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

© 2020 Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A woman in medical gloves holding an iPhone.

© 2020 Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

On May 4, 2020, the South Kalimantan police arrested and detained blogger Diananta Putra Sumedi (left) in Banjarmasin, charging him with online defamation, which carries a maximum penalty of six years in prison. 

© 2020 Alliance of Independent Journalists
(Jakarta) – The Indonesian police in South Kalimantan province should drop criminal defamation charges against a blogger for articles in which he interviewed indigenous Dayak leaders about a land dispute with an oil palm plantation, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately release the blogger, Diananta Putra Sumedi, who has been detained since May 4, 2020.

Criminal penalties for alleged defamation are a disproportionate punishment, have a chilling effect on media freedom, and are frequently abused by the police. Those harmed by publications should seek redress through civil defamation.

“Threatening a writer with prison for criminal defamation has a chilling effect on freedom of speech for all journalists,” said Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher. “Civil defamation is a more proportionate response to alleged defamatory speech.”

Human Rights Watch in 2010 published an analysis of the negative impact of Indonesia’s criminal defamation laws including the internet law and urged their repeal. Those laws contain extremely vague language that has allowed retaliation against journalists and others who had made allegations of corruption, fraud, or misconduct against powerful interests or government officials.

In November 2019, Sumedi wrote on his blog, Banjar Hits, about PT Jhonlin Agro Raya, a palm oil company and subsidiary of the Tanah Bumbu-based Jhonlin Group. The company has had a dispute with Dayak villagers, including Sukirman, the head of a Dayak association. Sukirman is quoted saying he planned to file a lawsuit alleging that the company had illegally appropriated land in three Dayak villages.

Jhonlin Group contested the allegations, and, in accordance with Indonesian law, filed a complaint with Indonesia’s Press Council on November 11. The complaint was brought against Sumedi, his blog Banjar Hits, and Kumparan, a “media collaboration company” in Jakarta that sponsored and provided the platform.

Sukirman filed a report denying the quotes attributed to him. Banjar Hits and Kumparan published a letter from Sukirman denying the quotes. Jhonlin Group also filed a police report. Sumedi had not recorded the interview with Sukirman.

On February 5, the Press Council issued a statement that censured Sumedi for publishing unverified stories. It directed Kumparan to provide the Jhonlin Group the right to respond, saying that the stories were unethical and racially insensitive for creating tension between the Dayak and the Bugis, the ethnic group of the Jhonlin Group’s founder in South Kalimantan. In response to the Press Council recommendations, Kumparan on February 11 took down the stories from the internet, apologized to the Jhonlin Group, and later terminated its collaboration with Banjar Hits.

Three months later, on May 4, the South Kalimantan police arrested and detained Sumedi, charging him with online defamation, which allows pretrial detention and carries a maximum penalty of six years in prison.

A police spokesman said that his arrest and detention were necessary because Sumedi might continue to write stories about this case.

A 2017 memorandum of understanding between Indonesia’s National Police and the Press Council permits a petitioner to request the police to pursue a criminal defamation case if the petitioner is not satisfied with the outcome of a Press Council mediation. Most alleged defamation cases against journalists end at the Press Council, and do not become the basis for a criminal case.

It is not clear whether the Jhonlin Group was dissatisfied with the Press Council statement. Kumparan reported that Jhonlin Group did not use their right to respond. Human Rights Watch contacted the Jhonlin Group and its founder by email and phone, but received no response.

Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists have questioned Sumedi’s detention, asking the South Kalimantan police to drop the case because he had already been sanctioned.

In 2018, another Jhonlin Group company filed a defamation case against another reporter, Muhammad Yusuf, who was arrested and died five weeks later in South Kalimantan police custody.

Land disputes linked to oil palm plantations have been frequent. Konsorsium Pembaruan Agraria (Consortium for Agrarian Reform, KPA), an Indonesian organization, documented more than 650 land-related conflicts affecting over 650,000 households in 2017. Journalists and indigenous rights defenders covering land disputes have been arrested under various laws in addition to criminal defamation.

In December 2019, the immigration office detained an American editor, Phil Jacobson of the environmental news website Mongabay, in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, after he attended a hearing between the local parliament and an indigenous rights advocacy group. The immigration office accused him of breaking Indonesia’s immigration law, by entering the country without a journalist visa. He was deported on January 31.

On April 26, Hermanus, a Dayak farmer, died in a Sampit hospital in Central Kalimantan, while he was facing theft charges related to his efforts to defend Dayak villagers’ land from a palm oil plantation.

“The Indonesian police and aggrieved companies should stop bringing criminal defamation charges to intimidate, detain, or prosecute journalists and others exercising their freedom of speech,” Harsono said. “By having alleged defamation cases go before the Press Council, Indonesia provides a means to quickly address and rectify inaccuracy in the media.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Saohei Chu'e "anti-gang" campaign poster, photographed in Lhasa, 2019.

© 2019 Private
(New York) – Chinese authorities in Tibet are using a national anti-crime campaign to crack down on peaceful expression by Tibetans suspected of dissenting views, Human Rights Watch said today. Those criminally prosecuted include activists defending Tibetan culture and environment, critics of official corruption, and suspected supporters of the Dalai Lama. The campaign is also targeting for possible prosecution or other punishment practitioners of unapproved religious activities and Tibetan government employees involved in any religious practices.

The government adopted a nationwide “anti-gang crime” campaign in January 2018 to suppress drug dealing, gambling, and other gang crimes. Since then, courts in Tibetan areas have used “gang crime” charges to sentence at least 51 Tibetans to up to 9 years in prison for peacefully petitioning or protesting issues related to religion, environmental protection, land rights, and official corruption. The authorities have also linked the campaign to disciplinary drives against Tibetan officials and Chinese Communist Party members and appear to be accusing them of criminal liability based on their personal views.

“Chinese authorities have long imprisoned people engaged in peaceful dissent in Tibet,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The anti-gang crime campaign has intensified the persecution of those deemed to be disloyal to Communist Party rule.”

The anti-gang campaign is known in Chinese as saohei chu’e, an abbreviation for “The Sweep Away Gangs, Root Out Evil Special Struggle.” Its political objectives were evident in the official document starting the campaign in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in 2018. As Human Rights Watch detailed in “‘Illegal Organizations’: China’s Crackdown on Social Groups in Tibet,” the TAR Public Security Bureau issued a directive that any individual or group “holding themselves out as so-called ‘spokespersons’ for the masses” on issues such as environmental protection or the promotion of Tibetan language, folk traditions, and culture were to be classed as a form of “gang crime.”

It also banned non-officials from taking part in local dispute mediation, an important civil function in Tibet that lamas or other locally respected figures often conduct. The authorities had not previously considered such activity illegal.

