terrorists,” jailing them, destroying their offices, and forcing them to leave Chechnya.

Despite repeated appeals by its key international interlocuters, the Russian government has done nothing to rein in Chechnya’s leadership. Yesterday’s attack is starkly reminiscent of the attack on Igor Kalyapin, the head of a leading Russian anti-torture group, in another hotel in Grozny almost four years earlier. There has been no effective investigation of that attack – just like many other attacks, threats, and abuses. Today, responding to the attack, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner called on Russian authorities to “ensure that human rights defenders can work safely and freely.” Unless they pay heed, the next attack is only a matter of time.

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

Zitto Kabwe.

© Emmanuel Herman/Reuters

Members of Tanzania’s ruling party have lashed out at a senior opposition politician, Zitto Kabwe, for his criticism of a controversial US$500 million World Bank education loan.

On January 30, the World Bank board of directors postponed their vote on the loan after Kabwe, a leader of the Alliance for Change (ACT) Wazalendo party, and a group of Tanzanian organizations separately wrote to the bank opposing the loan. They expressed concerns that the loan, which aimed to expand girls’ access to secondary schooling despite the government failing to lift its education ban on pregnant students and adolescent mothers, would contribute to worsening gender inequality and human rights in Tanzania.

In Parliament the following day, Speaker Job Ndugai, a member of the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, called Kabwe’s letter “treasonous.” Abdallah Bulembo, a CCM Member of Parliament, said that Kabwe, who was out of the country at the time, “should not be allowed back but should be killed where he is.” Kenani Kihongosi, a CCM youth leader, later said during a rally that people like Kabwe who “undermine” the country should be killed. CCM has not publicly condemned any of these statements.

These threats by CCM members reflect a sharp backslide in respect for freedom of expression in Tanzania. Since 2015, the government has cracked down on perceived critics by arbitrarily arresting and prosecuting journalists, rights activists, and opposition politicians. In 2019, Parliament restricted the independent operation of political parties in an apparent attempt to control the opposition. 

Kabwe has been arrested several times before for his views, including in 2017 for contradicting government statistics. In October 2018, he was jailed for alleging that several people were killed during clashes between pastoralists and police. In June 2019, he was arrested and blocked from leaving the country, and this January, police blocked a rally by his party in Kigoma, citing security reasons.

As the country gears up for elections later this year, the government crackdown on its critics has intensified. The government should instead be sending the message that it supports the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed in Tanzania’s constitution and international law.

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

A telecommunications tower in Mrauk U township, Rakhine State, Myanmar. The township is one of nine where the government has imposed an internet blackout since June 21, 2019.

© 2018 Phyo Hein Kyaw/AFP/Getty Images

Myanmar authorities have issued a surprise order reinstating the shutdown of mobile internet traffic in five townships in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine and Chin States. Added to four other Rakhine State townships where mobile internet service has been blocked since June 2019, this leaves nine townships unable to get online, causing an information blackout that affects approximately one million people.

The Ministry of Transport and Communications’ directive to internet and telecommunications providers cited security requirements and public interest as the reasons for re-imposing the shutdown, which had been lifted in the five townships in September. The Norwegian Telenor Group issued a statement to inform the public of the directive, and said it was seeking further clarification from the ministry.

This communications shutdown places civilians at risk as the fighting between the ethnic-Rakhine Arakan Army and Myanmar’s military intensifies. About 106,000 civilians have been displaced by the conflict.

Blocking local communities’ ability to communicate makes it harder for civilians to obtain help when needed, and significantly more difficult for humanitarian agencies to assist vulnerable populations. The Rakhine State government has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis by imposing restrictions on aid access in eight townships.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned measures by governments to prevent or disrupt online access and information and called for free speech protections under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In a 2015 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Responses to Conflict Situations, UN and regional organization experts said that “using communications ‘kill switches’ (i.e. shutting down entire parts of communications systems) can never be justified under human rights law.”

Myanmar’s authorities should quickly restore mobile internet and telecommunications networks. The lives of many people at risk in Rakhine State depend on it.

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

Mounir Baatour, lawyer and president of Shams association, a group that defends sexual minorities.

© 2020 Private
(Tunis) – Tunisian authorities should drop the prosecution of a prominent activist on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights (LGBT) over a post on Facebook perceived as offensive to Islam.

The counterterrorism prosecutor of the First Instance Court in Tunis opened an investigation on November 6, 2019, into Mounir Baatour, a lawyer and president of Shams, a group that defends sexual minorities, on charges of incitement to hatred, discrimination, and violence. On November 4, Baatour had reposted on his own page content from a Facebook page called “The Untold in Islam,” accusing the Prophet Mohamed of being a rapist and a killer, and crudely deriding his sexual life.

“Baatour may have offended some Tunisians with his posts, but that is no reason to prosecute him,” said Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch. “Laws should be used to punish real incitement to imminent violence, not opinions, even if they are crudely expressed or hurtful to certain groups.”  

The prosecutor charged Baatour under article 14 of the 2015 counterterrorism law, which considers as acts of terrorism “the incitement to hatred and to animosity between races, doctrines, and religions,” punishable by up to five years in prison. He also charged Baatour with “incitement to hatred, violence, and segregation toward persons or groups of persons based on racial discrimination” under article 9 of the law on “the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination,” adopted in October 2018 and punishable by three years in prison, and with “directly calling for hatred between races, religions, and populations,” under article 52 of the decree law of 2011 on freedom of the press.

Baatour told Human Rights Watch that he fled to France, where he is applying for asylum, after he received dozens of messages on Facebook Messenger from unidentified Facebook profiles calling him an apostate and threatening him with death. A well-known Tunisian preacher called for the application of the Islamic punishment against him for apostasy, which the preacher said is death. Tunisia has no law criminalizing apostasy.

Tunisian authorities should stop prosecuting people who express views merely because they are deemed offensive to Islam or to other religions, Human Rights Watch said. The international human rights treaties signed by Tunisia protect such speech. Ridicule of religion should not be considered incitement to discrimination or hatred.

Tunisian authorities have also prosecuted others since 2011 for writings deemed offensive to Islam. On March 28, 2012, a First Instance Court in Mahdia sentenced Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji to seven years in prison for satirical publications mocking the Prophet Mohamed. The sentence was upheld on appeal.

While the government has the obligation, under international law, “to prohibit any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence” under article 20 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, this power does not encompass the criminalization of criticism of religions or blasphemy against the sacred.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, in its General Comment No. 34 on freedoms of opinion and expression, considers it a violation of the right to freedom of expression, under the covenant, when countries impose “prohibitions of demonstrations of lack of respect for a religion or other system of belief, including blasphemy laws.” Such prohibitions, the committee wrote, should not be “used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.”

The Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, agreed by international experts on human rights, states: “Moreover, the right to freedom of religion or belief, as enshrined in relevant international legal standards, does not include the right to have a religion or a belief that is free from criticism or ridicule.”


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am