The directive also stated that actions that “undermine local-level general elections,” or that involve a group of individuals “stirring up trouble in land acquisition, leases, demolitions, engineering projects, and the like” were to be considered a form of “gang crime.”

Chinese state media have recently reported that central government officials ordered regional authorities to target Tibetan dissidents under the campaign. Senior Beijing officials sent to inspect Tibet’s anti-gang drive told TAR authorities in July and August 2019 and again in November that they had to do more to “combine” the campaign with “deepening the anti-splittist struggle,” a reference to crushing any support for Tibetan autonomy and political dissent, however indirect or minor. This instruction meant that critics of government policy in Tibet should be treated as gang criminals, especially if they can be seen as a group, as spokespeople, or as supporting the exiled Dalai Lama.

In November, TAR Party Secretary Wu Yingjie confirmed the inspection team’s demands by stating that regional authorities should “conduct smashing the crimes of gang crime forces along with … the anti-splittist struggle.” Wu sought to justify treating “splittism” or support for Tibetan autonomy as a common crime by saying that it provides “the grounds for gang crime forces to spread.”

Local officials, at public meetings to promote the campaign in rural areas, have told villagers “to voluntarily sever all connection with underworld forces and illegal organizations, and enthusiastically join the struggle against them,” said an official report on the campaign in some local villages in southern Tibet. The term “underworld forces” supposedly refers to organized crime, but in the Tibetan context, the term “illegal organizations” includes the civic activities listed in the 2018 directive at the start of the region’s anti-gang crime campaign, notably those promoting Tibetan language, environmental protection, and assisting local dispute mediation.

Officials in other Tibetan areas have made similar demands. The United States-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported in February 2018 that when Sichuan province launched a “Provincial Leading Group” to manage the anti-gang crime drive, “threatening political security and penetrating into the political field” were among the 10 major types of crime it was targeting.

It also listed “grabbing or illegally occupying land in construction engineering, mineral resources, and other fields,” probably a reference to environmental protesters’ efforts to stop damage from infrastructure projects and mining. In the same report, RFA cited an unnamed source as saying that homes in Kandze (in Chinese, Ganzi) prefecture, Sichuan, had been searched for Dalai Lama pictures under the anti-gang crime drive.

In the rural areas of Tibet where most Tibetans live, the campaign appears to be intimidatory, with the authorities threatening to use force. Publicity materials promoting the campaign show troops or police with military-pattern weapons. Photographs in official media of a meeting to publicize the campaign in Achug (Axu) township, Derge (Dege) county, Sichuan, for example, show local residents seated in rows on the ground with armed police standing over them and a vehicle used to transport criminal suspects. Videos that local authorities issue to promote the campaign show the apparent use of unnecessary or excessive force against Tibetans, including monks.

The Chinese constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech, as does international human rights law. The arrests and prosecutions of Tibetans under the anti-gang crime campaign for expressing peaceful opinions and engaging in political or faith-based activities violates their fundamental rights.

“The anti-gang crime campaign has singled out Tibetans for their opinions and normal social activities and treats them as criminals,” Richardson said. “Chinese authorities should end these abusive prosecutions and free all those wrongfully detained.”

For additional details about the campaign in Tibet and the arrests, please see below.



Criminalizing Peaceful Criticism

At least 51 Tibetans are known to have been convicted for peaceful activities as part of the government’s anti-gang crime drive. The most recent case involved 12 villagers from Sog county in northern Tibet. A court sentenced them on January 7, 2020 to up to 21 months in prison for being “members of an evil gang.”

A court document reported that the “gang” had “acquiesced with the spread and dissemination of negative religious influences throughout the village,” and had “inculcated feudal thinking among the masses [and] implemented feudal family laws.” The court document gave no further details about these “religious” and “feudal” ideas and presented no evidence that suggested the defendants had committed recognizable offenses.

Phrases such as “negative religious influences” and “feudal thinking” have been used to refer to expressions of support for the Dalai Lama and his religious authority, including his selection of reincarnate lamas and advice against the worship of certain local deities. Support for such ideas appears likely to have been the reason for the convictions in this case.

On December 6, 2019, 9 Tibetans in Gabde (Gande) county, Golok (Guoluo) prefecture, Qinghai province were sentenced to up to 7 years in prison, according to Free Tibet, a London-based advocacy group. The lawyer for the primary defendant, Anya Sengdra, said that he had been arrested as part of the anti-gang crime drive because he had tried to expose “illegal acts of local officials.” The official case summary that the court issued on July 26 confirms that Anya Sengdra had criticized a local official – the Party secretary in his township – after the official apparently disqualified Anya Sengdra from running in village elections in 2014 and then had him punished for protesting this decision.

The official indictment, dated July 26, said that Anya Sengdra and eight co-defendants were charged with “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” for setting up online discussion groups about local corruption, environmental protection, and petitions by local residents. The authorities also charged the nine with “gathering crowds to disturb social order” for staging a sit-in at a construction site to demand compensation for a fatal road accident. These details indicate that the defendants were not involved in any criminal activities, but in peaceful protests and petitions against local government policies.

In May 2019, 21 Tibetan villagers in Nangchen (Nangqian) county, Yushu prefecture, Qinghai province were sentenced to up to 6 years in prison under the anti-gang crime drive. Available facts indicate that they lobbied the local government about its polices on environmental protection – official media reports state explicitly that they were sentenced for activities including “mobilizing the support of a group of villagers to establish an ‘environmental protection committee’” and “creating hurdles for government policy [by] not accepting environmental conservation compensation.”

In April 2019, 9 Tibetans in Rebkong (Tongren) county, Malho (Huangnan) prefecture, Qinghai province were sentenced to from 3 to 7 years in prison for having “created an illegal organization.” They had organized a petition against local government officials’ seizure of community land in their village, said an exile monitoring group, which published a copy of their petition. The prefectural government had issued regulations in 2015 that declared “organizing illegal groups and illegal movements in the name of ‘language rights,’ ‘environmental protection,’ ‘literacy classes,’ etc.” a crime and described the case as the first “anti-gang crime” case in the prefecture.

The local regulations in Tibetan areas of China outlawing peaceful actions against government policies are administrative orders that do not overrule existing laws in China.

In addition to the 51 reported court cases, 3 Tibetans interviewed by Human Rights Watch described recent cases of Tibetans whom they knew police had threatened or detained as part of the anti-gang crime drive for their peaceful expressions of opinion. One specified a number of people imprisoned for political offenses. Although Human Rights Watch cannot confirm these reports, those interviewed were Tibetan academics or officials who had direct access to information about these events.

A Tibetan who spoke to local residents in one case said that that police in a nomadic area of northern Tibet threatened to use the campaign to punish a Tibetan who refused to sign an official document stating that the size of his herd had decreased, a target pursued by local officials. Another Tibetan in the area at the time told Human Rights Watch that police had detained local women as part of the anti-gang drive in Rebkong, Qinghai province, for gathering outside the local government offices to complain about lack of compensation for government-seized land.

A Tibetan official from Lhasa told Human Rights Watch in December that, according to internal information he had seen:

there are 217 political prisoners in TAR Prison No. 1 [at Nyethang township in Chushul county, near Lhasa], and they are all people from Lhasa, or the nearby counties under Lhasa Municipality, arrested in the past few years. People are continually being arrested for political reasons.

The Congressional Executive Commission on China, a body linked to the US Congress, lists 151 Tibetans as possibly detained for political reasons as of December, but notes significant underreporting and uncertainties.

Attacks on Unapproved Religious Activity

Under Chinese law, ordinary citizens may take part only in religious practices that are officially approved. Senior Chinese leaders in Tibetan areas have specified that unapproved religious activity is a target of the anti-gang crime campaign. The campaign guidelines from a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai province in early 2019 state that the authorities must carry out “vigorous opposition to those with differing views and those who obstruct [state policies and ideology],” including “control by religion forces,” which they describe as “relatively strong in rural and mountainous areas.”

At the November review by the central inspection team of the campaign, Wu Yingjie, the TAR Party secretary, said that “religious extremist forces and underworld forces” were “using religion as a pretext to split the Motherland, destroy the unity of nationalities, and disrupt the normal order of the everyday life of the masses.” Discussing the anti-gang crime drive, Wu described the role of religion as “Tibet’s special contradiction” and called on regional officials to “vigorously smash” these religious forces.

Following the November meeting, regional leaders ordered officials to use the anti-gang campaign as “an opportunity to … completely eliminate the foundations and context of the Dalai clique’s splittist sabotage activities” to “completely ensure the harmony and stability of the religious sphere.”

The Tibetan official from Lhasa told Human Rights Watch that the campaign was being applied to monasteries in the region as part of a political education drive. He reported that as a result of investigations carried out under the campaign, five monks from Drepung Monastery had been given “education” for not showing a good attitude in political studies and had then been expelled for “not reforming their thinking” and “failing in political and legal knowledge exams.”

The official added that “such things are going on at many monasteries” and that “the government monitors the WeChat and social media activity of monks even more strictly than that of ordinary citizens.” Foreign media have described political education and expulsion of Tibetan monks or nuns for political non-compliance and recent cases of monitoring the social media accounts of monks and nuns and other citizens.

Tibetans with religious beliefs who work for the government have also been singled out for punishment as part of the campaign. China’s official media reported on August 6 that Zhu Weiqun, a senior Beijing-based official known for seeking to tighten government control on nationality and religious issues, told regional leaders that their implementation of the campaign had been “inadequate.”

Zhu was apparently referring to, among other issues, the failure to intensify religious controls over Tibetan “cadres,” a term that includes all government employees, only some of whom are Party members. The authorities went on to state at a campaign meeting in Lhasa on August 27 that the focus must include “solving the religious problems of Party members.”

Ending religious belief among Party members is a normal matter of internal Party regulations, since all members renounce religious belief as a condition of membership. However, the TAR authorities responded to Zhu’s remarks by issuing an internal order that month banning not just Party members but also all retired government employees in Tibet from public religious practices. The order banned specific religious practices that Tibetan Buddhists conduct and did not refer to any other religions, indicating that it targeted only Tibetan Buddhists who worked for the government. There have been no reports of similar restrictions for ethnic Chinese cadres in Tibet, or for believers of other religions.

Tibetan Party Members Face Prosecution for Views

The TAR authorities have used the anti-gang crime campaign in conjunction with a Party disciplinary drive against Tibetan Party members suspected of holding unapproved opinions. In addition to imposing disciplinary action, the authorities appear to have threatened these members with criminal liability.

Details of these cases are scarce, but a report by official media in February 2019 said that the disciplinary drive – known in full as “Resolutely oppose engaging with two-faced factions and being two-faced people” – is intended in Tibet to identify Party members who “claim loyalty to the Party while secretly sympathizing [with] and even working for separatists.” The drive to identify “two-faced people” in Tibet is described by the official media as part of China’s “tit-for-tat battle with the Dalai Lama and his group.”

In addition to imposing punishment for disciplinary violations, authorities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas have stated that Tibetan Party members suspected of political disloyalty, such as sympathizing with the Dalai Lama or supporting increased autonomy for Tibet, are also targets of the anti-gang crime campaign, indicating that they are classed as suspected criminals.

Notably, in April 2019, the head of the TAR leading group for the anti-gang crime campaign included “two-faced factions [and] two-faced people” in the list of criminal groups and “illegal organizations” that are campaign targets. This showed that this drive in the region is being handled not just by the Party’s disciplinary arm but also by the “Regional High Command for National Security,” which supervises the region’s “public security work” and deals with criminal cases.

The drive in Tibet against “two-faced factions and two-faced people” is thus different from its counterpart in mainland China, where it is not part of a criminal crackdown but is intended only to “control the political integrity of the cadre force.”

Officials have sought to justify treating allegedly dissident Tibetan Party members as criminals by claiming that they are organizers, enablers, or backers of gang crimes. An October statement by the “Regional High Command” described “two-faced people” as being “behind the illegal organizations” targeted by the anti-gang crime campaign. A senior TAR judicial official endorsed this view in April 2019, describing “two-faced people” as “the soil that breeds criminal gangs.” In Qinghai, where over a million Tibetans live, judicial authorities declared similarly in July 2019 that certain “Party officials” were a focus of the anti-gang crime campaign because they were “‘covering up’ for gang crime forces.” No evidence has emerged in Chinese media to support these allegations.

Only one recent case involving the political profiling and criminalization of Tibetan Party members suspected of disloyalty has appeared in official media. In February 2019, 13 local Party members – evidently Tibetans – were disciplined for “worshiping … illicit objects” in a cave in Nyalam county, a rural area of southwest Tibet. The media report said police handled the case and that the “objects” in the cave were “politically forbidden” – a hint that they were photographs of the Dalai Lama and that police investigated the Party members as suspected criminals, even though religious belief is only a breach of Party regulations, not a crime under Chinese law. The punishments imposed on the 13 are not known.

The Tibetan official from Lhasa told Human Rights Watch in December that “Tibetan officials in every government department have been punished under this [anti-gang crime] campaign,” but that details of these punishments are kept secret so that “there is no way we would come to know about individual cases.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

People shop in the Central Market of Tunis during the first days of Ramadan, Tunis, Tunisia April 28, 2020. 

© 2020 Mohamed Krit/Sipa via AP Images

It all started with harmless jokes. But because they chose humor to push back against the Coronavirus and lockdown-generated anxiety, a young Moroccan woman is now in prison, and a Tunisian woman could soon share her fate.

In Morocco, the story takes place in Merzouga, a small Saharan locality renowned for its postcard sand dunes. In early April, a young woman, perhaps to console herself for being locked a stone’s throw from a fabulous natural landscape, performed a comedy sketch. In a 15-second video posted on the social network TikTok, she imitates the “Caïda Houria,” a local security figure who gained notoriety from her unique way of scolding Moroccans who don’t comply with the mandatory lockdown. The imitation is well-executed and funny.

The authorities apparently didn’t laugh. A few days later, the young woman was arrested and sentenced to two months in prison, which she is currently serving in Errachidia. The main charge against her is that during the sketch, she wore a military uniform, in violation of article 382 of the penal code prohibiting “unauthorized public wearing of an official uniform.” The uniform she wore in the video belonged to a friend who is a member of local security forces.

Tunisian blogger Emna Chargui also wanted to share a smile when she reposted, on Facebook, a short text entitled “Sura Corona,” written and formatted, in a lighthearted spirit, in the manner of a Quranic sura. It backfired. On May 4, the judicial police summoned her. Two days later, no fewer than seven members of a public prosecutor’s office interrogated her. According to Chargui, one of them said: “There is no freedom of expression when it comes to religion.”

On May 6, Chargui was charged with “inciting hatred between religions through hostile means or violence,” under article 52 of the press freedom decree-law. She faces up to three years in prison.

In crisis situations like the Covid-19 pandemic, international law allows authorities to exceptionally prohibit some types of speech, the consequences of which could endanger public health. This doesn’t include jokes, unless you consider laughing a health hazard.

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

The media is literally under attack in Tajikistan. There was a total of over 80 attacks of all kinds, physical and non-physical – including cyber-attacks and attacks via judicial or economic means – on journalists in the country from 2017 to 2019. This week, journalist Abdulloh Ghurbati, who works for one of the few remaining independent media outlets in Tajikistan, Asia Plus, became the latest victim.

Abdulloh Ghurbati receives medical help after an attack on May 11, 2020, Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

© 2020 Asia Plus

On May 11, two masked men attacked Ghurbati near the entrance to his house in Dushanbe. “They only said ‘Who do you think you are?’” Ghurbati told Human Rights Watch. “One of them hit me in the head from behind. I hit the ground and both of them continued beating me.”

When Ghurbati started screaming, the attackers escaped. Ghurbati took a cab to a hospital where Asia Plus colleagues met him. Two hospitals would not admit Ghurbati because they were only treating Covid-19 patients. He eventually received treatment at another hospital for multiple injuries to his skull and ear.

Ghurbati had recently been reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic in Tajikistan, including government efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. Even after admitting there were Covid-19 cases in the country on April 30, Tajikistan has not put in place policies seen in other countries to protect public health and slow the virus’ spread, such as imposing a quarantine or encouraging social distancing.

The police have launched an investigation, including an examination of footage from CCTV cameras near Ghurbati’s home. Ghurbati said the footage shows that the attackers waited specifically for him.

Ghurbati has recently received multiple threats linked to his work as a journalist. After his reporting on Covid-19, government-linked online trolls called him a traitor. He received messages on social media warning him not to write critical posts: “behave right,” one said. He also received a call from a stranger who threatened to “find and deal with him.”

“The police promised to find the attackers and punish [them] by law,” Ghurbati told Human Rights Watch. Tajik law enforcement authorities should do so and ensure that journalists are able to carry out their work freely, whether reporting on Covid-19 or any other issue in the country.

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

Ethnic Uzbek journalist Azimzhan Askarov, who was arbitrarily arrested, tortured, convicted after an unfair trial and jailed for life looks through metal bars during hearings at the Bishkek regional court, Kyrgyzstan, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Vladimir Voronin

Many human rights defenders around the world are in jail for standing up for the rights of others. Azimjon Askarov is a well-known human rights defender from southern Kyrgyzstan. He is also a writer and an artist. In September 2010, Askarov was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life in prison on vague and poorly substantiated charges related to the wave of inter-ethnic violence that rocked southern Kyrgyzstan three months earlier. His trial was marred by serious human rights violations and credible allegations of torture that have never been investigated.

During his almost 10 years behind bars, Askarov, nearly 69, has suffered deteriorating health and inadequate medical attention. In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ordered his release and his conviction be quashed. A Supreme Court hearing in Kyrgyzstan, scheduled for May 13, is Askarov’s final opportunity to appeal his case in Kyrgyzstan’s courts and convince the judiciary to do the right thing.

With assistance from local human rights organisation Bir Duino, Human Rights Watch's (HRW) Central Asia researcher Mihra Rittmann was recently able to carry out a rare interview with Askarov from prison. Askarov provided written answers to HRW's questions. His words reflect how he found strength and drew on support over the last 10 years, his views on Kyrgyzstan, and what he would do if he were released. The interview has been abridged for brevity.

HRW: Have the last 10 years changed you?

AA: Before my arrest, I only paid attention to work, while my family, and serving Allah remained in the background.

I knew very little about religious practice. But in the days immediately following my arrest, during the most difficult days, Allah gave me the opportunity to get closer to myself, [and] I was free to read the Quran.

[The Quran says]: "If Allah gives you support, no one will defeat you. And if Allah abandons you, then who will help you but him?"

If I had not followed the Quran's advice, I would have long ago rotted underground. Instead of suffering in a wet, narrow cellar, I created a paradise for myself. I ate little, slept little, read the Quran more. Allah gave me more than [the freedom] that was taken from me.

HRW: You wrote a book in prison entitled, “I am Happy.” Can you explain why you chose that title?

AA: What fool in prison would say he is happy? [Yet] I am actually happy, because people on five continents stand in solidarity with me and support me spiritually with their letters. Even though I am in prison, I feel the freedom of my soul. In prison I gained a new family that wholeheartedly supports me. Every letter is priceless to me.

Those who write letters from all corners of the world are not indifferent and believe I am right, and this inspires me and gives me strength, courage, and resilience.

With their short letters they were able to give me spiritual support. People of all ages have written me – from age 14 to 74. An older couple wrote me from England inviting me and my family to visit them “first thing upon my release.” A14-year old student from Japan wrote, "Wherever I am, at school or competitions, thoughts of you occupy a big place in my head. I want you to be free sooner, and it will be easier for me too."

I have received hundreds, thousands of such letters. In reading some of the letters, I could not keep tears of joy from my eyes. I give the letters to my children for safekeeping.

HRW: And that’s what has strengthened you?

AA: Yes. Faith in Allah gives me strength. My friends from far off lands never abandoned me to my fate, but continue to write [letters of support] to me and to my wife. I am infinitely grateful to them and wish them many years of life and good health. Allah willing, I will meet them when I am free. Thank you for having believed me then and for believing me now.

The love of my children and grandchildren, as well as the support and courage of my spouse, who was not afraid of persecution, did not flee the country, and did not leave me to my fate. Many ethnic Kyrgyz women at the Bazar-Korgan market called me brother and still today are in close, friendly relations with my spouse.

As long as I live and breathe, I will fight for justice, for restoration of my rights, and for the rights of others unjustly convicted after the June 2010 events. My fight inspires them – they know that restoring my rights is the beginning of restoration of their rights. For the past 10 years I provided legal support to other prisoners.

There were serious violations of my rights to a fair trial from the first days of [my] detention and trial, which have continued to this day. I swear – publicly, with my hand on the Quran – that the accusations made against me are lies and slander. I have been imprisoned for more than four years in difficult conditions despite the UN Human Rights Committee decision that I immediately be released, [which] is obligatory to carry out, as stipulated by the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic.

HRW: What will you do if you are released?

AA: This question makes me happy. First, I want to visit my mother’s grave, and tidy it up. She could not bear the torment and suffering after my conviction and passed away on May 25, 2012.  [I want to] go to Ferghana [a city in southeastern Uzbekistan]– where my mother was born, to see relatives there; [and] go to Tashkent, where my children and grandchildren live.

I will urge people to live in peace and harmony. I will work on new books.

I have a great desire to paint landscapes and portraits. I want to go to China, where both modern artists and old masters work, and where they reproduce paintings of great artists. After acquiring new skills I want to reproduce the paintings of the great [Vincent] van Gogh and other painters. I want to create a library of fine arts.                                                                                                                                  

HRW: How do you think people should promote and protect their human rights in Kyrgyzstan?

AA: Only a developed civil society can open the way for the prosperity of their country, to a freer climate. For this to happen, there needs to be a stable Constitution, and one very important condition must be met: citizens have to able to trust government and, respectively, the actions of government agencies themselves must be predictable.

Civil society must develop [themselves] and fight against corruption, [and] do everything possible to prevent human rights violations.

In order for public institutions to develop, it is necessary to establish justice and the independence of the judiciary. The ancient philosopher Cicero said: “a judge is a speaking law, law a silent judge.” Respect for human rights and freedoms is, to a large extent, dependent on judges. That is why it is necessary to accelerate judicial reforms. We must always call what is white – white, and what is black - black.

We see the dangerous trend of nationalism in our country. Key public institutions must relay to citizens the necessity of resisting this tendency.

We who are living in this country will achieve the rule of law and it is important for everyone to learn to observe the law and order, without exception.

HRW: Few in the world know much about Kyrgyzstan and about what is going on there. What would you say to inspire interest in your country?

The events in the south in June 2010 and the high-profile case against me gave [the world] an opportunity to learn about a country called Kyrgyzstan.

In order for the world to learn more about the positive sides of our country and to treat it with respect, it is necessary to develop sports. Aisuluu Tynybekova, [an Olympic wrestler] and other athletes who have raised the national flag of the Kyrgyz Republic on the world stage, have provided an opportunity to learn more about our country.

Art and the development of the arts is another visiting card for the country, for example, the opera singer Bulat Minzhilkiev. And in the visual arts, the most popular portraitist living in St. Petersburg is a rural boy from Naryn. His works are sold at high prices, but few people even in the Kyrgyz Republic know about him.

In any society, human rights and freedoms come first.

Human Rights Watch sincerely thanks Azimjon Askarov for this opportunity to share his thoughts.

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

Employees light candles outside the headquarters of broadcast network ABS-CBN corp. on May 5, 2020, after the network was ordered to halt operations after its congressional franchise expired, in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines.

© 2020 AP Photo/Aaron Favila

(Manila) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte should rescind an order to shut down ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcast television and radio network, Human Rights Watch said today. The House of Representatives, whose inaction on bills to renew the broadcaster’s license led to the closure, should promptly renew the franchise.

On May 5, 2020, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), a government regulatory agency under the office of the president, issued a “cease and desist” order against ABS-CBN after the network’s congressional franchise expired the previous day. This came after the government’s chief lawyer, Solicitor General Jose Calida, warned the commission against granting ABS-CBN a provisional extension to operate as some members of Congress had requested. Duterte had said in December 2019 that he would not allow the license renewal: “I’m sorry. You’re out. I will see to it that you’re out.”

“The Philippine government shutdown of ABS-CBN reeks of a political vendetta by President Duterte, who has repeatedly threatened the network for criticizing his abusive ‘war on drugs,’” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Congress should stop ducking responsibility and reverse Duterte’s latest attempt to muzzle the press, especially when the public needs timely and accurate information more than ever.”

ABS-CBN stated that it will challenge the shutdown order in court. Although the ruling does not affect its other platforms, such as cable and online, its popular free TV and radio services stopped airing since the evening of May 5.

While the ABS-CBN 25-year congressional franchise expired on May 4, as early as 2014, members of congress already filed bills seeking its renewal. When Duterte became president in 2016, he started complaining about ABS-CBN, accusing the network of being biased against him and criticizing it for failing to air his 2016 presidential campaign advertisements. The network denied the bias charge but apologized to Duterte for its failure to air the ads and explained why.

The shutdown is only the second time ABS-CBN has gone off the air. Founded in June 1946, the network has grown into the most widely viewed broadcaster in the Philippines. Two days after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in September 1972, he ordered the military to shut down the network. After the “People Power” uprising in 1986 ousted Marcos, President Corazon Aquino returned ABS-CBN to its former owners.

ABS-CBN’s coverage of the “drug war,” in which the police and their agents have extrajudicially executed thousands of alleged drug users and dealers since Duterte took office, has won praise in the Philippines and abroad.

The shutdown of ABS-CBN is the first time the Duterte government has forced a news organization to stop operating. However, it runs parallel to other attempts by the government to intimidate media outlets critical of the administration. The authorities have arrested Maria Ressa, the editor and founder of the news website Rappler, several times on baseless charges. Rappler has done groundbreaking reporting on the “war on drugs,” prompting attacks by the government and its followers on social media.

The Philippines’ license renewal process allows congress to put inappropriate pressure on broadcast networks, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that monitors government compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 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 is using a back-door method against ABS-CBN as the president’s latest way to suppress freedom of the press,” Robertson said. “Those concerned about public health messaging and the Covid-19 crisis in the Philippines should call on legislators to right this wrong, get ABS-CBN back on the air, and protect media freedom throughout the country.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Jordanian police personnel guard at a checkpoint during the second day of a nationwide curfew, amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Amman, Jordan.  

© 2020 Reuters

(Amman) – Jordanian authorities have arrested media workers and others and issued a vaguely worded emergency decree that could chill online discussion about Jordan’s Covid-19 response, Human Rights Watch said today.

Under the April 15, 2020 decree, sharing news that would “cause panic” about the pandemic in media or online can carry a penalty of up to three years in prison. Since the declaration of an emergency on March 17, Jordanian authorities have detained two prominent media executives, a foreign journalist, and a former member of parliament, apparently in response to public criticism, as well as three people for allegedly spreading “fake news.”

“The Jordanian government has acted decisively to protect its citizens and residents from Covid-19, but recent measures have created the impression that it won’t tolerate criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should protect Jordanians’ ability to discuss Covid-19 online and share news and concerns without fear of arrest.”

The state of emergency, initiated when King Abdullah II issued a royal decree activating Defense Law No. 13 of 1992, grants the prime minister sweeping powers to curtail basic rights, but Prime Minister Omar Razzaz pledged to carry it out to the “narrowest extent” and stated that it would not impinge political rights, freedom of expression, or private property. Any steps to curtail free expression on the grounds of protecting public health must be necessary and proportionate to the threat posed by the speech, Human Rights Watch said.

Paragraph 2.2 of Defense Order No. 8, issued on April 15 under Jordan’s state of emergency, prohibits “publishing, re-publishing, or circulating any news about the epidemic in order to terrify people or cause panic among them via media, telephone, or social media.” The order specifies penalties of up to 3 years in prison, a fine of 3,000 Jordanian Dinars (US$4,230), or both.

Prior to the new order, Jordanian media outlets had reported several arrests, one for “spreading rumors” about Covid-19 in the Sweileh area of Amman, another for “spreading rumors about the government’s intention of declaring a full lockdown,” and another for claiming there was a Covid-19 death in the city of Zarqa. The police announced on April 15 that they were pursuing someone who alleged that there was “disobedience” by prisoners in Amman’s Marka Prison.

On April 10, Roya TV, a popular local media outlet, confirmed the arrests of its general manager, Fares Sayegh, and news director, Mohammad al-Khalidi. Roya TV’s statement said that the arrests were due to a “news report that was aired on Roya News social media pages.” Roya TV confirmed on April 12 that Sayegh and al-Khalidi were released on bail. It is unclear whether they will face charges. Local activists and commentators suggested that the arrests could be related to a widely circulated April 8 video clip in which Jordanian day laborers expressed their Covid-19 concerns.

On April 14, the authorities detained Salim Akash, 40, a Jordan-based Bangladeshi journalist. A family member told Human Rights Watch that three men in civilian clothes arrested Akash in front of his house but refused to identify themselves. The family member said on April 17, Akash called from al-Salt Prison saying that he was going to court for “violating a serious law,” which he did not identify. In early April, Akash shared a TV report on his Facebook profile that featured his reporting on the hardships many Bangladeshi workers are facing in Jordan during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Jordanian authorities also arrested Salim al-Batayneh, 63, a former parliament member, on April 7, and his relative Mo’tasem al-Batayneh. Two family members told Human Rights Watch that the family did not learn their whereabouts until April 12, when a member of the governmental National Center for Human Rights (NCHR) informed them the men were in al-Salt Prison on suspicion of “undermining the political regime,” a terrorism offense under the jurisdiction of the quasi-military State Security Court. Human Rights Watch has documented Jordanian authorities’ abuse of this charge to limit peaceful political activity and criticism.

The family members said they did not know the specific reasons for the arrest. One said “we contacted different security bodies including the Public Security Directorate, General Intelligence Department, and the local governorate … all denied holding him.” The family member said that al-Batayneh is a writer who has criticized the Jordanian government in public for many years but did not know if his arrest was related to any specific criticism.

Following the NCHR call on April 12, family members said, Salim al-Batayneh made a brief call, saying only that he was taking his medication and drinking fluids. He said that he was “with people” but provided no further details. On April 12, al-Batayneh called another family member from al-Salt Prison asking them to hire a lawyer.

A family member of Mo’tasem al-Batayneh, 48, a retired high-ranking police officer, described his arrest. The family member said he was traveling with Mo’tasem at 1:20 p.m. when 4 unmarked vehicles surrounded their car and 10 men in civilian clothes emerged, pointed guns at them, and arrested al-Batayneh.

“We called 911 on the same day but they told us we have to wait for 24 hours,” the family member said. “When we called the next day, they did not tell us where he is, and they shut the line.” Family members said he called on April 12 and confirmed that he is in al-Salt Prison, saying that his case is related to Salim’s. Both were transferred to Qafqafa Prison on April 26.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) allows countries to adopt exceptional and temporary restrictions on certain rights that would not otherwise be permitted “in times of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.” But the measures must be only those “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has said that the situation would require state parties to “provide careful justification not only for their decision to proclaim a state of emergency but also for any specific measures based on such a proclamation.”

Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds. Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health must be lawful, necessary, and proportionate, and may not put in jeopardy the right itself.

On March 20, the prime minister imposed a mandatory curfew from 6 p.m. until 10 a.m., with exceptions for those holding valid permits. Between March 17 and April 14, the authorities said they apprehended 10,874 people who violated the curfew and seized 6,814 vehicles. Under Defense Order No. 3, people who violate the curfew are subject to a fine between 100 Jordanian Dinars ($141) and 500 Dinars ($705), while seized vehicles are confiscated for 30 days in addition to a fine.

“Jordan is confronting unprecedented challenges as it deals with Covid-19, but the crisis should not be used as a pretext to limit free expression,” Page said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Papuan independence activists charged with treason attend their trial at Central Jakarta District Court, December 19, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo

(Jakarta) – The Indonesian government should immediately release at least 70 Papuan and Moluccan activists imprisoned for peacefully voicing their political views, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should adopt measures to ensure that police and prosecutors, especially in the eastern provinces, protect free expression rights in accordance with a 2018 constitutional court ruling.

From April 25 to 27, 2020, the police in Maluku arrested 23 activists, including at least two children, who allegedly participated in flag-raising ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the declaration of independence of the Republic of South Moluccas (Republik Maluku Selatan, RMS) in 1950. The police indicated that seven of the activists will be charged with treason under article 106 of the criminal code, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

“Detaining and prosecuting Papuan and Moluccan activists for peacefully voicing their political views backtracks on the government’s commitments to free expression,” said Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These activists should never have been imprisoned, and detaining them in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic could be deadly.”

On April 25, three activists walked openly into the Moluccan police headquarters in Ambon, the capital of Maluku province, carrying the RMS flag. They shouted “Mena muria,” a popular salute among Moluccan people, traditionally used among boat rowers that means, “You go, I follow.” Police arrested the three men – Johanes Pattiasina, Simon Viktor Taihutu, and Abner Litamahuputty – as well as four other activists who unfurled the flags in some other towns.

On April 24, a court in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, convicted six Papuan activists for treason and sentenced them to between eight and nine months in prison. The five men and one woman were involved in a rally on August 28, 2019, outside the State Palace in Jakarta, during which they unfurled the Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan independence. The rally, involving more than 500 people, was held to protest racist attacks by the police against Papuan students in Surabaya, Java Island, on August 17.

The six activists are among 63 political prisoners in prison for peacefully expressing their political beliefs. On April 15, 2020, their lawyers submitted information on their cases to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Human Rights Watch, along with Amnesty International, Kontras, and other human rights groups, have for more than a decade pressed the Indonesian government to release political prisoners.

In May 2015, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo pardoned and released five Papuan prisoners from Abepura prison, Jayapura. He publicly promised to release all Moluccan and Papuan prisoners, and said he wanted “to stop the stigma of conflict in Papua and to create a sense of peace.” His administration gradually released nearly 100 political prisoners, mostly by reducing sentences.

In January 2018, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court rejected a judicial review to annul the criminal code’s six treason articles, including article 106, but found that those articles were often disproportionally applied against political activists raising the Morning Star flag in Papua and the RMS flag in the Moluccas Islands.

President Jokowi should drop all charges for peaceful political expression, order the release of all political prisoners, and review the failure of law enforcement officers, especially in the Moluccas Islands and Papua and West Papua provinces, to follow the Constitutional Court ruling, Human Rights Watch said.

Concerned governments, including the United States, European Union member countries, and Australia, should raise the situation of Indonesia’s political prisoners in bilateral meetings. The Polish government should raise concerns about the treatment of Jakub Skrzypski, a Polish national who was arrested in West Papua and sentenced in May 2019 to five years in prison under article 106.

Human Rights Watch takes no position on claims to self-determination in Indonesia or in any other country. Consistent with international law, however, Human Rights Watch supports the right of all individuals, including independence supporters, to express their political views peacefully without fear of arrest or other forms of reprisal.

“President Jokowi succeeded in releasing many political prisoners in his first five years in office,” Harsono said. “Jokowi’s second term should not produce as many political prisoners as his predecessor. These cases are a bitter betrayal of his government’s prior policy and contrary to a top court ruling.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A screenshot of TVFB journalist, Sovann Rithy, who was arrested on April 7, 2020 for allegedly “stirring chaos” by quoting a Hun Sen speech.

© 2019 Rithy Sovann/Facebook
(Bangkok) – Cambodian authorities are using the Covid-19 pandemic to carry out arbitrary arrests of opposition supporters and government critics, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have arrested at least 30 people, including 12 linked to the dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), on charges of spreading “fake news” and other offenses since the global outbreak of the pandemic.

The Cambodian government should immediately and unconditionally drop the charges against all those accused of crimes in violation of their rights to freedom of expression and association. These arrests come in the context of a renewed government crackdown on civil and political rights. Under the pretext of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, the government is pushing through a state of emergency law that allows the government to further repress the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen is busy tightening his grip on power and throwing political opposition figures and critics in jail while the world is distracted by Covid-19,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Peaceful political activity and criticizing the government are not crimes, including during a pandemic. The authorities should drop the bogus charges and release those detained.”

Human Rights Watch documented 30 arbitrary arrests between late January and April 2020. Fourteen people remain in pretrial detention, apparently on baseless charges, including incitement, conspiracy, incitement of military personnel to disobedience, and spreading false information or “fake news.” Among those arrested in addition to the opposition activists was a journalist quoting a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen, and ordinary Cambodians who criticized the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The authorities released two on bail, one of whom was hospitalized. Their charges remain pending.

As of April 28, Cambodia reported 122 positive Covid-19 cases, with no new cases reported for 16 days. The absence of recent cases raises concerns that either the government is not testing for the coronavirus or that medical workers fear reprisal for reporting results.

In a March 9 speech, Hun Sen threatened to arrest Long Phary, a CNRP member from Prey Veng province, based on a private phone call Long Phary made about Covid-19. Nine days later the authorities arrested Phary. Other CNRP activists arrested include Phut Thona Lorn, Khut Chroek, and Ngin Khean.

On March 20, the police arrested Hin Chhan, a former CNRP district council member in Svay Rieng province. The authorities alleged that he spread “fake news” about Covid-19 on his Facebook page and charged him with “incitement to commit a felony” under articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s criminal code. During the arrest, Chhan suffered what was later diagnosed as a stroke. He was hospitalized and in a coma for several days. On April 6, the authorities released him on bail, requiring him to report every month to the police. The charges against him are pending.

On April 7, Phnom Penh police arrested an online journalist, Sovann Rithy, for allegedly “stirring chaos by quoting from a Hun Sen speech: “If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt [because of the pandemic], sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help.” The authorities charged Rithy with “incitement to commit a felony” and ordered his detention at Phnom Penh’s Police Judiciare detention facility. The Information Ministry revoked the license for his online broadcasting site, TVFB, on grounds that Rithy had broadcast information “to generate an adverse effect on the security, public order and safety of society.”

Provisions of the new state of emergency law that raise particular human rights concerns include possible indefinite renewals of the state of emergency, the wide scope of unfettered martial powers granted to the executive without independent oversight,and unqualified restrictions on civil rights that allow for arbitrary surveillance of private communicationsand silencing of independent media outlets.

On April 27, the Constitutional Council unanimously approved the draft law, leaving only the promulgation by the king or the president of the senate, on the king’s behalf, as the last step to pass this law.

On April 17, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, said that Cambodia’s state of emergency law “risks violating the right to privacy, silencing free speech, and criminalizing peaceful assembly.” She added that a “state of emergency should be guided by human rights principles and should not, in any circumstances, be an excuse to quash dissent or disproportionately and negatively impact any other group.”

International human rights law recognizes that in the context of serious public health threats and public emergencies threatening the life of the nation, restrictions on some rights can be justified.

But they must have a legal basis, and be strictly necessary, based on scientific evidence and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, subject to review, and proportionate to achieve the objective.

On March 16, a group of UN human rights experts said that “emergency declarations based on the Covid-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health ... and should not be used simply to quash dissent.”

“The state of emergency law will be a disaster for the human rights of the Cambodian people, who face having their civil and political rights stripped away,” Robertson said. “Foreign governments and donors should demand the Cambodian government prioritize public health at a time of crisis rather than further repressing basic rights.”


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

An anti-government protester holds a Lebanese flag in front the riot police during a protest against the deepening financial crisis, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, April 28, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Hussein Malla

(Beirut) – The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) unjustifiably used excessive, including lethal, force against protesters in Tripoli on April 27, 2020, killing one protester and injuring scores more, Human Rights Watch said. The army has expressed its “regret” about the protester’s death and said it has opened an investigation into the incident.

On the night of April 27, hundreds of protesters, in defiance of the Covid-19 lockdown, gathered in Tripoli’s Nour Square to protest the rapidly deteriorating standards of living during Lebanon’s economic crisis. Dozens of protesters torched and otherwise damaged banks, set an army vehicle on fire, and threw stones and fireworks at the soldiers. The soldiers fired live ammunition, rubber bullets, and teargas at protesters.

“Tripoli is one of the most impoverished cities in the country, and the Lebanese government has failed to guarantee people’s right of access to food and other basic necessities,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The army’s unjustified use of lethal force has further enflamed the situation and cost the life of one young man who was demanding his rights.”

The government must meet its obligation to conduct an effective investigation – one that is independent and transparent, and examines the conduct of the entire operation including the role and responsibility of superior officers in the chain of command, Human Rights Watch said. The government should make public the findings and all measures of accountability, including criminal liability.

Lebanon has been going through the worst economic crisis in decades, compounded by lockdown measures to stem the spread of Covid-19. The value of the Lebanese lira has plummeted and fueling inflation, which the Finance Ministry estimated will reach 27 percent in 2020. Banks have restricted the dollars people may withdraw or transfer abroad from their accounts. Earlier in April, Human Rights Watch warned that more than half of Lebanon’s population may be at risk of hunger if the government does not urgently carry out a robust assistance plan.

Tripoli is Lebanon’s second-most-populous city and one of the poorest in the country. The World Bank estimated in 2017 that 53 percent of working age Tripoli residents were unemployed.

Human Rights Watch interviewed four protesters who witnessed the violence on April 27, 2020 and one journalist who documented the clashes and reviewed footage of the events. Human Rights Watch cannot independently verify the accounts or the footage.

The witnesses said that hundreds of protesters – including women, children, and the elderly – gathered at Nour Square in Tripoli around 9 p.m., after the evening Ramadan prayers. They planned to march to parliament members’ homes to protest the desperate economic situation, which they said has caused many Tripoli residents to go hungry.

Two witnesses said that as soon as demonstrators reached the home of Faysal Karameh, an independent parliament member who represents Tripoli, Karameh’s bodyguards began firing live ammunition into the air, and the army started beating people, launching teargas, and firing rubber bullets onto the protesters – some of whom responded by throwing stones at the soldiers.

The witnesses said they returned to Nour Square, where the army was also beating people and firing rubber bullets and launching teargas indiscriminately. “I could see people falling down all around me,” one said. Another said that when he arrived there, around 9:30 p.m., he saw many injured people on the ground. “I went to the middle of the square to help the people who were injured and move them away, but the army didn’t respect that and kept shooting,” he said.

Some protesters were vandalizing and torching banks while others were throwing stones at the soldiers in an attempt to drive them out of the square. Human Rights Watch reviewed footage showing protesters smashing the windows of the Banque Libano-Française in Nour Square and setting it on fire. Human Rights Watch also reviewed footage showing some protesters throwing rocks at soldiers and throwing Molotov cocktails at an empty army vehicle in Nour Square, while the soldiers fired rubber bullets.

A protester said as soon as some protesters set the empty army vehicle on fire, the army began firing live ammunition at protesters indiscriminately. All four witnesses said they saw the army firing live ammunition in the air and toward protesters, including as they were fleeing, causing serious injuries. The witnesses said that the soldiers chased protesters down nearby the alleys, firing at them. The footage appears to show soldiers shooting a protester in the leg as he fled down a side street.

One witness said that when the violence became too intense, he and a group of about 30 protesters approached the soldiers with their hands in the air, and a young man in the group pleaded with them to stop firing. A soldier then fired a rubber bullet at the young man’s chest, the witness said. Human Rights Watch reviewed footage showing a young man bleeding profusely from a chest wound, which the protester said was the young man who was pleading with the army. A local journalist said the wounded man is still in critical condition.

One protester, Fawwaz Fouad al-Seman, 26, died as a result of his wounds during the clashes. His family said that he died on the morning of April 28 from wounds from live ammunition fired by soldiers. Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer at The Legal Agenda, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization, said that they have not been able to confirm if al-Seman was shot by live or rubber bullets, but that preliminary evidence indicates it was live bullets.

The army did not deny that it fired live ammunition, but insisted that shots were only fired into the air. The army also expressed its “regret” about the death and said it had opened an investigation. It reaffirmed its support for people’s right to free expression, qualifying that it should not devolve into “acts of vandalism that target private and public institutions.” An army spokesperson declined to provide further comment to Human Rights Watch.

The Lebanese Red Cross told local media that it treated 22 injured people at the scene and transported 25 to nearby hospitals. The army said that 40 of its members were injured, including 6 officers. According to the Lawyers’ Committee for the Defense of Protesters, an ad hoc group of pro-bono lawyers, the army arrested 9 protesters.

The Lebanese Army’s investigation needs to be effective, meaning that it must be prompt, fair, and independent of those being investigated; should include the participation of the families of the man killed; and be capable to identifying those responsible for the purpose of holding them to account. The results should be made public, and the authorities should prosecute anyone found to have broken the law, including superior officers. Victims of unlawful use of force by security forces should receive prompt compensation. The authorities should release detainees not charged with a recognizable offense.

The Lebanese government is obligated under international human rights law to protect the right to free expression and peaceful assembly. Mere participation in a demonstration, including those without permits, or peacefully criticizing the government, are not grounds for arrest under international law. The authorities should release all protesters who have not been charged with a recognizable criminal offense.

Lebanese security forces engaged in law enforcement duties should strictly abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The Basic Principles set out authoritatively state obligations under international human rights law on protection of the right to life and bodily integrity. They state that law enforcement officials should apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force.

Whenever the use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must act in proportion to the threat to life or serious injury. Firearms should never be used simply to disperse an assembly. If the use of force to disperse violent protests is unavoidable, for example to protect law enforcement or others from violence, the security forces must use only the minimum level of force necessary to contain the situation. Intentional use of lethal firearms is only permitted to protect life.

The UN Basic Principles also require authorities to promptly report on and investigate all incidents of law enforcement officials killing or injuring people with firearms through an independent administrative or prosecutorial process.

“People demanding to live in dignity should expect protection, not lethal force, from Lebanon’s army,” Majzoub said. “The death of a protester should prompt the army to re-evaluate its security strategy and operations, as well as strengthen its accountability systems.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am